[Marxism] The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 21 13:52:45 MDT 2012


http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jul/12/violent-visions-slavoj-zizek/

The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek
July 12, 2012
John Gray

Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism
by Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 1,038 pp., $69.95 


Living in the End Times
by Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 504 pp., $22.95 (paper) 



Few thinkers illustrate the contradictions of contemporary 
capitalism better than the Slovenian philosopher and cultural 
theorist Slavoj Žižek. The financial and economic crisis has 
demonstrated the fragility of the free market system that its 
defenders believed had triumphed in the cold war; but there is no 
sign of anything resembling the socialist project that in the past 
was seen by many as embodying capitalism’s successor. Žižek’s 
work, which reflects this paradoxical situation in a number of 
ways, has made him one of the world’s best-known public intellectuals.

Born and educated in Ljubljana, the capital of the People’s 
Republic of Slovenia in the former Yugoslav federation until the 
federal state began to break up and Slovenia declared independence 
in 1990, Žižek has held academic positions in Britain, America, 
and Western Europe as well as in Slovenia. His prodigious output 
(over sixty volumes since his first book in English, The Sublime 
Object of Ideology, was published in 1989), innumerable articles 
and interviews, together with films such as Žižek! (2005) and The 
Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), have given him a presence that 
extends far beyond the academy. Well attuned to popular culture, 
particularly film, he has a following among young people in many 
countries, including those of post-Communist Europe. He has a 
journal dedicated to his work—International Journal of Žižek 
Studies, founded in 2007—whose readership is registered via 
Facebook, and in October 2011 he addressed members of the Occupy 
movement in Zuccotti Park in New York, an event that was widely 
reported and can be viewed on YouTube.

Žižek’s wide influence does not mean that his philosophical and 
political standpoint can be easily defined. A member of the 
Communist Party of Slovenia until he resigned in 1988, Žižek had 
difficult relations with the Party authorities for many years 
owing to his interest in what they viewed as heterodox ideas. In 
1990 he stood as a presidential candidate for Liberal Democracy of 
Slovenia, a party of the center left that was the dominant 
political force in the country for the rest of the decade; but 
liberal ideas, aside from serving as a reference point for 
positions he rejects, have never shaped his thinking.

Žižek was dismissed from his first university teaching post in the 
early 1970s, when the Slovenian authorities judged a thesis he had 
written on French structuralism—then an influential movement in 
anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, and philosophy claiming 
that human thought and behavior exemplify a universal system of 
interrelated principles—to be “non-Marxist.” The episode 
demonstrated the limited nature of the intellectual liberalization 
that was being promoted in the country at the time, but Žižek’s 
later work suggests that the authorities were right in judging 
that his intellectual orientation was not Marxian. Throughout the 
enormous corpus of work he has since built up, Marx is criticized 
for being insufficiently radical in his rejection of existing 
modes of thought, while Hegel—a much greater influence on Žižek—is 
praised for being willing to lay aside classical logic in order to 
develop a more dialectical way of thinking. But Hegel is also 
criticized for having too great an attachment to traditional modes 
of reasoning, and a central theme of Žižek’s writings is the need 
to shed the commitment to intellectual objectivity that has guided 
radical thinkers in the past.

Žižek’s work sets itself in opposition to Marx on many issues. For 
all he owed to Hegelian metaphysics, Marx was also an empirical 
thinker who tried to frame theories about the actual course of 
historical development. It was not the abstract idea of revolution 
with which he was primarily concerned, but a revolutionary project 
involving specific and radical alterations in economic 
institutions and power relations.

Žižek shows little interest in these aspects of Marx’s thinking. 
Aiming “to repeat the Marxist ‘critique of political economy’ 
without the utopian-ideological notion of communism as its 
inherent standard,” he believes that “the twentieth-century 
communist project was utopian precisely insofar as it was not 
radical enough.” As Žižek sees it, Marx’s understanding of 
communism was partly responsible for this failure: “Marx’s notion 
of the communist society is itself the inherent capitalist 
fantasy; that is, a fantasmatic scenario for resolving the 
capitalist antagonisms he so aptly described.”

While he rejects Marx’s conception of communism, Žižek devotes 
none of the over one thousand pages of Less Than Nothing to 
specifying the economic system or institutions of government that 
would feature in a communist society of the kind he favors. In 
effect a compendium of Žižek’s work to date, Less Than Nothing is 
devoted instead to reinterpreting Marx by way of Hegel—one of the 
book’s sections is called “Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a 
Reader of Marx”—and reformulating Hegelian philosophy by reference 
to the thought of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

A “post-structuralist” who rejected the belief that reality can be 
captured in language, Lacan also rejected the standard 
interpretation of Hegel’s idea of “the cunning of reason,” 
according to which world history is the realization by oblique and 
indirect means of reason in human life. For Lacan as Žižek 
summarizes him, “The Cunning of Reason…in no way involves a faith 
in a secret guiding hand guaranteeing that all the apparent 
contingency of unreason will somehow contribute to the harmony of 
the Totality of Reason: if anything, it involves a trust in 
un-Reason.” On this Lacanian reading, the message of Hegel’s 
philosophy is not the progressive unfolding of rationality in 
history but instead the impotence of reason.

The Hegel that emerges in Žižek’s writings thus bears little 
resemblance to the idealist philosopher who features in standard 
histories of thought. Hegel is commonly associated with the idea 
that history has an inherent logic in which ideas are embodied in 
practice and then left behind in a dialectical process in which 
they are transcended by their opposites. Drawing on the 
contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou, Žižek radicalizes 
this idea of dialectic to mean the rejection of the logical 
principle of noncontradiction, so that rather than seeing 
rationality at work in history, Hegel rejects reason itself as it 
has been understood in the past. Implicit in Hegel (according to 
Žižek) is a new kind of “paraconsistent logic” in which a 
proposition “is not really suppressed by its negation.” This new 
logic, Žižek suggests, is well suited to understanding capitalism 
today. “Is not ‘postmodern’ capitalism an increasingly 
paraconsistent system,” he asks rhetorically, “in which, in a 
variety of modes, P is non-P: the order is its own transgression, 
capitalism can thrive under communist rule, and so on?”

Living in the End Times is presented by Žižek as being concerned 
with this situation. Summarizing the book’s central theme, he writes:

     The underlying premise of the present book is a simple one: 
the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic 
zero-point. Its “four riders of the apocalypse” are comprised by 
the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic 
revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with 
intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, 
food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and 
exclusions.

With its sweeping claims and magniloquent rhetoric, this passage 
is typical of much in Žižek’s work. What he describes as the 
premise of the book is simple only because it passes over 
historical facts. Reading it, no one would suspect that, putting 
aside the killings of many millions for ideological reasons, some 
of the last century’s worst ecological disasters—the destruction 
of nature in the former Soviet Union and the devastation of the 
countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, for example—occurred 
in centrally planned economies. Ecological devastation is not a 
result only of the economic system that exists in much of the 
world at the present time; while it may be true that the 
prevailing version of capitalism is unsustainable in environmental 
terms, there is nothing in the history of the past century that 
suggests the environment will be better protected if a socialist 
system is installed.

But to criticize Žižek for neglecting these facts is to 
misunderstand his intent, for unlike Marx he does not aim to 
ground his theorizing in a reading of history that is based in 
facts. “Today’s historical juncture does not compel us to drop the 
notion of the proletariat, or of the proletarian position—on the 
contrary, it compels us to radicalize it to an existential level 
beyond even Marx’s imagination,” he writes. “We need a more 
radical notion of the proletarian subject [i.e., the thinking and 
acting human being], a subject reduced to the evanescent point of 
the Cartesian cogito, deprived of its substantial content.” In 
Žižek’s hands, Marxian ideas—which in Marx’s materialist view were 
meant to designate objective social facts—become subjective 
expressions of revolutionary commitment. Whether such ideas 
correspond to anything in the world is irrelevant.

There is a problem at this point, however: Why should anyone adopt 
Žižek’s ideas rather than any others? The answer cannot be that 
Žižek’s are true in any traditional sense. “The truth we are 
dealing with here is not ‘objective’ truth,” Žižek writes, “but 
the self-relating truth about one’s own subjective position; as 
such, it is an engaged truth, measured not by its factual accuracy 
but by the way it affects the subjective position of enunciation.”

If this means anything, it is that truth is determined by 
reference to how an idea accords with the projects to which the 
speaker is committed—in Žižek’s case, a project of revolution. But 
this only poses the problem at another level: Why should anyone 
adopt Žižek’s project? The question cannot be answered in any 
simple way, since it is far from clear what Žižek’s revolutionary 
project consists in. He shows no signs of doubting that a society 
in which communism was realized would be better than any that has 
ever existed. On the other hand, he is unable to envision any 
circumstances in which communism might be realized: “Capitalism is 
not just a historical epoch among others…. Francis Fukuyama was 
right: global capitalism is ‘the end of history.’”1 Communism is 
not for Žižek—as it was for Marx—a realizable condition, but what 
Badiou describes as a “hypothesis,” a conception with little 
positive content but that enables radical resistance against 
prevailing institutions. Žižek is insistent that such resistance 
must include the use of terror:

     Badiou’s provocative idea that one should reinvent 
emancipatory terror today is one of his most profound insights…. 
Recall Badiou’s exalted defense of Terror in the French 
Revolution, in which he quotes the justification of the guillotine 
for Lavoisier: “The Republic has no need for scientists.”2

Along with Badiou, Žižek celebrates Mao’s Cultural Revolution as 
“the last truly great revolutionary explosion of the twentieth 
century.” But he also regards the Cultural Revolution as a 
failure, citing Badiou’s conclusion that “the Cultural Revolution, 
even in its very impasse, bears witness to the impossibility truly 
and globally to free politics from the framework of the 
party-State.”3 Mao in encouraging the Cultural Revolution 
evidently should have found a way to break the power of the 
party-state. Again, Žižek praises the Khmer Rouge for attempting a 
total break with the past. The attempt involved mass killing and 
torture on a colossal scale; but in his view that is not why it 
failed: “The Khmer Rouge were, in a way, not radical enough: while 
they took the abstract negation of the past to the limit, they did 
not invent any new form of collectivity.” (Here and elsewhere the 
italics are Žižek’s.) A genuine revolution may be impossible in 
present circumstances, or any that can be currently imagined. Even 
so, revolutionary violence should be celebrated as “redemptive,” 
even “divine.”

While Žižek has described himself as a Leninist,4 there can be no 
doubt that this position would be anathema to the Bolshevik 
leader. Lenin had no qualms in using terror in order to promote 
the cause of communism (for him, a practically attainable 
objective). Always deployed as part of a political strategy, 
violence was instrumental in nature. In contrast, though Žižek 
accepts that violence has failed to achieve its communist goals 
and has no prospect of doing so, he insists that revolutionary 
violence has intrinsic value as a symbolic expression of 
rebellion—a position that has no parallel in either Marx or Lenin. 
A precedent may be seen in the work of the French psychiatrist 
Frantz Fanon, who defended the use of violence against colonialism 
as an assertion of the identity of subjects of colonial power; but 
Fanon viewed this violence as part of a struggle for national 
independence, an objective that was in fact achieved.

A clearer precedent can be found in the work of the 
early-twentieth-century French theorist of syndicalism Georges 
Sorel. In Reflections on Violence (1908), Sorel argued that 
communism was a utopian myth—but a myth that had value in 
inspiring a morally regenerative revolt against the corruption of 
bourgeois society. The parallels between this view and Žižek’s 
account of “redemptive violence” inspired by the “communist 
hypothesis” are telling.

A celebration of violence is one of the most prominent strands in 
Žižek’s work. He finds fault with Marx for thinking that violence 
can be justified as part of the conflict between objectively 
defined social classes. Class war must not be understood as “a 
conflict between particular agents within social reality: it is 
not a difference between agents (which can be described by means 
of a detailed social analysis), but an antagonism (‘struggle’) 
which constitutes these agents.” Applying this view when 
discussing Stalin’s assault on the peasantry, Žižek describes how 
the distinction between kulaks (rich peasants) and others became 
“blurred and unworkable: in a situation of generalized poverty, 
clear criteria no longer applied, and the other two classes of 
peasants often joined the kulaks in their resistance to forced 
collectivization.” In response to this situation the Soviet 
authorities introduced a new category, the sub-kulak, a peasant 
too poor to be classified as a kulak but who shared kulak values:

     The art of identifying a kulak was thus no longer a matter of 
objective social analysis; it became a kind of complex 
“hermeneutics of suspicion,” of identifying an individual’s “true 
political attitudes” hidden beneath his or her deceptive public 
proclamations.

Describing mass murder in this way as an exercise in hermeneutics 
is repugnant and grotesque; it is also characteristic of Žižek’s 
work. He criticizes Stalin’s policy of collectivization, but not 
on account of the millions of human lives that were violently 
truncated or broken in its course. What Žižek criticizes is 
Stalin’s lingering attachment (however inconsistent or 
hypocritical) to “‘scientific’ Marxist terms.” Relying on 
“objective social analysis” for guidance in revolutionary 
situations is an error: “at some point, the process has to be cut 
short with a massive and brutal intervention of subjectivity: 
class belonging is never a purely objective social fact, but is 
always also the result of struggle and social engagement.” Rather 
than Stalin’s relentless use of torture and lethal force, it is 
the fact that he tried to justify the systematic use of violence 
by reference to Marxian theory that Žižek condemns.

Žižek’s rejection of anything that might be described as social 
fact comes together with his admiration of violence in his 
interpretation of Nazism. Commenting on the German philosopher 
Martin Heidegger’s much-discussed involvement with the Nazi 
regime, Žižek writes: “His involvement with the Nazis was not a 
simple mistake, but rather a ‘right step in the wrong direction.’” 
Contrary to many interpretations, Heidegger was not a radical 
reactionary. “Reading Heidegger against the grain, one discovers a 
thinker who was, at some points, strangely close to 
communism”—indeed, during the mid-Thirties, Heidegger might be 
described as “a future communist.”

If Heidegger mistakenly chose to back Hitler, the mistake was not 
in underestimating the violence that Hitler would unleash:

     The problem with Hitler was that he was “not violent enough,” 
his violence was not “essential” enough. Hitler did not really 
act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, for he acted so 
that nothing would really change, staging a gigantic spectacle of 
pseudo-Revolution so that the capitalist order would survive…. The 
true problem of Nazism is not that it “went too far” in its 
subjectivist-nihilist hubris of exercising total power, but that 
it did not go far enough, that its violence was an impotent 
acting-out which, ultimately, remained in the service of the very 
order it despised.

What was wrong with Nazism, it seems, is that—like the later 
experiment in total revolution of the Khmer Rouge—it failed to 
create any new kind of collective life. Žižek says little 
regarding the nature of the form of life that might have come into 
being had Germany been governed by a regime less reactive and 
powerless than he judges Hitler’s to have been. He does make plain 
that there would be no room in this new life for one particular 
form of human identity:

     The fantasmatic status of anti- Semitism is clearly revealed 
by a statement attributed to Hitler: “We have to kill the Jew 
within us.” …Hitler’s statement says more than it wants to say: 
against his intentions, it confirms that the Gentiles need the 
anti-Semitic figure of the “Jew” in order to maintain their 
identity. It is thus not only that “the Jew is within us”—what 
Hitler fatefully forgot to add is that he, the anti-Semite, is 
also in the Jew. What does this paradoxical entwinement mean for 
the destiny of anti-Semitism?

Žižek is explicit in censuring “certain elements of the radical 
Left” for “their uneasiness when it comes to unambiguously 
condemning anti-Semitism.” But it is difficult to understand the 
claim that the identities of anti-Semites and Jewish people are in 
some way mutually reinforcing—which is repeated, word for word, in 
Less Than Nothing—except as suggesting that the only world in 
which anti-Semitism can cease to exist is one in which there are 
no longer any Jews.

Interpreting Žižek on this or any issue is not without 
difficulties. There is his inordinate prolixity, the stream of 
texts that no one could read in their entirety, if only because 
the torrent never ceases flowing. There is his use of a type of 
academic jargon featuring allusive references to other thinkers, 
which has the effect of enabling him to use language in an artful, 
hermetic way. As he acknowledges, Žižek borrows the term “divine 
violence” from Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (1921). It 
is doubtful whether Benjamin—a thinker who had important 
affinities with the Frankfurt School of humanistic Marxism—would 
have described the destructive frenzy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution 
or the Khmer Rouge as divine.

But this is beside the point, for by using Benjamin’s construction 
Žižek is able to praise violence and at the same time claim that 
he is speaking of violence in a special, recondite sense—a sense 
in which Gandhi can be described as being more violent than 
Hitler.5 And there is Žižek’s regular recourse to a laborious kind 
of clowning wordplay:

     The…virtualization of capitalism is ultimately the same as 
that of the electron in particle physics. The mass of each 
elementary particle is composed of its mass at rest plus the 
surplus provided by the acceleration of its movement; however, an 
electron’s mass at rest is zero, its mass consists only of the 
surplus generated by the acceleration, as if we are dealing with a 
nothing which acquires some deceptive substance only by magically 
spinning itself into an excess of itself.

It is impossible to read this without recalling the Sokal affair 
in which Alan Sokal, a professor of physics, submitted a spoof 
article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative 
Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” to a journal of postmodern 
cultural studies. Equally, it is hard to read this and many 
similar passages in Žižek without suspecting that he is 
engaged—wittingly or otherwise—in a kind of auto-parody.

There may be some who are tempted to condemn Žižek as a 
philosopher of irrationalism whose praise of violence is more 
reminiscent of the far right than the radical left. His writings 
are often offensive and at times (as when he writes of Hitler 
being present “in the Jew”) obscene. There is a mocking frivolity 
in Žižek’s paeans to terror that recalls the Italian Futurist and 
ultra-nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Fascist (and later 
Maoist) fellow traveler Curzio Malaparte more than any thinker in 
the Marxian tradition. But there is another reading of Žižek, 
which may be more plausible, in which he is no more an epigone of 
the right than he is a disciple of Marx or Lenin.

Whether or not Marx’s vision of communism is “the inherent 
capitalist fantasy,” Žižek’s vision—which apart from rejecting 
earlier conceptions lacks any definite content—is well adapted to 
an economy based on the continuous production of novel commodities 
and experiences, each supposed to be different from any that has 
gone before. With the prevailing capitalist order aware that it is 
in trouble but unable to conceive of practicable alternatives, 
Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture 
transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility. That there 
should be this isomorphism between Žižek’s thinking and 
contemporary capitalism is not surprising. After all, it is only 
an economy of the kind that exists today that could produce a 
thinker such as Žižek. The role of global public intellectual 
Žižek performs has emerged along with a media apparatus and a 
culture of celebrity that are integral to the current model of 
capitalist expansion.

In a stupendous feat of intellectual overproduction Žižek has 
created a fantasmatic critique of the present order, a critique 
that claims to repudiate practically everything that currently 
exists and in some sense actually does, but that at the same time 
reproduces the compulsive, purposeless dynamism that he perceives 
in the operations of capitalism. Achieving a deceptive substance 
by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision, Žižek’s 
work—nicely illustrating the principles of paraconsistent 
logic—amounts in the end to less than nothing.

     1 Slavoj Žižek, “Have Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri 
Rewritten the Communist Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century?,” 
Rethinking Marxism: a Journal of Economics, Culture and Society , 
Vol. 13, No. 3–4 (2001), p. 190. ↩
     2 Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View ( MIT Press, 2006), p. 326.
     3 Žižek, The Parallax View , p. 328. ↩
     4 “ I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. 
If you can get power, grab it .” Quoted by Jonathan Derbyshire, 
New Statesman , October 29, 2009. ↩
     5 “It’s crucial to see violence which is done repeatedly to 
keep the things the way they are. In that sense, Gandhi was more 
violent than Hitler.” See Shobhan Saxena’s interview with Žižek, “ 
First they called me a joker, now I am a dangerous thinker ,” The 
Times of India , January 10, 2010. ↩




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