Slavoj Žižek: Events and Encounters Explain Our Fear of Falling in Love

The renowned philosopher discusses his new book on events, detailing how they retroactively create their causes and why they explain the 21st century fear of falling in love.

Slavoj Žižek: What’s an event. It’s a difficult question not because we lack definitions but because there are too many definitions. In my book I focus on event in the sense of something extraordinary takes place. But with all this wide span of what we call an event I think an elementary structure can be described in formal terms. Within a certain field of phenomena where things go on the normal flow of things, from time to time something happens which as it were retroactively changes the rules of what is possible in the sense that something happens. It is generated by that situation. Of course it’s causally produced by that situation but in a way it changes interactively the whole situation. It’s a miracle in the sense of the event would have been an effect which is stronger than its own costs. For example, now come a couple of examples that I hope you will all like.

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In literature why is Kafka, Franz Kafka, the one that we all know and love an event? Of course he has predecessors. We can say that Kafka implicitly or explicitly relied on a whole series of other artists like Edgar Allan Poe, Dostoevsky, William Blake and so on. But it’s not as simple as that because when you try to isolate in those earlier orders what makes them predecessors of Kafka, you can see that that dimension, Kafka, before Kafka, is perceptive and only once Kafka is already here. Or as Borges the Argentinian writer, as he put it in a wonderful concise way, truly all authors, writers have predecessors. A truly great writer in a way creates his own past, his own predecessors so that yes, there are people who influenced him but you can see this influence only once he is here. And now let me jump to a totally different domain. Love. Love in the good old fashioned sense which is today more and more rare. Love is an encounter. This is why in English and also in some other languages, not all like French, you use the term fall. We fall in love. This is the event that I mentioned. In what sense? Let’s say you lead a happy life. You are lucky. You have a job. You meet regularly with friends.

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You are not in love, you just make one night stands maybe here and there. You meet every evening with friends. You drink. You go to blah, blah. Then all of a sudden in a totally contingent way let’s say you stumble on the street, somebody helps you to stand up. It’s a young girl or boy blah, blah. And, of course, it’s the love of your life. A totally contingent encounter but the result can be that your whole life changes. Nothing is the same as they say. You even spontaneously perceive your entire past life as leading towards this unique moment, you know, the illusion of love is oh my God, I was waiting all my life for you. This – something like this would have been the love event. And I think it’s getting more and more rare today. Many intelligent cultural critics notice how we are almost returning to preromantic, premodern times when marriage or love connections were a matter of relatives, counselors and so on. Your uncle, your aunt, they selected whom you will marry and so on. Today it’s similar only instead of all those old wise uncles and so on its dating agencies marriage agencies and so on and so on.

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What they offer us is precisely love without the fall, without falling in love, without this totally unpredictable dramatic encounter. And that’s what I find very sad. I think that today we are simply more and more afraid of this event or encounters. You encounter something which is totally contingent but the result of it if you accept it as an event is that your entire life changes. It’s a different story. This is why I think that this avoiding falling in love is the same phenomenon as a standard joke that I use in all my, almost all my books, you know. How we want today to think without the bet aspect of it, without the price we have to pay for it. We want – I don’t know, we want sugar without calories so we have sweeteners. We want beer without alcohol. We want – and so on and so on. And I claim it’s the same thing in sexuality. We want brief safe sex sexual encounters without the fall, without this fatal attachment. And I think this is the most sad thing here that even what is slowly emerging is maybe deeper dominant ideology today. What I ironically refer to as Western Buddhism. Life is just a play of appearances. Don’t take it too seriously. Maintain a proper distance. Don’t get too attached to worldly objects. It fits perfectly this superficial consumerist attitude. So again events are rare. An event is a dramatic encounter which to put it in more learned philosophical terms retroactively creates its own causes.

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Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

Slavoj Žižek takes us through some of the concepts presented in his newest book, "Event." The philosopher and social critic explains what events are, how they necessarily create their own causes, and why they explain the 21st century fear of falling in love.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
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