Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Zizek on Violence

The prolific Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, has just published yet another of his meditations, this time on violence. Zizek is constantly churning out these volumes, chapbooks of advanced free association mixed with self-deprecating humor and fuzzy thinking.

Zizek has gained his measure of fame by being one of the few serious thinkers who is still proud to be a Marxist and a Communist. Surely, it takes a peculiar warp of mind to persist in defending political systems whose only distinction lay in their extraordinary capacity to destroy human life.

But Zizek is not merely a retrograde Marxist apologist. He is an academic whose elucubrations address the concerns of post-Marxist intellectuals. He appeals to the reactionary left, to people who learned critical theory because they believed it would undermine capitalism, and who have had their hopes dashed by, among other things, the emergence of China as a twenty-first century beacon of capitalism.

Keep in mind that French thinkers of Zizek's generation pledged their youthful allegiance to Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a last ditch effort to destroy the remnants of capitalism, by marginalizing and disempowering "capitalist roaders" like Deng Xiaoping.

When Deng was rehabilitated after the death of Mao, when he had the infamous Gang of Four arrested, and when he launched China's great leap into capitalism... the junior French intellectuals who had supported Mao were bereft and forlorn. Where could they go for solace? In fact, they went into psychoanalysis. Many even became psychoanalysts.

American critical thinkers faced a similar problem, though later. What were they to do with their training after the fall of Communism? How do you undertake your intellectual labor when facts on the ground have rendered it empty and useless? What if it is all you know how to do? What if you are getting paid to do it?

One thing that they did not do was heed the advice of John Maynard Keynes: "When the fact change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

Instead, this merry band of outmoded thinkers has lifted its heads from a landscape littered with the corpses produced by modern communist practice and decided to follow Zizek's advice: keep on criticizing.

For those who are impelled toward political action, who are impatient to overthrow imperialism and liberal democracy, Zizek counsels them to: Do nothing. Why waste you time trying to change the world when the theories you have expounded have become historical detritus.

Unfortunately, you do not become a great thinker by beating a dead theory. And Zizek, dare I say, is a master at beating dead theories. He does it with verve and panache, with energy and boundless enthusiasm. He embellishes his books with a flood of cultural references and cherry picked historical details. Surely, he is more mythmaker than analyst.

Nonetheless, there is something ultimately futile about the exercise. Point that I believe Zizek knows only too well. Fortunately, he has been sufficiently influenced by certain currents in French philosophy to find a redeeming social value in futility.

Meantime, Zizek's new book begins with a distinction he borrowed from the French Marxist Etienne Balibar. He divides violence into the subjective and the objective. Perversely, he calls real acts of violence "subjective," and declares that the violence perpetrated on the human species by capitalistic exploitation constitutes "objective" violence.

Like any good Marxist Zizek believes that the latter is the cause of the former, thereby allowing us to excuse most acts of terrorism as dialectical inevitabilities. In his more impish moments Zizek labels terrorism an act of love.

Thus, the terrorist attack against the World Trade Center was "subjective" violence, while the people who were working in the building would be considered by Zizek: "agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for the explosion of subjective violence."

As I said, Zizek does not counsel resistance or rebellion. That course might be good for those who are dispossessed or dislocated in society. For the rest of us Zizek's advice is to do nothing. Literally. "Better to do nothing than to engage in localized acts the ultimate function of which is to make the system run more smoothly."

Disregarding the clunky syntax, this advice is vapid and useless. At best, it will produce more depression, and more prescriptions for Prozac. Fortunately, Zizek's persona of class clown makes it that no one takes what he says as rules to live by.

Obviously, the use of terms like "subjective" and "objective" in a way that defies their normal meaning is intentional. But don't imagine that this transformation makes you some kind of cultural revolutionary. The fact is, these terms are being used as shibboleths: they identify the user as a member of an outlaw gang. Nothing more, nothing less.

Zizek's larger argument begins with the proposition that all human groups have been founded on violence. This echoes Freud's notion that civilization was founded on the repression of human libido.

Zizek presents it as an axiomatic truth. It is not. It does, however, serve a purpose. If all groups have been founded in violence, we cannot condemn anyone's violent acts. The world, as Zizek notes, is divided between those who commit violence and those who want to commit violence. Again, this is reheated Freudian theory.

If all human societies are founded in acts of violence, this also implies that they were not founded on free choice or the free consent of their members. This means that when Marxists dream of a world in which people are deprived of their free choice, they are thinking that they are helping disabuse the masses of the illusion of freedom.

Hopefully, no one needs a reminder that the radical left has no use for freedom. It has no use for an economic system like capitalism that runs on billions of decisions made by millions of individuals in the marketplace.

The great thinkers on the left (and right) believe that they should do the thinking for everyone. Like their favorite modern philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who wanted to serve the Third Reich as Hitler's philosopher-king, they dream of becoming court philosophers to despots and tyrants.

Then their minds will rule the world without their having to dirty themselves with practical politics. Where previous great thinkers like Michel Foucault and Juliette Binoche have heaped praise on the despotic Ayatollahs in Iran, Zizek has expressed great fondness for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

But there is a therapeutic side to Zizek's project. It is not for nothing that he is constantly offering snippets of psychoanalytic theory. The psychological issue is this: Should the thinkers who supported Lenin, Stalin, and Mao feel guilty for the carnage that they produced? Should they feel anxious that they will be punished for having promoted these Communist horrors?

If that is their problem, then Zizek tries to show them how to manage their guilt. If, as he says, all human societies are predicated on violence, then guilt puts you in closer touch with the truth, especially compared with those deluded souls who refuse to accept that their capitalistic system is dialectically responsible for all the terror that was committed by those trying to overthrow it. All the violence perpetrated in the name of Marx was the proper reaction to the monstrous hegemony of capitalism. Doesn't that make you feel better?

Another way to manage guilt is to shift the blame. In a silly example of dialectical unreason, Zizek denounced hedge fund operator and philanthropist George Soros: "The same Soros who funds education has ruined the lives of thousands thanks to his financial speculations and is so doing has created the conditions for the rise of the intolerance he denounces."

Whether it is coming from Zizek or from Bill O'Reilly blaming the world's ills on speculators is surely in mode. Remember when the speculators were being blamed for the high price of oil. Now, of course, the same speculators are causing its rapid descent.

Be that as it may, the important point in Zizek's statement is the number: "thousands of lives" have been ruined by George Soros.

This from someone who supports a political philosophy whose practical application has murdered tens of millions and ruined the lives of hundreds of millions more. Oh, the irony of it all!


iro said...

You write:

"Obviously, the use of terms like "subjective" and "objective" in a way that defies their normal meaning is intentional."

Obviously you haven't read a single line of Hegel.

Culturally laughable article.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis of Zizek's attempt to sound interesting and worthwhile. He criticizes capitalism while he becomes one of the richest philsophers alive.

Anonymous said...

Yes, capitalism has made him quite rich in book contracts.

Ludovicus said...

Juliette Binoche? You surely must have meant Julia Kristeva.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Iro and add that when you claim that "En caso de los pensadores que apoyó a Lenin, Stalin y Mao se sienten culpables por la matanza que se producen?(...) por haber promovido estos horrores comunista? " You are either being tendentious and trust everybody thinks Lennin Mao and Stalin are all the same, or you now nothing about the Chinese and Russian revolution. Lennin even warned his compañeros about Stalin before he died! U can't put what Stalin did on Marxists-Lenninists' shoulders because they are 100% against him and Mao!!!

Anonymous said...

*or u Know .

Stuart Schneiderman said...

For Luis, in truth Juliette Binoche has gone on the record in support of the Iranian Revolution.

Trader said...
This comment has been removed by the author.