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December 02, 2008

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James S

The Adam Kirsch article is great.

"Zizek's allegedly progressive thought leads directly into a pit of moral and intellectual squalor. In his New York Times piece against torture, Zizek worried that the normalization of torture as an instrument of state was the first step in "a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone." This is a good description of Zizek's own work. 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 Zizek'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."

He's the kind of would-be fascist the left is okay with.

David

James,

“He’s the kind of would-be fascist the left is okay with.”

In fairness, some on the left don’t like him at all, for very similar reasons. But it is quite strange how many so-called “progressives” are so forgiving of Žižek’s ugly, recurring urges, excusing them as “provocative”. Perhaps he titillates them.

The dribbling little prick seems a tad manic and, as he writes and says so much on any number of subjects, some of it will – by probability alone – be deemed “interesting” and “provocative”. It may well be “provocative” and perverse, or “provocative” and simply wrong. It may even, once in a while, come very close to insight. But the ratio of insight to perversity isn’t terribly impressive and I don’t think that’s why the people who really like him do. He’s the left’s clown philosopher – the man with Tourettes who gets away with saying those ugly and revealing things that some people, not least on the academic left, find ever so exciting.

TDK

More on Slavoj Žižek here:

http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/overrated-november

and since the Standpoint practice is to balance overrated with underrated, here is the opposite entry on Leszek Kolakowski

http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/underrated-november+

Anna

"dribbling little prick" :)

David

TDK,

Thanks for those. It is funny how Žižek The Radical™ fits what’s become a standard template: The creaky egalitarian premise, the contrarian “edginess” and the generic claptrap about “sites of resistance.” It’s like catnip to a certain kind of arrested adolescent. Do students never tire of the same old same old?

TDK

"Do students never tire of the same old same old?"

It's not the students. In general they come as empty vessels. That's not to say they come without preconceived ideas, but the canon placed before them is the result of the academy's bias.

I did Hayek at university. Not for any merit in him but because he was a fashionable thinker we needed to deconstruct. We never needed to actually read anything by him, the essential reading list contained only Hayek critics, and he came in the second division list. The lecturer would force laughter as she discussed how writers 1-22 wittily destroyed Hayek again and again.

In contrast we had to read John Rawls, but I can't recall a single critic.

TDK

Incidentally, in case it's not clear, she was far and away the most openly biased lecturer. Even other Marxists on the faculty openly talked of her as a nut. Most others were far more even handed. Her then latest book, and obviously I can't link, was on every one of her courses reading lists regardless of the subject matter.

David

TDK,

“It’s not the students.”

Well, I take your point, but I was hoping students might register that the notion of righteous yet indiscriminate violence is something besides “provocative” and an enthusiasm for Lenin is something other than “edgy”:

http://mickhartley.typepad.com/blog/2004/01/lenin_liberalis.html

georges

This Zizek stuff reminds me of the band "Primal Scream", who had a song due to come out in 2001 called "Bomb The Pentagon". Someone "bombed" the pentagon with a passenger plane. The band were forced to explain that, when they said "Bomb The Pentagon" what they actually meant was "Don't Bomb The Pentagon".

The Dalrymple piece is truly, truly vile.

Both these writers seem to get an almost sexual thrill off violence. It seems to be some fringe condition form clinical psychiatry - Meinhoff syndrome by proxy, perhaps?

One thing I've noticed. The Guardianistas are often very lukewarm about Tibet. Why:

1. The Tibetans are cuddly non-violent types, therefore totally gay (in the Cartman sense). They need to prove their manliness by blowing up a Shanghai shopping mall or railway station. Only then will Z & D start to take them seriously.

2. The country oppressing them isn't the USA but the US's principal strategic rival, China. The Tibetans should just give up, accept that they're pawns of Bush/Obama etc, and accept the political realities. Obviously the Palestinians should never give up, accept they're pawns of anyone, or accept the political realities. Because. Okay.

David

“Meinhoff syndrome by proxy, perhaps?”

That could work.

I think it was Johann Hari who said it wasn’t so much Žižek or his posturing that made him angry, but the cultish deference he attracts.

If memory serves, Žižek once claimed that, “there is something great and bold about the political idea of a general purge,” and when asked what he believes in politically, he answered, “egalitarianism with a taste of terror.” Perhaps we’re supposed to believe Žižek is merely joking about such things - which crop up regularly - even when he says he isn’t. But where’s the joke in praising Lenin, Mao and Stalin and then contorting reality until liberal democracy, on which Žižek’s livelihood and celebrity depend, can be construed as “oppressive” and “the enemy”? It seems to me he’s entranced by ideas of this kind in a rather unpleasant way, and not really joking enough. I’m guessing the fixation with authoritarian terror and the left’s Great, Hard Men is either pretence or fetish, possibly both.

James S

Here's the Johann Hari article -
http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2007/04/slavoj-zizek-intellectual

Check out the Zizek groupies in the comments.

David

James,

Ah, the groupies are a-twitch, mostly with the usual guff. I’m not naturally inclined to defend Johann Hari, but it’s quite a spectacle. Lots of sneery name-calling and vague yet strident claims that Hari has failed to grasp the infinite subtleties of Žižek and thus his criticism merely proves Žižek right in some way that’s never quite specified. And the point about excusing totalitarianism somehow slips by. And note the level of elitist snobbery from these righteous egalitarians: “How dare you badmouth The Very Clever Master, you unclever person, you!”

georges

I guess Zizek thinks he's punk rock - like the Sex Pistols pretending to have Martin Bormann on bass guitar. But it's 2008, and punk is so very, very old now. John Lydon has chosen butter, not guns. Someone tell the old professor...

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=sn_L3fcZXL8&feature=related

David

Georges,

Thanks for that. Meades is usually worth watching:

“Why, then, are Stalinists not beyond the pale? Why does Stalin’s name not prompt the same revulsion that Hitler’s does?”

Why indeed? And I like Meades’ comment about those who covet the license of tyrants. It seems to me there’s a tradition among some leftist academics of excusing the inexcusable with just a whiff of utopian desire. Whatever Žižek’s merits may be, and his opposition to woolly multiculturalism may possibly qualify*, he seems to fall within that unedifying tradition.

* http://obscenedesserts.blogspot.com/2008/08/i-dont-want-to-understand-people-i.html

I’m not saying Žižek’s output is entirely devoid of redeeming features; I’d have to read all of his 30 or 40 books to make any such claim. But rapid output isn’t a virtue in itself and what I have seen doesn’t impress me. I don’t get any sense of a coherent moral premise, or much regard for evidence and structured argument. I do, however, see plenty of contrarianism, “playfulness” and a tendency to romanticise totalitarianism and its ideological excuses.

carbon based lifeform

Re the Guardian article, the Green Party's Caroline Lucas does the same "root causes" bit...
http://www.engageonline.org.uk/blog/article.php?id=2244

It's Israel wot did it, guv.

David

But of course. And when I feel unhappy about events involving people I don’t know in some other part of the world, the first thing I feel like doing is murdering hundreds of people at random, or rather based on some metaphysical non-affiliation, including six-year-old children.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/3535866/The-British-survivors-of-the-Mumbai-attacks.html

It’s a “root cause,” you see.

gaffee

"murdering hundreds of people at random, or rather based on some metaphysical non-affiliation, including six-year-old children."

David, this is good in the WSJ:

"There was nothing remotely random about it. This was no hostage standoff. The terrorists didn't want to negotiate. They wanted to murder as many Hindus, Christians, Jews, atheists and other "infidels" as they could, and in as spectacular a manner as possible. In the Jewish center, some of the female victims even appear to have been tortured before being killed.

So why are so many prominent Western media reluctant to call the perpetrators terrorists? Why did Jon Snow, one of Britain's most respected TV journalists, use the word "practitioners" when referring to the Mumbai terrorists? Was he perhaps confusing them with doctors?

Why did Britain's highly regarded Channel 4 News state that the "militants" showed a "wanton disregard for race or creed" when exactly the opposite was true: Targets and victims were very carefully selected."

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122816892289570229.html

David

Gaffee,

“Why did Jon Snow, one of Britain's most respected TV journalists, use the word ‘practitioners’ when referring to the Mumbai terrorists? Was he perhaps confusing them with doctors?”

It’s almost become a game, watching various presenters and pundits scrabbling for some supposedly “neutral” term, preferably one which in no way hints at the religious dimension of the problem. And Jon Snow’s capacity for bias has been illustrated several times, most famously with his exchange with the Israeli deputy ambassador, in which he dismissed the Qassam missiles falling on Sderot as “pretty pathetic things, nobody gets injured.” Snow was remarkably selective – one might say perverse - in what he regarded as constituting “terrorism”. As so often, he was much more concerned with military capability (which he took to designate wickedness), rather than *how* such capability was actually being used.

http://www.honestreporting.co.uk/articles/critiques/Jon_Snows_Explosive_C4_Attack_on_Israel.asp

David Aaronovitch is a little more realistic:

“It is highly suggestive, I think, that the same area that gave birth to some of the Mumbai murderers has one of the highest levels of acid attacks on women anywhere in the world. In 2003 there were at least 74 of these disfiguring assaults in a southern Punjab - surely one of the most appalling manifestations of misogyny to be found anywhere on Earth… [O]ne sees here an ideology, a psychosis in search of a grievance, not an expression of an existing grievance. And it will always find a grievance.”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/david_aaronovitch/article5269730.ece

rv

The New Republic is a neocon rag -they don't complain about violence when it's American violence. Funny that. And if you think Zizek is "ridiculous" it shows you haven't read him.

Anna

So if we don't rate Zizek are we neocon imperialists? I think we should be told.

clazy

rv, I've read you, and you're ridiculous. And unhelpful.

clazy

RV, since you've obviously read enough of Zizek to conclude that he can't be ridiculous, why don't you provide us with a few examples of his more insightful observations.

David

rv,

Ah, the indignation of the devout.

As I said earlier, I’m not attempting to evaluate the ridiculousness or otherwise of Žižek’s entire oeuvre, though much of what I’ve seen is clearly absurd. One might, for instance, find the claim that fundamentalist Islam constitutes a “site of resistance” from which “one can deploy critical doubts about today’s society” somewhat facile and misleading. (“Today’s society” – i.e. Western, liberal, capitalist society - is, needless to say, questioned openly, at length, and as a matter of routine – more so, I’d guess, than any other society in history. However, the societies envisioned by enthusiasts of fundamentalist Islam don’t seem likely to permit similar reflection or dissent; nor do they seem likely to equip their inhabitants with the tools of such endeavours.) And given the other quotes above - and the longer, no less absurd, quotes in the links above – it seems pretty reasonable to regard the man as silly rather than, say, mischievous.

Or do you disagree? And if so, why?

Horace Dunn

RV

"The New Republic is a neocon rag"

And the New Statesman is the brainchild of Fabians, yet they also publish a piece poking fun at Žižek.

So what is your point exactly?

Stephen Fox

How about another thought experiment: instead of attempting to 'understand and empathize with their feelings' as McDonagh describes, we might wonder whether we have not the right to experience and act on emotions ourselves. The 'Guardian position' seems to presume an Olympian detachment from, say, the desire for revenge. I should say that when I saw the image of little Moshe Holtzberg crying for his mother at the memorial ceremony in Mumbai, the idea of retribution seemed rather appealing.
I am no longer sure that our quest for an emotionally neutral justice is appropriate. Sometimes it seems to me that it perfectly embodies the signature of a society that no longer really cares about itself. If so, all the justice in the world will not save us from ruin.
Either way, the double standards of the likes of Zizek and William Dalrymple are nauseating. But the possibility that our high ideals might actually represent a decay of self belief makes the hypocrisy more explicable.

tehag

Trudeau, Mitterand, Waldheim, all representatives of the EU-order. If Žižek did not exist to write what they and all EU leaders and academics think, it would be necessary to force Ronald McDonald to retire to academia. Žižek is an academic clown, dedicated to erasing the fig leaves that cover the EU's true ideology.

David

Clazy,

“RV, since you've obviously read enough of Zizek to conclude that he can’t be ridiculous, why don’t you provide us with a few examples of his more insightful observations?”

And a mysterious silence fell. I’m guessing rv has better things to do than justify his drive-by indignation. Still, it might be interesting to hear what it is that makes Žižek worth defending passionately (if not in detail), even in the face of his endless, ridiculous pronouncements. (“Today more than ever we should return to Lenin.”) As I said earlier, Žižek does occasionally say something at least half agreeable – he doesn’t like political correctness and woolly multiculturalism, for instance - but plenty of other people say much the same thing, and with much less totalitarian baggage. So I’m not at all sure what it is that makes him so “important” and cultish, at least to certain personalities. Are students really still enthralled by a busy, erratic mix of Marx, Lacan and pop culture? Or do they just pretend to be? (Pop culture I’m willing to take seriously, but the other two really blow it.)

Deogolwulf has more on this “purveyor of ugly, senseless and frivolous tat” and his more zealous admirers:

“If you have ever awoken in the morning and thought, ‘in order to be an active subject, I have to get rid of — and transpose onto the other — the inert passivity which contains the density of my substantial being’, then most likely you are an inveterate gobshite or a professor of sociology; — though it would take a man of rare perspicacity to tell the essence of the one from the other.”

http://curmudgeonjoy.blogspot.com/search?q=Slavoj+Zizek

Horace Dunn

"...the inert passivity which contains the density of my substantial being."

Hmmm. I think Deogolwulf might have misremembered the quotation. Surely the original reads "...the passive density which contains the substance of my inert being." Or was it? Oh, perhaps someone could look it up. It's very important to get these things right.

It's pissing with rain in London this morning.

David

Here, there’s rain and snow. So I guess I should win something. Is it cake?

James S

Zizek on homosexuality:

"First, in homosexuality, the other sex is excluded (one does it with another person of the same sex). Then, in a kind of mockingly Hegelian negation of negation, the very dimension of otherness is cancelled: one does it with oneself."

Does the "Hegelian negation of negation" make what he said less stupid?

David

“Does the ‘Hegelian negation of negation’ make what he said less stupid?”

Not really. But from what I’ve seen, Žižek isn’t big on substantive, structured argument in any conventional sense. He seems to deploy names, assertions and arcane references much more often than he actually, successfully demonstrates a point. However much Žižek may claim to dislike postmodern theory, or aspects of it, his own writing is very often postmodern in style, in that it asserts much more than it ever demonstrates. Geoffrey Galt Harpham summarised Žižek’s typical approach to argument:

“Zizek does not seem to believe that books should be about something; he reproduces his central themes compulsively regardless of the ostensible subject. He seems to write for the browser; even the earnest reader who begins at page one has the constant impression of having opened to a page somewhere in the middle. This sense of an endless middle is achieved by reducing the conventional middle to almost zero. The typical Zizekian unit of discourse - a wittily-titled passage of between five and fifteen pages - begins abruptly with the kind of confident assertion commonly associated with the conclusion; there is no phase of doubt, no pretence of unprejudiced inquiry, only a series of demonstrations, exemplifications, and restatements…”

http://www.uchicago.edu/research/jnl-crit-inq/issues/v29/v29n3.harpham1.html

David

rv,

Ah, there you are. Before we go any further perhaps you’d be good enough to respond to my earlier questions of December 3rd (15:46) and 4th (08:07), and those of other commenters? Otherwise I’ll start feeling this exchange is rather one-sided.

“It’s easy to act smug if you take Zizek out of context.”

Yes, I suppose it is, and Kirsch has stripped some quotes of their context. And for what it’s worth, unlike Kirsch, I don’t see any reason to take Žižek terribly seriously, either as a hero or a threat. He’s not that important; he is, in effect, an entertainer of sorts. But maybe that’s just my reactionary NeoCon imperialist tendency flaring up again. What with that and the “hegemony”...

However, from the passages I looked up for context, it seems to me there’s a pattern in many of Žižek’s arguments: Žižek says something absurd and contrarian about, say, tyranny being better than democracy, presumably as some kind of (unfunny) ear-catching joke. It’s irony, you see, which is obligatory (and always a good cover if things go tits-up). Then, almost immediately, he says he means something else, something ostensibly more high-minded but enormously tendentious and peppered with false equivalences. This, if taken seriously and pursued, leads one back towards the original, ludicrous, statement, or somewhere very close. (Some deem this “subversive”.) Thus, taking the ludicrous bits out of context isn’t *quite* as heinous as it seems.

Now, about those questions you’ve avoided…

John D

Looks like rv's doing another drive-by.

James S

"And a mysterious silence fell."

What's funny is rv is just like the groupies that called Johann Hari names- he still won't (can't?) tell us why Zizek isn't ridiculous.

David

James,

I’ve no idea whether or not rv can defend his indignation, but he does seem reluctant to share what it is that he knows and we apparently don’t. As I said, it’s entirely possible that some of Žižek’s output is much better than the tat I’ve seen. God knows, there’s enough of it; it can’t all be that awful.

But from what I have seen, Žižek seems to be trying to have it both ways. For instance, after some “subversive” comment about how Lenin (or “Lenin”) represents freedom, Žižek will say something like this: “The idea is not to return to Lenin, but to repeat him in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation.” This, we’re told, is not a nostalgic exercise, but a matter of “reinventing the revolutionary project in the conditions of imperialism and colonialism… What Lenin did for 1914, we should do for 1990.” He goes on, “‘Lenin’ stands for the compelling freedom to suspend the stale existing (post)ideological coordinates, the debilitating Denkverbot in which we live — it simply means that we are allowed to think again.”

Note the pattern: Contrarian statement, followed by, “No, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is…” [Insert technocratic language and references to Kierkegaard, Denkverbot, “sites of resistance,” etc.] Cue tendentious assertions regarding “imperialism,” “passivity,” forbidden thinking, and so on. Cue unsubstantiated claims that “we” are not free in some profound yet unspecified way without some collectivist “revolutionary project” to shake us from the assumptions of capitalism, bourgeois values, etc, - assumptions that are allegedly “debilitating” and antithetical to autonomous mental activity.

Once disentangled, what you basically have here is a tarted-up rehash of that old Marxist chestnut “false consciousness”. And he performs much the same manoeuvre with his comments on fundamentalist Islam, mentioned earlier. I suppose this kind of thing gives embittered old Marxists a belief that the reason their politics aren’t popular is because everyone else is asleep, oppressed or much too stupid. One should never underestimate the egalitarian’s capacity for elitism. Appeal to that and you’ll go far.

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