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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Icons: Levi-Strauss and Zizek

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/29/08 at 05:19 PM

Claude Lévi-Strauss is 100; France honors him:

On Tuesday there was a day-long colloquium at the Collège de France, where Mr. Lévi-Strauss once taught. Mr. Descola said that centenary celebrations were being held in at least 25 countries.

“People realize he is one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century,” he said in an interview. “His thought is among the most complex of the 20th century, and it’s hard to convey his prose and his thinking in English. But he gave a proper object to anthropology: not simply as a study of human nature, but a systematic study of how cultural practices vary, how cultural differences are systematically organized.”

Meanwhile, The New Republic goes after Zizek:

Fundamentalist Islam may seem reactionary, but “in a curious inversion,” he characteristically observes, “religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today’s society. It has become one of the sites of resistance.” And the whole premise of Violence, as of Zizek’s recent work in general, is that resistance to the liberal-democratic order is so urgent that it justifies any degree of violence. “Everything is to be endorsed here,” he writes in Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, “up to and including religious ‘fanaticism.’”


A hypocritical anti-Zizek screed from The New Repulsive, who are fine with violence as long as it’s U$ imperialist violence or something involving burying Palestinian families with bulldozers.  They just don’t like leftwing violence.  Trotsky’s “Their Morals and Ours” is good to read on this score, on the hypocritical “humanist” moralism of murderous liberals (and I’m not a trot, btw).  But it was also expected that TNR would have this take on Zizek.  More disappointing was Daniel Miller’s piece in The Nation back in July:


Altho’ it was a measure of the fact that The Nation is ultimately just as wedded to the current order as TNR.

By EC on 11/29/08 at 06:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend.  It worked so well for the US (or U-KKK-S, to play along) with Bin Laden in Afghanistan, I can’t imagine how it could go wrong for Zizek’s support of fundamentalist opposition to liberalism.

By on 11/29/08 at 07:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, LB, we’ll just have to wait until Zizek gives them millions of dollars and logistical support and then we can sit back and watch your apt comparison unfold—just to play along.

By EC on 11/29/08 at 09:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So aside from their obvious hypocrisy, would you learned thinkers say that TNR’s description of Zizek’s attitude towards liberalism, revolution, violence etc. is essentially accurate?  From what I’ve read of his I believe that to be the case, but that’s not exactly my regular stomping grounds.

By bbass on 11/29/08 at 09:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Foucault dabbled in this idea around 1980, but retreated rather quickly.

By John Emerson on 11/29/08 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To briefly address bbass’s question and speaking as a reader of a couple of Zizek books but not any kind of expert:  Kirsch’s assertions about some of Zizek’s positions strike me as “accurate” like a caricature often indeed looks like the figure it’s supposed to be based on.  Yes, at a level of extreme generality, Zizek is “against” liberal democracy, “for” revolution, and doesn’t mind violence in getting there—but most of what Kirsch does is to leave it at this level of generality and expect conditioned reflexes (as opposed to careful reading, contextualization, and thought) to do the rest—he’s against liberal democracy?  Horrors!  Oh dear!  How awful!  (etc etc etc).  The article also relies on the idea that the reader has already swallowed whole the ideological agenda of the “War on Terror”—the laughable idea that the “West” is under a real threat of actual destruction from “Islamic fundamentalists.”

Another point:  I don’t take Zizek’s every word as seriously as Kirsch warns us we must.  Zizek *is* a performer, or a juggler of ideas, a provocateur, etc.  He scores some hits and he makes some misses, even clownish ones.  Big deal, no reason for a moral panic (which is very much what Kirsch - no doubt at the behest of Peretz et al. - want to stir up).

Which brings me to this last point:  The idea that Zizek is some kind of anti-Semite is not even a caricature, it’s totally off, and it’s especially pernicious.  It’s basically a warning to anyone who wants to invite Zizek to speak at their forum or university to think twice.  A really nasty bit of business.

By EC on 11/29/08 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The New Republic article displays a degree of insanity that is, in its own way, almost admirable.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/30/08 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"He scores some hits and he makes some misses, even clownish ones.”

Let me just take this opportunity to express a learned opinion that Zizek on liberalism is one of the consistent, clownish misses, for better or worse. But I haven’t read the TNR article yet.

One of the basic problem in this area is brought out by EC: “Kirsch’s assertions about some of Zizek’s positions strike me as “accurate” like a caricature often indeed looks like the figure it’s supposed to be based on.”

The problem with this is, basically, that, since Zizek IS a caricature based on himself, albeit broadly resembling himself, it is perhaps impossible for any critique of him to rise above this level of ‘accuracy’ to the level of, I suppose you would call it, accuracy. Any accurate description of him will be caricaturish and thereby subject to dismissal as caricaturish, hence inaccurate. Wash, rinse, repeat. (Any description of Zizek that was NOT caricaturish would be inaccurate to the point of caricaturishness, almost of necessity.)

By John Holbo on 11/30/08 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John—that’s a mise en abyme that Zizek himself could embrace (or dance over the edge of, whatever).  But that’s also giving too much importance to the *figure* of Zizek himself (in spite of the fact that he does so much to draw attention to it himself). Zizek’s propositions can be assessed (er-- to the extent that they can be understood, which I don’t, always) without reference to the ultimately irrelevant question of whether or not he “really means them.” Many of his propositions I find valuable; some I do not.

By EC on 11/30/08 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek does not wish to be believed literally?  Thus he is relatively safe for those who don’t actually concur with his positions:  it’s a put-on or a rhetorical posture.  Yet he is still allowed to occupy that radical space.  Isn’t that the point made in the TNR article?  Zizek as radical chic but ultimately unthreatening?  He calls himself a Stalinist, fascist, anti-semite, etc… but since he doesn’t have an army behind him he is harmless.

By on 11/30/08 at 01:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, since no one has said anything about Levi-Strauss, I’ll say that his work was very important to me in my undergraduate and graduate years. I also think it’s unfortunate that literary theorists were so taken by his assertions that his analyses of myths were but further re-tellings of the myths. On that point I think he was just confused. It does no good to follow him in that particular confusion.

By Bill Benzon on 11/30/08 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Neither Zizek or the architects of America’s foreign policy seem to have learned what they teach you in the advanced course: the enemy of my enemy is also a prick.

I think Levi-Strauss was right about myth. Unfortunately, his approach to myth turned out to be a dead end for anthropology precisely because it wasn’t a dead end at all. As with psychoanalysis, when the patient recognizes that analysis can go on forever, it’s time to do something new. Nevertheless, I still reread the four big books on native American myths from time to time in much the same way that I reread my favorite bits of Rabelais. There’s a special pleasure in participating in his thinking. It’s like swimming dolphins.

By Jim Harrison on 11/30/08 at 02:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll second Bill’s sentiments above.  Levi-Strauss’s reading of myth as a symbolic resolution of a social conflict or contradiction changed the way I read literature.  Was it reductive?  Sure.  But in the hands of a great reader, such as Jameson at his best, it produced wonderful results.

By on 11/30/08 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a great desire to unmask Zizek in the essay, to get to the “real Zizek” - as for the accuracy of Kirsch’s interpretations, there isn’t much of an interpretation going on, the agenda is clearly set from the very opening remarks all the way to the renaming of Zizek’s book into The Defense of Violence closer to the end and the final summary: indecent, clownish, anti-Semitic, vulgar and Slavic defender of violence - oh noez!

By on 11/30/08 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I love those scare quotes around “real Zizek,” as if only a fool would expect a philosopher, social critic, and public intellectual to have well-argued positions that one might identify and criticize.  Instead, we must remember that Zizek is Bloom’s Falstaff.

By on 11/30/08 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, I love it when people defend Zizek by claiming that he’s basically just joshin’ us! 

To be fair, though, the article is such a bizarre pastische that it’s hard to know where to begin—and thanks to the conventions of journalistic book reviewing, we have no guidance as to how we can contextualize the quoted statements from Zizek.  Already from the beginning, though, we’re in trouble: the claim that because torture is somehow distinctively American, Zizek is actually advocating legalizing it, well, that’s just dumb.  Zizek is consistently against such cheap “honesty” and consistently against legalizing torture.  To say that practices of torture are deeply rooted in American culture is to say something bad about America, not to claim that we should just go ahead and legalize torture.  The “official” stance that torture is unacceptable may be hypocritical, but it’s a step in the right direction—once you lose that, you’ve lost the battle completely.  All of this is readily understandable to 99% of people who have read the relevant texts of Zizek—but apparently not for the person assigned to review Zizek for a major magazine.

More broadly, the a priori decision that anything liberal-sounding is a lie and anything “bad"-sounding must be taken absolutely literally seems like a self-evidently faulty hermeneutical lens.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/30/08 at 06:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB, there’s a difference between expecting “well-argued positions” to identify and criticize and Kirsch’s psychic ability to discern what Zizek really meant to say here or there. If Zizek contradicts himself, as Kirsch claims in the opening, on torture, although it’s difficult to decide from the provided quotations, then it is one thing to then proceed to argue against Zizek, and it’s another thing to run through a list of positions and identify those that are of “real Zizek” and those that are of “dishonest Zizek”... And what exactly is so “deadly” about Zizek the Jester?

By on 11/30/08 at 07:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, let’s take a few bits and pieces, while I read the thing over coffee:

“Whether or not it would be always a mistake to take Slavoj Zizek seriously, surely it would not be a mistake to take him seriously just once. He is, after all, a famous and influential thinker. So it might be worthwhile to consider Zizek’s work as if he means it--to ask what his ideas really are, and what sort of effects they are likely to have.

Zizek is a believer in the Revolution at a time when almost nobody, not even on the left, thinks that such a cataclysm is any longer possible or even desirable. This is his big problem, and also his big opportunity. While “socialism” remains a favorite hate-word for the Republican right, the prospect of communism overthrowing capitalism is now so remote, so fantastic, that nobody feels strongly moved to oppose it, as conservatives and liberal anticommunists opposed it in the 1930s, the 1950s, and even the 1980s. When Zizek turns up speaking the classical language of Marxism-Leninism, he profits from the assumption that the return of ideas that were once the cause of tragedy can now occur only in the form of farce. In the visual arts, the denaturing of what were once passionate and dangerous icons has become commonplace, so that emblems of evil are transformed into perverse fun, harmless but very profitable statements of post-ideological camp; and there is a kind of intellectual equivalent of this development in Zizek’s work. The cover of his book The Parallax View reproduces a Socialist Realist portrait of “Lenin at the Smolny Institute,” in the ironically unironic fashion made familiar by the pseudo-iconoclastic work of Komar and Melamid, Cai Guo-Jiang, and other post-Soviet, post-Mao artists. He, too, expects you to be in on the joke. But there is a difference between Zizek and the other jokesters. It is that he is not really joking.”

Here we have the slide from ‘let’s take him seriously, just to see what that would mean’ to ‘he’s serious’. I’m sympathetic to the first approach and, indeed, have been trying to drag others onto this argumentative ground for years. Suppose he really meant it: what would it imply? (Yes, of course it’s some sort of buffo performance art. I get it. But suppose - just suppose - he really meant it.) And it seems to me at least a plausible upshot of this exercise that you might conclude that Zizek is distinguished by his tendency to seriously advocate stupid/bad things, politically. Leaving aside how the article itself proceeds, and acknowledging that there is indeed a slide between ‘let’s suppose he’s serious’ and ‘he’s serious’ - supposing this slide becomes an explicit argument and conclusion, rather than remaining a quiet slide - is the tenor of that paragraph I quoted terribly objectionable to you? (Adam K?)

Because, after all, there is still room to argue that he’s serious, after all, but in a good way? Is the following true, for example: “Zizek is a believer in the Revolution at a time when almost nobody, not even on the left, thinks that such a cataclysm is any longer possible or even desirable. This is his big problem, and also his big opportunity.” I think that’s basically right.

By John Holbo on 11/30/08 at 08:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While I don’t have that much of an interest in reading Zizek to find out what he’s all about, I have now read The Valve for long enough that I’m tempted to read Zizek just to found out which of the Valve personages—who now apparently loom large in my mental picture of the world—is actually right.  You could save me some time by just ‘fessing up, though.

I’m interested to hear that the idea that a myth symbolically resolves a social conflict comes from Levi-Strauss.  It sounds like an idea that a functionalist in sociology would come up with.

By on 11/30/08 at 09:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, the quote in your last paragraph is correct as far as I can tell.  If someone thinks revolution is a bad idea, then they’re naturally going to think Zizek is advocating something bad.  In terms of actual reality, it seems more like Zizek is advocating trying to think what form revolution could take under present conditions and also advocating mining the past revolutionary tradition for aspects that seem usable, without glossing over the failures.  It is clear that he’s not actually organizing revolutionary cells, for instance, and it’s also clear that he’s not actually claiming that Stalinism as such was a good thing we should be returning to.

Now you can say that the revolutionary leftist tradition is essentially a complete flop with nothing to offer us—then Zizek is naive for even considering the possibility that it’s anything else.  Since few people seem to be taking him seriously in terms of going back and studying the history of the Soviet Union to see if there were really cool things happening, it would appear that objectively he’s not very dangerous—especially since he’s not directly involved in any kind of revolutionary political project.  And anyway, as I said, he’s mainly trying to get people to a point where they could conceptualize a revolutionary break with the present order—I don’t think he pictures himself as a potential leader in any sense.  He is “just” an academic.

Now a lot of the stuff further down in the article is simply bullshit.  Zizek simply is not an anti-Semite.  As a previous commenter says, anti-Semitism is the privileged example of a destructive ideology in Zizek’s work.  A lot of his objection to liberalism is that it is so ineffectual in heading off society’s decline into situations mirroring the logic of anti-Semitism.  And as I’ve said, the author’s “critique” of Zizek’s supposed contradiction on the topic of torture is essentially dumb as hell.

I would be willing to argue that he’s serious, but in a good way.  It may well be the case that the only way out of the ecological collapse we’re hurtling toward would be a break with the logic of capitalism—and the response to the financial crisis shows that we are a long way from being able to take seriously the possibility of such a break.  The sheer brutality and inhumanity of capitalism seems to me to indicate that thinking another form of human sociality is a good idea, if not an outright moral imperative.  The Soviets and Mao did a shitty job trying to escape capitalism—absolutely.  But capitalism’s doing a pretty fucking shitty job of organizing human society as it stands, and may well be causing an environmental collapse that would cause mass death on a scale that far outstrips Stalin and Mao.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/30/08 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"In terms of actual reality, it seems more like Zizek is advocating trying to think what form revolution could take under present conditions and also advocating mining the past revolutionary tradition for aspects that seem usable, without glossing over the failures.”

But the whole burden of the theological stuff - particularly the Kierkegaard stuff, but other bits as well - is to implicitly concede that trying to think about it won’t work. The way you mine the past for usable bits is to find ways you could talk about - or stage - a revolution without thinking about it (in the sense of: making sense of what you are doing, and why). That is, he precisely isn’t trying to get people to a point where they could conceptualize a revolutionary break. He’s trying to get them to the point where they are willing to advocate it, or actually do it, in advance of the making sense stage (on the grounds that if you have to wait around for it to make sense, it will never happen). He’s definite a leap before you look kind of guy, when it comes to political planning.

My problem is that this doesn’t seem very impressive. Any fool can leap before he looks. (To do it with flair may take some Hegel, admittedly, but it still seems foolish.)

By John Holbo on 11/30/08 at 10:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That does not seem to me to be what the theological references are about.  Those who are curious about my position on this matter may consult my book, Zizek and Theology, available wherever fine books are sold.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/30/08 at 10:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So what do you think is the point of the Leninist-Kierkegaardian being a true revolutionary is believing in the revolution on the strength of the absurd stuff? (You’ve been insisting for years that my take on this is comprehensively wrong, Adam. But you’ve never actually articulated what you think is specifically wrong with it. And you have told me, specifically, that your book doesn’t address the issue. So I can’t help wondering, after all these years, what is wrong with my arguments, in your eyes.)

Zizek doesn’t seem to actually provide us with - or be interested in providing us with - any conceptual resources for thinking about what the method or goal of a revolution would be. Usually it’s just gulag jokes (or the equivalent), wrapped in Hegel and Lacan. And then of course he gets accused of wanting to start gulags. And then it gets pointed out that they were just jokes. And then, at the end of the day, our plan for revolution would appear to be just some gulag jokes which we are now assured are JUST jokes, not actual plans. Plus some funny high-low Hegel-pop culture riffs. Plus Lacan. I think starting a revolution on the strength of gulag jokes is less bad than starting a revolution so you can build gulags. But it still isn’t such a hot idea. Which brings me to the thought: it probably isn’t Zizek’s plan to start a revolution. Or even to conceptualize the whys and wherefores of revolution. Because if that were his interest, we would have heard more about it by now. But we haven’t.

I say that Zizek is an NSK [neue slowenische kunst]-style jester-artist. He’s Laibach for the seminar room. And here’s the thing: Laibach-style art is not about conceptualizing the why’s and wherefore’s of revolution. What it IS about is a nice question, but it isn’t the case that the past is being mined for elements usable for revolutionary planning. The use is very different than that.

I would, of course, be willing to entertain arguments that this is very wrong. (You see, I like entertainment as much as the next philosopher.)

By John Holbo on 11/30/08 at 10:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From what I’ve seen I’m inclined to agree with John H. that even if the article in The New Republic depicts Zizek in a caricature, it’s an accurate depiction.  But what concerns me about it is the fact that there must be something redeeming about him (and not just in the sense that he’s really a good guy but redeeming about him as a writer), particularly because so many people think he’s worth reading and publishing.  I have to wonder why the reviewer didn’t find a way to point out that redeeming feature of his work.  Not that I think all reviews have to be positive to be worth publishing (as long as the reviewee is not an out-and-out monster).

By bianca steele on 11/30/08 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, I read the whole piece now. The stuff about anti-semitism is totally strained and unconvincing and it goes on and on. It mistakes Laibach-style performance art for actual fascism. But the rest of the review seems basically fair, or at least deserving of serious response. The one thing the Kirsch should do is take a page from Holbo’s patented Kierkegaardian style of critiquing Zizek. The if. The either/or. Always say: either Zizek is serious about this or he is not. If he is serious, then ... If he is not serious, then ...

The thing is: you are going to end up on that second horn, I think. But Kirsch basically ends up insisting on the first. But rhetorically that might be a higher form of socratic sneakiness. If the Zizekians want to push back against being stuck on the first horn, unfairly, they have to assert that they actually belong on the second horn. When really they would like to be on neither.

By John Holbo on 12/01/08 at 12:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Triple-posting comments is traditional in Zizek threads (some sort of dialectic/trinitarian thingy). Some further explication of the NSK aesthetic is perhaps in order. The NSK (and Laibach) are to fascism as Colbert is to Bill O’Reilly. The NSK term for this is ‘overidentification’. I think those familiar with Colbert will find that descriptor to be intuitive.

It would be the height of missing the joke to denounce Colbert as a conservative. But it would also be unreasonable to say that the brilliance of Colbert is that he is seeking conceptual resources for a liberal/progressive alternative to Bill O’Reilly. He really isn’t.

Zizek is, in a way, the Colbert of Leninism. He poses as this crazy thing, overidentifying with it, inhabiting a crazy role. But - here I think the joke sort of breaks down - somehow this is supposed to reflect badly, not on Lenin, but on liberalism. We are supposed see the hideous, true face of liberalism reflected in the funhouse mirror. The basic problem is that Zizek being the Colbert of Leninism doesn’t reflect interesting things about liberalism. He wants to do two things at once. Be a buffo Lenin figure, and embody - make explicit - the obscene essence of liberalism. But the obscene essence of liberalism is not crypto-buffo-Leninism. So the joke sort of ends up being on Zizek, rather than on liberalism.

By John Holbo on 12/01/08 at 01:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Zizek as the Colbert of Leninism is cute but fundamentally wrong comparison here…

By on 12/01/08 at 01:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If he’s doing the NSK thing, he’s arguably doing it with Stalinism, but only sometimes (the claims to be an “arch-Stalinist,” etc.).  There is plenty that he does that’s not NSK-like at all, including most discussions of Stalinism.  NSK is a great reference point for some aspects of his work, but is far from being a hermeneutical key for everything.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/01/08 at 09:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Since we’re double-posting, I’ll also point out that we have discussed the Kierkegaard thing at length, most recently at AUFS.  I understand that you are not convinced by my reading, but I do offer an alternative to yours and argue (I hope I qualify for that august distinction!) that you’re not only getting Zizek wrong, you’re getting Kierkegaard wrong.  I also put forward the possibility that as a secular liberal, you have a bias toward reading religious references as irrational, etc., and that’s not the point of what either Zizek or Kierkegaard is doing.  Does this sound familiar at all?  Was it all a dream?

In any case, not succeeding in convincing you is not the same as failing to offer any counter-argument at all.  Failing to get you to concede that you understand what I’m saying is not the same as failing to tell you what’s wrong with your argument.  I give and give and give and at a certain point, it’s really between you and God whether you agree or not.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/01/08 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If I remember, the argument went sort of like this:

Adam K: If Holbo were right in his argument about Kierkegaard and Zizek, Kierkegaard would have to be saying X.

Holbo: But Kierkegaard is saying X.

Isn’t that pretty much alpha and omega of our debate about the Kierkegaard stuff? Perhaps you can provide a link to our exchange. I’ve forgotten exactly where it was and a quick search at AUFS for ‘Kierkegaard’ doesn’t turn it up.

By John Holbo on 12/01/08 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess I misremembered—at AUFS, we discussed the fact that we had discussed Kierkegaard somewhere else, presumably at The Valve.  You characterize yourself as merely pointing out what Kierkegaard is saying, yet the actual situation is that we disagree on the interpretation of Kierkegaard.

Let me try finding the referred-to Kierkegaard thread again—I don’t think it was under the Zizek heading.  If I recall correctly, I was complaining about something completely unrelated to you, and you stormed in taking it all personally.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/01/08 at 10:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I also put forward the possibility that as a secular liberal, you have a bias toward reading religious references as irrational, etc., and that’s not the point of what either Zizek or Kierkegaard is doing.  Does this sound familiar at all?  Was it all a dream?”

OK, let me just say it: that isn’t familiar at all. I think it must have been just a dream.

By John Holbo on 12/01/08 at 10:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah yes: here we are.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/01/08 at 10:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And yet, I did actually say it:

“You seem to be saying that because Lenin doesn’t seem to you to be sufficiently “gloriously insane” or something, it does not match the true depth of Kierkegaard — yet this seems to share in the general liberal position on faith, which is regarded as simultanesouly insane but admirable (”they have real conviction!”). Symptoms of this underlying presupposition include an overfixation on the bare fact that God is talking to Abraham, a denial that there is anything at all analogous in your own life to “hearing voices” (despite the fact that the voice of ideology tells you what is appropriate to do all the time), an insistence that the properly faithful thing has to be radically insane like the sacrifice of Isaac, etc. This may surprise you, but Kierkegaard does not share the secular liberal view of what “faith” is! Yet you seem to be unable to understand his view of faith as anything but that.”

By Adam Kotsko on 12/01/08 at 10:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

By some strange, cruel trick of faith I obviously failed to commit that entire comment thread to the blog memory palace where I store such things. But I may as well address the allegation on the merits.

I’m not sure why you think I am focused on the talk to God thing, which isn’t obviously absurd or impossible. (Unusual, I grant you that. Quite likely it never happens at all.) I’ve never ‘heard voices’, but ‘hearing voices’ isn’t an example of absurdity in the Kierkegaardian sense (why would it be?). You have to understand the difference between absurdity and insanity. They aren’t the same thing, and your tendency to read me as concerned with insanity is perhaps due to a tendency to run them together on your part? (Perhaps you are overfixated on the ‘talk to God’ episode yourself, and using it as a lens to understand what K. means by ‘absurdity?)

Kierkegaard is quite clear that what makes Abraham the father of faith is not that God speaks to him but what God commands him to do.

In Kierkegaardian terms, there is lower immediacy; then reason (or the ethical, the universal); then higher immediacy, a.k.a. religiousness-B, a.k.a. faith. Are you denying that Kierkegaard asserts that there is a fundamental division of ‘spheres’ between reason and faith? That is, faith - belief in ‘eternity in time’ (the big ticket item) is, inherently belief in something that seems impossible?

Re: that long thread. My alpha/omega summary was actually pretty accurate. Here I am some distance along:

“So far we’ve sorted out ONE Lacanian point, and it went like so, upstream. What you took to be my total ignorance of Lacan’s view of perversity turned out to be your own slight ignorance of Kierkegaard’s theology, just wearing a slightly funny hat. That is, you didn’t realize that Kierkegaard had expressly anticipated that the Abraham case might have a certain ‘perverse’ aspect. In discussing as I did, I was registering awareness of Lacan nuance, but you didn’t catch the reference.”

And here is Adam’s response:

“As a point of order, I don’t concede that I have misunderstood Kierkegaard — I still maintain that you are misunderstanding the category of perversion.”

That seemed to me to leave things rather in the air. I don’t know what you think is wrong with my reading of Kierkegaard because you haven’t told me. (It may be that I am misunderstanding the category of perversion. Lord knows such things probably happen.)

By John Holbo on 12/01/08 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I said we wound up disagreeing—i.e., I offered reasons for you to abandon your reading that for whatever reason you did not accept.  Presumably you found it unconvincing.  Okay.  But then you always turn around and claim that I’ve done nothing and offered you nothing.  It’s obvious that I’ve offered reasons and arguments that you take to be insufficient—after all, you’re not convinced, and I assume it’s not sheer stubbornness.  Does it only count as offering reasons or telling you what’s wrong with your reading if you’re convinced?  I don’t think it does, in any common-sense definition. 

And: okay, seriously, the reversal thing really gets old.  I accuse you of focusing too much on the God element because I in fact do!  Wow!  That’s the structure of virtually every argument you bring to the table.  Sometimes I wonder if you’re engaged in some kind of performance art, except you’re focused on the relatively ignoble goal of pissing me off.  You’ve picked an easy target, as I tend to be overly impatient in these kinds of forums.  Here’s my own summary:

JH: I think X.

AK: I disagree.

JH: But doesn’t the way in which you claim to disagree demonstrate that you do, at bottom, agree?

AK: No.

JH: See?!  You’re doing it again!

By Adam Kotsko on 12/01/08 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What counts as offering a reason is a sticky matter. Let me offer a rule sufficient unto the purpose: you telling me THAT you don’t agree with me is not a reason for me to think that I am wrong. You telling me WHY you don’t agree with me would be more likely to count as a reason.

As to the reversal thing: I do it to annoy you, of course. But there is also a higher purpose - call it passive-aggressiveness-B. It is distinguished from lower passive-aggressiveness because it has passed through the Universal.

Look, if you understand the difference between absurdity and insanity, in a Kierkegaardian context, then what is it about my discussion of Kierkegaardian absurdity that made you think, to start with, I am over-focused on insanity - biased by my liberalness and all that?

By John Holbo on 12/01/08 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And I am genuinely curious whether you think it is a misreading of Kierkegaard to suppose he wants to separate the spheres of the ethical (or universal) from higher immediacy or faith. It seems to me quite important to Kierkegaard that there is always something absurd about faith, hence something that is fundamentally unreasonable. This is so whether God has ordered you to kill your child or not.

By John Holbo on 12/01/08 at 12:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, for the sake of tying off this stupid argument, what if I just say, “Okay, his position in On Belief is poorly developed and invites readings like yours, but all three of his books on Christianity represent an attempt to think through the religion thing that doesn’t really wind up in a firm position until Parallax View.  So overly focusing on On Belief might mean critiquing a position that Zizek himself ultimately finds untenable or at least not fully adequate.”

You might say it was irresponsible of Zizek to be thinking out loud in public over the course of several books, and maybe it was.  But still. The Christianity stuff is one of the most volatile aspects of his thought that takes him several years of constant writing and thinking to integrate into his project.  I attempt to make the case for all of this in my book.

I do think his reading of Kierkegaard in that book can be saved, but it would take too much work and the whole process would be annoying with you interjecting constantly.  I’d ultimately need to write an essay critiquing your essay, with suitable references to Kierkegaard, etc.  But I’ve already used up all the time I should’ve spent doing that—namely by arguing in comment boxes with you.

Also: failing to respond to all your requests for “why” does not mean that I have never offered reasons.  It means I got impatient and walked off.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/01/08 at 12:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You need to take into account the different “authors.” Silentio has a different position than Climacus, who is not yet religious but getting closer—Silentio seems to me to be fundamentally in despair, in a different but complementary way from Constantius.  For Climacus, the religious indicates a fundamental incompleteness to the ethical realm or the realm of our knowledge, but is not “irrational” per se.

Once you get to Anticlimacus, who is within the religious stage (and further along than Kierkegaard believes himself to be, strangely), the emphasis on irrationality is significantly less, to the point where I can’t even really remember it. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, by the time Zizek arrives at his “mature” (or at least current) position on Christianity, he’s mainly reading the Postscript, along with Works of Love and the journals.  There’s even a stray reference to Practice in Christianity

Now I’m tempting myself into a further analysis of the place of On Belief and the Abraham stuff in Zizek’s development, but I’m supposed to be writing a dissertation on a completely unrelated topic—though I am going to be discussing my book with some students today, so maybe this is providential.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/01/08 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Faith is not irrational (if that has connotations of rational weakness, which is a very different matter), but it is absurd, per se. It is inherently unreasonable as a belief. It is belief in the possibility of eternity in time. This boils down to faith in the doctrine of the incarnation, in Christian terms. God is eternal and outside of time, and lives and dies in time. That’s faith, for K, and that why he decides the incarnation is the key to Christianity. I don’t think K. ever wavers from this focus or conviction. Anticlimacus does emphasize less the privacy, but it is still belief in an absurdity.

As to the getting impatient and walking off: well why didn’t you just say so! (It’s not that I mind the fact that you disagree with me, after all.)

By John Holbo on 12/01/08 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t it interesting, then, that Fear and Trembling doesn’t deal with the Incarnation at all?  (Somewhat despite yourself, you’re prompting me to think this issue through in a different way—though doubtless I’ll continue to be held responsible for everything I’ve said and failed to say in the past....)

By Adam Kotsko on 12/01/08 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is one oblique reference to the incarnation in Problema I, I believe. He notes that there are no clear analogies to Abraham ‘except perhaps one later one’. I rather suspect he is talking about the incarnation.

I think you are, technically, responsible for everything you’ve said and - perhaps to a lesser extent - failed to say in the past. (Do you disagree? If not you, then who?) But, of course, you are free to change your mind about stuff.

By John Holbo on 12/01/08 at 01:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, just like old times.

By Adam Roberts on 12/01/08 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You know what we need now? A little ToS intervention.

By John Emerson on 12/01/08 at 03:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That Levi-Strauss is still living at 100 certainly and an effect on the celebrations in his honor. There’s no way to know whether Zizek will live that long (& the odds are against it), still, will Zizek’s work be remembered on the 100th anniversary of his birth?

By Bill Benzon on 12/01/08 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Thenk you, thenk you. We hope you have enjoyed our show.)

By John Holbo on 12/01/08 at 09:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek, “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy”
egads, see Via http://mickhartley.typepad.com/blog/2008/12/the-pet-subversive.html

By on 12/02/08 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What makes Zizek worthy of mistrust, it seems (from my limited exposure to his ideas), is that he is not interested in the meta-cultural shift that makes communism possible, and which is vastly more important than the military / political action of revolution; his deconstructive/critical focus is on the latter, on violence, without the philosophical or ethical underpinning. It does not mean that his particular criticisms of any given event are necessarily un-insightful, but his larger project is empty of content (despite the moniker of leftist) and, as such, suspect.

By Daniel E. Pritchard on 12/02/08 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You must be some kind of genius to be able to develop that nuanced a critique from “limited exposure” to Zizek’s ideas.  Imagine what would happen if you read a good chunk!

By Adam Kotsko on 12/02/08 at 05:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you Adam! It’s far too generous to call me a genius though, really. Just another careful reader. If I have the time, perhaps I will – Zizek’s shorter essays are often sweetly baroque with the cute references and technical language, but somehow slight. Much ado about not very much. I am curious to see if he works with any less – what is it? – naivete, in his books.

By Daniel E. Pritchard on 12/02/08 at 09:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Without having read a word of Zizek, I suspect that engaging his critics on their terms and conditions is not in the spirit of Zizek’s project.

By on 12/02/08 at 09:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Meta-cultural shift that makes communism possible.”??? Um, the Comintern was destroyed by Stalinism, there has been since that period no mass anti-capitalist set of working class parties anywhere of any import (loads of Trotskyist and Maoist sectlets though) and the energy of the 60’s dissapated into a variety of religious cults, crazy weather underground bombers and careerists who went into the academy so they could think they were going to be the new Frederic Jameson or Zizek.
My Granddad who helped to build the UAW during the sit down strike era of the mid 30’s would have a chuckle over this thread.

By on 12/02/08 at 09:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Remember the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Han and Leia are in the Falcon inside the big space worm and they’re arguing, arguing, arguing, and then they’re totally kissing?!

I love that scene!

By waxbanks on 12/02/08 at 11:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s pretty naive to suppose you can love that scene in isolation, waxbanks.

By John Holbo on 12/03/08 at 12:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Alain Badiou may or may not be an anti-Semite, I have no clue, but it seems pretty bizarre that Kirsch completely ignores the obvious Badiou/Zizek affinities like saving truth, ontology, and politics from post-structuralism to suggest their alliance is some sort partnership based on anti-Semitism. 

Kirsch also calls Badiou a “French radical philosopher”, which means that he has Marxist leanings?  How is that radical for a continental philosopher?  Or has opposing relativism somehow become radical in a roundabout way? 

I can’t understand why Zizek gets so much attention.  I don’t really care if he’s joking or not; if he is, then he certainly isn’t doing much to save philosophy or politics from some postmodern abyss.  If he isn’t, then what, he’s really promoting orthodox Marxism after Stalin, or Lacanian Marxism after Althusser? 

This is from one of the NYT editorials Kirsch refers to:

“For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.”

have to admit, that is definitely funny.
//disclaimer: read little zizek, know-nothing critique, etc//

By on 12/03/08 at 06:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel, You know what you could do to satisfy your curiosity?  Actually read one of his fucking books.

Pseudonym, You know what you could do to try to determine what Zizek is advocating?  Actually read one of his fucking books.

Or alternatively, you could read my book on him to get a broad view of what he’s up to and some indication of where to start investigating particular issues.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/03/08 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you whore.

By John Emerson on 12/03/08 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael Pugliese “ and the energy of the 60’s dissapated into a variety of religious cults, crazy weather underground bombers and careerists who went into the academy so they could think they were going to be the new Frederic Jameson or Zizek. “

And there was also that little Khmer Rouge kerfuffle in Cambodia, thanks to Pol Pot’s exposure to French Communists.

By on 12/04/08 at 01:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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