lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 27 15:08:35 MST 2002
If a character like Slavoj Zizek showed up in a draft version of one
of David Lodge broad satires on academic life, the editor would
probably tell him to eliminate it because it was overdrawn. As a
permanent fixture of high-toned left journals and academic conference
plenaries, Zizek usually seems to be lampooning himself.
If nothing else, his embrace of the terminally self-important and
boring Reaganite filmmaker David Lynch should have made him the
laughing-stock of the intelligentsia, both professional and organic.
Perhaps it was a calculated bid to one-up a French academy that had
attached itself to Jerry Lewis.
In "The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime," Zizek solemnly announces
"Lenin liked to point out that one could often get crucial insights
into one's enemies from the perceptions of intelligent enemies. So,
since the present essay attempts a Lacanian reading of David Lynch's
'Lost Highway,' it may be useful to start with a reference to
'post-theory,' the recent cognitivist orientation of cinema studies
that establishes its identity by a thorough rejection of Lacanian
Needless to say, with this on page one, a sensible reader would take
the first exit off this highway and put the book in the trashcan.
I would instead refer students of film to the review of "Lost
Highway" on www.mrcranky.com, a critic with far more sense than the
"If you want some help in understanding this film, think of it as a
Mobius strip - which is what Lynch is trying to do to your brain -
twist it into a confused mass. Two stories occupy each half of the
film. First there's Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) having trouble with
his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), then there's Pete Dayton
(Balthazar Getty) having trouble with Mr. Eddie's (Robert Loggia)
girlfriend, Alice (Patricia Arquette). Explaining any more than that
would ruin your sense of utter frustration - and my sense of justice:
sometimes knowing others will suffer is my only joy in life."
For reasons having something to do either with the zeitgeist of the
post-Cold War era or something they put into the drinking water on
certain prestigious college campuses, Zizek has emerged as a kind of
standard-bearer for the woozy, academic, post-Marxist left. In the
latest issue of "Bad Subjects," there is an interview with Zizek
(eserver.org/bs/59/zizek.html) by Doug Henwood, the president of the
Slavoj Zizek fan club.
It combines the usual Zizek preoccupations over the dangers of
multiculturalism and the undiscovered joys of Lenin, who is to Zizek
as some remote and exotic island resort is to a contributor to Travel
Magazine. "Have you had a chance to visit St. Lenin lately? The
beaches are pristine and the natives so well behaved."
For veteran Zizek-watchers like myself, it was a surprise to see him
also take swipes at anarchists and at Noam Chomsky. For Zizek, "the
tragedy of anarchism is that you end up having an authoritarian
secret society trying to achieve anarchist goals." After reading
this, I nearly resolved to change my name to Louis Zero and listen to
Rage Against the Machine 12 hours a day.
The hostility to Chomsky is another story altogether. Bad Subjects
editor Charlie Bertsch sets the tone for this in the introduction to
the interview: " For anyone who has tired of the dumbing down of
mainstream political discourse in the West, who finds it hard to
believe that the bone-dry American leftism of a Noam Chomsky
represents the only possibility for resistance, who wants to critique
global capitalism without falling back on faded Marxist slogans,
Zizek's work flashes the promise of something better."
Of course, it must be said that the "something better" referred to
above must be connected to the sort of success that Zizek enjoys in
certain circles. For Bertsch, this very well might have more to do
with how many times you appear in New Left Review rather than
speaking on Pacifica Radio or at a campus teach-in on the war in
"It's hard to become a superstar in the world of scholarly
publishing. Most of the people who read its products can also write
them. To stand out in a crowd this smart requires both luck and
perseverance. Slavoj Zizek has demonstrated plenty of both."
Ah, to be a superstar. One would hope that Charlie Bertsch gets a
chance to look into Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run" or Norman
Podhoretz's "Making It" to find out how it's really done.
Turning to the interview itself, we discover that the big problem
with Chomsky is not just that he doesn't know how to connect Lacan to
Peewee Herman. Rather it is that he is too preoccupied with "facts".
Henwood poses the question to Zizek:
"Chomsky and people like him seem to think that if we just got the
facts out there, things would almost take care of themselves. Why is
this wrong? Why aren't 'the facts' enough?"
Zizek's reply is extraordinary:
"Let me give you a very naive answer. I think that basically the
facts are already known. Let's take Chomsky's analyses of how the CIA
intervened in Nicaragua. OK, (he provides) a lot of details, yes, but
did I learn anything fundamentally new? It's exactly what I'd
expected: the CIA was playing a very dirty game. Of course it's more
convincing if you learn the dirty details. But I don't think that we
really learned anything dramatically new there. I don't think that
merely 'knowing the facts' can really change people's perceptions."
In reality, the big problem has always been the lack of facts in
American society on questions such as these. Mostly, what the Central
American solidarity movement had to contend with was the immense
propaganda campaign against the FMLN in El Salvador and the FSLN in
Nicaragua. People like myself joined CISPES or built Tecnica to help
counter this disinformation campaign that cost the lives of so many
people. When you involve thousands and then millions of people in
vast movements opposed to the Vietnam War, the wars in Central
America or the wars going on today, much of the effort revolves
around getting the truth out. This is what distinguishes Noam
Chomsky. It is also what makes Slavoj Zizek such a enormously
superfluous figure. When is the last time anybody would pick up a
book by Zizek to find out the economic or social reality of a place
like Nicaragua or Afghanistan? You might as well read Gayatri Spivak
to find out about how to overturn the Taft-Hartley Act.
When Zizek, a Slovenian, finally descends from Mount Olympus to speak
about a topic that he presumably has some direct knowledge of, namely
Yugoslavia, the results are even more appalling. Contrary to Chomsky
who believed that "all parties were more or less to blame" and that
"the West supported or incited this explosion because of its own
geopolitical goals," Zizek blames the dastardly Serbs. Not only was
"it over the moment Milosevic took over Serbia," there is no evidence
that the "disintegration of Yugoslavia was supported by the West."
Well, what can one say? Surely, with all the scholarly research on
the role of German banks, etc. that has been written by people like
the late Sean Gervasi about the breakup of Yugoslavia, one can't
blame Zizek for avoiding the facts like a dirty dog avoids a bath. In
any case, for all of Zizek's Leninist posturing, the main thing he
gets wrong is the need to take a principled stand against NATO
military intervention in the country he once called home. In an April
24, 1999 Independent interview, Zizek is quite blunt about what
"The Slovenians were the first to be attacked by Slobodan Milosevic's
Serbia, in the three-day war of 1990. That conflict revealed the
extent of international apathy towards Milosevic's aggressive
nationalism, which has culminated in the Kosovan war. Today, Zizek
lambasts 'the interminable procrastination' of Western governments
and says that 'I definitely support the bombing' of Milosevic's
regime by Nato."
Because of statements like this, Lenin decided to start a new
movement in 1914. It is singularly obscene that Zizek now holds
academic conferences on Lenin. Better he should stick to David Lynch.
Finally on the topic of Lenin himself, Henwood asks Zizek: "What do
you find valuable in Lenin, or the Leninist tradition?"
Zizek answers, "What I like in Lenin is precisely what scares people
about him - the ruthless will to discard all prejudices."
Just to make clear, Zizek is not referring to opposing imperialist
war or supporting the self-determination for oppressed nationalities.
He has much bigger fish to fry:
"Let's take the campaign against smoking in the U.S. I think this is
a much more suspicious phenomenon than it appears to be. First,
deeply inscribed into it is an idea of absolute narcissism, that
whenever you are in contact with another person, somehow he or she
can infect you. Second, there is an envy of the intense enjoyment of
smoking. There is a certain vision of subjectivity, a certain
falseness in liberalism, that comes down to "I want to be left alone
by others; I don't want to get too close to the others."
Poor Lenin is reduced to a leftist version of Rush Limbaugh, who has
also harped upon his right to smoke in restaurants.
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 02/27/2002
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