Is Slavoj Zizek more than the pair of carats in his surname?


I’m going to go with probably not.  In a post entitled “Slavoj Zizek wants to See a Bloodbath,” Justin E.H. Smith suggests:

Žižek’s shtick works for a number of reasons among readers who are not ordinarily receptive to calls to the barricades. One is that he is a clown, that he cuts his Leninism with enough sweet stuff about Jennifer Lopez and whatever other trash passes across his hotel TV screens that readers can easily assume to be a put-on every bit that they are not inclined to accept. Another reason, obviously, is the way he plays on his foreignness. He’s been through it, Western readers will tell themselves, and has surely earned the right to hold forth on these matters. But anyone who would joke that the only position he would accept in the Slovenian government is that of chief of secret police evidently has not been through it quite enough. Slovenia was the freest republic of the freest federal state in the socialist bloc: the Switzerland of Yugoslavia, as Slobodan Milošević once scoffed. This does not mean it was always easy to be a Lacanian intellectual in Ljubljana during the Tito era, but the sort of inconvenience Žižek faced is categorically different than, say, the Stalinist show trials in the Soviet Union of the 1930s (made possible, of course, by the secret police).

Žižek, I mean, is not speaking from any particular position of experience when he suggests that there is something to be salvaged from the legacy of the Bolshevik revolution. When he suggests that what is to be salvaged is the very most brutal part of that legacy, moreover, he is just being flippant, and Western readers should not let him get away with it simply on the grounds that he has funny accent marks in his last name.

12 thoughts on “Is Slavoj Zizek more than the pair of carats in his surname?

  1. I doubt it – the closure of philosophy departments has nothing to do with the lack of figures like Zizek… it’s a general malaise of the self-absorbed academics – you can put a Zizek into every department, but it won’t help.

  2. Far too absolutist. Is it not possible to arrive at a more humble position, such as that the guy has developed some terrific frameworks, especially earlier in his career, but is not the coming Messiah?

  3. “the closure of philosophy departments has nothing to do with the lack of figures like Zizek… it’s a general malaise of the self-absorbed academics”

    The point is that Zizek might clown around and shout louder than the rest, but he is also part of the general malaise of self-absorbed academics. His fantasies of violence are just a symptom of that. Such fantasies, however, also sell books. With his current IMAX-style fascination with armageddon, he should write some of those after the rapture books that sell so well in the US.

    I see Zizek’s “radical” call for ethical violence – as if human history wasn’t also a history of violence – as just another part of his unphilosophical and decidedly demagogic work; viz. his sausage machine oeuvre whereby everything on his TV set is subsumed into “proofs” of Lacan or Hegel, but these proofs are decontextualised and turned on their head, reversed to provide some carnival flair – no philosophical insight, no plausible interpretation behind the sloganeering and cultural mash-up/spectacle.

    JEH Smith mentions Ghandi, whose non-violent struggle Zizek has famously and ker-razily declared to be actually violent. This flattening of ideas and events is characteristic of his work and of the self-absorption of academia and post-modern culture in general. Not every act of protest can or should be described as violent. I seem to remember that fascists described their violent methods in the 20s as an adequate response to the “violence” committed against their beloved “homelands”, on behalf of which they claimed to speak. That’s a flattening of violence too.

    So, in flattening violence, not only is Zizek a demagogue he’s a fff…

    OK, that was a bit too violent, I’ve calmed down now.

  4. The article by Smith is a remarkable bit of intellectual dishonesty, functioning completely through a serious of straw man attacks. Where does Zizek ever call for a bloodbath? Furthermore, to claim that communism, out of necessity, leads to bloodbaths and oppression is an argument that must be made and cannot simply be asserted. This obviousness is not so obvious.

    I get it. People are growing tired of Zizek and his ways. I don’t see it but that may just be a difference of taste. But, it is not an act of flattening to say that Ghandi represented a political violence more successful than that of fire bombs or bloodbaths. Instead it is to ask the question about what role violence plays in political action and what purpose it is meant to serve. If your desire is to smash heads then join the black bloc. Your desires will be met and you will never run out of protests to high jack. But if violence can be beyond a libidinal outburst then the question is to ask to what end it serves. Ghandi brought down (or assisted in the bringing down) English colonialism. That is an act of real violence, not metaphorical violence. Overall, it is not such a controversial point.

  5. “Where does Zizek ever call for a bloodbath?”

    He doesn’t. He’s not that stupid. Have you ever heard of anyone, even a dictator, actually calling for a bloodbath? Maybe Nero did…

    You describe JEH Smith’s argument is a serious of straw man attacks against Zizek, but I think you also misrepresent Smith’s position. The title is a supposition, “Slavoj Žižek WANTS to See a Bloodbath”, based on taking his call for “legitimate violence” seriously. That is, as you say of Zizek, asking the question about what role violence plays in political action and what purpose it is meant to serve.

    This is pertinent given Zizek’s defence of liberal bogeymen such as Robespierre. Moreover, Robespierre was conducting violence to safeguard “the Revolution” from enemies, real or imagined. Whichever way you slice it, he was conducting state violence. Whether you feel it was justified is moot here, Robespierre’s position is completely different from Ghandi’s. Surely, for Zizek to equate both under the concept of “political violence” is either dishonest or plain silly for it is precisely the politics that has been removed here. It’s certainly ahistorical. Zizek constantly decontexualises, and when I see I straw man I’m just overcome with a libinidnal impulse to knock him down.

    I think Smith’s argument is not that Zizek wants a bloodbath but that he is a bullshitter who should at least be called on his argument instead of passively enjoying its ker-razily controversial line, let alone construing it as meaningful:

    “Žižek, I mean, is not speaking from any particular position of experience when he suggests that there is something to be salvaged from the legacy of the Bolshevik revolution. When he suggests that what is to be salvaged is the very most brutal part of that legacy, moreover, he is just being flippant, and Western readers should not let him get away with it simply on the grounds that he has funny accent marks in his last name.”

    By taking him seriously (ie he is not just a foreign other with whom with have no similar experiential context), Smith is showing that, once again, Zizek is not being serious at all. Maybe Smith feels that there is nothing at all to be salvaged from the Bolshevik revolution, but that’s not entirely clear. What is clear is that Zizek should be laughed out of court when he suggests that the most brutal part of the legacy should be salvaged. To riff on Kay’s comment: War is peace.

    “Furthermore, to claim that communism, out of necessity, leads to bloodbaths and oppression is an argument that must be made and cannot simply be asserted.”

    Could you show me where Smith asserts this, or were you talking about me? I was talking about fascism, not communism, and how quickly the difference between metaphorical violence and actual violence is elided when one talks about “ethical – that is, rule governed – violence. Communists should take note, however.

    I wouldn’t claim (for the moment at least) that communism necessarily leads to bloodbaths and oppression. I wouldn’t claim that of capitalism either. But to anyone who excuses red terrors such as 1793, the Soviet purges or Cambodia as not really anything to do with “real” communism, just “actually existing communism”, I would say: Well, of course the Amritsar massacre was just a result of “actually existing imperialism” and slavery of “actually existent capitalism”. Perhaps these ideals don’t necessarily oppress people, but history doesn’t stack up in their favour so far. Should absolutely everything be jettisoned from both ideals? Probably not. My problem with the bolsheviks (and Robespierre) is that they identified themselves as the bulwark of revolution – the voice, the real struggle of the oppressed. I say let the oppessed decide, otherwise their disagreements may not chime with your brave new world. Ghandi was voice for the oppressed because he led by example, not by ideal. In psychoanalytical terms, this position might be said to be the ego ideal rather than the ideal ego.

    I certainly agree that Ghandi represented a political violence more successful than that of fire bombs or bloodbaths – if we really have to identify “violence” exactly with “protest”. Zizek does too. He may be a demagogic buffoon but he’s not a monster for all that he endlessly hams it up to the liberal press. The question is: what is to be learned from this idea of ethical violence, whether paradoxically (nonsensically) non-violent or not? That is, violence formulated as righteous defence: “legitimate because their very status results from violence”. Does it mean that all defence is righteous? So, who was righteously violent after the Revolution? Robespierre or the Vendée reactionaries?

    I can’t see where Zizek’s call for ethical violence asks us to rethink political violence, or politics for that matter. Is it his idea or yours that the collapse of British colonialism, partially as a result of Ghandi’s efforts, is a properly political violence because it had an eventual geopolitical effect? A real effect, so real violence? Everything else (“Smash duh state!”) is just metaphorical? You can comfort yourself with that idea if you ever have the misfortune to get mugged.

    I contend that it is the “omnivorous” Zizek, as the Guardian has swooningly called him, who desires to hijack any number of protests with his ethical violence. It reminds me of how the UK’s SWP tries to take over any demonstration, tries to be the voice of the demonstration. Furthermore, it is certainly a conceptual flattening to say that Ghandi represented a political VIOLENCE more successful than that of fire bombs or bloodbaths instead of a more successful PROTEST. It alters the meaning of both terms by making them interchangeable: x and y both mean x. What does this alteration mean to do, apart from forgive Robespierre his violence (Stalin is just a little too close to the bone. It hurts Zizek too much)? So, who else should we forgive? And is it only Zizek who has the privilege of this political forging?

    I suggest that Zizek return to that less sexy word “protest”, if he doesn’t want to be taken for someone who just wants to smash heads. Violence, in Zizek’s world, is no more real than the thrill we get when we watch a Tarantino film. That is, we have suspended our disbelief to enjoy a real thrill as the result of fiction. The feeling is real, the concept really is a fiction.

  6. Yes, quite, re; the idea that Zizek would better employ the term ‘protest’ than ‘violence’. The notion that Gandhi’s pacifism was a form of violence is typical of Zizek’s facetiousness, but what is worrying is that it is presented seriously.

    ‘Violence’ means unjust physical force. Trying to counter violence in a passive non-violent way can’t be ‘violence’, however much you refract reality through the lens of Hegelian-Lacanianism, with a touch of postmodernity chucked in. Gandhi’s pacifism was a disarming tool, but it did not disarm by smashing heads and mowing people down with guns. To make a fitting comparison, the Amritsar massacre was violent, the salt marches were not.

    I can see that Zizek might have meant that pacifism is as strong a force as violence when effective, but he should say these things more clearly. Otherwise one gets to thinking that the guy is just wasting valuable time by drawing attention to himself.

  7. yes, we all get it, you don’t care for Zizek.

    Might I suggest you simply stop talking about him then?

    Zizek, Sarah Palin, the New York Yankees….

    God can’t we find something else to discuss?

    • We actually do care about Zizek, that’s why we are chronicling his demise – are you one of those annoying types that goes around telling people “Well, if you don’t care for X, then why are talking about X?” as if the only mode of not-caring is silence – what if the best way to not-care is to constantly talk about how one does not care? Seriously, every time we post anything remotely critical of the Big Slovene (even though I’ve probably read every book he published, even the rare ones), every Tom, Dick and Harry shows up and tsk-tsks us about it…

      • No, by all means continue then to discuss, I’m very critical of him as well!

        Do you feel the same way about the entire Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis, or just him?

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