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Žižek – The most dangerous thinker in the west? Books

Love him or loathe him, Slavoj Žižek is a cultural phenomenon. He seems to inspire unconditional adulation amongst his legions of followers and, predictably, equally unbridled derision amongst his many detractors. Some see him as a serious and original thinker, others as an overrated fraudulent showman. So who's right? Alex Baker tries to find clues in the pages of Zizek's latest offering 'Living in the end times'.

Books - Posted on Thursday, September 23, 2010 11:15 - 6 Comments

By Alex Baker

The last few publications by Slavoj Žižek have deployed a masthead taken from his now-infamous spat with the New Republic magazine, crowning him “the most dangerous philosopher in the west”. The disparagement that can be found in this quote, and the original article, is nothing new. Žižek has, at various times, been described as a Stalinist, Maoist, Troskyist, Satanist, Anti-Semite and, that most damaging of insults reserved for left-leaning academics, a ‘post-modernist’.

The New Republic quote, however, summarises two of the more common responses to Žižek and his work. In one interpretation it reads like a tagline from a lost movie in which John Wayne made his single fateful foray into the world of philosophy; Žižek, (played by Wayne) theorises first and asks questions later. By this understanding he is a glib recycler of pop culture shot from the hip, a b-movie academic amusement, memorable but not ‘high art’. The other option is to take such a comment completely seriously; Žižek is insurgent in the ‘West’, a cold war hangover, the final stain of philosophy to be exorcised from the western political project (The ‘East’ meanwhile, retains its oriental status as a place of dark and dangerous ideas). He seeks to revive the desiccated corpse of Lenin and revive the Communist project. In short, there are (at least) two Žižeks; the clown, and the critic.

This multiplicity has lead to a certain approach in much of the mainstream press to review Žižek himself, as opposed to his work. Writers and interviewers wonder why a 61 year old left-wing Slovene academic is so popular, packing out lecture theatres and attracting left-leaning youth, whilst creating precisely the conditions they are confounded by. The most common comparison made has been to the following attracted in the 1980s by the post-structural linguist Jacques Derrida, whom the economist Martin Wolf accused of being a “pied piper” of postmodern relativism (prefiguring the kind of criticisms levelled at Žižek by The New Republic). However, the real precursor to Žižek comes a generation earlier with the rise of the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse- like Marcuse, Žižek’s work is unequivocal in the call for radical action and explicit in the use of ideology, inspiring the most reactionary of responses (not to suggest that Derrida was some kind of sedentary intellectual zealot). It’s clear that Žižek plays into this approach, often being interviewed in humorous locations for his films; a commode in The Perverts Guide To Cinema, quite possibly naked in his bed in Žižek! (a title reminiscent of Oklahoma!), a junkyard in Examined Life. These scenes disseminate themselves through popular media like youtube and help him reach an audience which his contemporaries can only envy.

In his latest offering Living In The End Times we are offered a possible explanation; Žižek believes that a new, ‘Ubuist’ (a term extracted in French culture from the surrealist playwright Alfred Jarry), conception of power has arisen in “The West” in response to the streamlined authoritarian capitalism found in China; leaders like Berlusconi (or, closer to home, Boris Johnson) are building frameworks in which satire and criticism of those in power is not only permitted but encouraged. We have supposed freedoms, or are allowed certain preferences; “sex on a hot radiator” (for example) is freely on offer if we so choose. However, true challenges to the system are brutally denied. Žižek’s mode of delivery is Ubuism inverted; Žižek believes that this is the true ‘new politics’, and it is possible that, in his own way, he wants in on the joke.

In the introduction to First As Tragedy, Then as Farce (which can be read as a companion or even abridgement of Living In The End Times) Žižek filtered out those with “vulgar anti-comunist sentiment…the book should be forcibly confiscated from you”; the same can be said of Living In The End Times. The body of the text is clearly addressed to leftists and liberals, and the ‘evils of capitalism’, while sometimes pointed out, are pretty much assumed. The structure, built around the ‘stages of grief’ modern traumatic counselling prescribes (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression etc.), rapidly becomes transparent and gives way to a series of vignettes on various topics associable within those broad themes. This is not to say that Žižek lacks coherence, he retains a consistent motif; liberalism or “global capitalism with a human face”, as a project which formed the defining ideology of the last 20 years, has inevitably failed, and has ceded ground to the Ubuists and the authoritarian capitalism embodied in China. “What is missing in liberalism is what, following Marx, one can call the ‘base’ of freedom” he opines; a revival of Communism is the only solution.

Žižek himself has admitted that much of the material in End Times is nonsensical or irrelevant, his confession noted in a recent interview in the Guardian; ‘”I will tell you the truth now,” he says, pointing to the first chapter, then the second. “Bullshit. Some more bullshit. Blah, blah, blah.”‘. There is no avoiding that elements feel like a rushed job and some of it is clearly ‘filler’. This is not a labour of love, but does have elements of a crowd-pleaser. To those versed in Žižek’s approach many elements will feel over-familiar. Lacan, Hegel and Marx, the trinity of the Žižek method, are once again present and accounted for. Nonetheless this is ‘lighter’ reading than some of the early English-language texts like For they Know Not What They Do, (which comprised of lectures on psychoanalysis and Lacan). Theory is employed in relation to recognisable ideas and events from popular culture. I can only add to the praise for the enjoyable, if frothy, section on Kung Fu Panda, and Žižek’s analysis of Zionism as Anti-Semitism is bold and lucid; the uninitiated will gather enough to make a reading worthwhile. Once again present is Žižek’s extreme form of Hegel-influenced paradoxical argument; Josef Fritzl’s dungeon, for example, is compared to a manifestation of the Von Trapp family from The Sound of Music. The radical ‘schizoanalyst’ Gilles Deleuze once “imagined approaching an author from behind and giving him a child that would indeed be his but would nonetheless be monstrous”; these days Žižek seems to be engaging in a similar practice with his own brand of theory.

A less familiar element is Žižek’s turn at ecological theory. Living In The End Times is the first occasion on which he has dealt with this at any length. As is customary some sacred cows are brought to slaughter- Žižek finds affinity with the idea of the ‘Anthropocene’- the idea that the environment has now become dependant upon human activity to maintain global equilibrium (similar to his views on Afghanistan- the situation, though deplorable, will become worse if we withdraw altogether). He openly celebrates the idea of ‘inert waste’, or as he puts it more bluntly; “shit”. Žižek claims environmentalists should be consistent in their demand to ‘love the world’ and love all of it, even the scatological elements (and, lest we forget: the riot-inducing opening line of Jarry’s Ubu Roi- the model for Žižek’s conception of the ‘new politics’ in the West- was “Merdre”, a portmanteau of the French for ‘shit’ and ‘murder’). These positions clearly contradict both a mainstream and a radical ecology that claims there is need to ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’ waste, and endeavours to ‘reduce human impact’. It does, however, seem like something of a sidestep that could let Marxism off lightly for its limitations in the ecological arena, and looks lazy compared to the amount of work done by other thinkers influenced by Marx in the same field.

This highlights Žižek’s approach to what Mark Fisher (in his highly recommended book of the same name) calls ‘Capitalist Realism’- the idea that “there is no alternative”. Here Žižek is nothing short of disheartening- he displays an open hostility towards utopian thought. Joseph Fritzl is the manifestation of “all power to the imagination”. Žižek believes the uprisings of 1968 are the starting point for the modern liberalism that is now dying off, rather than the high point and moment of possible emancipation or revolution- a claim that will upset many, more traditional, leftists. Ultimately Žižek retains the Freudian core of Lacan’s theories; he sincerely believes that capitalism is the result of “too much freedom”, an indulgent ‘id’ permitted by the capitalist ‘superego’. Žižek calls for what Fisher dubs a “Marxist Supernanny”, here conceived as ‘god as a member of the Party’. There’s no escaping the sense of authoritarian logic in this. If Žižek sticks with Engels’ (or Hegel’s, as Garrett Hardin claimed) maxim that ‘Freedom is the recognition of necessity’, then what should concern anyone interested in Žižek’s work is just how he believes these necessities should be recognised.

Reading Living in the End Times is like playing ‘chicken’ with Žižek in the other car; you know you have to pull away, otherwise things will get messy. The question is how far you will stay with what he is saying until he hits a nerve or draws blood. There’s a lot of “bullshit” in Living in the End Times. There’s also a lot to reward you if you can stomach the weirder moments. So, is Slavoj Žižek the “most dangerous philosopher in the West”? It depends on who is asking. It also depends on who isn’t going to brake.

Living in the End Times

by Slavoj Žižek

432PP, Verso, £20

Alex Baker is a postgraduate student at the University of Nottingham.


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Aug 4, 2010 10:25

I’m sure Zizek *loves* being viewed as the most dangerous philosopher in the West – he always tries to provoke with what he says, regardless of whether it’s really provocative or not, and cultivates an image as a daring, macho iconoclast. He provokes the right but also the left – on the former side there’s his rather insubstantial Leninism, his “what’s wrong with being totalitarian” line, etc; but there’s also his “multiculturalism is the new fascism”, “against human rights” and “hurrah for Bush”. It’s often hard to tell what he means and when he’s joking. He doesn’t mean it (literally) about Lenin, and he certainly doesn’t mean it about Bush. But having read a lot of his work, I would say that he does have some genuinely worrying authoritarian views.

You aren’t going to get far understanding his politics without reaching the concept of the Act. The Act has a number of characteristics, but among these are that it is a Schmittian decision, absolutely ungrounded and unconditional, and that it does away with the ‘free play of subjectivities’ and dialogue with others, instead instituting a ‘new Terror’ grounded in its own self-certainty. Furthermore, while the Act is revolutionary, it doesn’t really bring about a new order – it is built into the Act that it has to be betrayed, it has to return to ‘normality’. The Zizekian Act is very much counterposed to other positions in radical theory which emphasise the corrosion of authoritarian power and the diffusion of molecular forces as the path to overcoming capital – one could mention Deleuze and Guattari, Holloway, Hakim Bey, James Scott, Colin Ward and Situationism as very different incarnations of this position – with Zizek instead viewing capitalism as *too* decoded and liberal, and seeking to defeat it through a gesture of authority. I’d go as far as to say that what Zizek wants to get rid of in capitalism are mainly the things that, for me, are its mitigating features.

Alongside this, there’s a whole string of basically conservative or authoritarian positions Zizek takes: that sexual harassment prohibitions are really a way for women to provoke men, that the death penalty is a legitimate part of how ‘others arrange their jouissance’, that decriminalising gay sex has taken the fun out of it, that colonised people can’t complain about colonialism because the coloniser as Other was ‘already there’ as a cultural figure, and of course the recurring nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of Stalinism. I also wonder how substantial his anti-capitalism is. When he isn’t tirading on the necessity of the Act, Zizek reads very much like a left-reformism, e.g. his solution for Palestine is a two-state solution with NATO peacekeepers; his line on structural adjustment is, “if it works, why not try a dose of it”, and Marxism is viewed as trying to have the productivity of capitalism without its necessary supplement. I don’t think his instincts are all that radical in terms of the kind of society he wants to see. He thinks there’s a need for antagonism, violence and decisiveness which is lacking today, but beyond this, he doesn’t have any real issue with alienation, repression, work, war, the state, authority – all of which he treats as necessary (Lacanian ontology is horribly conservative in this regard).

What he’s good at, is the work of negation: critiquing widespread positions or at least throwing doubt on them. He’s be even better at it if he’d stay on target and avoid straw-manning, but he does a great job in breaking taboos – such as comparing Berlusconi to Ahmadinejad. Lacanian theory is very useful for understanding dominant (neurotic) subjectivities (not so good for understanding dissident or autonomous subjectivities), and for this reason there’s some very useful concepts crop up in Zizek’s analyses – the social symptom for instance, and the idea of fetishist attachments (doing things not because you believe them but because you think other people believe them). It’s the passage from negation to affirmation that’s Zizek’s Achilles heel – he can’t imagine, and doesn’t want to imagine, a better world, and is inclined therefore to campaign for a similar or worse world.

Aug 4, 2010 11:56

Very pertinent and insightful Andy, thank you.

Aug 4, 2010 17:30

“It’s the passage from negation to affirmation that’s Zizek’s Achilles heel – he can’t imagine, and doesn’t want to imagine, a better world, and is inclined therefore to campaign for a similar or worse world.”

Which is ironic, right, considering that part of his critique of the left is that they cannot imagine a world beyond capitalism.

Now, Zizek believes that capitalism is, post-1968, entirely rhizomatic, de-territorialised etc etc, hence opposition to it in the terms of a Deleuzian style rhizome or a John Holloway style scream is entirely within the purview of capitalism itself and thus can cause no change. This is even acknowledged by some of the theorists of this approach – Empire, with its relatively decentralised methodology of control, make possible the Multitude. Thus Zizek’s favourite story – the stock broker on the bus reading Anti-Oedipus – reveals the problem with what Alain Badiou calls “democractic materialism” – it is essentially capitalist.

What we have here is a cision. On one side, Zizek’s supporters, often in theological circles such as Radical Orthodoxy, see Zizek as admitted for the need for an entirely alternative polity based on an entirely pre-modern and hence pre-capitalist metaphysics – in the case of Radical Orthodoxy hierarchy grounded in transcendence mediated via the analogical relation between God and world found within the church – the rich man at his garden, the poor man at his gate. Hence the communitarian solution. Thus these thinkers take on his critique of human rights, identity politics, etc etc as that we should throw them out tout court, rather than a saving of the name. The existence of such figures, as well as the revival of some notion of communism has force Zizek into laying out his stall a bit more clear. Zizek’s own politics is an endorsement of Alain Badiou’s communist hypothesis. Here there are three things would prevent Zizek (at least in theory) succeeding to a authoritarian position – absolute egalitarianism, revolt against the state, destruction of the division of labour.

Aug 5, 2010 1:01

Thanks Alex and Andy for a very engaging discussion here. What I find so problematic about Zizek, in addition to many of the existing points raised here, is that he self-consciously posits ideas or analyses which he obviously does not actually believe — and which are often wildly divergent and contradictory — simply, it seems, to get a reaction and present an ‘alternative’ analysis of a situation. Whatever the value in this it displays, to me, a lack of seriousness about the issues he is dealing with, especially with regard to their human consequences. Admitting he had not seen Avatar before writing his review, for example, (because, he is a “good Hegelian” apparently) is not just a bit intellectually lazy — it wasted an opportunity to make some very pertinent criticisms of the film, which certainly deserved them. The impression Zizek can often leave you with is that it’s ok to be wrong as long as you’re provocative and maybe amusing, which might be true if you’re talking about some issues, but in my view is not a particularly admirable position to take on major issues of human justice/freedom/survival.

Aug 6, 2010 20:26

J – “The impression Zizek can often leave you with is that it’s ok to be wrong as long as you’re provocative and maybe amusing” – I find this frustrating about him as well – he can argue almost anything because he seems to have no real criteria for analysis, he can take a snippet of a film, write a dodgy reading of what it means, and take this reading as epitomising an entire film, an entire genre, or even the complete contemporary situation… It’s frustrating to try to construct arguments against Zizek because he’s like a kaleidoscope, a moving target. I get the sense he could answer anything, because there’s always some suitably ephemeral counterpoint he’d bring up.

Alex – “Now, Zizek believes that capitalism is, post-1968, entirely rhizomatic, de-territorialised etc etc, hence opposition to it in the terms of a Deleuzian style rhizome or a John Holloway style scream is entirely within the purview of capitalism” – yes, this is his argument, it’s more a problem of whether it actually holds up – capitalism is more networked than it was, but can it do without a moment of transcendence? For instance, the whole edifice of capitalism is built on equivalential value, which requires reduction to sameness (money as master signifier); and capitalism needs, and relies on, the state – now more than ever. As I said… Zizek’s frustrating to try to critique. It would be easier to pin down exactly what’s wrong with Zizek’s argument if he would pin down exactly *why* he takes capitalism to be entirely deterritorialised. But the basis for my conviction that he’s wrong is that what he says elides real differences I see operating in social struggles, as real antagonisms. I just don’t feel that people in the radical squatters’ scene, or radical indigenous movements like the Zapatistas and the OPM, or the more horizontal among the shanty-town movements, are doing “the same thing” as capitalism. It just feels completely wrong to say this, when capitalism is doing its utmost to wipe out these kinds of rhizomes. I wouldn’t even want to say that something like salafism or Mungiki was just part of capitalism, again because they’re too threatening to capitalism, there’s no real integration into the system; nor that these kinds of networks are the same as autonomous networks. What Zizek’s doing is a kind of argument-by-analogy which says, because a flattened corporation looks a little bit like an autonomous social movement, and both of them look a little bit like a cellular armed group, then they must all be the same really – notwithstanding that their relationship to transcendence and immanence is completely different, that they’re articulated with or against the dominant system in different ways, and that the desires underpinning them are also very different. It’s like saying – I looked up in the sky and I saw a bird, an aeroplane and a butterfly – they all have wings so they’re all the same – never mind how they run, whether they’re natural or artificial, or what species they are – I’ve just proved the biologists and the physicists wrong, because they’re really identical in terms of this one similarity. And then saying, Plane Stupid are wrong because they should really be trying to shut down the RSPB. I can see that there are times when noticing such similarities – especially if other people are missing them – would be iconoclastically thought-provoking, but it’s the transition from “thought-provoking” to “right” which seems to go missing here.

“This is even acknowledged by some of the theorists of this approach – Empire, with its relatively decentralised methodology of control, make possible the Multitude” – Empire, and post-autonomism in general, raises a whole other can of worms. Autonomists have always maintained that struggle from below is the driving force for transformations in capitalism, which are ultimately simply reactive, responding to rebellions from below – hence the “class struggle” of the “workers” (or the multitude, the poor, etc) is the driving force of history and changes in capitalism are simply its alienated epiphenomena (the thesis originally appeared in Tronti). History thus becomes cyclical – in each cycle, the working-class/multitude asserts a new power, and capitalism recuperates or systematises it. In Negri’s case, the networked resistance (e.g. base-unions and refusal of work, autonomous spaces, the Vietcong and the intifada) were initial autonomous acts by the working-class/multitude, which capitalism then captures in networked capitalism. The capture is alienation – this is not a victory for working-class constitutive power – but the active energy underpins the reactive, it is the workers’ own struggle for liberation turned against itself, just like the commodity is labour turned against itself. Hardt and Negri take this very literally: roughly, the productivity of the current economy arises from workers’ spontaneous creation of biopolitical production (the production of sociality, social norms, communication, “the common”) and capitalism simply perches on top and sucks value out, vampirically. I have big problems with Hardt and Negri’s account, mainly in that I see the imposed sociality of “the common” as itself oppressive and alienating – the problem with capitalism is alienation, not simply exploitation. Ultimately my problem with Hardt and Negri’s view of networked capitalism is similar to my problem with Zizek’s, though the issues I have with their politics are rather different. However, it does make sense in terms of their theoretical assumptions, and doesn’t at all lead to the same position as Zizek’s. Networked resistance is not “the same as” capitalism in Hardt and Negri, it is the active/affirmative struggle which is reactively exploited by capitalism (which is an apparatus of capture as well as a deterritorialised assemblage).

“Zizek’s own politics is an endorsement of Alain Badiou’s communist hypothesis” – I think Badiou suffers from the same flaws as Zizek – ultimately his ontology is too conservative to permit a transition to an entirely immanent world – rather, transcendence is built into his view of human nature. The Event in Badiou, like the Act in Zizek, is a temporary interruption which is necessary but ultimately ineffective – Truth does not replace opinion, it is a temporary interruption after which the world of opinion reforms. The Act or Event shakes things up a bit, removes existing impossibilities, but ultimately recomposes society in the same form as before – we can’t get rid of alienation, the master-signifier, the fundamental fantasy and so on. The content changes but the form stays the same. If you try to create a radical Lacanianism you either run straight into its premises or if you subvert these, you’d end up looking very much like Guattari – who after all, was basically a post-Lacanian who rejected the restrictive ontological premises.

Aug 8, 2010 12:39

Completely in agreement with the thing about Zizek, social movements and capitalism. I think you have articulated in a significantly better way than I have ever been able to. See also Malcolm Bull’s work on autonomia.

With Hardt and Negri, I’d want to push them in a more Colin Ward-esque direction whereby the common etc are already immanent in all social relations, seeds beneath the snow. Indeed, I actually think that they certainly believe this, consider Negri has written that he sees matter itself, the lowest ontological form, as tending towards the Common.

As for Badiou, I think that the irruption of the event is a bit more complicated than that. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure Logic of Worlds might provide hints towards answers with regards to the kind of problems you have.

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