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Theory is the Courage of Hopelessness

The latest Slavoj Zizek extravaganza is his new book The Courage of Hopelessness. Subtitled ‘Chronicles of a Year of Living Dangerously’ the title is actually taken from a statement from another major contemporary thinker, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Agamben, as Zizek emphasises in his utterly compelling book, said in a radio interview that ‘thought is the courage of hopelessness’. Zizek adapts this phrase with great power and force for his own book. I would go further and claim that actually ‘theory is the courage of hopelessness’. These dog days, even in hopelessness, can be ‘theoretical times’. As Zizek shows throughout his book, after the rise of the right upheavals in the world in 2016 (Trump, Brexit) we have reached rock bottom globally in many ways and theory is a necessary if not sufficient condition for fighting back. Zizek, in one of his best career moments, fearlessly writes on every front, refusing to be bound by disciplines, critics or academic convention. Everything is up for grabs, there are no limits to the range and breadth of his scholarship. He argues that only when we have admitted to ourselves that our situation is completely hopeless, that the light at the end of the tunnel is in fact the headlight of a train approaching us from the opposite direction, can change come.

In my own new paperback book Theoretical Times, published by Emerald on October 7, I single out theorists like Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Jean Baudrillard and Giorgio Agamben for attention. The ground breaking and vital theory of transcendental materialism of Zizek and Badiou can, I argue, be supplemented by theorists like Baudrillard and Agamben. Actually, strangely, Zizek and Agamben have a lot in common, which is why it is interesting that Jean Baudrillard considered both of them, alongside Paul Virilio, to be in his very small band of theorists to admire before he died of cancer in 2007. In 2010 the excellent Routledge Nomikoi Critical Legal Thinkers book series published an overarching book on Giorgio Agamben called Power, Law and The Uses of Criticism. The author Thanos Zartaloudis cleverly concentrated on Agamben’s connections to the relationship between philosophy and law, and expertly explored Agamben’s work since the 1970s on language, ontology, power, law and criticism. Agamben’s Jurisprudence is laid ‘bare’ for all to see. After 9/11 Agamben’s ideas of ‘state of exception’ and ‘bare life’ were widely used in order to provide critique of the George W. Bush administration’s indefinite detention of non-citizens suspected of terrorism and their subsequent trials by a military commission at Guantanamo. As Slavoj Zizek said at the time ‘when a conservative member of the the US Congress recently designated the Guantanamo prisoners as “those who were missed by the bombs” and thus forfeited their right to live, he almost literally evoked Agamben’s notion of “homo sacer”, a man reduced to bare life no longer covered by any legal or civil rights’. As Zizek said about the book version of Agamben’s State of Exception ‘what you hold in your hands is simply THE book for all those who do not see in 9/11 a mere pretext for patriotic mobilisation, but an impetus for a deeper reflection on where we stand today with regard to the very fundamentals of our civilisation’. Fifteen years on, and in the midst of a world of Trumpland, theorists like Agamben and Zizek are more vital than ever.