I'm a philosophy student that tends to post about really serious things unseriously and about really unserious things seriously.
I was once described as a "beautiful, intelligent iguana".
This is an amazing article on the implicit authoritarianism in Zizek’s work, I would urge everyone to take a look.
In a post last week, I quoted Johann Hari on the myriad problems with Slavoj Žižek. Not surprisingly, fans of Žižek were quick to write to me about why Hari is wrong. The blogger at Interruptions, in fact, pointed me to an interesting piece by Graham Harman that serves as a response to Hari on the seriousness or intellectual weight of Žižek. Harman writes:
I agree with virtually none of Žižek’s politics or ontology, but I don’t see how you can read his books and not find him to be an intensely serious, well-read, and highly cultured person of immense intellectual gifts, one we are lucky to have in our midst. Enjoy him while you have him. We’re not going to have a philosopher this provocatively entertaining for centuries to come. (Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600, was probably the last.)
But most of all, the gift that Žižek has given us is the sense that it’s time to take clear, blunt positions on issues, after a two-decade interlude in which prose was always supposed to meander and hedge its bets and regard puns as if they were philosophical arguments. That was the 1980′s and much of the 1990′s, and Žižek was one of those who dealt that style a death-blow.
Let’s begin with some throat-clearing: I’ve read Žižek; I’ve taught whole courses on Marxism in the past and these courses have included works by Lenin; I continue to teach Marx regularly in several courses; I even teach a bit of Lacan in a course. I don’t see anything wrong with exposing people to their ideas, some of which I think ought to be taken quite seriously.
But now let’s get to the heart of the matter, to my critique of Žižek.
The sum total of Harman’s defense of Žižek is that he is a serious thinker and an interesting one. I don’t entirely disagree, though I think he’s more interesting as a philosopher than he is serious. But I see nothing in Harman’s defense that blunts the central criticism of Hari’s piece, namely that the things about which Žižek is serious and interesting are abhorrent. Hari is mistaken in claiming that Žižek is an incoherent or ridiculous figure; he is not. This is what Harman reacts against in his rebuttal of Hari, but it isn’t the part of Hari’s piece that interested me; what interested me was the critique of Žižek’s embracing of neo-Leninism as a political philosophy, seemingly without making a serious effort to connect the dots between what he admires in Leninism and what everyone abhors in Stalinism. On this point, Žižek’s problematic political philosophy, Harman doesn’t defend Žižek; instead, he affirms Hari’s argument.
Reblogging for later reading.
Okay, I read it finally, and now for the response. This is cut because this is going to be long (I just want to give somewhat full treatment here - especially for adumbrations - in the ways this is so woefully wrong, I think).
So, first, I want to address Hari’s article. I think Harman does a great job of showing how stupid that article is, but there’s a few points I wanted to elaborate on myself. I want to note this quote from the Harman response:
Obviously, you don’t judge someone’s level of sincerity by one self-deprecating or clowning remark. You do it by reading their books carefully and reflecting on what they have to say.
And this is exactly what Hari didn’t do. I can’t believe that he’s actually engaged with Zizek’s works, but only that he’s glanced at the secondary literature (but only the stuff that’s critical of him, it would seem), and watched the movie Zizek! (rather half-assedly, as well). Any of the claims laid down here by Hari are refuted with even a passing familiarity with Zizek:
So, to sum up on the whole Hari debacle, I think Harman really clears it up nicely: (1) Even if you disagree with him, Zizek is one of the fiercest thinkers of our age and should be read, even if ultimately contended against; (2) There are consistent threads running through Zizek’s works (whether ontological, political, whatever - they might not be clear, but that’s pretty much true for any post-50s post-modern philosopher, but there isn’t the same critique thrown at them anymore. I thought we were passed all of this.); (3) there is nothing “a priori nonsensical about the ‘contempt for liberal democracy and preference for dictatorship that the author finds in Žižek’s books” even though that contempt and preference are up for debate obviously; (4) the article was pure vitriol with little substance (I saw one comment talking about how jealous Hari sounded, and that really rings true); and (5) this comment about Zizek (and by extention, Badiou would fit here as well, probably):
But most of all, the gift that Žižek has given us is the sense that it’s time to take clear, blunt positions on issues, after a two-decade interlude in which prose was always supposed to meander and hedge its bets and regard puns as if they were philosophical arguments.
Okay, now for “Zizek the Authoritarian”.
First off, there’s this claim: “I see nothing in Harman’s defense that blunts the central criticism of Hari’s piece, namely that the things about which Žižek is serious and interesting are abhorrent.” That’s exactly the spirit of Harman’s defense though. Though Zizek’s political positions (which, as a quick aside, separating Zizek’s politics from his ontology is a real crime when trying to grapple with him - I mean, what the fuck?) may be “abhorrent” - and I don’t think they are - they’re still well-argued points of contention, not pre-critical political word vomit. So you disagree with him? Engage with him then - there’s ample source material to make well-formed critiques that extend beyond: “I don’t like his politics” (pretty much what the whole “Authoritarian” article says).
Second, the violence that Marx talks about, and that Zizek gets “critiqued” here for, aren’t mindless eruptions of violence with no end in sight. I’m not a political pacifist (whoa, surprise there, I know). I don’t think that you can’t have any serious “progressive” movement that isn’t violent in some way - whether this falls under Zizek’s description of “subjective”, “objective”, or “structural” violence. But the violence advocated here is precisely the kind that I think is necessary - that is, overt “structural” violence (or at least that’s what Zizek advocates).
I think of the riot scene from Zola’s “Germinal”: the crux of the novel is the tension between the coal workers and the exploitive company that they work for, especially during the multi-month hunger strike that the workers hold. In one scene in the book, the workers, tired, starving, and literally with no other way to turn (note the similarity to Zizek’s notion of Utopia there), they begin rioting in the bourgeois streets, right in front of their doors. During this rioting, a man who sold bread to the workers (usually at exorbitant prices, and sometimes in exchange for sex with some of the family’s daughters or wives), was killed by falling off a roof in the middle of the chaos. The women rioters cheered at his death, and put his head on a pike and paraded it through the streets, cheering and demanding for the right to a simple thing like bread. Now was this some sort of unnecessary violence? Was there something inherently ‘evil’ or even politically “abhorrent” in their actions? I can’t really bring myself to say no to either question.
The point is that the violence Zizek advocates isn’t the sort that says “just kill them bourgeois dogs”. It pays attention to the eruption of political utopias, and how progressive change can only happen within “events” that restructure the way we talk about and perceive politics and that the properly political act is fidelity to these events (I think he’s pretty one-to-one with Badiou here). He would be the first one to say “wait, don’t act yet, we don’t sufficiently understand the situation”. And some would say that it’s reactionary, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s particularly violent. And then there’s the whole part about how we can’t get “outside” the political domain to enact change, but that we have to work within it. I think that’s a really important point, and one that makes claims about Zizek being some sort of violent insurrectionist, and especially some sort of Stalinist, ridiculous.
And about the Stalinist claim: I really can’t think of anyone who’s as virulent anti-Stalinist as Zizek is. He warns again and again that Stalinism is the worst tragedy of the 20th century (worse than the Holocaust, he would say, but he is pretty anti-Semitic, so that comment should be taken with salt). He advocates a sort of Leninism, but it’s a heavily revised one, one that takes into account the tragedy of Stalinism. And that’s so important here: he says emphatically that we shouldn’t ignore Stalin when trying to figure out our Marxist theories, like so many people try to do today. We shouldn’t forget the horrors of their attempts at implementing Communism, but we also shouldn’t halt at the gate of any potential change, and stop in fear that any communist progress would always amount to such tragedies. Same thing with Mao. He definitely recognizes the horrors he caused as a leader - he talks about them extensively - but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing important to excavate there. As he talks about near the end of “In Defense of Lost Times”, he follows Mao’s shifting of Marxist dialectics from being between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat to that between the first world and the third one step further: he says that the main place of conflict today (or at least the most visible) isn’t between some romanticized worker force in the third world, and the caricature of the western fat cat bourgeois corporation owner, but between those living in the Favelas in Brazil and the seemingly invisible but powerful flows of capital that have put those people in the piss-poor conditions they live in. So, seriously, this claim that Zizek’s some uncritical Stalinist praying to see the blood of the rich run through the street, and asking for the death of millions in the name of some idyllic Communist Utopia (not the traditional sense), where the idea is more important than the people, is just really…well, I think it shows a lack of real engagement with his work.
(Also, just to put this out here, think of how much Zizek tries to divorce the actions taken by people like Stalin and Lenin from the works that they produced. If texts are manifold and infinite, there there might be valuable insights into a communist practice hidden in certain interpretations of their texts that are betrayed by the historical actions of such figures. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look to those works/interpretations though.)
Third, no, he’s not being ironic or anything when he (Zizek) writes “The problem with Hitler is that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough” - and anyone who says so is being disgustingly dishonest to the stances that Zizek tries to take. He’s serious about that claim. But of course, he doesn’t mean that Hitler wasn’t violent enough in the sense that he didn’t kill enough people - on the subjective or objective levels of violence - but that he wasn’t violent to the state of things, that he didn’t challenge the running order of things (he just took it more seriously then others in his time - as has been pointed out time and time again, anti-Semitism was rampant in pre-WWII Europe [and beyond], Hitler just took this to an extreme): that is, that he wasn’t violent on the structural level. And, again, that’s the violence that Zizek advocates. Structural violence. Violence against the smooth running of things, against the ahistorical characterization of Capital, or Nature, or anything like that, against the notion that what is, has to be. And he does mean for that violence to be a verb - you can’t just critique the smooth running of things (as I’ve said before, what Zizek hates more than anything is probably Hegelian “Beautiful Souls” that do just that) - a thousand critiques against the ahistorical nature of Capital won’t do anything to change that ideological construction within society - especially since, for Zizek, ideology is founded upon the fact that we know the ideological construction in the first place (“I know very well, but still…”).
Finally (I think), I don’t think Zizek’s any sort of Authoritarianism. I mean, he’s not an anarchist, definitely, and he’s not for liberal democracy, definitely, be he talks time and time again about the beauty of authentic democracy, of the eruption of a democratic moment within a society that no longer has any other action it can take. I don’t know how his position could lead to anything like some sort of Authoritarianism (if anyone would like to point this out in some concrete fashion to me, I’d be more than welcome to hear it). I think it leads to a really flat, horizontal sort of social arrangement, built upon a politics of fidelity to the Event. This really seems like something anti-Authoritarian as far as I’m concerned.
So, if you want to disagree with Zizek’s politics, I recommend that you first take more consideration in your critique than what the publisher printed about one of Zizek’s books (especially one that, I think if the author had actually read it [I can’t believe that they have, with what they’ve said], this pathetic “critique” could have been avoided).
There’s plenty of points to disagree with Zizek on, even in his politics, obviously. You can even disagree and stay intellectually honest (something that’s rather missing here, I think). This isn’t one of those times though.
[P.S. As a few have pointed out on here already, that whole “To stand with Marx on the issues of exploitation and alienation is perfectly fine; to stand with him on the question of the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the eventual withering away of the state is … altogether different.” and the rest of that paragraph is just fucking ridiculous. I don’t even want to talk about that paragraph because of how much shame I feel towards it.]