[Marxism] Žižek controversy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 18 07:24:58 MST 2008


 From the issue dated December 19, 2008
Dissecting Žižek


Slavoj Žižek, the ubiquitous Slovenian cultural theorist, has always 
been a mercurial presence on the intellectual scene. Equally at home 
discussing the works of Lenin or Lacan, as well as David Lynch, Žižek 
has a well-earned reputation for humorously traversing the high-low 
cultural divide. He has been the subject of two films, written or edited 
more than 40 books, and is adored by many on the Marxist left. As Terry 
Eagleton, a professor of English literature at England's Lancaster 
University, recently put it: "Slavoj Žižek is less a philosopher than a 
phenomenon. ... A cross between guru and gadfly, sage and showman."

The New Republic, apparently, does not find Žižek's act funny. The cover 
of its December 3 issue pronounces Žižek "The Most Despicable 
Philosopher in the West." The inside essay is equally scathing. In what 
is ostensibly a review of two recent books by Žižek — Violence: Six 
Sideways Reflections (Picador, 2008) and In Defense of Lost Causes 
(Verso, 2008) — Adam Kirsch, a senior editor at the magazine, accuses 
Žižek of, among other things, being a fascist and flirting with 

In Defense of Lost Causes rejects the idea that we are in a 
post-ideological age, and it praises those who remain committed to 
revolutionary struggle. In Violence, Žižek suggests that our fixation 
with spectacular acts of indiscriminate carnage, like the attacks of 
September 11, 2001, blinds us to the systemic violence that is inherent 
in capitalism and liberal-democratic politics. Kirsch finds in Žižek's 
analysis a glorification of violence that carries disturbing echoes of 
Maoist, Stalinist, and Leninist terror. "The curious thing about the 
Žižek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror ... 
the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has 
elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult."

Kirsch's J'accuse has ignited considerable debate among bloggers about 
the nature of Žižek's intellectual project.

Adam Kirsch, senior editor, The New Republic: There is a name for the 
politics that glorifies risk, decision, and will; that yearns for the 
hero, the master, and the leader; that prefers death and the infinite to 
democracy and the pragmatic; that finds the only true freedom in the 
terror of violence. Its name is not communism. Its name is fascism, and 
in his most recent work Žižek has inarguably revealed himself as some 
sort of fascist. ...

Under the cover of comedy and hyperbole, in between allusions to movies 
and video games, he is engaged in the rehabilitation of many of the most 
evil ideas of the last century. He is trying to undo the achievement of 
all the postwar thinkers who taught us to regard totalitarianism, 
revolutionary terror, utopian violence, and anti-Semitism as 
inadmissible in serious political discourse. Is Žižek's audience too 
busy laughing at him to hear him? I hope so, because the idea that they 
can hear him without recoiling from him is too dismal, and frightening, 
to contemplate. (The New Republic)

Jodi Dean, professor of political science, Hobart and William Smith 
Colleges: I don't think the best way to read Žižek is as an ironist. ... 
I think it's important to read him as literally as possible, recognizing 
the breadth of his examples and illustrations. Another way to put it: 
When Žižek uses an obscene illustration, he means the obscenity as an 
obscenity. Part of the challenge of current conditions is the difficulty 
in finding something really obscene and having it be recognized as such. ...

Žižek is speaking within a set of discursive contexts marked by the 
decline and defeat of a certain Marxist experiment. Most of his readers 
don't need to be persuaded that there's a problem with liberalism or 
with capitalism. (I cite)

Alex Engebretson, doctoral candidate in English, City University of New 
York Graduate Center: Can Kirsch simply subtract the irony, parody, and 
subversive fun of Žižek's rhetoric in order to isolate his ideas? Are 
not the ideas bound up, framed by, and participating in the rhetoric? 
Can we ever "really" get at the ideas free of rhetoric? If not, then 
Kirsch's arguments, while morally earnest, omit a crucial aspect of 
Žižek's project: the rhetorical. To take Žižek seriously just once, 
then, is to distort Žižek's ideas, which is something like not reading 
Žižek at all. Perhaps the better line of inquiry is not should we take 
Žižek seriously, but rather why do we venerate a thinker whose rhetoric 
resists the possibility of being taken seriously? (Po Lit)

Sinthome, blogger, professor, and psychoanalyst: This talk of revolution 
does serve a rhetorically important function within debates over 
political theory. In other words, in the absence of the belief that 
society can be fundamentally transformed and that we should commit 
ourselves to the project of transforming society — i.e., a desire for 
the real or impossible — we descend into a pacifying neo-pragmatism not 
unlike that of [Simon] Critchley or Rorty, where we become apologists 
for liberal democracy and all of its attendant problems. Under this 
neo-pragmatic liberal democratism, any form of engagement envisioning an 
alternative form of society is excluded a priori as necessarily doomed 
to produce disaster and simultaneously as impossible. There is thus a 
closure of political possibility and the best we can hope for is a 
pacifying "communicative action" that dare not work for something else. 
(Larval Subjects)

John Farrell, author: What's unfortunate about Žižek is, if he wasn't so 
caught up with performing cartwheels for the intelligentsia, some of his 
points about the importance of the religions of the West would be better 
taken. You can't help feeling he adopts the role of poseur precisely 
because he senses how little patience there is on the left for anything 
substantive about religion. (Farrellmedia)

Mark Scroggins, associate professor of English, Florida Atlantic 
University: An astonishing farrago of out-of-context quotations, 
superficial misreadings, and ad hominem attacks. Kirsch makes David 
Lehman on Paul de Man seem subtle. (Culture Industry)

John Holbo, assistant professor of philosophy, National University of 
Singapore: Žižek doesn't seem to actually provide us with — or be 
interested in providing us with — any conceptual resources for thinking 
about what the method or goal of a revolution would be. Usually it's 
just gulag jokes (or the equivalent), wrapped in Hegel and Lacan. And 
then of course he gets accused of wanting to start gulags. And then it 
gets pointed out that they were just jokes. And then, at the end of the 
day, our plan for revolution would appear to be just some gulag jokes 
which we are now assured are JUST jokes, not actual plans. Plus some 
funny high-low Hegel-pop culture riffs. Plus Lacan. I think starting a 
revolution on the strength of gulag jokes is less bad than starting a 
revolution so you can build gulags. But it still isn't such a hot idea. 
(Comment on The Valve)

Daniel Miller, writer: The cloistered profile of his readership makes 
Žižek basically immune to magazine attacks: The cultural journalist is 
the old and implacable enemy of the academic; thus any critiques from 
that quarter are invariably dismissed by academics as ignorant and 
small-minded. ...

I continue to wonder whether the content of his political and 
ideological positions is the salient issue with Žižek, or indeed, an 
issue at all. Arguably much more central to his current singular status 
in the radical academy lies in the way in which he enables his followers 
to continue to believe in a particular model of politics, and a 
particular image of themselves. ...

Žižek can be seen, like (a certain) Nietzsche, as offering an 
exquisitely tailored discourse, catering perfectly to the psychic needs 
of his readers. He supplies a narrative structure through which all of 
the various personal, sexual, and psychological issues and conflicts one 
might have can be read as the sigils of a much larger struggle.

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