The First Book About The Coronavirus Is Here, And It's Terrible

The famous philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World ranges from riffs on Julian Assange to a startlingly bad take on what happened in Wuhan. He probably should have sat this one out.

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The Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Žižek is one of the most prominent (and prolific) writers in the world of contemporary philosophy, author of groundbreaking studies like Less Than Nothing and The Sublime Object of Ideology. He is also, I regret to inform you, at it again.

In Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World, a short book to be published in April, Žižek casts his gaze on the coronavirus pandemic. The book has been produced at a breathless pace for the publishing world, in part because it recapitulates material from his weekly columns in RT, the government-funded publication formerly known as Russia Today. (Žižek will receive no royalties from this book, donating them instead to Doctors Without Borders.)

There are some passages of beauty, as when he remarks that, "It is only now, when I have to avoid many of those who are close to me, that I fully experience their presence, their importance to me." But those thoughts jostle with undigested chunks of film dialogue, complaints about political correctness, footnotes that mostly point to articles in the Guardian or to Wikipedia, and suggestions that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom Swedish authorities were investigating on the basis of rape and sexual assault allegations until last year, is "Christ on the cross." In other words, about what you'd expect if you've read one of his 47 other single-authored books written in English: a hire-wire juxtaposition of far-left political theory and pop culture, held together by the force of his rumpled charm.

Although the pieces collected here are scattered, Žižek does have, more or less, a central argument: Because of the coronavirus, the world’s capitalist systems will necessarily need to be replaced. He writes, "measures that appear to most of us today as ‘Communist’ will have to be considered on a global level: coordination of production and distribution will have to take place outside the coordinates of the market."

Žižek takes pains to make his proposals seem reasonable to a less-than-communist reader, painting his approach as an outgrowth of various responses that have been floated to the pandemic and the economic collapse it has triggered: an expanded role for international groups like the World Health Organization, a universal basic income, and governments organizing health care across national borders — producing and distributing masks, requisitioning hotel rooms for the sick — all outside of the free market. No more cruise ships, Disneyland, or cars. Sounds great.

That all seems like pretty straight-ahead and sound advice, really, even if Žižek’s vernacular — laden with slogans from French student protesters and psychoanalysis — doesn’t seem to have been updated since the late ’60s. And Žižek is at his best when he reminds us to "resist the temptation to treat the ongoing epidemic as something that has a deeper meaning." We're not being punished for our sins or being sent a message from the natural world to respect the limits of the environment. The virus that has no way of knowing us just lucked into a pattern of replication that turns out to be really, really bad for humans. "The really difficult thing to accept is the fact that the ongoing epidemic is a result of natural contingency at its purest, that it just happened."

Sadly, Žižek fails to follow his own advice.

In many places, Žižek is asking the right questions — Why are so many people OK with exploiting blue-collar workers while the privileged sit at home taking conference calls? How did the distrust between the state and people make the outbreak worse in China? Are governments using the pandemic as an excuse to declare a state of emergency that might never be lifted? And Žižek does provide a novel metaphor for the revolution he thinks will bring down capitalism, comparing the pandemic to the finishing move that Uma Thurman's character uses at the end of Kill Bill: Volume 2: "the coronavirus epidemic is a kind of 'Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique' on the global capitalist system."

But then he arrives at Wuhan. Or, at least, his dream version of the Chinese city in which the pandemic originated, where Žižek finds "an unexpected emancipatory prospect," in an exoticized version of the city in China where the virus is thought to have begun. There, he finds what he thinks is a silver lining in all of the deaths and chaos.

"The abandoned streets in a megalopolis — the usually bustling urban centers looking like ghost towns, stores with open doors and no customers, just a lone walker or a single car here and there, provide a glimpse of what a non-consumerist world might look like," Žižek writes of the version of Wuhan that he sees in his mind, a city in which he is able to roam without the pressure to constantly work, consume, and engage. (This passage may have been written before other cities around the world entered lockdown.)

The pandemic has given him a chance to withdraw from the hustle of everyday life, and for that Žižek is...grateful?

"Perhaps, one can hope that one of the unintended consequences of the coronavirus quarantines in cities around the world will be that some people at least will use their time released from hectic activity and think about the (non)sense of their predicament."

There seems to be a part of Žižek that recognizes that even if he dresses it up in language borrowed from the philosopher Martin Heidegger, there is something unspeakably crude about taking such a Pollyannaish position. He quickly backs off, adding, "When a masked citizen of Wuhan walks around searching for medicine or food, there are definitely no anti-consumerist thoughts on his or her mind, just panic, anger and fear."

But it's too late. Žižek has declared a wildly lopsided ledger to be balanced: On one side, thousands dead in Wuhan (not counting the rest of the world); on the other, a respite from speaking tours and daily errands for Žižek. (But not, of course, so much of a break that he can't still churn out a book.) Who's to say the universe has not maintained its balance in some mysterious way? "My plea is just that even horrible events can have unpredictable positive consequences."

My suggestion: Take a meditation class — there are plenty free online. Read a book. Have a cup of coffee. Take a (socially distanced) walk. What a monstrous suggestion that in Wuhan's more than 2,500 deaths (a likely under-counted figure that could be as high as 42,000 deaths, according to an estimate made last month by Radio Free Asia) he can find solace, because the machinery of everyday banality has temporarily ground to a halt.

Otherwise, Žižek is left with quite a dream. But as one of Quentin Tarantino's other characters, Mr. White, says in Reservoir Dogs, "You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize."

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