Zizek and Critics

Gavin Walker gmwalker at sas.upenn.edu
Sat May 17 14:01:44 MDT 2003

I think that Louis has in his last message, and in his articles and 
other response to the twists and turns of Zizek over the past few years 
on the list, done a serious and important service to a revolutionary 
Marxist understanding of contemporary intellectual forces. Zizek, for 
better or worse (and I would say worse), has a level of impact on the 
current academic climate that is far out of proportion to the quality 
of his work. While his books are far from the most cited, I have 
noticed in recent years with some trepidation that virtually every 
graduate student that I know has at least one Zizek book on their 
personal shelves. Like it or not, Zizek's output has to be reckoned 
with simply because in the academic world, it's everywhere.

And yet, I think Louis makes a truly important point when he says that 
these debates "exist in a parallel universe to revolutionary Marxism," 
for as long as they remain only expressions of conversations taking 
place within the tower, they don't effect the struggle for socialism 
and justice taking place in the streets.

That said, I must admit that when, a few years ago, Zizek started 
rattling on about Lenin, I held out some hope that he had moved his 
thinking in a more progressive direction - unfortunately, it seems 
clear to me that if anything, his use of Lenin has actually taken on 
the role of a veil for a reactionary and idealist position. Much of his 
interest in Lenin seems traceable to me from Zizek's recent adoration 
for Alain Badiou and his absurd Lacan/Freud, St. Paul/Christ nonsense. 
Badiou's recent (in English, at least) book on _Ethics_ (Verso) has 
some decent stuff in it on the bankruptcy of so-called "identity 
politics" as a substitute for progressive analysis, but it's all 
mediated by a hardcore voluntarism that takes the form of the 
vocabulary of the "Event."

This notion in Badiou (which is much more serious than the way in which 
Zizek uses it, though still basically nuts) is shot through with a 
completely unexamined and absurd theology, which at core, in a 
political sense, owes much more to a sort of Heideggerian mysticism 
than to the concrete revolutionary standpoint of Lenin and the Marxist 
tradition. Zizek lays these points out most clearly in his chapter on 
Badiou in _The Ticklish Subject_ (Verso), "The Politics of Truth, or 
Alain Badiou as a Reader of St. Paul," and again in _The Fragile 
Absolute, or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?_ (Verso), 
which is itself highly based on Badiou's book _St. Paul, ou la 
fondation de l'universalisme_, and his short book _On Belief_ 

At the very outset of _The Fragile Absolute_, Zizek states, "There is 
no Christ outside St. Paul; in exactly the same way, there is no 
'authentic Marx' that can be approached directly, bypassing Lenin." (p. 
4) On the face of it, it doesn't seem a terrible point - that the 
political practice and example of Lenin is an inherent part of the 
Marxist whole. But unfortunately, this isn't really where Zizek is 
going with this point. What he sets up around this matrix is a 
theology, that Lenin put Marx into practice, but one could search 
Zizek's writings in vain for the notion that anyone else did as well - 
there is no mention of the Chinese revolutionary example (except the 
occasional rightist snipe at the "totalitarian Maoists"), no mention of 
the heroic example of the Cuban revolution, in fact, no mention of 
Marxist political practice at all except for the example of Lenin and 
Lenin alone. Zizek does this because what interests him is not the fact 
that Lenin was an extraordinary Marxist thinker and leader (amongst 
many others) who understood both Marxian theory and practice as well as 
the concrete situation of Russia at the time, but because Lenin 
represents an "Event." Reading Zizek, one is constantly thrown back on 
the totally ahistorical reading he sets up, wherein the example of 1917 
doesn't depend on the workers and peasants seizing state power with the 
help of the revolutionary forces, but rather just depends on the sole 
figure of Lenin, who is the herald of the mystical Event.

It's a shameful reading which both elevates Lenin into a space that is 
completely anti-materialist, and at the same time serves to denigrate 
the actual legacy of Lenin, which is based on Lenin's extraordinary 
perception and response to actually existing and shifting conditions on 
the ground, not his intuitive sense of the Coming Event. The whole 
vocabulary of the Event serves to convince people of a bourgeois 
fiction, namely that revolutions stem from single top-down individuals, 
rather than from the political practice of the masses. Thus we see 
Zizek basically reproducing the worst anti-Marxist journalistic line: 
the Russian people didn't seize power, Lenin did; the Chinese people 
didn't smash imperialist conquest and seize power, Mao did; the Cuban 
people didn't seize power, Castro did. It's fictions like these that 
every Marxist knows to be false, but Zizek reproduces the same 
reactionary logic in how he examines these revolutionary examples.

Louis stated in his last mail on Zizek to the list that "I am afraid 
that Derrida's interest in Marx is like Zizek's in Lenin. It is a way 
to affect some kind of "street cred"." This is the real kernel of 
Zizek's interest in Lenin - it's a tool for him to remain "contrarian" 
(a term which should remind us all of the recent example of Hitchens), 
to continue to piss off the academic world by using ever-more 
outlandish figures. This is of course, a totally reactionary line, 
which really only speaks one thing at its center - that Lenin is the 
scary, nasty, totalitarian meanie that right-wing forces always wanted 
to label him as - and now they have a friend in Zizek, who in "paying 
homage" to Lenin, reproduces the same logic as the most die-hard 

What is truly reactionary in Zizek's work is its deep connection to the 
"Christian legacy" he has so much fun defending with "help" from Lenin 
- that the Event is predicated on "grace," that it comes into a 
situation from the outside, from *somewhere else,* that revolution is 
not immanent to the situation at hand based on the struggle of the 
people to improve their immediate conditions. For Zizek, revolution and 
the revolutionary impulse are exercises in accepting grace, in letting 
the situation be diffused by something granted from the exterior of the 
circumstances in play. It is an anti-materialist position par 
excellence, and one that has allowed him to "play with fire," to play 
with Lenin and 1917, while refusing to see that 1917 isn't just an 
historical "Event", it's an example of political practice which has a 
direct relation to the struggles for socialism occurring all over the 
planet. Thus Zizek has set up a framework in which he can be a 
"Leninist" with out being a Marxist, in which he can do what Benjamin 
warned against doing - Zizek aestheticizes the political to give 
himself a thing to play with, a thing to wield against academic 
wishy-washiness, but what this actually does is let him close off the 
revolutionary example of Lenin, and just play with the name while 
remaining completely wedded to the closed academic culture he claims to 
be reacting against.

Zizek has set up the most recent example of the "jargon of 
authenticity," a way of speaking and writing that uses figures, tropes, 
and circumstances pulled out of their historical context to create an 
oppositional mood or feeling without any concrete analysis. See for 
example his statement, "a Leninist, like a Conservative, is authentic 
in the sense of fully assuming the consequences of his choice." (_On 
Belief_, p. 4) Essentially, all Zizek is interested in is the notion of 
the passage à l'acte, irrespective of who is acting or even what the 
act itself is - a notion shared with the whole "conservative 
revolutionary" impulse in pre-Nazi intellectual culture (Heidegger, 
Ernst Jünger, Spengler, etc). In another place and time, we might find 
Slavoj in knickers, off in the woods with Martin singing the Horst 
Wessel waiting for grace to suffuse the situation with the conditions 
for the "authentic" Event.

It's clear why this is so popular - one gets to be a "Leninist" and 
shock one's friends and professors with acts of homage, but in the end, 
one doesn't really have to say anything. Zizek's work has been a 
constant push to eradicate real historical materialist analysis and 
theory, and his latest interest in Lenin is an homage that should be 
refused and refuted from all corners by the revolutionary Left. There 
is a lot more to be written about Zizek's other latest reactionary 
move, his interest in a "progressive Eurocentrism," (which can be 
related to his insane love of Hardt/Negri) and his basically racist 
reproduction of a whole swath of clichés and idiocies about East Asia. 
One could also write a whole bunch about his not-so secret love for 
Fukuyama (see _On Belief_, p. 111) and connect this to a reading of 
Zizek in the context of neo-con thought, which directly relates to his 
Eurocentric babble.

-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: not available
Type: text/enriched
Size: 9115 bytes
Desc: not available
URL: <https://lists.csbs.utah.edu/pipermail/marxism/attachments/20030517/cf09d028/attachment.bin>

More information about the Marxism mailing list