Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What is Slavoj Zizek?

When Plato declared that communities should be ruled by philosopher-kings he meant that philosophers should be made into kings or that kings should learn how to philosophize.

Today’s America has more than a few aspiring philosopher-kings, public intellectuals who want to wield political power and to exercise political influence. Some segments of the population even believe that we should place intellectuals in public office, regardless of how incompetent or unqualified they are.

Still, that is penny ante when you look at an aspiring philosopher-king like the great Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. A member of the Nazi party and a strong defender of the Third Reich Heidegger believed that Hitler could improve his policies if only he would allow Heidegger to teach him philosophy.

European philosophers and intellectuals have long been held in thrall by tyrants and despots. Utterly lacking in shame they have glommed on to Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot… whoever.

It’s a lot easier to capture the mind of a despot than to rustle up votes via retail politics or to implement real policies in the real world.

Philosophers believe in a world where their great minds can impose their great ideas on a human race that they take to be so much silly putty.

Of course, the world is not exactly awash in great philosophers these days. There is no new Sartre, no new Heidegger, no new Foucault on the horizon.

So we have reached the next stage in human intellectual evolution: the advent of the philosopher-clown.

Of course, I am referring to famed Slovenian philosopher and culture critic, Slavoj Zizek.

As self-styled post-Marxist thinker Zizek has come to embody the truth of one of Marx’s more famous dicta:

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

How else to see Zizek than as a philosopher-clown involved in an extraordinary intellectual farce.

If you will allow me to be properly Zizekian, I would also say that Zizek is a symptom of a cultural moment, a crisis of faith among hyper-educated intellectual leftists.

Disaffected intellectuals the world over have become flotsam and jetsam, scattered over the ocean, the detritus remaining after the sinking of the good ship Communism.

Now that Communism has definitively failed what will become of the graduate students, the deconstructionists, the critical theorists, the Occupiers.

What will become of their grand ideas, their visions and their dreams? Now that they have no more gods to worship are they destined to become capitalist entrepreneurs?

Their gods have failed them, but they have taken consolation through the erudite entertainment offered by Slavoj Zizek. Or better, he has found them.

A consummate intellectual entrepreneur Zizek has succeeded in exploiting their credulity and ignorance of the disaffected left by selling them tome after tome of barely intelligible verbiage.

They were looking for a new master and a new way to be duped. Zizek has obliged.

Only a Neo-Communist, i.e., a Neo-com, like Zizek could be such a perfect capitalist. He has found a way to exploit and monetize the ignorance of leftist intellectuals. He has found a way to feed their pretensions. He has found a niche market and has flooded it with goods and goodies.

Zizek’s writings do not instruct; they do not engage in the hard labor of ratiocination. Proud of their intrinsic illogic, they are a rhetorical performance. They shock; they awe; they entertain. They produce emotion, not thought.

Disaffected leftists can read Zizek, not understand a word of it, but still feel that they belong to something, to a cause perhaps, but, more likely to a virtual community of great minds that modern capitalism has left behind.

Of course, there’s method to Zizek’s self-proclaimed madness. Marx failed, Zizek tells us, because it tried to mold the real world. There was nothing wrong with Marx’s Hegelian theories except that he chose to address practical problems.

It was a fatal error. So, Zizek, if I may paraphrase, wants to offer membership in a giant virtual community of minds, thereby creating a group of cult followers who have no idea what they think and no real engagement with reality.

Zizek is happy to tell them what they want to hear. Disaffected post-Marxists and Neo-Communists want to hear about the failure of capitalism. Green to the gills, they want to hear that capitalism is destroying the planet, that it is an offense against the natural order.

If these ideas do not correlate with reality, so much the better. That makes them more pure.

Perhaps you have to live on the European continent to appreciate it. When British philosopher John Gray took to reading some of Zizek’s latest tomes—surely to save the rest of us from having to do so— he dared to follow the tradition of good British empiricism and to evaluate Zizek’s claims against the facts:

With its sweeping claims and magniloquent rhetoric, this passage is typical of much in Žižek’s work. What he describes as the premise of the book is simple only because it passes over historical facts. Reading it, no one would suspect that, putting aside the killings of many millions for ideological reasons, some of the last century’s worst ecological disasters—the destruction of nature in the former Soviet Union and the devastation of the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, for example—occurred in centrally planned economies. Ecological devastation is not a result only of the economic system that exists in much of the world at the present time; while it may be true that the prevailing version of capitalism is unsustainable in environmental terms, there is nothing in the history of the past century that suggests the environment will be better protected if a socialist system is installed.

Gray is writing in The New York Review of Books. He is not a fan of global capitalism. He is surely as green as Zizek.

Yet, he sees that Zizek is courting danger by making outrageous claims in the interest of titillating the masses of disaffected intellectuals.

Zizek would reply that he does not want to put his ideas into practice. He has no interest in logic or in common sense. When he talks about violence he does not mean it as the way the language prescribes.

Zizek said:

It’s crucial to see violence which is done repeatedly to keep the things the way they are. In that sense, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.

Of course, this is gibberish. Zizek is trying to shock people. And yet, what happens when someone goes out to kill a few Jews because, after all, such actions are less violent than what Gandhi did?

Zizek celebrates violence and terrorism because it will alienate people from reality. It will lead them to live within a virtual community of true believers and cult followers. Gray explains:

…though Žižek accepts that violence has failed to achieve its communist goals and has no prospect of doing so, he insists that revolutionary violence has intrinsic value as a symbolic expression of rebellion…

Rather than denounce the great mass murderers of the last century Zizek declares that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were not violent enough!

If they had taken the next Hegelian step and destroyed the apparatus of state power, they would have liberated the World Spirit and ushered in a new world of great minds.

For Zizek, that would be the true 1%. Interviewed by the Guardian Zizek recently declared that 99% of the human race counts as: “boring idiots.”

Zizek does not fault the Nazis for their violence or for the holocaust. He objects to Hitler on more philosophical grounds:

In Zizek’s words:

The true problem of Nazism is not that it “went too far” in its subjectivist-nihilist hubris of exercising total power, but that it did not go far enough, that its violence was an impotent acting-out which, ultimately, remained in the service of the very order it despised.

This suggests that if Nazism had created a new social order then there would have been ample justification for the methods it used.

As Gray says, this is utterly "repugnant and grotesque." In his words:

Describing mass murder in this way as an exercise in hermeneutics is repugnant and grotesque; it is also characteristic of Žižek’s work. He criticizes Stalin’s policy of collectivization, but not on account of the millions of human lives that were violently truncated or broken in its course. What Žižek criticizes is Stalin’s lingering attachment (however inconsistent or hypocritical) to “‘scientific’ Marxist terms.” Relying on “objective social analysis” for guidance in revolutionary situations is an error: “at some point, the process has to be cut short with a massive and brutal intervention of subjectivity: class belonging is never a purely objective social fact, but is always also the result of struggle and social engagement.” Rather than Stalin’s relentless use of torture and lethal force, it is the fact that he tried to justify the systematic use of violence by reference to Marxian theory that Žižek condemns.

 Zizek would not be bothered by the contradiction. His post-Cartesian slogan might be: I contradict myself, therefore I am.

1 comment:

Soviet of Washington said...

La Trahison des clercs, Stuart.

For a more complete discussion, see Roger Kimball's review of Julian Benda's book: