Cogitation on Covid-19

Aziz Ali Dad discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Zizek’s new book

Cogitation on Covid-19
Normally philosophical thinking is deemed to be an activity that needs meditation for a long time. The more time we invest into thinking, the more mature our ideas will be. Indulging in instant reaction, prompt response and current affairs is deemed detrimental to philosophy as it robs depth from thought. Anyone who does not give enough time for their thought is considered a pebble – merely skipping over the surface of still waters under which in fact runs quite deep. However, Slavoj Žižek defies all these stereotypes by producing a track on Covid-19 with the name Pandemic: Covid-19 Shakes the World.

Slavoj Žižek is popular philosopher and cultural critic. His scholarship covers a wide array of themes and issues faced by our world today. Žižek steadfastly educates his readers by infusing his writings with zeal and zest. His book Pandemic: Covid -19 Shakes the World is written in a lucid language with allusions to popular culture and various philosophies. In the pages of the book, psychoanalysts, journalists, fiction writers, philosophers, movies, journalists, politicians, social activists, novelists and movies jostle together with the focus on bringing forth contradictions, paradoxes and complexities of our age.

The book is divided into 10 brief chapters. It starts with the case of Li Wenliagn, the doctor who first discovered coronavirus epidemic but censored by Chinese authorities. Žižek explores the issue of freedom of speech and information in the time of pandemic. He implies that it is the lack of freedom of speech and information that has turned the epidemic in the Chinese province into a pandemic. Owing to too much information, instead of truth, rumour prevails among the masses. The Chinese success against Covid-19 poses serious questions on the use and sharing of information in the age of information technology. In the state of emergencies, states - especially authoritarian ones - curb critical voices because they treat truth as rumour. This happens because of the trust deficit between the people and state.
Žižek also provides insights into commercialization of empathetic feelings and its impact on our personal lives

In the corona pandemic, Zizek does not search for any deeper meaning because he takes a totally disenchanted view of the world as there is no communication between the world and people. In typical modern hubris, he terms any search for deeper meaning as “pre-modern.” At the same time he rejects the mindset which gives preference to the ‘we first’ motto dominating the United States. Slavoj Žižek’s exploration of immaterial nature of production and “auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise” under the neoliberal system seems to imply that nature of class conflict dynamics has changed drastically as the conflicts of the industrial age were fought externally, whereas today’s conflict is internal. In the words of Byung-Chul Han: people are now master and slave in one. This is a wake-up call for intellectuals with Left leanings who try to explicate everything from the categorical imperative emerged in the age of revolutions.

To define the interconnected nature of modern civilization, he quotes Martin Luther King who presciently encapsulated human condition of the world in the statement “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” But the events and actions in post 9/11 period shows that humanity is far from acting in unison. Since 9/11, the world has been witnessing an increasing tendency towards enforcing politically correct behaviour “among the members of the new “intellectual” class.” Žižek sees this as an external force. To buttress his argument, he cites the case of Israeli American filmmaker and writer Udi Aloni and British Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie. The former faced censorship for his use of word bi-national in a book, whereas the latter was retroactively stripped of Nelly Sachs Prize because members of the jury were not aware of her participation in the boycott measures against the Israeli government. These are the signs of times to come.

Žižek is convincing in his argument about devising a mechanism of control of our subjectivities and objective world in the time of viral epidemics. We have already been informed through awareness campaigns about the nature of feelings we develop after getting infected by corona virus and what not to touch and how to touch something and interact with someone. He introduces the idea of market animism. It is a tendency of treating markets or financial capital as living entities. Employment of the words like panic shopping, market panic and economic depression in our daily conversation are symptomatic of infusion of market animism into our worldview. It lends credence to Zizek’s idea of market animism.

In his book, Žižek also provides insights into commercialization of empathetic feelings, and its impact on our personal lives. The commercialisation of affection is one such phenomenon. Sometime we show too much empathy in our work that we exhaust it and are left with no sign of empathy in our private lives because it has been consumed by our work. Žižek fears that the world will come under the control of experts without empathy but they will be devising policy and practicing with selected sympathy. Amidst the dark hours of Covid-19 pandemic, science fiction, a la H. G. Wells, provides us a cue for salvation from our predicaments and ailments on earth in the shape of humans uniting against an alien threat. Given the gravity of situation created by pandemic of Covid-19, Žižek thinks so far the world has not worked in unity as depicted in dystopic situations.

Žižek claims that radical changes are already taking place in the world. But it has become another mantra of ideology in the post-ideological world. No doubt change is taking place, but it is so fluid that it is exceeding the grasp of thinkers. It is a world that moves ahead of its human actors and thinkers. Though humans control nature, but history slipped through their fingers and the historical march of rationalisation of the world is losing ground to new formations and deformations or the different worldviews across the globe.

Žižek also explores the alternatives to capitalism, and ends up with new idea of communism. At the same time, he does not elaborate his new idea of communism except regulating market and the state taking charge of some of essential services. However, the problem with anti-capitalist narratives is that they lack creative imagination like capitalism. In the dark hours of Covid-19, Zizek speaks of some potentially beneficial side effects of the epidemic. He enumerates halting of cruise ships, amusement parks and decline in car production. Another solution for the pandemic proposed by Slavoj Zizek is the localisation of health systems and effective international cooperation. His idea localisation is informed more by the concept of “Small is Beautiful” by Michael Schumacher and less by communism. It points towards emerging eclecticism and new localism, which is not necessarily a new communism.

One of the strengths of the book is that it provides pathway to “analyse in detail the social conditions which made the coronavirus epidemic possible.” In his treatment of Covid-19, Žižek marshals a variety of sources. This shows the breadth of his study. However, he appears to have half backed ideas in certain areas. This shortcoming does not stem from any intellectual weakness but from the very strength of this book. The strength is production of the book as a response to an evolving and vague phenomenon of pandemic of Covid-19 in short time. Without giving his thinking enough time for gestation he could not provide us fully backed ideas. This is one of the dangers that a philosophers takes while defying the philosophical principle for meditation deep and long for the thought to mature. Furthermore, the compulsion of hasty finishing of this book is evident in the absence of an index. Overall, the book Pandemic: Covid-19 Shakes the World is a good entry point for those who want to skim on the surface of still waters instead of delving deeper into the sea.

The writer is a researcher with an interest in history of ideas. He can be contacted via e-mail: