In his most recent book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Slavoj Zizek blames the failure of contemporary activism on our assumption that time is a one-way line from past to future. He argues that activism is failing to avert the coming catastrophe because it subscribes to the same notions of linear time as industrial society. According to Zizek, a regeneration of activism must begin with a change in our understanding of temporality. Paraphrasing Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Zizek explains that “if we are to confront adequately the threat of (social or environmental) catastrophe, we need to break out of this ‘historical’ notion of temporality: We have to introduce a new notion of time.” This new notion of time is a shift of perspective from historical progress to the timelessness of a revolutionary moment.
The new role of the activist should not be to push history in the right direction but instead to disrupt it altogether. “This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement. An act of ‘divine violence’ would then mean pulling the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress,” writes Zizek. Accomplishing this act of revolutionary violence involves a switch of perspective from the present looking forward to the future looking backward. Instead of trying to influence the future by acting in the present, Zizek argues that we should start from the assumption that the dreaded catastrophic event – sudden climate catastrophe, a “gray goo” nano-crisis, the widespread adoption of cyborg technologies – has already happened and then work backwards to figure out what we should have done. “We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, that it is our destiny – and then, against the background of this acceptance, mobilize ourselves to perform the act that will change destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past.” Only by assuming the feared event has already happened, can we imagine what actions would be necessary to prevent its occurrence. We could then take these steps. “Paradoxically,” Zizek concludes, “the only way to prevent the disaster is to accept it as inevitable.”
Zizek is right to suggest that activism is at a crossroads. Any honest culture jammer will admit that our signature moves have lately failed to arouse more than a few tepid responses. The fact is that our present is being swallowed by the future we dreaded: a dystopian sci-fi nightmare of enforced consumerism and planet-wide degradation. Activism now faces the dilemma of how to walk the line between false hope and pessimistic resignation. It is no longer tenable to hold the nostalgic belief that educating the population, recycling and composting and advocating for “green capitalism” will save us from the brink. Likewise, it is difficult to muster the courage to act when the collapse of civilization seems unavoidable, imminent and, in our most misanthropic moments, potentially desirable. Zizek’s shift in temporality offers us a way to balance the paralyzing realization that our demise is inevitable with the motivating belief that we can change our destiny. By accepting that we are doomed, we free ourselves to break from normalcy and act with the revolutionary fervor needed to achieve the impossible.
Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He is writing a book on the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org