Zizek the Embarrassment
(x-posted to The Valve)
“Resistance is Surrender”
–Headline of Slavoj Zizek’s new article for the London Review of Books
There is a telling moment in the film Zizek! where Zizek discusses his own books, and says that his favorite works are the ones where he manages to consider the philosophical tradition most deeply, such as Tarrying With The Negative. Although all of Zizek’s books contain analyses of popular culture and programmatic political speculation, the quarrels that he has personally found most productive have been within the long historical traditions of philosophical debate over dialectics, consciousness, subjectivity, and the way the world becomes manifest through experience. Meanwhile, believing himself capable of discussing the political issues of the day in a clear and accessible manner, Zizek has written political op-eds for a number of publications, including The New York Times, the UK Guardian, and The London Review of Books. These columns are a curious blend of agit-prop and academic exposition; while some of Zizek’s references remain bewildering to readers unacquainted with postmodern political theory, he clearly intends to write transparently and to inspire action.
In the process, he has become an embarrassment to academics and to the Left, even though, admittedly, he has never resorted to reminiscing about Frank Sinatra and Ted Williams. His newest piece, re-posted numerous places around the web, is an endorsement of Hugo Chavez that supposedly comes at the expense of the Left, which, Zizek maintains, colludes with the status quo in secret.
Zizek has become a prisoner of his own fatuous admiration for the successful seizure of power, whether it comes in the form of an attractive cinematic dream (his analysis of 300) or as somebody else’s reality (Hugo Chavez). His perpetual frustration with progressive politicians is no longer distinguishable from that of columnists like Alexander Cockburn, who use politics as a means of asserting superiority over an insular group of fellow travelers with whom they have associated all their lives.
In order to preserve what of Zizek will endure, it is essential that we respond harshly to this saturating tide of Zizekian punditry, mocking him for those political ambitions that are clearly renascent now, long after his failed attempt to become President of Slovenia.
In Zizek’s new column, the contradictions come so quickly that it is hard to keep track of them all. For example, he writes: “One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible.” Then he bitterly condemns he who “accepts the futility of all struggle, since the hegemony is so all-encompassing that nothing can really be done.”
He writes “In compliance with this logic, the anarchic agents focus their protest not on open dictatorships, but on the hypocrisy of liberal democracies, who are accused of betraying their own professed principles” after writing this: “Today’s Left reacts in a wide variety of ways to the hegemony of global capitalism and its political supplement, liberal democracy.”
He writes that the Left “might, for example, accept the hegemony, but continue to fight for reform within its rules (this is Third Way social democracy),” and then concludes:
The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfill. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.
It is crucial to read the whole column (which isn’t very long) in order to see how the dialectical “double movement” that used to serve Zizek’s uncompromising intellect has become a contemptible tool for his egotism. When he attacks liberal democracy, it is with confidence in his own great insight; when leftists (whoever that might be) attack liberal democracy, it is in order to provide cover for the “open dictatorships.” When he calls for finite demands, he does so in order to bring down the state; when the Third Way social democrats fight for reform, they are trying to resign us to hegemony. When he praises 300, or attacks the television show 24, he does so in the name of political reform; when other critics perform similar functions, they are “withdraw(ing) into cultural studies, where one can quietly pursue the work of criticism” after issuing cursory and impossible demands.
The responses that I have seen to Zizek’s piece have been considerate and gentle. At Long Sunday, CR asks whether Zizek has really provided us with a way forward. At I Cite, Jodi Dean expresses dissatisfaction with the particular form of political pessimism that became the trademark of the Frankfurt School. At the Weblog, Adam Kotsko simply tries to get clear about whether Zizek supports the Third Way, or not, and whether he supports Chavez, or not.
Each of these posts manifests a remarkable faith in Zizek, as though these questions have answers, or at least as though what is unclear now may become lucid shortly. It is as though one is speaking about a brilliant, sometimes reticent friend. In the relative desert of American politics, when connections between politics and philosophy are so difficult to find, I have also thought of Zizek that way. But enough is enough. Solidarity is wasted on egotistical delusion, and so is the gentle work of asking questions. Let us ask each other these same questions: do we support the consolidation of power in Venezuela? Do we see evidence of resignation on the Left? Do our anxieties about power leave us paralyzed? As for Slavoj Zizek, his very headlines have become unconscious, unsettling echoes of the slogans in 1984. Let us part ways with him until he once again becomes sane, and faithful to the unfinished work of philosophy, rather than to his besetting fantasies of a vanguard capable of putting a point on his arrogance.