UPDATE: Larval Subjects has an interesting discussion of the matter here and here.
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.”
Can’t we take Zizek at his word when he says he gets genuinely hurt by these types of interpretations of his work, and people not taking him seriously enough?
I really don’t know if Slavs are particularly wild-eyed, but Zizek certainly is, if you’ve ever seen any videos or gone to a lecture.
Of course, he isn’t dangerous, and that’s precisely the problem. He wants so badly to break out of contemporary academic passivity, the endless cycle of inactive appeals to praxis, that he will defend anything which offers a resolution. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I do not think he can ever succeed. There’s a bit in one of his books, can’t remember which, where he unmasks himself in a way. He says: as leftists, we can talk about revolution, but ultimately we need to support the lesser evil and line up quietly behind the center-left candidate–because remember what happened to the German left in the ’30s! I was a bit disappointed when I saw that, but now I’m glad he wrote it. It really reveals the limits of the possibility for épate-ing the bourgeois nowadays, even for someone as committed to it as Zizek.
I thought “wild-eyed and Slavic” was sort of thrown in to complete the image – Kirsch is annoyingly insulting when it comes to Zizek’s person, all that stuff about his biographical details just smells of strange resentment and dislike which is fine, but when it is presented as some sort of superior intellectual assessment, it is just sad. Zizek’s certainly irritates mane, myself including, with certain rhetorical jumps, but at the same time I find many of his questions to be at the very least interesting, even if I disagree with the answers. Take, for example, the role of violence – when liberal democracies authorize violence, we are told it is something we need to tolerate in order to reach the necessary goal, when terrorists use the similar logic of violence as means to an end, even raising the possibility of comparison (which is mostly what Zizek does) is heresy. The same goes for Zizek’s attempts to reintroduce the questions about National Socialism and all of the lessons not learned after 1945 – it is generally a big taboo in the public scene to suggest that NS came out of the certain disappointment of democracy and that it could be explained as a reaction to the logic of parliamentary democracy with its shortfalls vis-a-vis decision making.
You’re right, Zizek’s not a revolutionary, he is not as “popular” as Kirsch presents it, I’m sure many of the readers of TNR will read about him for the first time – I still can’t quite tell from the article what is so “dangerous” and “deadly” about Zizek’s supposed jestering? Daring to criticize liberal democracy? Daring to suggest that violence can be interpreted and not simply dismissed as a dark underside of progressive human culture? With violence all around us (Mumbai, for example), how can anyone who suggests we try to understand it be branded a lunatic, a wide-eyed Slav?
There is a long history of people like Teresa Ebert denouncing Zizek for his supposed “ludic” advocacy of postmodernism against Marxism, and the code-word there is his “cynicism,” the irony that permeates his arguments and makes him a rhetorician and performer (or jester) instead of a serious philosopher, thinker, sage etc. I think the TNR piece is the other side of the same coin. There is some violation of scholarly decorum going on in his writing, but his performative self-awareness means that the literal-minded or humorless are just missing the point, whatever that is. The TNR piece has only gotten as far as discovering the violation of decorum.
Zizek’s persistent irony makes the job of endorsing his views just as thankless as denouncing them. Just ask Jodi Dean, who I think is an intelligent person lashed to the mast of his little boat, trying to use Zizek to help float her own work in political theory. I think she is onto something, but it also seems like a depressing task.
My problem with Zizek, and I make no claims to originality here, is not that there’s anything so outrageous or unthinkable contained there, but that the act has gotten stale and somewhat predictable after umpteen books. Once you’ve raised some important questions, you need either to be able to follow them up, or raise some new questions.
Dave, I think I generally agree with your points, my issue with attacks on Zizek – and you’re right, this is not the first or the best – is that most expect him to write a certain way and when he fails to do so, either intentionally or not, he is blamed for it. I seriously doubt anyone reads Zizek’s books from cover to cover – I did read the whole of Violence, but a lot of stuff is repeated in The Defense of Lost Cause (or rather it’s the other way around, I think) – but I have to say if I read a book by Zizek, I’m sure to find at least several interesting, even if not followed by any elaboration, remarks or some thought-provoking juxtapositions and that’s all I expect, period. It’s entertaining and at times challenging, but I don’t think one needs to expect profundity or originality or completeness to appreciate a book. I think Kirsch and others indirectly accept Zizek’s supposed prophetic status and then demand that he act in accordance with that interpretation of his persona that they accuse others of attributing to him…
In any case, all I really want to know is where is this “Zizek cult” that everyone’s on about? I’d like to attend a meeting and check it out for myself…
Mikhail, certainly you are joking about being ignorant of the cult of Zizek? Every time I’ve seen him speak there’s a bunch of “fanboy” types hanging on his every word. Ack.
I don’t know, I thought the “review” was kind of funny. I could honestly care less about it, however. I thought the bit about Zizek’s supposed Antisemitism was a bit off at first, but as I thought about it more, it’s not really an unfair question to ask. Now before a bunch of people start jumping on me for even daring to suggest this (there is an annoying thing about blogs in which one says X about thinker Y and then someone leaves a preachy and pedagogic comment telling me what thinker Y thinks about X as though I don’t understand it, when in fact I do, I’m just disagreeing), I will say this: a good deal of theory has been engaged in a weird project to rethink anti-Semitism in light of goofy postmodern obsessions with identity politics (and of course, representation) and moreover to understand these latter preoccupations in light of the broader history of anti-Semitism (at least in the last 100 years). I think that it would be uncontroversial to claim that in much of Zizek’s work the tag “postmodern theory” contains, at least in part, a rethinking of the “Jewish Question.”
What is annoying is the ambivalence.
That is to say, as others have noted above, very often Zizek is not particularly helpful. I think with regards to the Jewish/Christian examples he likes to use there is an ambivalence/ambiguity that does on the one hand, blow open a space for/as ideology critique, but also shuts such a space down so the vacillation between say, “progressive” and “reactionary” aspects are hidden and function (throughout his corpus) ideologically. Part of this ambiguity rears it’s head when Zizek talks about how exactly anti-semitism functions in European culture, but then he turns around and embraces Christianity as THE new beginning, as a break from Judaism and goes onto suggest that this is a world historical progression. So, I suppose, one could chalk this up to the “yucky” aspects of Hegelian world history being mobilized. Perhaps.
Then again, there are better ways to theorize the resurgence of/history of anti-semitism I suppose…but at least Zizek is talking about it, right?
Fanboys (and fangirls, let’s not discriminate) hanging around don’t necessarily constitute a cult – I get your point here and I know that’s certainly there – I mean the cult of Zizek is this mythological admiration that I just don’t see. Kirsch seems to suggest that it is the leftist academics that worship Zizek, not impressionable young students (they’ll worship anyone who resembles a father figure)…
As for anti-semitism, I seriously don’t think Kirsch’s selective citation technique is helping his case because he seems to be suggesting that any ambivalence is automatically guilty on the side of anti-semitic remarks. Like you, I don’t care to defend Zizek here, although it certainly sounds as if I do care about the matter, I’m only annoyed with how easy Kirsch can gets away with throwing every negative term in the book at Zizek in order to basically reject anything he says. This seems to be a cultural peculiarity – correct me if I’m wrong – no one can be trusted if they lie once (think Law and Order theatrical cross-examination of unreliable witnesses, or the way politicians are held up to a much higher moral standard), so if the author X said something anti-Semitic or obscene or fascistic or neoconservative or socialist or [add you label], it automatically excludes him from ever saying anything true about anything. I’m afraid that Zizek’s just too easy to target here but Kirsch could be writing about anyone he disagrees with, the strategy will be the same: mocking, random quotes, more mocking, dismissive remarks, conclusion…
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Zizek is a sloppy, rather vulgar thinker who loves sensation and to be admired. And admired he is by a horde of various drop-outs and sexually frustrated women.