Book Review: Event by Slavoj Zizek

Philosophers have great difficulty writing books for the general reader. They either use technical terms and obscure language that give the impression of deep thought, beyond the reach of the uninitiated and essentially boring, or they write in plain language that risks their profound insight being dismissed as little more than what our grandparents called common sense. It was Bertrand Russell who said that 'common sense is not so common' and he, of course, was the supreme exemplar of the art of conveying deep thoughts in everyday language. In more recent times, Roger Scruton has admirably carried forward this tradition, but regrettably, Slavoj Zizek has not.

The author is described on the back cover of the book as 'one of the world's greatest living philosophers.' The title of the book, 'Event,' is described as 'the new and highly contested concept.' This immediately raises the Confucian question: is something simple being made into something complicated? Are we being sold common sense wrapped up as philosophy?

An Event is described as a 'radical rupture' and 'an occurrence that shatters ordinary life,' after which 'nothing remains the same,' Zizek appears to be referring to a discontinuity over time yet makes no mention of Hume's Law. Similarly, the reader is promised a discussion of 'which conditions must be met for us to perceive something as really existing' without reference to John Locke's sense perception or George Berkeley's deep meditation on the tree in the quad. In fact, the author ignores the events associated with British empiricism.

Zizek says that he is aware that something has been left out. The book ends with 130 notes, the last of which states that 'this overview is, of course, far from complete,' and mentions two particular omissions: analytic philosophy from the early Wittgenstein to Donald Davidson, and the eventual status of quantum processes in subatomic physics. In what is described as an 'accessible commute length' book, it is particularly difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out, and Zizek has opted for a mix of modern scholarship, recent history and popular culture.

The central theme of Event is said to be the impact of three great philosophers, Plato, Descartes and Hegel, who revolutionized thought in their time, thus constituting three great Events in the history of philosophy. None of Russell's readers will doubt this contention and it was probably well understood by many well-read people of earlier generations. What Zizek adds in describing the nature of an Event is mostly drawn from existentialist theory, arthouse and film noir cinema productions, Eastern mysticism and sexual anecdotes. One puts down this book wondering why 'one of the world's greatest living philosophers' attempted to popularize his work in this way.