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Friday, November 09, 2007

Zizek the Embarrassment

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 04:16 AM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

“Resistance is Surrender”
-
Headline of Slavoj Zizek’s new article for The London Review of Books

There is a telling moment in the film Zizek! where Zizek discusses his own books, and says that his favorite works are the ones where he manages to consider the philosophical tradition most deeply, such as Tarrying With The Negative. Although all of Zizek’s books contain analyses of popular culture and programmatic political speculation, the quarrels that he has personally found most productive have been within the long historical traditions of philosophical debate over dialectics, consciousness, subjectivity, and the way the world becomes manifest through experience. Meanwhile, believing himself capable of discussing the political issues of the day in a clear and accessible manner, Zizek has written political op-eds for a number of publications, including The New York Times, the UK Guardian, and The London Review of Books. These columns are a curious blend of agit-prop and academic exposition; while some of Zizek’s references remain bewildering to readers unacquainted with postmodern political theory, he clearly intends to write transparently and to inspire action.

In the process, he has become an embarrassment to academics and to the Left, even though, admittedly, he has never resorted to reminiscing about Frank Sinatra and Ted Williams. His newest piece, re-posted numerous places around the web, is an endorsement of Hugo Chavez that supposedly comes at the expense of the Left, which, Zizek maintains, colludes with the status quo in secret.

Zizek has become a prisoner of his own fatuous admiration for the successful seizure of power, whether it comes in the form of an attractive cinematic dream (his analysis of 300) or as somebody else’s reality (Hugo Chavez). His perpetual frustration with progressive politicians is no longer distinguishable from that of columnists like Alexander Cockburn, who use politics as a means of asserting superiority over an insular group of fellow travelers with whom they have associated all their lives.

In order to preserve what of Zizek will endure, it is essential that we respond harshly to this saturating tide of Zizekian punditry, mocking him for those political ambitions that are clearly renascent now, long after his failed attempt to become President of Slovenia.

In Zizek’s new column, the contradictions come so quickly that it is hard to keep track of them all. For example, he writes: “One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible.” Then he bitterly condemns he who “accepts the futility of all struggle, since the hegemony is so all-encompassing that nothing can really be done.”

He writes “In compliance with this logic, the anarchic agents focus their protest not on open dictatorships, but on the hypocrisy of liberal democracies, who are accused of betraying their own professed principles” after writing this: “Today’s Left reacts in a wide variety of ways to the hegemony of global capitalism and its political supplement, liberal democracy.”

He writes that the Left “might, for example, accept the hegemony, but continue to fight for reform within its rules (this is Third Way social democracy),” and then concludes:

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfill. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

It is crucial to read the whole column (which isn’t very long) in order to see how the dialectical “double movement” that used to serve Zizek’s uncompromising intellect has become a contemptible tool for his egotism. When he attacks liberal democracy, it is with confidence in his own great insight; when leftists (whoever that might be) attack liberal democracy, it is in order to provide cover for the “open dictatorships.” When he calls for finite demands, he does so in order to bring down the state; when the Third Way social democrats fight for reform, they are trying to resign us to hegemony. When he praises 300, or attacks the television show 24, he does so in the name of political reform; when other critics perform similar functions, they are “withdraw(ing) into cultural studies, where one can quietly pursue the work of criticism” after issuing cursory and impossible demands. The responses that I have seen to Zizek’s piece have been considerate and gentle. At Long Sunday, CR asks whether Zizek has really provided us with a way forward. At I Cite, Jodi Dean expresses dissatisfaction with the particular form of political pessimism that became the trademark of the Frankfurt School. At the Weblog, Adam Kotsko simply tries to get clear about whether Zizek supports the Third Way, or not, and whether he supports Chavez, or not.

Each of these posts manifests a remarkable faith in Zizek, as though these questions have answers, or at least as though what is unclear now may become lucid shortly. It is as though one is speaking about a brilliant, sometimes reticent friend. In the relative desert of American politics, when connections between politics and philosophy are so difficult to find, I have also thought of Zizek that way. But enough is enough. Solidarity is wasted on egotistical delusion, and so is the gentle work of asking questions. Let us ask each other these same questions: do we support the consolidation of power in Venezuela? Do we see evidence of resignation on the Left? Do our anxieties about power leave us paralyzed? As for Slavoj Zizek, his very headlines have become unconscious, unsettling echoes of the slogans in 1984. Let us part ways with him until he once again becomes sane, and faithful to the unfinished work of philosophy, rather than to his besetting fantasies of a vanguard capable of putting a point on his arrogance.


Comments

As a stylistic matter, if you intend to mock someone in an essay, it is best not to say “and now I’m going to start mocking him.”

By Herr Ziffer on 11/09/07 at 08:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How, precisely, is Zizek’s reasoning any different than his previous logic?  I see only the continuation of the well-argued assertion that leftism doesn’t go far enough (that is to say, what is thought radical is not, for it assumes the state/oppression it wishes to protest). 

Take, for example, his point concerning the anti-war protests.  A million people in London--so what?  There was still (and still is) a war. 

What Zizek is doing (and has always done--this article is no different) is attempting to extricate the left from all modes of acceptable opposition which, when it comes down to it, are not actually opposition at all.  Again, one million people--more than enough to rip Blair out of Downing Street, or trample all the attendant police, but not enough to stop a war?  One million people is several times more than the amount of soldiers from britain and america send to the middle east. 

It isn’t all that much of a stretch to assert that all those people who intended to make their voices heard only intended to have their voices heard.  Had they actually intended to prevent a war--well, one might imagine that the signs and shouts would have been accompanied by fists and rocks or at least anything that suggested we weren’t all a bunch of petitioners in the waiting room of power.

By on 11/09/07 at 09:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You misread my post. I endorse Frankfurt pessimism.

Also, ‘remarkable faith’ exaggerates the tenor of the three responses to which you link. If “the gentle work of asking questions” is a waste, why should ‘we’ ‘ask each other these same questions’? (Which strike me as pretty easy: yes, yes, yes).

I find your response weak here because it resorts to attacks on Zizek’s ego rather than addressing his points: is Critchley’s book Infinitely Demanding a viable alternative to the left? I would say no and wrote about it at Long Sunday and I Cite right after it came out. Also, there is no contradiction between ‘the lesson of the last decade’ and a condemnation of the left. The latter is the condition of the former: because the left gave up and accepted capitalism, because it compromised, capitalism now appears to be indestructible.

By Jodi on 11/09/07 at 09:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is terrific stuff, a powerful criticism! I want to like and admire Zizek, but after watching the documentary “Zizek!” I have lost interest, except insofar as Zizek’s clowning is entertaining.

PS: Here’s a review I wrote of “Zizek!” for the Boston Globe, of all places. “At one point, Zizek is interviewed lying shirtless in a hotel room bed. Aha! We suddenly understand: Zizek is Fielding Mellish, the character Woody Allen plays in Allen’s 1971 movie “Bananas.” Like Mellish, who can’t get his radical girlfriend to take him seriously until he dons a beard and wisecracks about revolution, Zizek is a revolutionary playing a comedian playing a revolutionary. Which makes him worth watching, even in this movie.”

By Joshua Glenn on 11/09/07 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve always thought that it was really more sympathetic to Zizek to treat him as a person making a good living japing his disciples then as someone being “serious”, whatever that means.  But, to take his thing seriously, the underlying question that he poses in his article—which I’d characterize as “What is the Way for the Left?”—can only be considered to be a question if you have already presupposed a certain attitude towards power.

In the actually existing left that I’m familiar with, which of course people are free to not consider to be part of the left at all, but part of the structure of neoliberalism etc., there’s no need for one overriding strategy.  Everyone does what they can.  In some places and times this means taking control of the state, in others it means working through liberal institutions, in others it means various forms of rejection and resistance.  And people don’t all have to do the same thing at once. 

To put in terms of the less radical parts of the U.S. environmental movement, Greenpeace is stronger, not weaker, because of the existence of Earth First!  The Sierra Club is stronger, not weaker, because of the existence of Greenpeace.  The Democratic Party is stronger, not weaker, because of the existence of the Sierra Club.  And the converse of all of these is true as well; the more radical groups couldn’t exist without the less radical ones.

The idea that all of the disparate strategies and tactics can and should be brought into one best way is the underlying power fantasy that Zizek seems to have the most trouble with.  Sure, in some places, the left is best off making “strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands”, or at least I think so.  But if someone else wants to make absurd, nonsensical demands, that generally helps.

That doesn’t mean that one can’t point out how someone else is being actually harmful.  In a recent argument here with Tim Burke, he seemed to think that I was telling him that he was (paraphrased) “spoiling it for everyone”, as if everyone had to pursue the same tactic.  No, but you can still do harm by doing your own tactic badly.

One thing about a specific Zizek sentences: he writes “It is, in short: we can do it better“ (about how e.g. Balir institutionalized Thatcherism).  But that’s the oldest radical-to-progressive objection ever; the progressives are always supposed to be saving capitalism from itself, using their talents at rational organization to keep it from its own instability.  That just points out the area of radical failure, though.  If there was some idea that radicals had ever thought about the hows and whys of past failure—if Zizek didn’t go aorund blithely talking about shooting bankers as if this didn’t make it plain that he had no idea what to do with a radical future, preferring to leave it up to absurdity—then maybe more people would consider a more radical position.  Until then, actual people die whenever the progressives don’t “save capitalism”.  It’s better to concern yourself with the responsibility of YPLL-65s or other similarly soul-deadening but real measures than to build castles in the air that you refuse to even consider the imaginary shape of.

By on 11/09/07 at 11:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

rhyd: “Again, one million people--more than enough to rip Blair out of Downing Street, or trample all the attendant police, but not enough to stop a war?”

Oh, yeah, because anyone willing to go a peaceful protest must therefore be willing to trample police, if only they were serious.  And because fists and rocks have historically been so successful as a means of stopping war and not replacing it with new war.

If this characterization of what Zizek was writing was accurate—which I don’t think it is, actually—then it’d be even worse than Joseph’s characterization.

By on 11/09/07 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s very clear to me that Zizek does not know the way forward, nor does he claim to.  Perhaps the point of the article is that a position like Critchley’s provides a kind of self-satisfaction that closes off the possibility of actually reflecting on what a way forward would look like.  It’s really just a repeat of the Hegelian critique of the “Beautiful Soul.”

The article is unclear in a fairly standard Zizekian way—i.e., it’s unclear when he’s speaking in his own voice and when he’s just mimicking some other position—but I don’t think I would go so far as to say it’s an embarrassment that endangers his legacy. 

But I mean, thank God we have Joseph Kugelmass to keep Zizek in line and ultimately to save him from himself!  Because apparently if I make the exact same rhetorical moves—arguing that certain parts of Zizek’s work are to be taken more seriously than others, etc.—I’m just doing apologetics.  When Kugelmass does it, though, he’s taking a needed stand.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/09/07 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi,

You misread my post. I endorse Frankfurt pessimism.

My mistake; I may have read too much emphasis into the final turn, right at the end of the post.

I find your response weak here because it resorts to attacks on Zizek’s ego rather than addressing his points: is Critchley’s book Infinitely Demanding a viable alternative to the left?

Rather, the situation is that Zizek resorts to praising Hugo Chavez because he has no idea what to do for the rest of the world.

Had Zizek confined himself to writing a reply to Critchley, rather than making another sweeping gesture of rejection of the Left, he would probably have written a legitimately useful article.

The latter is the condition of the former: because the left gave up and accepted capitalism, because it compromised, capitalism now appears to be indestructible.

The Left only “gave up” if you define giving up as doing those things that Zizek considers politically ineffective, or if you define “the Left” by certain positions within Western academia. Zizek’s lack of respect for contemporary activism and popular movements is not, in my view, especially admirable.

It’s impossible to square an ironic reading of that first line with what he says next, about capitalism as a vampire that has survived even Mao.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 04:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rhyd,

Look, I got into Zizek because I loved his ability to press the point you attribute to him:

that is to say, what is thought radical is not, for it assumes the state/oppression it wishes to protest

But that is now exactly what he is praising about Chavez—that Chavez has assumed the state (literally, by assuming office) and taken steps to consolidate power.

If all this theoretical twisting and turning amounts to supporting Chavez and rejecting Critchley, then I agree with Zizek, but I think any pretense of a larger radical structure is lost in the shuffle.

Take, for example, his point concerning the anti-war protests.  A million people in London--so what?  There was still (and still is) a war.

This gets at what I mean about Zizek’s fantasies of seizing power. If Zizek was in office, he’d call the war off. Very good—so would I. But in the meantime, since 1 million people in London can’t change the fact that Blair is currently Prime Minister, they can achieve other ends. They can prove that Blair’s decision is unpopular, giving confidence to challengers, and showing the rest of the world that opinion in Britain is divided.

In the small town where I live during the summer, four or five people protest the Iraq War every day. They stand out on the corner of Main St with peace signs and tie-dye. I do not consider them politically effective. I also don’t think of the protests in London the same way. It is obvious that Zizek is ignorant of the role of nonviolent protests in recent American political history.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 04:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Herr Ziffer,

As a stylistic matter, if you intend to mock someone in an essay, it is best not to say “and now I’m going to start mocking him.”

Rappers do it all the time. It was also big during the Renaissance.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 04:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam,

Of course you’re doing apologetics, man, you’re a theologian.

You wrote a post where you asked a series of yes or no questions about Zizek’s positions, and you got good answers to those questions in a comment from Jodi.

I wrote a very different kind of post, and now you’re all sarcastic bile, as if I haven’t appreciated your work on Zizek enough, or as if you have proprietary rights to the evaluation of his work. Come off it.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The sarcastic portion of my comment finds its place in a history that did not begin with your post, a history with which you are presumably familiar to a certain degree.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/09/07 at 05:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

One response to your great comment, which I see as a sort of companion piece to your excellent earlier comment about Zizek and Microsoft. I was teaching Descartes yesterday, and one of the students asked why (following Descartes’s proof of the existence of God) a perfect society doesn’t exist, if we can conceive of a perfect society. We ended up talking about the fact that Descartes has (according to him) a clear and distinct idea of God, but that human beings may not yet have a clear, distinct, comprehensive idea of a perfect society. As you point out, Zizek may have no idea at all.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joshua, that was brilliant. I know that I, for one, want to see Zizek breathlessly cross-examine himself.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 05:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I know we’re all partying like it’s 2006, but Tony Blair isn’t Prime Minister anymore.  Gordon Brown is.

By tomemos on 11/09/07 at 05:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tomemos,

Cheers. Despite the fact that I sent in the money, the CIA just sucks about sending prompt copies of their factbook.

Adam,

a history with which you are presumably familiar to a certain degree

I guess so, though I’m never as familiar with that history as other people assume that I am. I remember us disagreeing about the worth of The Fragile Absolute, and I remember enjoying that review of Zizek you published. Also, I can’t bring myself to read On Belief, but I am willing to consider that a personal failing.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 05:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The only real reason to read On Belief is a desire for thoroughness—such as that generated by either an initial obsession with Zizek or by the realities of writing a book entitled Zizek and Theology.  I recommend that everyone else quietly set On Belief aside.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/09/07 at 05:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph--thanks for your response. I still don’t understand what you mean when you say ‘ironic reading’ or that squaring the sentences is impossible. Zizek’s opening sentences don’t strike me as particularly controversial or inaccurate--capitalism has taken over; China did make a capitalist turn. The fundamental teaching of neoliberal ideology, the teaching that is currently hegemonic, is that there is no alternative to capitalism. That assumption sets the terms of the contemporary world order and finding ways effectively to challenge it, to imagine (much less realize) anything else seems impossible (and Zizek is clear on the fact that he doesn’t know how to do it any better than anyone else). So, again, I don’t think he is contradicting himself or that a consistent reading of the essay is impossible.

If you disagree with his characterization of the left, then that isn’t an attack on his logic or consistency. That’s a disagreement with his position. So, I wonder, is there a left position that is omitted from his list? I tried to think of one (for a minute or so) but couldn’t.

I also wonder why you are worried about respect--like Zizek has the wrong affective or ethical relationship to a particular movement that you have in mind. Why is that significant?

By Jodi on 11/09/07 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “It’s very clear to me that Zizek does not know the way forward, nor does he claim to.”

Joseph: “We ended up talking about the fact that Descartes has (according to him) a clear and distinct idea of God, but that human beings may not yet have a clear, distinct, comprehensive idea of a perfect society. As you point out, Zizek may have no idea at all.”

The problem with Zizek’s public-intellectual approach, insofar as I understand it, is that it’s vulnerable to the exact critique that he makes: about people who supposedly protest but who end up supporting the right wing.  If you’re going to make gestures towards rehabilitation of authoritarian leftism—insisting that it’s important that Stalin was better than Hitler, going on approvingly about shooting bankers, saying that Chavez is making a risky but good move by consolidating the coalition of parties that backed him into one party—then you have to have some response to the first rejoinder that people are going to think of, which is “That kind of authoritarian leftism was tried.  Why is it going to be any different this time?” Without any such answer, you’re just reinforcing capitalism.  And no, most people do not consider “on the strength of the absurd” to be an answer.

Often, at this point, people start talking about real existing capitalism and how it should be compared to real existing socialism, instead of some abstract ideal capitalism being so compared.  All right, that’s fine, but the problem is that even with a comparison of one reality to another, people still prefer capitalism, especially if the advocates of socialism are going on about how great it is to make risky authoritarian moves that they clearly haven’t thought through in any way.

A left-liberal progressivism has obvious problems.  But the very first thing that such a radical socialism that hopes to replace it has to do is come to terms with the use of violence and the history of authoritarian takeover of socialist movements.  It’s not like you can just not address it and let people take it on trust that this time things will be different.

By on 11/09/07 at 06:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich has a good point. I’d say that in his books, Zizek acknowledges that what he (Rich) calls “left authoritarianism” (somewhere Zizek uses the term ‘linksfaschismus’) is highly dangerous and risky (Zizek is, after all, critical of Stalin) and likely to lead to awful outcomes. He repeats this when he emphasizes a choice for the worst. His answer then, then, is that there are no guarantees that it won’t be different. It could be as bad or worse. So, I don’t think he asking people to take it on trust that it won’t be bad. I think he is saying that its a wager with terrible odds.

And, so long as there is no left vision of what would be better, it will likely continue to be extraordinarily difficult for most people not to prefer capitalism (but not impossible, people can prefer nothing to something).

By Jodi on 11/09/07 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I endorse Švejkian pessimism. Adorno is no fun.

By John Emerson on 11/09/07 at 06:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, There’s only one passage where he talks about shooting bankers.  It was an excessive rhetorical gesture, and he has not gone back to it.

The thing with Chavez is that the comparison with Stalin is a total non-sequitur.  His nationalization of oil is no different in structure from many of the Mideast oil states (the state has to own a controlling share in every venture, but oil companies can still invest and be involved and profit from it)—the only difference is that he is being more leftist in what he does with the money.

Right now, Chavez’s level of authoritarianism is arguably lower than FDR’s during the New Deal.  And don’t we all wish FDR had actually gone further and given us a real welfare state?  Similarly, wouldn’t a more thorough-going, authoritarian approach to Reconstruction (such as Lincoln would’ve done) have been WAY better than what in fact happened?  In my opinion, Zizek would be better off using American examples like Lincoln and FDR, in terms of convincingness—no, no one (including Zizek) wants to go back to Stalinism, but people call for a New New Deal all the time.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/09/07 at 06:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I recommend that everyone else quietly set On Belief aside.

The disciples are taking over Zizek’s heritage. Soon the Zizekian corpus will whittled down to several competing versions and becomme but an empty shell, an array of catchphrases shouted by battling armies. Kotsko will lead a Zizekian International for a time—until his turn comes to face the Ice Axe of History.

By John Emerson on 11/09/07 at 06:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi,

Here’s where I still get confused:

Zizek’s opening sentences don’t strike me as particularly controversial or inaccurate--capitalism has taken over; China did make a capitalist turn. The fundamental teaching of neoliberal ideology, the teaching that is currently hegemonic, is that there is no alternative to capitalism.

In that case, isn’t the fundamental teaching of neoliberal ideology correct? If capitalism really does resurrect itself like something undead, then the appearance of indestructibility is also a reality. I don’t actually agree with this claim, but then neither do I agree that the greatest challenges to capitalism were Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.

And yet, by the end of the article, Zizek suggests that he does have a solution in mind, which he names “finite demands” in contradistinction to Critchley. In so doing, he acts as though nobody on the planet, with the possible exception of Chavez, is making the kind of finite demands that satisfy him. Activist groups all over the planet are working on problems of civil rights, human rights, living wages, environmental protection, feminism, and so on. The tragedy of the Bush Administration and the Iraq War do not invalidate the real historical achievements of the globalized Left over the past fifty years. This is a the contradiction: Zizek is criticizing real instances of what he speculates that he wants.

Zizek has no interest in popular movements, except insofar as they are headed up by a powerful leader. He is interested in centralized power, full stop. That is why he likes Chavez’s barrio militias but heaps contempt on indigenous ecological movements.

The question of respect is perceptual, not sentimental. Zizek is blind to the possible objectives of nonviolent protest and de-centered organizing. As a result, he wanders into all sorts of errors—for example, he takes George Bush’s framing of the London protests to be a decisive statement about their meaning.

Zizek’s blithe ignorance of American history shows up again in his response to Chavez, which has clear parallels with the scandals that arose during FDR’s presidency. Though it is easy to sympathize with the objectives that led FDR to want to pack the Supreme Court, and then to seek re-election again and again, over the long term it has been better that the checks on executive power held and even that they were intensified.

Zizek’s list of possible leftisms reminds me of an old joke from the barracks in Ljubljana: “There are two types of people in the world—people who think there are two types of people, and people who don’t!” It is quite possible for someone to work as a lobbyist or union organizer, to write for a network of radical print media, and to personally make informed consumer choices that emphasize sustainability, fair employment practices, and reducing one’s own “footprint.” Is such a person a Zizekian radical? Like Zizek, they articulate radical positions. Is such a person a believer in maximizing the political potential of lifestyle and “interstices,” like Marcos? Off-hours, yes. Are they using the power structure to make finite demands? Yes—that’s their job.

One of the objectives hidden in the structure of Zizek’s list is the attempt to wall off each kind of political participation from all other kinds. In fact, as Rich suggests, political participation is very frequently a matter of circumstance and opportunity. Political opportunities in California are different from those in Venezuela, Myanmar, China, or Sweden. I am not, in principle, opposed to armed resistance and seizure of power, but I am astonished that Zizek can compass Bolívar, but not Gandhi—Algeria, but not Alabama.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 06:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson, I think I just paid twelve dollars yesterday, via the global economy of PayPal, for somebody to give my elf their Ice Axe of History.

Adam writes:

Right now, Chavez’s level of authoritarianism is arguably lower than FDR’s during the New Deal.  And don’t we all wish FDR had actually gone further and given us a real welfare state?  Similarly, wouldn’t a more thorough-going, authoritarian approach to Reconstruction (such as Lincoln would’ve done) have been WAY better than what in fact happened?  In my opinion, Zizek would be better off using American examples like Lincoln and FDR, in terms of convincingness—no, no one (including Zizek) wants to go back to Stalinism, but people call for a New New Deal all the time.

And he’s absolutely right in the case of Reconstruction. There’s a difference, I think, between Lincoln’s federalism and FDR’s power grabs. One President was seeking to enforce Constitutional precedents, the other to amend them. Neither the AAA nor the NRA were sufficiently perfect to warrant the judicial immunity Roosevelt sought to gain.

Nonetheless, Roosevelt was able to wield broad executive power, and within certain limits I think his presidency was (as Adam writes) a success that fits Zizek’s model.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 07:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Appearance is reality--that’s the problem and why reality has to be changed. But that doesn’t make neoliberalism correct: neoliberalism is a philosophical/political/economic program to make markets, extend markets. It is primarily a claim about freedom, morality, and the best way to live--not a claim about ‘nature’. So the appearance of indestructibility is the contemporary reality that has to be changed. This is not a claim about the Real. And the particularly weird part is the way that the appearance of neoliberalism as indestructible continues even as capitalist economies are horribly messed up (leading to awful results ala the sub-prime mortgage crisis, extreme global inequality, etc). It’s weird that the appearance persists in the face of evidence to the contrary.

I don’t think ‘finite demands’ is presented as a solution, just as a counter to Critchley. It isn’t developed. Because I generally read Zizek generously (in terms of what I think he should have meant), I see the Chavez-finite demands connection in terms of the specificity of Chavez’s program as opposed to some kind of general appeal to human rights or the infinite debt owed to the Other. Rather than calling for the overthrow of the state, he takes it over and puts it to use.

Since Zizek is writing in the LRB I don’t think it makes sense to fault him for not using American examples--why should he? It’s pretty US-centric to think these are the key examples or the ones that matter.

It’s not that Zizek is blind to de-centralized organizing and all the other stuff--it’s that he rejects it. And, I think he likes Chavez’s barrio militias because they are part of an anti-capitalist state apparatus.

London protests--or any of the other ones against the Iraq war--were good for making people feel like they were doing something. Obviously they didn’t stop the war; in fact, they made it seem like there was debate and discussion over the war.

Basically, you disagree with Zizek politically and are treating that political disagreement as if there were a logical problem. But, there isn’t--it boils down to a question of tactics of political struggle and opposition: do multiple micro-struggles change the world? impact capitalism? affect the fundamental character of the global distribution of wealth? You think that politics involves these sorts of actions. Zizek thinks that these activist activities have done as much as they can at this point and that they have reached their limit in global capitalism (which can adapt to feminism and anti-racism and all that). You don’t.

By Jodi on 11/09/07 at 08:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi: “I think he is saying that its a wager with terrible odds.

And, so long as there is no left vision of what would be better, it will likely continue to be extraordinarily difficult for most people not to prefer capitalism (but not impossible, people can prefer nothing to something).”

Well, here is where the easy use of “the left” or “no left vision” starts to run into difficulties.  As a U.S. left-liberal, I don’t have the problem described above.  I can simply point to the actually existing, more social-democratic countries of Europe and say that that is what I’m working towards.  That only counts as “no left vision of what would be better” if you define those regimes as being essentially capitalist and therefore no different than the U.S. situation—as not really being “the left”.

And of course this kind of gradualism doesn’t run into the same problems with authoritarianism that Zizek runs into; I’m probably one of the few people on the planet considering a Gro Harlem Brundtland personality cult.  It does raise the question of what the left in those countries points to, but my impression is that they are doing more to develop actually useful theory and practise than anyone else.

By on 11/09/07 at 08:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “The thing with Chavez is that the comparison with Stalin is a total non-sequitur.”

No it’s not, because we’re not really discussing the actual degree of authoritarianism of Chavez, we’re discussing Zizek.  Here’s what Zizek says (in part) about Chavez in the article linked to:

“[...] far from resisting state power, he grabbed it (first by an attempted coup, then democratically), ruthlessly using the Venezuelan state apparatuses to promote his goals. Furthermore, he is militarising the barrios, and organising the training of armed units there. And, the ultimate scare: [...] he has announced plans to consolidate the 24 parties that support him into a single party. Even some of his allies are sceptical about this move: will it come at the expense of the popular movements that have given the Venezuelan revolution its élan? However, this choice, though risky, should be fully endorsed: the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees).”

Zizek, knowing the risks, is endorsing what he perceives as movement in a more authoritarian direction.  All of his rhetoric reinforces the idea: the way he writes proudly about Chavez’ attempted coup, his ruthlessness, his organization of armed units.  Joseph is right: he’s interested in centralized power.

And he’s not just ignorant of the history of what has been accomplished with non-violent protest and de-centered organizing.  His rhetoric is—well, “tired” is the best word I can come up with.  Go back a decade or so, and he could be one of the people writing another diatribe against the lifestyle anarchism of someone like Bob Black.  Go back a few more, and he could be any one of the people admiring whatever independently aligned global south authoritarian had caught their fancy.  It’s just, to return to the title of this post, embarrassing.

By on 11/09/07 at 08:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi: “But, there isn’t--it boils down to a question of tactics of political struggle and opposition: do multiple micro-struggles change the world? [...] Zizek thinks that these activist activities have done as much as they can at this point and that they have reached their limit in global capitalism (which can adapt to feminism and anti-racism and all that). You don’t.”

And here is where I think that Zizek as mocker of his own disciples really becomes a useful theory.  The problem is that Zizek has chosen to address the people least capable of carrying out the kind of activities that he purportedly thinks are important.  You’re not going to get academics becoming part of a barrio militia armed anti-capitalist state apparatus.  Multiple micro-struggles are probably what they are best suited to, as a class.  And the impenetrability of Zizek’s theory, and his lack of any kind of described way forward, mean that academics are the only ones who are really attracted to him.  He imagines himself as Lenin; they imagine themselves to be a vanguard party; it’s all nice and imaginative.  But he at least is getting something out of it.

By on 11/09/07 at 09:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is there any contemporary philosopher who inspires as much speculation about his personal psychology as Zizek does?  Rich’s comments are, as ever, tours de force in this regard, but even Kugelmass’s remarks about his supposed “arrogance” could fall within the psychologizing genre.

I’m not going to do the standard move of reverse-psychologizing, but I do think it’s interesting—and probably partly Zizek’s own fault.  In any case, there’s really only so far it gets you—especially when the apparent theory is that Zizek is purposefully fleecing all of his “disciples” for career advancement or something.  ("Yes, by Jove, that explains everything!")

By Adam Kotsko on 11/09/07 at 10:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek is more of a performance artist than most philosophers. Also, Anthony Flew has been getting a lot of psychologization recently.

Any old guy with a cute young wife gets it from all sides.

By John Emerson on 11/09/07 at 10:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi,

It’s weird that the appearance persists in the face of evidence to the contrary.

The evidence is only evidence of oppression; it’s not necessarily evidence of structural weakness (though, along Marxist lines mostly unrelated to Zizekian thought, I do think of the present international political economy as structurally weak).

I completely agree that the contemporary state of affairs should be understood as susceptible to change.

I don’t think ‘finite demands’ is presented as a solution, just as a counter to Critchley. It isn’t developed. Because I generally read Zizek generously (in terms of what I think he should have meant), I see the Chavez-finite demands connection in terms of the specificity of Chavez’s program

In short, except for Zizek’s advocacy of Chavez, “finite demands” is an empty phrase. It achieves rhetorical symmetry with Critchley at the expense of meaning.

It may be true that Chavez’s program is a worthy step forward for Venezuela, but plainly the specifics are not generalizable to our global situation. Since they are not generalizable—the attempt to generalize, as you say, is undeveloped—they are not a legitimate complement to Zizek’s careening attack on all contemporary political work. Were I to side with Zizek, I would be siding with his restless dialectical nihilism, and his free-floating admiration for Hugo Chavez, against every contemporary effort to improve the quality of people’s lives, and to avert a worsening global disaster.

More to the point, if you are going to read Zizek according to what you think he should have meant, which goes even further than what he should have said, then you just don’t need him anymore—none of us do, even if certain of his books remain pertinent.

Since Zizek is writing in the LRB I don’t think it makes sense to fault him for not using American examples--why should he? It’s pretty US-centric to think these are the key examples or the ones that matter.

Well, first of all, Zizek clearly wants to reckon with American politics, since he gives a very bad analysis of the predicament of our Democratic party. He writes that the Democrats have to accept working within the power structure, whatever that means, like one completely incapable of understanding the position of compromise that turned Gore and Kerry into losers.

If he is trying to persuade readers of English-language periodicals that the Venezuelan situation is relevant to our political thought, it is not asking very much that he think through the parallels with FDR. The history of that administration bears on the issue at hand. I am not suggesting that he pander to American readers; rather, I am simply pointing out gaps in his historical analysis.

It’s not that Zizek is blind to de-centralized organizing and all the other stuff--it’s that he rejects it. And, I think he likes Chavez’s barrio militias because they are part of an anti-capitalist state apparatus.

It’s not even clear to me that he understands what he is rejecting, since he clearly doesn’t understand how the London protests were supposed to work. It’s as if anything short of a coup d’etat fails to grab him; in his mind, Chavez’s democratic election was a sort of successful completion to a never-finished coup.

Lots of anti-capitalist state apparatuses have been capable of horrendous crimes against the citizenry; Rich has covered this territory quite well already.

London protests--or any of the other ones against the Iraq war--were good for making people feel like they were doing something. Obviously they didn’t stop the war; in fact, they made it seem like there was debate and discussion over the war.

There was debate and discussion over the war. Those discussions helped to make Bush one of the most unpopular presidents in recent American history. They also seriously weakened the Republican Party. They emboldened the press. They affected the balance of power.

I’m sure that everyone even passingly involved in this conversation sees now the binary: either violence, or nothing! Violence or impotence! Violence or surrender! It is madness, and like all madness, it simultaneously disturbing and trivial.

Basically, you disagree with Zizek politically and are treating that political disagreement as if there were a logical problem. But, there isn’t--it boils down to a question of tactics of political struggle and opposition: do multiple micro-struggles change the world? impact capitalism? affect the fundamental character of the global distribution of wealth? You think that politics involves these sorts of actions. Zizek thinks that these activist activities have done as much as they can at this point and that they have reached their limit in global capitalism (which can adapt to feminism and anti-racism and all that). You don’t.

I’m sure how I even can disagree with Zizek politically, since his position appears to be woven out of smoke. There is a logical fallacy in his false choice between violence and non-violence, especially since, with all due respect to Mr. Chavez, Venezuela is also one micro-struggle among many.

Capitalism actually cannot adapt very well to feminism or racial equality, let the record show. It can merely displace racism onto a different country, or subject both men and women to both kinds of oppressive gendering at once.

What you want to describe as mere disagreement, I have to understand logically, as false choice and false generalization. I agree that Critchley’s rhetoric of the impossible is absurd, and I am observing Chavez’s actions with a certain amount of hope. But Zizek’s narrative has only one claim to specificity, and that is its enthusiasm for the military victory of a Marxist cadre. It is a lust, not a politics.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 10:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, Kugelmass?  You seem to be arguing yourself into a corner here, denouncing Zizek’s supposed one-sided blood lust.  A less crazy reading of Zizek’s piece would be to say that the dominant leftist positions seem to disallow seizing state power, whereas Zizek says that seizing state power should be “on the table.” You, too, think Chavez is at least potentially doing good things, things he presumably would not be able to do through non-state avenues.  If you bracket out the part where Zizek is a power-hungry maniac who wants dictatorship for its own sake, which is after all an insane reading of Zizek (either the Zizek of this article or the Zizek of, you know, anything else he’s written), it seems like you’re kind of in agreement with him.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/09/07 at 10:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not psychologizing to observe that Zizek preferentially addresses the exact group of people who, according to his beliefs, are least capable of doing anything important.  I am amused to find that I am in agreement with Chabert:

“Oh oh, and of course, as a bonafide radical Leninist revolutionary of course - (he has been watching Colbert I think) - Zizek must seize the opportunity while addressing the bourgeois liberal readers of the London Review of Books to call upon his hundreds of millions of imaginary radical leftist followers to support this power grab by this ruthless clown.”

Sadly, Chabert’s original italics have been lost, but you can go to the linked post to see them yourself.  It’s not psychologizing to observe that Zizek appears to be putting on a performance.  You imply as much with the “probably partly Zizek’s own fault.” Then the questions “performance for who” and “why” follow pretty naturally.

But let’s say that it is psychologizing.  Really, the people being psychologized are Zizek’s followers, not Zizek himself.  I mean, who really knows why he does anything—the author is dead.  It would be odd if people who believe that everyone else in society can be psychologized should hold themselves out as immune.

By on 11/09/07 at 10:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You seem to be arguing yourself into a corner here, denouncing Zizek’s supposed one-sided blood lust.  A less crazy reading of Zizek’s piece would be to say that the dominant leftist positions seem to disallow seizing state power, whereas Zizek says that seizing state power should be “on the table.”

What’s this supposed corner? What I called “a lust” is a lust for power, which Zizek appears skeptical about obtaining without at least the threat of military force. Otherwise, why talk only about Chavez and Mao, while never mentioning figures like Salvador Allende?

Allende, after a long series of unsuccessful political campaigns, was elected as President of Chile. Thanks in part to an enormous American campaign against him, he was successfully ousted by a coup d’etat, and replaced by Pinochet. His story is a reminder that a coup can be just as ugly, violent, and undemocratic as we expect, given that it is a recourse to force.

I mean, come on, am I supposed to applaud Zizek for saying that revolution should be “on the table”? Anybody on the Left, including the anarchist working in the bookshop two blocks down, will tell you that—with the provisos that they don’t know exactly what they mean by a revolution, or who should lead it, or what will happen afterwards.

I’m sure everybody involved would like to distill Zizek’s article down to a simple piece of admiring reportage on Chavez, but that’s not what it was. Using state power for the good of the people, an idea that would only appear radical to someone like Zizek, does not always involve the forcible seizure of power. Zizek’s conviction that it does, combined with his praise for militias and military films, is turning him into a ridiculous figure; nonetheless, he seems to believe that all the other avenues have been exhausted.

As for the supposedly psychological nature of this analysis—I admit to revealing the fundamental structure of Zizek’s fetishistic account of the “vanguard.” And is this not precisely what happens in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in the scene where Jimmy Stewart becomes President of Venezuela?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek does not evince a “conviction” that “using state power for the good of the people” “always involves the forcible seizure of power,” here or anywhere else.  You are offering us an unhinged reading of his piece, completely charicaturing his position—and you will clearly never back down no matter what, hence the “arguing yourself into a corner.”

By Adam Kotsko on 11/09/07 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam,

Retorts that my readings are “insane” and “unhinged” are not going to suffice for a differing interpretation of Zizek’s recent political columns.

The alternative reading of what Zizek has written, which goes against many of the statements in this new piece, is that he is advocating a flexible approach that includes power grabs, working within the system, articulating radical positions in print, and so on, without establishing any general rule. But in that case, Zizek is talking about a practically-minded leftism that already flourishes outside of the academy, except for amongst anarchists, and even within it, except for those postmodern theorists who have developed a pathological anxiety about power. But Zizek refuses to claim any solidarity with any existing leftisms—and, as Jodi has pointed out, the content just isn’t there. So, if you want to talk only about the content of these recent pieces, you end up talking about the Leninist vanguard and force. The rest is mediocre generalization about political strategy and historical necessity.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/09/07 at 11:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam is right--there is no forcible seizure of power at work with Chavez or Zizek’s discussion of Chavez. This doesn’t mean Zizek is against a forcible seizure of power, but that there is an example here of someone using state power.

Joseph--on feminism and anti-racism we disagree. There are splits within feminism between pro-capitalist and anti-capitalist feminists; the same holds for anti-racist struggle in the US. Shoot, there were feminist Nazis. There are feminist supporters of Bush and Bush invoked feminist ideas to justify the war against Iraq.

Affected the balance of power? Are you kidding? Actual debate about the war? I disagree so substantially with your characterization of the political climate/discourse in the US that trying to have a discussion on these points is pointless. Suffice it to say, I have a much bleaker and grimmer picture of the US than you do. I hope you are right and I am wrong because the world will be better off.

By Jodi on 11/09/07 at 11:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: “Using state power for the good of the people, an idea that would only appear radical to someone like Zizek, does not always involve the forcible seizure of power.”

The critical problem here is pre-socialist, really.  It’s the critical problem of the French Revolution, of what happens after the most proficient users of violence have taken control of state power for the good of the people.

A large proportion of liberal political theory is, in some way, directed at this tension.  But of course a good number of radical leftists consider that liberal political theory isn’t really about anything but some kind of support for capitalism, that the reason the million protestors against the war in Britain didn’t trample the police is because they just wanted to have their voices heard and didn’t want to actually do anything, or something like that.  That anyone who thinks that this is a problem who isn’t a liberal dupe is an anarchist Beautiful Soul.

I really wasn’t too surprised that seemingly no reader of Zizek was able to understand Holbo’s piece on Zizek and Trilling.  When you’re thinking about a wager at terrible odds, no one wants to be told that it’s old news, that your invention of Leninist Roulette has really been known as plain Russian Roulette for a while now.

By on 11/09/07 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s pretty clear that Zizek is correct that the idea of seizing state power is not part of the mainstream Left dialogue—and of course, since he’s mainly arguing with Critchley here, it’s completely absent from Critchley.  So he’s emphasizing that in this piece. 

What you’re doing is taking a kind of poorly-done piece as evidence of some really extreme and one-sided positions on Zizek’s part—positions that don’t agree with what he said in The Parallax View, for instance.  It’s as though in your mind, two articles (this one and the 300 review) opened up an entire new phase of Zizek’s thought, one we might call the “quasi-fascist phase.” Meanwhile, back in the real world, all Zizek does in the piece is attempt a reductio ad absurdam of Critchley’s position by suggesting the Democrats should just hand over power to the Republicans, then says that Chavez has achieved some good things by means of state power and should be applauded for attempting to consolidate it.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/09/07 at 11:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph wrote: If Zizek was in office, he’d call the war off. Very good—so would I. But in the meantime, since 1 million people in London can’t change the fact that Blair is currently Prime Minister, they can achieve other ends. They can prove that Blair’s decision is unpopular, giving confidence to challengers, and showing the rest of the world that opinion in Britain is divided.

But what does showing divided opinion actually do?  The point i was making earlier is that showing disagreement with a war policy is different both in practice and theory than refusing to allow a war.  It isn’t that Blair and Bush didn’t listen--it’s that all that happened was them listening (and, worse, their decision looks even more noble, since they both got to seem the independant leader--Bush even said he’d listened to all sides).  If by “challengers” you mean opposition candidates, than I would merely point to incredible success of the democratic party in 2006 so quickly and immediately ending the wars in iraq and afganistan.  However, if you are suggesting that the masses of angry people give inspiration to actual challenges to the liberal democratic hegemony, then where are they? 

Jodi’s correct concerning the division of feminism, and i would add an additional point--talk of how much the Taliban and Hussein both killed homosexuals got several gay politicians and writers (Dan Savage comes immediately to mind, but there were many, many others) on the side of liberal democracy versus the lack of liberal democracy.

By on 11/10/07 at 03:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: “In order to preserve what of Zizek will endure, it is essential that we respond harshly to this saturating tide of Zizekian punditry, mocking him for those political ambitions that are clearly renascent now, long after his failed attempt to become President of Slovenia.”

Adam: “What you’re doing is taking a kind of poorly-done piece as evidence of some really extreme and one-sided positions on Zizek’s part—positions that don’t agree with what he said in The Parallax View, for instance.”

No makin’ mock of pundits that guard us as we sleep, Joseph.  You can say that his pieces are poorly done—you can say that certain of his books contain valuable work—but you can’t say that any of his pieces are actually ridiculous or embarrassing, or that his public policy pieces reveal anything about what he does think about public policy.  That’s disrespectful to the master.

By on 11/10/07 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Per Google, the “Ice Axe of History” is mine alone. Will this meme go viral? I doubt it.

By John Emerson on 11/10/07 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, You are exaggerating what I’m saying.  Above, I give an interpretation of what the piece says about his views on public policy, so that’s obviously allowed—I just find Kugelmass’s interpretation implausible.  Above, I also all but say that the quote from Brecht about killing good people in On Belief is embarrassing. 

I guess my sin here is just that I arrogantly believe myself to be correct about opinions I hold.  For that, I humbly ask everyone’s forgiveness.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/10/07 at 10:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that skepticism about the war protests is valid.  They never moved from nonviolence to nonviolent resistence—i.e., they should have done something physical, genuinely shutting society down until the demand not to go to war was met.  Something like a general strike, as opposed to politely holding a sign in a “free speech zone.” It doesn’t have to mean shooting the police or forcibly hauling Tony Blair out into the street—in fact, I think tactics like that are counterproductive.  But it does have to mean that normal life cannot continue until the specific, finite demand not to go to war (or whatever) is met.  The war protests, particularly in the US, abjectly failed in that regard—they never even approached a level that would be effective in doing anything other than assuaging people’s confidence that they had “done something.”

All of this would never have happened, of course, had people gone on a general strike until the winner of the popular vote in 2000 had been installed as president—even after the Supreme Court decision, there were still legal ways to pull that off.  Yet again, however, Americans are so passive that they let an unelected fraud lead us into an illegal war.  And we’re supposed to congratulate the protestors for changing something?  For putting pressure on the Democrats?  That’s ridiculous!  In 2004, the Democrats ran on a platform of “we’ll run the illegal war more competently.” And now the press is buying into the same kind of lies on Iran, and the Democratic candidates are trying to nuance the question. 

Same damn thing.  At this point, dangerous as it would be as a precedent, I would be glad if the military simply refused to obey Bush w/r/t attacking Iran.  Or if they just said, “Look, we can’t do this anymore—we’re going to start withdrawing from Iraq unilaterally whether Bush likes it or not.” An outright military coup—probably not, but it looks like our Actual Existing military leaders are actually more rational and humane than our Actual Existing civilian leaders. 

I think you (Kugelmass) underestimate how extreme the present situation actually is.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/10/07 at 01:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Despite the article’s faults, I think there’s some validity in this critcism of certain kinds of protest.Yes, some protests are guaranteed ineffective, and serve only to make the protestors feel good about themselves.

But I’m not sure the Iraq war demonstration is a good example of it, at least for UK politics. e.g.. I never voted Labour again; at the next election in my constituency, the Labour MP lost to the Liberal Democrats; Blair is now out of office. If the demonstration was a kind of threat (to withdraw support from the government, rather than a violent threat) then - unusually - the threat seems to have been carried out to some extent. A more usual pattern would be to protest, but then carry on voting for the party anyway.

The UK position is rather different from the US one. As I understand it, it was mostly Democrats who were against the war, and they wouldn’t have voted Republican anyway. Protesting against a party you weren’t going to vote for anyway is pretty futile.

By on 11/10/07 at 01:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

thanks for the link mr pulchasky. i am amused by the best and the brightest here, suffering irony fatigue I suppose, all convinced that not only zizek but the lrb editors truly believe a supporter of the venezuelan administration would describe the President of Venezuela in this particular tendentious and deceptive way, (ruthless populist clownish caudillo who grabbed power and is intent on ruling Venezuela indefinitely backed by “slum committees") with all the vocabulary of the murdoch press, and that this would be helpful to the beleaguered venezuelan admin at this time. the credulity is indeed staggering. one expects it of those with careers invested in this z-list celebrity’s reputation, but you’d think everyone else would have caught on by now.

By on 11/10/07 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You know, Adam, there have been recent protests that have aimed at shutting down society.  I’m thinking of the various anti-globalization protests, which have been much more “physical,” much more confrontational--and which have had about the same amount of success as the anti-war protests (an amount not equal to zero, in my view, but let that slide).  And the reason that things go on as normal is that, in both cases, the people protesting do not have anything personally at stake, whereas history’s successful society-stoppers--strikes, sit-ins, boycotts--have all occurred when the populace, or at least the working classes, have been directly affected by what they’re protesting.  The Bush Administration has been very good at avoiding conscription, rationing, and tax increases, thus limiting the direct effects of the war to those who are actually fighting it.  As long as the protesters aren’t directly affected, their protests won’t be directly effective.

So that’s an explanation for the passivity you write about.  However, you go completely off the rails here:

“All of this would never have happened, of course, had people gone on a general strike until the winner of the popular vote in 2000 had been installed as president—even after the Supreme Court decision, there were still legal ways to pull that off.”

Leaving aside that, much as I want it to, the Constitution doesn’t give the presidency to the winner of the popular vote, and leaving aside the hindsight of a post-9/11 world…what are you talking about?  Al Gore accepted the Supreme Court’s ruling and relinquished any claim on the presidency.  The idea that there would be a revolution to install a candidate (and not exactly the most fervent left-wing candidate, let it be said) who had conceded defeat is ludicrous.  You might as well ask for a revolution to install him in 2008, when he won’t be running.

By tomemos on 11/10/07 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scepticism or pessimism about war protests may be valid for all kinds of reasons, but those reasons aren’t Zizek’s.  To my knowledge, Zizek has never called for nonviolent resistence.  He has called for the sorts of things that are very unlikely to happen in a U.S. context, and that there are good reasons to think would be counterproductive if they did happen.  At this point, people from all across the political spectrum will be saying certain obvious things about Bush and illegal war and the apparent inability of people to stop it.  But where they go from there is what makes them worth listening to or not. 

Fantasies about trampling police, or about military leaders refusing to obey orders, obviate any force behind the “illegal” part of “illegal war”.  The people who want to have a straightforward contest of physical power vs physical power always seem to think that the left would win, for some unknown and ill-considered reason.  Fantasies about a new Civil Rights Movement / general strike sort of tactic (in a U.S. context) are not as obviously wrongheaded, but they rely on social solidarity that just isn’t there.  Throughout most of the Bush years, a slight majority of people (again, in a U.S. context) actually approved of him.  Even now, a vociferous minority that approves of him is probably about as large as the minority that disapproves of him strongly enough to do anything about it.

So Zizek has said nothing useful about war protests, and a good deal that is anti-useful, because it leads to people saying things like (paraphrased) “if only people were serious about stopping war, they’d get serious.” Which, as Joseph had pointed out in this thread often enough, is just another way of putting blame on the left for being weak, or complicit, or going in the wrong direction or something.

By on 11/10/07 at 04:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So it’s not permitted to point out that the left is weak?  Instead, we’re supposed to praise useless symbolic gestures and pretend it changed something?

By Adam Kotsko on 11/10/07 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Point out whatever you like.  But “the left is weak” is a useless statement.  Everyone can see that the left hasn’t stopped the war.  OK, why?  How?  What could be done differently?  Zizek’s piece is a waste of space—well, actually, it’s counterproductive, because it pretends to say something about it, but doesn’t.

By on 11/10/07 at 06:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"To my knowledge, Zizek has never called for nonviolent resistence” Zizek never ‘calls’, concretely, for anything. If you ask him to do so he says ‘You want intellectual to be Big Other who tells you what to do’ etc. Zizek is now little more than a jaded professional contrarian. It’s clear from his article that he knows next to nothing about Chavez, or rather, nothing that you couldn’t clean from Fox news; that he’s made no effort to actually investigate and ponder the details, because be has no interest in the labour of detail, no interest in accuracy or the merely empirical. Chavez, Bill Gates, Shakespeare et al are used only illustratively in the service of by now endlessly reiterated theoretical points. This is the salient feature, surely, of Zizek’s writing - a willfully instumental and careless use of ‘examples’, made to perform the same ersatz-dialectical tricks for a stubbornly admiring audience. None of which should detract from his admirable popularisations of Lacan and Hegel, but the LRB articles etc are thin and regurgitated gruel.

By Gog on 11/10/07 at 06:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have little to say anymore about most of the topics on the minds of The Valve’s participants; but what strikes me here is actually a quite obvious dilemma: isn’t the problem of the Left precisely that these conversations go on largely in corduroy-bound rags like the LRB? 

More than half of my high school juniors—a solidly working- and middle-class bunch—could not comprehend *The Great Gatsby* at a surface level because the novel’s vocabulary and sentence structures obstructed the automaticity of their basic verbal comprehension. 

So I wonder who Zizek is trying to organize or persuade.  There’s nothing wrong with appeals to the privileged.  But let’s not forget that a very, very slim percent of the nation’s populace could even comprehend the LRB.  (Compare this to, say, the prose of *The National Review*, which is far simpler, far easier to understand.)

Which is to say that one explanation for the Left’s weakness is that it speaks largely to its overprivileged self.

By on 11/10/07 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB: “So I wonder who Zizek is trying to organize or persuade.  [...]
Which is to say that one explanation for the Left’s weakness is that it speaks largely to its overprivileged self.”

I’m glad to see you back, LB.  But I think that you’ve been led astray here by the same implicit assumptions that Zizek encouraged in his article.  These assumptions are:

1. (strong form) There is a unitary “left”.  (weak form) One can speak of “the left” without ever bothering to define who one is speaking about.

2. (strong form) There is a single, best global strategy for “the left.” (weak form) Suggested strategies for “the left” must have broad application, or they aren’t worthwhile.

I would have no problem with someone who said, approximately, “I’m speaking to the kind of leftist who reads the LRB.  Here is what I think the kind of leftist who read the LRB should be doing.” If that advice seems well-thought-out, then fine—no one is under the obligation to think of something that applies equally well to LRB-readers and high school juniors alike.

Zizek’s advice does not appear to me to be well-thought-out, but that’s a matter for argument.  What doesn’t appear to be a matter for argument, to me anyway, is that his writing contains an internal contradiction.  The reason that so many people suspect that Zizek is joking is because he keeps saying things that translate to: “I’m speaking to the kind of leftist who reads the LRB.  Don’t be afraid to seize the state!  And give up on making impossible, theoretical demands; make specific, practical ones.”

Which is, of course, comical.  The academic does not get to put on a Superman costume and gain the powers of Superman on the strength of the absurd.  And as for specific, practical demands—well, I generally like people who think about philosophy and literature and political science (of the type here discussed) and so on, and I think their work is useful, but they don’t actually know anything practical in this sense.  A leftism that can’t acknowledge that people have different skills, interests, and personal histories of knowledge is useless.  Even the old-style leftists, who generally subsumed all of this into class background, did better.  You’re not going to turn people whose natural role is probably in ideology or propaganda into either street fighters or technocrats.

I happen to think that the message that really should be sent to this group is that their ideology and propaganda sucks—“post-modernist” themes, or whatever you want to call them, have no strength against the right, which is happy to agree with all of political postmodernism: there is no truth; there is no universal justice; there is really no reason why the rich shouldn’t get whatever they can get from the poor.  But Zizek peddles the same material, so he can’t say that.

By on 11/10/07 at 09:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: i first started reading Zizek because both my dishwasher and a fellow cook were reading him.  none of us finished college.  The two women who got me into Deleuze and Gautarri were the same (one a hairdresser, the other a barista, no academic degrees).  Maybe i just happened to live in a highly literate city (seattle), but very, very few of my (non-internet) conversations about Zizek have been with academics. 

The two friends of mine getting master’s degrees (one is also my partner) have never encountered Zizek in academia, anyway. 

Give us self-taught workers some credit, please.  The far-away look of the barista might just be one of us tired from reading “Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism” late the night before at a bar. 

Besides, the Great Gatsby sucked, and was highly colloquial (and upper class, might i add?).  Try Steinbeck.

By on 11/10/07 at 09:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam writes,

It’s as though in your mind, two articles (this one and the 300 review) opened up an entire new phase of Zizek’s thought, one we might call the “quasi-fascist phase.” Meanwhile, back in the real world, all Zizek does in the piece is attempt a reductio ad absurdam of Critchley’s position by suggesting the Democrats should just hand over power to the Republicans...

This is a very good characterization of what I think is going on with Zizek’s new opinion pieces. Adam, like Jodi, you are focused on Zizek’s response to Critchley, and (as I mentioned upthread) I am in sympathy with Zizek’s rejection of Critchley. The problem continues to be that his article was also an attempt to characterize every single possible Leftist position, granting value to none, while positing an anti-Critchley program of “finite demands” that turns out to have no content.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the specific question of protest marches, it’s not that I have any problem discussing weakness on the Left or analyzing the failure of the American Democratic Party. It’s simply that these conversations owe absolutely nothing to Slavoj Zizek; all of my friends and acquaintances, academics and non-academics alike, have been discussing these matters for at least the past seven years. No in-depth knowledge of Marx, Hegel or Lacan is required to accuse the Democrats of making damning compromises; if this is the new Zizek, then he is even lagging behind most of the big-name left-wing bloggers. Meanwhile, Democratic tactics have nothing whatsoever to do with Critchley. The problem isn’t that the Democratic Party refuses to work within the system; in fact, the Party in its present form has been so thoroughly assimilated that it lacks a coherent, progressive vision of change.

Bearing Luther’s excellent comment in mind, along with what Rich and tomemos have said—the terms of this discussion about protest marches don’t make sense. Ordinary people who don’t hold elected office are not capable of immediately starting or stopping wars, thank God. Rich is right that a general strike is not going to materialize out of thin air. To say that a protest march does nothing because it doesn’t overthrow the government makes writing academic texts and opinion pieces a truly ludicrous political activity. How on earth would you, or I, or Slavoj Zizek justify our work then? By gesturing towards a powerful and vast readership, ready to take action, that actually does not exist (cf. Luther)? Symbolic efficacy in the political realm is slow, uneven, uncertain work. Using the 2006 elections in the United States to analyze protest marches is as ridiculous as using those same elections to evaluate Zizek’s writing. Marches and political writing call attention to problems, change minds one at a time, manifest and build solidarity; marches were not the only tools of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the last century, but they were indispensable. Susan’s comment is a great testimonial to what a sufficiently large, organized, coherent march can accomplish. I am not suggesting that present skepticism about this-or-that protest march is unfounded, merely that defaulting to an imaginary, idealized general strike is an untenable way to analyze contemporary politics.

I cannot understand how the presence of anti-prejudicial rhetoric proves that the political economy can do without prejudicial attitudes. On the contrary, it proves that the political economy cannot do without hypocrisy. Both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were initially funded by the United States. For the Bush administration, which has done everything it can to frustrate the queer agenda in the United States, to mourn the execution of homosexuals is as obfuscatory as its attempt to gloss over the history of US support for the “Axis of Evil.”

Right now, Zizek is leveraging the reputation he gained writing books like The Sublime Object of Ideology in order to write “Resistance Is Surrender.” Of course, in the long run, his embarrassing statements and vague formulations will fall into neglect, restoring his glory, just as has happened with so many other writers and philosophers. But, regardless of whether you criticize him or simply rule all of his blunders out of bounds, the result is the same. Zizek—the public figure, not the canonical earlier texts—offers us less and less that we can use.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/10/07 at 10:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I for one, do believe that writing academic texts is a ludicrous political activity.

By on 11/10/07 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I realize that this is a side topic, since the thread is about Zizek, not protests.  Also, I think that Joseph and others have adequately addressed the strange idea that protest -> no government overthrow == failure. 

But really, what do people think that protest organizers are thinking?  Surely some people here must have organized protests.  I have, at a minor level (about 50-100 people, say).  It’s not like you get an immediate report card afterwards. 

You do it, and in the process some people who participate are more or less radicalized, some onlookers may or may not have the issue raised in their consciousness, you get more or less press.  Then, at some later point, something happens.  For instance, if it’s a bounded/local issue, you win or lose.  Did you win because of the protest?  Lose because the protest wasn’t good enough?  Have the win or loss completely determined by other factors, with the protest irrelevant?  Have the win or loss or equivocal result in some way shaped by the protest?  It’s very difficult to say. 

But what never happens is that you have a protest and then immediately win.  That happens only in movies.  So after the protest, you can’t just say “Well, that didn’t work.  We need to do something else other than protest.” After repeated protests of the same type have failed, then yes, you do get that suspicion, but by that time the political context has changed and you don’t know whether protests would now be more effective.  That exact dynamic happened after the 2006 U.S. elections; people had pretty much given up on large antiwar protests, but then they thought that perhaps they could influence the new Democratic congresspeople.

But a lot of this “protests only helped to support Bush!” is the most noxious secondguessing, suitable for a media environment in which everything is good for the GOP.  If there had been no protests, of course that would have been hailed as being good for Bush.  He could have said that everyone supported him.  Since there were protests, yes, he could say that this showed that in a free society, people can protest.  But so what?  There is a line of right-wing propaganda available for every conceivable situation.  You can’t judge whether the protests were successful or not based on whether Bush used them propagandistically.

Of course, you can say that they were a failure in that the war is still going.  Well, yes, but in that sense, every tactic used has been a failure.  That doesn’t actually tell us anything.  And it does no good to say that in that case we must try something different if what are being suggested are entirely fantasy tactics: violent confrontation, revolt of the military, general strike.  The protestors at least could actually carry out their possibly failed attempts.

By on 11/11/07 at 12:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me be the devil’s advocate here for a minute.
I’ve always seen the point of protest as being essentially to act as a sign of public opinion.  When we protest, we’re not out there to change minds.  If you are, you have some ... optimistic ideas about how people form political opinions.  Really, modern protests are aimed at media.  We show discontent, we get numbers quoted and people (particularly people in power) are supposed to get an idea of the fact that the public disagrees with their actions.
There are three basic problems with this model right now.  The first is simply that the people in power are able to gather that data pretty effectively on their own.  Sure there’s nothing quite so visceral as a protest, but PR departments are able to gauge public opinion about war pretty quickly.  The only people who are suddenly finding out that there are people who oppose the war are not the people who are making the decisions that bring us into it.
Secondly, the mass media doesn’t work very well to get the message across either.  When I was a part of some of the biggest protests before the Iraq war, this was easy to see from my point of view.  The local FOX station had a 45 second piece on our protest, significantly downplayed the numbers and the only video coverage was of the conservative nut who grabbed the mic being forced off stage (with the anchors reporting about us quickly silencing opposing opinions.  I am not joking.) The other stations didn’t fare that much better.  If anyone’s ever seen video from protests in Miami and the media integration and bias there, it’s even more obvious that the media does not work in the favor of protesters.
Third, even if the protest achieved its goals and those in power suddenly became aware that there was public dissent, we’re in a political situation where dissent is the concern of PR and is not significantly taken under account in the political decision making process.

Historically protests functioned as a tangible threat because they were backed up by tactics that were not at the time considered utterly implausible.  A small army of people in the streets showing that they were angry was a tangible threat.  Protests that appeal to media and to the power of public opinion are contingent on the democratic system they’re a part of.  When that democratic system has been subverted, they are of almost no use.  Now when people take to the streets, the people who are making decisions know that at the end of the day all those people are just going to go home and go back to being citizens.  It’s a totally symbolic gesture that loses its force when up against nondemocratic structures of power.

By on 11/11/07 at 02:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ha, when I wrote that, I was in such a hurry that I actually left my point out.  I have only the briefest moment, but I guess what I was going to get to is this:
The point of a protest is not to overthrow the government, or stop a war in its tracks so obviously we can’t consider a protest failed if it doesn’t do that.  But we can consider what a protest is for and whether it is effective, and whether that’s what we need to be doing.  I think the answer to these questions is no.
I also think from certain perspectives, once that conclusion is reached, the next question is “well, what do we need to do to stop the war?” And the answer is not in the set of things we as American citizens are going to be considering acceptable political options any time soon.
So to the extent that people participating in protest think they are actually getting anything done, yes, I think they’re counterproductive.

By on 11/11/07 at 02:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

J.S. Nelson: “I also think from certain perspectives, once that conclusion is reached, the next question is “well, what do we need to do to stop the war?” And the answer is not in the set of things we as American citizens are going to be considering acceptable political options any time soon.”

J.S., I’ve addressed above the problems in “once that conclusion is reached.” And there are problems with “I’ve always seen the point of protest as being essentially to act as a sign of public opinion”; in, say, the Alinsky-ite model, the protest is an organizing tool, and can be directed as much at increasing solidarity and radicalization among those protesting as it is directed towards the larger public.  But hey, Alinsky “failed” too. So I’ll address the idea of “acceptable political options”.

Let’s say that everyone agrees that protests are useless.  If the only things that would work are not acceptable, then the only choice left would seem to be sinking into quietism.  That’s a prominent strand in the constellation of thought around Zizek—wait for Jesus.  Needless to say, I think that’s nonsense; you’re better off trying something that probably won’t work than simply doing nothing.

So then you consider why some options are acceptable and some not.  If they aren’t acceptable because in fact you don’t have the power to do them, then see the paragraph above.  So they must not be acceptable for some other reason.

Why do people want to stop the war?  That’s not really a rhetorical question.  You can’t figure out which means are really acceptable to you by answering it.  If the answer is because people are being killed and you don’t want people to be killed, then any response that encourages mass violence is pretty stupid, right?  People aren’t utilitarians, going through some kind of calculation like “Let’s see, 1 million Iraqis killed means that it’s fine to get 100 people killed to stop the war, let’s do it.” The kind of people who would make this calculation would also see nothing wrong with the war qua war in the first place.  Once someone gets into the idea of sacrificing a few for the good of the many, they positively look out for chances to do so, and wars are great for that.  You can see that in all the verbiage about how Iraqis may be dying now but future Iraqis will thank us.

So the question comes back to “What is a possible, acceptable alternative action?” I’m not saying that this question can’t be answered.  On the contrary, I hope that someone answers it.  But Zizek hasn’t.

By on 11/11/07 at 09:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That should have been “You *can* figure out which means are really acceptable to you [...]” above.

By on 11/11/07 at 09:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I take what Rich calls ‘quietism’ do be what Zizek refers to as Bartleby politics in PV. This isn’t his view everywhere (FA ends with psychoanalysts and revolutionary political collectives; the writings on Lenin emphasize the Party; somewhere else he suggests alliances between technology/cyber hacker types and slum dwellers). I still find the Bartleby view problematic--but there is something intriguing in asking what would happen if the resistances and countering and struggle that enables the political structure in the US to legitimize itself simply stopped. I tend to think it would mean that surveillance would continue to increase, more people imprisoned without cause, even more pernicious laws enabling the very rich to take whatever they want. So, I don’t find the Bartleby line very convincing (although theoretically I think the move from subject to object is interesting, particularly as it inserts the reminder that peoples and masses and groups act in ways radically counter to what political theorists claim that they do and want them to do.

But, on the point of only things that are unacceptable would work--isn’t that the way a hegemonic formation works? To structure the domain of the acceptable in terms that reinforce it? So, the Democrats in Congress have a shockingly narrow sense of what is acceptable (presumably opposition to a nominee for attorney general who supports torture is beyond the pale; presumably stopping funding the wars is beyond the pale). Protests, too, are limited and for show, not indications of the first steps of an angry populace tired of sustained train of abuses.

By Jodi on 11/11/07 at 11:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

perhaps we’re getting to precisely what Zizek means.  he didn’t start the “don’t act--because it falls within the co-ordinates of liberal democracy” until quite recently.  i don’t think he, or anyone, is necessarily saying that the protests ought not to have been tried, because without their failure, we wouldn’t understand how completely useless they were.  he tends (or, at least i have decided that he tends) to remove events from the historical even as he is analysing them within history (his essay Repeating Lenin does just that). 

so rather than suggesting everything is useless, i would posit he is pointing to the revolutionary moment here (the messianic promise with which Rich is frustrated).  That is, he is pointing to the vast failure as a repetition of Lenin’s “what is to be done?"--that moment when the Left seemed not only divided, but actually very much no longer left (the war credits:Lenin;the war:the present Left).  So, too, Chavez--seizing the moment of the apparent end of the revolutionary tendency (which should explain both his and my comments about the protests) as the very moment of the revolution. 

Because, of course, it isn’t only about the war, and because the 60,000 people in Seattle in 99 didn’t go away, and because the Left party in america is in tatters (of course it’s a pathetic excuse as such, just as the bolsheviks as opposition who voted for war credits had become), and because protests actually do nothing--now we have the moment where actual revolutionary action can occur.  We can now see that, ultimately, the protests didn’t go far enough to prevent the war precisely because the desire-becoming-action was not understood (and is only understood now--the media/the government do not nor cannot respond to mere signs and chants).  In all of this, have we not helped lead the hegemony into a void point from which we can act (truly “outside” those co-ordinates Zizek warns us about!)--just as Baudrillard’s prediction that the terrorists opened within the hegemony the self-cannibalizing feedback loop?

By on 11/11/07 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Pale” in the beyonder sense is from the Latin for a stake Roman soldiers played war against. I suspect Zizek could make something of that.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/11/07 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich:  I was going to address some of that, but I’m always pressed for time.
For one thing, I’m not actually defending Zizek so much as hopping on the “criticize the American left” bandwagon.
Secondly, when I say “acceptable political options” I don’t mean acceptable to me.  I’m purely a pessimist; “acceptability” is not even a question I ask with regards to my own opinions on political options.
I can see the Alinsky perspective on protest but I have to say my own experiences point towards a different direction.  In all the protests I’ve been involved with, there has been perhaps a little solidarity forming etc, but for the most part I saw the protests as a way for the people involved to rid themselves of their sense of culpability.  People came, they shouted, they went home and said “Well at least I did something.  Now when this happens I can say I was out there opposing it.”
Protests, and for that matter, academia, are where dissent goes to die.  They’re structural features of the system that play the role of providing an outlet for dissent while keeping it as far removed from the political decision making process as possible.
When I say “acceptable political options” I mean options that are within the legitimate and established ways of doing politics in America.  That is, things like direct action (even the kind that strenuously avoids violence) are objectionable to most Americans.  I’m not suggesting violence (I’m not suggesting anything.  If I was suggesting anything it’d mostly be nonviolent direct action but I think even that’s hopeless.) But I think that the fact that people are obviously not willing to make the kind of calculations you’re talking about means that they’ve got the political system they’re a part of pretty deeply ingrained.  This would be a good thing if there were not people in power who were not actively circumventing that very political system.  They’re not playing the same game as us and since breaking the rules isn’t even considered an option, we’re playing a game we can’t win.

I have no suggestions as to how to go forward.  I can’t change the mind of the American people as to what is legitimate political strategy in the face of illegitimate power, and even if I could, I think there’s little hope in it.  My position is not tenable because it doesn’t exist.  I am, until a better option presents itself, existing in a state of pure, wrathful, disillusionment.

By on 11/11/07 at 02:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi: “But, on the point of only things that are unacceptable would work--isn’t that the way a hegemonic formation works? To structure the domain of the acceptable in terms that reinforce it? So, the Democrats in Congress have a shockingly narrow sense of what is acceptable [...]”

J.S. Nelson: “When I say “acceptable political options” I mean options that are within the legitimate and established ways of doing politics in America.  [...] But I think that the fact that people are obviously not willing to make the kind of calculations you’re talking about means that they’ve got the political system they’re a part of pretty deeply ingrained.”

I suppose that I should have defined which sense I took “acceptable” to mean.  I took it to mean acceptability from the viewpoint of the activist.  Which means that you start with the universe of what you can possibly do and eliminate those avenues that are not acceptable because they conflict with your reasons for activism in the first place.  (Or have other problems, such as bad risk/reward ratios.) The Democrats in Congress are not evaluating their actions according to this concept of acceptibility, obviously.  But this concept does provide a basic answer to the question of “If people really want to stop the war, why didn’t they trample the police?” Answer: because if they thought it was OK to trample police, they wouldn’t be against the war.

Jodi: “Protests, too, are limited and for show, not indications of the first steps of an angry populace tired of sustained train of abuses.”

Well, the U.S. doesn’t have an angry populace tired of a sustained train of abuses, so protests can’t be an indication of one.  The only Americans dying in this war are volunteers, taxes have been kept low by running up debt, and a majority of the U.S. populace approves of torture.  People are increasingly against the war in the sense that they are against it if asked by pollsters, but I see no signs that they are actually angry in the sense that I think that Jodi means.  Protests can’t be a signal of something that’s not really true—well, I suppose that they could be if you arranged a sort of massive con, but that usually requires the resources of the state.

As for the bit about leading the hegemony into a void point—no, I don’t think so.  I think that kind of idea evades consideration of what “the left” means and what ideas “the left” actually agrees on.  The Marxist-influenced left previously had an agreement on what injustice meant, although they dressed it up in all sorts of pseudo-scientific historical inevitability verbiage; they agreed that workers were not getting paid for the full value that they produced, and that this was unjust or simply wrong.  (I don’t think that you can have a concept of positive alienation, though maybe someone has made one.) No one agrees on this anymore.  The pseudo-scientific bit has fallen by the wayside, and universal concepts of justice are pretty much the property of the right, which by foisting them off onto God makes sure that they will never say anything that the right doesn’t agree with.  Class solidarity is a joke; most of “the left” is middle class, and a class of factory workers fondly imagined to be the proletariat is never going to reappear.  I don’t even understand how most of “the left” further than left-liberaldom now justifies broadly caring about what happens to people, other than as a sort of radical gesture.

And without some form of basic agreement, I think that “the left” can only build on sand.  The right can fail, in the sense that it can behave so badly in power that it is replaced by technocrats.  But the most basic task of intellectuals like Zizek is to come up with a new set of ideas that “the left” can agree on.  I don’t think that anything that includes what I’m referring to probably inaccurately as postmodernism can do this.

In the interim, I’m willing to look at the parts of “the left” that I think have done best as guides for the rest.  Do check out Gro Harlem Brundtland as an example, for instance.  I mean, hero worship is so passe, but she was seriously one of the critical people responsible for stopping SARS before it became a global pandemic.  That’s probably something like 10 million people now alive who wouldn’t be, maybe even more; she saved 10 times more people than Bush killed.  That’s a leftist victory.  She was so threatening to multinational capitalism that tobacco companies went into a weird world-wide conspiracy directed specifically at her.  She basically helped to invent the concept of sustainable development.  I’ll stop fanboying, but in short, I think that stodgy European social-democratic concepts are where it’s at right now, not glorious dreams of the void point leading to revolutionary action.

By on 11/11/07 at 08:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: i would suggest that perhaps people approving of torture in polls might be analogous to your point concerning people being against the war in polls?  Mayhaps neither matters, or perhaps both matter quite a bit: “speaking one’s mind” is only just that, just as “protesting” without threat is merely having “one’s voice heard.” This is, of course, Zizek’s point about the denkverbot implicit within freedom of speech and democratic participation--you can say or vote however you like, provided it both appears to matter quite a bit but, in reality, matters not at all.  The old anarchist jibe “if voting could change anything, they’d outlaw it” might be useful here. 

do you then disagree with Zizek’s analysis of the liberal hegemony altogether?  It would seem that you do, but please correct me if i’m wrong. 

The reason i ask is this: pointing to stodgy social-democrats as “where it’s at right now” would suggest certainly that the racism/anti-immigrant tendencies inherent within both the labour party in britain and the SPD in germany --granting rights with (nationalistic) “responsibilities” and creating and sustaining laws which pit immigrant religion vs. nationalistic culture--may not be quite the problem for you as it is for myself.  the other machinery involved: sustainability (always more affecting the poor than the rich, such as raising water prices/gasoline taxes/etc) only brings in a new re-inforcement of capitalist control.  it’s the poor of the world who burn wood and coal directly, not as a process to create energy for infrastructure or profit but to warm and feed themselves.  Take also biofuels: even the UN (that throne of social democracy) has admitted this will cause starvation.  Sustainability is aimed as keeping the current system around without adverse effects to too many more people, making our bombs more precise but not addressing the bombs themselves (take the environmental outrage over the damage caused by depleted uranium shells in iraq). 

If you don’t consider anything wrong with these processes, then of course you won’t agree with Zizek concerning the problem of the left.  We may not even be looking at the same thing. 

Perhaps, also, Zizek and you have different understandings of the concept of Vanguard.  It isn’t that the factory workers (like my dad) need to spontaneously erupt as politicized radicals, nor that the intellectuals are to seize power for them. They become radicalised by the very existence of capitalism (factory closures, one million projected foreclosures, etc) and politicised by those who are privileged by a vantage outside of capitalist exchange.  He’s also quick to point out that this outsider group is not academic (tenured professors have as little reason to revolt as upper-middle class managers--steady income, secure work; they’ve already been bought out).  it isn’t by the very nature of being intellectual that anyone becomes part of the vanguard, but being in that position outside the exchange.  An out-of-work bartender has as much capacity as a retired professor, and maybe more so, insofar as the bartender can speak to capitalist exploitation directly from experience and has less investment in the success of liberal democracy than the man with the pension/401k/health care. 

Insofar as J.S.’s disillusionment is concerned, he agrees completely with Zizek.  His last post is exactly in that same spirit as “What is to be done?,” which is what i find to be the most brilliantly hopeful moment of all.

By on 11/11/07 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"They become radicalised by the very existence of capitalism (factory closures, one million projected foreclosures, etc) and politicised by those who are privileged by a vantage outside of capitalist exchange.”

Well, actually, no they don’t.  I’m speaking observationally here, not theoretically.

The rest of your comment is way too high in agitprop.  I mean, “Take also biofuels: even the UN (that throne of social democracy) has admitted this will cause starvation”?  You appear to be referring to this.  So let’s rephrase that: the UN has warned that increased use of biofuels will cause starvation, and proposed a moritorium on this increased use.  (This proposal comes from a social democrat, BTW.) That’s exactly what people concerned with sustainable development are supposed to be doing, figuring out the ecosystemic limits that if infringed will cause people to start starving; it doesn’t equate to “biofuels yay”.  And your reversal of a warning into an admission is tawdry.

“pointing to stodgy social-democrats as “where it’s at right now” would suggest certainly that the racism/anti-immigrant tendencies inherent within both the labour party in britain and the SPD in germany --granting rights with (nationalistic) “responsibilities” and creating and sustaining laws which pit immigrant religion vs. nationalistic culture--may not be quite the problem for you as it is for myself. “

I haven’t observed perfection in any political movement, no.  In fact, I generally observe that holding out for perfection is the privilege of people who have embraced disillusionment and the concomitant relaxation into easy nothingness.  It is very easy to find nothing wrong with a politics that does not exist.  Those that do exist are unfortunately composed of actual people in actual societies that are as affected by racism, classism, sexism, and nativism as any others.

By on 11/11/07 at 11:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

rich: I understood what you meant but simply disagreed.  I think you’re generalizing your reasons for activism to others.  Opposing war because it is essentially large scale orchestrated murder is a position that’s so obvious it’s easy to forget that some people might have other reasons.  Quite a lot of people, democrats included, do believe in just wars, and by implication, the justified use of violence, but simply believe that this particular case was unjust.  Some people (myself included) have other, more abstract reasons.
My point was essentially that the position of being against trampling police officers (or to tone down the exaggeration, nonviolent forms of direct action which violate the law or even just social customs) is not, for most people, an ahistorical political position handed down directly from God.  The fact that most activists oppose violence or even nonviolent but illegal action is because they have the American way of doing politics deeply ingrained in them.  And I think that this American way of doing politics is being actively exploited toward ends that stretch the boundaries of what most Americans consider acceptable, and that this can happen only because the structures of power in place prevent activists from having much effect on the political decision making process using the established channels and practices (like protest.)
If protests don’t stop wars, what does?  That’s the question we need to be devoting our time to.  It’s easy to imagine that the next step after peaceful, sanctioned, route approved protest is stomping police and turning cars over, but I think that’s because those are the only two alternatives we’re used to thinking about.  My problem with protests is that afterwards people actually think they’ve done something.  Often enough the kinds of questions which could really have an effect on the future of American politics are never even brought up.

By on 11/12/07 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

J.S. Nelson: “I think you’re generalizing your reasons for activism to others.  Opposing war because it is essentially large scale orchestrated murder is a position that’s so obvious it’s easy to forget that some people might have other reasons.  Quite a lot of people, democrats included, do believe in just wars, and by implication, the justified use of violence, but simply believe that this particular case was unjust.”

I think that I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t agree.  Let’s say that you’re a democrat who believes that there can be just wars, but that this case was unjust.  In order to proceed to police-trampling, you’d have to believe that police-trampling was just.  That’s not a decision that I can see many people who are motivated enough by antiwar activism to go to a protest (for whatever reason) as making.  Sure, there may be some.  But how many?  The point is that you’re no longer talking about a million people, you’re talking about some tiny fraction of a million people.  All of the critiques that say “if people really believed in X, they’d do Y” tend to ignore why belief in X is incompatible with action Y for the large majority of the group.  It doesn’t have to be everyone—just enough people so that you no longer have this unstoppable mass.

By on 11/12/07 at 12:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes I’ve never disagreed with that point, in fact it is part of my point, though I can see how I’ve presented it badly.
I’m not presenting an “if people really believed in X, they’d do Y” argument.  We both believe that Y is out of the question.  We disagree about why this is the case.
I really don’t want to frame this in terms of police trampling anymore, but I’ll play that game for the time being.  This is not and has never been a dialog about violence for me, but it keeps getting cast in those terms and I’ll get to a reason why I think that is in a moment.
Let’s say we have this hypothetical situation where police trampling somehow miraculously stops a war from happening.  I know that most people would not believe that police trampling was just in this situation.  The way you present it makes this conclusion not seem as bizarre as it actually is in context.  Of course police trampling is unjust, but what’s odd is that this is intuitively true even in the case where the end result is that several thousand people get to keep their lives, and even under the condition that the participants already believe that violence can be an acceptable tool when used to prevent more violence. 
I have some questions about this intuition.  Why is belief in this X incompatible with this Y for our democrat?  The way you put it, it seems like there’s a single belief that motivates both of these positions but I haven’t actually heard what this belief is yet.  If we take as a premise the idea that many people do believe that violence is justified when it’s the most expedient option for preventing more violence, what makes this not one of those situations?
I am suggesting that the trampling of police is always objectionable no matter what.  This is also common sense but relatively strange when taken from a utilitarian standpoint.  I don’t see how it follows from any premises you’ve brought up except for the elusive common thread uniting it with your objection to war.  I’m suggesting that this common thread in most people is the historical, internalized, American sense of civic and political morality.
We’re very proud of our rule of law and our democracy and how politics is supposed to work in this country.  What I’m saying is that this pride is being taken advantage of.  Our established and well recuperated forms of dissent are ineffective at dealing with the kind of power that is not playing by the rules.  Our pride in those forms causes us to refuse to admit that they won’t work and also to cast anything outside of them as barbarism.  Direct action does not mean violence, it doesn’t even mean destruction of property, but in the eyes of the American public anything which does not work with the bureaucracy in established legal channels is in the same category as police trampling. 
Absolutely, from a first person perspective I can see that doing “what would be necessary"* to prevent war contradicts principles that are at least related to the ones that cause us to disagree with the war in the first place.  But from a third person perspective, it looks like we’re unable to act against groups doing what we disagree with because we’ve internalized the values necessary for these groups to wield power. 
How is this not hegemony?

*Let’s say this is something more like “organized strikes” or “monkeywrenching” than “police trampling”.

As a note, I’ll most likely be unable to reply to anything said in response to this, as my finals are starting and it’s going to be hectic for a number of weeks.

By on 11/12/07 at 03:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, but I was trying to show that what you’re calling an intuition isn’t one.  It’s a rational response.  It’s not merely a “historical, internalized, American sense of civic and political morality” to be concerned with what’s going to happen after you demonstrate that the state can be overturned by any angry group of people.  The “left” however defined does not have a monopoly on angry groups of people.

I was using the example of police trampling because it was brought up, near the beginning of this thread, as an example of the great insights that Zizek had led someone to about the antiwar movement, and therefore its ludicrousness seemed topical.  But instead let’s assume that the demonstrators are concerned with environmental issues, and that they are contemplating nonviolent civil disobedience.  There is nothing more central to current American traditions of civic and political morality than the idea of Civil Rights Movement style civil disobediance.  Every year, there is earnest propaganda about it; there is a whole holiday basically about it.

So why don’t they do it?  The answers are sadly many:

1.  Some do do it.  And they are ignored.  Civil disobediance can be ignored, just like any other form of protest, unless it has a large base.

2.  Why not do it on a wide scale then? 

a) Well, certain practical issues intrude; it’s difficult to get people to commit to something that will get them imprisoned on a wide scale unless they have a very good reason; the people in the Civil Rights Movement had a very good reason.  People on “the left” who believe in this kind of thing routinely seem to exaggerate how angry they think that the public is, or should be, and how oppressed they are by historical standards (c.f. “one million projected foreclosures” above; if that ever did happen you’d see a new law long before you’d see angry mass protests).

b) The Civil Rights Movement immunized itself against lawlessness / social contract breaking by being religious.  This thread probably isn’t the place for everything about that, but this is sort of an implied promise that not just any group of people can use these tactics.  In fact, the religous right in the U.S. now benefits from this. 

In short I don’t believe that people don’t try things mostly because of “internalized values”.

By on 11/12/07 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair enough, our disagreement is essentially in that last sentence then.  I do think that most political beliefs and practices on the part of the public are a result of intuitive judgments and are not rationally worked out very far.
I think you nailed where the frustration from the far left is coming from, because I can feel it myself even though I’m not sure “left” is the best way to describe me.  People on “the left” do blame the public for not being as angry as they “should be”, that is when they’ve not slipped into delusion about how angry the public actually is.  From either of those positions it makes sense for someone who’s totally exasperated to start asking “why are we ‘just any group’? why aren’t thousands of lives and the potential political stability of the entire world enough to justify the use of ‘these tactics’?”

Saying it like that makes it really sound like I’m doing that thing that people sometimes do to distance themselves from their own positions, where they narrate their own train of thought as a line of questions it would be theoretically reasonable for someone else to ask maybe.  I promise that for the most part I’m just having fun playing devil’s advocate because these are the arguments I would have made a few years ago.  I don’t have any real arguments to make about what the left or the right or the in between should do anymore.

By on 11/12/07 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All else aside:

Because I generally read Zizek generously (in terms of what I think he should have meant)

Fanfic as criticism, 151 proof. Dear Prof. Dean, Livejournal wants its vibe back.

Carry on, everyone.

By waxbanks on 11/12/07 at 05:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"At one point, Zizek is interviewed lying shirtless in a hotel room bed. Aha! We suddenly understand: Zizek is Fielding Mellish, the character Woody Allen plays in Allen’s 1971 movie “Bananas.””

Actually, Zizek in that scene is the guy from the Mennen commercial from the 80’s ("I didn’t use deodorand yesterday. I may not use any today.")

I’ve been searching for that clip on YouTube for ages, to no avail.

By va on 11/13/07 at 12:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Not Mennen. Mitchum. Blast!

By va on 11/13/07 at 12:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m late to this party, I know.  But it might be worth pointing out that Zizek doesn’t know much about either Venezuela or chavismo.  And he’s not alone, of course.  One small but important point, for instance, is that Chávez didn’t nationalize the oil industry.  Though it was in fact nationalized very late in the game, compared say to the (now privatized) equivalents in Argentina or Mexico.

(As a kind of mirror image: nor, by the way, did Pinochet denationalize copper, whose profits continue to go straight into the coffers of the Chilean armed forces.)

By Jon on 11/13/07 at 10:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In Zizek’s new column, the contradictions come so quickly that it is hard to keep track of them all. For example, he writes: “One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible.” Then he bitterly condemns he who “accepts the futility of all struggle, since the hegemony is so all-encompassing that nothing can really be done.”

Isn’t this why his new book is called _In Defense of Lost Causes_?  This is the worst article I’ve read in ages.

By on 11/17/07 at 02:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dicerstabber, what on earth is your point? That the title of Zizek’s new book, which is sentimental to the point of being pathetic, and which (at face value, though I’m sure he’ll do more with it) contradicts everything he’s saying about Critchley, somehow by-passes any possible logical problem with the claims in his unrelated op-ed?

Stop wasting our time.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/17/07 at 03:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The point is that you repeatedly confuse Zizek’s claim that “capitalism is indestructible” with a claim he certainly never made, which is that “state power is indestructible.”

In other words, he doesn’t contradict himself.

Also, you extrapolate the hugeness of Zizek’s ego from a couple of lines from Zizek! 

No discussion of how this apparently monstrous ego affects Zizek’s writing. 

You aren’t a very careful or fair writer.

The same sort of thing goes for attacking a book by its title, then retreating, then attacking me when I attacked your article, which, several years from now, you’ll hope won’t be seen as an extension of your self.

By on 11/17/07 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The point is that you repeatedly confuse Zizek’s claim that “capitalism is indestructible” with a claim he certainly never made, which is that “state power is indestructible.”

That doesn’t even make sense. State power in capitalist countries is founded on the economics of capitalism. If he wants to “work within the system,” accepting the reality of the global capitalist market, then he’s certainly no Leninist or radical.

Also, you extrapolate the hugeness of Zizek’s ego from a couple of lines from Zizek!

Absolutely not. At the very least, I am looking at two widely discussed columns, written for mainstream publications with international readerships.

No discussion of how this apparently monstrous ego affects Zizek’s writing.

Actually, that was the whole concern of the post. It explains why Zizek is regressing to these rather simple identifications with Chavez and Leonidas.

You aren’t a very careful or fair writer.

Unconstructive and useless.

The same sort of thing goes for attacking a book by its title, then retreating, then attacking me when I attacked your article, which, several years from now, you’ll hope won’t be seen as an extension of your self.

Oh, please. Don’t borrow against the future in the hopes of making me feel insecure. You used the title of a book to try to prove that Zizek was doing just fine. I am certain that if everything I write is read according to this polyanna standard of interpretive “fairness,” I truly have nothing to worry about.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/17/07 at 06:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

1.  State power in capitalist countries is reliant, not founded, upon capitalism.  Just out of curiosity, have you read his Zizek Presents essays?

2.  My point is that when someone says “I have a huge ego” they are probably just being funny.  What evidence do you have of the size of Zizek’s ego?  In what ways does this largeness of ego affect his writing?  It isn’t enough just to assume that largeness of ego is responsible for the types of errors you are attributing to Zizek.

3.  I think explaining to you that you are being unfair is highly constructive.  The title of your piece is meant to grab headlines at the expense of someone who is arguing perspectives.

4. By mentioning the title of Zizek’s forthcoming book I was trying to suggest that Zizek is aware of this apparent duplicity, that he is counting on people like you to render simplistic readings, that he will probably address your concerns in the forthcoming book.

For anyone interested in a recent, worthwhile review of Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, check out nplusonemag.com.

By on 11/18/07 at 02:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dicerstabber--

1. Perhaps here we simply disagree; not that this disagreement takes place in the absence of an objective truth, but rather that this comment thread would be an inconvenient place for trying to reach the truth. That project would require a very broad discussion of economic, political, and critical theory. I’m not familiar with Zizek Presents.

2. By discussing Zizek’s “egoism,” I am making a deductive claim. At no point does Zizek announce that he can or should lead a revolutionary vanguard. However, there is no other sensible way to synthesize his carpet-bombing attacks on the Left, his identification with powerful, male military figures, and his calls for the formation of a vanguard.

3. A headline ought to be compelling; I assume that is also what Zizek was going for with “Resistance is Surrender.” Zizek is arguing perspectives, if you want to call it that, using an extremely broad brush.

4. It is completely illegitimate to suspend judgement of an op-ed until the writer’s next book appears, since it is unreasonable to expect that anything like a majority of the people reading the column will also read the book. For all I know, In Defense of Lost Causes may turn out to be a success, and may signal a change of direction or a series of useful clarifications. (It may not.) But that won’t make these pieces any better.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/19/07 at 07:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The real question is whether Zizek is more of an embarrassment to the Left than Simon Critchley. And the answer is not by a long shot.

By on 11/25/07 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi.

Your argument (which you fairly admit) is largely ad hominem: Zizek is a hypocrite, so let’s stop listening to Zizek.

But this is not really satisfying. Of course Zizek is a hypocrite, getting rich and famous off of the systems he has made a career critiquing and criticizing. (I’m not sure that profiting from something one criticizes automatically makes one a hypocrite, but that’s a different issue) But if Zizek is a hypocrite, this probably has less to do with a personal flaw and more to do with the problematic status of being a truly committed leftist (committed, say, to the overthrow of the capitalist state, the abolition of money, radical equality, etc.) in today’s academia.

So, let me make a question out of this: Do you disagree with Zizek that there is at base a sort of phoniness to self-reputed radical leftists in academia?

(To give some personal frame of reference: I myself am an academic, I felt the sort of hypocrisy that Zizek both exposes and that you are criticizing him for not exposing in himself, and then one day decided to just resolve it all by accepting the fact that I’m basically a non-radical, old-school Kantian liberal, even with all the commitment to rights, moral progress, intellectual progress, historical progress, that this entails).

By on 11/26/07 at 04:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is Simon Critchley well-known?  I never heard of him before this thread.

By on 11/26/07 at 11:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Walt—exactly. Zizek’s Ticklish Subject is still outselling Infinitely Demanding on Amazon, and it was published over seven years ago.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/26/07 at 07:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael,

Let me put my answer like this: I don’t think it’s hypocritical to be a Marxist plumber. I think we would all feel quite embarrassed if a plumber wanted to join a conversation about radical politics, and we said, “I’m sorry, but the fact that you fix pipes helps keep the old system going—you’re a hypocrite.”

Singling out certain kinds of professionals, and accusing them of hypocrisy when they attempt to make common cause, is a perversion of the very universality that is most fundamental to the ideals of the radical Left.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/26/07 at 07:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not to answer for Joseph, but in my opinion hypocrisy has nothing to do with it.  Hypocrisy is one of Zizek’s more admirable qualities.  (To quote my own doggerel: “No use to blame the con men / We’ve all heard it before / Everybody loves a con / But suckers are a bore.") The problem with Zizek for the left is that his analysis is ridiculous and useless.  I can’t say that it’s actively harmful, because I don’t think that anyone effectual really listens to him, but it is an embarassment for related areas of leftist thought that depend on some of the same tropes.

By on 11/26/07 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi again,

don’t mean to belabor a point, and I’ve always liked reading Zizek: I find him invariably interesting, while hardly ever ‘right,’ and am not sure what that would even mean for him in most cases. And I would agree with Rich: I find Zizek’s hypocrisy even charming sometimes. I think that he is both committed to what he says, and realizes that he himself belongs to and profits from the same smug, complacent academic left establishment that he finds distasteful. After all, he’s fond of saying that he hates people, and that probably is meant to include himself.

Anyway, a Marxist plumber is certainly no oxymoron; but I think that a Marxist hedgefund manager probably is. That said, if this hedgefund manager had some good points to make about Marx, I would take those gratefully, but also mark that he is a hypocrite.

I took your argument to be, again: Zizek is a hypocrite, so until he has either something more constructive to say or cures his hypocrisy, we should ignore him for the time being. If so, I don’t agree.

By on 11/27/07 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael,

I think that he is both committed to what he says, and realizes that he himself belongs to and profits from the same smug, complacent academic left establishment that he finds distasteful. After all, he’s fond of saying that he hates people, and that probably is meant to include himself.

In my view, there are books Zizek has written that are so good that they don’t need to be read through this ironic, almost Wildean lens. When you read something like The Sublime Object of Ideology, which begins with a scathing assault on irony as a form of false knowledge, you have the sense that Zizek really has lifted himself above the rest, in order to see clearly what obstacles stand in the way of emancipation.

I have no problem with what is charming, but in response I have to ask—what is really charming about a man fuming about the Left and crushing on Hugo Chavez? It certainly does not compare with the relentless wit and incorrigible love of beauty that illuminate Wilde’s texts, and forced him to take such an indirect, subtle approach to politics. I am not after the mere rumbling sound of political profundity.

My argument is not based on a critique of Zizek’s hypocrisy, though I think that is one unfortunate quality of his writing. I don’t have much patience with conservatives who love to complain that leftists have expensive shoes, or etc. Instead, my major problem with Zizek is that he defines political efficacy in a very limited way—the formation and military campaign of a revolutionary “vanguard”—and uses this puny vision as the pivot for a distortive series of attacks on the Left and a vague set of calls to action.

We tend to see a plumber as someone who has had no choice about their profession, as compared to a hedge fund manager who has. This badly distorts the contingent experiences that lead people to land a particular job; we can’t assume that anyone with a privileged background will have the knowledge, talents, or connections to enter a job we consider suitably revolutionary. The idea of attacking the intelligentsia or some other privileged class is, I think, an outgrowth of the distorted notion of freedom that associates freedom with vocational choice (e.g. the “American Dream"). Ideology and structurally determined oppression are the sources of political problems, not an individual’s choice of living or the personal moral failings of hypocrisy or inconsistent behavior. A plumber really does keep the system going, like a factory worker or a CEO, though each of the three benefit from it to a different extent.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/27/07 at 06:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think there are separable strains of contention in your piece, all of which, taken together, should engender the sort of feeling for Zizek evoked in your headline.  (A brief note on headlines: in many of the publications you mention, someone else writes the headlines.  At most, I think we should remain agnostic about whether Zizek is writing these headlines.)

1.  Zizek contradicts himself.

The problem with this line of argument is that Zizek admits he changes his own argument from time to time.  He sees the role of the philosopher as a systematic provocateur or prodder, a shifter of final vocabularies (to borrow from Rorty).  This—the role of the philosopher—isn’t something I’m particularly interested in debating here.

2.  Zizek contradicts himself within this piece in particular.

I’ve already stated here that I don’t believe he contradicts himself within this piece.  Mark the difference b/w duplicity and hypocrisy, double-talk and ellipsis.

I think the proper complaint is that Zizek is stringing us along in order to sell books.  But I don’t think you really touch on that here.  Take, for instance, the paragraph you quoted:

“The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfill. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.”

Here I agree with Zizek.  But I don’t think it’s too difficult a wager.  The real question, the point that succeeds in your article, is what does this mean in practice?  In the so-called real world?  What sort of demands do we make?  Of course, Zizek builds a house of cards by writing in this way.  By definition, “strategically well-selected, precise finite demands” are different for every nation-state.  (This is not to even touch upon Zizek’s weird relation to the notion of state.)

Zizek’s real mistake is that he has caught himself up in a whirlwind of modernity.  Now he has to decide whether he will sermonize in text or on video.  (The Dark Populist Zizek was born with video.) Cultural Theory or Materialist Theology?  He can’t really build a whole system b/c it isn’t philosophy’s job.  But he can’t switch to campaign-style (as opposed to movement-style) theorizing b/c doing so will jeopardize his newly-found fame.  It’s okay to toss around Mao or Lenin, they’re dead.  But Chavez?

As a reader, though, it is disconcerting to see this writer throw around terms like “hypocrite” and “embarrassment,” when what we really want from Zizek is what we want from every thinker on the left: a bit of clarity and campaign-oriented advice.

By on 11/28/07 at 07:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"what we really want from Zizek is what we want from every thinker on the left: a bit of clarity and campaign-oriented advice.”

I don’t know who “we” really refers to, but my reaction is emphatically negative.  Why should we want campaign-oriented advice when we aren’t working in politics, from someone who doesn’t work in politics?  And the valuation of “clarity” as a principle unconnected to anything reminds me of the former business fad for management: the good manager could manage anything, so once a company decided it had good management it should just buy its way into any unconnected field, and it would manage those into success as well.

What I want from thinkers on the left who are not really political thinkers—i.e. philosophers such as Zizek—is not campaign-oriented advice.  Rather, someone needs to do the hard work of re-justifying the left without dependence on Marx.  You can’t even talk about the left as an entity any more, really, because there is no consensus in the left as to what its basics are.

In some sense, Zizek seems to be groping around in that area—he’s certainly concerned with the question of what the left should do, and how it should traverse this current bad era for it.  The problem is that he’s bad at it.  People are simply not ready to re-justify the left as absurdity, not should they be.

By on 11/28/07 at 12:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I mean campaign in the sense that Rorty uses it in this article:

http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=824

“The turn away from movements to campaigns that I am suggesting is, in philosophical terms, a turn away from Kant, Hegel, and Marx and toward Bacon, Hume, and Mill— considered not as empiricists but as protopragmatists. It is a turn away from the transcendental question, “What are the conditions of possibility of this historical moment?” to the pragmatic question, “What are the causal conditions of replacing this present actuality with a better future actuality?” the intellectuals of our century have been distracted from campaigns by the need to “put events in perspective,” and by the urge to organize movements around something out of sight, something located at the impossibly distant end of this perspective. But this has made the best the enemy of the better. A lot of intellectual and spiritual energy has been wasted defining movements, energy that could have been better spent prosecuting campaigns.”

By on 11/28/07 at 08:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I understood the use of the word campaign accurately, then.  From the article:

“By a campaign, I mean something finite, something that can be recognized to have succeeded or to have, so far, failed. Movements, by contrast, neither succeed nor fail. They are too big and too amorphous to do anything that simple. They share in what Kierkegaard called “the passion of the infinite.” They are exemplified by Christianity, nihilism, and Marxism.”

Again, I don’t know who the “we” of your prior comment is supposed to be.  But academics do not work on campaigns.  Of course they may more or less as a hobby, or they may have a sort of double job, but academics qua academics do not.  And there is no particular reason to think that they have useful advice for those who do, beyond the arrogance of someone who thinks that intellectual study of an activity from outside makes one capable of doing it—as if, say, someone who studies poetry can therefore write a poem.

What academic intellectuals can work on is, however, “movements” (in the sense of the word described above).  They may think that campaigns are more important, but that doesn’t make them personally capable of doing that work.  Joseph is right about the contingent experiences that lead people to particular jobs.  So much of academic leftism involves this sterile hunger for people to be what they are not.  So you get people fantasizing about being street fighters, or political campaigners, or vanguard party activists: anything but the type of task that they are actually good at doing.

The problem with campaigns, at this historical moment, is that they are campaigns for—what?  Sure, each one has its own goal.  But those goals do not add up to a left.  Before one can consider “the pragmatic question, ‘What are the causal conditions of replacing this present actuality with a better future actuality?’”, one has to agree on what “better” means.

Personally, I don’t trust Zizek or anyone who really seems to agree with him to agree with me about what “better” means.  I see them immersed in tired rhetoric about the need for a revolutionary break.  Towards what?  Well, it seems to involve some necessary violence and the idea that it’s better to take a risk of making things worse than go on under world capitalism.  That’s an excessively stupid idea, last seen on a large scale when the Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq as necessary violence because after all anything would be better than Saddam.  It’s an idea for adolescents. 

But even more fundamentally, I have no idea what “the left” really even wants any more.  Does anyone really still believe in classic Marxist theories of labor value?  But without that, I don’t see why you don’t end up as, at most, a social democrat—not “the left” according to the kind of people who read Zizek.

By on 11/29/07 at 01:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A weird sort of fatalism is embedded in the notion of the academic left you present.

“But academics do not work on campaigns.  Of course they may more or less as a hobby, or they may have a sort of double job, but academics qua academics do not.”

It is this sort of categorical demand, that you relegate all leftist academics to the workshop of aloof model-builders, which stunts possibilities for a new academic left, a new (pragmatic) left in general.  On the contrary, some of the best organizers (librarians, information technologists), teachers, promoters, come from the academy, or could.

The problem is structural, not theoretical.  Most people know what they need; they just don’t know how to get it, or how to demand it. They don’t have the relevant vocabulary. With very few exceptions (Ranciere?), the left isn’t giving voice to the voiceless.

Zizek is useful only insofar as he contributes a new vocabulary, a new way of asking for what one needs.  He is lately more obsessed with how things are (truth, ontology) than how things could be (social hope).

I guess I’m wondering how “the parallax view"--this ontological shape-shifting--will allow me to overcome the gaps between Zizek’s theory, the ugly faces he makes at leftists, and political action. 

And to answer your question: by “we” I mean those of us who know what we need, but may not know how to go about getting it. 

A campaign, then, is exactly the kind of “finite demand” that Zizek needs to establish.

By on 11/29/07 at 03:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I see them immersed in tired rhetoric about the need for a revolutionary break.  Towards what?  Well, it seems to involve some necessary violence and the idea that it’s better to take a risk of making things worse than go on under world capitalism.  That’s an excessively stupid idea, last seen on a large scale when the Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq as necessary violence because after all anything would be better than Saddam.  It’s an idea for adolescents.

YES.

By Bill Benzon on 11/29/07 at 06:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wait, you really think that the Bush administration was making a choice between unmitigated “world” capitalism and the invasion of Iraq?  Isn’t it fairly clear now?  They thought the two intertwined.  Maybe they relied too much on an outdated concept of the state--

http://www.signandsight.com/features/1603.html.

But the intention to buffer themselves in the schema of global capital was there.

By on 11/29/07 at 12:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What?

By on 11/29/07 at 06:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not sure where my last reply went, but (I thought clearly) I wasn’t writing that the Bush administration was opposed to world capitalism.  I was writing that they used the same form of argument, the “it’s bad now, so we have to do something dramatic even though we have no idea what we’re doing” argument.

By on 11/29/07 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It looks like my reply to dicerstabber’s second-to-last comment isn’t going to turn up, but briefly: of course I’m not making a categorical demand that academics don’t work in politics, I’m making a descriptive statement (in the sense that most people are only good at things that they speed a lot of time practising) and a pragmatic statement (in that while some academics may be good at politics, most aren’t, so why tell them they should be?).  If you decide that you’re one of the rare ones who is good at it, go ahead.

This kind of thing comes up often, where someone will be going on about global warming (for instance) and I’ll tell them not to bother doing various symbolic things that only make them feel better, and they’ll ask what they should do then.  Well, if they really thought it was as world-destroyingly important as they say they do, they could quit their academic job and work on the issue full-time.  I can imagine a number of perfectly good responses to that, saying no way, but really, if they aren’t willing to fully commit themselves, why should people who have done so listen to their campaign as opposed to their movement advice?  Because it’s good?  But it isn’t.  In the meantime, there are various ordinary things they can do, such as realizing that if we have a decade to make changes, then this really is the critical time to focus on affecting the political process.

Lastly I still have no real idea of what is meant by “by ‘we’ I mean those of us who know what we need, but may not know how to go about getting it.” This can’t just be a group of all people who assert that they know what they need; that would include the right-wing businessman who knows that he needs a capital gains tax cut.  “Knowing what you need” must have some discerneable content around “what you need”.  If that’s an assertion that each individual knows what they need, then I suppose it could a sort of non-programmatic anarchist statement.  But I don’t get the feeling that it is.  Does this group of people who know what they need correspond to any real-world political entity?  Or does it mean “people who agree with what dicerstabber thinks that people need”?

By on 11/30/07 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry for the delay.  Though, honestly, I don’t see it in your post, I will accept for the moment that you meant to distinguish b/w the (diametrically opposed) positions of Zizek and the Bush Admin on the subject of global capital, though I think, in doing so, there are all sorts of complicated contingencies to the point you are trying to make.  It’s sort of a cartoonish juxtaposition, one that Zizek has already (successfully) disentangled.  Not only has Zizek, unlike many members of the American left (if such a thing exists), vigorously and intelligently (since the beginning) picked apart the administration’s case for war (Lacanian critique of Rumsfeld’s Known-Knowns), he has also repeatedly argued not for necessary violence b/w nation-states, but within a nation state.  One of his favorite examples is John Brown, the abolitionist.  The case of John Brown is complicated, controversial, and I won’t argue it here.  In the least, though, I think your comparison of Zizek to the Bush Administration highlights exactly the sort of “adolescent” posturing you accuse of Zizek—though I wouldn’t have couched it in such language to begin with.  It also shows that you haven’t read the Zizek Presents essays, like some others here who accuse Zizek of duplicity, or even hypocrisy.

I think your “descriptive” statement about members of the academy amounts, in practice, to a prescriptive demand that they stay indoors with their theories.  Nothing could be more harmful to the health of the left.  What we really need from the academic left is groundwork: teaching, organizing, using expertise in difficult but relevant subjects (economics, politics) to communicate useful ideas.

The notion of “we” I mean to present is simply the notion of solidarity, of “we-intentions” (Sellars).  “We all want…” The goal of the left should be to aggregate, connect, to the best of its ability, these we-intentional communities, while maintaining that it is like-minded interest that keeps them together in the first place.  It’s the finite demand, as Zizek suggests (but doesn’t delineate), that constitutes a worthwhile political community to begin with.  We need the academic left to use its resources (university libraries, for example) to organize and mobilize these communities.

You seem to believe that the left has no “discernible content” at the present moment.  I see the opposite.  The discernible content of the left is the interests of its members.  As I said before, the problem is structural, organizational.

By on 11/30/07 at 01:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me, if you will, to interject a rude comment. As far as I can tell from the various Zizek discussions here at the Valve, Z is operating in an intellectual tradition I turned my back on some 30 plus years ago. That move was as much a matter of stylistic preference as of explicit (and thus arguable) intellectual conviction. But nothing I’ve read here and there about this Zizek – and the fragment or two of Zizek I’ve actually read (on the web) – has given me any reason to regard this man as a serious thinker of the 21st century. Rather, I see him as playing one of the the great 20th century games, which is to make sense of the late 19th century.

No way to win at that.

You just have to turn you back, and walk away, clean. No argument, no mess. Just walk away. It’s over. Let it be.

Otherwise, you’re just going to be embarrassed time after time after time after friggin’ time.

By Bill Benzon on 11/30/07 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

dicerstabber, there’s always special pleading around some Zizek book that detractors must read before they can judge what they have read; I have yet to see a thread about him in which one of his defenders doesn’t try this shuffle.  Of course every advocate of necessary violence thinks that their necessary violence is justified; of course they think that it is different than that advocating by others because of some factor.  But Zizek transparently doesn’t know what he’s working towards or how to get there.  If you can’t see the similarity to the Bush adminstration there, perhaps you need to read less Zizek, not more.

As for the rest, I think you’re going in circles.  All right, so ‘we’ now is the notion of solidarity.  Solidarity with whom?  It used to have a specific meaning within Marxism: solidarity with the proletariat.  But as a reader of Zizek uses it, it’s nothing but air.  I suggest that it means something equivalent to “no enemies to the left”, and that’s a sucker’s game.

By on 11/30/07 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I’m beginning to see your point…

By on 12/01/07 at 01:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I normally don’t particularly like Matthew Yglesias’ writing—too smug and centrist—but sometimes he writes something good.  Try this:

“Meanwhile, both whatever degree of climate change can’t be prevented and whatever prevention measures we adopt will all have different kinds of costs and benefits. Different policies will allocate these costs to different people. The mechanism by which we decide what to do is called “politics” and it exists so that individuals and organizations with somewhat divergent interests and ideas can make collective decisions about how to tackle common problems. The rhetoric of anti-politics isn’t just an analytic mistake, it’s part of the problem.”

dicerstabber’s fuzzy ‘we’ is just another approach to Broderism from a pseudo-radical direction.  I would guess that dicerstabber would deny that he or she has a rhetoric of anti-politics, but “maintaining that it is like-minded interest that keeps [we-intentional communities] together in the first place” and then writing about the left aggregating them—well, what happens when the interests of these communities clash?  Because they often do. 

dicerstabber writes that “The discernible content of the left is the interests of its members.” Which is nonsense, unfortunately.  An upper-middle-class white male gay activist who is “left” by virtue of being gay has interests that mostly align with the right.  A union organizer in Detroit has interests that, when push comes to shove, mostly align with those of the auto industry.  A number of environmentalists in, say, the Sierra Club, apparently believe that their interest corresponds to nativist interests.  The leftists in academia mostly have interests in preservation of status perqs for certain professionals.

It’s not something that can be waved away as a structural, organizational problem.  At base it’s a problem of ideology, preferably ideology based on something that actually works economically and politically, unlike Marxist ideas.

By on 12/01/07 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey there, Rich.  You’re right in thinking that I don’t consider my view part of any subset of anti-politics.  (Ironically, I believe your position is essentially anti-political (anti-pragmatic) in its reliance upon theoretical foundations.) Our disagreement stems from differing ideas about the value of foundations—I consider myself something of an anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist, in the vein of Richard Rorty.  Many of your posts suggest that you place yourself squarely in the opposite camp.  Evidence: the static categorization of what it means to be academic; the desire for Zizek to work towards a fixed model, when he has stated that the function of the philosopher is instead to prod, to question, to raze foundations (I think he contradicts his method with his new interest in “material theology”); the messianic hope that a new left will crystallize around a substitute for Marxism…

I don’t really have the time to articulate this point of view here, and I think Richard Rorty has done a much better job anyway.  Besides, I won’t pretend to have moved beyond him in any meaningful way.  Anyway, no one here has really expressed interest in watching our debate play-out, with the exception of your alter-ego, Walt.

You have more or less admitted a basic unfamiliarity with Zizek’s recent essays on necessary violence, this fact alone makes debating (with you) his view of warranted violence a waste of time.  Zizek is a slippery writer, and his view of short-circuitry in philosophy entails that he will sometimes employ his most important arguments in seemingly “minor” texts—this approach does not exempt him from presenting a coherent argument about necessary violence, here agreed with Kugelmass.  If you will read the posts carefully, I never advocated necessary violence; in fact, under the immediate circumstance in the U.S., I advocate a reform-based approach.  Part of this approach includes uniting communities based on how common solutions (market-regulation) can solve disparate problems.

If one community cannot sympathize with the interest of another, there will be no solidarity.  Both American political parties are struggling with this at the present moment.  The Yankees-Redsox approach to political parties is failing.  American conservatives had minimal success building a community, not around common-interest, but around a theory-language of fear and “security,” a basic vocabulary of insularity and xenophobia.  Everyday people could pick-up this vocabulary easily (and vote against their interest), but Conservatives soon realized “themselves” to be as fractured and fragmentary as the “left”—as quickly as the Theory of Security crumbled.  Instead of spending time constructing/debating the “conscience of the liberal,” the left in America should recognize that it is only the “left” insofar as it agrees, sympathizes enough with its subgroups or we-communities to campaign for the same solutions. Only then will a language develop naturally from contingent, sympathetic communities.

I’ll give you the last word, and in doing so, I will ask you to explain how individuals with the widely disparate needs you outlined will come together to adopt a substitute for Marx…and explain to me how, given the political approach I just (pathetically, partially) relayed, any of the types you mentioned are “Leftist” in any meaningful way.  Nothing about being gay makes you left-leaning, nothing about supporting the auto-industry makes you a leftist…the problem is in the contention.  Take care.

By on 12/01/07 at 10:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dicerstabber, Rich, et al. --

I have been following this discussion with the greatest interest. For personal reasons, I have not been able to spend time blogging over the past few days. I look forward to writing a full response as soon as possible.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/02/07 at 06:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

dicerstabber: “I will ask you to explain how individuals with the widely disparate needs you outlined will come together to adopt a substitute for Marx…and explain to me how, given the political approach I just (pathetically, partially) relayed, any of the types you mentioned are “Leftist” in any meaningful way.”

Second question first: I won’t try to show how they are leftist according to your approach, but—and here I have to say “of course”, even though I know it’s a rhetorical flourish, because I don’t know how else to indicate the required emphasis—of course they are leftist.  They are the left.  Without their existence, the left would not exist, at least not in the U.S.  And of course the subgroups sympathize with each other, have to some extent a language develop from contingent, sympathetic communites, cooperate within the two-party structure that is mathematically forced on everyone by the structure of U.S. electoral law, etc.  So much is observational truth.  What I’m disputing are your ideas on how the situation could develop from here.

My interest in seeing theoreticians usefully theorize is not a “messianic hope that a new left will crystallize around a substitute for Marxism.” It’s simply the most useful thing that I think they could be working on, if they want to devote their effects to the left; since I obviously have no dctatorial powers they are free to disagree.  I’m certainly not waiting in messianic hope; I’ve worked full-time in campaign through not electoral politics since 1991.  This has mostly been as a technical person (I, too, am using the skills I’m best at) but I’ve had my share of meetings where, say, environmentalists and unions try to hash out cooperation based on mutual commitment to “leftism”, and in my experience “sympathizing with the interest of the other” is the exact wrong way to start.  Enough discussion of interests only leads to the conclusion that while cooperation on some matters is possible, at some fundamental level, your interests are opposed.

It’s possible that they could not be.  For instance, the environmentalist has an interest in replacing the whole infrastructure of automobilism as currently constituted because of global climate change.  Fine, replace the cars with electric cars (or something) and the unionized workers could still build those.  (I won’t bother going into sprawl issues or anything like that.) But that solution presupposes at least a sort of social-democratic left that is willing to do industrial policy; otherwise, the workers are trading a guaranteed set of jobs (at least in the short term) for what is a very uncertain chance at long-term survival.  These kinds of mergings of interest are best done within an overarching left that has the power to actually make them possible.  I don’t see this power developing without ideology that ordinary people can understand and identify with, if only the same minimal form that American conservatives used.

Now, the first question: how will “individuals with the widely disparate needs you outlined will come together to adopt a substitute for Marx”?  Well, how did they in the actual case of Marx?  I don’t believe that the Marxist idea of a class interest was actually “true” in some absolute sense.  On the contrary, almost everything that Marx wrote about has turned out to be, in terms of reality, false.  But Marx provided a convenient framework for people with actually disparate needs to come together through.  I see nothing to suggest that it couldn’t be done again.  Zizek, insofar as I understand him, wants people to be always prepared to be somehow emulating Lenin; why not Marx instead?  Because that’s not as romantic?

And of course, this time whatever ideology comes up is going to have to incorporate a lot more of whatever current leftists disparage as liberal, in the sense of human rights, environmental limits, ways in which politics can be restrained so that a single group doesn’t take power, avoidance of a dictatorial state, and so on.  The last worldwide left imploded because it didn’t work, for reasons which should have been familiar to people at the time.  Anyone who starts by defending the nostalgia of the old is going in the wrong direction.

Finally, I once again have to note certain tics that Zizek seems to somehow encourage.  My “alter-ego Walt” is not my alter-ego, and it’s stupid to suggest that he is.  And once again, this post is about some public writings of Zizek that were intended for a public audience—not one that is going to be diving into minor texts to track down whatever Zizek meant.  If his boyish crush of the machismo of violence through an unreal depiction of Chavez left people with the wrong impression, than that’s Zizek’s problem.

By on 12/02/07 at 12:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If i might interject on the matter of disparate “groups” on the left:
Firstly, Zizek is quite clear that the opposition to capitalism will fall if it is based completely on the individual desires of each sub-group competing against capitalism (one of his major disagreements with Hardt and Negri).
Let’s take the matter of the upper-class white gay male.  An attempt to build the movement on the difference of gays versus the bourgeois family norms will fail in gaining solidarity because much of the oppression certain parts of a group feels will be ameliorated by appeals to capitalism.  The rich gay man is protected from some degrees of hatred and un-acceptance by virtue of having money, becoming an adjunct member of the bourgeoisie (or, if he’s certain to hide his feelings, the rulers). 
the same has happened for blackfolk (cosby vs. dyson): upper-class “empowered” minorities lose their relationship to the majority of the oppressed within their group. 

That’s why such an appeal doesn’t work, but remember, liberal democracy isn’t the only way to gain protection from discrimination.  In fact, it’s one of the least effective systems, since each group is competing against each similar group for recognition, and those rights are usually granted with specific denials to other groups (the recent passage of the work-discrimination guarantees for orientation but not for gender-queers). 

In Marx, however, we find at least one way of uniting disparate subalterns: gays are also workers, blacks are also workers, etc.  There must certainly be another way (something less materialist--presently, no marxist tradition allows for the cultural/spiritual beliefs of subalterns such as aborigines, first nations, etc.,_) maybe building on Marx, maybe not. 

This, though, is where Chavez does start to look rather good.  Complete religious freedom for indigenous groups (as well as the very antagonistic Catholic church), anti-discimination laws concerning gays (part of the referendum being voted on today), along with further community organisations and the right of any group, irrespective of geographical distance, to create a communal organisation and own/use land. 

*Just a quick note on the knee-jerk response about term limits--parlimentary democracies have no such limits (blair could have been prime minister until death, just as john howard could have, and in those systems you don’t even vote directly for your head of state, you vote for their party).  Besides, term limits were brought in to the united states to stop FDR from turning this country into a social democracy. 

Zizek’s point about “emulating” Lenin (he actually uses the term “repeating") is there for a reason.  It was Lenin who enacted Marx’s policies at a time when there was no huge, consolidated, unified marxist party.  So, in a way, Chavez can be said to be repeating Lenin, repeating Lenin’s implementation of revolutionary policies for revolutionaries who have no immediate political power and no access to it.  Chavez is repeating Lenin the right way, without jailing or executing dissidents (the planners of the 2004 coup are still free citizens in venezeula!), while also implementing a system assuring money no longer votes. 

probably, chavez wouldn’t work in the US, but another way of “repeating lenin” certainly might, another revolutionary break. 

but in america, it might be bloody.  not so much that a bunch of crazed queers and native americans would go around slaughtering right-wingers (maybe we’ve been reading to much Orson Scott Card) but that massive armed resistance to a revolutionary break would be inevitable from business interests (american vigilantism has a long history, and now we have Blackwater).

By on 12/02/07 at 05:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t let Rich fool you.  I am his alter ego.  Whenever he’s sleeping, I inhabit his body and use it to comment on the internet.  I have to keep my comments short so that he doesn’t wake up.

You are providing the best evidence for Rich’s thesis, dicestabber.  Academics, by their nature, are interested in abstract frameworks and generalization.  In the course of your comments, you accuse Rich of rejecting Zizek’s analysis of the relationship between the Bush administration and global capitalism, then you tell us that we need to understand what Zizek has to say about John Brown, and then finally, we need to read a lot more Zizek before you will argue with us.  Clearly you think the next step for the Left is for everyone to become Zizek experts.

There is a voluminous economic literature on global capitalism, both theoretical and empirical.  (Krugman is a prominent figure here.) Would you allow me to stipulate that you had to read this literature before you could argue your case on global capitalism?  Of course not.  The idea is absurd.  If you feel that the Left needs to do something, you have to make an actual affirmative case, not just assign us a bunch of homework.

By on 12/02/07 at 05:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been avoiding writing anything really about Chavez (as opposed to the cartoon Chavez) in this thread, since I don’t know enough about him.  But Lenin was, of course, a failure.  The idea of repeating Lenin strikes me as being equivalent to the idea of the WW I generals who thought that one more charge across the barbed wire into the machine guns would be sure to work this time.

Perhaps if Zizek showed any awareness of the ways in which Lenin was wrong from the start, he could hold out his ahistorical Lenin as some sort of model.  But he doesn’t.  As far as I can tell, Zizek is attracted to all the parts of a myth of Chavez that he can fit into Leninesque stupidity—c.f. the “ruthless” grab of power, “militarising the barrios”, “consolidat[ing] the 24 parties that support him into a single party.” I’m not claiming that Chavez is actually doing these things, but the fact that Zizek applauds someone who would do them indicates that Zizek has learned precisely nothing.  Because of course the people who were saying that Russia wasn’t ready for communism turned out to be right, and Lenin’s great authoritarian gamble is not something anyone really wants to repeat.

Not that anyone is really worried about readers of Zizek doing any as strenuous as repeating Lenin.  On the contrary, it’s the very impossibility of this Zizekian demand that makes it safe.  If you tell a leftist economist or political scientist that they’d better try to emulate Marx, that’s scary.  If you tell them to “repeat” Lenin, then of course you’re not asking them to actually do anything.

By on 12/02/07 at 06:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Walt: LOL!

Maybe Zizek could prepare a pop quiz and administer it on the internet. Only those who pass can identify with “the Left.”

By Bill Benzon on 12/02/07 at 08:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The difference, i sense, in the discussion here is whether one is demanding Zizek give us all the answers and then criticising him for not delivering; or seeing him as what he proposes himself to be: a philosopher/psycho-analyst examining and short-circuiting the hegemonic thought-machinery which keeps the left as actual supporters and sustainers of capitalism. 

Also--why the statement (made earlier, and several times) that the left needs to find some way out of marx?  or that no one believes in labor value?  isn’t this a little like Fukuyama’s “end of history” declaration?  certainly, rich, you’re convinced that marx is useless and that we’ve all moved on (or should), and that “actual people die whenever the progressives don’t “save capitalism”.” The likely Zizek retort to that would be to say “actual people keep dying” because progressives continue to save capitalism.  Capitalism continues to survive to keep killing, and the “progressive left” wants to make it sustainable? 

What, by the way, do you mean by “the readers of Zizek?”

By on 12/02/07 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

sorry.  if you’re going to critique Zizek as an embarrassment, or a failure, or even as someone who is wrong, it seems only fair that you be expected to at least be a little more familiar with his work? 

Not, of course, that you need to be well-versed, but i don’t think dicerstabber is being at all un-reasonable.  the general topic of discussion, if i’m unmistaken, is about Zizek, afterall?

By on 12/02/07 at 09:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You are mistaken.  We are discussing the future discussion of the Left, and if Zizek’s popular pronouncements offer any guide.

By on 12/03/07 at 12:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here are some thoughts on the recently renewed conversation about Zizek. To begin with, thanks to Rich for laying out well how naïve and unrealistic it is to expect that the academy will achieve immediate effectiveness of any kind in politics, rather than doing the slow work of education and scholarship. Thanks to Walt for being hilarious and salient in his remarks.

Dicerstabber writes:
The problem with [your] line of argument is that Zizek admits he changes his own argument from time to time.  He sees the role of the philosopher as a systematic provocateur or prodder, a shifter of final vocabularies (to borrow from Rorty).  This—the role of the philosopher—isn’t something I’m particularly interested in debating here.

Zizek cannot be explained or justified by Rorty. As with other attempts to put the article in a more flattering light, this does more than explain what Zizek is doing—it replaces what he is doing with something else by falsely equating Marxist/Lacanian analysis with American pragmatism.

The definition of the philosopher that you’ve provided here is a paraphrase of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. But in the early dialogues, where Socrates really assumes the role of provocateur—as opposed to dialogues like the Republic, which are programmatic—he is interrogatory rather than polemical. There is no destination, no steps “we must” take.

I think the proper complaint is that Zizek is stringing us along in order to sell books.  But I don’t think you really touch on that here.

Let’s not quarrel over how to formulate the proper complaint. If you think Zizek is doing all this just to maintain his image and earn royalties, that’s reason enough to be embarrassed by him.

Rich: What I want from thinkers on the left who are not really political thinkers—i.e. philosophers such as Zizek—is not campaign-oriented advice.  Rather, someone needs to do the hard work of re-justifying the left without dependence on Marx.

I don’t know what the final relationship of liberatory movements will be to the writings of Karl Marx, but I do think that the work of re-vitalizing the American Left will be done by people with practical political experience. It is incredible to me that certain academics continue to assert their own importance to the coming revolution when, in truth, they would be horribly offended if a lifelong political organizer announced that she was ready to adjudicate the ongoing debates about text, signification, and meaning within English departments.

Dicerstabber, quoting Rorty: A lot of intellectual and spiritual energy has been wasted defining movements, energy that could have been better spent prosecuting campaigns.

These philosophers! All they do is talk! This critique of spending time “defining movements” comes from a man who spent much of his life arguing for flexible, expansive “vocabularies.” Once again, we have the ridiculous spectacle of a philosopher acting as though the tiny population of philosophers outweighs the enormous number of people who do spend some or all of their time working for specific, concrete political changes, and accept many practical limitations on their efficacy and scope.

Zizek is useful only insofar as he contributes a new vocabulary, a new way of asking for what one needs.  He is lately more obsessed with how things are (truth, ontology) than how things could be (social hope).

And yet Zizek is not using a new vocabulary; he is using the vocabularies of Jacques Lacan, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, G. W. F. Hegel, and so on.

It is this sort of categorical demand, that you relegate all leftist academics to the workshop of aloof model-builders, which stunts possibilities for a new academic left, a new (pragmatic) left in general.  On the contrary, some of the best organizers (librarians, information technologists), teachers, promoters, come from the academy, or could.

I think we are stumbling here over the difference between people who organize information, including librarians, and people who organize other people. Politicians employ scholars, and scholars analyze political decisions, but they are not the same animal. A strong background in the humanities requires an enormous amount of independent research and writing, often done in solitude, with a keenly critical and uncompromising attitude towards other work in one’s field. That is certainly not training in achieving solidarity.

Not only has Zizek, unlike many members of the American left (if such a thing exists), vigorously and intelligently (since the beginning) picked apart the administration’s case for war (Lacanian critique of Rumsfeld’s Known-Knowns), he has also repeatedly argued not for necessary violence b/w nation-states, but within a nation state.

I don’t think Bush wanted to create a revolutionary break with established tradition, and I don’t think Zizek is an imperialist. That said, they do have in common a respect for the machismo of war. Furthermore, a Lacanian critique of the instigation of war against Iraq is unnecessary. You don’t need a psychoanalytic theory of knowledge to argue that the Administration lied about weapons of mass destruction; as for predicting the progress and consequences of the war, a decent knowledge of the history of post-WWII American foreign policy and its outcomes would suffice. Zizek deserves no credit for translating blatant and tragic facts into the jargon of psychoanalysis.

I consider myself something of an anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist, in the vein of Richard Rorty.  Many of your posts suggest that you place yourself squarely in the opposite camp.  Evidence: the static categorization of what it means to be academic...

Anti-foundationalism doesn’t mean denying the realities of practice. As a matter of practice, academics do not have the training or the time to disproportionately influence political decisions, except in cases where the political decision directly overlaps with their research interests. It is not oppressive to suggest that you cannot organize a new, radical political party while teaching a seminar on Nabokov or Spinoza. Richard Rorty’s fondness for doing things like predicting imminent nuclear terrorism are, as with Zizek, embarrassments compared to his lifelong dialogues with writers like Martin Heidegger and David Hume. It was Zizek’s own beloved Hegel who wrote bitterly about the moments when Plato would descend from philosophical investigation in order to give “philosophical” advice on how to properly nurse babies.

Rhyd,

You giveth and you taketh away. You suggest that Marx is the solution to the otherwise insoluble problem of “gays” and “blacks,” but then you worry about how to respect the otherness of indigenous culture. What are we supposed to do here? Give ourselves credit for the right kind of anxious frowning?

Bill,

It’s Zizek’s world. We just live in it.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/03/07 at 02:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps, Joseph, perhaps. But 20 years after his last publication Zizek will be forgotten, but Marx and Freud will remain historic icons of Western thought.

By Bill Benzon on 12/03/07 at 06:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: “It is not oppressive to suggest that you cannot organize a new, radical political party while teaching a seminar on Nabokov or Spinoza.”

I had put this a little less tactfully in a comment that went missing—again, if Lenin is your model, then he didn’t hang around academia making a living, he was a full-time revolutionary.  You couldn’t imagine him saying “The government is tottering.  We must deal it the death blow at any cost!  But first, I have to teach a seminar on Turgenev.”

Which is not to say that I think that academics should give up their work and become revolutionaries.  (Lenin, like most politicians, started as a lawyer, and academic work seems to me to be as useful as any other.) But a good deal of Zizek’s supposedly subtle prodding appears to me as being little different than a teenager going to other teenagers and saying “You think you’re tough?  If you were tough, you’d join the (revolutionary) army!” The fact that readers of Zizek never do metaphorically join, yet like to listen to him, indicates that his appeal may be that of a sort of dominance/submission relationship writ large; he implicitly tells them that they are worthless scum, and they secretly exult in their abasement as they write e.g. that they see him as a “philosopher/psycho-analyst examining and short-circuiting the hegemonic thought-machinery which keeps the left as actual supporters and sustainers of capitalism”.

Joseph: “they would be horribly offended if a lifelong political organizer announced that she was ready to adjudicate the ongoing debates about text, signification, and meaning within English departments.”

On the whole, this is perfectly right, and illustrates the way in which people don’t consider political work to be work.  I would guess that most leftists would support the Hollywood strike against the right-wing contention that writing isn’t work.  But as soon as you turn to political activity, it’s the return of volunteerism.  Of course there is an ideal, which I support, that some level of political activity should be universal, just as I think that ideally everyone should write periodically; that doesn’t mean that I think that everyone is an equally good writer.

There are some interesting side cases, though.  I recently argued, against Bill Benzon, that tenure should be kept as is.  Bill replied that since I wasn’t an academic—well, not really an academic, since he isn’t one either, but a research intellectual, or something—then why should I think that I know what they need for their work.  I replied that I had a political interest in society as a whole, and that the reason I was arguing against changing tenure in the U.S. was because we needed as many societal institutions to remain as stable as possible, and un"reform"ed, until the Bush administration or anything like it was safely over.

Similarly, if a political organizer was hanging a political strategy on a matter of textual signification—let’s say, depending on civil liberties to be preserved by the original meaning of the Constitution—I don’t think it’s wrong for an English professor to tell them that texts can be read all sorts of ways and that they are basing their strategy on straw.

By on 12/03/07 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rhyd, to answer your comment briefly, the first two paragraphs of it are two neatly parallel false dichotomies.  The alternatives are not exhausted by either demanding all the answers from Zizek or by seeing him as philosopher-king’s-jester; one might also ask him and people like him to do useful intellectual work.  Similarly, the only two alternatives for the future are not Marx vs. the capitalist end of history.

“What, by the way, do you mean by “the readers of Zizek?””

Some people seemed to dislike being called Zizekians, so I adopted that term.  It encapsulates their attitude towards him, which is to assume that all discrepancies can be resolved by tracking down a minor enough text, that those who have read less Zizek may not dispute over a text of his with those who have read more.

By on 12/03/07 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A much longer, more involved post to come.  But let me just briefly interject that I never said or believed several of the things some of you have attributed to me.  My stance on Zizek is not “Zizekian"--I would qualify it as “adult"--as it only entails that, if you are going to argue about him, you actually read the texts where he makes his argument.  Nor did I ever suggest that reading Zizek would help a politically active person beyond giving her new vocabularies (this can mean new ways of using Lenin, Lacan, Kant, Hegel, if not new terminology).  And I certainly never suggested that academic writing is inherently anti-pragmatic.  I did say that I find Zizek’s flirtations with material theology a waste of time--and in doing so I am criticizing this tradition the same way that Rorty celebrates Derrida, Heidegger (up to a point), Dewey, and others, in their critique of the Platonic tradition.

Kugelmass, I think Zizek can be explained by Rorty up to a minor point--even Terry Eagleton has discussed the parallels b/w Zizek and American pragmatism.  More on that later.  And thanks, Walt, for having a sense of humor.

I think I agree with Kugelmass and Rich more than they think, or more than their readings and posts suggest.  Simply put, like Rorty, I think it’s a waste of time for academics to be arguing truth and ontology, especially when they could be affecting the political scene at large, at least with proposed solutions to actual problems.  Kugelmass…

“In the relative desert of American politics, when connections between politics and philosophy are so difficult to find, I have also thought of Zizek that way. But enough is enough. Solidarity is wasted on egotistical delusion, and so is the gentle work of asking questions. Let us ask each other these same questions: do we support the consolidation of power in Venezuela? Do we see evidence of resignation on the Left? Do our anxieties about power leave us paralyzed?”

These are the right kinds of questions.  I want Zizek to answer them for the same reasons that I want the academy at large to become more politically useful.

More later.  Take care.

By on 12/03/07 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

dicerstabber: “it only entails that, if you are going to argue about him, you actually read the texts where he makes his argument.”

This belief, or behavior, is actually one of the things that I most admire Zizek for sparking.  It’s the text that says nothing.  Here we have an apparently complete LRB column by Zizek, which we all have read, in which he seemingly writes various things about the political situation for a popular audience.  But you can’t say anything about it—because anything about that text is really about “Zizek” the thinker, “Zizek” the brand, Zizek the writer of innumerable minor texts.  And some text of his that you haven’t read is guaranteed to magically hold the answer to the puzzle.  Because there is only one puzzle: why do you disagree with Zizek?  Once you have read enough of his output, disagreements will go away—if only because you’ll be embarassed to admit that you’ve searched out minor texts, even watched videos of the man, and you still have no idea what he really means. 

And of course he’d said right at the beginning that he didn’t mean anything, that he wasn’t going to give any answers, so really the person who never read any of his works comes out ahead.  Except that now after reading so much you can begin to think like him!  You can make up pseudo-Zizekian rationalizations; you can even write books and articles in which you fill in gaps in Zizekian thought; they are almost as good as if he had written them himself.  Ah, the pride.

The author is not dead, the text is dead, and only the author exuberantly lives.  That is Zizek’s accomplishment.

By on 12/03/07 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Puchalsky, your last sentence is very Zizekian.

If we are to evaluate Zizek according to the LRB article, one should admit that it presents an impressive reflection on the misery of the Left in action; and the fruitlessness of its action.  Yes, there is mobilization, tamed and under control, all over the world, generally organized and enacted by a mixed student body and middle middle class intellectuals--some academics-- who are finding a release for their helplessness through demonstrations, stickers, witticisms and then going back to their comfortable ‘organized’ and futile living. 

Zizek in the article skillfully portrays this position, maybe falling into contradictions, which are due to the fact that the article is messy, most probably written in haste. Yet, this messy article once again proves that Zizek is a brilliantly clear and clarifying mind.  He does not need to offer solutions. His gaze is captivating in the form of a text; the author may die and forgotten one day, but Resistance is Surrender will be another sign for our times in the form of a germ of a thought.

By on 12/04/07 at 12:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Selim,

You write:

Yes, there is mobilization, tamed and under control, all over the world, generally organized and enacted by a mixed student body and middle middle class intellectuals--some academics-- who are finding a release for their helplessness through demonstrations, stickers, witticisms and then going back to their comfortable ‘organized’ and futile living.

This really is not the “Left,” particularly generalized to the global scene. The phenomenon of leftist politics is an amalgam of many things, including the labor movement, the human rights movement, various feminist movements, movements for public ownership of both commodities and necessities (e.g. water), and so on. All of these movements depend on participation and leadership from indigenous people, uneducated or self-educated people, working class people, and so on. While one would perhaps like to constantly feel the frisson of excitement that accompanies Marxist-flavored derision, in this case the resultant picture of our contemporary situation is merely inaccurate.

Yet, this messy article once again proves that Zizek is a brilliantly clear and clarifying mind.

This sentence is very much at odds with itself; no matter how unashamed Zizek or his readers might be of apparent contradictions, the problems with his arguments do not magically go away the moment one simply gets more brazen about them.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/05/07 at 01:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"All of these movements depend on participation and leadership from indigenous people, uneducated or self-educated people, working class people, and so on.”

I couldn’t decide whether Selim Kuru was being serious or engaged in ironic parody, but if you assume that he or she is serious, this is too easy a response.  Middle class intellectuals do not need a “release for their helplessness”, because they aren’t helpless.  The people who read Zizek have chosen to be helpless, because they pretend that leftism is of great importance to them while actually doing very little work on it.

The people whose work they denigrate are not helplessly maintaining the system because they have no other choice—they’re doing it both because the alternative, that of letting the system fail, is worse, and because improvement within the system often happens.  But the reader of Zizek can’t acknowledge this as an honest choice—it has to be a product of mystification, because otherwise it calls the Zizek reader’s own ineffectuality into question.

In addition to the movements that you mention, I think that the left has to include environmentalism and other science-based movements, in part because the right is so opposed to them, in part because the last global left did so badly with them.  But let’s take human rights, say.  A typical human rights worker saves the lifes or shortens the prison sentences or wins better treatment for many people over the course of a few years of work.  What are they to say to the person who does nothing, and tells them they are helpless?  Give them a pack of twenty pictures or so of individuals who that word “helpless” would assign to the dustbin?  All you can really do is pat them on the head and let them go through their adolescent stage, and hope they grow out of it.

By on 12/05/07 at 09:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In addition to the movements that you mention, I think that the left has to include environmentalism and other science-based movements, in part because the right is so opposed to them, in part because the last global left did so badly with them.

A really good point.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/05/07 at 12:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also see here.  It’s funny to see all the same concerns I’ve mentioned in this thread, but oh the cognitive dissonance as one would try to answer those concerns while still taking Zizek seriously.

I’ll comment on that here, actually, because why not?  I’d predict that if that conversation continued, people would start to be able to consider these snippets, which I’m not going to bother to develop unless someone is interested:

1.  The social-democratic parties of Europe are where Marx vanished to (the second comment there makes the same point).  You can’t treat Europe as simply “capitalist” and still make any headway towards figuring out the future of the left.  Re-doing Marx has to start with social democracy, essentially.

2.  “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” sucks as an organizing principle.  We’re close enough to post-scarcity for individual needs so that the slogan should simply be “to each according to their needs”.  People need to read Bob Black et al.  They also need to think about positive rights as existence rights.

3.  No vision for the left that ignores environmental limits can succeed.  Labor value is just a subset of ecological value.

4.  The intellectual challenge for the left comes from anarchism, not from the right, which is intellectually bankrupt.  If the left isn’t going to be forthrightly anarchist, then at some point I think that you have to say that it does no good to have a in some sense morally or ethically better system than the capitalist nation-state if you can’t defend yourself from one—being conquered is always worse.  But that leads you straight to social demoracy / left-liberalism, because no one has yet come up with another system that can stand up against that pressure.

By on 12/05/07 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I find the Zizek hero-worship that I periodically come across rather disturbing.  There is no thinker in all of human history that I think merits the treatment Zizek gets in some quarters.

I think the problem for self-consciously left intellectuals is that the intellectual tradition has simply become too weighty.  Every argument has to be situated relative to that tradition, rather than standing on its own.  It’s as if left-wing thought was based on Catholic theology, and to participate in it, you had to have read the Church Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, etc.  While the left’s intellectual tradition is a impressive achievement of the human mind, it has begun to choke off the possibility of progress.

By on 12/05/07 at 11:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Walt—he’s “a brilliantly clear and clarifying mind”!  His “gaze is captivating”—he’s a “philosopher/psycho-analyst examining and short-circuiting the hegemonic thought-machinery”.  Surely that couldn’t be hero worship.

Actually, the most amusing thing in this vein was written by Holbo, writing about Zizek’s self-portrayal as Mary Stu / Larry Stu:

“Larry Stu was the youngest revolutionary hero ever to pull into Finland Station. He breathed the crisp air. It hadn’t been easy, getting this far. In fact it had been impossible ... but that hadn’t stopped Larry. In that Protestant monastery, storm-tossed off the Danish coast, he had shown the monks he understood the teachings of Paul far better than they. And he didn’t even believe in God! And he even insisted on watching Larry King in his cell, over the head monk’s objections. In university, he had mastered the writings of Hegel to such a degree that all his philosophy professors resigned and took up work as pop psychologists, even though this meant a big pay cut. His ‘broken egg, hidden omelet’ fighting-style was matchless. Larry felt the snow crunch beneath his feet. It would be a long walk. Suddenly, he got a pony. This wouldn’t be so hard after all. No, not at all ...”

At any rate, I think it’s slightly worse than “as if left-wing thought was based on Catholic theology”.  Catholics are at least supposed to believe in Catholic theology.  But leftists have this dead hand on them that they don’t even really believe in.

By on 12/06/07 at 01:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"The people who read Zizek have chosen to be helpless, because they pretend that leftism is of great importance to them while actually doing very little work on it.”

ah.  silly me.  we weren’t actually having a conversation about Zizek at all, were we?  We were talking about those who read him, a mythical solidarity of bitter, lazy syncophantic sheep to which anyone who dare defend his work must belong.

By on 12/06/07 at 01:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rhyd, you don’t see any sycophancy here?  I suggest you look back at Selim’s “Zizek is right even when he’s wrong” comment.  I’m happy discussing the contents of Zizek’s article, but every single thread about Zizek brings out a certain amount of sycophancy towards the man.

By on 12/06/07 at 03:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What is more disturbing than any Zizek cult--a cult which grew around his media popularity and the release of his work on film--is the Zizek backlash, Rich and Walt being the apotheosis as such.  The two of you, persistently, have criticized nothing but the content of a single book review.  The more you babble about Zizek, the more you stumble upon my complaints about him indirectly.  Walt, if you knew anything about Zizek’s material theology, perhaps you wouldn’t have just jacked my complaint that the left is mired in something akin to Catholic theology.  Rich--your contradictions are legion.  You want the left to adopt a substitute to Marx, while you admit that they no longer accept Marx into their hearts.  What makes you think a substitute any more likely to succeed?  Then you spit out platitudes about “environmental limits” as if such activity is topical.

It hardly matters that Kugelmass has lapsed into histrionics over what appears to be a small prelude to a coming opus.  The global youth devour Zizek.  If the art world is still a vanguard of leftward mobility—I believe it is—then Zizek is here to stay.  Warsaw and Krytyka Polityczna embrace Zizek and Ranciere and (thank god!) Zygmunt Bauman.  I just heard of a cumbria club in Buenos Aires called Zizek…

My point is only that Zizek is here to be reckoned with for quite some time—he isn’t some straw man one can use to air out one’s half-baked Prophecy of the Left.  At the very least, and I understand rhyd’s frustration, you should cease making categorical statements (Rich’s favorite activity) about groups and individuals you aren’t familiar with.  Zizek’s readers, from my experiences abroad, are some of the most active leftists I’ve ever known, for better or worse…the more you say things like this…

“The people who read Zizek have chosen to be helpless, because they pretend that leftism is of great importance to them while actually doing very little work on it.”

…the harder it is to take you seriously…

By on 12/06/07 at 07:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s see: I want the left to adopt a substitute to Marx, yet I “admit” that they no longer believe in Marxist thought.  That’s a contradiction?  And of course a substitute may be more likely to succeed, because a substitute would incorporate what we’ve learned for, oh, more than a century now.

But it’s the environmental limits comment that I think is truly funny.  “Then you spit out platitudes about “environmental limits” as if such activity is topical.” Those dratted environmental limits, intruding where they don’t belong!  It’s so platitudinous to bring them up in a discussion of totally unrelated leftist politics that shouldn’t be concerned with those kinds of things.

And finally there are the latest contributions to the Zizek Sloppy Kisses Fan Club.  The global youth devour him!  There is a cumbria club in Buenos Aires named after him!  Warsaw embraces him!  I have to admit that after this I have a certain difficulty with warnings that I won’t be taken seriously, but I’ll try my best to deal with it.

By on 12/06/07 at 09:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Are the rumors true? Is Zizek really learning the flutophone so he can lead the world’s toddlers off into the foothills and exact ransom money from Capitalist Hegemons? More remarkably, is it also true that he’s training a cadre to change all those diapers?

By Bill Benzon on 12/06/07 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

1.  I’m suggesting that one failure of Marxism is its theoretical susceptibility to minor squabbles based on rhetorical and terminological differences.

2.  Can you people read?  I don’t support Zizek.  I’m arguing that, whether you like it or not, he’s relevant.  I’m also giving you advice, as a young person, that if you want to make headway with your weirdly structured schematic for a new left, you had better start engaging Zizek, Ranciere, Badiou very seriously.  Especially Ranciere.

I know b/c of a self-imposed generational gap none of you will listen to me, and next Rich will tell us that Green is the new Black.  And now I can hear Walt’s echo…

By on 12/06/07 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Can you people read?”

If I answer in the negative, doesn’t that create one of those awesome Greek paradoxes?

All Zizekians are liars, said Kugelmass the Zizekian.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/06/07 at 12:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

dicerstabber, I’ve been sarcastic, but I’ve really been trying to answer your questions seriously as well.  I know that in some theoretical sense you “don’t support Zizek”, but if you canvass all of the readers of Zizek, hardly any of them will admit to supporting him.  Supporting him isn’t the point; usually people will say something about how he doesn’t have the answers and prods you to develop your ideas etc.  But of course you do support his cult of celebrity and its associated tics, among them being the idea that he is so world-historically important that you simply can’t dismiss him or anything that he writes.

And the appeal to him as youth leader is—well, it’s just funny.  I mean, sure, Zizek started with Hegelian and Lacanian thought, two of the most impenetrable discourses on the planet, and mixed them together with pop criticism and vague gestures toward revolutionary chic to make the perfect cocktail for the youth who wants something they can’t understand but vaguely feels is cool.  We’ve all been there.  But those people, at that stage, are pretty much constitutionally incapable of getting work done.  Why should anyone need to appeal to them?  And why should I, in particular, need to appeal to them?  I’m not some Left World Leader.

In fact, the kind of people who think Zizek is important are probably opposed to the kinds of projects that I do; they tend to say dismissive things like, oh, “Green is the new Black.” So why should I care about them?  Remember when I mentioned “no enemies to the left?” Well, no more of that.  Left-liberals and social democrats have pretty much all of the actual willingness-to-do that the left has; why should they listen to gripes from people who have no power and who don’t even support their project?  The answer is not “Because you’ll lose the youth!”, as if the kids just don’t dig that environmentalist, wilderness loss, global climate change stuff any more.

By on 12/06/07 at 01:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dicerstabber, despite calling me a) old and b) an echo, I find your argument somewhat persuasive: it’s Zizek as symptom rather than Zizek as cause.  The significance of Zizek is precisely because of the sycophancy.  The fact that he gets the treatment tells us something important about the world.  I can believe that Zizek is this era’s Marcuse.

I don’t have a strongly negative opinion of Zizek, or even of Zizek’s LRB article.  What I object to is a certain pattern of argument I see over and over again, one that I object to because it’s so stupid and counterproductive.  There is a self-conscious intellectual left vanguard.  That vanguard is defined by public displays of loyalty to a certain ever-changing list of thinkers.  The list functions to demarcate the boundaries of the vanguard.  In any argument, a member of this vanguard can freely demand that you must read some approved text before you can be taken seriously.  This demand would be (appropriately) regarded as ridiculous in any other context.  David Brooks wrote a best-selling and influential piece of pop-sociology in “Bobos in Paradise,” yet no one would think it was appropriate to demand that you must read that book before you can comment on one of his New York Times editorials.  In this way, the vanguard has recreated the hegemonic canon-formation that its predecessors worked so hard to smash.  Where once before there was an approved list of artworks, there now is an approved list of theorists.

For all I know, Zizek is as great as they say.  I’m open to persuasion on the topic.  But the members of this vanguard have let their ability to formulate an argument, one that is not carefully positioned in a constellation of existing theoretical formulations, atrophy.  Saying Zizek makes a much better argument in another text, and then giving that argument is totally appropriate to do.  Saying Zizek makes a much better argument in another text, and you’ll wait here while I go to the library is as unpersuasive a rhetorical move as can be imagined.  You have don’t have to read Adam Smith to have an opinion on capitalism, and you don’t have to read Zizek to have an opinion on revolutionary violence.

By on 12/06/07 at 06:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Right, Walt, but you do have to read Zizek to criticize Zizek’s view of revolutionary violence, of which the LRB piece is not representative.  Look, I even criticized the LRB piece as elliptical, and I accused Zizek of stringing us along for whatever reason.  But many of the comments on this thread suggest a backlash founded on frustration with Zizek’s media stature, or something else, but not his writings.  It’s one thing to take the time to correct a misreading, it’s quite another to read the text for the critic.

By on 12/06/07 at 08:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can believe that Zizek is this era’s Marcuse.

Which is to imply that he’ll date as quickly as Marcuse has done. In 30 years someone will be arguing that “Flotsamski is this era’s Zizek.”

By Bill Benzon on 12/06/07 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3425/chinas_valley_of_tears/

By on 12/07/07 at 03:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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