Fatalism and Hope: Slavoj Zizek and The Courage of Hopelessness?

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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

8 thoughts on “Fatalism and Hope: Slavoj Zizek and The Courage of Hopelessness?

  1. S.C;

    Glad that after a night of rumination re: Zizek’s recent diatribe, his position seems a more reasonable assessment of the current situation, I have to admit that since discovering your blog I’ve tried watching Zizek on the internet. Between his gesturing, stammering, nose grabbing, etc. I have a difficult time understanding what he’s sometimes getting at. Regarding the current environment, do you take any credence in Black Swan events that might come along to alter the whole scenario?

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    • Taleb? Or you referring to economic theories or something else? Is there a link on this? The notion of Black Swan –

      The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:
      1.The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.
      2.The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities).
      3.The psychological biases that blind people, individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event’s massive role in historical affairs.

      So this sense that such events defeat our probability theories in statistics, non-computable, and psychological blindness, etc. seems to go with a sort of non-determinant open-ended view of the universe; yet, it is still a mathematical function based theory that relies on complexity theory instead. I’m not so sure in such edge of chaos theories of complexity, either.

      I think we just have to face things in the now… all the forecasting and modeling is like building a utopia as sort of blind-man’s bluff based not of expectations, but in feeding in data from the factual events of the past to forecast tomorrow. Is it useful? Maybe… who knows. Most forecasting beyond a few days is and has been shown to be either based on trends or on luck and chance rather than on some system of futurology. My feeling is that we have enough problems facing us in our lives daily that we should spend more effort in figuring out these issues and let the future take care of itself. It’s not like we can call up the future and say: “Hey guys, what do you think we should have done here in the present?” The answer: “You’re fucked! It doesn’t matter what you think, what matters is what you do.”

      Have you ever read Stanislaw Lem’s great satire: The Futurological Congress? A novel where hallucination replaces reality, a sort of prefiguration of the Infosphere.

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  2. Yeah, I was referring to Taleb and those happenings that come unexpectedly out of left field altering the playing field. Examples: Pearl Harbor, 9-11, Black Plague, etc. Agree with you that we should focus on current issues and let the future take care of itself. Haven’t read any of Lem’s work; definitely will check out the novel you suggest. Enjoy your weekend, amigo!

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  3. If you jumped your gun in the first reaction to Zizek’s article about Greece, here you lay down your arms. If, like us (we write from Greece) you were part of the people being told to be courageous in this particular way, you might want to keep your gun in your hand.

    Zizek’s article was about Greece. In this second blog post you do not mention Greece at all. Instead you find ideas elsewhere in the Zizek oeuvre that you say imply a certain optimism. There is an ontology, apparently, of reality as open. So there must be, if not a light beyond the tunnel, at least something other than this particular tunnel in which we find ourselves. It could be another tunnel, but a change is as good as a rest, as they say, so there are reasons to be cheerful, as Ian Dury once said.

    We are unfamiliar with the ontology so we won’t comment on that, but we are familiar with what is going on here in Greece, and it is interesting to see how Zizek fits Greek events (with a small “e”) into his schema and how he sides so decisively with a leadership that refuses any radical alternatives.

    Syriza is a fragmentary association and the Tsipras leadership exacerbated the fragmentation, insisting on a conservative line and trying to force the radicals to toe it. Zizek could have expressed his support for the more radical tendency in Syriza (arguing for an exit from the eurozone), seeing it perhaps as one of those forces keeping the current situation open and thereby enabling us to be hopeful that something different might be possible. He did not do that. Instead he sided with the Tsipras leadership and their insistence that Greece must, at all costs, remain in the eurozone – a zone that expresses a continental capitalist ambition to compete with the dollar as an international currency.

    To us in Greece it was clear that with sufficient political will and planning and the right kind of grass-roots mobilisation it would have been possible to at least attempt an exit, not to advance a socialist utopia but simply to reverse the tide of economic bloodshed, and perhaps to turn a local form of capitalism (Greece is a nation of shopkeepers) against the eurocapitalism of huge conglomerates, thereby opening the field of play up more.

    Zizek denounces talk of an exit as a “false radicalism”. The things he says about lights at the end of tunnels and Mandelas who metamorphose into Mugabes are, quite frankly, irrelevant. If a movement got going in Greece, it would not be utopian. And there is no Greek Mandela.

    So his rejection of the “false radicalism” rests on the claim that the exit would cause a 30% drop in living standards. It is staggering that Zizek here resorts to an unbelievably narrow frame of reference, and also that he resorts to the same talk of catastrophe being used by the right-wing here in Greece.

    Here is a concrete, non-utopian alternative that could help to open things up a bit, and Zizek refuses it. Is that just an error of judgment due to his unfamiliarity with things on the ground in Greece, or does it emerge from a deeper desire on his part to see the present as hopeless in the way you described in your earlier post?

    Of course, there is the simpler explanation that Z is a star of the Left and when he saw Tsipras and Varoufakis becoming stars of the Left, he wanted to side with them, with Tsipras benefiting from Zizek’s celebrity endorsement, and Zizek enhancing his credibility as someone who is not just an academic, but also someone who is a part (albeit fleeting) of the struggle.

    But it is obvious now that massive mistakes were made by the Syriza leadership, opportunities (real opportunities) were lost, and the referendum was a hypocritical sham, and yet he is unwilling to admit that, prefering instead to make do with the lie that Syriza was on a course to defeat from the start. His narrative IS fatalistic in this case, and he DOES rule out the alternatives, and the real hopes that some of us have in Greece are dismissed.

    Why? And who are the cowards and the courageous in this situation, really? Does Zizek’s thought help us to identify them or does it obscure them, baptising the cowards who have betrayed the hopes of the people and broken all their promises as paragons of courage?

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    • You, say: “And who are the cowards and the courageous in this situation, really?”

      Truly, those of us outside Greece have no right to judge this, this is your call. My stance has been clear through many posts that I stand with the people not the leaders. I’m still iffy about Zizek, yet I had not read Agamben’s statement. The only reason I left Greece out of this post was about that one philosophical issue, nothing more. Sorry if this was misunderstood.

      In the past few months I’ve tried my best to defend the people of Greece themselves. But being only aware of what I can read, and not having the money to be there in Greece to see for my self it’s like shooting in the dark as to what people are really thinking. All I can know is that you’re hurting, and that things have not taken the course either of us would have liked. What to do? This is your country, your home, your birth place.

      I can say many things, but in the end the fight is yours. Either to let these rulers continue their path, or do something about them… obviously that would mean revolution. Are the Greek people prepared for that? Beyond all the bitter rhetoric this is not about Zizek, its about you and your people in the end. At age 63 I’ve seen many things, but now I see our world going down to merciless thugs and rich bastards that don’t give a shit about the people. That’s everywhere, not just Greece. I feel for you and your people. What else would you have me do or say?

      My own leaders and elite here in America are the cause of much of what is happening in the world today. The bastards that started this and left your people with the bill live right here in this country, too. The EU and Germany especially don’t give a shit, either. This is the sad truth. Obviously there is much pain and suffering, and sadly no one in power has an answer: and, most of them that might, seem to have turned a blind eye and become pawns in a game that can only end in disaster.

      You say: “Does Zizek’s thought help us to identify them or does it obscure them, baptizing the cowards who have betrayed the hopes of the people and broken all their promises as paragons of courage?”

      I agree, Zizek is not the radical any of us thought. He seems to be a liberal middle-of-the-road creature who isn’t taking any chances, basking in his own philosophical mumbo-jumbo. What can I say? Nothing. He is what he is… and, has no real answers. A failed thinker? Many think so. As for the cowards: there can be no defense against injustice. Betrayal is a bitter pill. The only hope now lies in the Greek people themselves, there leaders have betrayed their trust, so there is only one alternative: they must go, be ousted, if this is the will of the Greek people. That is the question isn’t it? Only the Greek people themselves can decide their own fate. If these leaders have betrayed them then the Greek people will have to decide whether the suffering at the hands of their leaders and the EU is enough to begin a revolution against them or not?

      I can sit here in this empty world of words and spout my thoughts, but what good is this in the face of such injustice? I can sit here in my small home and lash out all day long at the world crumbling under Austerity and Economic tyranny, but in the end it is people themselves that must act, decide, have the courage and backbone to fight for their lives, loved ones, country. All I can do is reach out through this world of electronic light and say I’m with you, behind you. But that is only words of an old man. Truth is it’s not much. I do give a shit and truly wish I could change things. Many of my people think as I and see the world crumbling under injustice. I hope to see the day that people rise up across this whole earth and say: We’ve had enough, this stops now! Will we ever see this? Will people ever have the real courage to say No to the machine that is sucking the life blood out of us all?

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      • Steven, thank you for that reply and for that expression of solidarity. I wish I could say that Greece will be the country where people do rise up and say: This stops now! Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely, partly because of a range of issues having to do with the culture here in Greece. It certainly doesn’t have to do with a courage of hopelessness that prides itself on staring into the black void of the tunnel, convinced that there are no alternatives (The struggle is over, Long live the struggle!). In part, it has to do with the false hopes cultivated by Syriza – the false hope that the clock could be turned back to the good old days when money was cheap.

        Against the terrible idea of a courage of hopelessness (and it is perhaps worth remembering that Agamben recommended this as an appropriate attitude for a thinker, not a political agent) we would want to redeem a certain notion of hope – a certain utopian moment – without which it seems to us that action (beyond writing about the darkness of the tunnel) is impossible.

        In the recent months there were opportunities for action that were missed. Tsipras gave a speech last night to the Syriza central committee claiming that, no, there were no real opportunities because to go down that road would have been a catastrophe. Varoufakis had a plan for a parallel currency. After the No vote in the referendum and after the closure of the banks Varoufakis (according to his account) recommended putting that plan into action. Tsipras refused.

        You say you are still iffy about Zizek. We are too. We were delighted by earlier descriptions of a “radical logic of emancipation”, and we laughed at his jokes about the sad left that was content to just get dust on the balls of the rapists. Hence our profound disappointment to see him, in relation to Greece, proposing not a radical logic of emancipation but a very conservative logic of accepting your chains. Tsipras’s policy is, as someone said, one that protested the slavery while insisting that the chains remain on – refusing to make even a single movement towards taking them off. There were opportunities to at least put the key in the lock and begin turning it. The right wing here was shouting: No, it will be a catastrophe. Zizek was, in effect, saying the same thing, but spinning this as the truly radical option.

        Why this error of judgment in the case of Greece? Is it just because he is unfamiliar with the terrain in this part of Europe, or does this have to do with a deeper tendency in his thinking as a whole? His recent articles on Greece seem to express a deep desire to see the tunnel as black as far as the eye can see. He knows that, ontologically, the tunnel has no fixed course. The direction it travels in will be, in part at least, a function of how we move through it. So things are open. They might change. But that doesn’t mean we can be hopeful. Hopes are dreams of lights that don’t actually exist. There is a strange antipathy to dreams in Zizek’s work, we suspect. We remember his comment in the video about the Titanic. And his comment about the Prague Spring. It’s the iceberg that keeps the dream alive. Dreams are fine, it seems, as long as we don’t mistake them for the real (or for something that could become real). The courage of hopelessness is a dreamless stoicism. A No without a Yes. A protest that refuses all alternatives.

        And so we end up wondering if, at root, Zizek is not a nihilist.

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      • Exactly! Yea, I think in the end he has become too liberal, too nihilist. He has no answers, not even for himself. What bothered me was simply that he had to fall back on someone else, a quote from Agamben (ambiguous at best) has his only gesture. That tells all I need to know: Zizek himself is nothing but quotations, he has no central word to give others, his words are nothing but echoes of his Masters, his long tracery of words into his own darkness. Why couldn’t he just speak plainly? Why the need to give an ambiguous hope, and as you point out a stoicism? I think Zizek in the end is bankrupt himself, the truth of a version of the Left that no longer sees a future, a path forward.

        It’s time to look away from intellectuals. I speak of myself as well. Being a working (retired) person, and fairly well poor now due to the 2007 bubble crash. I have just always felt that working people have only one hope, each other. That’s where one has to start. Intellectuals have in history either turned like Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin into bullshit leaders, else become like we have in Obama – a word man full of hot air and evil intent, who supports the elite and rich while saying just the opposite. This is the truth of America now: our politicians on Left and Right are in bed with the money. And my people are sleepwalking through existence, while the poor, Black, Spanish, and others are given drugs or put in prison. Hundreds of thousands of individuals spying and policing its own citizens: the elite are afraid of us, they know their time is at an end.

        Washington Post ran an expose on surveillance in our Government http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/

        Even larger Military Exercises across several of our States is raising issues of late – see Jade Helm: It’s stirred up a lot of what is termed by media as conspiracy theory: Jade Helm 15 — which is either a routine though unusually large Special Operations program or a government takeover designed to wipe out freethinkers — begins Wednesday and runs through September 15 in seven Southwestern U.S. states.

        Obviously they didn’t do anything, yet why the need for such large scale training exercises? We’ve had such military exercises in the past, but were usually confined to specific terrains. Is this training for future issues of rebellion? Even as someone on the Left this is of concern. We have progressives in office – Obama acts like most Republicans as far as foreign policy, and continues the wars across the Middle-East that he promised to end. All lies… he’s about as evil as the Republicans in my book. But what can one say? Everything is stupid now. To me the elite are running scared, the financial system of the world is in chaos, they are squeezing everyone into a box of austerity from which there is not way out for generations. To me the only way out is rebellion.

        And most of this secret policing is not toward the world outside, but rather against us, against its own people… sadly the Land of the Free so called has been unfree for so long, beholden to the bankers, lawyers, insurance, etc. that we no longer own ourselves much less build much in the way of solidarity. The old style Left is fairly well dead – anti-capitalism around the world has been ineffective. Unless enough people can rise above this and start demanding change, real change around the world, and if needed – like Thomas Jefferson stated “violent change”…

        “To have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep. It is a problem, not clear in my mind, that the first condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population. The second state has a great deal of good in it. The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has its evils, too, the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem. Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.

        I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” – letter from Thomas Jefferson to Hamilton 1787

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