To people who come to this book looking for an analysis of the attacks on the World Trade Center this book will appear to be peculiar and eccentric, and therefore in questionable taste. Slavoj Zisek is a Marxist philosopher from the formerly Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. (At the same time he is quite caustic against those who think that Milosevic's horrors could have been avoided by an appeal to the cosmopolitan virtues of Titoism. Not within the party framework, at any rate.) He has a special interest in the French psychoanalyst Lacan, which does not stop him from discussing other imposing figures such as Hegel, Adorno, Foucault and, suprisingly in this book, G.K. Chesterton. At the same time he discusses popular movies from "Unbreakable" to "Shrek." Like Terry Eagleton he has a fondness, and a weakness, for paradox and contradiction. A person examining this book will note that the five essays are not as concise and straightforward as they may appear. (They will also note that this book has six chapters.) The unsympathetic reader may wonder how we get from the events of September 11th to sado-masochism and "The Piano Teacher," to Judith Butler and Antigone. Given the bottomless malice of Al Qaidya towards any concept of freedom, surely, one might state, it is irresponsible to say that freedom of thought is the surest way of ensuring submission and control (as Zisek suggests in his introduction)?
In fact, Zisek is a stimulating and important writer and the reader should take the effort to appreciate him. To the extent that this book has a thesis it is expressed on the cover. Instead of the attacks forcing the United States to rethink its attitude towards the rest of the world, it has allowed itself to view itself solely as a victim. By contrast "That is the true lesson of the attacks: the only way to ensure that it will not happen here again is to prevent it happening anywhere else." At the same time Zisek is vehement against those who showed a certain schaudenfreude at American suffering, or those tempted to euphemize Palestianian suicide bombers. On the Islamists themselves, Zisek makes an interesting point against those who wish for a "Protestant" reformation for Islam. There already has been one. Like Protestantism, the Wahabbi sect that rules Saudi Arabia rejects the accretions and growths of Islam over the previous centuries as so much quasi-pagan superstition. Like Protestantism it emphasizes holy scripture and even offers suggestions for a more practical bible interpretation. Clearly, this is not enough. Elsewhere Zisek points out that in a way political Islam is Islamic fascism, in the sense that it seeks a capitalism without capitalism, or a capitalism with its destabilizing effects.
Elsewhere Zisek has stimulating things to say about "The Matrix" from which he extracts his title, and about the way that movie and others like "The Truman Show," reflect a nervous anxiety that "our" suburban life is something unreal. At the same time, one cannot unproblematically search for the real, a la Orwell, a certain harmony with fantasy is crucial to Lacanian good health. There are interesting comments on suicide as the expression not of certainty, but of doubt, not as sacrifice, but as evasion. His comments on "Shrek" will be of great comfort to all those who think that film over-rated: it is a movie which overturns all conventions yet at the same time only reaffirms them. Zisek cautions against the use of "proto-fascist": not all criticisms of decadence or invocations of discipline are fascist--consider the example of Schoenberg. He also notes that the private sphere is becoming a commodified space. The only way, he suggests, for true love to exist is not for the lovers to stare into each others eyes but at some sort of collectivity outside them. He is especially angry at Jonathan Alter and Alan Dershowitz for suggesting the torture of terrorists. As he quite properly points out, if torturing terrorists could save lives, then the torturing of prisoners of wars would saveeven more. Although at one point he argues that anti-Americanism is most common in countries that have lost their influence, like France and Germany, he argues that it is vitally necessary for a European response to provide an alternative to American diplomacy. On this point, I fully agree.