An article from the next The New Republic on Zizek finally puts all things Zizek in their places and reveals the secret of “what Zizek really believes” – intrigued?
Last year the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek published a piece in The New York Times deploring America’s use of torture to extract a confession from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda leader who is thought to have masterminded the attacks of September 11. The arguments that Zizek employed could have been endorsed without hesitation by any liberal-minded reader. Yes, he acknowledged, Mohammed’s crimes were “clear and horrifying”; but by torturing him the United States was turning back the clock on centuries of legal and moral progress, reverting to the barbarism of the Middle Ages. We owe it to ourselves, Zizek argued, not to throw away “our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.” […]
He was being dishonest. What Zizek really believes about America and torture can be seen in his new book, Violence, when he discusses the notorious torture photos from Abu Ghraib: “Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people; in being submitted to humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectivelyinitiated into American culture.” Torture, far from being a betrayal of American values actually offers “a direct insight into American values, into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the U.S. way of life.” This, to Zizek’s many admirers, is more like it.
Zizek does not have readers, like other writers, readers who might agree with one point and disagree with another, Zizek has admirers, we are told, who expect a certain type of Zizekian gesture every time they see his name in the print.
The curious thing about the Zizek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror–especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose “lost causes” Zizek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes—the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult.
In other words, Zizek’s increased “praise of violence” and academic left’s increased love for him are directly connected – if you expect Adam Kirsch, the author of the piece, to provide you with any sort of evidence of such dependence, well, don’t – it’s just a rhetorical device. The fact that Zizek has been “elevated into a celebrity” long before his books on violence, in fact, probably long before Kirsch noticed him and read his books is not very important, is it? The thrashing of Zizek is to proceed without any such unnecessary detours into the land of facts, arguments and logic, sort of like Zizek himself, as Kirsch writes, whose celebrity and cult are dependent precisely on such stunts and writerly twists…
This intellectual promiscuity is the privilege of the licensed jester, of the man whom The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed “the Elvis of cultural theory.”
Zizek is intellectually promiscuous? Get out of town! Really? Why did I have to wait so long for someone to finally reveal this to me? Wait, The Chronicle of Higher Education is now a jester licensing institution? The Chronicle called him something, therefore it must be so, how can it be otherwise? What will become of this academic world if we are no longer able to rely on The Chronicle of Higher Education?!
Now where does this incredible resentment of all things Zizek come from? I wonder. Why not leave him alone and let him write whatever he wants? Why is Kirsch so visibly outraged at Zizek’s “all bark and no bite” and mint cookies? Here we go, sirs, it all originated in Kirsch’s personal experience of the bearded Slovenian and his deceptive deception:
I witnessed the same deception a few weeks ago, when Zizek appeared with Bernard-Henri Lévy at the New York Public Library. The two philosopher-celebrities came on stage to the theme music from Superman, and their personae were so perfectly opposed that they did indeed nudge each other into cartoonishness: Lévy was all the more Gallic and debonair next to Zizek, who seemed all the more wild-eyed and Slavic next to Lévy.
Oh no, not the cartoonish and the stereotypical! “Wild-eyed and Slavic”? Please continue, clearly you have come to see/hear these two with an open mind, not really expecting anything – actually, why go listen to Zizek at all if he is such a waster of intellectual space, such a “deadly [yet licensed] jester”? Was Kirsch there to maybe catch a glance of a “real Zizek”? Zizek without a persona and without a deception? How can one otherwise explain Kirsch’s obsession with unmasking?
Whether or not it would be always a mistake to take Slavoj Zizek seriously, surely it would not be a mistake to take him seriously just once. He is, after all, a famous and influential thinker. So it might be worthwhile to consider Zizek’s work as if he means it–to ask what his ideas really are, and what sort of effects they are likely to have.
Taking “seriously” is, of course, all about figuring out what Zizek’s ideas “really are.” The next section of the article goes into just enough detail about Zizek’s books and life and contains just the correct amount of pointy and controversial quotes to quickly create (I’m all about splitting those infinitives today, it seems) a nice portrait of the man, very original too, no one ever wrote anything like this about Zizek, I’m afraid a whole afternoon was spent on creating these provocative remarks… I’ll let you enjoy the bulk of these sentences, they speak pretty much for themselves, but here we are finally approaching the core of Kirsch’s “argument” and it comes not a second sooner than the reader’s desperate “So what is your point then?”:
But what if it is not the utopia that appeals to Zizek, but the blood and the sacrifice? […] Zizek is hardly the only leftist thinker who has believed in the renovating power of violence, but it is hard to think of another one for whom the revolution itself was the acte gratuite. For the revolutionary, Zizek instructs in In Defense of Violence, violence involves “the heroic assumption of the solitude of a sovereign decision.”
The Defense of Violence? You ask. Yes, that’s the cute renaming/typo that Kirsch has produced in his long reading of Zizek’s whole writing career – Zizek defends violence, promotes violence, misreads Benjamin, calls for revolutionary violence, endorses violence and [verb of your choice] violence! Wait, but there is more:
Zizek endorses one after another of the practices and the values of fascism, but he obstinately denies the label.
In order to defend himself against the charge of proto-fascism, Zizek falls back on Goering’s joke about Jews! This is not just the “adrenalin-fueled” audacity of the bold writer who “dares the reader to disagree.” To produce this quotation in this context is a sign, I think, of something darker. It is a dare to himself to see how far he can go in the direction of indecency, of an obsession that has nothing progressive or revolutionary about it.
These moments, unpleasant as they are, are not quite expressions of anti-Semitism. But in In Defense of Lost Causes, Zizek does make plain what he might call the “fantasmatic screen” through which he sees Jews… In his recent writings, as his concerns have shifted more and more toward the political, the roles reserved for Jews and Judaism have become decidedly more negative. True, Zizek is less straightforwardly hostile to Israel than many European leftists.
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.
Zizek is obscene and anti-Semitic, he dares himself to go further and further into indecency – how does Kirsch knows that? Well, he can read Zizek’s books (more popular ones, of course, no Ticklish Subject for Kirsch, I suppose) and Zizek’s mind, apparently…
I am not an admirer of Zizek, I can barely count myself as an attentive reader of Zizek, but certainly I don’t think that he is as useless and laughable (and dangerous) as Kirsch presents him to be. I am also pretty sure that this reaction to Zizek, however belated on Kirsch’s part, is exactly the calculated reaction Zizek expects and provokes. Why? How would I know? I’m not Adam Kirsch, I have no idea what Zizek “really believes.”