She shrugs, having gained an armor of fatalism from the events of the last six hours. “Altogether safe, possibly not. An acceptable degree of risk. I don’t do this sort of thing often enough to be an expert.” – David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas: A Novel
After my frustration with Slavoj Zizek in my recent post on the “courage of hopelessness”: “The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice; it functions as a fetish that prevents us thinking through to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlights of another train approaching us from the opposite direction.” I’ve since changed my mind and realize I was off in my appraisal of this statement. I did some research to understand why. In an interview Giorgio Agamben after being asked “Is this vision of becoming human, in your works, not rather pessimistic?” would say :
I am very happy that you asked me that question, since I often find that people call me a pessimist. First of all, at a personal level, that is not at all the case. Secondly, the concepts pessimism and optimism have nothing to do with thought. Debord often cited a letter of Marx’s, saying that ‘the hopeless conditions of the society in which I live fill me with hope’. Any radical thought always adopts the most extreme position of desperation. Simone Weil said ‘I do not like those people who warm their hearts with empty hopes’. Thought, for me, is just that: the courage of hopelessness. And is that not the height of optimism?
So that for Agamben this sense of the “courage of hopelessness” was not so much a fatalistic strategy but rather a sign of optimistic bravery in the face of insurmountable odds, a way of facing the day to day realities of our life rather than hiding our heads in the sands of utopian hopes without substance.
Fatalism and determinism
This sense that there is no alternative, that it is cowardice even to hope for one, to look for one, to dream; that instead we should deal with the realistic appraisal of our predicament, our present situation in the world under a worsening regime of economic and political tyranny that has circumvented all escapes into such utopian frontiers of the imagination. That ours is an age without a future. We’ve seen in Zizek, Berardi and others this new theme of no future, no alternatives for a while now. Is this some new mantra of the intellectual collapse of the Left? A sort of vanguard of a new therapeutic regime of impotence and fatalism? One that offers a pure despair and suicidal hopelessness that’s only call is to have courage in the face of death and apocalypse because we should open our eyes and keep them open as we watch the train of collapse coming toward us out of the dismal future. The collapse of civilization, capitalism, climate, blah blah blah… that fatalism is the philosophical stoicism of the day?
As Robert Kane tells it “Fatalism is the view that whatever is going to happen, is going to happen, no matter what we do. Determinism alone does not imply such a consequence. What we decide and what we do would make a difference in how things turn out — often an enormous difference — even if determinism should be true.”1 Does Zizek allow for a difference, a decision that might allow for a different determination of the events ahead of us? Or has he become a fatalist by design and decision? One who believes that no matter what we do the economic and political regimes of neoliberalism are going to subvert anything we might do to oppose them? Is this truly what Zizek is saying? And, that all we can do in the face of this possible apocalypse of human solidarity it to have the courage of thought, a thought that is our best chance against such hopelessness? Yet, another theorist of fatalism Peter van Inwagen’s definition tells us that: “Fatalism . . . is the thesis that that it is a logical or conceptual truth that no one is able to act otherwise than he in fact does; that the very idea of an agent to whom alternative courses of action are open is self-contradictory.” (An Essay on Free Will, p. 23.)
This implies an agent or Subject that can make those decisions, and for Inwagen that subject is already determined through subtle processes of brain and affect to do only what it would do anyway, that the notion one could invent a possible alternative outcome external to one’s determinate nature is self-contradictory. Is this what Zizek means that dreaming of some alternative is cowardice? That such a fictional and utopian thought is in itself caught up in self-contradiction? The determinist believes that the actual past together with the actual laws of nature render the notion that there can only be one future. The determinist must therefore deny that the future is open. But his claim is not that it is logically self-contradictory that the future be open, but only that it is not open given the facts of the past, which are logically contingent, together with the laws of nature, which are also logically contingent. On the other hand the fatalist believes that the source is logical rather than natural: the Law of Excluded Middle together with a certain view of truth and of propositions. The determinist holds that the source is the contingent laws of nature together with the contingent actual past. So who is right? Zizek in his praise of that utopianist Ernst Bloch says in his preface to a group of essays:
In his extraordinary opus, Ernst Bloch provided a detailed and systematic account of such an open universe— opened up toward its future, sustained by the hope of redemption, joy, and justice to come. He analyzed this dimension of hope in all its scope, from “low” kitsch romances through political and economic liberation up to religious extasis. In our “postmodern” cynical constellation, he reminds us that denunciation of ideology is not enough: every ideology, even the most horrifying Nazism, exploits and relies on authentic dreams, and to combat false liberation one should learn to discern in it the authentic utopian core.2
The sense of seeking out the “authentic utopian core” rather than falling into the trap of all too easy utopian speculation is what Zizek’s intent is all about. In that preface Zizek would formulate his notion of absolute recoil, or this sense retroactive redemption of the past, which “means that reality is “unfinished,” not fully ontologically constituted, and as such open to retroactive restructuring” (ibid. preface). The notion of an open-ended universe, one that in the work of Heisenberg, Bohr, and others, insists that this incompleteness of our knowledge of quantum reality points to a strange incompleteness of quantum reality itself, a claim that leads to a weird ontology. (ibid. Preface)
An ontology that can be incorporated into political struggle through the dialectical approach: “The wager of a dialectical approach is not to adopt toward the present the “point of view of finality,” viewing it as if it were already past, but precisely to reintroduce the openness of future into the past, to grasp that-what-was in its process of becoming, to see the contingent process that generated existing necessity. In contrast to the idea that every possibility strives to fully actualize itself, one should conceive of “progress” as a move of restoring the dimension of potentiality to mere actuality, of unearthing, in the very heart of actuality, a secret striving toward potentiality. Apropos the French Revolution, the task of a true Marxist historiography is not to describe the events the way they really were (and to explain how these events generated the ideological illusions that accompanied them). The task is rather to unearth the hidden potentiality (the utopian emancipatory potentials) that were betrayed in the actuality of revolution and in its final outcome (the rise of utilitarian market capitalism).” (ibid. Preface)
So in this sense I must admit that I was wrong in my critique of Zizek in my previous post, and jumped the gun in my appraisal and misread its actual intent and message. Sometimes my anger and rage at the world system that is ever apparent in our lives gets the better of me and when I see a form of fatalistic pessimism without hope surface I’m all too easily ready to attack it. But I think in this instance I was wrong and lashed out too quickly, but have had time to research and understand that what Zizek was doing was just the opposite of a pessimistic fatalism and was actually an optimistic appraisal of the truth of our moment. A truth that we must face with determination and perseverance, optimism and hope in the face of such dire circumstances. I just wish sometimes he would speak plainly rather than couch his discourse in such obtuse remarks from other thinkers. Say it out of his own life and being or lack, rather than use such statements that one could mistake exactly what he is saying for something else. But Zizek is what he is and one is never sure just how to take his statements at face value or with a dialectical spin in another direction.
1. (A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford 2005, p. 19) 2. (2013-11-25). The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, SIC 8 ([sic] Series) . Duke University Press. Kindle Edition. As