Monday, October 3, 2016

What Makes Zizek Run?

Over twenty years ago an editor from Artforum asked me to review Slavoj Zizek’s book, Enjoy Your Symptom. I had never really taken Zizek seriously and had not spent very much time reading him. But, I did read his book carefully before writing the review and discovered that it was a hodge-podge of unrelated and incoherent cultural references larded over with double talk and mumbo jumbo.

Which is what I said in my review. I handed it in. After a couple of weeks a junior assistant editor from the magazine called me and exclaimed that they could not possibly publish such a thing, because, if they did, Zizek would never write anything for them ever again. To me that sounded like a two-fer, but I did respect her honesty.

Everyone wants to know what Zizek is all about, and Roger Scruton has done yeoman work trying to decipher it in a recent issue of City Journal. Of course, Zizek is notoriously ambiguous. If you think he means this he will tell you that he means that. If you think he means that he will tell you that he means this. Evasive to a fault Zizek-- like a walking bundle of anxiety-- never allows himself to take a position. If he did, that would pin him down and he would have to accept some responsibility for his prescriptions and even for his imperious commands: as in, enjoy your symptom.

Zizek’s double talk, as Scruton understands well, is a way to avoid all moral responsibility. It has come to infest the radical left. If you had been touting the glory of Communism and other radical ideologies, you too would want to find a way to avoid taking responsibility for the horrors they have unleashed.

And yet, words mean what they mean. They say what they say. Zizek does not own the language. If he tells you to enjoy your symptom you have a right to interpret the imperative as meaning that you ought to enjoy your symptom.

Obviously, Zizek is coming to us from the world of French psychoanalysis, in particular, the theories of Jacques Lacan. Scruton makes a valiant effort to make sense of these theories, but I regret to say that he falls short. He should have read some of what I have written about Lacan—in particular, my book The Last Psychoanalyst. I will spare us all a close reading of his efforts to explain Lacan. I mention this in passing, because I know that if the Zizekians and Lacanians out there decide that they are going to respond to his article, they will have no difficulty identifying misreadings. If they do it will be in order to obscure Scruton's larger, correct point.

Zizek tells you to enjoy their symptoms because he accepts, with Lacan, that psychoanalysis is not going to rid you of your symptoms. By the lights of the theory the reason you have the symptoms is that you cannot accept that they are a source of sexual enjoyment. Once you learn to enjoy them you will feel better because you will have overcome the mental struggle to repress them. Said mental struggle is depriving you of your enjoyment. You will be able to glory in your perverse depravity. It will make you firmly Zizekian.

And yet, we ought to be cautious before accepting such amoral advice. Let’s imagine that your symptom involves shoplifting from Bloomingdales. What does it mean to enjoy your symptom? And, what if your symptom is that you are sexually attracted to four year old children? What does it mean to enjoy it?

You think that I am exaggerating. You would be wrong. Lacan’s theory revolves around seduction and the masters of the game of seduction are women. Evidently, this is culturally matriarchal and not patriarchal. But making women the center of the universe comports certain risks. In France today, as we speak, psychoanalysts blame mothers for autism and go to court to testify that autistic children should be removed from their homes and placed in institutions, against the wishes of their parents.

The reason: according to Freudian theory children become autistic because their mothers are frigid. If they are not devouring their children, that is. Once we blame mothers for autism, we can grant the state the right to take their children away from them, the better to reduce the toxic environment that has made them autistic. This is, of course, a theoretical delirium, but it does happen. You can engage in all the double talk and moral evasions you want, but there comes a time when this gets translated into real actions.

As for Lacan’s vaunted theories of desire, I will present them to you briefly in a context. The terms are Lacan’s. I have followed them religiously. The context is mine. You can be sure that the Lacanians would rather you not consider them within this context.

A man is being tried for rape. The judge asks him why he did what he did. He explains that: she really, really wanted it. Call it the Other’s desire. But how, the judge asks, did you know that she wanted it, or even that she wanted you. Well, the accused rapist explains, when I looked at her I felt a stirring in my loins. Lacan would have used a more colorful term, but this is a family blog. Then, the judge replies: But she has stated very clearly that she did not want to have carnal relations with you. To that the accused will respond that the judge has obviously not read enough Lacan. If he did he would know that women never know what they want. QED.

Of course, this is less of an abstraction than you think. Allow me to share a true story. One day many years ago a female psychoanalyst from South America came to consult with me. She wanted me to know that one day when she was in analysis, as she was lying on the couch free associating, her analyst, who was sitting behind her, got up from his chair, jumped on her and had sex with her. She was too shocked to consent and was too shocked to say anything. Had she reported it—to whom?—her career would have been over. I have heard a number of other second hand reports of similar incidents… almost all of them from South America.

As I said, this is all not as much of a theoretical abstraction as you would think.

I have argued before, in my book and in this blog, that psychoanalysis, like its fellow-traveling idealistic philosophies is working hard to create an amoral universe where you can be absolved of all responsibility for your actions.

In the case of Zizek and his leftist comrades, Scruton expresses amazement at how well they have managed to evade all sense of responsibility for the horrors of Communism. It has helped that they do not believe that concrete evidence can possibly disprove their convictions. They have erected a theoretical colossus in which empirical evidence and pragmatic considerations are defamed-- invented by Anglo-Saxon philosophers as a way to sell colonialism and materialism to heathens.

Zizek and the leftists have chosen to believe that the results of competition in the marketplace and on the battlefield is nothing compared to the gold standard for manly behavior—how many women you can seduce.

If you suggest that the grotesque failure of Communist cultures discredits Marxist thinking, they will respond that these failures are merely a test of their faith.

When it comes to reality and marketplace, one notes with some chagrin that the Zizeks of this world, along with the Lacans and the Heideggers do not use the same language as the rest of us. Where British philosophers have been willing to accept the verdict of the language usage marketplace and accept language as it is, the great idealistic thinkers refuse to do the same. They work hard at creating a jargon-filled special language. You might not know what it means. You might not care what it means. If you can speak it you will be admitted into membership into a cult of fellow true believers. And then you too will be able to mouth off in the neologisms and syntactical contortions that make the writings of the three people I mentioned above nearly impenetrable.

Where Wittgenstein said that philosophers should not tell people how to use language, the brain dead administrators of American universities today are telling students that if they do not use the wrong pronouns they will be punished.

Of course, Lacan and Heidegger died before the Soviet Union collapsed and only slightly after China began to turn toward capitalism. And yet, Scruton makes the salient point about the leftists who had wagered everything on Marxism and other forms of socialism. How did it happen that these people could not recognize that their god had failed and how did they have the unmitigated gall to suggest that they had to fight against capitalism and free enterprise?

They were railing against consumerism when Communism was notable for not being able to produce anything to consume. You is no such thing as Communist consumerism, but only Communist starvationism.

We might simply say that these leftists are sore losers. Or we might say that they had learned from their masters that they never had to say that they were sorry.

Scruton explains the historical context:

For a while, it looked as though an apology might be forthcoming from those who had devoted their intellectual and political efforts to whitewashing the crimes of the Soviet Union or praising the “people’s republics” of China and Vietnam. But the moment proved short-lived. Within a decade, the Left establishment was back in the driver’s seat, with Zinn and Noam Chomsky renewing their intemperate denunciations of America, the European Left regrouped against “neoliberalism” (the new name for the free economy) as though this had been the trouble all along, Habermas and Ronald Dworkin collecting prestigious prizes for their barely readable defenses of ruling leftist platitudes, and the veteran Marxist Hobsbawm rewarded for a lifetime of unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union by his appointment as “Companion of Honour” to the Queen.

In two paragraphs Scruton summarizes some of the positions Zizek has taken-- while not exactly taking them. It is a catalogue of perverse depravity, a willing acceptance and embrace of every horror of the twentieth century. That anyone would allow Zizek to abuse the minds of gullible college students is beyond the pale.

In Scruton’s words:

Thus, we are not “to reject terror in toto but to re-invent it”; we must recognize that the problem with Hitler, and with Stalin, too, is that they “were not violent enough”; we should accept Mao’s “cosmic perspective” and read the Cultural Revolution as a positive event. Rather than criticizing Stalinism as immoral, we should praise it for its humanity, since it rescued the Soviet experiment from “biopolitics”; besides, Stalinism is not immoral but too moral, since it relied on the figure of the big Other, which, as all Lacanians know, is the primordial mistake of the moralist. We must also recognize that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is “the only true choice today.”

Žižek’s defense of terror and violence, his call for a new Party organized on Leninist principles, his celebration of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the countless deaths notwithstanding and, indeed, lauded as part of the meaning of a politics of action—all this might have served to discredit Žižek among more moderate left-wing readers, were it not for the fact that it is never possible to be sure that he is serious. Maybe he is laughing—not only at himself and his readers but at an academic establishment that can seriously include Žižek alongside Kant and Hegel on the philosophy curriculum, with a Journal of Žižek Studies now in its fourth year of publication. Maybe he is cheering us all on in a holiday from thinking, scoffing at the idiots who imagine that there is anything else to be done with thinking than to escape from it….

Does he mean it or does he not? It does not matter. In truth, when followers of these kinds of theories take power they need to take action. And they will be held accountable for their actions… regardless of whether it is philosophically correct.

But, the purpose of Zizek’s logorrheic prose, Scruton explains, is to detach us from reality and send us into the world of our thoughts. And, he adds, Zizek arrives at a glorification of nothing:

Žižek’s windbaggery serves one purpose: to turn attention away from the actual world, from real people, and from ordinary moral and political reasoning. It exists to promote a single and absolute cause, the cause that admits of no criticism and no compromise and that offers redemption to all who espouse it. And what is that cause? The answer is there on every page of Žižek’s writings: Nothing.

Ah, yes. But, don’t you know, nothing is something. Were we to follow Lacanian theory we would see, with Lacan, that “nothing” matters because nothing is what women have between their legs. And, that nothing is certainly something. It is the thing itself.

That nothing is the something around which everything else revolves. It is such an important nothing that it defines women in terms of a lack, an absence, a void, a gap… a nothing. Lacan even went so far as to explain that this genital nothingness, this thigh gap, was so important that it colored women’s thoughts. Thus, women are always somewhat empty headed. Their thought, especially about their desire, was always characterized by a lack of sense, by nonsense.

You can understand immediately why so many women are drooling over Lacan and Zizek.

These thinkers console themselves, Scruton says, with the thought that there is always the Revolution. As the saying goes, the Revolution cometh. And if you don’t agree you have an orgasmic deficiency, because don’t you see the pun in the word: come?

We do better to recall Shakespeare’s  words:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.


Trigger Warning said...

In 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper outlining special relativity. For folks living in those times, it was a deeply counter-intuitive theory, sporting weird consequences like time dilation. Shortly after, Bohr, and especially Schrödinger, began laying out the foundations for an even more counter-intuitive theory, quantum mechanics. Those gentlemen became intellectual celebrities.

The attraction of celebrity is powerful. Other intellectuals began to see that weirdly counter-intuitive theories are, despite their disturbing properties, a path to the intellectual celebrity they crave. Importantly, however, although classical physics "seemed" right based on what average people experienced in the world, both relativity and quantum mechanics were being verified by empirical litmus test.

It's difficult to develop deeply counter-intuitive theories in many disciplines. In architecture, for example, bridges and buildings simply fall down. The world as it is proves one wrong. But there are domains that are immune to such testing. One, of course is philosophy, and another is psychology. And if the path to intellectual celebrity is counter-intuitive theory, these are disciplines ripe for exploitation. So psychology, for example, has had theory positing the existence of invisible, undetectable, yet powerful psychodynamic forces (parroting, of course, counter-intuitive thermodynamics, the prom queen of weird science in Freud's youth), to the stimulus-response behaviorism of BF Skinner positing that there's nothing in there worth worrying about and we can rearrange the wiring as we see fit (mimicking the manually wired unit-record punched card machines that were the prom queen technology of Skinner's day). Now, of course, we have cognitive "information processing" models emulating the most advanced technology of our day. Anticipating quantum computing, should it ever exist, we have "quantum consciousness" theories that combine two popular and widely misunderstood scientific endeavors.

In the language arts, psychology, philosophy, etc, there is a competition to see who can develop the most counter-intuitive and use that as a vehicle to celebrity. So we have "theorists" claiming that there are no differences between men and women and positing a "gender spectrum" (despite biological data), and pseudo-medical treatments suggesting, as Schneiderman points out, "that [the treatment] psychoanalysis is not going to rid you of your symptoms".

Such things are possible only in intellectual pursuits divorced from the world. Joe the Plumber, Bob the aeronautical engineer, or Marcus Welby, MD cannot get away with this. Can you imagine a physician claiming validity for his treatment by encouraging the victim to wallow in his malarial symptoms and enjoy the delirium?

It's a quest for the weirdest counter-intuitive theory and the academic celebrity and citations that come with it.

It's not new:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

And yet,

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.

Ares Olympus said...

The Shakespeare MacBeth quote is certainly excellent. It reminds me of Donald Trump as well, although we don't know how much will will pay for his strutting. So far only price has been the lost dignity of the GOP.

Stuart: Where Wittgenstein said that philosophers should not tell people how to use language, the brain dead administrators of American universities today are telling students that if they do not use the wrong pronouns they will be punished.

That non sequitur surprised me, but while we're here, I'm curious. Who and where and what sort of punishment?! Let's see, google finds this article:
Students or employees who consciously use the “wrong” pronouns will be in violation of school policies on comprehensive non-discrimination, Title IX and sexual harassment, and student code of conduct.
CPS warns that “violations will result in appropriate consequences for offending staff and students.”

Its not clear what the "appropriate consequences" would be, but I'd imagine it about equal to any sort of taunting or teasing, when you know someone doesn't like a nickname or whatever and you continue to use it.

Like if a male student purposely references another boy as "she" to piss him off because he has long hair, presumably trying to shame him into cutting his hair, the offender might on a first offense try to claim "innocence" and pretend he couldn't figure out his gender, and after the third time, it probably would be a good idea that there are consequences that make him think about his behavior.

Anyway, we all agree life would be simpler if we could agree some visual and behavioral traits only exist in boys (like short hair and being competitive) and some traits only exist in girls (like long hair and being cooperative), and everyone agreed to follow the cultural expectations and we'd never have to feel bad when we make mistakes, or feel angry at someone who fails to conform.

If we all could just conform, and all problems are solved, well, unless its only cooperative girls who are supposed to conform, and then we have to punish the boys for being boys and taunting other boys for status.

David Foster said...

Trigger Warning...indeed. Your thoughts fit with my hypothesis about academic degeneration, to wit:

In the late-1950s through mid-1960s, science--including university science--had enormous prestige. It was prestige fairly earned through radar, nuclear energy, antibiotics, computers, transistors, space travel, and much more.

So what do you do if you're a university professor and you're *not* in physics or electrical engineering or medical science? There were two basic strategies followed:

First, there were the sociologists, political scientists, etc...They claimed that their fields were becoming hard sciences too, put a lot of emphasis on quantification and modeling, asserted that they could provide indispensable guidance to policy-makers.

A different strategy was followed by the English professors, history professors, and much of the Art department. It wasn't so much to imitates scientific rationality as to challenge it--not to offer to act as guides to the policy-makers, but rather to argue explicitly or implicitly that it must all be burned down.

I don't think this was really a matter of conscious conspiracy theories, just of differing strategic responses to the competitive situation and the desire for status and professional advancement.

AesopFan said...

TW - I assume you are familiar with the Sokal Hoax.

Ares - the universities not only proclaim that everyone has to use everyone else's preferred pronouns; they have also proclaimed that only the approved pronoun preferences (and thus the correct "everyones") enjoy that privilege.
"And updating John’s post celebrating the inventive student at the University of Michigan who chose “His Highness” as his preferred pronoun, the predictable reaction has happened:

Friday afternoon, a University of Michigan statistics professor threatened to “punish” anybody in her class who used the school’s new pronoun designation tool to change their pronoun to “His Majesty” like YAF Chairman Grant Strobl did earlier this week.

According to student sources, the professor, identified as statistics lecturer Nadiya Fink, told her class they would be punished if they changed their pronoun to something “disrespectful” to students who are “different” than “us.”

Fink remarked, “People who do what that kid did will be punished.”

Naturally. I suggest students demand to use Imperial, Klingon, and Romulan personal pronouns, like Darth, Grand Mof, Zantei, Epitai, and Sub-Commander. That’s just for warmup. Then we roll out personal pronouns from Dungeons and Dragons. Blow the whole stupid thing up."

It's enough to make Orwell weep.

Speaking of which:
(commenter says):
"Have no fear Comrade Kimball - a few months ago during a BBC debate about the threat to free speech on university campuses, Richard Brooks, the Vice-President of the National Union of UK Students, almost quoted George Orwell's Animal Farm directly when he said that "some people have more equal rights than others"

Life imitates Animal Farm."