who’s žižoomin’ who?
[Zizek] goes on: “It is possible to keep the good sides of capitalism, but nonetheless, through a coordinated state, social effort to mobilize. Not just with coronavirus, this is needed with other ecological crises, refugees and so on.” This sounds pretty incoherent to me. Keep capitalism but also have Communism? So he wants Communism lite, one-calorie Communism? Capitalist Communism? Democratic Communism?
Oh, grasshopper, why do you persist in trying to ensnare this trickster-philosopher in your pathetic nets of language and logic? Your feeble powers of speech are mute in the presence of his profundity. Like Perseus in pursuit of Medusa, only by using the shield of pre-verbal images can we even hope to reflect the majesty of his brilliance in a form we can safely approach.
While backpacking through Eastern Europe, I stopped at a pub for a drink. On the stool next to me sat a squat, disheveled man. His strange habit of constantly fiddling with his nose, beard or shirt, as well as his grunting and snuffling, put me in mind of a groggy bear with a cocaine addiction. Before I could think better of my choice of seat, my presence apparently triggered a monologue that he had hooked up to a motion-detector.
“I told those imbeciles at Salon that I related to Robespierre and Lenin! But did they call me ‘Zizek the Fanatical Jacobin’, or ‘Zizek the Bolshevik Monster’? No! I was ‘the coolest, most influential leftist in Europe‘! I’ve loudly proclaimed my admiration for Lenin, Stalin and Mao, but did they call me ‘Zizek the Mass-Murder Apologist’? No! They just gently admonished me to ‘stop clowning around‘! I wrote in one of my books, ‘Better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state,’ but do my leftist comrades call me ‘Zizek the Nihilist Nightmare’? No! The Chronicle of Higher Education even dubbed me ‘the Elvis of cultural theory’! They have no principles! It’s all just a big fucking joke to them!”
He turned fully in my direction, his jittery gaze coming briefly to rest as if consciously noticing me for the first time, and muttered, “But you write one article or give one speech that criticizes Islam…”
Far from being a Vernichtungskrieg waged without mercy upon the hallowed figures of the left-wing intellectual canon, this is a remarkably evenhanded hatchet job, with Scruton staying true to the promise made in the foreword “to explain what is good in the authors I review as well as what is bad.” This commendable sense of fairness might leave some readers who came expecting blood somewhat peeved.
…Whatever one’s politics, one cannot help but admire Scruton’s willingness to subject himself to tome after tome of New Left verbiage. Some of the passages he quotes from Lacan and Deleuze are astonishingly abstruse. However, he does not excerpt them merely in order to hold them up to ridicule, but so that he can translate them, consider their merits, and then deliver his verdict. Many conservative critics would skip the first two stages; most, I imagine, would not even bother to read Lacan in the first place.
I read Scruton’s book last week, and I concur. Not only was it impressively informative, the man has such a delightfully poetic way with a simile, a metaphor, a flowing paragraph. Here are my favorite examples:
“The promise of full communism is a noumenal promise, a ghostly beckoning from the Kingdom of Ends.”
“[Habermas] has continued to receive accolades for books that have achieved a rare prestige in Germany, and which are printed in luxury editions for the better class of living room. Few people have read these books from cover to cover; few of those who have read them remember what they say. Nevertheless, with somewhat greater frequency than the lines of Shakespeare that fall from the monkey’s typewriter, interesting ideas surface in the great waste-paper basket of Habermas’s prose…”
“It is true that the metaphysical idiom of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ revitalized the rhetoric of socialism — to such an extent that ‘reification’ became an important cult word during May 1968 in Paris. But the subsequent discussions of the term in the New Left Review added nothing to the rhetoric except pseudo-theory: a morose prowling of the intellect around an inexplicable shrine.”
“Lukács here displays the Stalinist method in its essential vacuity. With the stupid allusion to de Sade he is able to dismiss all Western political institutions in a single gesture, and to return to his favored terrain of brutalizing dichotomies: capitalism versus socialism, reaction versus revolution, bourgeois versus proletarian, Lukács versus the enemy. Safe behind such tangled barbed wire, Lukács continued to ruminate…”
“At this point a certain liturgical quality enters the writings of the Frankfurters. Incantations are uttered against the ‘bourgeois’ order and the thinking that stems from it, but in a changed tone of voice, indicating the proximity of mystery. Language changes character from the voice of critical theory to the exorcist’s spell.”
“Tedium is the vehicle of an abstract authority, and the reader waits in the corridors of Habermas’s prose like a petitioner to whom truth has been promised, albeit only abstractly, on a document that is perhaps already out of date.”
“As is surely apparent from that instance, the scientific idiom is no more than a twitch: a new rubber stamp which Habermas has not quite got the hang of and which he applies upside down.”
“The ritual deference to Marxism is not a conclusion of the argument, which has no real conclusion, although it wheezes at a certain point to a halt.”
“The axioms of Marxist theory appear in Althusser’s prose like blinding flashes of total darkness, within clouds of grey on grey. This ‘darkness visible’ is like a photographic negative, and Althusser intimates that there is a process that will reverse it, changing light into dark and nonsense into sense. Read Capital, he insists, look on this text, look intently at it, hold it upside down, sideways, high in the air, but don’t let your eyes stray from it. Then, and only then, will the great reversal occur.”
“This passage indicates the ponderous, suspicion-laden circularity of Althusser’s prose, which goes round and round monotonously on its own heels, like a lunatic trapped in an imaginary cage.”
“It is a well-known difficulty for the materialist theory of history that, taken seriously, it seems to deny the efficacy of intellectual labor, to dismiss it as a mere epiphenomenon, a nebulous offshoot of processes over which it asserts no real influence. It is of the first importance, therefore, to give a role to ‘intellectual labor’ in the ‘material conditions’ of existence, so making it a genuine ‘motive force’ in history, unlike the mere ‘ideology’ of the bourgeois enemy. Hence the distinction between science and ideology: my thought is science, yours is ideology; my thought is Marxist (since only Marxism penetrates the veil of ideology), yours is ‘idealist’; my thought is proletarian (Lukács), yours is bourgeois; my thought belongs to the ‘material conditions’ of production, and can be called ‘theoretical praxis’, your thought belongs to the false consciousness that arises like a cloud above the place where history is made. My thought is at work in the factory; yours is puffed from the chimney and dissolves into air.”
“For Althusser the enemies of theoretical practice are all ’empiricists’, characterized by their belief in ‘abstraction’. This accusation is fired at the rationalist Descartes, the absolute idealist Hegel, and Kant, the greatest critic of empiricism. All are gathered in a common grave.”
“Within Althusser’s linguistic redoubt the opponent does not exist except as the darkly defined enemy, whose identity can be guessed by the boundaries from which Althusser’s thought recoils into itself, undefeated, because untried in combat.”
“Deleuze sometimes comes down a notch or two, in order to explain himself to the ordinary reader. But he does so in an endless stream of abstractions, from which all reference to concrete reality and the flow of human life has been removed. He does not argue, but encloses his key words in fortified boxes, which he firmly locks against all questioning before throwing the key away.”
“The reader is being granted brief glimpses of a store of hidden knowledge, to which the authors have the only key. The exultant tone, which one might read as a sign of a mental disorder, shows total confidence in the revelation, displayed like a tantalizing ankle beneath a burqa.”
“The monsters of unmeaning that loom in this prose attract our attention because they are built from forgotten theories, forged together in weird and ghoulish shapes, like gargoyles made from the debris of a battlefield. And always the gargoyles are sticking out their tongues at the bourgeoisie.”
“But [fascism and communism] resemble each other in all other aspects, and not least in their public art, which displays the same kind of bombast and kitsch — the same attempt to change reality by shouting at the top of the voice.”
“Thus to the realist who asks how, in this society of the future, conflicts are to be accommodated or resolved, Gramsci has no reply. The communist shares with the fascist an overriding contempt for opposition. The purpose of politics is not to live with opposition, but to remove it — to achieve the condition in which opposition no longer exists. The question of opposition is, though, the single most important issue in politics. Conflicts between individuals lead, by free association, to conflicts between groups to rivalries and factions that will inevitably express themselves in competitions for power. How is that competition to be managed? In particular, how is the Communist Party to respond to opposition to its rule? The Leninist prediction is that there will be no opposition, and in a sense that prediction was verified when the opposition disappeared. What else was the Cheka for?”
“The jargon here is that of a writer who has imprisoned his thought in language over which he exerts no intellectual control. While we can all guess what follows from this — that the categories of ‘art’ and ‘the aesthetic’ belong integrally to capitalist modes of production, and that they come into prominence with the manufacture of commodities for exchange — it follows with the logic of ritual, and not with the logic of argument. Only the emotional tension of the prose reminds us of the writer, shaking his fist on a dwindling horizon, as the boat of history sails out to sea.”
“To rewrite bourgeois history in Marxese, as Anderson has done, is like rewriting a Haydn sonata movement with a continuous drum-roll on the dominant, so that all is infected by a premonition of catastrophe and nothing quite resolves.”
“If Thompson proved occasionally so disturbing to the New Left, it is partly because of his ability to clear away the ideological junk that had been piled against the doors where such facts might enter.”
“The curious thing, however, is that this woolly-minded subjectivism goes with a vigorous censorship. Those who put consensus in the place of truth quickly find themselves distinguishing the true from the false consensus. And inevitably the consensus is ‘on the left’. Just why that should be so is a question that I am trying in this book to answer.”
“For a while it seemed as though the whole revolutionary program was at an end…But it was just at this moment, at the turn of the twenty-first century, that the monster began to stir in the depths. And when it rose from the sea of our complacency, it spoke as Marx and Sartre had spoken, in the language of metaphysics. It pushed aside the tinsel of the consumer culture, to appear in its primordial guise, intruding into the world of phenomena like Erda in Das Rheingold, as the voice of Being itself.” [Thus begins the chapter on Badiou and Zizek.]
“They suck the being from whatever they latch upon, leaving only the withered forms of destroyed reality, as they rise on vulture wings toward their next assignment. At one point Badiou, having picked up the music of Dutilleux and dropped it writhing to the ground, refers to the ‘terror of the matheme’. Maybe that is what he has in mind.”
“Indeed, if there were no greater reason to regret the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the release of Zizek onto the world of Western scholarship would perhaps already be a sufficient one.”
And here’s the first page of the final chapter:
[T]here is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing. Last year, the wackjob nadir was “Žižek Delenda Est” (“Žižek Must be Destroyed.”) The thesis of the panel—which featured at least one “tankie,” slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist—was that Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is some kind of COINTELPRO crypto-Nazi.
Sadly, this is not an exaggeration, and the ineffectual chaos of Left Forum is symptomatic of the state of the left at large. But I do not foresee doom. It’s quite possible the left is at a pivotal moment in political history: these days, Americans actually like the sound of socialism, and the potential for building a new base is incredibly encouraging. But as much as we should be looking to expand, so, too, must we refine our project. The marginalistas distract, disrupt and deter future comrades. So it’s high time we get a little exclusive: tankies, truthers and tofu may supply a steady stream of battle-tested conference anecdotage, but they’re not going to move us any closer to building a better world.
Where, in the standard reading of Hegel, one element comes into conflict with another external to it, in Žižek’s reading, conflict is internal or “immanent” to the first element. The resulting paradox is that an action becomes the result (rather than the cause) of its counteraction. To take the best-known example in Hegel, the master discovers that the slave is not his other but the condition of his status as master – that he is the master only by virtue of his dependence on (or enslavement to) the slave. The precariousness of the master’s identity lies in how he can be master only by virtue of not being master (as Arctic Monkeys put it in an album title, referencing Alan Sillitoe, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not).
The diagnosis of our inertia becomes the basis for a brutally unsentimental politics in which all voluntary commitments are mere ruses of ideology. Following the French philosopher Alain Badiou, his friend and interlocutor, Žižek insists on the revolutionary moment as an unpredictable “Event”. Change cannot be agitated by the active agent of traditional politics. On the contrary, “The change will be most radical if we do nothing.” The attempt to make things happen can only ever entrench the order it claims to be contesting, whereas by waiting passively we open ourselves to being swept up in an authentic event.
“Sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.” As though to affirm this aphorism, which ended his 2008 book Violence, Žižek takes pains to show how the renunciation of action authorises “Leninist” ruthlessness.
Žižek’s pronouncements on our political predicaments often seem animated by the same fantasies of making and unmaking the world with brazen unconcern for the consequences. Surely it is only in such a spirit of cartoonish indifference that a serious thinker could open a sentence with the phrase: “Even Nazi anti-Semitism . . .” Restoring the phrase to the full sentence does nothing to redeem it. “Even Nazi anti-Semitism, however ghastly it was, opened up a world: it described its critical situation by positing an enemy, which was ‘a Jewish conspiracy’; it named a goal and the means of achieving it.” This is in contrast to the corrosiveness of capitalism, which deprives “the large majority of people of any meaningful ‘cognitive mapping’”. In other words: yes, it may have been ghastly but at least with Nazi anti-Semitism you knew where you were.
I wish that this summary translation were mere flippancy but it is depressingly precise. The grim prospect of “non-eventful survival in a hedonist-utilitarian universe” licenses Žižek to prefer even the most catastrophic political experiment to our current set-up. As he writes: “Better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state.”
Žižek’s contention in Trouble in Paradise is that our liberal-capitalist civilisation, for all its injunctions to enjoy ourselves, is devoid of genuine love and life. Yet there is nothing in Žižek’s brutal and peculiarly thin political vision to persuade his reader that life on the other side of capitalism, for which he lies impassively in wait, will be any more fun.
I hardly know what to say about a world in which a ventose fraud like Slavoj Žižek is taken seriously as a leftist visionary and a moral panic profiteer like Anita Sarkeesian is hailed as a feminist leader. Thankfully, when it comes to Sarkeesian, at least, Liana Kerzner has said more than 23,000 words over a five–part series of posts explaining why the modern-day Tipper Gore is every bit the tendentious hack you suspected she was. I’m not even a gamer, and I found it engrossing, so perhaps you might care to give it a look-see. (Hat tip to Will Shetterly.)
My only problem with this characterisation is that, in one sense at least, it has Zizek backwards. True, to the extent that Zizek is a Marxist, he seems perennially split between Groucho and Karl. But the mistake is to think it’s his analysis that is silly and his political stance that is sinister. In fact it’s his analysis of capitalism that is ‘‘deadly’’, in the sense of being incisive, and his communism that is a joke in poor taste.
Jokes are central to Zizek’s analysis, not because they win him an audience but because they point up absences and all the little ‘‘unknown knowns’’ that sustain the dominant ideology. Thus, when Zizek tells the story of the man who orders coffee without cream and is told that, since there is no cream, he will have to settle for coffee without milk, he isn’t merely being cute, or isn’t only being cute; he’s drawing attention to the ‘‘complex interplay between what is said and what is not said, the un-said implied in what is said’’. Offered the ‘‘freedom’’ to buy our own healthcare, it is up to us to investigate what this freedom might be lacking. Is it coffee without cream or coffee without milk? Or is it ‘‘the thing without itself’’ — coffee without coffee, freedom without freedom?
Since what happens in the past will affect the present and what happens in the present will affect the future, all phenomena — mental and physical — will contain trace elements of previous states and ‘‘clues’’ as to their future ones: a fact that is as true for ideology as it is for water molecules in transition from one state to another. And since all ideological formulations depend on what they exclude or suppress, it falls to the radical dialectician to uncover the anomaly, the incongruous detail, that, when approached and analysed, begins to undermine the dominant belief system.
All of this would seem very crude to Zizek, whose notion of ‘‘absolute recoil’’ entails a twist on the (already twisty) concept of dialectical materialism, one that reads a highly individualised version of Hegel back into Marx. But his general point can be simply stated. It is that 20th-century communism was bound to end in catastrophe because it was a fantasy generated by capitalism itself, a ‘‘utopian’’ version of what is wrong with it. The solution, for Zizek, is not to reject communism but to repeat the revolution — endlessly.
What the French thinkers (and Habermas) produced was essentially a postmodern form of Marxism. Some of the authors seem reluctant to abandon Marx, others are keen to update him, but no one seems willing to jettison him entirely. It is not so much his economic determinism or his class-based motivations that are retained as his idea of ‘false consciousness’, expressed through the idea that knowledge, and reason, must always be forged or mediated by the power relations of any society — that knowledge, hermeneutics, and understanding all serve a purpose. Just as Kant said there is no pure reason, so, we are told from the Continent, there is no pure knowledge, and understanding this is emancipatory. While it would not be true to say that these writers are anti-scientific (Piaget, Foucault and Habermas are too well-informed to be so crude), there is among them a feeling that science is by no means the only form of knowledge worth having, that it is seriously inadequate to explain much, if not most, of what we know. These authors do not exactly ignore evolution, but they show little awareness of how their theories fit — or do not fit — into the proliferation of genetic and ethological studies. It is also noticeable that almost all of them accept, and enlist as support, evidence from psychoanalysis. There is, for anglophone readers, something rather unreal about this late continental focus on Freud, as many critics have pointed out. Finally, there is also a feeling that Foucault, Lacan and Derrida have done little more than elevate small-scale observations, the undoubted misuses of criminals or the insane in the past, or in Lacan’s case vagaries in the use of language, into entire edifices of philosophy. Ultimately, the answer here must lie in how convincing others find their arguments. None has found universal acceptance. At the same time, the ways in which they have subverted the idea that there is a general canon, or one way of looking at man, and telling his story, has undoubtedly had an effect.
This is from a chapter on the French intellectuals of the late twentieth century. Most of the time, when you hear someone disparaging postmodernists, these are the people whom they have in mind. (Lacan’s most famous disciple, of course, is the grotesque caricature-wrapped-in-a-parody-inside-a-bullshit-farce, Slavoj Žižek.) Anyway, banalities elevated into profundities aside, false consciousness has indeed proved to be one of Marx’s most enduring ideas. You hear its echoes when people are said to be “voting against their own interests”, as if the speaker knows better than them what they really want or need, or when, say, minorities and women feel that their individual perspective trumps the imperatives of their race or gender (as dictated to them by the self-appointed intelligentsia). The truism that there is no such thing as knowledge outside of perspective becomes, in practice, Foucault’s “genealogical method“, where the aim of an argument is not to rebut specific assertions, but to identify the supposed wellspring of your opponent’s thought and declare it hopelessly polluted, thus implying, without needing to openly assert, that everything downstream is likewise poisoned.
It wasn’t just the French, though; the Frankfurt School is noted earlier in the book for being preoccupied with “the attempted marriage of Freudianism and Marxism.” Watson also quoted Friedrich Hayek: “I believe men will look back on our age as an age of superstition, chiefly connected with the names of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.” It’s funny because it’s true! In an age in which science was quickly colonizing all forms of human experience, almost the entire intellectual class of Europe and America was captivated by two systems of thought which look increasingly ridiculous the further they appear in hindsight. And so I still wonder: what will our descendants think about the water in which we’re swimming now? Why should we assume that we aren’t living under the spell of superstitious nonsense while priding ourselves on our cutting-edge scientific awareness just as much as people in the last century were?
Call it left-wing anti-liberalism: the idea, captured by Herbert Marcuse in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” that social justice demands curbs on freedom of expression. “[I]t is possible to define the direction in which prevailing institutions, policies, opinions would have to be changed in order to improve the chance of a peace which is not identical with cold war and a little hot war, and a satisfaction of needs which does not feed on poverty, oppression, and exploitation,” he wrote. “Consequently, it is also possible to identify policies, opinions, movements which would promote this chance, and those which would do the opposite. Suppression of the regressive ones is a prerequisite for the strengthening of the progressive ones.”
Note here both the belief that correct opinions can be dispassionately identified, and the blithe confidence in the wisdom of those empowered to do the suppressing. This kind of thinking is only possible at certain moments: when liberalism seems to have failed but the right is not yet in charge. At such times, old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and robust, open debate seem like tainted adjuncts of an oppressive system, and it’s still possible for radicals to believe that the ideas suppressed as hateful won’t be their own.
…At times like this, politics contract. On the surface, the rhetoric appears more ambitious and utopian than ever—witness, for example, the apparently sincere claim by Suey Park, creator of the #CancelColbert hashtag, that Twitter activists intend to “dismantle the state.” But at the same time, activism becomes less about winning converts and changing the world and more about creating protected enclaves and policing speech.
Despite scurrilous rumors to the contrary being spread by Brian, I have not been undergoing a slow conversion to conservatism. If anything, the only shift in my worldview has been a renewed appreciation for good old-fashioned liberalism. This, then, is my basic framework for making sense of the left side of the spectrum:
Liberal: To me, it just means left of center. As you can see from the above link, it’s somewhat of a Rorschach term, so I’m not going to bother trying to define it any more closely than that. It’s what’s left over by process of elimination once the other two groups are dismissed.
Progressive: This is what I think of as the multiculti left. Multiculti, meaning, an obsession with cosmetic diversity. The ditzy descendants of the New Left, the kind of people Christopher Hitchens memorably complained about who turned formerly weighty political issues into a concern with the perspectives of “obese Cherokee lesbians”. Heavily overrepresented in the twitosphere, where their bumper-sticker sloganeering is perfectly suited for expression in the tl;dr environment of social media, these are the privilege-checking simpletons who tie themselves up in anxious knots over whether it implicates them in racism or sexism if it turns out that most of their favorite authors or songwriters are white men. They may parrot some of the more academic leftist themes, but they probably prefer the lite version featured regularly on sites like Salon, Slate, HuffPo, the Guardian and NPR. Well-meaning and mostly harmless, yet painfully shallow and incredibly annoying.
Leftist: The class-based left; also, the academic left. The former may be more classically Marxist, the latter more culturally Marxist. The former also disdains the New Left turn away from economic analysis toward identity politics, while the latter (especially as typified by Slavoj Žižek, radical academia’s version of a reality TV star) is content to spend its time producing endless amounts of incomprehensible jargon and bafflegab while remaining equally baffled that global capitalism keeps blithely and monstrously blossoming like a toxic orchid despite being endlessly critiqued and deconstructed in countless academic journals. Leftists traditionally scoffed at liberal meliorism in favor of radical political solutions; I have no idea how many of them still honestly believe in the possibility of radical change for the better any more, but most seem to at least still pay lip service to it for lack of any better ideas. They vacillate between rationalizing Communism’s failure and attempting to resuscitate its potential, like jargon-spewing Roombas stuck between the coffee table and the sofa.
Obviously, this isn’t intended to be a rigorous, detailed taxonomy. It’s just intended to make the point that for me, liberal is the default, non-ideological stance, since I consider the other two groupings to each be hopelessly moribund in their own way.