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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

All Sorel’s Fault

Posted by Sean McCann on 09/28/05 at 11:37 AM

Mulling over Zizek’s absurd theory of revolution and Foucault’s fascination with “the enigma of revolt” I was struck by how indebted to Sorel they both seem and with the continuing purchase in the academic literary mind of Sorelian attitudes. 

Given his enormous political and literary influence in the early 20th century, and his arguable longterm legacy via the aesthetics of modernism, it’s strange how rarely you see Sorel’s name come up.  I have nothing significant to say about that--blogger’s privilege--but thought I’d put in a plug for Michael Tratner’s excellent Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats--a fine work of old-fashioned intellectual history cum literary criticism.  For Tratner, the influence of Le Bon and Sorel in framing the understanding of mass politics, and in driving literary innovation in response, is the main story of Anglo-American literary modernism.  Seems right to me.


I discuss Sorel in a fair amount of detail in my dissertation, as is common among scholars writing about Wyndham Lewis.

I’m curious about the ties you see to Foucault and Zizek. They don’t immediately leap to mind. Does Tratner make this connection? I don’t think so.

By Jonathan on 09/28/05 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Sorel i know of is Julien. So don’t tell me who is yours : this post is a moment of zen (as X. Jardin would put it) i’m trying to prolongate.

By on 09/28/05 at 05:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

blogger’s privilege

OK, well, I guess… Seems a bit spare this, an ambiguous hit and run…

By “the continuing purchase in the academic literary mind of Sorelian attitudes” do you mean a cynicism about mass politics, about the mass’s ability to know its own interests and act on them?

(Goddamm… it doesn’t take Sorelian influence to make me cynical… recent elections are reason enough, no...)

And it’s strange that Sorel doesn’t come up much nowadays because of that would endow later efforts, such as those of F. and Z., with the tang of fascism? Is that it?

Just trying to understand the point. You’re getting increasingly cryptic, starting to sound like one of those libel-fearing British tabloids: “What notable theorist was recently slurping down the essence of totalitarianism with a certain fin-de-sielce commie-turned-pro-fascist strategist?” “What major theorist now mumbles sweet nothings to his revolutionary bedfellows in Persian?”

I don’t know. For someone prone to lecture on academic protocol, I’m not sure this really hacks it as a critical stance. Intimations rather than arguments.

Plausible deniabiliy rather than engagement…

Oh, and what Matt said over on the other thread…

By CR on 09/29/05 at 12:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Foucault’s similarity to Sorel is the more obvious, Jonathan.  While he was blown away by the Iranian revolution and excited by the idea of Islamic government, it doesn’t seem to have been because there was anything in the ideology of Islamism that moved him.  I don’t have the book in front of me, but in his piece on a revolution spread by cassettes and the other essays, I think he envisions Khomeini more or less as Sorel does the myth of the general strike—a compelling source of mass enthusiasm that is admirable for the way it creates collective action and “enigma[tically]” bursts the horizon of expectations.  That in holding this view Foucault also drew a strong opposition between the political will of the collective Iranian people (good) and the role of political parties or revolutionary strategists (loathsome) also seems to me to make him resemble Sorel.

What brought Zizek to mind in this context was that his idea of revolution does not seem to involve the proletariat seizing the means of production, say, or the increasing immiseration of the working class, but simply the occasion of a solidarity that is otherwise prevented by something on the order of collective myth.  The significant conflict in his view does not seem to be between bourgeoisie and proletariat but between one order of reality and an eruptive, utterly contrary order.  Hence the appeal of seeing the revolution as not either the end point of necessary historical development or as the achievement of a vanguard party, but as an alternative history—one that intersects with the history we know in messianic form.  Here, too, Zizek’s attitudes seem to me closer to Sorel and the general strike than they do to more traditional Marxism. 

CR, at this point I’d almost be disappointed if you didn’t show up with your usual dopiness.  I take it that the second most sincere form of flattery is to be dogged by a blithering pissant.

By on 09/29/05 at 06:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Hence the appeal of seeing the revolution as not either the end point of necessary historical development or as the achievement of a vanguard party, but as an alternative history—one that intersects with the history we know in messianic form.”
Are you suggesting Sorel is the ur-text for this ‘appeal’?

By on 09/29/05 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

his idea of revolution does not seem to involve the proletariat seizing the means of production, say, or the increasing immiseration of the working class, but simply the occasion of a solidarity that is otherwise prevented by something on the order of collective myth

On which Zizek texts is this statement based?

By robert on 09/29/05 at 05:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Random note: I haven’t read that Tratner book, but I have read this Tratner essay [.pdf] on “Derrida’s Debt to Milton Friedman” and found it an honest criticism of some deconstructive claims.  (Note: it does not undermine the entire deconstructive project, nor does it blow holes in the very fabric of Theory itself.  It addresses a few specific aspects of Derridian thought, contextualizes them, and attempts to trace their origin in mainstream economic theory.) To wit:

Historians of theory would probably prefer to cite Marcel Mauss and George Bataille as the ones who led Derrida to the concepts of gifts and of mysterious, uncontrollable economic structures. It is probably true that they figure more consciously in Derrida’s own thinking than do Keynes and Friedman. But the emergence of deconstruction and its rapid spread during the 1970s are not merely events in the history of highly intellectual disciplines; they are also events in the broader history shaped by the changes in everyday economics and governmental practices. Keynes and Friedman developed theories which had material consequences; Mauss and Bataille were in effect mythologizing the events going on in mainstream economics.

Mauss and Bataille may seem better predecessors because they were critics of capitalism, as Derrida is, but if mainstream twentieth-century economic practices in effect involve the deconstruction of signs as an everyday part of their functioning, then perhaps deconstruction should not be considered inherently anti-capitalist or even anti-authoritarian. Derridean theorists need to be careful when they generalize that a deconstructive challenge to one form of authority (such as the authority given to production as the source of economic value and the source of linguistic meaning) carries with it a challenge to authority in other realms, or even a challenge to the very idea of authority entirely. Derrida makes such an unwarranted leap when he argues in his essay that the power of a counterfeit coin to generate real wealth is equivalent to a radical disruption of patriarchy: the power of the counterfeit coin in Baudelaire’s story, Derrida claims, reveals that “the phantasm” has “the power . . . of producing, of engendering, giving, rather than the ‘True Father’” (GT 161). The image of a True Father, Derrida implies, depends on theories of production and human giving as the basis of prosperity, in other words, on outdated economic theories. In noting that the phantasm, the sign, the code, has more power of “engendering” and of “giving” than the True Father, Derrida might be tracing not the demise of patriarchy but simply the demise of Keynesian economics and of the liberalism of the 1960s, the demise of the notion that the government can wrap itself in the guise of the True Father and maintain the economic system by appearing to give gifts whenever recession threatens.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/29/05 at 06:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Robert: a passage from the article linked above (the one in which Zizek reportedly uses Santner as his sock puppet):

For a radical Marxist, the actual history that we live is itself the realisation of an alternative history: we have to live in it because, in the past, we failed to seize the moment. In an outstanding reading of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (which Benjamin never published), Eric Santner elaborated the notion that a present revolutionary intervention repeats/redeems failed attempts in the past. These attempts count as ‘symptoms’, and can be retroactively redeemed through the ‘miracle’ of the revolutionary act. They are ‘not so much forgotten deeds, but rather forgotten failures to act, failures to suspend the force of social bonds inhibiting acts of solidarity with society’s “others.”’

By on 09/29/05 at 07:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, that passage looks like its from Tratner’s second book called, I think, Deficits and Desire, which I’ve been wanting to read for awhile.  Have to say, provocative as it sounds, the association between Derrida and Friedman seems pretty counterintuitive.

By on 09/29/05 at 07:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’d almost be simpler to assume that Benjamin is in fact the shared factor here, since Zizek actually sites Benjamin in the passage in question and since there were periods in Foucault’s intellectual development where he was apparently reading some Frankfurt school stuff (even though Benjamin isn’t “really” Frankfurt school).

I honestly was expecting a whole lot more “below the fold”—for example, an argument of some kind.  I guess that comes out in comments.  Still, I’m so jealous of blogs with a “below the fold” that it pains me all the more to see it used frivolously.

By on 09/30/05 at 06:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, at some point during the writing of The Puppet and the Dwarf, Zizek apparently fell madly in love with Eric Santner—the affair apparently hasn’t abated yet.

By on 09/30/05 at 06:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s rather amusing to read some hick seminary student’s lightweight references to the Frankfurt school or Zizek--both avowedly materialist and atheist. Kostco: stick to the Abridged Nietzsche (included in your Domino’s Pizza Employee Handbook)

By Chester on 09/30/05 at 07:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry to let you down, Adam.  So many hours in the day, you know.  My main motivation was to put in a word for Tratner’s fine book, but I was kind of hoping that some one might take up and extend the discussion along the lines you suggest or others.

It would make sense to look to Benjamin, of course.  But I believe Benjamin was quite influenced by Sorel, who was I believe the direct inspiration for the “Reflections on violence” and whose influence is arguably all over Benjamin’s political vision.  Personally, I think that vision isn’t very impressive.  Benjamin was a brilliant critic, but, considered as political analysis, his theory of capitalism and revolution, etc. looks, well, let’s say, thin.  No one’s gonna hold that too seriously against Benjamin because he was brilliant, and a great writer, and because of the world he was living in and the history he knew.  Unfortunately, Zizek has none of that going for him.

By on 10/01/05 at 06:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Certainly Zizek is no Benjamin, but out of curiosity—how many of Zizek’s books have you read, as opposed to these online articles that most students of his thought find to be quite embarrassing?  It seems risky to hang your assessment of Zizek’s “theory of revolution” on his quoting Eric Santner quoting Benjamin.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/01/05 at 08:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure that Zizek has a fully-fledged ‘theory of revolution’, but there are a number of places where he explores the idea of revolution - Revolution at the Gates, the opening of Tarrying with the Negative, etc. If I had a student who wanted to explore ‘Zizek’s ideas about revolution’ I’d direct him/her to these texts. If he/her used only an article or two in the LRB, and based on these expressed ‘amazement’ that people ‘still took [Zizek] seriously’, I’d be unimpressed. I’d suggest that ‘not taking him seriously’ wasn’t really the result of reading only this couple of articles but that reading only this couple of articles was the result of not taking him seriously.

By on 10/01/05 at 09:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As I’ve pointed out repeatedly in the past when people have stated that you have to read more Zizek in order to criticize him, Zizek is acting as a public intellectual in the LRB.  A public intellectual tries to influence the public through the reception of his or her works intended for the public, and one can’t expect people to go back and read through Zizek’s ouevre to understand his real and true meaning.  The most that you could say if you want to defend Zizek in this manner is that he’s a bad public intellectual but that this doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a bad thinker.

By on 10/01/05 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, let’s take a comparable example. Habermas has a short encyc. article on the Public Sphere as well as his book length study. How would you respond to someone who, on the strength of the Encyc. article alone, referred to Habermas’ “absurd theory of the public sphere”??

By on 10/01/05 at 10:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If you’re going to criticize Zizek’s “public intellectual” activity, then you probably should say that his interpretation of the Iraq War or his take on “What if?” history is absurd.  If you’re going to criticize something like “Zizek’s theory of revolution”—or his “theory of subjectivity” or whatever—then maybe you should go to the places where such things are worked out in detail, rather than merely mentioned in passing. 

I’m not particularly pleased with Zizek’s work as a public intellectual, but that doesn’t discredit his other work in my mind.  It’s two different contexts—just like my shitty blogging doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on my scholarly work.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/01/05 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As for “public intellectuals,” one is inclined ask along with Foucault, “What are these?  I have never met any.”

By Matt on 10/01/05 at 04:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Three comments.  I’ll dispose of Matt’s contentless one first:

From http://www.bbk.ac.uk/news/prarchive/cash.html:
“Explaining why he was attracted to this new role, Professor Zizek says: “I like what was offered to me by Birkbeck, that is, to promote the role a public intellectual, to be intellectually active and to address a larger public. It’s not only good for me, but also for Birkbeck and the country.”

And a description of his workplace: “The Faculty of Arts at Birkbeck has established a Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities to promote new practices in the study of society and culture, and to offer a forum to enhance the role of the public intellectual.”

Now that the let’s-pretend-we-don’t-understand-English ploy has been flushed, Robert next:

Robert, what is an encyc./Encyc. article?  Is there some journal named “Encyc.” that you are capitalizing haphazardly?  I’ll assume that you mean an encyclopedia article.  An encyclopedia article serves a very different function from that of an essay published by a public intellectual.  An encyclopedia article is supposed to give you a very basic understanding of a particular subject.  Yes, if someone based a criticism of someone’s theory only on an encyclopedia article, then you could probably say that they should read more.  But the essay of a public intellectual is supposed to be self contained, because it is supposed to be an agent of influence by itself.  If it doesn’t communicate the author’s own position correctly to a reasonably charitable reader, then the author is at fault.

Lastly, Adam.  You have a way of restating what someone wrote so that it sounds like you’re correcting them, but which is actually equivalent.  How is “I’m not particularly pleased with Zizek’s work as a public intellectual, but that doesn’t discredit his other work in my mind.  It’s two different contexts—just like my shitty blogging doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on my scholarly work” in any real way different from my “The most that you could say if you want to defend Zizek in this manner is that he’s a bad public intellectual but that this doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a bad thinker”?

As for the start of your comment, I find it unconvincing.  Zizek did lay out a sort of primitive theory of revolution in his LRB article, and when Sean was asked what he meant, that’s what he cited.  According to Robert, Zizek does not really have a more fully-fledged theory of revolution waiting in the wings.  Sean should not be chided for saying that Zizek’s theory of revolution is absurd instead of saying that Zizek’s take on “What if” history is absurd if what he really means is the first, and if everyone understands where he got it from.

By on 10/01/05 at 06:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Consider it flushed; that’s rich.

Surely you didn’t aspire to be such a literalist dunce at some point.

By Matt on 10/01/05 at 06:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, I’ve seen the cite to Foucault before—you’ve been brandishing it at every opportunity.  As a reason for saying that we can not refer to Zizek as a public intellectual when he himself does, it doesn’t work.  Perhaps you should Email him the cite.

As for calling me a literalist dunce, let’s see if I can adjust to the intellectual level that that involves—OK, I have it.  Back on you ten thousand.

By on 10/01/05 at 07:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek, Foucault, Sorel, Derrida!  I believe they are not nice men, and that when one reads their works, ones contributes to the deplorable situation in which men politely request their sisters and mothers enter the workplace to help pay the bills.  I think this makes perfect sense.  Don’t you?

By Sensitive Robertson on 10/01/05 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam and Robert,

You’re quite right. I haven’t read much Zizek, nor do I have any plan to.  I’m not a student of his thought, such as it may be.  And if it’s actually substantial, well, my loss. As Rich points out, I was in fact responding to something he wrote in the LRB and to the apparent theory he sketched there.  If you want to say, well, this is some stupid shit.  Fine by me.  We agree, and I’ll take your word that things might be different elsewhere. 

Robert, if you look back, I think you’ll see that my comment about the impossibility of taking Zizek seriously has less to do with his theories, such as they are, then with the fact that he used Eric Santner for auto-sublation, as John puts it.  As far as I’m concerned, that alone is enough to confirm my impression of him as a huckster and a fool.  You feel differently, I wish you luck explaining that kind of thing.  All that said, though, your rejoinder would be a lot more interesting, Robert, if you had actually said that the apparent theory in the LRB essay is actually inconsistent with some more subtle views Zizek elaborates elsewhere.  Having not seen that, I can’t help but take Zizek at his word and continue to believe that he probably has a latter-day Sorelian view of revolution.  In my view, that’s politically and intellectually unimpressive.

By on 10/01/05 at 07:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No hablo inglés [rubs palms together mischieviously; thinks, “I certainly have stymied Puchalsky’s argument!"]


Okay, I had to get that out of my system.  But here’s the thing—now that I think about it further, Foucault’s take on the Iranian revolution and Žižek’s citation of Santner’s citation of Benjamin don’t strike me as particularly similar, certainly not similar enough to require some kind of common root. 

Indeed, while I know it’s unfair of me to demand broad acquaintance with Žižek’s work from those who are making broad statements about it, Žižek gives a prominent role to the “party” in his (admittedly not fully developed) “theory of the revolution” in other works—see, for instance, the edited volume of Lenin’s works, or his insistence that the reason Paul is so helpful is because he’s like Lenin, or whatever else.  And also his critique of Hardt and Negri, who are much more similar to Foucault/Sorel as we’re discussing it here.  So maybe based on that one sentence Žižek’s “theory of the revolution” (which is, as noted, deployed in the context of a second-degree citation) might be very different from traditional Marxism—but looking at his other works changes the picture, in a way that does not neceessarily reflect poorly on Žižek.  That is, he made a citation (with which he presumably agrees) that is relevant to the topic at hand; his point was not to elaborate or even summarize a “theory of the revolution” in any kind of complete sense, but to respond to his particular topic, the “What if?” histories. 

I can’t wait until Žižek publishes another article so that we can have the exact same discussion.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/01/05 at 07:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, Our comments crossed in the ether.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/01/05 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I love cheese!  If you do too, raise your hand!

By The Cheese Lover on 10/01/05 at 07:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I hate cheese!  But I hate the Cheese Lover even more!  If you hate cheese or the Cheese Lover, raise your hand!

By I Hate The Cheese Lover! on 10/01/05 at 07:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Have no fear, The Cheese Lover!  You and your cheese are safe so long as I’m around!

By Protector of The Cheese Lover on 10/01/05 at 07:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All this talk of cheese is hilarious.  You know so much more than we could ever hope to about philosophical matters like tautologies, derivatives and instantion, despite the fact that some of you have read books originally written in French.  You deserve all the praise the humble members of The Cheese Lover Appreciation Society can muster.  Huzzah to you all, my dear friends.  Huzzah! 

By The Cheese Lover Appreciation Society on 10/01/05 at 08:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re thieves!  You’re filthy little thieves!  Where is our cheeses!  They stole them from our, our precious.  Curse them!  We hates them!  They is ours, they is, and we wants them!  We wants cheeses, we needs cheeses.  Must have our precious! 

By Gollum Cheese Parody on 10/01/05 at 09:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Adam.  That’s quite interesting.  Here’s the rub, though. Sorel himself became a big admirer of Lenin and I believe (though I’m happy to be corrected by people who know more than my pitiful thumbnail full) that there’s a case that can be made that Sorel was useful to Lenin.  Scott’s wisdom should probably be heeded and false consistencies not imposed on someone as wild as Sorel, but if I understand correctly, what he objected to in the Second International was the displacement of a vision of the “totality” of revolution by the prospect of peaceful evolution, rational planning, and ordinary party competition.  If socialism became politics as usual, it was gonna be no good to him.  So, though he disliked efforts to make Marxism scientific, Lenin’s voluntarism was appealing to him.

In these respects, I think Foucault’s thoughts about the Iranian revolution do resemble Sorel’s surprisingly closely.  As noted, I don’t know enough about Zizek to say whether that’s true of him more generally.  (I’m guessing you’re right that Hardt & Negri make for a closer resemblance.) But is it possible that Zizek’s Lenin resembles Sorel’s Lenin?

The larger context for all of this is, of course, something Rich has pointed out--pessimism.  To the extent Zizek’s or Foucault’s or Hardt and Negri’s visions resemble Sorel’s fancies, it’s probably because they share his pessimistic views of the possibility for actually existing socialism.

By on 10/02/05 at 07:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Obligatory disclaimer: what I am now about to say is based on a teeny, weeny, but not non-existent piece of evidence.

Adam, I just found Zizek’s defense of Lenin from last year’s In These Times.  The view of Lenin it proposes doesn’t seem inconsistent with the possibility I suggest above.  It also seems to me foolish and--did it have the remotest relation to any existing movement--frightening.  The basic premise, that “‘democracy’ is a false issue,” seems to me both hackneyed in the extreme and enormously wrong:

Our basic political choice in the United States—Democrat or Republican—cannot but remind us of our predicament when we want artificial sweetener in an American cafeteria: the all-present alternative of Equal and Sweet&Lo, of blue and red small bags, where almost each person has his/her preferences (avoid the red ones, they contain cancerous substances, or vice-versa), and this ridiculous sticking to one’s choice merely accentuates the utter meaninglessness of the alternative.

Yes, electoral politics in the U.S. are not going to bring about socialism in our lifetime.  But anyone who thinks that means it doesn’t matter which party is in near complete control of all three branches of the federal government is simply blind to reality.  (Whether or not that is “the real” is a matter of complete indifference to me.)

Among the qualities that make Zizek seem a fool to a non-sympathetic reader is not simply that he recycles old and dubious notions, but that they have so little relation to political reality.  Were there the serious prospect of actual Leninist movements taking revolutionary power, comments like he makes in this essay would be terrifying.  But since there isn’t, all this looks like clowning.

By on 10/02/05 at 07:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I agree with you about the bone-chilling freeze that goes down my spine when I think of a Leninist Third Way.  But that said, Zizek’s comparison between the two-party system and artificial sweeteners isn’t necessarily ignorant.

In fact, it reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s definition of freedom: freedom isn’t the ability to choose from available options, but the ability to imagine options not yet given.  What I like about her concept of freedom is that it moves beyond both liberal ideals of negative liberty (in which “freedom” is “freedom from x, y, z") and neo-lib ideals of freedom as the ability to go to Target and choose from a vast array of forms and colors of toilet bowl scrubbing brushes (what might be called the Virginia Postrel School of Freedom). 

Which isn’t to defend Zizek: it’s nearly always the case that his best insights are cribbed from other, better, thinkers (’tho *The Sublime Object of Ideology* is a very good book, if you care about Hegel).  Arendt’s version of freedom doesn’t argue that there’s no real differences between available options (nor does Zizek’s, for that matter; as he writes, there’s enough of a difference for people to choose sides).  She simply doesn’t think we are truly free if we can’t think outside of or beyond the given.

What worries me politically is the question: for whom are the two parties different?  I think it matters to certain groups who’s in power.  But since Clinton, I’m not sure it matters to the poorest Americans.  Or, to put that with more subtlety, I think it matters to them, but only insofar as many of the poorest Americans feel more strongly about issues such as abortion, faith, gay marriage, and so on than they do about their material interests.  This is where Tom Frank got it right (where he got it wrong was in arguing that the Republicans will never actually make the policy changes that keep the cultural Right voting Republican).

It would be one thing if the Democrats were workshopping a new Great Society program.  But it seems to me—‘tho I’m probably wrong—that a great deal of the Dems run around seeing who can more quickly cut programs for the poor and give cash back to the middle and upper classes.  Gov’t, red and blue, is increasingly like an auto sale: vote for me and get $500 in cash back bonuses. 

Please tell me it ain’t so!

By on 10/02/05 at 07:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, if it hadn’t been for Zizek, I don’t think that I ever would have heard anyone say that there was no meaningful difference between the U.S. political parties.  Why, Zizek might want to come up with some amusing coinage, like “Demopublican” or “Republicrat”, some combination of words never seen before, to illustrate this new and different assertion.

Luther, there are very important problems with your analysis that have nothing to do with Zizek.  No one has problems imagining options not yet given.  And there is no mystery as to why these options can not be made real.  The U.S. political system is set up in such a way as to almost enforce the existence of one major center-left party and one major center-right party that between them win all of the major elections.  It has nothing to do with imagination, and everything to do with the structural characteristics of how the electoral system rules work.  You can’t simply imagine your way out of the system; in fact, no one really likes the system.  To get out of the system, you need to either change the electoral rules or decide to not work through elections.

And the “for who are the parties different” bromide is so unserious.  “Since Clinton” means “since 2001”.  Is that supposed to be some long-distant and forgotten historical era?  Or is this a varient of the argument that Clinton gave money to the rich?  This isn’t a policy blog, but that last assertion is basically untrue, and is usually asserted by people who have no need for marginal adjustments like the Earned Income Tax Credit and who can safely scorn them from their position of comfortable middle-class radicalism.

As Sean mentions, I think that the politics of socialist pessimism are somewhat interesting.  Zizek is rather like a postmodern Ghost Dancer, a failure of the imagination greater than any other mentioned here.  As some point socialists are going to have give up on socialist history and make something new, and stop being fascinated by both the positive and negative aspects of socialist history, the dead hand of Marx, much less Lenin.  All of that in both its positive and negative aspects has been firmly imported into what you might call the ruling narrative.  As I discovered when poking around a bit into the history of train-related socialism for a comment on Mieville’s _Iron Council_, Eugene Deb’s house is now number 66000008 on the list of U.S. National Historic Landmarks.

By on 10/02/05 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that the difference between encyclopedia articles and magazine articles is the relevant distinction here, is it Rich? The obvious point is that if an author has a large body of work about subject x, and then alludes in passing to subject x in an article, anyone who wishes seriously to talk about that author’s treatment of subject x does not confine his attention to the article. He does not, on the basis of this passing article reference, conclude that the author’s treatment of x is ‘absurd’. And if he does, he should not expect to be taken seriously himself.

By on 10/02/05 at 03:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment


There’s something to be said about a man’s ambitions when his articles written under the guise a public intellectual so poorly reflect (as Adam notes in response to this post) the perceived value of his scholarly work.  It doesn’t reflect upon the work itself, mind you, but upon the man who insists on sullying his own reputation by failing to realize that his brief forays into the public sphere embarrass him and his students alike.  (Especially if said someone preaches introspection and self-awareness of the psychoanalytic sort.) That said, I lean more toward LB’s position, now that I’ve read some more substantial bits of Zizek’s work: he’s better on long-form than short-play...which isn’t to say I don’t have a problem with him in any form, only that the problems I have with him are exaggerated in the condensed form in which he packages his thought for public consumption.  (Another way to say this is: the man has a problem with concision.  Having attended one of his lectures--and taken note of his Stephen King-like scholarly output--I’d say that may very well be the case.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/02/05 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, Robert, let’s say for the sake of argument you’re right.  Can you go beyond this procedural point and say something substantive about why Zizek’s more extensive thoughts are inconsistent with the impression created by the short form?  If not, you’re blowing smoke. 

Let me reiterate, I’m not particularly interested in Zizek.  The point of my post was to mention Michael Tratner’s book and to note that I had been reminded of it by what strikes me as the common Sorelian premises in contemporary literary academic attitudes.  But, let’s say Zizek is exceptional and represented his own views poorly in that essay.  Tell me what I’m missing.

By on 10/02/05 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t be sure the Troll di dispiacere left this comment, attacking himself. Even if not, it’s still no more acceptable to spew obscenity in one direction than the other. Besides, insults go so much better in Italian. - the management

Oooo, Italian!  I know that.  Changed the name to better reflect the content of this particular act of self-mockery.  I mean, who doesn’t love a man with the voice of an angel. -the management (er, the other the management)

Troll di dispiacere, avete saputo che mentre provate a deridere il mondo, il mondo intero li ride? Avete avuti le sfere da ballare sotto il vostro proprio nome, voi. La vostra vergogna è la vostra vergogna, il castrato, non introito che migliore fuori sul vostro migliora. voi la gradiscono quando ridono? voi gradiscono l’aumento che ottenete? Poiché non ottenete uno. Non siete presi seriamente, neppure in quei momenti rari in cui quasi faccia un punto. Se è un concorso che grande del dick desiderate, sapete, possiamo avere uno. Ditch la merda e l’alberino anonimi sotto il vostro proprio nome, vigliacco. Desiderate fuoriuscire la vostra avversione, voi siete così fieri di esso, perchè non possedete fino esso? O facciali gradiscono essere un’altra puntura pusillanimous, ancora un altro wonder dickless nella storia corta della comunicazione in linea. Siete stati dimenticati, vigliacco, come tutto il altro who’ve di castrati sparito nell’etere. Fuori, ora sbatti esso, il c’mon, o chiuda la scopata in su.

By Guiseppe di Castrati on 10/02/05 at 06:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Another point, which I’m not sure if Sean’s considered, is that any reader of Reflections on Violence will quickly realize that Sorel is an egomaniacal bigot (so-and-so’s intelligence, we learn early on, is “hardly superior to that of a Negrito,” etc.)

By Jonathan on 10/02/05 at 06:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m a little late to this--and the best part is the cheese. The post doesn’t have anything to do with Zizek, Foucault, or Sorel, as far as I can tell.

For the most part, I agree with Adam but will add a couple of things.

Zizek doesn’t seem to have a ‘theory of revolution’ yet, as far as I can tell. He has mentioned the Party (interesting insofar as most radical democrats these days focus on loose identity based groups or fluid networks or even no connections at all--Hardt and Negri). He has a notion of the Act, which he takes from Lacan. What links Party, Revolution, and Act together, it seems to me, is the account of retroactive determination of meaning. This isn’t a full theory of revolution, by any stretch, but it does contribute to thinking about action by combining a sense of the indeterminancy and unpredictability of action (as in Arendt) with the recognition that an act changes the conditions in which it arises, thus changing the conditions in which it will be assessed. So weirdly, a revolution can be more or less than one might accept. It can be more insofar as we could not predict how it would be assessed, our norms could be so radically different, and it could be less insofar as something relatively minor could be retroactively determined as a major event (Z talks in For They KNow Not What they do about the Dreyfus Affair in this regard).

By Jodi on 10/02/05 at 06:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Robert, you’re just re-asserting yourself, adding that you don’t think that a distinction that you introduced is relevant.

Interesting post on Adam’s site.  “I’m tempted to say that Žižek might seem like a better ‘public intellectual’ if we didn’t have such a sucky public”: where have I heard something like that before?  And the Chomsky dismissal through rhetorical expansion: “Žižek could go the Chomsky route and read every shred of information published in the English-speaking world in order to back up his claims, I suppose”.  So Chomsky is what, for doing this?  A pedant?  A model of what we can’t really expect anyone else to do, if only he didn’t really exist?

Adam ends with “But I don’t want to talk about Žižek’s idiosyncrasies anymore. I want to talk about ‘the situation,’ the set of all things that are the case. I want to know what an ‘intellectual’ is to do.” Presumably what is meant by “what an intellectual is to do” is how an intellectual is to politically influence the situation.  Well, if you look at previous instances in which intellectuals (I don’t think that Matt’s scare quotes add anything) have influenced politics, you often see a pair, or two groups, of intellectuals, one of which is noteable for theoretical coherence in defining the current world situation in new terms, the other of which uses clarity of written expression to popularize and bring into mass conciousness the complex insights of the first.  What Adam seemingly doesn’t understand is that Zizek positively interferes with either of these two functions—he isn’t theoretically coherent *or* popularly clear.  The second I can judge by his LRB pieces.  The first I can judge by the fact that when people who have read Zizek extensively are asked questions about topics important to Zizek, such as “OK, you say that I don’t understand Zizek’s theory of revolution, what is it then?” they can never answer.  So the very first step in addressing the question of what the intellectual is to do about the situation is to allow yourself to give up on Zizek and similar unserious figures.

By on 10/02/05 at 06:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi explained his “theory of revolution,” such as it is, perfectly clearly, as far as I can tell—taking into account the constraints of the blog comment box genre. 

I’m not trying to dismiss Chomsky, but since we already have a Chomsky, I don’t see much value in Zizek just duplicating his efforts.

And finally, it’s customary to respond to posts on the site on which they appear.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/02/05 at 06:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, Jodi started her answer with “Zizek doesn’t seem to have a ‘theory of revolution’ yet, as far as I can tell”—matching what Robert wrote.  The rest of her comment is her attempt to tie various of Zizek’s concerns together into some kind of coherent theory.  When I said that people can’t answer, I meant that they can’t answer with a description of what his theory is, not that they literally can’t answer at all.  If they answer that he has no theory about a concern that is apparently central to his project, then this is a confirmation of his incoherence.

As for which blog, I don’t see the problem, really, see I know that you are reading this discussion and since I don’t generally follow yours.  But I’ll copy my comment over as you like.

By on 10/02/05 at 07:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not necessary to copy your comment; I was just being a whiny little bitch.

Right now I’m working my way through Origen contra Celsum; this conversation reminds me of that.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/02/05 at 07:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, ‘revolution’ isn’t central to his project, which is why there isn’t a theory of it. The ‘yet’ suggests that it could be. Theorists develop their ideas over time, thinking, struggling with them.

An interesting example: Locke on tacit and express consent. Many commentators find Locke incoherent on how consent as he describes it can be a ground of political obligation. That he isn’t coherent on this, doesn’t mean that people dismiss him. It means that people find the problem an opportunity to keep developing the notion of consent.

By Jodi on 10/02/05 at 07:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Do as the Dutch do. -the management

Misschien vindt u de neurale en genetische wegen van intentionality aangezien iemand als Dennett doet en dat om het even welke jargon-geladen, emotionele, anti-empirische leftism (of theism) nooit van de massieve ingewikkeldheid van de huidige technocratie (zeg de energiemarkt, voor) kon rekenschap geven, en dan de futiliteit van “Menswetenschappen” realiseren en aan de nieuwe technologie van de brandstofcel werken, of misschien banken roof en collectief Amerika… of misschien in plaats daarvan schok-weg aan jodi en wat grote cuke mmmmmmmmmmmm van Sreeepture of van Marky Marx… mmm realiseer binnendring in een beveiligd computersysteem

By on 10/02/05 at 09:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi, thanks for the generous contribution.  Here’s my contention. In his LRB essay, Zizek has laid out an underdeveloped theory of revolution that shows recognizable similarities to Sorel.  Why?  Because he treats revolution as an occasion for spontaneous solidarity that otherwise appears to be prevented by something on the order of collective myth.  “Failed attempts” at revolution amount to “failures to suspend the force of social bonds inhibiting acts of solidarity with society’s ‘others.’”

That passage would appear to suggest that, when we are able to overcome “social bonds” and feel “solidarity” with “others,” the revolution will occur.

My contention that this is a view that Zizek expresses presents several possibilities for response.  You could say, for example, that I’m misreading Zizek, or Sorel.  You could say that Zizek has expressed himself more fully elsewhere and that this passage is misleading.  But, if you’re gonna do something more than just obfuscate, you should say something one way of another.  So far, verbiage. 

Please note, as I mentioned above, I dismiss Zizek because: (a) he uses Eric Santner as his sock puppet; (b) he finds hackneyed ways to resuscitate Lenin in a context where Lenin has no likely relevance; and (c) (a point I haven’t stressed in this thread) he advances a stupid and ugly account of kristallnacht.  To the extent, the LRB essay mentioned above actually expresses his views of revolution, that is in fact another reason to dismiss him.  But there’s no direct connection between the apparently sophomoric nature of the theory and my impulse to view him as a clown--there being sufficient evidence for that view elsewhere.

Jonathan, I’m not sure why Sorel’s egomomania is germane.  It’s not exactly rare.  Is there a reason you brought it up.

It won’t seem plausible to the Zizekians out there, but as I mentioned above, I brought this all up because I think Tratner’s book is excellent.  Zizek is actually a matter of indifference to me.  I’m amused by the desire to defend an indefensible figure, but Foucault and Sorel alike are both far more interesting, I think.

By on 10/02/05 at 09:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, Insofar as I claimed that Zizek “had” a “theory of revolution,” I was wrong.  There are many reasons I got that wrong, chief among them being that I was responding in kind to a lazy post.  If you’ll note, Sean’s original contention that Zizek’s “theory of revolution” was absurd was therefore also wrong, insofar as the statement presumed the existence of a fully-developed “theory of revolution.”

A less than full development in one area of his thought does not indicate a global incoherence.  His theories of subjectivity and nationalism are as coherent as one could wish.  His argument that his psychoanalysis-cum-German Idealism is applicable to ideology critique—together with his single-handed renewal of “ideology” as a topic of theoretical concern are both convincingly and thoroughly argued in my humble opinion. 

You have not read the works in which those ideas are thoroughly elaborated, as far as I can tell.  You have only read works in a genre in which it would be ridiculous to assume that such ideas would be elaborated sufficiently for you to be able to tell whether his body of work is “coherent.” You don’t have to read any of his works.  You have only so much time, and there are hundreds of compelling thinkers who deserve your attention. 

But if you’re not going to put in the work, I see no reason why you need to keep asserting your a priori assumption that Zizek is a worthless thinker.  I see no value whatsoever to your contributions to these debates—unless, of course, you have an extensive bibliography under your belt of which I am not aware.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/02/05 at 09:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What is your objection to his account of Kristallnacht?

By Adam Kotsko on 10/02/05 at 09:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you’ll note, Sean’s original contention that Zizek’s “theory of revolution” was absurd was therefore also wrong, insofar as the statement presumed the existence of a fully-developed “theory of revolution.”

Adam, this is silly.  The LRB essay proposes an explanation for revolution, and a remarkable one.  It’s one that seems to me worth noting, both for its implausibility and for its resemblance to other currently prominent visions of political change.  Tell me what I should call it so as not to offend the sensibilities of Zizekians, and I will go back to edit the post.  Should I call it Zizek’s non-theory of revolution?  His concept?  His fantasy?  Will any of this nomenclature really matter? 

To be clear, my point wasn’t that Zizek’s theory is undeveloped or incoherent, but that the theory (or what have you) is just plain dumb.  Given that premise, no amount of elaboration or complexity will save it.  Either my understanding of Zizek is wrong.  Or Zizek’s explanation of himself is misleading and just a trivial example of foolish public posturing.  Or there is some way to see the view of revolution expressed here as something other than the Sorelian vision it appears to be.  Everything else said so far is smoke.

By on 10/02/05 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s my objection to his account of kristallnacht?  Well, we’ve been over this before in the threat to John’s post about alternative histories, but here’s another shot.  Zizek says this: 

In this way of thinking, Kristallnacht – a half-organised, half-spontaneous outburst of violent attacks on homes, synagogues, businesses and individuals – becomes a Bakhtinian carnival, a symptom whose fury and violence revealed it as an attempt at ‘defence-formation’, a covering up of a previous failure to intervene effectively in Germany’s social crisis. In other words, the very violence of the pogroms was proof of the possibility of an authentic proletarian revolution, its excessive energy marking the reaction to an (unconscious) awareness of the missed opportunity.

For Zizek, Kristallnacht is the result of the guilt that anti-semites feel at not having brought off the revolution.  Or, as I believe Robert amended, anti-semitic violence is the form that guilt for not having brought off the revolution took.  Either way, the proximate cause of Kristallnacht was the non-occurence of the revolution. 

This strikes me a just-so story of a sort more than hackneyed in the history of the left.  As an account of revolutionary change, it seems in keeping with the apparently Sorelian views expressed elsewhere in the essay, since the main factor necessary to revolution other than “solidarity” appears to be violent enthusiasm.  If there were any evidence that anti-semitic thugs were motivated by guilt or that they would be otherwise inclined to pursue a socialist revolution, there might be something to this story.  But there isn’t, and so it’s just a fable that dignifies anti-semitic thugs by giving them a tragic (or freudian) depth and that in passing mangles Bakhtin.

As it happens, when this all came up first, Captain Revolution thundered ponderously about how Zizek was not describing the psyches of individuals but something far grander and more difficult to name.  A reading of Santner’s essay shows this not to be the case.  Zizek is describing individual characters in Christa Wolf’s novel.  He thinks they felt guilty and so joined a pogrom.  That seems to me a bad theory.

By on 10/02/05 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

путем ликвидируя марксисты, theists, и клоуны клапана после этого исключите словесность и postmodernism и марксист-gegelevskoe схематическое от академии после этого установите подкреплени-reinforcement-ware в peasantry

By собственная личность ненав on 10/02/05 at 09:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From Sean’s comment above:
--Z’s “idea of revolution does not seem to involve the proletariat seizing the means of production, say, or the increasing immiseration of the working class”

I think both these statements are correct; this is why some don’t read Z as a Marxist at all

--"occasion of a solidarity that is otherwise prevented by something on the order of collective myth.”

I can’t tell from the sentence if it is the occasion of solidarity that is prevented or enabled by the myth; this will make a big difference re Sorel; I think that for Sorel the myth happens in advance of a revolutionary outbreak and guides/inspires it; Z has been explicit that the left needs to keep open paths that have not been taken, past hopes and energies; I don’t think these paths or pasts ever reach the level of a myth, or a fantasy, for Z they are Real. After an ‘outbreak’ there will be a retroactive determination of meaning, which will cut off some options and paths; but, again, I don’t think the new production of meaning lives up to a myth. (And, let me clear here, I’m not writing any of this as a defense per se, just as what I see as an explication; so I’m not trying to defend him from a charge of Sorelianism, I’m just trying to show why I don’t see a similarity re myth.)

--"appeal of seeing the revolution as not either the end point of necessary historical development or as the achievement of a vanguard party”

Z does not posit an ‘end’--that would be the end of politics, a kind of reconciliation or end of alienation that he rejects; again, another reason he is more post-marxist than marxist On vanguard party--he doesn’t give the party that role in his writing on Lenin, so, this seems right as far as it goes. So, yes, not traditional Marxism

--on messianic: I just don’t see it; there is no reconciliation, no promised resolution, justice, or anything, no way to secure the ethical conditions of one’s act in advance.

the one potentially scary part: if one reads Sorel as advocating something like permanent rejuvenating violence, and one emphasizes Z’s position that no reconciliation or end is possible, that the best one can hope for is keeping gaps open, then one faces the question, is this position one that leads to or could lead to permanent violence. I’m not sure. I want to find an answer that says no, but I don’t yet know how to do it. This is part of the challenge of thinking with a philosopher who is writing, alive, developing his thought.

By Jodi on 10/02/05 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam writes: “But if you’re not going to put in the work, I see no reason why you need to keep asserting your a priori assumption that Zizek is a worthless thinker.  I see no value whatsoever to your contributions to these debates [...]”

Adam, if you must “see value”, then perhaps my contribution is to correct your logic errors and tendentious restatements.  Have I really made an a priori assumption?  Have I even stated that Zizek is a worthless thinker?

To review what I have stated: I wrote that Zizek is a bad public intellectual—this based on my readings of some of his actual essays.  You apparently agree, or so I would understand the post on your site.  So far so good.

Next, I wrote that if you accept that Zizek is a bad public intellectual, this is not necessarily evidence that he is a bad thinker.  Again, you agree.

At this point one comes to my metaphor of Zizek as “postmodern Ghost Dancer” and my statement about his theoretical incoherence—this last being not a priori, but based on the evidence that his, um, extensive readers (I remember that you once strongly objected to my use of the term “Zizekians") stated that he had no theory behind the topics of his public essays whenever questioned.  Note, however, that there is a common element to both of these statements—the suitability of Zizek in relation to the sort of topic that you brought up on the post on your site, i.e., what is the situation, and what is the intellectual to do.  I also recall that you once defended Zizek on those terms, as someone who, however tentatively, was attempting to find a way forwards in a socialist context.

So I will admit to an error, although not the one that you accuse me of.  I had assumed that Zizek’s theories of subjectivity, nationalism, and ideology—which you claim are his theoretical strengths—had something to do with the topics of his public essays, which do often appear to concern subjectivity, nationalism, and ideology.  Essentially, your claim appears to be that there is a dual Zizek; a bad public intellectual and a worthwhile thinker, neither of whom really write about the topics favored by the other.  This is supported by Jodi’s claim that he isn’t, for the current article at least, really writing about his core project.  I had thought of the possibility of a disjunction between his ability as a thinker and as a public intellectual; I hadn’t really thought about the possibility that the two might be interested in different things, especially since you deliberately contrasted Zizek to Chomsky as someone whose academic work was highly connected to his public essays.

At any rate, I still hold to the basic point that I’ve made.  In terms of usefulness towards a rethinking of basically socialist concerns, in a project of what is the intellectual to do about the situation, I see no usefulness in reading Zizek.  The evidence I have for this is from reading some of his public essays and in reading the frankly unconvincing and confused statements about his theory from his extensive readers.  As you say, there are hundreds of thinkers, and no one can read them all. 

Lastly, I disagree with your attempts to make this kind of discussion your own preserve.  The discussion of what to do about the current situation can not be restricted to only those who have read Zizek.  Having seen many apparently Zizek-derived insights, and having not been impressed, I think that I’m perfectly justified in stating that in my opinion, insofar as Zizek is the source he’s putting people on the wrong path.

By on 10/03/05 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you for a more serious response, Jodi.  If I understand Sorel correctly, myth takes two forms, both(as effectively ideology) disabling revolutionary action and (as an alternative to ideology) potentially enabling it.  Might that not be comparable to reality/real for Zizek?

Sorel’s attraction to myth and Leninism is part of his revulsion against rational planning and ordinary party politics.  That at least Zizek shares with him, no?  Isn’t Zizek’s opposition to foreclosure based on a similar sense that the main obstacle to a revolutionary future is the way ideas and institutions of the present colonize the future?  And doesn’t he therefore share with Sorel an investment in the unexpected per se. 

On messianism, the essay I cited was specifically informed by Benjamin and adopted its view of revolution from him.  It would be hard to doubt that Benjamin has a messianic view.  In this particular case, I used the term for two reasons: (1) Zizek describes the revolution as a complete rupture with current reality.  “In the revolutionary explosion, another utopian dimension shines through . . . .” (2) The relation between revolution and reality takes a providential form.  The revolution is always waiting to happen; we betray it and feel guilty; the “miracle” of its ultimate realization will “redeem” those past “failures.”

In my view, that’s not politics, its religion and has much more to do with desperate faith than with an effort to develop a critical sense of the world we live in.  Rich is right.  He sounds like a 21st century Ghost Dancer.  You say you want to find an answer that would save Zizek from what seems the implications of his ideas.  But why should that be a goal of critical thought?  Why not just say the ideas seem bad?

By on 10/03/05 at 10:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich says: I disagree with your attempts to make this kind of discussion your own preserve.

I’m not attempting to restrict your ability to participate in large-scale discussions of the current situation.  I’m just saying that I see little value in sweeping assessments of Zizek that come from someone who has very little first-hand knowledge of his thought. 

And you can’t pull this “I’m just saying...” crap because you said that we should “give up on unserious thinkers like Zizek.” That is not a moderate statement.  That is not a qualified statement.  It’s a sweeping denunciation of a thinker you only know about through (admittedly shitty) publicly available articles and the confused explanations of (primarily) several grad students who are still learning about his ideas. 

(And the rapid-fire format of the comment box doesn’t help—I’m not as careful as I could be in most of my responses, but there’s only so much one can do.  If you’re dismissing a thinker based in large part on the comment-box antics of people who claim Zizek’s name, then that’s not very serious at all.  Wouldn’t Hegel or Marx or virtually any serious thinker sound like an idiot if our only source for their thought was second-hand blog comments?)

So I mean, go ahead and keep participating in these debates.  Lord knows you will.  I just don’t find your comments to be either helpful or informative.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/03/05 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Isn’t Zizek’s opposition to foreclosure based on a similar sense that the main obstacle to a revolutionary future is the way ideas and
institutions of the present colonize the future?  And doesn’t he therefore share with Sorel an investment in the unexpected per se.”

It’s hard for me to know what to do with ‘opposition to foreclosure’ and ‘obstacle to revolutionary future.’ In some ways, foreclosure is necessary: to entry into the Symbolic forecloses some ways of being. The psychotic is one for whom these ways are not foreclosed. At the same time, there is a way that the foreclosure is false, the multiplicity fo ways of being were not available to us and so foreclosure provides us with the fantasy that they were.

On ‘obstacle to revolutionary future’--this suggest to me some kind of ‘revolution’ as itself the goal; which doesn’t work for Z. It isn’t clear that Act and revolution are the same, for example; there can be Acts that change everything, but these wouldn’t be violent revolutions in Sorel’s sense.

Investment in the unexpected: yes--he frequently mentions the fact that miracles happens, that there are unexpected changes; a more formal way of expressing the same idea, we have effects that exceed their causes (subjectivity is one such effect).

For me, I don’t think the ideas seem bad. I find it useful to work through them and see this as an exercise in critical thought. Same with Carl Schmitt, Sorel, Lenin, Lukacs, Plato, most any thinker. And ‘save from implications’--that I think X is an implication today does not mean I think that Y is not an implication. So, some think the implications of Plato are totalitarian. I recognize this reading but also see other implications--namely, the connection between eroticism and thinking.

By Jodi on 10/03/05 at 10:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi, here’s what you wrote above: “Z has been explicit that the left needs to keep open paths that have not been taken, past hopes and energies." I took that to be an opposition to foreclosure.  Would you prefer a different term?  The fact that Zizek would view entry into the Symbolic as demanding foreclosure wouldn’t seem to be a challenge to this point of view, but a confirmation of it.  A revolution must be understood as a “miracle,” it would seem, precisley because it cannot be conceived in the inherently foreclosed terms of the Symbolic. 

Here is what Zizek said in the concluding lines of the essay cited above:

In the revolutionary explosion, another utopian dimension shines through, that of universal emancipation, which is in fact the ‘excess’ betrayed by the market reality that takes over on the morning after. This excess is not simply abolished or dismissed as irrelevant, but is, as it were, transposed into the virtual state, as a dream waiting to be realised.

Of course, that would not necessary imply revolution as a goal to be pursued instrumentally, but it pretty clearly defines revolution as the ultimate desiderata.

Perhaps Adam is right and Zizek shouldn’t be judged by his adherents, but if he needs this kind of hairsplitting, it’s hard to see him as impressive.

By on 10/03/05 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “And you can’t pull this “I’m just saying...” crap because you said that we should “give up on unserious thinkers like Zizek.” That is not a moderate statement.  That is not a qualified statement.”

It’s certainly not qualified if you partially quote it to strip off the qualification.  Here is my full sentence: “So the very first step in addressing the question of what the intellectual is to do about the situation is to allow yourself to give up on Zizek and similar unserious figures.” Note the context of use towards a particular purpose.

So much of this discussion has been the construction of a list of texts that I’m supposed to ignore when forming an opinion about Zizek’s ideas.  It started with his public essays, proceeded by analogy to encyclopedia articles, and now you’ve added “the confused explanations of (primarily) several grad students who are still learning about his ideas.” It appears that I can trust nothing but certain canonical texts in which Zizek treated his own ideas seriously.

In that case, why the snippery of “So I mean, go ahead and keep participating in these debates.  Lord knows you will.  I just don’t find your comments to be either helpful or informative.” ?  You have just declared, as part of your argument, that your own comments about Zizek can not be taken as either helpful or informative.  Should I be surprised that you don’t find mine to be so?

By on 10/03/05 at 11:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

From now on, I will display nothing but the greatest scholarly rigour in defending Zizek, making every effort to be entirely trustworthy.  So from here on out, I authorize you to regard my assessment of Zizek as gospel.  Disregard all I’ve ever said before. 

The reason I can say this is as follows: Since I have actual knowledge of Zizek, my unreliability is a contingent effect of my lazy approach to blog comments; your unreliability moves at much deeper levels.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/03/05 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But, the point is that it (foreclosure, Z’s theorization/extension of it) isn’t singular or always the same, hence, the example of the psychotic. Also, he defends Law in much of his writing, criticizing the superego supplement to Law rather than advocating a rejection of Law. So, one can’t simply say that he ‘opposes foreclosure’--that’s too general. We need to know the foreclosure of what and in what circumstances etc.

I don’t think that you can get ‘ultimate desiderata’ from the passage you quoted. That would be to stop time, to presume that time doesn’t continue, that there isn’t an aftermath or something that follows the revolutionary moment where choices are made, hard work has to be done, etc. Z is clear in his criticisms of Hardt and Negri, Badiou, and Ranciere that part of the problem with their political stances is their emphasis on disruption without responsibility for what comes afterwards.

So, the ‘excess’ is betrayed and lost. But, it’s Real; it doesn’t go away; it persists as a longing. Nevertheless, the excess will always be betrayed. Z is very clear on this point. It arises out of his reading of Hegel on negativity. Now, maybe you don’t think it’s worth the trouble to read that. Ok. It takes a long time. But, that’s where you could find an account of the logic of excess that informs the sentence you quote.

By Jodi on 10/03/05 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “The reason I can say this is as follows: Since I have actual knowledge of Zizek, my unreliability is a contingent effect of my lazy approach to blog comments; your unreliability moves at much deeper levels.”

I would say that your unreliability is far more morally troublesome than mine.  I do not claim any expertise with Zizek; I have stated where my opinion is coming from.  You, at every opportunity, emphasize how you’ve read Zizek (your “actual knowledge” above) and how little his detractors here have read, setting yourself up as a relative authority.  Only now that you’ve been pressed have you said that you were “only joking”—that your comments were lazy, you’re just a grad student, confused, what better can you expect from a comment box.  What’s more, you indict others, like Jodi, with similar unseriousness.

By on 10/03/05 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi, your first paragraph is more hair splitting.  If Zizek opposes some foreclosure, by definition he opposes foreclosure.  It doesn’t matter to me whether or not he opposes it tout court.  The fact is that, as you first said, he defines foreclosure as politicallyt or great significance and therefore is invested in the unexpected, the miraculous, and the rupture.  Everything you’ve added since on this point is quibbling. 

I believe your second and third paragraphs are inconsistent.  If the excess will always be betrayed, and thus the revolution never realized, the fact that it is the ultimate desiderata will be irrelevant to the question of “hard work to be done.” If the end of time will never arrive, there’s no reason to be concerned about what will occur with the end of time.  In my usage, ultimate desiderata means the highest good.  Is there something that Zizek sees as preferable to “universal emancipation”? If not, this is more hairsplitting.

By on 10/03/05 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m stopping on this point. I’ve been taking your points seriously and answering them. You respond with accusations of ‘hairsplitting.’ Ok. I’m won’t waste my time anymore. I made the mistake in thinking you were interested in knowing more about Z’s work.

By Jodi on 10/03/05 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How do I indict Jodi?  She’s a tenured professor who is completing a book on Zizek.  She obviously doesn’t fall under the “confused grad student” category

So we’ll just wait until the next Zizek discussion comes up, and you can see how brilliant my comments can be.  (I’m not going to pursue this particular discussion further, primarily because I think Jodi has already adequately addressed all the pertinent issues to the degree to which they can be addressed in a comment thread.)

By Adam Kotsko on 10/03/05 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi, I think I pretty clearly said that I’m not at all interested in knowing anything about Zizek unless a plausible case can be made that there’s more to him than meets the eye.  So far I haven’t seen that.  If you think I’m misreading your or him when I suggest that you’re drawing insignificant distinctions to no important end, you should make clearer what it is I’m missing.

A reminder.  The post was not particularly about Zizek but about the influence of Sorel and one excellent book that lays out a credible account of Sorel’s influence on Anglo-American modernism and that in this way may provide grounds for understanding the continuing prominence of similar attitudes in literary academia (which professionally owes much to the critical assumptions forged by the modernists).  You and Adam appear to concede that there is at least some overlap between Zizek and Sorel, and Adam seems to have no complaint against the idea that there is a plausible genealogy stretching from the former to the latter through Benjamin.  That’s enough for me.  I have no particular interest in Zizek and am glad to leave him to Zizekians.

By on 10/03/05 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No Rich, the distinction was introduced by you presumably as a way of detracting attention from the relevant and rather obvious point of the comparison.

Sean meanwhile expects me to scuttle off and prepare an account of Zizek’s ‘theory of revolution’ for him, while he sits there uninterested, filing his fingernails and waiting to be impressed – as if somehow the onus is on me. Hilarious. No Sean, the onus is one you, after your lazy and meaningless reference to Zizek’s ‘theory of revolution’ and your admission that you have no interest in his work, to prove that you’re academically serious. Your responses to Jodi, above, who made the mistake of thinking that you might be genuinely interested in Zizek, are very revealing.

I’m also moving toward the conclusion that “Rich Puchalsky’ is simply a pseudonym used by some at the Valve when they want to adopt a polemically muscular tone that they wouldn’t feel comfortable using with their own name. Thus: “This one’s a persistent little bastard, I’m going to have to use the Puchalsky”. Sean, however, has failed to grasp this device, and adopts the Pulchalsky tone with or without the pseudonym.

By on 10/03/05 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Robert, my main contention is that Zizek proposes in his LRB essay a theory of revolution and that it is similar to Sorel’s.  That contention met skepticism, but as of yet no one has really shown it to be wrong.  If it would make you feel better, I’d be happy to call Zizek’s expression something else: his idea or his notion or his fantasy of revolution or whatever. 

I expect you to do nothing whatsoever and frankly could care less whether you do.  My reference to Zizek, however, is “meaningless” on only two grounds that I can see:  (1) Zizek’s own public writings are meaningless.  (This appears to be Adam’s position, and I’m happy to agree with it and leave things at that.) (2) My description of Zizek’s LRB essay is inaccurate.  No one as of yet, including yourself, has actually made this claim.  You make many a procedural indictment and toss around a lot of adjectives, but you are yet to make a case that my account of Zizek’s essay is wrong.

By on 10/03/05 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, now I’m being lectured on the supposedly pseudonymous use of my name ... by a guy using a pseudonym.  Who are you, “Robert”?

By on 10/03/05 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I was joking. And, erm, I’m Robert Oatway from Tooting in London. Yourself?

nb. Sean, Zizek does refer briefly to Sorel here (http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/rasmussen.htm):

Increasingly I’m convinced that we must problematize the way the mass media present us the big opposition: liberating, multiculturalist tolerance versus some crazy fundamentalism. Let me be precise here. I know the danger here is the old temptation to become fascinated with the - old Georges Sorel stuff - liberating aspect of violence. 7 I am well aware of - and I’m not afraid to use this term - the “inner greatness” of liberalism, because usually religious fundamentalists approach liberalism as a kind of “humanist arrogance.” However, the origin of authentic liberalism is something much more tragic and sincere..

By on 10/03/05 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Somewhere like eight comments ago I was sure this couldn’t possibly get any more embarrassing for “Rich” and Sean.  It now appears I was being far too optimistic.

By on 10/03/05 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As Adam leaves, I think it’s worthwhile to mention one last item:

Adam: “How do I indict Jodi?  She’s a tenured professor who is completing a book on Zizek.  She obviously doesn’t fall under the “confused grad student” category”

The “confused grad student” category which you are only now creating after you realized that while trashing your own comments is an acceptible self-derogatory device, trashing someone else’s isn’t.  Remember how the argument went?

I said that I was judging Zizek based on the statments about his theory, or lack thereof, by his extensive readers.  I expanded this with “Adam, Jodi started her answer with “Zizek doesn’t seem to have a ‘theory of revolution’ yet, as far as I can tell”—matching what Robert wrote.  The rest of her comment is her attempt to tie various of Zizek’s concerns together into some kind of coherent theory.” So I explicitly said that I was basing my answer on Jodi’s response, at least in part.  The first mention of grad students was when you characterized this as “It’s a sweeping denunciation of a thinker you only know about through (admittedly shitty) publicly available articles and the confused explanations of (primarily) several grad students who are still learning about his ideas.” Now you’ve chosen to drop the “(primarily)” in order to make it clear that you’re excluding Jodi from your statement that we shouldn’t rely on anything from the comments of Matt, Robert possibly, or whoever else the several grad students are.

You chose to characterize this, by reference to Origen, as some kind of fisking, some especially picky line-by-line twisting of what you wrote to attack it in any way possible.  It really isn’t, it’s just pointing out that the things that you want to claim are mutually exclusive.  You can’t both claim that blog comments are inherently worthless *and* that Zizek’s detractors are doing something wrong by writing comments about him on a blog, while his supporters are not.  Nor can you claim that your and Jodi’s blog comments are inherently more well informed because you’ve read Zizek *and* that no information can be gained from them.  I’m perfectly willing to believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle—that blog comments are generally not worth much, but that those written by an informed person are marginally more instructive, etc.—but you keep wanting to have your expertise *and* your excuse of being confused and lazy, your assertion that all this has little value *and* your assertion that your comments have more value than mine, as if none of these things interfered with each other.  And over all this, you’ve made one long plea about your expertise and our lack of it—as if Sean needed special expertise to make a statement that, insofar as it was about Zizek at all, was about Zizek’s LRB article, or as if I was claiming any knowledge tht I turned out not to have.

I’m still thinking about Jodi’s comments.  I don’t believe that they are truly uninformative.

By on 10/03/05 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, Robert.  Actual evidence.  In the same swamp of an interview Zizek also says this:

Now I come to truly answering you. What if this [Zizek’s dissatisfaction with liberal tolerance, consumer choice, and informal social regulation] sounds almost proto-fascist, a celebration of violence and such? I will give you a horrible answer. “Why not?” This line of questioning is the typical liberal trap [. . . ][Long discussion here of how complicated fascism was and how often fascist cultural forms were intertwined with left wing cultural forms and creators][. . .] We should not oppose something just because it was appropriated by the wrong guys; rather, we should think about how to reappropriate it. And I think that the limit is here - I admit it here, we are in deep critical waters - very refined, between… engaging in redemptive violence and what is truly fascist, the fetishizing of violence for its own sake.

If you like, I’d be happy to grant that Zizek is wildly inconsistent, eclectic past the point of clarification, and glad to say whatever seems most impolite at the moment, so long as he can qualify it with something from left field in the next.  My point was that, on at least one occasion, he advanced what appear to be Sorelian views.  Here again, this time knowingly, he offers a Sorelian view.  Recognizing that view for what it is, he acknowledges the similarity to Sorel and then backs away from some of the historical associations that come up with Sorel. 

So, you know, maybe my reaction to Zizek isn’t so lazy and meaningless after all.  But if it would make you and Jodi and Adam happier if I said, Zizek sometimes expresses qualified Sorelian views, fine, I’ll be happy to do that since it leaves my initial point untouched.

If any of you guys still think Zizek is a serious thinker worthy of respect after reading this astonishing interview, well, good luck to you.  Deep critical waters, very refined, indeed.

By on 10/03/05 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich seems to have this habit of painting himself as a victim whenever pressed, retreating, like Sean, to a position of largely demonstrative modesty, as if all his more sweepingly hurtful and nonesensical claims (since painstakingly pointed out as such) are merely excusable because after all he’s not really interested.  Which puts him, I’m sure some have not failed to notice, in the bizarre position of not only a poseur but in addition something of a boaster of bad faith.

Bruised, somewhat dimmer Sean meanwhile excuses himself by chanting the words “not impressive, not impressive” about someone he has not read and has no intention of reading.

By on 10/03/05 at 04:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, for Pete’s sake!  Really, I wish a halfway decent Zizekian would show up and make you know an actual argument so there could be a discussion rather than a reference to my style or attitude, or Rich’s. 

Grennavitch, my point was that Jodi’s defenses of Zizek are unimpressive, as are the public statements by him I have read.  You think I’m wrong, show me, as they say in Missouri.  Meanwhile, I’ve advanced a claim about Zizek and Sorel.  Zizek himself appears to recognize the similarity.  No one here has yet seriously challenged it.  So what is the big problem?

Is it that I said something “sweepingly hurtful”?  I’ll admit, what I’ve seen of Zizek doesn’t make me like him much, but I do note that he has a pyrotechnic intelligence and a pretty decent sense of humor.  Another point in his favor: on the evidence of the interview Robert linked to, he would find Grennavitch’s objection laughable and a good example of liberal tolerance at its worst.  The contention now appears to be: don’t be mean to Zizek. Incredible.

By on 10/03/05 at 04:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Eh, I wouldn’t put “Aldrich” / “Grennavitch“‘s stuff on Zizek’s extensive readers, it looks like the Troll of Sorrow.

By on 10/03/05 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment


By CR on 10/03/05 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If there was ever someone who deserved to have ‘the book’ thrown at them, I’m tempted to say that it is Sean McCann.


By Matt on 10/03/05 at 04:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I hate to keep harping on this, making it sound like I’m some kind of hysterical Deanite, but your discussion with Jodi was probably the best you can expect in this kind of context, short of Zizek coming in here and personally kicking your ass.

But I mean, you have demonstrated to your own satisfaction that your initial assertion was correct, so I guess the purpose of this thread has been fulfilled.

Finally, I’d like to award Rich the “Moving Goalposts Award,” since he seems to alter the stakes of the conversation literally every time he posts, sometimes several times within the same post. 

But really—this entire thread does an extremely good job of demonstrating why the Internet is useless and should be shut down.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/03/05 at 04:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, here’s my memory of our particular side of this conversation. 

You mentioned in re Foucault and Zizek’s LRB essay that the significant shared influence was probably Benjamin.  I noted that Benjamin had been influenced by Sorel. 

You said that Zizek was not like Sorel because he defended Lenin.  I pointed out that Sorel also defended Lenin and for what may have been similar reasons. 

You remarked that Zizek’s comments in the LRB did not amount to a theory of revolution.  I said, fine, I’ll be glad to call his comments by whatever term you prefer. 

Is there somewhere in there that my initial assertion is seriously challenged?  Maybe there’s a kernel of truth to it.  Would that be so bad?

Jodi’s points so far as I understand them are these: (1) Zizek is not opposed to foreclosure tout court, but he is seriously concerned with the way some futures are shut down by something like our current horizon of expectations and he does therefore invest strongly in the unexpected. (2) Zizek does not believe the revolution will occur and objects to thinkers who act as if it will just happen and therefore may imply that “hard work” in the present context is unnecessary. “Universal emancipation” is an “excess” that shines through in utopian moments. 

In my view, these remain messianic and providential attitudes, and so, while they qualify Zizek’s own sweeping public comments, they do not necessarily challenge my suggestion that he resembles Sorel.  I’ve said that I’m willing to concede that he offers a qualified Sorelian view.  Exactly why is that so wrong? 

I suspect that the big issue here is simply that I used the word “absurd” in connection with Zizek.  But Adam, you yourself remarked that Zizek’s public writings are not impressive.  Really, I’m at a loss to see just why this is all so controversial.

By on 10/03/05 at 05:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I thought you said that you weren’t going to pursue this particular discussion further. Can’t help yourself?

But, since you’ve ducked in for one last swipe, I’ll say that I don’t think I’ve been inconsistent at all.  I still think that Zizek actively interferes with a project of figuring out how “intellectuals should respond to the situation”, and I’ve explained my reasons.  You’ve said why you think those reasons are worthless; that’s OK.  I still think that all the problems with your argumentative style—the restatement intended to imply actual disagreement, the shortcuts in basic logic, the constant appeal to authority—are very much on view.  You haven’t actually said how anyone was wrong about anything, you just decided to wave around phrases like “kicking ass” and “moving goalposts”.

By on 10/03/05 at 05:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I object to your characterization of my argumentative style.

1. Restatement intended to imply actual disagreement: Should read “taken to imply”; if I repeat what someone else says, that should be taken as prima facie evidence that I agree with it, not that I disagree with it. 
2. Shortcuts in basic logic: I do often make logical leaps in presentation, which is not necessarily the same thing as not having done all the steps in my head.  Again, this is an off-the-cuff environment. 
3. The constant appeal to authority: Whose authority?  My own?  Are you referring to the part where I claim that a thinker’s most important books are an important authority on what that thinker actually thinks? 

Finally, let it be said: I fear that any argument that would be sufficiently long and detailed to prove to you that Zizek is really great would be disqualified by its very length and level of detail from being actually read and taken seriously—the objection would be either, “Zizek’s not worth that much reading,” or “If Zizek’s so great, why does it require such a long argument to establish it?”

And then where does that leave me, with my well-constructed argument, devised just for you?  I don’t even want to contemplate it.  That’s why you just get the lazy comments.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/03/05 at 05:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I can continue this if you want—I’m waiting for a program to finish running before I can get back to my work—but do you really want to?  You said that you weren’t going to respond, and then that this thread showed how the Internet is useless.

But, anyway, to re-use your numbers:
1.  What I see is a habit of restating someone with different language but no actual different meaning.  For instance, all your various criticisms of Sean are about issues that you in fact appear to agree with him on—for example, you seem to really wish that Sean had written “problems with Zizek’s take on What If histories” rather than “Zizek’s absurd theory of revolution”, even though they apply to the same exact words in the article that Sean clearly cited.  This appears to be a tactic intended to leave people with no real point of disagreement; they can’t point to anything that you’ve written that you defend as being actually different than what they wrote.
2. I’ve explained what I think the problems with your logic are; that’s what the long section above about your various self-contradictory claims is about.  Clearly you disagree and think that your logic is fine.  Well, OK.
3. The constant appeal to authority: yes, your own.  You have said that the fact that you’ve read Zizek makes your comments somehow more worthwhile than uninformed ones, even as you also claim that your comments are lazy and confused.  This appears to privilege your reading of Zizek as some sort of ineffable, mystical quality that applies no matter what use is made out of this knowledge.  Over and over you’ve expressed the wish, baldly stated, that those who haven’t read Zizek as you have would just shut up about him, even when what’s being discussed as a popular essay that everyone has read.

Don’t devise an argument just for me.  Write some worthwhile popularization of Zizek, if you think that he should be popularized.  Or don’t complain when people discuss his LRB articles on a blog.

By on 10/03/05 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

With all due respect Rich, Adam has freely admitted to holding out little hope for shutting you up.  Also you might follow that link above if you can be bothered.  Please don’t hesitate to link to your own writing about Zizek, so that we may refer to it for comparison purposes.  I may as well own up to suckerpunching a bit in this thread; sorry, that was silly.

But perhaps there is a difference in meaning, and that it’s hardly just a matter of poor word choice.  Perhaps that is even the most pathetic line of excuse for a fundamentally sloppy post peddled yet.  The fact of the matter, or so it seems to me, is that the general orientation of Sean’s post(s) is not difficult to read, not in the slightest, and betrays all the arrogance and habitual bad faith to which we have become so very well accustomed.  Furthermore, I’d probably go out on a limb here and suggest that Adam is capable of inferring more than one thing at a time.  Questions of style and attitude being far from unrelated to the larger context of this debate, as evidenced by the elaborate “critique” of “Theory” that just took place not so very long ago (to absolutely still insist on “scare” quotes here, as unpopular as that may be).  It’s been pointed out before, though to little avail, how a cluster of so-called arguments aimed at indicting something called “Theory” may have amounted to little more than a diatribe aimed against a certain perceived academic taste culture or *style* of reading, writing and thinking (and without engaging any of those thinkers directly, instead preferring, by and large, and in a brazen display of laziness and intellectual chauvenism, the easiest and most vulnerable targets available to suit the polemical purposes of the established agenda).  I also seem to recall that the few exceptions to this tactic, (there where the most charitable readings of the most developed claims of actual thinkers were alleged to have taken place) were by and large promptly questioned in crucial and meaningful ways.

Anyway, as it happens I have a series of charts and graphs that can prove all of this empirically and without a doubt, but for some (I can only assume purely malicious) reason your blog comment boxes don’t seem to allow such things.  Why is this?

By Matt on 10/03/05 at 07:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The fact of the matter, or so it seems to me, is that the general orientation of Sean’s post(s) is not difficult to read, not in the slightest, and betrays all the arrogance and habitual bad faith to which we have become so very well accustomed.

Thank you, Matt.  I will consider the source and take that as a compliment.  Here and elsewhere, you object to my general orientation.  Specific contentions go unchallenged.

By on 10/03/05 at 07:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The exasperated Sean McCann:  “if only a halfway decent Zizekian would show up...”

Apparently a published and tenured professor currently finishing a book on, of all things, Zizek, who has just taken the time to patiently refute Sean’s specific contentions as well as suggest more nuanced and potentially useful avenues of analysis (others gracing us with their attendance included at least one brilliant student and several serious readers of Zizek) is insufficient as a response to his utter nonesense post.  Priceless.

By Matt on 10/03/05 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well said, Matt.  Another victory for piety.

By on 10/04/05 at 05:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If Zizek opposes some foreclosure, by definition he opposes foreclosure

cf If x opposes some legislation, by definition he opposes legislation.

Do you have any evidence that Zizek is ‘indebted’to Sorel other than some glancing and superficial affinities? Do you mean Zizek in general is indebted or just for a particular theory? Is it his “theory of revolution” that is indebted to Sorel, if so can you prove this?

What evidence do you have for your claim that there is such a thing as the “literary mind”? Do you participate in this mind? Are you indebted to Sorel? What evidence is there that the literay mind, if it exists, is indebted to Sorel/ Sorel ‘has purchase’over it?

By on 10/08/05 at 08:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you wish to consider them glancing and superficial affinities, you certainly may.  That would require considering the question seriously in the first place, which, on the evidence of the diffuse and largely irrelevant nature of these questions, you clearly have no wish to do.

By on 10/08/05 at 11:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Deeming questions irrelevant is an easy way of avoiding them. All of the questions above are meant seriously. I do not see that zizek is ‘indebted’ to Sorel. I don’t think there’s such a thing as the ‘literary mind’ etc. You complain when people don’t answer your own points, and seem to think this shows their unanswerability. If you don’t want to answer mine, that’s your prerogative but don’t mind if I draw similar conclusions..

As to the ‘diffuse’ nature of the questions, perhaps if I’d asked them one at a time it would have been better for you? And how about your ‘absurd’ non sequiter re Jodi’s point on foreclosure?

By on 10/09/05 at 06:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Hvala, if you asked them in a way that suggested a genuine concern with any interest other than dismissing me, or if you had noted that they had been addressed earlier in the thread, that would have been better.  As it is, they suggest a desperate grasp after whatever might indict me in some way.

For example, I obviously don’t mean Zizek in general, since I explicitly point out that I have no interest in him in general.  Likewise, I obviously do mean the theory of revolution expressed in that brief essay, since that is what I said and that is what the link I pasted in implied. 

Your doubtfulness about the existence of a literary mind shows an admirable skepticism, if also an excessive literal mindedness.  The term is short hand for widely shared habits of thinking in a distinctive professional field. Do you doubt that there are conventions of writing and thought in professional fields? Likewise with your request for proof of Zizek’s indebtdeness to Sorel.  I did not realize I would be in the docket for simply noting an apparent affinity.  But in any case, on such questions there is evidence and argument but rarely proof.  I have mentioned some evidence--including some comparable patterns of thought (involving, among other things, a shared reverence for Lenin as voluntarist), Zizek’s own acknowledgment of some similarity, and a possible genealogical connection (raised by Adam) via Benjamin.  If there was any evidence that anyone had been interested in pursuing the comparison further to weigh how apt it is and much or little it illuminates, I would have been glad to discuss it.  But the pro-Zizek comments began with hostile dismissal and never progressed much beyond that.  Like everyone I’m sure, I am now weary of the topic. 

Was my reply to Jodi a non-sequiter?  I don’t think so.  Jodi remarked that “Z has been explicit that the left needs to keep open paths that have not been taken, past hopes and energies".  I took this to mean that Zizek is concerned about the dangers of foreclosure and noted that this is a shared concern with Sorel.  (Both, I pointed out, appear to have “a sense that the main obstacle to a revolutionary future is the way ideas and institutions of the present colonize the future.") She said, not foreclosure tout court.  I said, fine, he’s concerned about the danger of some foreclosure, and I suggested that Zizek’s sense of the distinction between the Symbolic and the Real is arguably comparable to Sorel’s account of the difference between disabling and enabling myth.  The consequence for both, I noted, was an investment in the unexpected (agreed to by Jodi) and, I later added for clarification, a neglect of consequences and planning.  Is this not responsive enough for you?  If not, it seems clear that I could not possibly be responsive enough.

By on 10/09/05 at 07:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Not that want to jump in the middle of anything here, but I think Luther Blissett’s comment (I believe it was his, could be wrong, this is a wicked long thread) about Zizek coasting after The Sublime Object of Ideology accurately reflects what he thinks he’s doing, at least according to yesterday’s interview with him in The Guardian:

When I agreed to meet Slavoj Zizek in Tavistock Square, it was because he mentioned that he’d like to look at a house in the square where Lenin had once lived and written one of his books.


He is leaving London first thing tomorrow, he tells me, for Paris to be profiled by the newspaper Libération. Then he is off to headline a Design Congress in Copenhagen ("€7,500," he shouts to me, still under the photographer’s cosh, “first-class everything, and all that for 40 minutes selling them some old stuff“) and then it is back to Slovenia.


He delights in showing me the restaurant in Russell Square that is using the name of Virginia Woolf ("that nasty bitch, a total snob") to sell its pasta and burgers.


Zizek’s resemblance to Jesus may not be wholly accidental, it turns out, because he is taking up the cudgels of radical propaganda in a new way. As soon as we are seated and have ordered - I try to talk him into having the Sunday roast, but he has a delicate stomach, and settles for the risotto - I ask him about his enthusiasm for Lenin.

While he is not a believer himself, he sees it as his mission to rage against the demise of our Judaeo-Christian heritage and its replacement by a burgeoning palette of destructive, new-age attempts at spirituality. Typically, his soft spot for both Leninism and Christianity is a deliberate kick against the tide of the times.

Whereas it is now de rigueur for intellectuals to profess a certain grudging respect for Marx and his analysis, Lenin’s reputation - even among leftists - remains that of a brutal authoritarian pragmatist. Zizek begs to differ. For him, Lenin was the St Paul of communism, the organisational genius who, just as St Paul invented the Christian church, turned communism from an idea into a global movement. We should miss both Lenin and St Paul, he argues, because these days we are retreating into a new-age spirituality that turns up its nose at any engagements in the real world.


But, I protest, he has just ordered a Diet Coke to go with his chocolate fudge brownie. “Come on,” he says. “I don’t have any problem violating my own insights in practice.” Even the Iraq war, he points out, was initially conceived as a decaffeinated conflict - a war without victims, at least on our side. “Nowadays,” he says, “you can do anything that you want - anal, oral, fisting” - I stare down momentarily into my Yorkshire pudding - “but you need to be wearing gloves, condoms, protection."

The article’s not particularly illuminating, but I think it’s symptomatic of why many people who’ve participated in this thread have problems taking him too seriously.  So, um, commence The Throwing of Chairs…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/09/05 at 12:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is this even the right thread?  There’s so much Zizek around here lately it’s hard to tell.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/09/05 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anyone who thinks Zizek is for fashionable young intellectuals obviously hasn’t seen my wardrobe.

(Do you think that’s approximately the “level” of comment that article deserves, or should I aim a little lower?)

By Adam Kotsko on 10/09/05 at 01:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Shouldn’t you be playing chess or something?

As for the level of the comment that article deserves, all I wanted to point out is that Zizek now invites the level at which he’s portrayed: he enjoys--and having seen him speak, I know he enjoys--the look on the face of an Englishman who can’t eat Yorkshire pudding and talk about fisting at the same time.  There’s nothing wrong with being a provocateur, mind you, but at this stage in the game he seems to enjoy that far more than being a scholar. 

What is it with me recently?  All I can do is attack people’s “late work.” Or maybe it’s not me.  Maybe we need more academics with Dylan-esque late-career creative revivals, and fewer with McCartney-esque JUST RETIRE ALREADY! PLEASE! DON’T DESTROY YOUR LEGACY!

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/09/05 at 01:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Side note: Adam and I are playing email chess and it’s his move.  I wasn’t trying to belittle him with that first remark.  Just realized it looks really petty out of context.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/09/05 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A definition of irony: The foremost advocate of revolutionary communism becomes academia’s most successful entrepreneur.

I don’t begrudge him the money he makes off of selling people his old material repeatedly, and apparently he is working on a new “big book” that he claims will be of similar stature with _The Ticklish Subject_—whatever we may say about the shit he’s producing lately, it’s pretty clear that he knows it’s shit and so hopefully he also knows when he has produced (or is in the process of producing) work that is “actually good.”

Finally, by my estimation, the last time he produced a book of defensible quality was either 2003 (Puppet and the Dwarf) or 2004 (Bodies Without Organs).  Of course, neither of those come close to matching The Ticklish Subject or the Fragile Absolute (1999 and 2000, respectively), but Puppet and the Dwarf and Bodies Without Organs certainly don’t besmirch his intellectual legacy.  On the blogological timescale, his “recent work” definitely does besmirch his intellectual legacy, but he’s really only been at it a couple years and may yet get sick of it—and in any case, not everything moves on a blogological timescale.

I may be wrong.  The next book might be a huge pile of steaming shit.  Reportedly, we only have to wait until next spring to find out.  In the meantime, I recommend that everyone do a therapeutic fast from his popular articles.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/09/05 at 01:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, Sean is asked a few questions and suddenly he’s been put ‘in the docket’ by someone ‘desperate’ to indict him.

Sean thinks that this is watertight argument: “If Zizek opposes some foreclosure, by definition he opposes foreclosure”. Logically, this sentence is nonsense, as he knows perfectly well. Why would he make such a claim? Well, Sean has ‘no interest’ in Zizek and seemingly does have an interest in ‘foreclosing’ any dialogue that might require such an interest.

Sean is struck by how Zizek’s apparent ‘indebtedness’ to Sorel. Nothing is offered but some vague affinity concerning ideas not peculiar to Sorel in any case. Zizek shares an admiration for “Lenin as a voluntarist”. Except Zizek explicitly says that “Lenin is not a voluntarist” – that’s a direct quote, and developed in some detail, in one of the many Zizek texts in which Sean has no interest. Ah, but Zizek is indebted to Benjamin, and Benjamin is indebted to Sorel, therefore.. Well, therefore what exactly? It’s unclear. Again, in his haste to excuse himself from reading Zizek, Sean cracks his head against an elementary error.

Sean expresses amazement that Zizek is taken seriously by others who have read a great deal of him. This ‘great deal’ is of no avail set against Sean’s perspicacious evaluation based on a Zizek ‘sock-puppet’ trick.

I ask Sean whether he meant Zizek in general as I found it difficult to believe he was making an assertion on the basis of a brief allusive passage in the LRB article rather than the extensive range of Zizek’s writings on Lenin. Sean refers to this (and continues to refer to it) short passage as a ‘theory of revolution’. It is no such thing. Does it contain some general account of what constitutes a revolution? No. But it doesn’t matter, this is mere hairsplitting and quibbling over definitions.

The ‘literary mind’ has no more existence or explanatory value than the ‘Arab mind’ or similar abstractions. The usual backtrack is to then insist you’re referring to ‘loosely related patterns of thought’ or somesuch. This is indeed Sean’s tactic. Basically, all he can legitimately say is that certain literary academics are influenced by ‘Sorelian’ ideas. So what? Is Sean one of these? Does he inhabit the ‘literary mind’? Who can say? What we can say is that nothing is added by the concept of the ‘literary mind’, except one thing, perhaps – the familiar stereotype of a certain kind of intellectual being vicariously thrilled by the whiff of violence.

Is there any point going on. Sean, by is own confession, has no interest in Zizek, and apparently every interest in continuing in that state of ignorance. That’s fine. What isn’t fine is opining that others who have done some serious and considered reading are obviously stupid for still “taking Zizek seriously” and that these same people respond to Sean only through some reflex defense against Zizek being criticized rather than anything in the nature of Sean’s remarks. This is patronizing and silly nonsense.

By on 10/10/05 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Please delete ‘how’ - 1st sentence, 3rd paragraph.

By on 10/10/05 at 03:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The sentence about foreclosure is not logically nonsensical.  You’re intentionally misreading it to say something that I clearly never intended it to mean.  I’ll be happy to admit that my own phrasing could have been more precise simply by putting a second use of the word “some” in front of the second use of “foreclosure.” I’ve explained that this was my meaning, have elaborated on why that was my meaning, and explained why I think the issue is significant.  You choose to ignore this in favor of making a charge that can only stick by reiterating the misreading. 

I offered several time to call what I referred to as a “theory of revolution” by another term and asked for proposals.  None was forthcoming.  (The words “hairsplitting” and “quibbling” were not used in relation to this matter in particular.  It’s misquotation to suggest otherwise.) As it happens, Zizek’s essay does contain a “general account of what constitutes a revolution,” along with how other historical events should be considered in relation to revolution.  The account is not elaborated, but it is both general and abstract--the basic elements of a theory. That may be why no other term for the idea was proposed.  But as I’ve mentioned, I’ve got no investment in the slightest in the use of the word “theory.” Call it whatever you want.

There is no useful comparison to be made between the short hand that refers to a professional field and one that refers to an ethnic group.  The latter are racial fantasies.  The former are self-reflexive and self-regulating institutions with prominent organs of opinion, like for example the LRB in part.  Would it please you more if I said “academic literary fashion”?  That works as well for me.

Yes, I think a case can be made that many contemporary literary academics have been influenced indirectly by Sorel and by ideas similar to those held by Sorel. (These ideas are indeed not limited to Sorel.  That’s a fair point, and one I would have been glad to discuss in a more serious conversation.  On the other side of the ledger would need to be the fact that Sorel’s influence in the early part of the century was quite extensive.  So the fact that the ideas are not distinctive to him is not necessarily an argument against his influence.)

As it happens, the whiff of violence has nothing to do with why I mentioned Sorel.  I hadn’t even considered the matter before it was pointed out to me by defenders of Zizek that he himself speaks with some apparent ambivalence about violence.  In my view, however, this is not even the most negative feature of the Sorelian ideas to which I referred. As I mentioned, I object most to the way in which a disinterest in planning and consequences follows from the sense that revolutions are virtually sacred or “magic” eruptions of another reality.  It’s not political violence (which, despite his own ambivalent comments, I doubt Zizek himself has much investment in) but irrationalism to which I object. 

Yes, it amazes me that people respect Zizek after he does things like quote others as a way of praising the brilliance of his own ideas.  It also surprises me that his readers seem not to be daunted by his view of Kristallnacht, which is I think both implausible and obnoxious.  I am likewise impressed that people who read the interview cited by Robert (in which Zizek assembles a multitude of conflicting and half-baked views) or the one referred to by Scott can take the man seriously.  To use your own impressive coinage, I find that stuff patently “silly nonsense.” Enjoy it if you like.

By on 10/10/05 at 04:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I assume that your quotation is from this passage:

We have here two models, two incompatible logics, of the revolution: those who wait for the ripe teleological moment of the final crisis when revolution will explode ‘at its own proper time’ by the necessity of historical evolution; and those who are aware that revolution has no ‘proper time’, those who perceive the revolutionary chance as something that emerges and has to be seized in the very detours of ‘normal’ historical development. Lenin is not a voluntarist ‘subjectivist’--what he insists on is that the exception (the extraordinary set of circumstances, like those in Russia in 1917) offers a way to undermine the norm itself. And is this line of argument, this fundamental stance, not more actual today than ever? Do we not also live in an era when the state and its apparatus, inclusive of its political agents, are simply less and less able to articulate the key issues (ecology, degrading healthcare, poverty, the role of multinational companies, etc)? The only logical conclusion is that a new form of politicisation is urgent, which will directly ‘socialise’ these crucial issues.

The claim appears to be not that Lenin was not a voluntarist but that he wasn’t a “voluntarist ‘subjectivist’.” As often, it’s difficult to say precisely what Zizek means here, but I take it that the point for Zizek is that Lenin was not simply a Napoleanic or Promethean hero.  The relevant question is whether what Zizek admires in Lenin’s stance (voluntarist objectivist?) is markedly different from what Sorel admired in Lenin’s achievements.  I don’t think it is.

By on 10/10/05 at 05:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Ultimately you’re going to need to write a second dissertation to back up your claim here.  Affinity is not causality!

At this point, the volume of comments here approximates a dissertation, in quantity if not in quality.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/10/05 at 05:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I assume that your quotation is from this passage

I think that’s what we call an argumentum ad googlem

Not just that passage, Sean, no, but I think you should let it lie.

By on 10/10/05 at 05:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I do quite like “voluntarist objectivist” though; perhaps also “objective Voluntarist” - as in, despite his stated position, he’s an objective voluntarist.

By on 10/10/05 at 05:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

True, Adam.  If I had wanted to suggest something more than affinity, I would have written a longer and more careful post.  Affinity is enough for me.  (I wouldn’t have taken indebteness to equal causality either, but had I known the whole issue would have become so controversial, I would have lingered over terminology a lot more carefully.)

Indeed, ad googlem, Hvala, but since you didn’t give me anything else to go on, google was what I had.  Believe me, I would be glad to let it lie.

By on 10/10/05 at 07:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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