Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

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

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Friday, December 30, 2005

My MLA; Tales From the Cryptonormative

Posted by John Holbo on 12/30/05 at 02:14 PM

I had a good MLA; sat in on a few interesting panels, met several folks I really wanted to meet; had Walter Benn Michaels look at me and emit an expressive cocktail of disdain, whimsy and mounting horror: 'are YOU John Holbo?' My Zizek panel was generally fun. The night before, I fretted and finally hammered out a brisk little 13 minute stemwinder, whose text I reproduce under the fold. I think all talks at these affairs OUGHT to be made freely available. That said, most of what I said I've said before. I start by rehearsing highlights of my "Phil and Lit" paper (PDF), because all my newer thoughts depend on those points but I couldn't assume audience familiarity. Still, I tried to make the old points by means of mostly fresh bits; and to make at least a few fresh points. I was a little disappointed no one attacked my piece, which is pretty peppery. Feel free to remedy that defect.

By the by, my New Years resolution is to stop saying the same things over and over again in posts. I need some new material, man. Yeah, I can see that.

And I didn't end up doing justice to my talk title, but that's pretty traditional at these affairs. A better tag might have been - "Tales From The Cryptonormative: Zizek and the Question of Whether Only a Keyser Soze Can Save Us". But that would have needed more Habermas quotes; if there is anything that can suck the oxygen out of only 13 minutes worth of talk time, it's Habermas quotes. (Last but not least, pardon some of the ALL CAPS typography. I rely on that to help me with my oral punctuation and can't be bothered to go back and subdue it now.)

And now ... my talk.

My title is “Zizek and the Limits of Philosophical Composition”, which puts the accent on form. But let me start with substance, condensing basic points from a "Philosophy and Literature" essay, “On Zizek and Trilling”, which got me invited here today. I argue that Zizek’s theology-inflected political philosophy – specifically, his signature mash-up of Kierkegaard and Lenin, in On Belief – is ill-conceived and basically unserious. Zizek proposes a “revolutionary version” of Kierkegaard’s notion of a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. This truly, deeply makes no sense.

To explain: the teleological suspension of the ethical is, in effect, one of two distinguishing spiritual characteristics of the Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith. The other feature is what Kierkegaard terms the knight’s “finite solidity”. The Knight of Faith is not other-worldly. This is a big part of what makes the Knight attractive to Zizek. He wants – as he says – a “materialist” version of the Gospel truth of “Life in Christ”. But time is short. Nothing about finite solidity vs. other-worldly resignation for you. Let’s focus on the teleological suspension of the ethical.

In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard writes: “If faith cannot make it into a holy deed to murder one’s own son, then let the judgment fall on Abraham as on anyone else” (p, 60).  IF faith can do this, it does so in virtue of the teleological suspension of the ethical. This does not mean suspending some lower duty for a higher duty. It means there must be absolutely no ethical justification for one’s act. To illustrate what this means, Kierkegaard contrasts Abraham with Brutus - the one who executed his sons for betraying the state, not the one who stabbed Caesar. Here we have two fathers willing to kill their sons. But Brutus is a “tragic hero”, not a knight of faith. Brutus can justify himself by citing his moral duty. Duty to state trumps duty to family. (If you don’t believe me: read Hegel.) The knight of faith, unlike the tragic hero, “has the pain of being unable to make himself intelligible to others” (p. 107). Unlike Brutus, Abraham cannot EXPLAIN – even to himself – WHY it makes sense for him to be prepared to do it.

Kierkegaard does not bother to mention it, but it is likewise the case that Abraham cannot EXPLAIN, in terms of UTILITY, why he is prepared to do it. It isn’t the case that what God commands of Abraham amounts to one of those potted philosophy seminar examples: EITHER you kill your innocent son OR a trolley will run over 10 innocent strangers tomorrow. Abraham is NOT prepared to kill his son to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number.

The general Kierkegaardian point is that faith, IF there is such a thing, is not a matter of Ethics, on any theory of Ethics. Faith is a suspension of the whole sphere of ethical reason-giving for the sake of something higher than ANY and ALL ethical ends.

It’s very puzzling, yes. On the strength of the absurd, and all that. But getting back to Zizek, the problem is that his political philosophy misses the fact that Kierkegaardian faith isn’t act utilitarianism.

Let me prove it. In On Belief, Zizek quotes a Brecht poem about a revolutionary shooting ‘a good man’, presumably for some revolutionary purpose. Zizek says the revolutionary hereby “suspends the law,” thereby bridging the gap “between the domain of moral norms and Faith, the unconditional engagement.” No, this is complete confusion. Brecht’s revolutionary suspends a lower ethical imperative – don’t kill the innocent – for the sake of a higher: make whatever sacrifices so that the revolution succeeds. So the case Zizek cites as a paradigm teleological suspension of the ethical is, in fact, paradigmatically a case of utilitarian rationalism.

At this point I suspect Zizek partisans will want to say that the issue isn’t whether a close reading of Kierkegaard makes trouble him. The issue is whether his political stance is attractive and compelling. The whole unconditional absolute commitment shattering the liberal hegemony thing. That that.

But this just gets us to the deeper problem, of which Kierkegaard confusions are a symptom: Zizek’s uncompromising stance is compromised because he is uncommitted as to what it is he is committed to. He won’t stand for waffling. But he waffles about just what waffling it is for which he won’t stand.

That’s confusing. Let me explain by putting a question to Zizek, or anyone who finds his stance attractive: WHY do you think this uncompromising commitment is RIGHT – or GOOD, or necessary, or attractive, or what have you? There are two possible answers: EITHER it is attractive as a means to an end, OR as an end in itself. Actually – crucially – there’s a third possibility: namely, something might be BOTH an end in itself AND a means to further ends. But let’s start with the EITHER/OR. It is a revolution we contemplate, and here is a good man standing against the wall. So let’s talk broken eggs. Are you breaking these good eggs as a means to an end – some REALLY good omelet? Or do you just like breaking a few good eggs?

Let me put it another way. Zizek urges that his readers should take up the role of the ‘vanishing mediator’; that is, they should ‘identity with excrement’. But here again the EITHER/OR obtrudes. Is treating people like shit a means to an end? Or is treating people like shit an end in itself? (Pardon my French.)

Now the obvious answer is: of course a good revolutionary ONLY breaks eggs to make omelets. Of course the good revolutionary doesn’t shoot the good man just for the sake of treating a good person like shit. But this obvious answer isn’t really so obvious. First, if Zizek is simply a utilitarian – if he, like Lenin, takes ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ to be the rational benchmark of each individual right action – then he could have been clearer about it. Can we just agree Zizek isn’t just a utilitarian in Lacanian clothing? Good. On to option two: for Zizek, it seems that revolution is not a means to an end, where the end is a better society. Rather, the act of revolution, the Event of revolution, is itself an ethically authentic achievement. What’s good about revolutions is that they produce ideal revolutionaries, not that they produce ideal post-revolutionary societies. Zizek writes in On Belief: “the truly free choice is a choice in which I do not merely choose between two or more options WITHIN a pre-given set of coordinates, but I choose to change this set of coordinates itself” (p. 121). This moment is the Truth-Event. The pre-given coordinates are the eggs to be broken. Breaking them IS the point, because authentic freedom is the point; ONLY breaking eggs is an authentically free act. Ergo, broken eggs, not the omelet, are the thing.

Looking awry at the last line from Zizek’s Looking Awry: “I love you, but there is in you something more than you, objet petit a, which is why I mutilate you” (p. 169). If the Zizekian revolutionary is honest, I think this is what he will say to his good victim. Forget Brecht. He’s too sane. Think Brett Easton Ellis. Ideal revolutionary as American Psycho, seen through Slovenian eyes. (The careful student of Kierkegaard may also want to consult the category of the ‘demonic’, from Problema III in Fear and Trembling.)

Let’s make the same point from a slightly different angle. In The Fragile Absolute, Zizek declares that “in order effectively to liberate oneself from the grip of existing social reality, one should first renounce the transgressive fantasmic supplement that attaches us to it” (p. 149). In plain American, we need to pull a Keyser Soze. Zizek’s choice of examples, not my own.

The ideal revolutionary, Zizek goes on to suggest, will be akin to this mysterious character from Bryan Singer’s film The Usual Suspects. Soze – on discovering his wife and children held hostage – kills his wife and children, then the kidnappers, then their families and friends, then anyone they ever associated with.

In response I am inclined to quote Habermas, something I never, ever do. From “Europe’s Second Chance”: “I’ve got a tin ear for Heideggerian melodies. “Only a god can save us” – that’s the kind of noble tone in philosophy that already got on Kant’s nerves.” In a ‘first as tragedy, then as farce’ vein, let me add that ‘only a Keyser Soeze can save us’ is not very impressive updating of the jargon of authenticity, in my private, liberal opinion.

If we simply must spell it out, the problem with setting up Keyser Soeze as the template for a revolutionary knight of faith is that, quite apart from difficulties keeping a straight face, it’s EITHER/OR all over again. Soeze’s strategy is utilitarian. Game theorists will happily point out that it’s quite unlikely – should Soeze remarry and start a new family – that kidnappers will try THAT trick again. So the rationality of his murderous spree consists in its strong deterrent value. On the other hand, if Soeze isn’t an ideal on these utilitarian grounds, then he’s a psychopath. So what is it, exactly, that Zizek wants us to learn from him? File your answers under: tales from the cryptonormative.

Now at this point we want to backtrack and consider that third option: means to an end AND an end in itself: Zizek may say that, yes, of course he idealizes the ethical authenticity of the revolutionary. He thinks breaking eggs is noble. And he likes omelets. He wants capitalism overthrown, AND something better put in place. But what END we are trying to achieve? Some basket of goods? I’ll give you a hint: after reading several books by Zizek, I honestly have no idea whatsoever what he will say. What do YOU think he thinks Keyser Soze will DO for us besides, possibly, kill us?

And now, lest I do nothing to justify my title, let me quote some bits from a Geoffrey Galt Harpham essay that I honestly meant to discuss at length, but just can't possibly: "Doing the Impossible: Slavoj Zizek and the Limits of Knowledge":

Zizek is capable of an exceptionally astringent and sustained metaphysical rigor. By comparison with Zizek in full Hegelian gust, Richard Rorty, Robert Nozick, Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, Stanley Cavell, Bernard Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Thomas Nagel seem to be pop psychologists disseminating edifying ideas in the Great Books tradition.

And another bit:

Perhaps the most immediately apparent quality of Zizek's discourse is its breathtaking rapidity. He seems to bound over the tops of peaks others have laboriously scaled one at a time, seizing complex arguments in a masterly and synthetic manner that diagnoses others' hard-won conclusions as symptoms of a common failure to grasp the truth, a failure he immediately rectifies. His texts blast through the discursive version of the sound barrier, passing the point at which they might be considered simply accelerated versions of ordinary discourse and becoming something else altogether.

Let me just bound over the top of this to something I believe, but can’t hope to argue today. It seems to me Zizek's philosophy functions, to the extent it does, by providing a vivid, aesthetic sense of HOW it SEEMS to function - leaping from peak to peak, laughing, doing what no one else can, staying up and up on gust after gust without visible means of support. To put it another way, I am sure this Hegelian Keyser Soeze is perfectly capable of slaughtering Rorty and Nozick and all the rest. On the other hand, Keyser Soze is a FICTIONAL character. More than that, he's a nod to a genre cliche. That’s something to think about. If, in the attempt to shatter all reason, to be authentically liberated; if in the attempt to sidestep all pre-established coordinates - you just perpetrate monumental cliche - that is potentially a source of concern.

Now let me conclude by repeating a point made in my Phil & Lit paper, by means of a new selection of bits.

Let me explain what I see as the simple problem with Zizek’s oft-repeated, oft-reformulated critique of democracy and liberalism. From Looking Awry:

“Democracy” is fundamentally “antihumanistic,” it is not “made to the measure of (concrete, actual men),” but to the measure of a formal, heartless abstraction. There is in the very notion of democracy no place for the fullness of concrete human content, for the genuineness of community links; democracy is a formal link of abstract individuals. All attempts to fill out democracy with “concrete contents” succumb sooner or later to the totalitarian temptation, however sincere their motives may be. (p. 163)

The way to start seeing what is wrong here is to make an argument by analogy. Substitute stop sign for democracy. What do you get?

Stop signs are fundamentally “antihumanistic,” are not “made to the measure of (concrete, actual men),” but to the measure of a formal, heartless abstraction. There is in the very notion of a stop sign no place for the fullness of concrete human content, for the genuineness of community links ...

I’ll stop there.

Here’s the fallacy: from the fact that stop signs cannot singlehandedly constitute genuine community, it does not follow their presence precludes genuine community. Likewise, if there are certain good things liberal democracy itself cannot secure for you, it does not follow that liberal democracy precludes securing those things.

Now admittedly, Zizek thinks he has got a second argument up his sleeve. But it is again a very bad one. Zizek quotes everyone’s favorite liberal ironist whipping boy, Richard Rorty about how a liberal utopia would be one in which we drop the demand for any unification of the public and the private sphere. For example, the fact that you have to stop for stop signs is divorced from your private attempt to find meaning in life. So we have

a society in which the role of social law is reduced to a set of neutral rules guarding this freedom of self-creation by protecting each individual from violent intrusions into his private space. The problem with this liberal dream is that the split between the public and private never comes about without a certain remainder … [The split] is possible only on condition that the very domain of the public law is “smeared” by an obscene dimension of “private” enjoyment: public law draws the “energy” for the pressure it exerts on the subject from the very enjoyment of which it deprives him by acting as an agency of prohibition. In psychoanalytic theory, such an obscene law has a precise name: the superego. (p. 159)

Now the problem with this is that it is not the fundamental impasse/deadlock for liberalism that Zizek assumes it is. The dynamic that Zizek is discussing is obvious and, unsurprisingly, well-known to liberals. I quote Trilling from The Liberal Imagination – the passage that made me write a paper on Trilling and Zizek to begin with.

In the abstract [liberalism] sets great store by variousness and possibility. Yet, as is true of any other human entity, the conscious and the unconscious life of liberalism are not always in accord … For in the very interests of its great primal act of imagination by which it establishes its essence and existence—in the interest, that is, of its vision of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life—it drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination. (p. xi)

Trilling does not think it is terribly necessary to argue for this. He basically asserts without argument, at the start of his book, what Zizek produces with an air of dramatic revelation at the end of his, after 160+ pages of Lacanian, pop cultural throat-clearing. If you want earlier liberal scoops of Zizek's point, they are to be found in Mill’s essay on Coleridge. Yep. Primordial stuff erupts in unpleasant ways if you try to push it down out of sight. If you want a pop culture proof: for the sweet love of the Krell, who thinks liberals can’t understand Forbidden Planet? They were too pure for their own good. That’s what generated the monster. Yes, we get it. (This isn't rocket science.)

Getting back to Rorty – yes, he talks about what a liberal utopia would be like. Meanwhile, back on earth, Rorty isn’t a utopian. He’s a pragmatist: if you warn him that liberal institutions are doomed to be smeared with obscenity, in practice, he will pat you on the head and bless you for the pure Platonic innocence that ever made you assume he assumed otherwise.

Do you see the thread running through? Since I’ve knocked Zizek once in terms of the opening sentences off Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, let me do it again in terms of the final paragraph of Sincerity and Authenticity:

The doctrine that madness is health, that madness is liberation and authenticity, receives a happy welcome from a consequential part of our educated public. And when we have given due weight to the likelihood that those who respond positively to the doctrine don’t have it in mind to go mad, let alone insane – it is characteristic of the intellectual life of our culture that it fosters a form of assent which does not involve actual credence – we must take it to be significant of our circumstance that many among us find it gratifying to entertain the thought that alienation is to be overcome only by the completeness of alienation, and that alienation completed is not a deprivation or deficiency but a potency. Perhaps exactly because the thought is assented to so facilely, so without what used to be called seriousness, it might seem that no expression of disaffection from the social existence was ever so desperate as this eagerness to say that authenticity of personal being is achieved through an ultimate isolateness and through the power that this is presumed to bring. The falsities of an alienated social reality are rejected in favour of an upward psychopathic mobility to the point of divinity, each one of us a Christ – but with none of the inconveniences of undertaking to intercede, of being a sacrifice [everyone wants to be Abraham; no one wants to be Isaac], of reasoning with rabbis, of making sermons, of having disciples, of going to weddings and to funerals, of beginning something and at a certain point remarking that it is finished. (p. 171-2)


What struck me, never having read Zizek, is that he employs a theological frame of reference for some of his thinking. Why’s that interesting? Because I’ve just been reading around in the Gumbrecht book Lindsey Waters mentioned in his Chronicle piece and G uses some theological framing as well, though not in the passages I quote elsewhere on this site. Is this a superfical coincidence or are we in for a decade or so of theological framing across the board?

The Harpham passages make Zizek sound like he’s been channeling Superman—and I’m not making a reference to Nietzsche. Is Z faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive? Come to think of it, a yellow Z on a red shield on a blue body suit might be just the costume for the contemporary cultural theorist.

By Bill Benzon on 12/30/05 at 06:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is there a reason for vowing not to say the same things over and over again all the time? Is this the latest thing in the field, and something I should think about myself? God, I hope not.

By John Emerson on 12/30/05 at 08:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No, I think I’m actually pioneering in this area.

By John Holbo on 12/30/05 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’ll cost you tenue. Everyone knows you get tenue by publishing the same idea 4 times a year for 5 years. Gotta’ keep pushing the boulder up the hill.

By Bill Benzon on 12/30/05 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops! “Tenure”—and I misspelled it twice.

By Bill Benzon on 12/30/05 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve tried to figure out the appeal of Zizek. He writes well I think, and has lots of interesting touches in what he does. In some kind of way he allows people to continue to be revolutionary without any actual politics. It’s like one of those messages in Kafka between one long-dead man and another long-dead man, or people continuing to worship God they no longer believe exists.

I don’t like him even well enough to read enough to be able to say why. The esoteric kind of Marxism of Althusser, Adorno, and Lacan (if he’s a Marxist) has always offended me.

And Jesus, in high school Kierkegaard didn’t seem as nutty as that. That’s one sick reading of the Abraham-Isaac story.

By John Emerson on 12/31/05 at 12:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In some kind of way he allows people to continue to be revolutionary without any actual politics.

That sort of thing has been in high demand for 30 years.

By Bill Benzon on 12/31/05 at 06:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Both you and Scott referred to some statement of WBM’s about your Theory project.  So what did he actually say?

By on 12/31/05 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson, I am actually a big admirer of “Fear and Trembling”, although of course you are not wrong to say the thesis is ‘sick’. I give a consierably more nuanced presentation of K.’s position in my P&L paper. In the talk I just gave the hammersmack version.

Rich, the WBM encounter came up in the Q&A after the panel on the reception of his book - “Our America: Ten Years Later”. At some point he started riffing disdainfully about Theory’s Empire. Something like: ‘Of course, if you want to see ressentiment in its pure, Platonic form, unpolluted by any touch of intellectual content, you should check out this new book ...’ He was talking smack for entertainment purposes. I asked a question that went something like: ‘I like the book, could you be so kind as to tell me exactly what form of ressentiment I must necessarily suffer from,’ and then he qualifed a bit; ‘the Searle piece is ok because it’s got some philosophical content, although it’s wrong, but mostly the volume is just professed love of literature concealing an actual hatred of literature.’ [I think that’s what he said, although I could be misremembering the order in which things got said, and although I’m honestly not sure by what infernally suspicious and subterranean hermeneutic route he could even think he knows the contributors to TE are crypto-lit-haters. That never got addressed. I’m pretty sure he was just twitting his audience for the sake of pure Platonic fun, unpolluted by any touch of serious argument.] Then he continued: ‘On the other hand, maybe you are the sort of person who like to distinguish Theory with a big-T from theory with a little-t.’ At this point I started pantomiming affirmation of this personal disposition and he looked at me, realization dawning: ‘Are YOU John Holbo?’ Then, after a graceful cut-off of this line, the conversation sort of moved back to the official subject of the panel. Later we all went out for drinks, which he bought, because he and Sean know each other very well. He was much more amenable to rational disputation when he was not putting on a show.

By John Holbo on 12/31/05 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’d be funny if Zizek’s reading of Kierkegaard was dependent on Derrida’s reading in _The Gift of Death_ (funny because he has this weird thing where he’s not allowed to admit outright that he likes Derrida).

I’m currently reading _The Parallax View_, because I somehow agreed to write two separate reviews of the thing.  I’ll keep everyone updated about whether Zizek says anything about science that a real scientist wouldn’t say, etc.  So far it’s a lot of Hegel and Lacan, surprisingly enough.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/31/05 at 01:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I sort of liked Kierkegaard’s weirdness back in the prehistoric days of existentialism. In those days becoming as weird as possible seemed like an attractive goal. By now it’s sort of a cliche.

Kierkegaard was not a hunchback, Nietzsche did not have syphilis, Poe was not an alcoholic, and Kant may not have been a virgin. On the other hand, Aquinas died insane ("impacted meditation").

By John Emerson on 12/31/05 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kierkegaard arguably had the best hair in the history of philosophy—Derrida is is only real challenger.

Zizek has the best bags under his eyes in the history of philosophy.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/31/05 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Next thing you know Emerson will be saying Spinoza wasn’t an organ grinder.

By ben wolfson on 12/31/05 at 02:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What?  Nietzsche didn’t have syphilis?  There goes the world’s greatest “Rock/Paper/Scissors” variant:  “God/Nietzsche/Syphilis.” I’m crushed.

By on 12/31/05 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Spinoza and Thoreau both made their livings grinding things very fine (glass and graphite respectively), and both died of lung disease. Descartes, by contrast, died because he could not satisfy the Swedish Princess (later Queen, with Greta Garbo) Christina’s insatiable desires. The cover of the new Penguin Discourse On Method shows Descartes looking darkly Latin (but toadish) leering down at the milkfed princess. (But he paid a rice for this!)

The anecdotal history of philosophy has been somewhat neglected, IMHO, since the advent of T/theory.

By John Emerson on 12/31/05 at 05:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not that I’m writing about this yet (because I’ve just arrived in Houston and don’t want to consult that dread little notebook of mine, half-filled with every significant word spoken at the MLA), but I think you have the context a little off, John. 

The discussion started with his dismissal of the Waters’ article then to his dismissal of Theory’s Empire.  I don’t think his comments were devoid of content, but I do (as my follow-up question made clear) think that he wanted to ignore talking about the t/Theory style of the parties involved and focus on what he thought about their larger projects...and that he thought there were some basic correspondences.  Foremost among them a belief that something uncouth--Theory for the TE people, a dessicated historicism for Waters’ crowd--stands between the profession and the literature it loves.  Granted, that’s not what we asked him about, or the substance of our respective critiques, but I think it an accurate perception about the perspective of both sides in the debate. 

But I still think he’s far more interested in logical entailment than he let on in his response to my question.  “I don’t want to be the ‘argument’ guy”?  Pffft.  He’s too good at it not to want to be it.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 12/31/05 at 08:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

FYI: Both Walter and John were much funnier in that exchange that either John or I let on.  The whole room was in stitches the entire Q & A.  (Not to mention during John’s own paper on Thursday morning.  He had hardcore acolytes of Zizek (including one prof. for whom Zizek is the godfather of one of her children) doubled over.  Esp. with the Soze material. 

Just wanted to make that clear, lest I seem a little bitchy before...but that is what attending 21 panels in four days and reeling with exhaustion and travel-induced fatigue will do to a body.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 12/31/05 at 08:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cool, I await the expressions of cognitive dissonance from the side-takers off the Waters article.  If they ever figure it out.

By on 12/31/05 at 11:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott K’s account is to be believed, not mine, because he was taking notes, I wasn’t. Also, I was indeed quite amused by - rather than annoyed by - WMB’s performance during Q&A.

Adam, what does Zizek actually have to say about the films of Alan Pakula? I am a Pakula fan, mostly for “Klute”, which I’ve posted about at least a couple times. Scott McLemee was joking over lunch that I only get so bothered by Zizek due to the narcissism of small differences, whereas of course I am a total pop culture hound for exactly everything he loves. So (I jollied Scott M along with the proper term) my hating on Zizek is just surplus enjoyment. Well, anyway, what does he actually have to say about “The Parallax View”?


By John Holbo on 01/01/06 at 12:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek’s prose is Holbonic. Is not Holbo’s thought in some (concealed) way Zizekian? Discuss.

I don’t actually believe that. But Zizek’s way with the negative rhetorical question is infectious.

By Scott McLemee on 01/01/06 at 11:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(Coming late to this; I was away from t’internet for Christmas/New Year).

John H., boiling down (or ‘hammersmacking’; excellent word) your paper makes some things clearer.  By this I mean that (and I like the original paper v. much, and don’t have too much time for Zizek, but) it shows up what I take to be a possible fuzziness in the argument.  Or maybe I just haven’t followed what you’re saying attentively enough.  But you say you were disappointed nobody attacked you …

In a nutshell it’s this: your ‘two, no, strike-that three’ reasons, with attractively shouty capitals:

WHY do you think this uncompromising commitment is RIGHT – or GOOD, or necessary, or attractive, or what have you? There are two possible answers: EITHER it is attractive as a means to an end, OR as an end in itself. Actually – crucially – there’s a third possibility: namely, something might be BOTH an end in itself AND a means to further ends.

All three of these reasons are utilitarian: use in the future, use now, both.  But utilitarianism is precisely the ground of your critique of Zizek: which is to say, you’re here assuming (on Z.’s part) precisely the facile utilitarianism with which you are beating him.  Your point is that Z misunderstands Kierkegaard’s Abraham as a utilitarian, when in fact K. makes plain he slices up his son precisely for non-utilitarian reasons.  You prepare the ground for this charge by quoting Zizek quoting Brecht on the revolutionary shooting the good man.  I agree that Brecht justifies this sort of action on a ‘bigger picture’ utilitarianism.  But you don’t persuade me that this is what Brecht’s example means for Zizek.  Don’t you need a fourth category in your either/or/both option pad, quoted above?  A non-utilitarian, strictly pataphysical or situationist reason for uncompromising commitment; a reason without regard to utility of any sort?  And … I only suggest this, mind … if you read Zizek’s various bits and pieces in the light of that, a sort of faithless (or dialectically materialist) pataphysics, then don’t many of your objections lose their force?

As we might want to put it, utility is the currency of the superego; and Zizek, in his glorious messiness and grubby urges, is Iddish.

By Adam Roberts on 01/01/06 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I could have made this clearer. I meant to oppose deontology (Kantianism) and consequentialism (utilitarianism) and emphasize that Kierkegaard would say Abraham’s willingness can be justified in neither fashion.

By John Holbo on 01/01/06 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I just posted the following over at J&B. Maybe it fits here, too. There’s a debate on this philosophy wikiproject page about whether to incorporate reference to my P&L Zizek paper into the entry on the guy. On the one hand, my paper is “a bit dopey as a critique, but I can sort of make out the claims.” On the other hand, “Holbo is an example of the lib-dem critique that runs the same whether advanced by fukuyama or joe blow off the street. Holbo’s article is a decent insofar as it is typically banal example.” Well, there you have it. (Not that I really think I deserve to get incorporated into a Zizek entry on wikipedia, so maybe I’ll sit this one out.)

I do like the fact that someone suspects that I sock-puppeted the following on my own behalf:

Perhaps the most potent critiques of Žižek’s theory come, unsurprisingly, from his primary antagonists: the Liberal Democrats. John Holbo of the National University of Singapore, for example, scathingly criticizes Zizek for his refusal to lay out what, precisely, social formation he would replace the existing order with. Holbo argues that Žižek’s “irrational” approach to thought disregards the ontic benefits brought about by late capital, specifically in its liberal-democratic form. By refusing to “play the game,” as it were, and demanding leftist fidelity to a revolutionary ethic, Žižek is paradoxically demonstrating an unwillingness to face the consequences of political action (a pathology that he himself often criticizes). Politics, simply, is liberal democracy these days, like it or not.

I would never, ever use the phrase “disregards the ontic benefits brought about by late capital”.

I also think it’s sort of funny that Holbo “apparently does exist, according to Google,” when I also exist according to wikipedia.

By John Holbo on 01/01/06 at 08:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Parallax View doesn’t have a lot that’s radically new or different from his other works so far (just one out of six chapters—the holidays are not generally a productive reading period for me)—it seems to be more a consolidation so far.  It is the most serious book he’s written since Ticklish Subject.

I don’t know what he has to say about that particular filmmaker—I’m not very interested in film at all, so unless he’s talking about someone really obvious or someone he’s obsessed with, the names don’t stand out to me.

It would probably be better if there were critiques of Zizek out there that were a little more serious than your article—someone saying that he’s getting Lacan or Hegel wrong, etc., instead of just saying, “He’s wrong in every respect!”

By Adam Kotsko on 01/01/06 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t know much about philosophy, but there’s a polysci component in John’s post that I want to address—and, in the process, perhaps I can explain why debates between Valvesters and Long Sundayites can be so vitriolic (in a way that goes beyond the supposed Theory/theory distinction, which, as numerous comments have noted, is sort of vapid and doesn’t explain much). 

In a way, the final paragraphs of John’s post restate the contours of what’s become known as the “liberalism versus communitarianism” debate, at least since 1982’s publication of Michael Sandel’s “Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.” As I understand it, John Rawls’s classic liberal tome “A Theory of Justice” argues that the right should precede the good—we should all be able to vote, we must stop at stop signs, but our conception of the good life should be left to the private sphere.  Sandel, by contrast, argues that a nation needs some strong conception of a public good, or at least, the good should be actively debated by the public.  This opposition seems roughly analogous to the Rorty vs. Zizek opposition that John has set up.

In my view, each side, liberal and communitarian, has (1) a compelling critique of the other side, and (2) a “sexy” critique that dismisses the other side’s claims instead of engaging with them.  I think that the Valve and Long Sunday often have flame wars because they are making the “sexy” critique.

Let me explain briefly.  Communitarians will claim that Rawls-articulated liberalism leaves us with a public vacuum, with “formal, heartless abstraction[s].” While not a communitarian himself, Rogers M. Smith does a good job articulating this critique:  “Rawls has argued that needs for rich communal experiences should generally be met not at the national level, but within ‘the full and diverse internal life of the many free communities of interests that equal liberties allows’…[But] Rawls’s cautious evocation of a vision of multifaceted flourishing within the ‘social union of social unions’ [i.e. the neutral liberal state] cannot…truly serve as the unifying social aim he needs…Rawls’s government can take no actions to prevent sheeplike mediocre conformity from prevailing instead of diverse excellences…the state of pure Rawlsian justice is ineed indistinguishable from an instrumental compact to assist egoistic ends.” Sandel, meanwhile, will point out that there is no way a Rawlsian conception of right could have stimulated the anti-slavery campaign in antebellum America or provided Lincoln with his moral framework in his debates with Douglas. 

The above is, in my opinion, a reasonable and compelling critique of liberalism.  On the other hand, there’s also a more trendy, unfair, “cult-stud” critique that, as John points out, Zizek seems to engage in at times.  This second critique argues that liberalism actually conceals totalitarianism in some way, that democracy and liberalism are actually a kind of fascism—as John puts it, the “liberal hegemony thing.”

Then there’s the other side.  Liberals will argue that communitarians can’t envision a pluralistic society in which everyone agrees to get along, even if they have different conceptions of what the public good should be.  Communitarians will end up arguing for a very particular, contingent conception of the good, which will appeal to some and alienate others.  Or communitarians just generally valorize people acting together in concert for a great cause, without explaining how everyday life is to function after the revolution is over.  In the above post, John seems to be attacking Zizek along these lines—in a weird way, Zizek is a kind of godless communitarian, who likes the idea of some sort of prophetic “pure ethic of absolute ends” (Weber’s phrase) sweeping through a disenchanted bourgeois populace, but can’t really articulate the content of this prophecy; he just likes the idea of people acting together as a group against an unspecified injustice.  John’s point seems to be that this conception of political action isn’t really coherent. 

I think that criticism is well-taken.  On the other hand, there’s also a more “sexy” critique of communitarians that has them sliding down the slippery slope toward fascism.  For example, I have the greatest respect for Dr. McCann’s work, but he seems to engage in this line of attack at times, e.g., having Sandel join hands with a kind of right-Hegelian valorization of war, a blood-based conception of nationhood, etc.  Perhaps the criticism of Zizek has followed this line (although Zizek seems to bring it on himself!).

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?  Hopefully this sounds (somewhat) illuminating instead of fatuous, but I really would map a lot of the Valve/Long Sunday conflict onto the above model.  Long Sundayites seem to be not only against capitalism, but against bourgeois mediocrity in general irrespective of inequality, which often leads them to advance a sort of communitarian argument.  E.g., Zizek’s ostensibly “absurd” theory of Kristallnacht seemed to be, “There must be some sort of communal outlet for working-class frustration, and if it’s not directed vertically against the power elites—which will create horizontal solidarity between the ethnicities—then it will be directed horizontally, with the ethnic minority defined as an ‘Other’ to be annihilated.” Absurd?—maybe, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem too different from Adorno/Horkheimer’s model of anti-Semitism at the end of Dialectic of Enlightenment.  And, as w/ DoE, it’s not really Marxist, but more of a criticism of disenchantment and modernity in general, which is arguably the basic nature of the communitarian critique. 

But anyway, my point is that, when Sean McCann made this Zizek/Kristallnacht posting a few months ago, the debate seemed follow the basic contours of the liberalism versus communitarianism debate, with, significantly, each side making the “sexy,” somewhat overblown charge against the other’s position.  Each side labels the other fascist—according to Long Sunday, the Valve liberals are supporting some sort of oppressive hegemony; according to the Valve, the Long Sundayites adhere to a conception of social action that will tend toward fascism.  (This explains certain rhetorical strategies each side uses, which tend to infuriate the other—e.g., McCann’s linking Zizek to Sorel, or posting about Foucault’s connection to the Iranian revolution—he wants a “smoking gun” that will link a given post-structuralist thinker, who has certain communitarian elements in his thought, to some sort of oppressive fascistic or quasi-fascistic society.)

I don’t really have an axe to grind here, myself.  When I read Rawls, I agree with him, and when I read Sandel, I agree with him.  I guess I’m kind of wishy-washy that way.  The purpose of this post, though, was not really to take a side, but to clarify positions.  When people are arguing over whether or not something is “racist,” for example, it helps to define racism, so that people are clear about what they’re disagreeing about.  In the same way, I thought this might clarify certain elements involved in the Valve/Long Sunday dispute.  But probably I’ll just get flamed.  Zow!  The wars have certainly been entertaining.

By on 01/01/06 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the generous comments, BoSoSS.  Frankly, I’m embarrassed to have anyone ever read anything I ever said about Sandel, since I’m sure that whatever I said, it’s entirely wrong.  If I did suggest he was on a slippery slope to blood and soil, you’re right, that was surely careless overstatement or prejudicial conflation or something equally bad.  My real complaint against Sandel actually wouldn’t at all be that he was a proto-fascist but that his visions of the common good or the virtuous life seem to me just too nicey-nice. This seems to me a fairer complaint against communitarianism in general--i.e., very sensitive to some of the less objectionable features of liberalism, but not much concerned with the darker sides of community. 

But, whatever any of that is worth, I don’t think it’s much related to my complaint against Zizek, who doesn’t seem to me anyone’s idea of a communitarian.  (Neither is Foucault!) My point about the whole kristallnacht debate had nothing to do with any account of community, or of fascism.  And, to be honest, your reconstruction of Zizek’s argument, which does not seem to me absurd, also doesn’t seem to me very close to what Zizek actually wrote--which is that participants in Kristallnacht were acting in response to a sense of guilt at having failed to bring off a revolution.  My objection to this theory is to the unliklihood of its description of the motives of the actual rioters and to its near deification of revolution, which by this account becomes less a political event than a kind of hovering counterhistorical presence that exerts psychic effects on mere mortals.  (To put it in a nutshell, there’s a world of difference between saying that anti-semites act out of anger or frustration and saying that they act out of guilt.) Similarly, my comparison of Zizek to Sorel wasn’t primarily concerned with fascism (as I think I said), but with irrationalism.  (I thought it could be presumed that there are left as well as right sorelians, and that a person could be one without being a fascist.)

By on 01/01/06 at 10:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “It would probably be better if there were critiques of Zizek out there that were a little more serious than your article—someone saying that he’s getting Lacan or Hegel wrong, etc., instead of just saying, “He’s wrong in every respect!””

I don’t really see how John can launch a critique based around the concept of the Higher Eclecticism and *not* say that Zizek is generally wrong in every respect.  It’s a matter of style and method more than specific content, is it not?  Also, John’s most recent critique focusses on how Zizek gets Kierkegaard wrong and states that Zizek’s conclusion about liberalism was anticipated by Trilling.  Aren’t those specific enough?

BotSoSS writes:
“I think that the Valve and Long Sunday often have flame wars because they are making the “sexy” critique.”

Perhaps so—but I should point out that the Valve and Long Sunday do not have flame wars.  Posters on the Valve don’t go to Long Sunday and flame their comment threads; if they want to write approvingly about Zizek, well and good.  The Long Sundayans and other extensive readers of Zizek, on the other hand, come to the Valve regularly and flame away, complete with the use of the same kind of sock puppets that BotSoSS’s name is parodying; they also like to pretend to some kind of general conflict within the comments sections of their blogs.  Depicting this as a two-sided “flame war” in response to intellectual issues doesn’t really fit with Occam’s Razor, which suggests something that looks a lot more like the extensive readers of Zizek behaving adolescently in reaction to criticism of him.

By on 01/02/06 at 12:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, Here we go again with the Holbo apologetics.  You seem to be more invested in John’s essay than he himself is.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 02:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, in critical parts of JH’s argument, he simply hasn’t yet made his point, so this can not really be about apologetics per se.  But that’s neither here nor there; you and other extensive readers of Zizek don’t really seem interested in having him develop his argument, do you?  Otherwise you wouldn’t be coming back with responses like yours, which ignores and minimizes what he has written so far rather than engaging with it.

My interest is fairly simple; people are coming to a blog that I like to read in order to indulge in flames about months-old disputes that they were in the wrong about from the start.  If I point that out from the beginning, perhaps we can skip the whole fake intellectual dispute stage that ends up as childish insults on your blogs and skip right to the end.  That would at least confine the process mostly to elsewhere.

By on 01/02/06 at 08:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, you’ll have to excuse me for being dense: Adam, I could have made this clearer. I meant to oppose deontology (Kantianism) and consequentialism (utilitarianism) and emphasize that Kierkegaard would say Abraham’s willingness can be justified in neither fashion.

I see ... and that Zizek, who claims Kiekegaard in some fashion, is actually a consequentialist without admitting it?  Is that right?  (Or he’s actually a Kantian without admitting it?  But I don’t see that at all: unless the categorical imperative is reconfigured as referring not to ‘moral law’ but to the slippery logic of the subconscious.  But that’s not it, is it.) Your argument is the former, yes?

I’m afraid your elegantly brief reply to my incoherent post doesn’t make things clearer for me.  Why must Zizek’s thought be judged only in terms of one of those two categories, and only those two?  (ie, what about the possibility of e.g. a neither ‘ends justify means’ nor ‘immediately-at-hand’ ethics at work?  Why not Zizek the pataphysicist?) Or is this quite the wrong question to ask?

I’ve read On Belief, and insofar as I remember it [one problem with Zizek, I find, is that you come away remembering lots of incidental garnish about fist-fucking and eggs and toilet-seats and so on and none of the core arguments] it could certainly be taken in those sort-of Situationist terms.

By Adam Roberts on 01/02/06 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just occured to me I’ve egotistically assumed Adam I meant to oppose deontology &c. was addressed to me, when it might have been directed to the other Adam (the prior Adam, in fact) and not to me at all.  Apologies if so.  That would explain my bafflement, right there.

And the fist-work, toilet-seats and eggs are all from Plague of Fantasies, not On Belief at all.  I knew that as I typed, but reading what I wrote it might look like I’d confused the two.  And how could I possible do that?  On Belief is all about poo.  Everybody knows that.

By Adam Roberts on 01/02/06 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K, I can’t respond at length now because I’m packing and getting on a plane. But could you please indicate what you mean when you imply that my critiques aren’t ‘serious’. I don’t mind the negative connotations of that, but they are ambiguous. Is this a content objection or a tone objection, or both? If it’s an objection to my, er, exuberant tone, I guess my only response is: this is Zizek; if I don’t do a little clowning of my own, I’ll just end up playing straight man. (I’d rather be laughed with, rather than at. And those exhaust the options.) To put it in a slightly more substantive fashion, painting with a broad brush is an accurate way of capturing the thoughts of someone, like Zizek, who THINKS with a broad brush (to paraphrase the immortal Quine.)

If it really is a content objection, I would like some indication of where the argumentative push-back on Zizek’s behalf will come - what angle? If the problem is that I have overextended myself to the point of ‘EVERYTHING is wrong,’ it ought to be possible to take my piece apart. Well then: how?

I think you may be saying I should write more about “The Ticklish Subject” and such: the ‘serious’ books. I guess I take them to be more serious in that they are largely exercises in ‘dogmatics’, as Zizek himself sometimes puts it. They aren’t more argumentative, or different in argumentative kind. Zizek is only being more firm in insisting on some things he thinks. (Since I don’t accept the Lacanian framework, approaches which merely presuppose its powerful appeal, and make no attempt to advertise or establish it, tend not to appeal to me.) This isn’t really adequate as a response, I realize. But I would like to hear more about what it is that I am missing in the serious books that invalidates my points about works like “On Belief” and “Looking Awry” and “The Fragile Absolute”.

BoSoSS, no time really for a response, although your comment merits one. Very briefly: I don’t think the mapping you propose really holds. Mostly the problem is that Zizek isn’t a communitarian. (Both Kierkegaard and Lenin are radically anti-communitarian in their outlook, and Zizek doesn’t help himself to any other basic ingredients.) But I also think that the accusation that Zizek is advocating, if anything, totalitarianism is just innately a more serious charge than the parallel charge against liberalism. Zizek’s a more plausible Stalin-in-waiting than John Rawls. But your comment does deserve a longer response than this. (I’m really writing off-the-cuff here.)

By John Holbo on 01/02/06 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Throwing _The Gulag Archipelago_ in his face: not serious.

Imposing ethical schemes that are not a big part of the tradition he’s working in: not serious.

Blaming him for basically not being Trilling: not serious.

Using him as an avatar for The Higher Eclecticism: not serious, and not fair.

Your digressive and light-hearted tone is fine, and is indeed a very appropriate way to write about Zizek.  In that respect, you’re doing great, and insofar as we keep getting the classic MLA-style sanctimonious tributes to the Singularity That Is Zizek, your treatment is a helpful corrective. 

For me, however, a serious critique has to come “from the inside” to some real extent, and IN THAT ARTICLE (which you have since gone beyond in your comments on The Valve, but which is still the only thing you’ve got out there in the peer-reviewed world), you’re giving a critique very much “from the outside.” It’s not a matter of just requiring you to read more books, which is finally a spurious infinity, but of the way in which you inhabit and then write out of the books you have read.

But what do I know?

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It would probably be better if there were critiques of Zizek out there that were a little more serious than your article—someone saying that he’s getting Lacan or Hegel wrong, etc., instead of just saying, “He’s wrong in every respect!”

I feel the need to add more anecdotal evidence: Julia Lupton (of UCI and from whom I took a seminar on Shakespeare and Hegel) attended John’s presentation as well.  She’s married to Ken Reinhard--who has co-written a book with Zizek--and is herself a close friend and student of his.  If I remember correctly, he’s the godfather of one of their children.  Anyhow, after the panel she requested a copy of John’s article/presentation and then, when she asked me what I’d thought of the panel--and before she knew I was there to see John--told me how impressed she’d been with his presentation because, unlike most criticisms of Zizek (like say any I would make about a psychoanalytically informed philosophy), he took Zizek’s ideas seriously.  In other words, I think it’s ironic that you’re saying he doesn’t take Zizek’s ideas seriously because he doesn’t respond to specific readings, whereas she thought John did take him seriously because he tried to think through Zizek’s logic and examples on their own terms.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/02/06 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

P.S.  I didn’t mean “ironic” in the “GOT YOU KOTSKO!” way that sort of sounds like.  I meant it in a “two people who are fans of the Zizek and whose opinions I respect have entirely different definitions of what constitutes a ‘serious’ engagement with Zizek.” Not that that’s all that ironic, mind you.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/02/06 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve always enjoyed reading Zizek, but the first time that I read one of his books (in a seminar with Greg Ulmer--Sublime Object;), I was troubled by the fact that it seemed like that I would need to read substantial parts of Lacan’s (achievable, but difficult) and Hegel’s (lifetime of study) corpus to assess the book’s arguments seriously.

Who, then, is from that inside? You, Adam? Has Terry Pinkard written on Zizek?

By Jonathan on 01/02/06 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Off the top of my head, Butler and Jameson would probably be qualified to do the kind of critique that I propose (and maybe they have—I don’t know).  I’m not.  Give me a decade or so and we’ll talk.

There are many other directions in which one could take a “serious” critique, which I couldn’t give in advance, but I’d know it if I saw it.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that Adam Roberts has a more interesting sounding critique than Adam Kotsko.  But since I am somewhat unclear on exactly what “pataphysical” means, Kotsko it is.

“Throwing _The Gulag Archipelago_ in his face: not serious.”

Can we agree that Jodi Dean is qualified to make serious statements about Zizek?  Quoting from here I find:

“Zizek, agreeing with Badiou, holds that even the worst excesses of Stalinism were better than capitalism and far, far better than Fascism.”

I suggest that anyone who thinks that Stalinism was better than capitalism can not object to being confronted with _The Gulag Archipelago_.

“Imposing ethical schemes that are not a big part of the tradition he’s working in: not serious.”

I agree that this is the strongest critique, though Adam Roberts was more specific.

“Blaming him for basically not being Trilling: not serious.”

I think that you’re simply misreading Holbo here.  The claim was that Trilling anticipated Zizek, and that liberals already know what Zizek is trying to present as something that they don’t know.

“Using him as an avatar for The Higher Eclecticism: not serious, and not fair.”

If Zizek is not an avatar of the Higher Eclecticism, then no one is.  Therefore it is entirely appropriate to present him as such; it provides a concrete example that can be used to test the concept.  As for fairness—aren’t you imposing a standard that’s not a big part of the tradition that Zizek is working in?

“For me, however, a serious critique has to come “from the inside” to some real extent [...]”

“Give me a decade or so and we’ll talk.”

And what if by the end of that decade you find that there is nothing there?  I note that no other extensive readers of Zizek signed on to your interpretation of Zizek’s provocation in _On Belief_ as intended to cause academic leftists to support liberal programs.  If you really need that decade of focus in order to criticize Zizek, then I suggest that no one except Butler and Jameson may really know what he means.  And they are hardly suited to be the ideal critics of his work.

I quote Jodi Dean again from another case of it dawning on someone that extensive readers of Zizek may fundamentally disagree about what he means:

“In some ways, if the authors are right, that would be good news for me! I can stop pathetically repeating Zizek and rephrase all my points as critical--this is what he should have said! This is what I say! This, too, is risky: again, I have to accept the lack of a big Other that will support/recuperate my words.”

I suggest that you get there before the decade passes.  Live a little.  Really, from what little I know about Zizek himself, I think that he’s not much into painstaking preparation before critique or action; isn’t that the whole point of his presentation of the Lenin myth?

By on 01/02/06 at 05:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I was responding to John, not to you.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, taking a break from packing: Adam Roberts, I was addressing you, but I can see why my brevity was baffling. Here’s a source of some incidental confusion in the discussion: ‘teleological suspension of the Ethical’ is a Kierkegaardian notion, and Kierkegaard has a sense of Ethics as Kant-filtered-through-Hegel. It’s basically deontological (though not without its flavor of ‘judge it by the outcome’.) Anyway, Kierkegaard thinks of ethics as a matter of categorical duty (mostly.) What Zizek suggests is that there could be something more appealing than this sort of view, but basically (by invoking Lenin) he suggests consequentialism as the thing that is higher than Ethics, rather than anything like faith. But obviously consequentialism should be regarded as a competing Ethical view, not as something higher than all ethics. So it’s partially the lack of consideration of consequentialism, in Kierkegaard, that makes room for this mistake on Zizek’s part. But it isn’t a mistake he should make. I think it’s a symptom of cryptonormative constipation: he just can’t bring himself to emit any normative commitment. But he’s got a big one in him, maybe. In the long run this sort of value retentiveness produces funny facial expressions and rather frantic gestures. (In Trillingesque terms, Zizek can’t bear to be sincere, so he ends up trying to generate something like sincerity out of pure authenticity. But the result is just faux-utilitarian dramatics.)

Assuming consequentialism and deontology are the exhaustive alternatives is oversimple, but it works for explaining Kierkegaard and therefore explaining what Zizek is getting wrong.

Adam K writes: “Throwing _The Gulag Archipelago_ in his face: not serious.”

Look, ‘throwing in the face’ is not the FORM of what I did. I constructed a reductio ad absurdum. If Zizek is advocating X, which he is, then he is committed to Y. If you don’t like Y, you might consider not agreeing with Zizek about X. If there is something wrong with HOW I constructed this reductio, please tell me what it is, but it is a perfectly serious argument FORM. (The structure of my argument is, in fact, Kierkegaardian. I’m using Fear and Trembling against him.) If you want to suggest that it’s just too inflammmatory to use a Russian Revolution example, then I have to reply: if someone says Lenin is great, it’s not some sort of ‘from Russia with hate’ Godwin’s violation to drag in the Russian Revolution as a talking point.

“Imposing ethical schemes that are not a big part of the tradition he’s working in: not serious.”

Are you arguing that Kierkegaard and Lenin aren’t part of the tradition Zizek’s working in? If so, isn’t that in itself sort of damaging to the credibility of Zizek’s Kierkegaardian-Leninist philosophy? (Shouldn’t it derive, to at least some degree, from the philosophies of these two figures?) If not, then what is your point? Are you just assuming without argument that I’ve got Kierkegaard and Lenin wrong? I really don’t think I do. I’m honestly totally baffled by this, Adam.

“Blaming him for basically not being Trilling: not serious.”

This is just a misunderstanding. I’m not saying that Zizek should be Trilling. I’m saying, primarily, that Trilling sees deeper into the troubles of liberalism than Zizek - has a more sophisticated critique. Also, the Zizek v. Trilling line-up is motivated in part by the fact that they are both drawing on Hegel in somewhat subterranean fashion, to construct their views of the limitations of liberalism.

Or maybe you are just standing very firmly on the self-evidence of the proposition that Zizek is better than Trilling, so claims to the contrary may be safely dismissed as unserious. (But surely you are not being so dogmatic?)

As to pataphysical: consult the lyrics for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. “Joan was quizzical ...”

By John Holbo on 01/02/06 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Or maybe wikipedia, as the song isn’t too enlightening.

By ben wolfson on 01/02/06 at 07:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I was thinking in terms of utilitarianism, consequentialism, whatever—obviously Zizek’s directly working with Kierkegaard and Lenin, so it’s impossible that I would claim that it’s wrong for you to talk about them in relation to him.

Your note about “subterraneous” use of Hegel is somewhat confusing, since there is nothing at all subterranean about Zizek’s use of Hegel.  Depending on the book, there could very easily be much more of Hegel in there than Lacan—in his serious works, he’s doing a lot of Kant, Hegel, and general German Idealism, which surely cannot be as conveniently disposed of as Lacanianism (which is, I realize, really obnoxious in terms of jargon and in terms of some of the fundamentalists you’ll get in that camp).  He’s making an argument that Lacan can help us to further develop the achievements of German Idealism, which he takes to be the apex of Western philosophical achievement.

Although I dismissively responded to Rich’s comment, and although I think he deserves such treatment, I would say that Zizek’s method is hardly eclectic.  It is perhaps idiosyncratic, but he’s not just grabbing at any old thing that comes along or making arguments from authority based on the fact that a thinker is French (the parody of the capital-T Theory hacks).  He has a very well-defined position that he is sometimes developing and working out, and sometimes applying.

I have no comment on Trilling, having never read him.  Perhaps it would be a hugely revelatory experience if I did.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 07:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Off the top of my head, Butler and Jameson would probably be qualified to do the kind of critique that I propose (and maybe they have—I don’t know).  I’m not.  Give me a decade or so and we’ll talk.

There are many other directions in which one could take a “serious” critique, which I couldn’t give in advance, but I’d know it if I saw it.

Adam K, I hate to note the obvious, but you do realize that this is self-defeating?  If you’re not qualified to say where Zizek is wrong, then how can you be qualified to say where he’s right?  And, if your judgment on these things is, like Holbo’s, not credible, then what’s the point in arguing with him? 

I think Adam R raises a nice idea in calling Zizek a pataphysicist.  It fits the style.  But if he’s right, defending Zizek by argument would surely be beside the point, no?

By on 01/02/06 at 07:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek is doing an avowedly idiosyncratic reading of Hegel and Lacan.  I am an expert in neither Hegel nor Lacan and thus could not credibly do ONE SPECIFIC kind of critique that I mention, as an example.

In other words: COME ON.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s “‘pataphysics”, people.

By ben wolfson on 01/02/06 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That should be an apostrophe, facing the other direction, not an opening single quotation mark.  Curse this prettifying system.

By ben wolfson on 01/02/06 at 07:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As I noted, anecdotally, earlier, someone who may be qualified to judge the seriousness of John’s argument did, in fact, affirm its seriousness.  Lupton knows and studies with Zizek and is currently writing one book on “Shakespeare and the Pauline Discourse of Nation” and another on “Political Theology” </i>and</i> she seemed to think John had something worth saying.  Also, as I noted before this criterion arose, she’s done extensive work on Hegel (presumably for one of her book projects).  Would she be qualified to testify to the seriousness of John’s work? 

Because if “COME ON” is the best answer one can muster to the claim that if Party X cannot criticize a work without inhabiting a thought no reasonable person can be expected to inhabit, then Party Y cannot defend that thought on those grounds, then we share this room with an irate anti-intellectual elephant and we may as well admit as much. 

Another way to phrase this may be to ask, plainly: Adam, what makes you think your investment in Zizek will eventually pay off, and would you think that fact, speculative though it may be, open to criticism?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/02/06 at 07:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you’re not qualified to say where Zizek is wrong, then how can you be qualified to say where he’s right?  And, if your judgment on these things is, like Holbo’s, not credible, then what’s the point in arguing with him?

“Why no, Sir; this is not just reasoning. You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.”

Adam doesn’t need to be able to advance a cogent criticism of anything Zizek has written in order to have made a credible criticism of John’s essay or talk. 

In case Rich claims otherwise, I’ll note that I haven’t said I think Adam has made such a criticism.

By ben wolfson on 01/02/06 at 08:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment



I used one example of a really serious critique of Zizek that one could do, after which I placed an “etc.” That particular one, I can’t do—or else maybe I would.  IS IT NOT CLEAR THAT I DID NOT INTEND TO BE EXHAUSTIVE?!  Is it not clear that Sean’s comment is therefore a cheap non sequitur?  Do you really think that I’m arguing for the ineffable givenness of Zizek’s correctness, before which all merely intellectual concerns must cede their claims?  NO.  I’M NOT.  STOP ACTING LIKE I AM.  (THESE CAPITAL LETTERS MEAN YOU’RE PISSING ME OFF!)

I don’t find John’s essay to be very persuasive.  This woman you’re talking about is obviously in a much better position to judge than I am; I will gladly submit to her authority.  All praise to John’s essay!  I have no doubt his presentation was as entertaining as it was enlightening for all involved!  I still don’t find it persuasive, though, and the near-endless repetition of nearly the same argument has not succeeded in persuading me yet.  But perhaps, perhaps it will—by virtue of the absurd.  Encore un effort...

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 08:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry Adam, we’re all friends here. One reason why I (and, I infer, Scott and Rich) are frustrated with your comments is that your failure to be persuaded by my essay has not been shown to be a function of any intellectual flaws. You say a lot of things are ‘not serious’ but this seems to be just another way of saying you aren’t persuaded. (If you say, ‘I don’t buy it,’ there is some polite expectation that you will explain what you think is wrong. Obviously you are free to say that you are unqualified to judge, but then the proper attitude would be agnosticism, not taking Zizek’s side.) You write: “he’s doing a lot of Kant, Hegel, and general German Idealism, which surely cannot be as conveniently disposed of as Lacanianism.” Well, confidentially, I’m doing some Kant, Hegel and general German Idealism which definitely can’t be dismissed as Lacaniam (because I definitely haven’t read enough Lacan.) So what’s the problem with my German Idealism, such that it should presumptively be trumped by Zizek’s?

I do cop a plea to repeating myself. (But I’m repeating myself by saying so.) This MLA talk was sort of an occasion at which I was obliged to repeat myself.

Sorry not to have made clear that Trilling’s Hegel is more soft-pedaled than Zizek’s. That is, indeed, the case. I tend to prefer my Hegel subterranean, not to say ‘undertaken’ - as opposed to Aufgehoben.

All hail Ben Wolfson for nicety in the nesting of conditionals.

By John Holbo on 01/02/06 at 08:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I will fulfill my blogological duties by writing a post, starting right now, that addresses all these concerns at a suitable level of detail.  The title will be “Why John Holbo Is Wrong In Every Respect”—watch for it.  (I’m serious.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment



Do you really think that I’m arguing for the ineffable givenness of Zizek’s correctness, before which all merely intellectual concerns must cede their claims?

Not at all.  I thought you were arguing for an intellectual “hunch,” based on some greater degree of knowledge of the particulars involved.  Lest my “hunch” theory seem flip, let me say that it’s what guides all scholarship: I had a hunch that if I read around more in early 20th cent. Am. lit. that I’d find a wider array of applications of evolutionary theory than is commonly assumed.  (THESE CAPITAL LETTERS MEAN THESE PRETZELS ARE MAKING ME THIRSTY!) Given the reading I’d already done, I had sound reasons for following that hunch; what I was asking you is whether you were at a similar point with Zizek. 

*The official first word of all future contestations of anything.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/02/06 at 09:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

ben wolfson: “In case Rich claims otherwise, I’ll note that I haven’t said I think Adam has made such a criticism.”

I think that Adam K.’s criticism of John’s essay is more credible than many I’ve seen, because he has at least taken the time to develop it somewhat.  But I think he’s being disingenuous.  His bit about how he’ll know a serious critique if he sees it, and how it has to come from the inside and so on, makes no sense in the context of a critique that uses John’s expertise with Kierkegaard unless Kierkegaard is deemed to be not sufficiently “inside” with regard to Zizek, as Lacan and Hegel (mentioned many times as central to Zizek’s thought in this thread) are.  But he also says that a serious critique would not require addressing Lacan and Hegel.  So what he means by “inside” isn’t really clear.  I’d guess that what he means is that in order to criticize Zizek, you have to basically agree with the tradition of thought in which he works—which is somewhat unlikely to produce any interesting critique.  But because he’s been ambiguous, he can choose to respond to my guess that this is what he means with full high dudgeon, “COME ON”, and “cheap non sequitur” and all the rest.

In short, I think that this thread is following the path of every previous one on this subject.  Adam K. starts out by casually dismissing John Holbo’s essay wholesale, as being unserious—this, in academia, is considered to be an intrinsically impolite act, wouldn’t you say?  His off-the-cuff statements are met by various questions and statements of opinion.  By the end, he’s all-caps flaming, boasting about being dismissive and yelling about how pissed off he is.  Yet I predict that when he goes back to the Weblog, this will somehow have been all our fault.

By on 01/02/06 at 09:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Here’s my post!


The fact that I accused Sean of making a non sequitur is not evidence that Sean did not make a non sequitur.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 10:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben, that analogy isn’t really on point. The question isn’t whether Adam can criticize a tragedy if he can’t write one; it’s whether he can say whether a tragedy is good if he can’t say whether one is bad.

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


The “NEIN” comes from Karl Barth—he read an article of Emile Brunner’s that he found so objectionable that he wrote a rejoinder entitled simply “Nein.”

I’m not going to write my dissertation on Zizek, if that’s what you’re asking.  At least I don’t think so.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 10:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment


That I can’t say whether Zizek’s writing is bad in one respect does not entail that I am completely incapable of judging whether it is bad in any respect at all.  That was the illogical leap I was accusing you of making.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 10:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, I will note that the problem is making a criticism of Zizek’s use of Lacan and Hegel and having some plausible authority to do so.  I can say that in my readings of Lacan and Hegel, which are not exhaustive but are also not negligible, I have not seen any strikingly obvious evidence that Zizek’s reading is implausible.  But who cares if I say that?  I’m a scholar in neither Lacan nor Hegel.  If Bruce Fink said that Zizek is doing terrible interpretative violence to Lacan, however, then people would do well to listen.

I find it just startling that I have had to elaborate this point at such length.  Seriously.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/02/06 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, it’s not problematic that you can’t say whether Z is bad or good on, what by your own account, is his central concern (Hegel + Lacan)?

By on 01/02/06 at 10:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, the question is whether he can say an assessment of a tragedy is bad if he can’t say the tragedy itself is bad (in some particular respect).

I acknowledge that the analogy doesn’t really fit, but it has the authority of an age far greater than mine (around 300 years).

By ben wolfson on 01/02/06 at 10:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry to have cross-posted with your last comment, Adam.  And sorry to startle you.

By on 01/02/06 at 10:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s something that I find puzzling about Adam K.’s argument in these Zizek threads.  Most of the time, when John talks about Zizek, he’s not just talking about Zizek’s views about Hegel and Lacan; he’s talking about Zizek’s views on ordinary political questions.  This post is typical: what John really wants to talk about is Zizek on the subject of liberalism.  He begins by talking about Zizek on Kierkegaard, but that is just his opening move before he gets to his real subject.

When we’re discussing Zizek’s views on liberalism, isn’t the relevant question whether John has misinterpreted Zizek on liberalism, and if he hasn’t, whether Zizek’s view is right or wrong?  Instead we get derailed into a discussion of the greater meaning of Zizek’s oeuvre, on the finer points of Zizek’s interpretation of Hegel or Lacan, on John’s failings as a human being.

Having read through several of these threads on Zizek on liberalism, I still have no idea if John’s characterization of Zizek on liberalism is right, and if it is, if anyone wants to defend Zizek.

By Walt Pohl on 01/03/06 at 02:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Walt, you might try googling John’s other blog, or Long Sunday for that matter.

By Matt on 01/03/06 at 03:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: thanks for taking the time to explain what you meant; that’s a lot clearer to me.  On with your packing, now: those cases won’t pack themselves you know.

Oddly, I’ve recently been (coincidentally) reading Z.’s Organs Without Bodies; On Deleuze and Consequences; something I started doing for reasons I can no longer recall.  I should say that, in my opinion, a troy ounce of Deleuze is worth a hundredweight of Zizek’s waffle, entertaining though that waffling can be.  And I could add furthermore that I’m really not sure that Z has got Deleuze in this book.  But I mention it here because a lot of the book is precisely about deontology, consequentialism, their respective merits and other ways of thinking through the issues.

I’m taking John H’s post as being about, amongst other things, the ethics of choice.  Why does Abraham choose to kill his son? (I mean that he chooses to do this thing in the sense that he isn’t compelled to do it).  Why does Brecht’s revolutionary choose to shoot that person?  I could answer by shunting the matter along a little, and say that they both choose these things because they want to do them.  That doesn’t answer the question in the terms of John’s post, of course: maybe they want to do it because what they want is the Greater Good (obedience to God, the success of the Revolution).  Maybe they want to do it for Kiekegaard’s reason.  It’s possible they want to do it because they’re sadistic murderers; except that both individuals have been chosen specifically because they’re not sadistic murderers, but ‘ordinary’ and indeed ‘decent’ folk in extraordinary circumstances.  We’re not discussing Charles Manson here, after all.

A Freudian or a post-Freudian might agree that we choose to do things because we want to do those things, but would be likely to add that, very often, we don’t realise why, or in some cases even that, these are indeed the things we want to do.  This is what it means to have a subconscious.  Abraham settles onto Freud’s couch and in answer to the question ‘why did you prepare to murder your son?’ says ‘God told me to do it’.  Freud replies, ‘sure, that’s what you believe.  But that’s not the real reason.  The real reason is that you wanted to murder your son.  This God-stuff is your way of hiding that unpalatable fact from yourself.’ It’s tempting to say something like ‘the real reason is that you wanted to murder your son and it’s as simple as that’, but in fact (Freud says) uncovering that desire makes everything the exact opposite of simple.

Deonontology says that Abraham acted from a prior existing duty, as we all should when it comes to ethical choice: do the right thing, obey God, follow the law, never mind all the trivial stuff.  Consequentialism says that Brecht’s revolutionary acted from a balance of possible consequences: he reasoned that killing this individual would result in x amount of bad karma, but letting him live and allowing the revolution to fail would result in y amount, and y badness would be worse than x badness.  But Zizek, as I take it, is suggesting something else: that both of these options are post-facto rationalisations of the fact that both individuals wanted to kill these people; and if that desire was not simply sadistic-psychotic (as we’ve agreed it wasn’t) then what is it?

This is where Zizek starts.  He asks the question: how do you know that you want to kill this counter-revolutionary individual?  How do you know that you want any of the things you want?  That’s a profound question, I think.  It opens up, for instance, that large category of human experience in which, instead of being rational agents choosing to act according to prior duty and/or likely consequence, we act despite the fact that apparently we don’t want to: I want to give up smoking, but here I go, killing myself, lighting up another fag.  I want to be faithful to my wife, but here I go, into this motel room with this other woman.  This isn’t a trivial feature of human behaviour, I think: and one of the problems of Liberalism is that, ethically, it doesn’t really know how to handle it. (I’m being deliberately crude in my thumbnail notion of Liberalism when I say that).

John H asks “Are you breaking these good eggs as a means to an end – some REALLY good omelet? Or do you just like breaking a few good eggs?” But Zizek might well say, ‘these aren’t the questions to ask: the question is how do you know that you want to break the eggs in the first place?’ Or, to quote John H again:

Zizek urges that his readers should take up the role of the ‘vanishing mediator’; that is, they should ‘identity [identify?] with excrement’. But here again the EITHER/OR obtrudes. Is treating people like shit a means to an end? Or is treating people like shit an end in itself?

But it seems to me that the either/or only intrudes at this level of rationalisation of the desire: ‘explain your demand!’ rather than ‘how do you know that you want to become shit in the first place?’

In Organs Without Bodies Z. discusses Kant’s deontology and seems to conclude that the only free act would be a sort of absurdist anti-act (which is kind of what I meant by pataphysics: an Ubu-morality): ‘what would be a truly free act, an act of true noumenal freedom?  It would be to know all the inexorable horrible consequences of choosing the evil and nonetheless to choose it.  This would have been a truly “non-pathological” act, an act of acting with no regard for one’s pathological interests.’

In Tarrying With the Negative he counterposes the Lacanian triad ‘need-demand-desire’ and the Hegelian dialectical ‘negation of the negation’.  His point here, I think, is to challenge this idea that our desires are grounded in some absolute ‘need’ or ‘human nature’: ‘the mythical, quasi-natural starting point of an immediate need, the point which is always presupposed, never given, “posited”, experienced “as such”.’ Z thinks that there aint such a thing; that need is always already sublating into demand, entering into the symbolic economy of deferred address to the Other. (or more precisely, he thinks that there is a Ground, which is Lacan’s Real, but that we can’t access it directly: we’ve only got the already deferred and belated Imaginary/Symbolic).

Of course, this is the point (that infinite deferral, that lack of a Solid Ground for Anything At All) where plenty of folk part company with the whole crew of relativist thinkers [A Tribe Called Theory], and part company in perfect honour.  As such I’m afraid that this long comment-entry reads not as a worthwhile response to John H.’s post, but as another screed that, should he find time to read it in between packing, will make him shake his head and think ‘but that’s missing my point.’ I’m not sure what’s to be done about that.

I think [Z’s failing are] a symptom of cryptonormative constipation: he just can’t bring himself to emit any normative commitment. But he’s got a big one in him, maybe. In the long run this sort of value retentiveness produces funny facial expressions and rather frantic gestures. (In Trillingesque terms, Zizek can’t bear to be sincere, so he ends up trying to generate something like sincerity out of pure authenticity. But the result is just faux-utilitarian dramatics.)

I like the first of these two ways of putting it, and suspect Z. might too, because that huge turd in the lower bowel, and the urge to hold on to it (or to let it go), is exactly one of those tipping-point desire/demand signifiers out of which the pathological fever of Big Boy/Girl Grown-Up Desire gets itself woven.  But I have a feeling, probably incorrect, that the second criterion, the ‘sincerity’ poke, is a misfire.  ‘Zizek can’t bear to be sincere’: Who knows?  But more importantly how does he know that he wants to be sincere in the first place?  (I know John H is applying Trilling’s terms; but I’m not sure I see the fit).  Maybe the faux-authentic dramatics are not in lieu of sincerity, but are the whole display: maybe that’s all there is, and that in itself is what makes Zizek’s position interesting.

Ooo K.  I look back at what I’ve typed and say to myself: too long.  If only I could follow Adam K.’s commendable option and write a blog entry of my own instead of extruding prolixity into a comment-thread; but I have no blog.  Of course I don’t have to dump all these words onto the thread; there’s no compulsion to press the ‘Submit’ button.  But I want to …

By Adam Roberts on 01/03/06 at 11:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To quote myself from before:

“My interest is fairly simple; people are coming to a blog that I like to read in order to indulge in flames about months-old disputes that they were in the wrong about from the start.  If I point that out from the beginning, perhaps we can skip the whole fake intellectual dispute stage that ends up as childish insults on your blogs and skip right to the end.”

And the childish insults stage has been reached.  Jodi Dean actually has a serious reply up at Long Sunday, but the rest involves a range of interesting theological characterizations: I apparently have some status between Archbishop and Accolyte (maybe the variant spelling means something), and Matt contributes his own special characterization.


By on 01/03/06 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Rich.

By Jodi on 01/03/06 at 03:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, The only thing you are ultimately talking about here is how you have been treated in these debates.  I have a lot of theories about why your treatment has been so consistent, most of which center around the fact that your behavior has been so consistent.  I know that you think of yourself as consubstantial with John Holbo and with The Valve itself, such that an affront to you is an affront to all three persons of this particular Trinity, but there is a very real difference between the dismissive treatment you’ve received and the overall caliber of these debates (if we abstract you out of it, which I try very hard to do).

By Adam Kotsko on 01/03/06 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I forgot the other topic these threads always end up discussing instead of Zizek and liberalism: Rich’s failures as a human being.

By on 01/03/06 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s an odd thing; I still can’t feel my way intuitively around the rubrics of courtesy/discourtesy in online discussions. Is that just me?

John’s post started with the words ‘I had a good MLA’.  Me, tenured Professor of the University of London, I almost never go to conferences: I can’t afford the time, I tell myself grumpily; or I don’t want to add to my carbon footprint by flying and fucking up the environment.  Or whatever rationalisation I give myself for my inertia.  But I can see, vicariously, reading these posts, that it was a good MLA, in part because people met and were friendly and courteous to one another.

I’ve never met Rich, but I feel I know him a little and would like to think of him as a friend, largely because we both buzz about the comment boards at Acephalous.  He and I disagree about some stuff; which is not only fair enough but, I think, healthy and good (dialectics, you know).  I’ve never met Adam K., either, but I read the weblog very often and tho’ again I disagree a lot there’s almost always stimulating and interesting stuff posted there.

I don’t mean to be wet about this, but it’s surprisingly upsetting to see people getting so narked at one another, becoming incrementally ruder.  Rich’s original point, if I understand it correctly, was that a stright-off-the-bat rapidfire rejection of the whole of John’s post was impolite: not that it wasn’t justified (necessarily) or that John was necessarily right.  It was about the protocols of discussion.  Wasn’t it?  Is it ironic that impoliteness is exactly where the discussion has gone?  Or am I just missing the invisible emoticons that everybody else can see?

I say all that not really knowing the backstory here, or the personalities of the people involved.  All of us (except those who hooked up at MLA) might be in the position of the fifteen year old girl thinking they’ve found a soulmate fifteen year old boy online and arranging a secret meetup, when their correspondent is actually a fifty year old trucker from Des Moines.

By Adam Roberts on 01/03/06 at 04:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R., I have consistently been frustrated by what seems to me to be Rich’s bad faith argumentative techniques—imposing an impossible burden of proof; moving goalposts; drawing ridiculous conclusions from a minor point in my argument while ignoring what I’m obviously trying to say; trying to establish that since he’s not going to take the time to actually do any research himself, he can still argue in John’s favor because it’s more reasonable to use John as an authority than me.  In short, he seems to try to make every conversation here be “about” him, aggressively taking sides, speaking on his buddies’ behalf, etc.  In response, I’ve taken the (admittedly immature) route of alternating between ignoring him and showering him with personal attacks, hoping that some day he’ll decide to stop replying to me and allow my actual conversation partner to speak for himself.  I am perfectly content to try a straight-up ignoring strategy if the personal insults aren’t going to work—but from my perspective, it’d be more aesthetically pleasing if the insults could somehow convince him not to clutter up these threads.  I mean, you hate to be harsh, but they’ve got to learn somehow, right?

By Adam Kotsko on 01/03/06 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As a trucker from Des Moines, I resemble that remark. 

If I point out that Rich was wrong from the beginning, perhaps we can skip the whole fake intellectual dispute stage that ends up as childish insults and skip right to the end, which was, strangely enough, back where he began.  Right then; carry on.

By Matt on 01/03/06 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yep, I guess that I just reached out and forced Adam Kotsko to crap all over this thread.  The projection is dizzying—maybe that’s why the standard insult seems to be some variant of “acolyte”.  At any rate, Adam K., I’m not surprised to find out that in your mind this was all an attempt to browbeat me into respecting your authority; that’s hardly a new argumentative strategy for you, is it?

Adam R. and Walt, thanks for the attempt to point out the obvious, and I hope that Adam R.’s and Jodi’s interesting critiques do not get lost in the smoke.

By on 01/03/06 at 05:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek?  Liberalism?  Anyone?  Bueller?

By Walt Pohl on 01/04/06 at 01:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Fascinating speech and thread on Zizek. But Nietzsche *did* have syphilis—the myth that needs to be debunked is the one that claims that his later writings were the works of a madman. I wrote a short item about this for the Boston Globe last November, based on a very interesting essay in Daedalus… See below.

FOR OVER a century, philosophers and literary scholars have debated whether or not the apocalyptic, sometimes megalomaniacal qualities of the final books written by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche can be chalked up to the gradually unfolding delusions and personality disturbances of the author’s paresis (tertiary syphilis). In the current issue of Daedalus, the journal of the Cambridge-based American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the distinguished UMass-Amherst geobiologist Lynn Margulis announces that the answer to this longstanding riddle has been discovered floating in a Cape Cod pond.

To recap: In 1888, a sickly Nietzsche wrote the tracts “Twilight of the Idols,” “The Antichrist,” “Ecce Homo,” and “The Case of Wagner” in a burst of productivity. But the following January in Turin, he flung his arms around the neck of a horse being flogged, collapsed in the piazza, and swiftly descended into a raving dementia brought on - as records of a young Nietzsche’s treatment for syphilis 30 years earlier would appear to indicate - by paresis. So was Nietzsche suffering, as many have argued, from incipient paresis when he wrote “Twilight of the Idols,” et al? If so, then (the argument goes) these late books, brilliant as they may appear to be, can’t be taken as seriously as his earlier, saner writing. Or did the philosopher go mad from some other cause all of a sudden, in the space of a single day, as others prefer to believe?

That’s where Margulis, an expert in microorganisms who has no reputation as a Nietzsche scholar, comes in - to say “neither.”

After explaining that syphilis is a syndrome caused by the ravages of the spirochete Treponema pallidum (the lively, corkscrew-shaped bacterium pictured at right), Margulis elaborates on her own recent research into spirochetes by weighing in on the long-running debate over Nietzsche’s brain. Yes, Nietzsche’s madness was undoubtedly caused by paresis, she writes - but he most likely went crazy quite suddenly, as opposed to over the course of weeks and months. “Nietzsche’s brain on January 3, 1889 experienced a transformation,” she states - which means that his books of 1888 weren’t written by a delusional kook.

But is it possible for paresis to appear overnight, instead of slowly? Margulis believes it is, and as evidence points to studies of microbial mat samples taken from Eel Pond in Woods Hole and kept in a jar in a UMass-Amherst lab. Although no typical spirochetes were found in these samples, Margulis recounts, when food and water known to support spirochete activity were added to some samples, spirochetes that could only have been been lying dormant suddenly awoke from their slumber. Extrapolating from these experiments, Margulis argues that inactive Treponema pallidum spirochetes had been hiding out in Nietzsche’s tissues ever since his syphilis treatment some 30 years earlier.

“But on January 3, 1889 in Turin,” Margulis concludes, channeling Vincent Price, “armies of revived spirochetes munched on his brain tissue. The consequence was the descent of Nietzsche the genius into Nietzsche the madman in less than one day.”

By Joshua Glenn on 01/04/06 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The explanation I saw was that N’s mental condition may have been the result of extensive self-medication by such sleeping potions as chloral hydrate. Margulis’s explanation seems plausible, though I don’t understand the medicine of it, but it looks pretty speculative from here.

“Ecce Homo” is pretty strange stuff regardless of the N’s mental condition. It has to be taken as it is, for better or worse.

A whole decade’s worth of Heinrich Heine’s poems were produced while he had syphilis. Does this invalidate them? Are they no longer good poems? Should he have to give his gold medals back?

By John Emerson on 01/04/06 at 07:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Ecce Homo” is pretty strange stuff regardless...

I don’t know, John E. I think I’ve seen stranger.

Q: Does “literary scholarship and criticsm” consist of compulsively prickly men calling each other vile names over someone who writes neither literature nor about literature?
A: Yes, but only in the defense of dignity and rationality.

On the other hand, I’ve always liked Ecce Homo. When I first read it, it reminded me of Lester Bangs.

By Ray Davis on 01/06/06 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

At Rich Puchalsky’s request, I’ve deleted some comments - including his - which, indeed, were not helping the discussion along.

By John Holbo on 01/06/06 at 08:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: