In the work of Slavoj Žižek
Žižek offers a reading of ecology across many aspects of the notion. Ecology features primarily as an example in the service of Žižek’s other concepts such as in a video interview conducted by the Dutch Left theory group VPRO International celebrating the launch of his 2010 opus Living in the End Times and, coincidentally, the site of his most consistent and discursive elaboration of the ecological crisis to date. Given the effervescent style of his prose, this is hardly Žižek’s only or most important contribution to ecological debates. Instead, it is recommended that interested readers consider the notion of ecology-in-itself as it directly and obliquely manifests in Žižek’s work through the philosophical, political and psychoanalytic lens common to this maestro of critique. In this way, we may account for not only ecology but also its diverse species of concepts, including nature, structure, divinity, life, death, purpose, evolution and catastrophe. As a result, we may see ecology awry as Žižek does, observe its catastrophic strokes giving rise to modern ecological organization and processes such as oil or land formation or its fragmentation into a world of immanent new age wisdom supposedly transcending private or publicly funded scientific investigations. The starting point for a reading of ecology in Žižek is, rightly or wrongly, nature – although we should resist immediately rendering this passim as some orderly naturalism.
Žižek’s discussion of ecology, such as in Living in the End Times or Violence, proposes that there is no order to nature or indeed no nature at all. Instead, he invites us to confront a dark chaos that is necessarily contingent – nature “off the rails” so to speak. At issue for contemporary ecologies, according to the Žižekian arguments, is the order that gives structure to and is structured by environments. These environments need not be anthropocentric, terrestrial or cosmic. Ecologies today appear in a wide array of fields from biological sciences to media studies, and Žižek is all too aware that it is the fundamental principle of the ecological approach that is at issue in this multiplicity. In the history of philosophy, the object of ecological fascination is nature or “the house of life”, yet the essence of nature’s meaning is divergent. Th is divergence is explored by Žižek in his approach to ecology across a variety of texts, and they are outlined below for consideration.
First, nature or Nature is rejected by Žižek for its ideological emphasis on a world inhabited by gods. In Nature divinity is not impersonal and distant but a meddling and cosmic power that can be both jealous and unforgiving. Ecology for Nature means the divine cosmic order disclosed by myths and poetry, not interpretation or modern scientific method. Ecology is here what is given by the gods. Aligning precritical ecology in accordance with the gods, Nature allows an immanent and present connection to the cosmic and divine, the Sun as much as the Olympic Pantheon. This Nature is oracular and breeds generations of prophets. It is also associated with precritical philosophies and sophistries that essentialize and totemize the world. Th is fundamentally ideological and spiritual connection runs afoul on critical grounds for Žižek as it lacks a sensitivity to the Lacano-Hegelian turn to the radical freedom of the (mostly) human subject. Freedom is here posited by ecological order; it is a forced choice, a simple negativity that cannot differentiate between actions (going through the motions as in Pascalian belief) and acts (interruptions and ruptures in the ordinary historical order such as Leninist revolution) – all is fated through the prophetic vision. Ecology based on Nature is thus an intellectual cul-de-sac that annuls free acts with the illusion of a forced choice, an immutable destiny.
The next form of ecology that appears in Žižek’s work rests on a concept of second nature. Second nature devolves the direct line to divinity presented by Nature into an objective, shared and plural universe of signs and discourses that seek the truth of some “real” ecological order. Here God is unconscious, unable to heed the symbolic demarcation of scientific truth. The divine base of nature here requires a theological apparatus of rituals, texts, festivals and icons operated and overseen by priests and clergy rather than prophets. Ultimately with a basis in second nature, ecology remains open and contingent rather than overdetermined by a forced choice. Ecological catastrophes are thus the product of endeavours from within ecology itself that are catastrophic for the “ordained” order of things that people may choose to believe or not. With no fate to guide ecology’s process and outcomes, a theology takes over the burden of direction. But, as history has shown on ample occasions, this theological circumscription of Nature remains incomplete, that is, God is not the same as our theological depiction of God because He is unknowable.
Another form of ecology in Žižek’s work features nature as a discourse. Whereas the previous second nature forever approximates the essence of ecology, this third type of discursive approach to nature treats all ecological approaches as relative to one another. The infamous Sokal affair typifies this frivolous postmodern loop of representation, that is, a fake social sciences paper is misconstrued as a valid contribution to knowledge. Here every interpretation is circumspect; the universalism of the clergy of second nature is revealed as yet another “provincial” fantasy. In Living in the End Times, Žižek describes this discursivity as the contextualization of predictions about ecological catastrophe:
While it is difficult to estimate the soundness of these predictions, one thing is sure: an extraordinary social and psychological change is taking place right in front of our eyes – the impossible is becoming possible. An event first experienced as real but impossible becomes real and no longer impossible. (ET: 328)
What the discourse of ecology relies upon is thus a division between knowledge and belief: the scientific knowledge that predicts ecological disaster shifts from being real but impossible to a real possibility, not because the knowledge changes but instead because the discursive context in which such knowledge is articulated shifts, making the knowledge about such disasters believable.
The fourth form of ecology in Žižek’s work suggests that nature is not our or anyone’s home. Instead, nature is a crazy off -the-rails chaos ridden with catastrophic events. This is perhaps the most central form of ecology for Žižek’s oeuvre, and is indebted both to his interest in the radical negativity of Hegel and the primordial abgrund of Schelling. Th is particular position requires a parallax view of nature compared to the other three formalizations offered above. Meteorite impacts, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, cyclones, tornadoes: this planetary hurly-burly is the ground of nature’s existence and, as Žižek asserts in his interview with VPRO International, our modern world also. The exemplary object for this purview is oil. Unlike some other raw materials, oil reserves are the product of massive ecological disasters where the extinguishment of living matter has been so great that it forms a gradually decaying layer that is covered by aeons of sedimentary deposits. The massive scale of the type of catastrophe required for oil reserves to occur in such vast quantities worldwide is unthinkable or purely abstract knowledge at best. Rather than treating these events as natural disasters, Žižek’s conceptual point is that they come from an original space that troubles the signs, meanings and temporalities of the institutions and everyday life erected upon it. This space is an iteration of what Žižek terms the Real, although here it is a blend of both its Lacanian formulation and the Schellingian abgrund of the drafts of Ages of the World. Nature in this frame is not about a balanced ecology; ecology is dark and chaotic, exposing us to contingencies up to and including its physical laws.
In sum, across his many writings and seminars Žižek offers his readers an array of ways to conceive of ecology. The selection above is not exhaustive of the ways we may think ecology through Žižek’s work. However, the selection is indicative of the polymorphous avenues that Žižek’s thought is famous for pursuing. For Žižek’s thought, therefore, ecology may be immanent and totemic, institutional and symbolic, discursive and fantasmatic, or dark and contingent.