In Defense of Zizek
Freud once wrote that "the technique of jokes cannot be a matter of indifference from the point of view of discovering their essence." Adam Kirsch, in his takedown of Slavoj Zizek in The New Republic as "The Deadly Jester," is … Read More
Freud once wrote that "the technique of jokes cannot be a matter of indifference from the point of view of discovering their essence." Adam Kirsch, in his takedown of Slavoj Zizek in The New Republic as "The Deadly Jester," is sternly concerned with those essences, but due to an abundance of neglect on matters of technique, not much light is shone on the work of one of the worlds most attention grabbing cultural theorists. How far can the jester go without turning a joke regarding evil into an evil in itself? Does he have a productive function–and if so, can his work be done effectively if he’s demanded by his audience to stay in-bounds? Zizek’s work is undoubtedly joke-laden. His is not programmatic writing in the style of many of his leftist colleagues such as Antonio Negri, Andrew Arato, Judith Butler, Enrnesto Laclau, etc. But it is precisely for this reason that Kirsch’s inference of what Zizek’s programme "really" is, and his subsequent revulsion, are problematic. It’s also familiar. Laclau has called Zizek a totalitarian and Butler has claimed his ideas have an affinity with the right. But Zizek is exciting precisely because his innate drive to rail against all kinds of orthodoxy inevitably makes him an enfant terrible to just about anyone and everyone depending on the topic at hand. Kirsch thinks of Zizek as the jokester who’s subversively breeding degeneracy among would-be progressives. But what about technique, both of the critic and of the comedian?
First the critic: one wonders if Kirsch’s three hundred and sixty degree attack on Zizek is meant to be ironic, since it is fundamentally Freudian. Less an Interpretation of the Slovenian’s Dreams and more an assessment of Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, the diatribe enjoys as much of the psychoanalyst’s "authoritarian" posture as the subject it claims to be analyzing. However, even the more dedicated volumes that have been devoted to explicating what "Zizekian" thought consists of admit that Zizek does not offer this answer very clearly (more on this later…) It’s telling that Kirsch is so ready to make that leap. Nowhere is the problem with Kirsch’s analysis more apparent than in his attacks on the recent book ‘Violence.’ He tells his readers that Zizek means to tell us that "resistance to the liberal-democratic order is so urgent that it justifies any degree of violence." Not so. The author is very clear. He says that his intent is to expand our conceptual understanding of violence beyond it’s more obvious eruptions. He wants to explain violence not as merely the act of violence with which we’re most viscerally and morally aware (what he calls ‘subjective’ violence), but more thoroughly–as inclusive of the network of relations and circumstances that make that violence possible (he calls this ‘objective’ violence). Sure Zizek quotes Lenin’s directive to "Learn, learn, learn." That doesn’t make him a Bolshevik. One could, if one were so inclined, shockingly quote from ‘Violence,’ "while [terrorists] pursue what appear to us to be evil goals with evil means, the very form of their activity meets the highest standard of the good." There you have it ladies and gentlemen, Slavoj Zizek thinks that terrorism embodies the highest standard of the good. Fascist!! This is extremely easy to do, and it suggests the person doing so is only skimming to cherry-pick. More on "form" later, but the difference between an honest reader of Zizek and a detractor on a mission is that the reader would deal with what comes after. Namely, that this point is raised primarily to discuss what’s wrong with terrorism. Via Rousseau, Zizek wants to explain that what would appear to be at work in modern terrorism isn’t a familiar egotistical evil that fails to subordinate the self to social prohibitions against mass murder, but rather amour-propre. The latter being a particularly perverse form of self-love that’s more bent on destruction (blowing up the WTC) than the achievement of the supposed goal (the new Caliphate). It is the preferring oneself to others in a way that causes one to act against one’s own interests. With so much terrorism wreaking pure destruction and failing to accomplish any supposed goal, one might imagine anyone interested in understanding the enemy might give more of an ear to Zizek’s ideas. What drives terrorists is ressentiment and envy–a deep anger driven by their own belief in their own inferiority and envy of the enjoyment of others:
Too often the standard left (terror is the result of U.S. foreign policy and/or globalization) and standard right (terrorism is the result of fanatical Islamic imperialism) explanations don’t do enough work to fully explain the phenomenon of global terror. Each side gets something important correct, yet each comes up short. Of course there is worker migration, the breakdown of rigid borders, and displacement from traditional modes of community belonging that help increase the appeal of identification with religious symbology and ideology. There is anger toward the U.S., sometimes justified–but just as often imaginary and xenophobic–that fuels extremism. But the ideology itself also determines the character of the movement and provides the rationale for its activities. Therefore, the right is correct to say that ideology and those who act avowedly according to its goals must be held to account in very literal way. Zizek isn’t offering a ‘middle road’ or discounting either argument. He offers a new dimension to the conversation–one that ultimately argues not for sympathy with terrorism or "tolerance" for Islam–but rather one that argues adamantly against tolerance and in favor of atheism as European legacy worth defending against Islamic radicalism! And not Stalinist atheism, either. Elsewhere in the piece, Kirsch raises an eyebrow at Zizek’s use of scare quotes, but note their use when Zizek refers to "godless" communism. Taking issue with Andre Glucksmann’s use of Dostoevsky in the title of his book ‘Dostoevsy in Manhattan,’ he argues that Islamists and Stalinists prove the opposite of the Karamazov wisdom–if there IS a God then everything is permitted.
Zizek’s answer to the problem of amour-propre-driven terror and Western liberal "tolerance"? Hold Muslims accountable for their beliefs. Treat them like adults. And defend atheism–not just closeted and outlying atheism common in the U.S.–but the the variety of godlessness that is so acceptable that it isn’t an obstacle to public office that will also stave off the pursuit of anything from communist religiosity to religious extremism. Say what you will about jarring statements about the "form of the good." Nobody who has read ‘Violence’ can discuss it and fail to acknowledge that these are the driving themes of the book.
As for the form of the good versus the actual good. The distinction regarding form is made precisely because the form of the good and the actual good can be and often are quite different. This is a bit like the distinction in informal logic between the validity of a statement and its soundness which I’ve expounded in these pages before. In much the same way, Zizek’s discussion of terrorism as a pathology isn’t at odds with the prior statement that the form of terrorism embodies a standard of the good. It is the vocation of a philosopher to make these kinds of distinctions, which makes it all the more depressing when others then insist on making a conflation out of a distinction. When Zizek compares terrorists to Milton’s sympathetic Satan ("Evil, be thou my good"), he means this only in a formal sense:
So what we have is not praise for terrorism as resistance–it is a critique of a certain perceived predicament concerning today’s coordinates of freedom and political action. Terror here is referred to clearly as a "meaningless outburst." It is not lifted up as actual opposition to the system, it is only formally a kind of noble sacrifice. Its content is something entirely different, and therefore so is the actual moral truth of the act. Elsewhere in ‘Violence,’ he describes the opposition between "anemic liberals" and "impassioned fundamentalists. Paraphrasing Yeats’ ‘Second Coming,’ he notes, "The best’ are no longer able to fully engage, while ‘the worst’ engage in in racist, religious, sexist fanaticism." When I picked up ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’ so many years ago, I gave up on reading it because I was quite certain that anyone that wanted to understand what Zizek was talking about probably needed to understand something about Lacan. What I subsequently discovered was that one does not cursorily educate oneself on Lacan, nor is it possible to do so (even after six years of immersion, it’s quite hard to feel like you ‘get’ Lacan). This is by Lacan’s design. He famously said that the way in should be difficult. It is willful obfuscation, not plain-spokenness in the vein of Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language.’ Then again, Lacan wasn’t teaching politics. He was the most bizarre pedagogue. One learned from him not by way of traditional study, but through experiencing him. The teacher was not to be the disseminator of knowledge so much as the figure who provoked the unquenchable desire for knowledge. The whole Lacanian universe, no matter how much Kirsch wants to talk about supposed affinities for despots, is the fundamental passion of Zizek. His is not a conventional means of communication, it takes into account structures of desire, the unconscious, and the joke. Art is the lie that tells the truth as the theorist psychoanalytic Marxist tells the joke that drives toward something more real than the plain and didactic. Just as Lacan used his prose and speaking style to perform his philosophical position, so does Zizek use the mode of popculturemuncher provocateur and jester to hyperactively manipulate the audience’s desire and toy with their own unconscious modes of enjoyment and repression. In Zizek’s universe, these are not peripheral curiosities of mind, they are central to understanding poltics.
Through disparate and disjointed (often repetitive) volumes and lectures, the most unifying thread in Zizek’s oeuvre is the fearlessness to say what dare not be said. To leave open the horizon for saying the unsayable and doing the unthinkable. It’s inevitable that if you say that you have a fascination with the Jewish state as the living exemplar of the violence involved in all state creation, someone is going to call you a racist. So Zizek calls himself a racist first as a joke, much as a Jew who mocks himself by bestowing slurs upon himself before the anti-Semite does. Zizek and any serious reader knows the statement is anti-statist, not anti-Semitic. But also, this is significantly a matter of style. Zizek is happy to talk about his first experiences with psychoanalysis as the patient. He did so in a debate on moral relativism with Steven Lukes which I caught a few months ago. To watch Zizek is to know immediately that this is a man with a hyperactive brain and an obsessive need to be heard. He points out that his analyst had such a hard time with him because he tends to keep speaking so that his interlocutor has little chance to become involved (proved at said debate by the amount of floor time Zizek hoarded from Mr. Lukes). This, if anything is the best critique of Zizek, and it also explains why he sees his own theories and ideas in everything, from horrible Hollywood action films to jihadism to Kindersurprise candy eggs to the Holocaust. He is obsessively incapable of seeing anything else–he can’t shut it off. In this way, the vice of Slavoj Zizek is also the virtue. An M. Night Shyamalan film you might never have bothered to watch can take on whole new life as an ingenious philosophical metaphor. One gets the sense that very often the entire universe and every historical moment is merely a prop waiting to be used to explicate some bizarre Hegelian-Lacanian constellation of ideas. More often it seems critics like Kirsch primarily take issue with the absolute lack of boundaries Zizek sets for himself in terms of what he will and will not use to demonstrate some aspect of his thought. If Zizek suggests we notice the kernel in Leninism worthy of recuperation–the willingness to make the historical rupture and assume full responsibility for our political struggle toward a better world–this does not make him nostalgic for the Soviet state. This is politics as the art of the impossible and philosophy as the art of the asshole. Some like Kirsch will invariably insist that this means Zizek is the harbinger of the next fascist apocalypse cloaked in pop culture references and irony. But looking awry from Zizek and his work, he looks less like the Elvis of cultural theory and more like Willy Wonka. There a juvenile Socrates-cum-Johnny Rotten element to it. A gadfly who, like any great humorist, will take the joke too far–to the point of discomfort–to prove a point. A little ingenious, a little sadistic, very fallible, wildly imaginative, but ultimately well-intentioned and aware of the pitfalls that go along with the risks. For a 20th century that saw political oppression strictly through the lens of liberalism vs. illiberalism, Zizek’s 21st century vision is entirely unique. That’s why it’s incorrect to read him as a fascist/communist. He is opposed to different aspects of both liberalism and illiberalism. He isn’t a Marxist that sees capitalism in terms of the Industrial Revolution or the digital one. He’s opposed to capitalism as the political organization of enjoyment. As for what that means, this isn’t the forum for exegesis. But it’s far more interesting a framework–whether one adopts it or not–for imagining a left politics or why one might even be desirable in today’s world. It’s not very apropos of Kirsch’s erudite and well-written essay to broach the subject of Eminem. I guess it’s a bit "Zizekian." But it wasn’t long ago that humorless liberals and conservatives were decrying in unison the rapper’s second record as an ode to wife-beating, homophobia, drug abuse, murder, and all around bad taste. They didn’t appreciate the joke–not when the first track had the superstar singing about his mom ‘taking it like a slut.’ But oftentimes the jester is the most successful at preventing orthodoxy from becoming a regime. In the late 90′s and early 2000′s, it was political correctness that had sanctioned what could and could not be said to the detriment of art and politics. What was of the utmost was that somebody say anything and everything, and so that’s what Eminem did. Even though 9/11 punctured the burgeoning orthodoxy of the End of History, it inaugurated or reinvigorated many more, new and old. Clashes of Civilizations, Barbarians At the Gates, the Triumph Of Democracy, America As Great Satan, younameit. This arrived at the peak in popularity of postmodernism in continental philosophy–the academic equivalent of the cultural P.C. regime. Zizek came storming in as the one who would call most of the left’s arguments against invading Iraq weak (even if he too objected and his "Borrowed Kettle" argument against the intervention was unconvincing itself). He railed against mush-headed deconstructionists, and, yes, even liberals who had resigned themselves to believing that There Is No Alternative to capitalism. This was and still is refreshing and almost always productive. Journals like The New Republic are supposed to encourage radical thought in the secular public sphere. Slavoj Zizek is not so borderline fascist that his ideas should be thought of as outside the parameters of respectable consideration. His technique may be graceless and crass at times, and his ideas may sometimes be mistaken. But his hyperbolic humor and sweeping statements are really no more exaggerated than Kirsch calling him "deadly." Though when Zizek does it, at least it most often feels like an effort at opening up space for a new idea or a new way of thinking. Of course I’m sure Kirsch is no advocate of active–call it ‘subjective’ censorship–but this is ‘objectively’ how academics silence one another. So is Zizek walking the walk or being a hypocrite when he writes at length about G.K. Chesterton’s notion of the "thrilling romance of orthodoxy" as he does in "The Puppet and the Dwarf?" One might say this only confirms Zizek’s underlying authoritarianism and/or fascism. But one might also be fascinated by the sheer audacity of a staunch historical materialist to riff off of the 20th century’s most adept Christian apologist. Being provoked to find out just how/if Zizek can pull that off–having one’s desire to "Learn, learn, learn!" revved by the prospect, and enduring (enjoying?) the crass and weird moments in order to arrive at the rewarding idea is not only not Bolshevik, it often has the potential to be one of the most engaging experiences in modern political thought. That’s not "Deadly," it’s lively–as long as one is not indifferent to technique when analyzing the essence of that experience.