Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Molly Anne Rothenberg reviews Slavoj Žižek’s Demanding the Impossible

Slavoj Žižek. Demanding the Impossible. Ed. Yong-june Park. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013. 144 pp.

Reviewed by Molly Anne Rothenberg

Readers new to Žižek’s thought will find in this well-organized volume of interviews a useful introduction to his political ideas, articulated in jargon-free prose. Although Žižek has responded to some of these same queries in a number of other places, this book may be valuable even for well-read Žižekians, not only because it collects these responses in one place but also because it offers additional clarifications of the more difficult problems targeted by his critics and expositors, such as the role of violence in social change; the crucial importance of law, order, security, and the state; the “miracle” of the Event; critiques of the contemporary left; specific disagreements with other theorists.  Thanks to Yong-june Park’s skillful arrangement of questions, which highlight the most challenging, even contradictory, aspects of Žižek’s responses, the strengths and weaknesses of his arguments can be more easily detected.  Žižek carries on his practice of offering lively examples, but (in contrast to some of his longer works) these don’t tend to obscure the reasoning.  Some problems arise from the nature of oral interviews—the occasional referent or irony is unclear—but the volume answers a real need in Žižek studies.

A focus on the common good helps unify the sections.  Žižek argues that what we presuppose when invoking the good in fact is “defined by our secret priorities”; consequently, we have to “take responsibility for defining what is our good . . . what stability we want” (pp. 2, 15).   In this way, Žižek re-positions ethical questions in the realm of the political, which for him is the ultimate imperative in our era of de-politicization.  Rejecting the fantasy of a totally transparent democratic system, as advocated by Hardt and Negri, he lays out the issues that contemporary political thought must address:  a technological program that is changing the very definition of the human; impending ecological disaster and social chaos; the rise of fascism and fundamentalism; the sites of possible emancipatory change.  Žižek warns that we are living in “very dangerous” times, turning a critical eye on contemporary political experiments in South America (Chavez, Lula), India, China, North Korea, Tunisia, and Egypt as well as the US and Europe. Emphasizing repeatedly that he does not have a practical political program to offer, he uses these interviews as a call to join him in rethinking “the limits of the possible and the impossible” (p. 144).