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What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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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

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Zizek loves him, Nabokov hated him

Posted by Adam Roberts on 01/09/06 at 09:33 AM

This is a guest post by occasional Valve commenter Adam Roberts. In addition to that sterling qualification, he is an English professor and SF author with a thumping great huge whopping history of science fiction that just came out. Here’s his home page. Adam will be with us to the tune of a half dozen posts or so. - the Management

Here’s a pendant to John H.’s reiterated thoughts on Zizek, not by way of going over yet again the sharply contested points raised on the comment thread there, but as a peg on which to hang a different question. Nabokov claimed that the phrase ‘Soviet Literature’ was a contradiction in terms: under the Soviet regime art was subordinated so wholly to the needs of propaganda that ‘art’ in the proper sense became impossible. That’s difficult to gainsay. I don’t suppose there are many followers of The Valve who would relish reading nothing but socialist-realist literature for the rest of their days, or wandering round art galleries populated solely by muscular socialist-realist sculptures and paintings of heroic miners and super-fecund farmgirls.

Maybe it’s not obvious what this has to do with the Holbonic Cryptonormative; but it does seem to me to relate directly to issues raised by that post, one of which was the extent of the good liberal’s anxiety about, say, Zizek’s politics. Zizek has a lot of time for Lenin. Does one have to be a Trillingite liberal to find that morally icky? Need one sacrifice one’s leftist principles, baby-and-bathwater, in order to note how complicit Lenin was with mass-murder?

This, I think is part of a broader current-day problematic. Nobody would expect to be taken seriously publicly if they described themselves as a Hitlerian; but people seem to get away with labelling themselves as Leninist (pace Zizek), or even Stalinist with nary a whiff of craziness. Martin Amis’s 2002 book Koba the Dread and Jonathan Meade’s excellent recent TV lecture Joe Building both argue that a rank double-standard obtains when it comes to genocidal dictators. We feel real revulsion at Hitler; but though we know what Lenin and Stalin got up to, we find ourselves making excuses, softpedalling, rationalising. We find ourselves harnessing our considerable intellectual horsepower to the question of justifying Lenin.

Nabokov did not feel this way. No surprise there. At the beginning of his Lectures on Russian Literature he describes Lenin as ‘in art a philistine, a bourgeois, and from the very start the Soviet government was laying the grounds for a primitive, regional, political, state-controlled, utterly conservative and conventional literature.’ He goes on:

Let me quote: “The personality of the artist should develop freely and without restraint. One thing, however, we demand: acknowledgment of our creed.” Thus spoke one of the big Nazis, Dr Rosenberg, Minister of Culture in Hitler’s Germany. Another quotation: “Every artist has the right to create freely; but we, Communists, must guide him according to plan.” Thus spoke Lenin. Both of these are textual quotations, and their similitude would have been highly diverting had not this thing been so very sad.

This seems so self-evident to me as almost to be beyond discussion. Of course censorship is a Bad Thing. But, after watching (oddly enough) the last episode of Rome the other night, I’ve found myself wondering about it a little further. Is Nabokov’s contradistinction of ‘literature’ and ‘state propaganda’ really so wholly axiomatic? Are they always mutually exclusive categories? Soviet art doesn’t provide any counter-examples, true. But, then again, what about (to pick an example out of the air) the Aeneid? Isn’t that the perfect example of a great artist bending his skills towards praising a dictator, justifying the totalitarian regime, re-writing history to make the dictatorship seem inevitable and blessed by the gods? What happens when we feed Vergil into Nabokov’s equation?

Or (indeed), looking at the image that heads-up the HBO Rome website: why do we feel so sorry for Caesar, cut down in the capitol? Why does Brutus come out of it as such a dick? Why do we feel such sympathy for these dictators? It’s as if we’re secretly saying to ourselves, ‘well, yes, I suppose he ordered a great many deaths; but ruling a country is a really hard thing to do. You can’t get on with it if you’re constantly weakened by liberal moral scruple …’ As fine a way to govern the Soprano or Corleone family as can be imagined: but practical politics?


Comments

For the Hitler-Stalin difference, Zizek wrote about this as a public intellectual in The Two Totalitarianisms (previously discussed on the Valve), characterizing the differences as being that Stalinism was a continuation of an Enlightenment project, had the emancipatory potential of an authentic revolution perverted, was based on class antagonism which is constitutive of the social field rather than race antagonism, etc.  For Leninism and so on, I would cite Jodi Dean for an expanded explanation, but given recent history, perhaps not.

I think that the whole emphasis on practical politics in your last sentence is what could be taken to label your approach as quintessentially liberal.  What seems important to many anti-liberals is the revolutionary break, the apocalyptic, liberatory end of history.  Practicality has nothing to do with it.

By on 01/09/06 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is Nabokov’s contradistinction of ‘literature’ and ‘state propaganda’ really so wholly axiomatic? Are they always mutually exclusive categories? Soviet art doesn’t provide any counter-examples, true.

The question is a good one. And Soviet art does provide examples: Gorky and Mayakovsky; Eisenstein and Tarkvoskii, for example.

Additionally, one would need to ask whether the ‘art’ mediated by the market, the art of capitalism is less propagandistic and in what ways.

On mass murder: does it make sense to broaden this category to include, say, slavery, or the use of atomic weapons in war, or various other kinds of militarism and colonialism, or forms of economic exploitation that lead to death? What would justify a particularly narrow category?

By Jodi on 01/09/06 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me that the attachment many on the left have for Lenin is rooted in the sense that Lenin got things done, he made the revolution actually happen, he did more than simply sit around talking about it (which is as far as most of the leftist revolutionaries-manques I have known, my younger sense included, ever got).  Maybe he did ‘bad’ things but ‘his heart was in the right place’.  I tend to disagree: I’m not sure his heart was in the right place.  After Fanya Kaplan’s failed attempt to assassinate him in 1918 something like 10,000 people were executed, mostly at Lenin’s order; and some 70,000 more were sent to forced labour camps.  This certainly marked “the revolutionary break, the apocalyptic, liberatory end of history” for those people.  The fact that this constituted a relatively small fraction of the total population of Russia, it being a big country, doesn’t mollify me.  Look at those numbers again.  You think a revolution needs that quantity of bloodletting?  You want to ask George Washington that question? Gandhi? Nelson Mandela?

But this is off the point that I wanted to make: not practical politics, but practical literature and culture.  Would anyone care to defend Soviet Social Realism as a mode that enabled that enabled the production of great art?  Who’d like to deny Nabokov’s characterisation of Lenin as ‘philistine, bourgeois, conservative and conventional’ or defend his belief that the State must meddle in the work of artists?  Why must the notional ‘continuation of an Enlightenment project, [with] the emancipatory potential of an authentic revolution … based on class antagonism’ necessarily lead into such monumentally duff art as was produced by Soviet Russia? (or come to that, by any of the 20th Century totalitarian States?)

The reason this seems to me an interesting question is that Vergil’s Aeneid somehow manages the trick of being State Propaganda that (despite that fact? because of it?) happens to be great art.  This might mean that Totalitarian regimes are not necessarily the enemies of the production of great art; or it might mean that the Aeneid is a freak of literary production; or it might mean that we don’t mind the Aeneid’s propaganda because Augustus is far enough removed from us in time for the oppressive force of his rule not to rankle.  Or it might mean something else.

By Adam Roberts on 01/09/06 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My comment-post crossed Jodi’s in the ether.  Very interesting points.  But of the artists listed only Eisenstein actually produced stuff under Stalin.  Mayakovsky killed himself in 1930; Gorki wrote nothing but propagandist rubbish after his return to Stalin’s Russia, and spent the 1930s under house arrest until his death (possibly murdered by the NKDV) in 1936; Tarkovski [I assume you mean?] produced film in the 1960s and 1970s, and hardly stands as an exemplar of the State artist; he left Russia in the 80s and refused to return because of he resented State interference in his filmmaking.  Eisenstein is a more interesting figure; obviously a genius, genuinely revolutionary, and both Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible are masterpieces, and were indeed produced under and with the support of Stalin’s regime (though of course Stalin hated part II of the latter and succeeded in destroying part III completely).  But I suppose, if I wanted to be dog-in-mangerish, I could say that I don’t see how a 1930s/1940s film-maker could make film in a conservative way; the medium was too new for that.  Nevertheless Eisenstein is a problem for the argument I’m making.

By Adam Roberts on 01/09/06 at 12:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bertrand Russell noted the more simister aspects of Lenin and the Bolsheviks early on, and provides some interesting and clear-headed (more than one might say for Zizek) accounts of the new soviet state. Like many liberals and socialists, initially Russell seemed inclined to believe Lenin was doing the right thing, but perceiving the various police state restrictions implemented by the bolsheviks (including the house arrest and possible torture of Kropotkin), Russell denounced Lenin and communism, yet he did attenuate his criticism by holding that the bolsheviks were perhaps a historical improvement over the Czaridt regime.

By J. on 01/09/06 at 12:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The post revolutionary period in Russia was a renaissance for the arts in the 20th century. Moscow is second only to Paris in this regard:  Suprematism, Constructivism, Malevich, Tatlin etc.  It didn’t last.
The Louvre, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Prado et al are little more than repositories of propaganda for Princes and Popes.  And you have to search out Virgil to find an example of sucessful art that serves this purpose?  That’s insane.

Barbarism is not a modern invention, total barbarism -totalitarianism- is. The Spanish and the Dutch still argue over Philip II and the Russians still can’t make up their minds which tyrant to name their cities for: Peter, or Lenin, or Peter again.  But Stalin and Hitler -the orders to which they belonged- are something else: the end of culture.

Zizek is a popularizer. He made me laugh 15 years ago when I watched a tape of him on Slovenian TV telling people not to worry about Laibach.  He was a trip. Now he’s hot? 
Whatever.

Holbo:
“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.”

Zizek’s from Ljubljana[!] In Eastern %%)$#%@!! Europe[!] When was the last time anyone from that part of the world thought of communism in terms of ‘utilitarian rationalism.’ You can’t imagine that he’s treating the big ‘C’ as a religious enterprise??

Talk about a failure of imagination.
lay off the SF for while.

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/09/06 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Louvre, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Prado et al are little more than repositories of propaganda for Princes and Popes.  And you have to search out Virgil to find an example of sucessful art that serves this purpose?  That’s insane.

Insanity seems to me a harsh judgment; but then again I can’t deny the possibility.

I don’t agree with you.  I’ll concede that my bent is primarily literary, and that as far as literary dictator-praising goes I can’t think of a better example than Vergil, except maybe some Milton and Marvell poems about Cromwell.  But is the best art in the Louvre and Prado really ‘propaganda for Princes and Popes’?  I agree there’s plenty of art that is that, but the best stuff?  The images that come to mind under that rubric are things like David’s portrait of Napoleon on the back of the big white horse (you know the one) ... that’s not great art, surely.  That’s kitsch, overblown to a risible degree precisely because it’s all about celebrating a tyrant.  The greatest art does the opposite of that, surely:  Goya, say.  Picasso’s Guernica.  Help me out here guys: perhaps I have gone insane.

By Adam Roberts on 01/09/06 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In this context, Nabokov insists on the primacy of art (to which primacy of the artist is corollary). Communism and Fascism insist on the primacy of state, to which art, along with all else, is subserviant. Nabokov had nothing to choose between them but serial exile, but only one persisted into his later years (though he still took on cryptonormative antisemitism, e.g. near churches, cf. Lolita).

What happens when we feed Vergil into Nabokov’s equation?

Another unlettered exile, Hermann Broch, offers The Death of Virgil.

By nnyhav on 01/09/06 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Giotto? Masaccio? Piero? The Scrovegni Chapel?!
San Marco?
The Catholic God Damned Church?
The history of art before the baroque- meaning the rise of the middle classes etc. and netherlandish painting, landscpape and genre etc. etc.
...and you give me Goya and Guernica?
---

It’s not an issue of the primacy of art, and Nabokov’s work was made late in the day.  Also, alienated individualism is not something to celebrate even if it’s the only option: the best work is always utterly a part of what it examines.
Libertarian Literature is a contradiction in terms

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/09/06 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is Nabokov’s contradistinction of ‘literature’ and ‘state propaganda’ really so wholly axiomatic?

It’s not an issue of the primacy of art, and Nabokov’s work was made late in the day.

Totalitarianism was early? Patronage as art’s sole support was late? Nabokov addresses a modern condition.

By nnyhav on 01/09/06 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nabokov is ‘late in the day’ in the sense that he’s a stylist: at the end of a tradition. At least what I’ve read of him makes me see him in that way (it’s not my field)
There’s a mannered emptiness to his work. Not that I could do better, but ‘better’ exists, and I try to think about what that might be and why.
I don’t mind Guernica, but it’s late, and lesser, Picasso.  But late Titian is the best Titian. Why?

etc.

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/09/06 at 05:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

a small note, Seth, but you seem to have missed this passage from John’s talk: 

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.

By on 01/09/06 at 06:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nabokov was a pretty narrow critic—IIRC he had no respect for Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, or Stendhal.

From what I’ve seen the first 10-15 years after the Russian Revolution were artistically quite exciting, but after that things became horrible. The transition coincides with Stalin taking over, but Lenin might have been just as bad; it looks like a dynamic process to me, rather than a change of direction.

Oddly, Stalin liked Bulgakov’s early work.

Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote some pretty good stuff under Stalin, though I think they probably would have done better otherwise.

By John Emerson on 01/09/06 at 06:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Seth writes:

Zizek’s from Ljubljana[!] In Eastern %%)$#%@!! Europe[!] When was the last time anyone from that part of the world thought of communism in terms of ‘utilitarian rationalism.’ You can’t imagine that he’s treating the big ‘C’ as a religious enterprise??

Talk about a failure of imagination.
lay off the SF for while.”

I think Seth is suffering from a very basic failure of philosophic intellection, which he is projecting onto me as a failure of historical imagination.

What he is missing is what philosophers sometimes all the is/ought distinction. (Actually, ordinary people would call it that to, if they ever bothered to call it.) Communism - and Lenin - say that a certain sort of thing OUGHT to be the case: something rational and utilitarian. The fact that that ISN’T how it went doesn’t change the fact that they said it OUGHT to have. I don’t really know how to explain it any simpler (the is/ought distinction is pretty simple.) Anyway, in order to understand communism, it isn’t enough to know what IS the case - i.e. how things actually went, in a particular part of the world. You have to understand that the actors involved had, at least officially, certain ideals about how things OUGHT to go. These official ideals inform the Brecht poem. So it is not possible to understand the poem without understanding them.

Does this help, Seth?

Seth also suggests that I fail to see that Zizek is treating Communism as religious enterprise? Well, of course he is. (Read On Belief if you don’t believe me.) But here again the is/ought distinction is making trouble, this time in the opposite direction. Zizek’s philosophy OUGHT to treat Communism as a religious affair. In fact (this is the burden of my critique), when he attempts to gather material to achieve that ideal, he IS just gathering some dull scraps of utilitarianism. To put it even more briefly, I am accusing Zizek of ERROR.

Perhaps the is/ought distinction is news to him, but I do not think Seth can convincingly beg off the charge of having a concept of error. For in his comment he effectively accuses me of being wrong. So he ought to have considered that this was in fact what I was accusing Zizek of from the start. The fact that I was accusing Zizek of being wrong explains why, despite the religious aspirations of his thought, I described him as making utilitarian gestures.

By John Holbo on 01/09/06 at 06:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And, of course, the concept of error implies the is/ought distinction, so - rattling around somewhere - Seth simply MUST have it.

By John Holbo on 01/09/06 at 06:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and that thing Sean wrote above. (Thanks, Sean.)

By John Holbo on 01/09/06 at 06:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That the Bolsheviks thought (that is, if you assume you know their real intentions) that Communism would bring about more good than capitalism does not at all imply Lenin and the marxists were utilitarian. Bentham and Mill often refer to utilitarianism as based on the needs and pleasures/ desires of the aggregate--determining the “good” often requires taking into account various and conflicting claims/ rights: so equating that to a revolutionary and anti-democratic cadre seems rather misguided, if not an insult to the utilitarians, and a misreading of marx.

As far as the is/ought, you might recall that Hume, the proto-utilitarian, held that deriving “ought” --obligations, duties, rights--from the factual is was not logically possible. THo’ Lenin having 10,000 people executed following the assassination attempt might be thought extreme ( it is) there’s no contradiction in it as a maxim.  (Actually there may be but that would be based more on a view of some sort of innate entitlement which neither Hume, marxists, or Holbo address).  But the issue begs the more Malthusian or perhaps Freudian (and Humes idea that “reason is the slave of the passions” is not so far form Freud) question of whether there is any study properly called ethics.

By Moriarty on 01/09/06 at 07:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Moriarty writes:

“That the Bolsheviks thought (that is, if you assume you know their real intentions) that Communism would bring about more good than capitalism...”

No, no. Per my comment, I only claim to know what their official ideals were. (I do also think that all the major communistic intellectual sincerely believed that communism was better than capitalism. As to their psychologies ... whether they were subtly motivated by a desire to kill lots of people, and revolution was a wonderful pretext? think what you think best.)

Also, utilitarianism is not even loosely equivalent to democracy (haven’t you and I already had this conversation, only you were wearing a different name?)

By John Holbo on 01/09/06 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Moriarity--your comments make quite a bit of sense to me; I simply cannot fathom an equation between communism and utilitarianism. That Lenin admired Ford and Fordism and had an ideal of some kind of technocracy that would organize production in a way superior to capitalism seems uncontroversial. But this isn’t utilitarianism.

By Jodi on 01/09/06 at 07:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, utilitarianism is not even loosely equivalent to democracy

No no. Mill was all about applying utilitarian ideas to politics and to legislation. The utilitarian-minded decision-maker estimates how various choices would bring about more utility, how they would impact the welfare of people. There may be a problem of how the good is defined=---by consensus, or by some sort of official decision maker, a judge or philosopher--but there is plenty of dicta of Bentham and Mill showing that the needs of the many were to be considered--the consequence of acts, done individually or by groups, weighed to determine the best for all. Monarchy, or totalitarianism, or marxism doesn’t work that way.

By Moriarty on 01/09/06 at 08:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Would you be content if I switched to ‘consequentialist’, Jodi? All I really mean is that Lenin felt that the right thing to do is maximize the good. The greatest good for the greatest number. I tend to use ‘utilitarianism’ as synonymous with ‘consequentialism’, which may be a bit misleading if people infer that I think Lenin was actually an orthodox follower of Bentham & co.

By John Holbo on 01/09/06 at 08:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Moriarty, you are confusing questions of means and ends. For the utilitarian, democracy is at best the proper means to the end: maximizing the greatest good for the greatest number. So if it turns out that totalitarianism is the best way to maximize the good after all, the utilitarian ought, in principle, to advocate totalitarianism. Of course the utilitarian probably won’t think that, but that’s only because in fact totalitarianism is not a plausible candidate for ideal utilitarian strategy. (The utilitarian should also advocate feeding the people to tigers IF it turns out that this maximizes their good. But in fact it probably won’t, so she won’t.) My complaint was about you EQUATING utilitarianism with advocacy of democracy. This is indeed a mistake. 

Also, you are confusing “the needs of the many were to be considered” [your words], which has nothing essentially to do with democracy (potentially); and “the desires or preferences of the many were to be considered”, which does. If a utilitarian thinks the preferences of the many do not track their needs, he will ignore their preferences and try to meet their needs, i.e. he is not in principle a democrat.

By John Holbo on 01/09/06 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps this will help. A passage from Leon Trotsky, describing Lenin:

“This most powerful machinist of the revolution, not only in politics but also in his theoretical works, in his philosophical and linguistic studies, was irrevocably controlled by one and the same idea, the goal. He was probably the most extreme utilitarian whom the laboratory of history has produced. But his utilitarianism was of the broadest historical scope.”

What I mean, in labeling Lenin a ‘utilitarian’, is what Trotsky meant.

By John Holbo on 01/09/06 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s not what I claimed--I claimed “Bentham and Mill often refer to utilitarianism as based on the needs and pleasures/ desires of the aggregate--determining the “good” often requires taking into account various and conflicting claims/ rights.” Marx and marxists do not proceed in this fashion at all. There is no weighing of what the best way to maximize welfare is; there is overthrowing capitalism. That desire to overthrow may or may not be justifiable in all circumstances, but it’s based on a historical inference for one, not on some proposed policy decision to maximize welfare.  You sort of turn the marxist cause into this type of situational ethics, when it’s far more grand, for better or worse. Besides, marxism has a determinist side which calls into question the premise of ethical agency anyways. (separating needs from desires might well be left to psychologists as well. They will be identical in many cases)

By Moriarty on 01/09/06 at 08:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Moriarty writes: “I claimed Bentham and Mill often refer to utilitarianism as based on the needs and pleasures/ desires of the aggregate--determining the “good” often requires taking into account various and conflicting claims/ rights.” Yes, I know you claimed that. What’s more, what you claim is true. But the truth of this claim is not evidence for what you are trying to establish by means of it: namely, that I was wrong to deny that utilitarianism and democracy are equivalent notions.

You point out that there are some theories of history hereabouts. Again, very true. I am nevertheless leaving Marxist theories of history out of it, not because they are not important to what Marxism is, but because they are irrelevant to the question of whether Lenin was basically a utilitarian. Marxism is ‘situation ethics’, if you like, so long as you define the situation with sufficient historical sweep. History as one very long situation. See above, Trotsky’s comment: “[Lenin’s] utilitarianism was of the broadest historical scope.”

By John Holbo on 01/09/06 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course a lot of popular Sovietology suffers from the cult of the individual now too, Martin Amis certainly included (is there not something performative and polemical in this?) I’m not saying Stalin was a noble man, of course, or that he didn’t have elaborate plans for mass extermination on par with (or even greater than) Hitler, but fixating on him (though understandable, and to some degree entirely justified) also forecloses on a great deal of (people’s) history.  Just saying; there are more nuanced ways to view history.  And doesn’t Zizek make the performative and polemical stakes of an alleged ‘return’ to Lenin more or less explicit?  Still, points taken, I suppose.

By Matt on 01/09/06 at 08:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Final note. Moriarity writes: “separating needs from desires might well be left to psychologists as well. They will be identical in many cases.” But what you need, to get your equivalence thesis off the ground, is for them to be identical in ALL cases.

By John Holbo on 01/09/06 at 08:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An important distinction is the difference between totalitarian art and art serving as state propaganda.  I would think that the Aeneid is not the product of a totalitarian state. Did the Roman state dictate what literary style could be used?  What content was acceptable?  What conceits were contrary to the Party?  Could a literary infraction threaten to bring execution or exile?  It just doesn’t appear that Soviet Russia and Rome are comparable examples.

Another important point:  any author in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany capable of producing a great work of literature was likely:  (1) dead; (2) exiled; or (3) sufficiently cowed into producing the propaganda desired by the Party.

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

The primary purpose of this comment is to subscribe to the thread so as to follow it more easily. 

That said, Adam R., I feel as though there is a “subterranean” thesis implied in your post, which is that the very best art is either “liberatory” in some sense or at least opposed to oppression.  (This is my attempt to account for the fact that you bring in mass murder in a post that is primarily concerned with how bad Stalinism was for art.) I would say that depends on your standard for what is good art—presumably we’re working from within a broadly “modernist” perspective, within which such a thesis could _arguably_ be _often_ true, but there are always exceptions.

I would recommend reading Giorgio Agamben, _The Man Without Content_, on the topic of the development of literary taste—which is itself a modern phenomenon—and Jean-Luc Nancy, _The Inoperative Community_, on the connection between (something like) literature and (the hope imperfectly gestured toward by) communism.  The former is fun to read, but the latter is decidedly not (as in, I know that it addresses something in the region of the problematic you’re dealing with, but I am unable to specify further without a more detailed study of the book—but the relevant part of the book is only 82 pages long, so no big loss if it turns out to be antithetical to everything you hold dear).

By Adam Kotsko on 01/09/06 at 09:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By “modern,” do you mean in the Holocene?

By Jonathan on 01/09/06 at 10:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The early period of the Roman principate was arguably pretty close to a totalitarian regime _avant la lettre_.  The matter of literary form is not as salient for that period because everyone would have wanted to write in the established forms anyway, and Augustus was setting himself up as the defender of the Roman tradition, even as he destroyed the traditional form of government.  The emperors between Augustus and Hadrian likely did not censor much, because they were too busy terrorizing the people, having affairs with their mothers, raping children, etc.

I would not have wanted to live under the Roman empire.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/09/06 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Utiitarianism based on absurd assumptions is no longer utilitarianism. Is Zizek responding to utilitarianism as such or to the literary transformation of utilitarianism into something else?

“Anyway, in order to understand communism”
...as it was understood by the people who lived thrugh it, or as an idea? You seem not to understand the difference.

Zizek is not writing about a religious impulse, but ironically and not, from it.  Error as such is irrelevent. Again John, you read too much analytic philosophy and not enough literature. And no SF doesn’t count.

You read things to be right and wrong. You’re iinterested in people’s ideas, and I’m merely interested in their words. Wittgenstein therefore is akin to Eliot, a creator of baroque formal systems, constructed in a vain attempt to render the world fully external from the self and the self in turn impregnible, asexual, autistic.  They make manifest a similar perceptive sense, datable to the early 20th century.  The thought that either of them might be ‘right’ is absurd.

Continental philosphers write from the standpoint of the perceiving self, one that is both historically and socially grounded.  I don’t expect such people to be uncontradictory any more than I expect that of any other writer.  Anglo-American philosophers develop systems in a vain attempt to be as logical as possible -similar to Eliot and Witt.- and render themselves useless or worse, susceptible to charges of political hypocrisy.
That is assuming that they refer to themselves as liberal.
---
And no, Ceasar’s Rome was not a fascist state. Fascist levels of social control are impossible without modern technology, indeed probably couldn’t even be conceived of without it.

On behalf of the ‘ordinary people’
goodnight.

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/10/06 at 12:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

http://www.apple.com/trailers/universal/flight93/large.html

Nuff said.

By on 01/10/06 at 01:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gosh. I had no idea the ‘ordinary people’ were so upset with me for reading SF novels. Thank goodness ‘they’ - who have been dumb - have found their voice in Seth Edenbaum. Truly he sleeps the sleep of the ‘just’. (Seth says he isn’t interested in ideas, just words, yet he is ‘philosophical’. I’ve got just the thing.)

Adam, sorry to spend my time in your thread not addressing your post. You write: “Nobody would expect to be taken seriously publicly if they described themselves as a Hitlerian; but people seem to get away with labelling themselves as Leninist (pace Zizek), or even Stalinist with nary a whiff of craziness.” I think - though maybe I’ll think different in 10 minutes - that it’s not quite right to hint that our attitude to Hitler is the norm and our attitude to Lenin/Stalin the exception. I take you to be hinting this because you write: “We find ourselves harnessing our considerable intellectual horsepower to the question of justifying Lenin.” I think, per your Rome point, that we find it easy to ‘enjoy’ almost any villain; to transform bloody deeds, cruelty, atrocity into drama, and thereby make the perpetrators protagonists. Lenin and Stalin fit in here, although the shoe pinches a bit (as its heel grinds into the face.) But Hitler is the singular exception.

Although I haven’t watched “Rome”, I suspect what calls forth our admiration is not so much an appreciation of clear-sighted solutions to ‘dirty hands’ problems, i.e. you can’t govern any other way. Rather, the ruthless dictator character is admired for a certain sort of authenticity (to drag Trillingesque concerns back in.) Being above the law is something dictators have in common with poets. They have the strength to break and remake notions of right and wrong, in the service of winning free space for their own actions, the expression of their will. To reformulate the bits Nabokov quotes: “The personality of the dictator should develop freely and without restraint.” And “Every dictator has the right to create freely.” What dictator’s heart isn’t warmed at the ‘I’ve just gotta be ME’ prospect?

On the other hands, poets who bend to the dictator’s will are sacrificing authenticity (possibly.) That is why we can admire glorified murderers, in artistic contexts; but despise such artistic productions when legally compelled.

Virgil gets a pass because Romanticism hadn’t been invented yet. (We have an attitude toward him rather like Dante’s - with Romanticism substituted for Christian revelation. Not his fault that he didn’t see what was expected of him, past a certain point.)

I’m just guessing, obviously.

By John Holbo on 01/10/06 at 08:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: Rather, the ruthless dictator character is admired for a certain sort of authenticity (to drag Trillingesque concerns back in.) Being above the law is something dictators have in common with poets.

I’m not sure this is right.  Isn’t this, from Ian McEwan’s Saturday, closer to the truth?

“It’s only children, in fact, only infants who feel a wish and its fulfilment as one; perhaps this is what gives tyrants their childish air.  They reach back for what they can’t have.  When they meet frustration their man-slaying tantrum is never far away.  Saddam, for example, doesn’t simply look like a heavy-jowled brute.  He gives the impression of an overgrown, disappointed boy with a pudgy hangdog look, and dark eyes a little baffled by all that he still can’t ordain.  Absolute power and its pleasures are just beyond reach and keep receding.  He knows that another fawning general dispatched to the torture rooms, another bullet to the head of a relative won’t deliver the satisfaction it once did.”

This is also Nabokov’s take on tyranny: I’m thinking of the schoolyardish spin he gives ‘the Toad’ in Bend Sinister.

But is this ‘authenticity’?  I suppose there’s a tradition that does find authentic experience in “the child is father to the man” and all that.  Doesn;t persuade me.  What I especially like about McEwan’s quotation is the way it suggests that children are always being dragged unwillingly along in the wake of ‘growing up’ (always being pulled deeper and deeper into the logic of the symbolic, as Lacan would say) so that the instantaneous joy of desire/gratification is always receding further and further away from them—a loss they feel acutedly, if incoherently.  Hitler’s mad tantrums; Stalin’s ludicrous ego; these are meagre substitutions for the original jouissance.

By Adam Roberts on 01/10/06 at 09:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Adam: dictators are basically self-willed children who never grew up, and their willing followers are basically abulic* children who never grew up.  Grown-ups do not want either to force other people to do things or to do the will of others.

<small>*Note: Five-dollar word thrown in to establish intellectual standing.</small>

Need one sacrifice one’s leftist principles, baby-and-bathwater, in order to note how complicit Lenin was with mass-murder?

It’s the fact that this question even needs to be asked, particularly in such a hesitant, “don’t hit me—I swear I’m not a neocon” tone, that makes me unable to take the Left seriously.  Thirty-five years ago I saw the leftie leaders at my college put armbands on and act exactly like any other authoritarians, and the disillusionment has lasted.  It’s not the Right as such I can’t stand, it’s People Who Tell Other People What to Do.

There’s a mannered emptiness to his work.

Ah, an illiterate!  Enjoy your “realism,” comrade!

By language hat on 01/10/06 at 10:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Mr Hat: hesitancy, yes.  Easy to get trapped by the discourses of ‘politeness’ into a sort of pusillanimity.  It’s very English, that.  Mind you, you should see me drunk at a football match.

Adam K.  I feel as though there is a “subterranean” thesis implied in your post, which is that the very best art is either “liberatory” in some sense or at least opposed to oppression.  (This is my attempt to account for the fact that you bring in mass murder in a post that is primarily concerned with how bad Stalinism was for art.)

I hold up my hand.  This is indeed my subterra.  Art should challenge us, shake us up, not confirm us in our preconceptions and certainly not make us comfortable in the face of tyranny.  The very least should do is make us think, encourage us to resist.  Or, since what makes art ‘good’ is a very large question, I could narrow it down: art which bends itself into the shape of a panegyric for tyranny isn’t good art.  Mass murder does get brought in here: if a regime perpetrates mass-murder and an artist creates art that is complicit with that regime, then the art is complicit with mass-murder.  A bad thing.  It’s one thing to produce art which valorises ‘authority’ in the abstract; it’s another to produce art which celebrates tyranny, and therefore the tyrants’ crimes against humanity.  I don’t think this is judging works of art by the criterion of ‘political correctness’; I’m trying to think descriptively, not prescriptively.  I can’t think of any art designed to flatter tyrants that’s anything but lickspittle, or kitsch, or simply pompous.

The counter-example that itches under my eyelid is the Aeneid, which is none of those last named things, but which is unmistakeably written not only to praise but explicitly to shore up the regime of Augustus.  Of course, classicists debate with themselves whether there’s a cunning irony at work in the poem, representing Aeneas as deranged by furor (especially at the end when he kills Turnus without good cause), thereby deconstructing the authoritarian ideological message of the whole.  But this has always seemed to me too super-subtle to be very convincing.

Jodi has given me much to think about with the example of Eisenstein, quite rightly.  Ivan the Terrible is great art specifically designed to praise a tyrant, one with whom Stalin directly identified, (hence of course his enthusiasm in backing the project).  Again there are complications; for if Part I shows Ivan as the ‘strong’ ruler, in a way nakedly flattering to Uncle Joe, Part II shows him as mad and psychotic, which, given the insane psychosis that was very close to Stalin’s core, annoyed Joe enormously.  I suppose there is a critique there; although I’m sure whether it redeems the whole.

John E also makes excellent points with Shostakovich and Prokofiev.  Of course, music is harder to object to on ideological grounds (and therefore less liable to oppressive interference from dictators), being much more conceptually plastic, ready to take a variety of different political imprints.  This may be why I prefer songs to instrumentals; ‘Fuck Da Police’ is harder ideologically to misappropriate than (say) the Eroica, which can be both ‘Napoleon rocks!’ and ‘Napoleon, the Big Stinker, ya, boo.’

Seth thinks (unless I’m misunderstanding him) the whole of pre-Enlightenment art is nothing but praise for tyrants.  Perhaps he and I can agree to disagree on this.

Adam K.  I would really appreciate some guidance on Agamben.  I recently picked up some and read it (after your Agambennite weblog-fest, actually); but I just don’t think I’m getting it.  Whatever ‘getting it’ might involve.  You say, with respect to this question, “I would recommend reading Giorgio Agamben, _The Man Without Content_, on the topic of the development of literary taste—which is itself a modern phenomenon”.  I’ve read that one.  If I understand it correctly, it’s arguing that modern art is fundamentally different to older art; that something has been lost, art has exhausted its spiritual vocation.

“Gone is the time when the artist was bound in immediate identity, to faith and to the conceptions of his world; no longer is the work of art founded in the unity of the artist’s subjectivity with the work’s content in such a way that the spectator may immediately find in it the highest truth of his consciousness, that is, the divine” [Agamben, p.47]

I peer at this and try to discern how it’s different to T S Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility”.  But it’s not different; it’s the same thing.  And it’s plain wrong.  There never was a golden age of art in which artists and lovers of art connected directly with the aesthtic in immediate joy.  I’m happy to be disagreed with here; but at the very least I’ll say that I can’t find any evidence in Agamben’s little book for his assertions – quite sweeping assertions, some of them.  I also find Eliot’s ‘art is not an expression of personality, it is an escape from personality’ (I quote from memory and inexactly) to be precisely what Agamben is asserting with his title [‘The artist is the man without content, who has no identity than a perpetual emerging out of the nothingness of expression and no other ground than this incomprehensible station on this side of himself, Agamben, 55].  That’s wrong too, I think.  I mean, Eliot is wrong, and Agamden is wrong if I’m understanding him correctly.

Let’s assume we don’t agree on this: that’s fine and dandy, and I daresay I haven’t understood the subtleties of Agamben’s argument (I haven’t read -Luc Nancy, _The Inoperative Community_ at all, and will try to seek it out).  But the parallel with Eliot worries me, because Eliot’s argument has a pretty naked ideological subtext.  The dissociation of sensibility is a bad thing because it interrupts tradition, and tradition is the ground of worth of any artwork.  The artist should have as little personality as possible in order not to intrude into the super-personal continuum of art.  If you start from that place, then the whole aesthetics of ‘submission’ to Authority (bigging-up the authority-figures’ good points, airburshing away their bad ones) becomes much easier.  I’m not calling Eliot a fascist exactly; but he was certainly a deeply conservative figure in love with orthodoxy and a past he idealised as golden.

By Adam Roberts on 01/10/06 at 10:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

language hat: “It’s the fact that this question even needs to be asked, particularly in such a hesitant, “don’t hit me—I swear I’m not a neocon” tone, that makes me unable to take the Left seriously. Thirty-five years ago I saw the leftie leaders [...]”

Some parts of the Left right now are caught up in nostalgia for the good days from the elders combined with the “I’m wearing a Lenin pin! Doesn’t that *shock* you?” bit from the youthful set.  That doesn’t mean that nostalgia + adolescence defines what the left is.  But whenever you buy into the right-wing frame that the Sixties defines the left you reinforce it.

Most of the problem is that the Left is waiting for another great economist.  Marx carried the Left obligation to have an intellectual rationale for a while, but he’s 19th century.  Having a left that is nostalgic, pseudoreligious, and whose ideologists are primarily concerned with culture just makes no sense—that’s what the right wing does.

By on 01/10/06 at 10:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

” ‘There’s a mannered emptiness to his work’.
Ah, an illiterate!  Enjoy your “realism,” comrade!”

You make assumptions about my politics and my taste. 
On what basis?  And am I defending Zizek?  He’s a lightweight, did I imply otherwise?
And it’s not only dictators who are adolescent, Modernity is defined by it.  Yes there’s an immaturity to Nabokov, so what?  Did I say that he sucks?  Picasso’s work went downhill after 1916. His best work was youthful, and he grew old but not up. 

I’m arguing with people who have to be reminded of the name ‘Giotto,’ so no accusations of illiteracy please.

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/10/06 at 10:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As predicted, 10 minutes after posting I regretted it. I don’t think that dictators ARE much like poets, so I didn’t mean to sound like I think that. When I write “Being above the law is something dictators have in common with poets. They have the strength to break and remake ...” etc. what I was really short-handing is that when they are made aesthetically palatable - made into protagonists - this is usually the recipe. (Read Carlyle, for example.) True, back on earth dictators are a bunch of monstrous infants, I’m more than willing to grant. (This still sort of fits, because when poets are portrayed unfavorably, they are made out to be big babies.) But when the ruthless are portrayed as just extremely dangerous infants, they don’t end up as sympathetic protagonists, which was sort of our original questioin. I haven’t seen “Rome”. How is Caesar portrayed, that he ends up sympathetic? Is he Tony Soprano? If someone asked me why Tony is appealing as a character - more than some straight-arrow fed trying to bring him down - I would actually say it’s a weird combination of ‘authenticity’ and big-babyishness. (I’m thinking of the scene in season 2 (?) when he’s frustrated and he just hits the bartender with the phone for no reason.)

By John Holbo on 01/10/06 at 11:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I suggest part of the irony of the Caesar/Brutus dichotomy involves the guilt of both parties: Caesar, however noble and King-like poses a threat to the Republic. Brutus, initially the voice of cool rationality (think James Mason in the flick), sides with the sort of proto-mafioso Cassius, and in deciding to end Caesar’s dictatorship by assassination, himself descends to the machiavellian. As Professor Townsend said, “Meet the New Boss; same as the old boss.”

By Crassius on 01/10/06 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I tend to think that utilitarianism isn’t a very useful form of analysis—it mostly seems fitted to setting up hypothetical arguments which can’t really be made concrete, and to framing moral dilemmas of the “if I shoot this child we will attain world peace” type. If utility were actually quantifiable and if utils were measurable, we could have a substitute for economics, but in practice utilitarianism tends to turn into economics because of the difficulties of measuring intangibles, common goods, use value (vs. market value), etc.

THAT SAID—it seems that when Zizek or his supporter reject utilitarianism, they are playing the trick I’ve seen Catholics do, which is jumping from a proof that utilitarianism is not adequate to define value, to an assertion that an act can be good even though it can be seen to have only bad results (e.g., traditional Catholic natalism).  Catholics have an out (eternal reward in Heaven) but Marxists don’t.

What Benjamin wrote about non-utilitarian “pure violence” looks like an example of what I mean, though I haven’t read him in context yet.

By John Emerson on 01/10/06 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, At the same time, I would say that Eliot is a great poet (even, perhaps, _unquestionably_ a great poet), though I find his politics as unappealling as you do.  Then there’s the unfortunate example of Ezra Pound…

On Agamben, I would say that there’s one essential misunderstanding displayed in your comment—Agamben is not arguing in favor of some lost authenticity of the aesthetic; his point is that a separate category of the “aesthetic” or of “art” as we understand it in the modern world was not always there and does not always have to be there.  (That’s where his discussion of the medieval “box of wonders” comes in, among other things.) The collapse of the aesthetic brings with it certain opportunities, but we have to be clear on what’s happening to the aesthetic in our time.  I don’t see Agamben as nostalgic, in any of his works, actually, although certain of his statements might fit neatly into what we’re used to hearing from nostalgic people.

I will pass over the harping on “_evidence_” in silence.

Rich, You make a good point about the current debacle of the Left.  One might also say that the Right has now mastered the art of class warfare, albeit from the other side.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/10/06 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Holbo’s move to foundational ethics is not entirely improper, however offensive to the comrades; it’s his conclusions that are questionable (marxism does not equal utilitarianism). Which is to say before the aesthetics commence one performs the politic and historical assessment. The historical reality of the bolsheviks, like that of the fascists, is far too overwhelming and heinous to overlook.  The objections of a Nabakov matter little alongside the history. If anything the aesthetic and art in general distracts; after auschwitz--and gulags and millions of dead kulaks--poesy is dead, and ethics may be dead as well; and theology and theological ethics (as in Holbo’s sort of implied Kantianism) certainly as dead as poesy.

By Moriarty on 01/10/06 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You make assumptions about my politics and my taste.  On what basis?

On the basis of your saying there was “a mannered emptiness to his work”; that particular accusation is a staple of the (socialist-)realism crowd, and everyone in this room is some sort of leftie, as far as I can tell (including me, since my anarchism leans in that direction).

And it’s not only dictators who are adolescent, Modernity is defined by it.  Yes there’s an immaturity to Nabokov, so what?

I have no idea what you mean about modernity being defined by adolescence, unless it’s that the world today takes far more account of adolescent taste than at any time in the past, which, while true and unfortunate, doesn’t seem to have much bearing here.  If you’re talking about modernism, on the other hand, that’s just silly.  Of course it had its eternal adolescents (Cummings springs to mind), but I can think of few writers more adult (if frequently wrong-headed) than Joyce, Eliot, Pound, and for god’s sake Nabokov. “Immaturity”? Aside from a few early short stories, his work is practically a standing definition of the adult mind at work.  I trust you’re not misled by his frequent evocations of a beloved childhood world, which is of course an entirely different matter.  In any event, I can’t take seriously the esthetic judgment of anyone who can apply the phrase “mannered emptiness” to one of the greatest bodies of prose in the twentieth century.  You might as well say it of Faulkner, who played similar games with language, point of view, and other basic elements of literature.

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

Though socialist realism is mostly the stuff of mockery for the would-be Tories of Lit. Land, it is not impossible that socialist realism can be sci-fi-influenced socialist realism, and that is not adequately defined by the Tractor as icon school, or the plump revolutionary farm-gals indicated in the opening post.  Isn’t say Crying of Lot 49 socialist realism to some degree? Perhaps hyperrealism or whatever category of realism you want to give it. There is in “cyberpunk” (lit. categories not some sort of necessary definition) types of writers such as Pynchon, PK Dick, Gibson, Ballard (and the Burroughs-beat school to some extent) opposition at least in principle to the sort of heritage-pimping common to the Great Masterworks of Lit. exemplified by Pound and Eliot. That may be due as much to say noir as sci-fi; and really noir such as the best of Chandler, some of Hammett also is a type of realism, tho’ the “socialist” aspect may be hard to ascertain.
The post seems to indicate that the lit.  scholar must abandon realism for the likes of Nabakov, Pound, Eliot, et al., the Fearless Leaders of Tradition, since social realism is complicit with the crimes of the Bolsheviks. That seems unwarranted.  Writers from Chandler to Orwell to Pynchon sort of indicate a realist, and pulp-as-beauty alternative to the crassness of say Steinbeck or Dreiser-like realism (tho we could use more Dreisers I believe) as well as to the Kings of Literary Etiquette such as Nabakov and Eliot. And that aesthetic of “cyber-noir” if you like, is perhaps more philosophically valid than the heritage-mavens in the sense of acknowledging technological power, a certain materialist and existentialist code, as well as political atrocity. Orwellian dystopia however unappealling to snobs is a starting point, and one I think free of the catholic overtones of Eliot, and the Marquis like tendencies of a Nabakov................

By Dr. Deeply on 01/10/06 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Language Hat—I wholeheartedly concur with your last comment.

Shorter Dr. Deeply:  Lenin was complicit with mass murder?  Stalin persecuted great artists?  Oh yeah?  Well, Nabokov was a “heritage maven.” So there!

By on 01/10/06 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

language hat: What you are saying about Stalin isn’t really right.  Most people on the left have no hesitancy in condemning Stalin.  History did not end with the Baby Boom.

Adam: Along the same lines, I don’t agree with “This, I think is part of a broader current-day problematic. Nobody would expect to be taken seriously publicly if they described themselves as a Hitlerian; but people seem to get away with labelling themselves as Leninist (pace Zizek), or even Stalinist with nary a whiff of craziness.” This is part of what I find so hard to understand about Zizek.  If someone described themselves as a Leninist to me, my initial reaction would be that they were a fool, and if they described themselves as a Stalinist, I would suspect their sanity.  I’m not clear what Zizek is saying about Lenin and Stalin, I’m not clear how much he is joking, and Zizek’s advocates don’t seem like fools or crazy.

By on 01/10/06 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K: thanks for the Agamben pointer.  I still think I’m missing something; if all he’s arguing is that ‘the aesthetic’ is a later concept, then of course he’s right.  But I don’t see what’s new or striking about making that claim.

You say.  “I will pass over the harping on “_evidence_” in silence.”

Well that’s your prerogative of course.  But there are dangers in evidence-free assertion, it seems to me. You say:

The matter of literary form is not as salient for that period [Ancient Rome] because everyone would have wanted to write in the established forms anyway, and Augustus was setting himself up as the defender of the Roman tradition, even as he destroyed the traditional form of government.  The emperors between Augustus and Hadrian likely did not censor much.

‘Would have wanted’, ‘likely did not’:  I admire the unhypocritcal presentation of your guesses as argument here, but it’s not, er, right, actually.  For the counter position, there’s plenty of, um, evidence:  Ovid getting banished for writing stuff the emperor didn’t like; Seneca being ordered by the emperor Nero to commit suicide (something which amounted to execution; the emp. took all his money too); Petronius, same fate (same emperor); Juvenal got exiled, probably to Egypt.  None of these writers wrote in the ‘established forms’ (whether they wanted to or not is moot, of course; but there’s no reason to think they didn’t): they wrote prose or verse satire (a Roman literary invention) often erotic and scatological; or dangerous novels; or put verse forms to new immoral purposes.  Emperors did not censor much?  But the word censor is a Latin title, allotted to the Roman magistrate whose job was precisely the control of public morals (and, in a combo that I’m sure made sense to the Romans, the leasing of public spaces.  But that’s not relevant to my point).

I have similar problems when Agamben says (eg) that art does not exert the same influence on us as it did on Plato and his age.  How does he know? I can think of lots of evidence that seems to counter this; but on what basis did Giorgio make the claim in the first place?

By Adam Roberts on 01/10/06 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam Roberts, that’s Agamben channeling Hegel and Heidegger, sailing free of messy empirical matters.

By on 01/10/06 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R., I was wrong.  My study of Roman emperors has had more to do with their treatment of Christians and Christian perception of them than with the great literature of the period, so I was working with conjecture there.

The broader point that there are valid parallels to be drawn between the tyrrany of the Roman emperors and of modern totalitarianism (although the latter had much more efficient means of oppressing people) does seem to me to be reinforced.

His evidence for the thing about Plato is that Plato was apparently much more concerned to ban art from the Republic than we would dream of being.  I haven’t read stats on that, but it does seem likely that few people would embrace Plato’s views on that matter.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/10/06 at 05:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The glory that was Roma, and the wicked splendors of Plutarch, Petronius, et al are not really pertinent to the rise of communism or fascism and the yankee state. However much theatrical or literary dilettantes enjoy resetting Roman themes in modern political culture (ie. Casear as wicked totalitarian, Brutus as socialist idealist, Titus as modern tyrant {great shots of Ms Lange’s “assets” however} etc.) that is not the case; nor are the sort of disney-esque dreams that the truths of Jeee-sus and the gospel sort of replaced the brutality of the pagan emperors plausible (if we knew the real history of the catholics we’d probably discover nearly as many nero and caligula-like priests, bishops etc. as in the empire). Technology, printing, general educational improvements, population differences, all sorts of things greatly distance the last 200-300 years from Roman or greek spectacle; it’s generally the belle-lettrist types who want to preserve whatever they take to be valuable in the “classix” who think otherwise.  Virgil doesn’t matter except to the Ivy League snoots who can afford him. History like started in 1789, if not 1945; Pynchon, Bugs Bunny and Duke Ellington over Plutarch and Petronius any day of the week.

By Dr. Deeply on 01/10/06 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam R:

Art should challenge us, shake us up, not confirm us in our preconceptions and certainly not make us comfortable in the face of tyranny.  The very least should do is make us think, encourage us to resist.

Not that I agree necessarily, or at least not without reservation, but Ellis Sharp might dispute your choice of example:

...It’s a bourgeois novel in the sense that it celebrates a bourgeois life style and worries about the threats to that way of life. At the end of the novel Perowne stands at the window, back where his day began:

“A hundred years ago, a middle-aged doctor standing at this window in his silk dressing gown, less than two hours before a winter’s dawn, might have pondered the new century’s future. February 1903. You might envy this Edwardian gent all he didn’t yet know. If he had young boys, he could lose them within a dozen years, at the Somme. And what was their body count, Hitler, Stalin, Mao? Fifty million, a hundred? If you described the hell that lay ahead, if you warned him, the good doctor – an affable product of prosperity and decades of peace – would not believe you. Beware the utopianists, zealous men certain of the path to an ideal social order. Here they are again, totalitarians in different form, still scattered and weak, but growing, and angry, and thirsty for another mass killing. A hundred years to resolve. But this may be an indulgence, an idle, overblown fantasy, a night-thought about a passing disturbance that time and good sense will settle and rearrange.” (pp. 276-7)

As usual, McEwan has his cake and eats it. He equivocates. But these parallel nightmare visions are questionable on other grounds than that the second, twenty-first century one might not come to pass. If the twentieth century was hell, what was the nineteenth century? Paradise? What was the body count of the British Empire? And if Hitler, Stalin and Mao racked up 100 million dead, what about the 17 million who die every year on our planet from disease, malnutrition, filthy water and suchlike? What’s the body count resulting from US foreign policy? If it was hell in the Gulags or the death camps, was it more agreeable being a Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950s? As for those “zealous men” of the twenty-first century, what is it exactly that makes them “angry”? Perowne is supposed to represent civilised values but one of the many absences from his sensitive conscience is global warming and the link with personal consumption, car driving, air travel and all those other ingredients of an agreeable middle class lifestyle.

But that’s quite enough from me. I finish this week in a state of unusual depletion. I’m off for another listen to that timeless classic, Phil Ochs singing ‘Love Me, I’m a Liberal.’"</em>

By Matt on 01/10/06 at 05:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K.  Gracefully said.  I don’t mean to yahoo-ish about Agamben, and certainly need to read more before I judge.  Everyone (who is anyone) seems to be name-checking Home Sacer at the moment; think I’ll give that a go next.

Dr D.  Points for gaiety; but even in jest “History like started in 1789, if not 1945” is dangerously blind.  Of course the Romans (eg) don’t map simplistically onto our moral cartography; something confirmed precisely by historicising them in a complex of discourses that goes back way beyond the last half century.  Of course this is more Rome as understood by (for instance) framers of the US constitution, or as a model for Victorian imperialists, than ‘Rome’ as such.  But even so.

Matt: yes, Saturday is unsatisfactory in many ways: often nicely done, in a techincal sense (although, speaking of the techincal business of writing, reading it often made me think ‘but this gorgeous prosaic rendering of the minutiae of everyday life is the sort of thing that Updike does so much better’), but horribly upper-middle-class and, ultimately, cosy.  Perhaps not the best novel to instance here.  Thanks for the link.

By Adam Roberts on 01/10/06 at 05:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oops ... obviously Home Sacer is the TV makeover show for your philosophical house.  (Whatever next? Queer Eye for the ‘Without Content’ Guy?) That’s Homo Sacer.  Carry on.

By Adam Roberts on 01/10/06 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What is it that is being “historicized” with the classix, Sir? Is it the politics, some presumed philosophical realm, the technological accomplishments, or rather, the naughty bits? Methinks the bits naughty are the real interest; consumers aren’t exactly into Archimedes or even the Republic, but Caligula and Co. have perennial appeal, eh.  HBO knows that, and really Roma is sort of Guccione-lite sans the, uh, full frontal nudity as they say.

By Dr. Deeply on 01/10/06 at 06:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Except for the assertion in the first sentence, I believe you’ll find Homo Sacer to be more satisfying from an evidentiary perspective, although it remains as distressingly bereft of statistical tables as all of his other works.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/10/06 at 07:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Language Hat:
Eliot an adult? You’re kidding me, He had the sensibility of a bookish schoolboy and the closeted sexuality to match. And who could ever call Pound ‘mature?’ A writer of mature poetry maybe, but of what sort?  As with Picasso: the formal inventiveness of adolescence.  I suppose you could try to back William Rubin in his attempts to claim Picasso as a portrait painter of great emotional depth, but Rubin was pretty much tossed on his ass for that one.
He was laughed at.
---
AR: “Seth thinks (unless I’m misunderstanding him) the whole of pre-Enlightenment art is nothing but praise for tyrants.”

Republican forms of government are still anomalous in history, therefore most of the art in museums is the product of authoritarian cultures. This is not my opinion, this is simply a fact.  Literature and theater are seem more the products of a democratic or of semi-democratic culture, perhaps this is where Virgil comes in.

I usually get into fights about this for the opposite reasons. Dore Ashton reacted in horror many years ago when I brought up the possibility of a popular art. These days when I’m talking to such people I ask them to name the most important artist in any medium in the history of the English Speaking world.  Hint: he was a popular entertainer.
---
There’s something about synchronic forms of thought that I associate with emotional immaturity, not painting as opposed to music but painting without metaphor, without a sense of time.  The 20th century is full of people who defend ideas that originated in the 19th century as if they were products of the 20th.  Ideas became ideologies.  Ideologies are synchronic. I don’t care if it’s the pseudo-science of mainstream economics and ‘analytic’ philosophy, the myths of ‘scientific’ marxism or freudianism. or the positivist dreams of scientists and their unending search for “truth” by which they mean an unending search for ‘facts.’ Truth is after all term of metahysics.  But facts aren’t as sexy.  It’s easy to see Modern art and Modernism as an escape from the world into synchrony. Some of the art was very beautiful, but the attempt to return to the unsynchronic world with synchronic logic failed.

John Holbo responded to Zizek as if their definition of communism were identical, as if Stalinism were merely an idea rather than also and more importantly an experience.  Without caring one way or the other about Zizek I thought his critique was just silly. But for you I suppose it keeps the game going, so have fun.

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/10/06 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Walt, I think you’re passing over a useful point implicit in John’s comment.  People like us who are annoyed by Zizek’s leninism are annoyed because it seems so unthoughtful and unserious.  But, of course, that’s the point.  When he invokes Lenin, he’s being the poet as infant tyrant who thumbs his nose at the poor conventional minds who take such things seriously.  He makes his own authenticity by acting the fool. I suspect that for those who enjoy it the performance of outrageousness is part of the pleasure.  What should be embarrassing, however, is not so much that the performance is unserious (an irrelevant concern) as the fact that the whole thing is hackneyed.

By on 01/10/06 at 11:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean,

No.  That’s completely wrong.  Further more you offer no empirical evidence to support you claim.  So, I’m just not seeing an arguement there.

By on 01/11/06 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean: You could be right, but until I know more I’m giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.

I think that identifying with dictators is natural.  On a base level, we all agree with George Bush “it would be easier if I was a dictator.” The real question is what makes certain dictators off-limits.

By on 01/11/06 at 02:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Kindly keep the discussion on-topic. And thank you for keeping this space clean. - the Management

By John Holbo on 01/11/06 at 03:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A last note for anyone who drifts by.
It struck me that Zizek is first and foremost a writer, and that it makes not sense to argue with him as such. If you want to argue with the philosophy behind his writings, as I would argue with Eliot, or James Merrrill [or even Aristotle 2000+ years later] that’s another matter, but then one must begin with their words, not their intentions.

Finally the world is not divided between those who contradict themselves and those who don’t as much as between those who admit it and those who refuse to.
Some of Zizek’s commentary has been fine; and I got a kick out of Stanley Fish’s questions for Alito [Times op-ed].  Is it Fish who argues that he is merely a ‘reader’, as others are merely, ‘writers’ and who defends the craft of both?
He did a better job than the others of getting to the point.

Again I’m not defending Zizek, I’m saying that it’s more important, more useful and more interesting, to understand what he represents than to prove him incorrect.

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/12/06 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

hi all,
Interesting post and discussion. Is anyone here familiar with the idea that the Soviet Union was a form of capitalism? It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything along those lines, largely because for a few years I’d been spending my time for conversations like these in (apparently) ultra-left e-ghettoes. As such, I’d have to do some more reading and thinking to refresh my memory before I could adequately present the argument, but that’s the source for at least my own anti-Zizek (anti-Lenin et al) feelings, which I see as a lefty response. It may be the case as some here (Seth E, for one) have I think suggested that Z doesn’t mean what he says quite so literally. If that’s the case I really don’t know he’d make those Lenin noises. Anyway, this is all very informative stuff. If anyone’s interested, there’s a report on the conference in Essen that Zizek hosted on Lenin here: http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0102/msg00083.html
best regards,
Nate

By Nate on 01/13/06 at 06:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You miss my point, which was that it doesn’t matter what Zizek ‘meant’ except in comparison to what he said. This not science, and my own interest, at least, is literary and historical.
That being the case -and since I’ve now begun to browse chapters from ‘On Belief’ -and related pieces- a caveat

What Zizek is trying to do is to find a way out of the trap of liberal individualism; attempting to undermine the assumptions of its partisans regarding its status as ‘truth.’

The key question thus concerns the exact STATUS of this externality: is it simply the externality of an impartial “objective” scientist who, after studying history and establishing that, in the long run, the working class has a great future ahead, decides to join the winning side? So when Lenin says “The theory of Marx is all-powerful, because it is true,” everything depends on how we understand “truth” here: is it a neutral “objective knowledge,” or the truth of an engaged subject? Lenin’s wager — today, in our era of postmodern relativism, more actual than ever — is that universal truth and partisanship, the gesture of taking sides, are not only not mutually exclusive, but condition each other: in a concrete situation, its UNIVERSAL truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly PARTISAN position — truth is by definition one-sided. (This, of course, goes against the predominant doxa of compromise, of finding a middle path among the multitude of conflicting interests.) Why not, then, shamelessly and courageously ENDORSE the boring standard reproach according to which, Marxism is a “secularized religion,” with Lenin as the Messiah, etc.? Yes, assuming the proletarian standpoint IS EXACTLY like making a leap of faith and assuming a full subjective engagement for its Cause; yes, the “truth” of Marxism is perceptible only to those who accomplish this leap, NOT to any neutral observers. What the EXTERNALITY means here is that this truth is nonetheless UNIVERSAL, not just the “point-of-view” of a particular historical subject: “external” intellectuals are needed because the working class cannot immediately perceive ITS OWN PLACE within the social totality which enables it to accomplish its “mission” — this insight has to be mediated through an external element.”

So bourgeois economist Max Sawicky hearts Hugo Chavez (but worries about the possibility of some anti-semitic tendences-follow the links).  And of course Hugo Chavez is not a bourgeois liberal, so Max is voting, if from a distance, against his own class. Max is therefore ‘biased’ in the name of an ‘unfair’ ‘truth.’ He has picked a side.

This is simple shit -to me as it should be to you- but I’ve never been much interested in freedom as such.
Freedom of inquiry, yes, of aquisition, no.
Liberals don’t see the difference.

I’m not going to spend much time wih Zizek, I’m not that interested. He might push his argument too far, he might not. I’m certainly not going to become a fan and exchange his ideas with mine and I’m just as offended by fans of Chomsky, or Clem Greenberg. 
But John Holbo’s criticisms of Zizek’s ‘errors’ are contingent on Holbo’s ‘truths’

And I’ll go to town on that one.
Believe me.

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/14/06 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bad grammar, but I’m drunk.

By seth Edenbaum on 01/14/06 at 11:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

hi Seth,
I’m not sure who that was directed at, but, I really have no idea what you mean. Perhaps you’re writing as a writer and I’m making a mistake by assuming you ‘mean’ something. I wasn’t making the mistake of trying to argue with you, though. I just meant to use you as an example of a view that says Zizek doesn’t mean what he says (or, which isn’t much different, that arguing is the wrong response to the writer Zizek). Perhaps people are also mistaken re: Zizek in trying to argue with him, you may be right. I’m keen on hearing more of what those mistake-makers have to say, though, as the mistake of arguing with writers is one of my personal favorites. Not every writer though, just ones that strike me or people I respect as important.
best regards,
Nate

By Nate on 01/15/06 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The intentional fallacy applies to writing, not just literature. Again: language is not math. 
Philosophical writing either ignores this or deals with it clumsily. That being said, I have more sympathy for Z’s intention than I thought I would.

I’m being as clear as is possible I think

out

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/15/06 at 12:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Z: “So when Lenin says “The theory of Marx is all-powerful, because it is true,” everything depends on how we understand “truth” here: is it a neutral “objective knowledge,” or the truth of an engaged subject?

This is subtle, yet given the general postmodernist tendency to undermine scientific objectivity and to state that that objectivity is itself a type of ideology, the valuing of marxist and revolutionary subjectivity over detailed economic and ethical analysis, reforms, “green” solutions, should not be surprising. 

“ Why not, then, shamelessly and courageously ENDORSE the boring standard reproach according to which, Marxism is a “secularized religion,” with Lenin as the Messiah, etc.? Yes, assuming the proletarian standpoint IS EXACTLY like making a leap of faith and assuming a full subjective engagement for its Cause; yes, the “truth” of Marxism is perceptible only to those who accomplish this leap, NOT to any neutral observers.

That sort of leap and subsequent faith then is not better than the fundamentalist’s or catholic or muslim’s leap, and certainly as dangerous to secular society. The old iconic pictures of Lenin and Stalin show that the proletarian ideology functioned very similiarly to say religious icons functioned.  Once the Marxist course has been decided upon, Zizek, like some Pat Robertson of communism, dispenses with the facts and the philosophical reflections, and takes side with the roundheads and Enthusiasts of history.

By Dr. Deeply on 01/15/06 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lets ignore Zizek’s philosophical hyperbole.  Consider instead my friend Max “Super-Max” Sawicky and his qualified and very down to earth defense of Hugo Chavez.

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/15/06 at 02:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, sir. I do think US progressives and liberals should work with Chavez; f**k the fundies. Yet when Marxism flares up progressives ought to ne concerned about the possibility of “proletarian” hysteria turning into bloodshed or human rights abuses. And that sort of situation IS a historical reality of applied Marxism.  There’s a fine line between justifable revolution and mob riots, a line that too many leftists like Zizek are unwilling to acknowledge.

By Dr. Deeply on 01/15/06 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Seth writes:

“You miss my point, which was that it doesn’t matter what Zizek ‘meant’ except in comparison to what he said. This not science, and my own interest, at least, is literary and historical.

That being the case -and since I’ve now begun to browse chapters from ‘On Belief’ -and related pieces- a caveat

What Zizek is trying to do is to find a way out of the trap of liberal individualism; attempting to undermine the assumptions of its partisans regarding its status as ‘truth.’”

Well, Seth, you’ve almost staggered your way to the starting blocks. Yes, everyone you are arguing against - me, for example - already knows what Zizek is trying to do. The question is why liberals (or anyone else) should care about Zizek’s attempts to undermine our assumptions about ‘truth’. Has he actually done any, like, undermining? (I’m suddenly thinking of the last minute of so of “The Incredibles”.) Your comments about how his ‘meaning’ doesn’t matter does not really help understand why we should take him seriously, rather than regarding him as a clown.

Example. You write: “Lets ignore Zizek’s philosophical hyperbole.  Consider instead my friend Max “Super-Max” Sawicky and his qualified and very down to earth defense of Hugo Chavez.” Ah, now we see the violence inherent in your system. The point of my critique of Zizek is that he will always engage in little bumps of this sort. Out of one side of his mouth he will be advocating an absurd leap of faith in politics, out of the other he will be pointing out that ‘the facts show that Canadian health care works’. If it’s really the latter, if secretly you think like Max Sawicky, if you are leaping into faith with your feet on the ground, then ... well, as I put it in my original paper ... if Abraham had kept a straight face all the way up mount Moriah, then pulled a rubber knife and given his son the scare of his life, he might be remembered as the king of comedy, hardly as the father of faith.

The ‘except in comparison to what he said’ clause of your comment IS very, very funny. I give you that.

By John Holbo on 01/15/06 at 08:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I am the Underminer!  I am always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!”

-- If only Zizek were as entertaining.

By on 01/15/06 at 08:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whenever Zizek momentarily impinges on reality, his writing is just so ... well, old news.

An example from “Repeating Lenin”:
“One is therefore tempted to turn around Marx’s thesis 11: the first task today is precisely NOT to succumb to the temptation to act, to directly intervene and change things (which then inevitably ends in a cul de sac of debilitating impossibility: “what can one do against the global capital?”), but to question the hegemonic ideological coordinates. If, today, one follows a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space — it will be an act WITHIN the hegemonic ideological coordinates: those who “really want to do something to help people” get involved in (undoubtedly honorable) exploits like Medecins sans frontiere, Greenpeace, feminist and anti-racist campaigns, which are all not only tolerated, but even supported by the media, even if they seemingly enter the economic territory (say, denouncing and boycotting companies which do not respect ecological conditions or which use child labor) — they are tolerated and supported as long as they do not get too close to a certain limit.”

Yawn.  You could only believe this as anything but a beginning stage of understanding if you never had worked seriously for any of the kinds of groups that he mentions.  Which is a commonplace among people who like Zizek: they certainly have not succumbed to the temptation to act.  As a result, they know far less about liberal politics and its limits than the liberals.

In short, sometimes you win, even against the bogeyman of “global capital”, often you progress, as Zizek sort of admits later although the causality in the quote he chooses is a bit propagandistic ("today’s liberal consensus is the result of 150 years of the Leftist workers’ struggle and pressure upon the State, it incorporated demands which were 100 or even less years ago dismissed by liberals as horror"), and the reason for a good deal of this idea of the inherent limit is that *the people who are actually doing things don’t want to cross it*.  Leftists can never seem to get it through their heads that liberals are not merely wishy-washy non-radical people who want the same things that they do, that the failure to demolish global capital is not, to a liberal, a failure, and that a revolutionary change to destroy all evil everywhere is not something that liberals think has really worked out well, historically.  Leftists more or less completely wasted their efforts during most of the 20th century in doing things like supporting Leninism, so of course they have nothing to show for it, but that does not mean that action is futile.

By on 01/15/06 at 11:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So you’ve never considered why one should read the works of someone who asks interesting questions yet comes to odd conclusions. And you read literature, or just Tolkien and Asimov?

Of course I side with my friend Max. I said so (didn’t I?)
But if Chavez is not a liberal, he poses questions for them, as well as for those not (yet) offended by his policies.

I don’t read you for your ideas Mr Holbo, I read through you:  you’re an academic, writing for academics, about academia. You’re a scholastic philosopher. Your work is formalism and and your politics are uninteresting to me.  Don’t be offended that I read you in ways other than you intend; that’s how I read everything, including Zizek. And I’ve found there’s a relation between his ideas and those of Max Sawicky, though Max wouldn’t have the patience to put up with all the philosophical BS.
That relation is interesting to me, even though I have no interest in Z’s silly need to turn ambiguity into theological truth. But what else wuld you expect from a philospher?

As a side note:  I’m sure you’d call Brad DeLong’s a cosmopolitan intelligence.  If I’m wrong let me know, but I doubt it.

By Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel on 01/16/06 at 12:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

When I’m tired I can’t tell offhand glibness from pomposity.
I annoyed myself with that last one.
The argument’s good, but the language sucks.
yeesh!
this late night stuff gets to me.

By Gaspar etc. on 01/16/06 at 12:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My dear Gaspar, I’m not offended, I’m amused. I don’t laugh at you for your lack of ideas, Mr. Pimentel, I laugh though you.

By John Holbo on 01/16/06 at 12:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Instead of dismissing Zizek’s philosophical hyperbole, might it not be read as symptomatic of much of the thinking of the belle-lettrist left? The sort of messianic endorsement of Marxism suggested by Z. serves as a representation of how many literary scholars operate; other sort of radical chic figures--Derrida, or Sartre, Freud a few decades ago-- could be substituted in for Marx as well, and a corresponding leap of faith.  Scholars subscribing to the tradition of the “continentalist” or postmod school seem prone to this type of idolatry--and in many universities, say, UC schools in CA, the changing tastes in philosophical/ideological icons appears a bit like the changing tastes in celebrites, pop music, software. Next to his/her Bob Marley poster above the Apple, the hip humanities or philosophy undergraduate afixes a picture of Zizek or Derrida or Chomksy. That’s not to say the busts of the Great Minds--Burke, Montesquieu, Goering!etc.-- that the barons-in-training at USC or Stanford post on their shelves are any better--neither a Tory nor Cheka member be-

By Dr. Deeply on 01/16/06 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Arguing with J Holbo is like I’m arguing with someone from the World Bank who thinks that because the angry peasants at his door are being led by a priest with a cross the fundamental problem is religious.

I’m a third generation atheist, and I suppose I’ve been somewhat inoculated against belief; I don’t mind being around it.
But I read so many people screaming against religion I begin to think they’re secretly terrified that one day they might slip up.  It’s like an AA meeting.  But all philosophers are priests, and I’m most annoyed by those who pretend otherwise (like the men from the world bank.)

And Venezuela is not Canada. When was the last time the USG backed an attempted coup in Ottawa?  Chavez is also in a position to go too far, and he may: he’s not Pierre Trudeau.  But then, who gets to decide what ‘too far’ is?

By Missy Miss on 01/16/06 at 01:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But the problem with your analogy, Missy Miss, is that the “angry” mob at the “door” of the World Bank consists mostly of priests and their bourgeois-student acolytes.

Is Zizek popular among the peasants, do you think?

By on 01/16/06 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Priests and students in what country, Argentina?

As I said, the first and only time I’ve seen Zizek was on a tape from Slovenian TV discussing what the media was calling a brewing social crisis: a youth movement that people were afraid was fascist.  It wasn’t; it was self immolating and absurdist, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.  Z was speaking to a popular audience, he was hilarious, and absolutely right. I sat in front of the TV with two friends one of them a british academic philosopher techno-geek, drank beer and laughed. This was about 1992.
In America now Z talks at art galleries, including one bankrolled originally by Sotheby’s, and I guess he’s associated in some way with the silly kids he was talking about on the TV. But that’s his problem and theirs, not mine.

JH says I don’t have any ideas, but why should I need any of my own when I can spend my time asking other people about theirs?
When I’m an old man I’ll think up something.

The question I’m asking more and more concerns the gulf between the makers of art, of literature and film, painting and scultpture, and those who write and think about it. What does it mean that Intellectuals are no longer craftmen, and literary critics study literature the way geologists examine rocks,
looking for ‘truth.’

But lawyers are craftsmen, aren’t they?
So I have an idea after all.

By Ajax The Cleaner on 01/16/06 at 05:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If this is about political truth why not simply ask what sort of Marxist claims--say from Capital--might be established as valid or applicable or at least conceptually significant. Marx is not aesthetics: he’s making fairly specific claims about production, wage earners, profits, etc. I doubt you can find many economists who take the surplus labor theory of value seriously. Zizek, like so many other putative leftists, refuses to engage that economic and empirical side of Marx. Herr Z merely intones the names and some jargon and dazzles the leftist-bourgeois college kids and aesthetes.

By Moriarty on 01/16/06 at 05:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is Zizek “literature”?  Is he an “artist”?  Is that how he’s to be assessed?  In that case, I’ll take Tolkien over Zizek every time.  It’s amusing that some of the same commenters who seem to be calling for a more aesthetic approach to Zizek will then turn around and suggest that an interest in Burke or Tolkien is crypto-fascist.  I’m confused.

By on 01/16/06 at 09:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Arguing with J Holbo is like I’m arguing with someone from the World Bank who thinks that because the angry peasants at his door are being led by a priest with a cross the fundamental problem is religious.”

If Seth can morph into Missy Miss, perhaps a “Princess Bride” corrective to his deployment of ‘argument’ may be indulged, in response.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it does.”

By John Holbo on 01/16/06 at 09:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Edmund Burke/ William Blake would be a very interesting discussion, but putting Tolkien next to Burke is like putting Dante Gabriel Rossetti next to Beato Angelico.
The Pre-Raphaelites, like Tolkien and Zizek, have fans; and Zizek has a sense of humor.

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/16/06 at 10:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Princess Bride, hah!.

‘Inconceivable!’ A thoroughly Lacanian word, that, as I’m sure Zizek would be the first to say.  For what is the Objet Grand A except the great inconceivable?  What are life’s myriad ‘objets petits a’s except clumsy attempts to conceive the inconceivable?  How could we possibly think what such a word means? (It’s in-con-ceiv-able).  Moreover, how could somebody else correct what we think the word means except by invoking the general truth that we all of us use words which don’t mean what we think they do?  That’s language.  And so on.

By Adam Roberts on 01/17/06 at 05:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Art historically has been made by a process wherein ideas are subsumed by craft. This results in the sort of de facto honesty through a loyalty to sensibility rather than to idea [my earlier argument]; it’s then up to critics to reintellectualize and historicize the result.  It’s hard to balance both activities, critic and artist, since they’re more than a little antagonistic towards one another.

“Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously non-analytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, is one of the most obscure questions in history; and for the historian of culture, one of the most central.”
Hobsbawm. The Age of Extremes.

Of course Modernism wants to collapse these terms, to provide a unified field: prosecutor and defender in one. [lawyers are craftsmen] The individual thinker makes his plans, and his plans are complete and ‘just.’ After all, what does science know of subjectivity?

Somewhat against this, while still trying to create in the modernist sense a unified role- actor as thinker- recent continental philosophy becomes the rationalism of absurdity: philosopher as artist, performing a knowingly self-defeating gesture: “Watch me fail! Watch me watch myself fail! Watch yourself watching...” etc.
It’s pretentious and clumsy, even adolescent [still modernist], given the need for constant reassurance and the affirmation that one is finally ‘in control’; but the point, the manifestation of the struggle, is logical enough.

Whatever my misgivings, I’m still not going to allign myself with the mockery of intellectually precocious preadolescent science geeks.
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Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ as to Rosetti et al.-
you partial to over-determined sentimentalism?
And I’m still waiting for the discussion the of the shared interests of Burke and Blake.
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And as to the predictive validity of Marx, ask your broker for his honest opinion.  That’s what I did.

By Seth Edenbaum on 01/17/06 at 02:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Seth,
Thanks, that’s quite enlightening. I’m not sure if that’s a universalizable procedure for an intellectual litmus test, but if it is,please ask your broker what he thinks of Picasso, Titian, Derrida, academic blogging, and the intentional fallacy. Those are all things that I don’t know what to make of. While you’re at it, can you email him a copy of John’s talk? Then there could be an amicable resolution to these disputes that we can all abide by.
Regards,
Nate

By Nate on 01/30/06 at 02:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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