A Mess Only Zizek Could Love

Thou shalt love thy waste as thyself.

In the film Examined Life (among other written works and lectures), Zizek argues that a true ecologist would love garbage. In the film he makes these claims in a garbage dump, which certainly adds to the argument. As many of you (probably) already know, Zizek is against the ideology of contemporary ecology, which is based on the idea that Nature exists naturally in some idyllic balance that we humans play with for our own gain or ego, throwing this natural balance out of whack and causing catastrophes.

Now would be a good time to read about some of these messes we’ve made.

When we are faced with these events, like the Exxon Valdez, it seems like we can’t help but side with the ecological ideologues. But are the options as black and white as contemporary ecology would have us believe? The options seem to be laid out that either

1. Humanity is destroying the natural balance of the planet through greed, ignorance, and ego, or…

2. The idea of balance is itself a remnant of much older ideologies, as Zizek says, a retelling of the Fall (see above video). Nature in balance then is a construct of the Imaginary to cover up the trauma of the Real, the inherent disorder of Nature.

Busted up teevee

Is it really that simple? Either there is order, or we simply wish there was? Or, as Zizek says in the video clip, must we decide between a world with meaning (but filled with punishment) or a chaotic world with no meaning? While the bit at the end is certainly poetic, “Of course we should love garbage if we want to love the world!”, I don’t feel like I can support his claims here.

I see this essentially as the question of order versus disorder, harmony versus chaos. Is Nature naturally ordered or not? Again, must we answer either “yes” or “no” here? Could we not propose a third option, that of the “not yet”? Could it not be the case that while the forces of Nature (and I include humanity in here in all if its “artificiality”) appear chaotic, seem meaningless, that this is simply another attempt at creating order?

Ecosystems are struggles for a new order from chaos. When an extinction occurs, life fills the gaps, forcing itself into new situations and adapting accordingly. There is an interplay between environment and organisms, a struggle of forces. The outcome however is largely an ordered one, ecological homeostasis.

This does not mean however that I am siding with the ecologists, I don’t think there is anything necessary about order in Nature. Instead, we should perhaps think of Nature as a “Will to Order,” an unending drive for balance with fits and stops.



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7 responses to “A Mess Only Zizek Could Love

  1. Pingback: The Temptation of Meaning « Planomenology

  2. I can admire his argument as an aggressive acceptance of the messier points of reality, there is some beauty in it, even in the tragedy of an oil-covered cormorant which opens the heart. And he’s trying to counter the sanctimony of oughts and shoulds that accompany ecological alarmism, a pot of resentment fed by attachment to the familiar and comforting that breeds endless condemnation and rancor.

    Though I can see where he gets his leverage, I’d rather not live in a world so toxic only numbers can survive. And as for the temptation of meaning, I’d have to say the sound bite “Nature is a big series of unimaginable catastrophes” is as much a relic of meaning mongering as anything else.

  3. Order and chaos, the enigma of balance, and the dialectic demon that haunts Zizek as much as any one of us…I still don’t understand why everybody eats up his brand of Serbian sophistry. Neo-Lacanian claptrap. Maybe the real secret to getting anywhere in modern philosophy is to stop hero-worshiping. We’re all human. We’re all philosophers. And we’re all “meaning mongering”, whatever that means…

  4. kvond

    Zizek is touching on the very ideological dimension of the concept of “pollution”, and important factor if one is going to be truly (that is effectively) ecological. One doesn’t want to be living out a cultural heritage of Original Sin theology at the expense of genuinely taking are of one’s Earth house. There must be some ideological dimension, because a house is a “home” and homes are ideological places, but it should be tempered.

    But Zizek’s treatment is pure ideology. He wants garbage to be a treated like a Lacanian symptom. You have to love your symptom (or, you have to live in a fantasy imagination of garbage as horrible stain to natural balance).

    Buckminster Fuller, in some senses an Ur-father of modern Ecological thought, had a different perspective on garbage/pollution. It was neither some horrible stain on the fantasy image of Nature, nor was it chaotic, tempestuous Real (just “nature” under a different name) poking through. It was simply under-developed resource, as he famously wrote,

    “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we have been ignorant of their value.”

    Is there an ideological dimension to this as well, sure. But the question ultimately is “To what is this directing our attention?” He is saying both, Our ideological guilt towards pollution is misplaced, and in a certain sense “pollution” is an illusion. But also, one does not blame our ignorance, but simply look to the very details of what makes up REAL pollution, that is the specific differences found in a particular form of pollution, and then to the possible means of harvesting those differences.

    Really a much “healthier” approach than either the sky is falling and we are evil, or, the universe is a chaotic, symptom-producing Real.

  5. “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we have been ignorant of their value.”

    That is very Jungian. So nice to come upon this thanks to Kvond’s typically surprising and redeeming perspective. If trash sticks around to remind us of all we’ve marginalized or rejected in ourselves, then it will pile up a lot higher before it’s finished the job.

    Maybe future generations will inhabit factories-as-art where firebug alchemists spend their days watching matter change state from barren to fertile.

  6. kvond


    How interesting to see that quote as Jungian, it would not occur to me. It is really more Spinozist to my ear. The invitation is to look to technological unlocking of resource beneath the “image” of pollution. Fuller was big on this unlocking concept. (I remember it being told of him that when a roaring fire would snap or crackle extraoriginarily loud, he would say something like “Now that is a very sunny day being released”, trading on the idea that bright sunlight is “stored” in the organic processes of the tree.) But I like your ruminations on marginalization.

  7. D

    Nature has order, to be sure. That’s what the realm of physical science studies. Nature is physics and the biology we see is some specific subset of that.

    I think Z has a point about nature being a series of catastrophes. Think about the end of the ice age and how many species probably went extinct due to the warming, not to mention the great mammals our ancestors hunted out of existence. The idyllic untrammeled nature is a lull between storms is this view. I think he’s agreeing with the notion of pollution as unharvested resources. How much nitrogen goes into the rivers in the US from people’s excrement every year? That could be used as fertilizer.

    As to ‘balance’: balance according to whom? In this sense, balance is an ideological term. Ask someone like Derrick Jensen what balance is, and then ask (laugh) Al Gore. There’s no way to come to agreement. I think instead of talking about being in balance with nature, we might instead talk about the trajectory of our current course.

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