It is a common error to assume that shamelessness is the absence of shame. The shameless person is anything but indifferent to the prospects of being compromised in public; it is rather a source of immense pleasure. The proper antonym of shame is not shamelessness but innocence. It is another common error to identify innocence with children; some adults are forever childlike (which is not the same as childish). This can be either charming or alarming, depending on the stakes.
We believe Slavoj Žižek would take it as a compliment if we pronounce his characteristically slapped-together and often half-baked “book” on the pandemic shameless. He himself uses this word only twice in Pandemic! but in strategic locations. In the beginning of the book, he “shamelessly but gratefully” quotes a lengthy passage from Wikipedia. On the very last page, he “shamelessly” calls a friend’s report from quarantine a description of “non-alienated, decent life.” Whether it is the scandal of using internet content as a source, or the provocation of finding Marxian liberation in the least likely places, Žižek is clearly having fun.
We’re not unjealous. Nor, we suspect, are the multiple commenters on social media dismissing Žižek’s attempt to say (a book-length) something meaningful about the crisis as it was still setting in. While one specific dismissal stems from the popular (yet questionable) assumption that capturing a truth requires a scholarly and historical distance, Žižek is suspect in some quarters for many other reasons as well. Starting with his critique of the liberal response to the 2015 European refugee crisis, through his anti-#MeToo and PC provocations, to his unabashed debate with Jordan Peterson, Žižek has been gradually pushed to the slightly less than respectable margins of public philosophy.
But Žižek’s shamelessness is a stark (and quite refreshing) antidote to the innocence of another radical philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, who early in the crisis produced the now-laughable line that the coronavirus was no worse than the seasonal flu. Agamben, forever an overly serious child, doesn’t seem to mind the embarrassment; in a recent interview he draws a seemingly clever but immensely silly analogy: “theologians declared that they could not clearly define what ‘God’ is, yet in his name they dictated to man rules of conduct and did not hesitate to burn heretics; virologists admit that they do not exactly know what a virus is, but in their name they presume to decide how human beings should live.” Unlike Žižek, Agamben does not appear to be enjoying himself. In fact, he’s extremely worried that the current imperative of biological survival—what he calls “bare life” —is a mere pretext for ratcheting state repression.
If Žižek is shameless and Agamben childlike, the rather more orthodox Marxist Alain Badiou takes the role of the responsible and boring adult. While he rejects Agamben’s semi-conspiratorial theory and his alarmism about state power, he strikes a similarly pessimistic tone, denouncing as an infantile fantasy the idea that the current crisis will lead to a revolution. Judith Butler, yet another radical philosopher dabbling as a pundit, is not quite optimistic, although she hopes the current crisis will make universal health care more possible in the U.S. (It appears, though, that the main point of her intervention was to assure us that, despite donating to Kamala Harris early on, she voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.)
The Marxist bunch, to be sure, would roll their eyes. Žižek is in favor of something he calls “Communism,” although it hardly bears even a family resemblance to the political vision normally associated with that name. Rather than the overcoming of capitalism and the advent of a classless society, he has in mind a much more modest set of reforms—the strengthening of supranational organizations like the World Health Organization, the shoring up of universal health care systems where they have been corroded by decades of austerity and so forth.
But to focus too much on these proposals, necessary as they may be, is to miss what is most salutary in Žižek: his political sensibility. Žižek correctly identifies the deep flaw in Agamben’s stance: not his childish paranoia and denialism, but his even more childish pessimism. In so doing, he poses a fundamental political—or even spiritual—question to the left, Badiou included: Does the material of reality still have the potential to shock the materialist philosopher, with his well-worn theoretical schemes? Can emancipation still be found in the least likely places? Contra Agamben, Žižek imagines that “it is through our effort to save humanity from self-destruction that we are creating a new humanity.” The dichotomy between bare and political life, then, is false. Mass mobilization for the sake of biological survival can generate a radical solidarity.
“Spirituality” does not normally belong in rational or normal political discourse. But if anything should be clear by now, it is that the times are anything but normal. The Christian right, at least, seems to understand this. R. R. Reno, the editor of the traditionalist Catholic magazine First Things, warned at the beginning of the lockdown against the liberal “dominion of death,” in which earthly survival is judged primary to all other values.
In a more widely broadcast—and mocked—message, Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick made it clear which value precisely should override survival, insisting that American grandparents are willing to sacrifice their lives for the economic prosperity of their grandchildren. “Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?” Patrick said, announcing that for his part, “if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”
The America that Patrick loves is the America we find good reasons to shun. But the question he raises—of what we would be willing to sacrifice for—is not an irrelevant one. Perhaps it is not outlandish to understand the current crisis as offering an opportunity to imagine a very different America. Perhaps, as Žižek puts it, “we need a catastrophe to be able to rethink the very basic features of the society in which we live.”
In such circumstances, we cannot afford to cede the spiritual question to the right. An emancipatory version of it would ask not what we are willing to die for, but rather what we wish to live for. What is truly valuable about Žižek’s writing lies in the glimmer of a shift in sensibility, a shift between two different conceptions of political discourse. One involves the articulation of policies, which range from securing the conditions of biological survival to more ambitious projects to improve the quality of our lives. But Žižek also goes beyond this instrumentalism (which need not be conflated with mere technocracy) and asks the more open-ended question of what it means to live well.
Thinkers on the left have been traditionally and justifiably suspicious of such “ethical” concerns, framing them as bourgeois or “liberal” (uttered with the familiar repulsive ring, like a spit). It is therefore another provocation that Žižek defines his kind of communist as a “liberal with a diploma” (reversing Hungarian leader Viktor Orban’s propaganda that liberals are “communists with a diploma”). We earn such a diploma once we have “seriously studied why our liberal values are under threat” and become aware that “only a radical change can save them.”
“Radical” is an overused word. Žižek, however, genuinely challenges deep-seated dogmas of the Western left, including its own basic commitment to bourgeois democracy. In Pandemic!, he commends China’s efficient management of the crisis, proposing to extend it to the global order (though he probably overestimates the degree to which China’s response was characterized by top-down centralization; as many news reports have made clear, this was only the case primarily in Wuhan and to some extent Hubei). But if Žižek is willing to support restrictive, indeed repressive, measures, he does so while criticizing the Chinese state’s suppression of information and dissent. He insists, however, that like the virus, the problem here is hardly just Chinese. The corona martyr, the doctor Li Wenliang who died after his warnings had been ignored, is dubbed “the Chinese Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden.” His signature hyperboles notwithstanding, Žižek offers at least the rough contours of a new political vision: call it Communist Liberalism. On the one hand, extensive powers to national and supranational authorities and steep limitations on the market—all deemed necessary to counter climate catastrophe and protect us from present and future germs. On the other, such a regime must secure the freedom of speech and extend provisions for whistleblowing in order to build “mutual trust between ordinary people and the state.”
Political as this vision is, it is grounded in Žižek’s (more explicit) ethical reflection on the ways in which the immediate present makes possible a premonition of the good life. Sudden loneliness, he claims, also affords solitude, a much-needed break from the injunction to pleasure—so prized by Disneyland and the 1968 legacy alike—allowing us an opportunity to “[revitalize] our life experience.” Even face masks “provide a welcome anonymity and liberation from the social pressure of recognition,” forcing us to contend with the “meaninglessness of our lives” in the best—should we say existentialist?—sense of the word. In a telling moment, Žižek compares the experience of being in self-isolation with that of Julian Assange, whom he in turn likens to “Christ on the cross,” abandoned by God. If we get sidetracked by the ridiculousness of the analogy, we shall miss what is of value in Zizek’s theatrics more generally. Like many ostensibly secular philosophers of his generation, Žižek is drawn to express his call for a renewed sensibility in a religious—specifically Christian—key.
And yet, here is where we part ways with Žižek. The problem with this religious key is not the fact that it is religious, but that it seems to imply a damaging fatalism. The task is not to hope that some kind of divine grace turns a one-time stimulus check into socialism, but to act toward that transformation. Žižek himself has criticized this sort of quietist stance as the “Hölderlin paradigm,” after the German poet’s memorable line that there is salvation where there is danger (wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst das Rettende auch)—Heidegger went further, claiming that “only a God can save us.” A properly political spirituality is not the turn toward a higher power—divine or governmental—but the embrace of hope as a trigger for a shift in collective practice.
The first stage of such a shift, underway as we write from quarantine, appears as a demystification of what until now has appeared inevitable and unchangeable. Even the insufficient one-time checks sent to Americans reveal the hollowness of the usual pieties about fiscal discipline and our horror of deficits. Suddenly the usual rejoinders—heard as recently as the now very distant-seeming Democratic debates—of “How will we pay for it?” are falling silent. This is a change in policy, to be sure, but we might also see it as bearing, however inadvertently, the fragile germs of a renewed political sensibility. Despite the unprecedented levels of unemployment, workers at Walmart and Amazon strike in protest of labor conditions, while some urban millennials, until yesterday precariously employed gentrifiers, are coming to build, with their neighbors, a unified front against landlords. A Republican attorney general is no prison abolitionist simply because he calls for the strategic release of “low-risk” prisoners. But the very fact that such a call can be heard, even in reactionary mouths, betrays the opportunity for genuine transformation.
There are reasons to temper our hopes. Of course people fail to pay rent only when they cannot afford it; surely they strike when they have little to lose. Austere governments start spending big when their stability is at stake. But necessity can breed possibility—or a renewed sensibility: indeed, any other image of political change is irrevocably utopian. If only to counter Žižek’s Christian imagery, we can appeal to the Jewish belief that the messiah will come on a donkey—or, if you’d like, on a Trump. That we don’t quite expect him to come doesn’t render this faith politically inept. If anything, there is a point in political faith and action only so long as redemption is not imminent.
We are accustomed to subjecting public commentary—philosophers included—to the test of reality. If this is what punditry is about, then telling us what an unprecedented pandemic means as it is still happening is a risky and charlatanistic endeavor. But this could be another common error. It is the ambiguity of a world-historical event in the glimmer of its passing which, like a falling star, reveals to us not reality but something much more rare and precious—a wish, a possibility. A pandemic might not be a revolution, and it might not even lead to one, but it can still be what Žižek calls a “philosophical revolution,” at least if we define philosophy, like he does, as “the name for our basic orientation in life.”
Let’s be a bit more shameless.