Critchley is wrong

April 18, 2008

Critchley has written a letter to Harpers in reponse to Zizek’s review of his book in the LRB. I’ve just read it, and have this to say about it: Critchley is wrong – not to mention maddening.

He quotes Lacan against Zizek, but takes neither Lacan’s not Zizek’s full notion of revolution or psychoanalysis into account. In the Seminar Critchley references (and which we are reading), Lacan does indeed say that the students of ’68 would get a master. What Lacan also says is that revolution is not impossible – he conceives of it in a way that’s not the replacement of one master with another (i.e. the slave becoming a new master, the installment of an authoritarian leader), but the ‘becoming-analyst’ of the slave (hysteric).

And Lacan is overtly Marxist about the whole thing. That is, in Lacan’s view the Hysteric refuses to embody the enjoyment of the master and instead exposes how the master has no power other than through the compliance of the hysteric. This is exactly in line with Marx’s remarks on the king in the first chapter of Capital: i.e. the king is only such because the people act as if he has god-given power. Not only that, it is in line with Marx’s description of exchange and use value – i.e. the body of one commodity stands in for the value of another, while the hysteric REFUSES to embody the surplus-enjoyment of the master. And what is the end of analysis? – the hysteric becoming a psychoanalyst.

And the overtones of what it means to become an analyst are Marxist as well – that is, one is not well-enough off if they know psychoanalytic theory; they have to be a practicing analyst – see his remarks in the first chapter of the second section of The Other Side…: Psychoanalysis can’t help with ethnology, but being an analyst can. This is part of his argument that there is a difference between transmissible knowledge (in this case psychoanalytic theory) and know-how (being a practicing analyst). It’s easy to see here the link between this and Marx/Lenin – it’s not enough to be a Marxist; one must be Leninist and do something! (i.e. put Marxism to work). This is why Zizek laud’s Chavez – He’s doing something that directly challenges the capitalist way of doing things.

It’s also of note that when Critchley quotes Zizek on Chavez he leaves out the important parts – i.e. opening a new form of political space. In addition he fails to fully think through ‘Bartleby’ and Zizek’s ideas on the Leninst party. Z makes the party sound like something everyone would eventually become a member of – i.e. the state would ‘wither’ and become a democracy in a form other than representational or dictatorial. This is where Bartleby stands – to ‘do nothing’ means to not act in terms of the dominant ideology.

For Zizek ideology isn’t a false consciousness in terms of thought, but an action. That is, if you act is if money really has intrinsic value even though you know it doesn’t, you’re in the throngs of ideology. And in Parallax… Z aligns Bartleby directly with the analyst as the figure who, by letting the analysand do its own work for itself, comes into truth. And this is the function Z attributes to the party – the means by which people can come to the truth of the capitalist system and ACT on it!

I finished reading Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle last night, and I couldn’t help but think of Chavez and the withering of the state. In the third act, a Groucho-Marx (ha!) style figure takes the seat of juridical power and uses it in a robin-hood style – stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor (sounds like Chavez to me! – the person everyone thinks is a clown, but he gives people money for health care, education, etc). The end of the play sees Groucho claim the kingdom as the property of the children of the country and steps down from power. What’s this but Brecht’s version of the withering of the state? Of course Chavez may not end up going in this direction, and there are huge problems with the ways he’s doing things, I’m sure. But to say that this will end in Stalinsim is to fall into teleological thinking. Why not push for the conversion of Chavez’ state into a non-state form, rather than denouncing him as already a Stalin?

Critchley also makes the mistake of 1) thinking that Zizek wants to ‘return’ to Lenin and merely do what he did, and 2) refusing to acknowledge that destroying the state would not have resulted in some communist utopia, but the eradication of Russian socialism. I mean, what does he think war communism was? It was the terrible responsibility of conceeding that the rest of the world is still capitalist and will try to smash what you have done! That is, some 17 countries with some 14 armies were trying to seize Russia for themselves! This was precisely the mistake that Marx saw in the Paris Commune – instead of attacking Versailles and ensuring that the French government couldn’t work with the Germans, they stayed put. The result? Surprise! The Germans came rolling in and massacred the communards! (some 30,000 people, if I remember correctly). Bye-bye, Paris commune!

And that is precisely the position Chavez is in – I read somewhere that the ‘unavailability’ of many basic commodities (i.e. milk and bread) that Zizek references was not the result of a failure in the economy, but a conscious act of the capitalists in Venezuela. And of course, I’m sure the Americans would love to install a puppet in Chavez’s place and get their hands on all that oil!

So, Get off it Critchley. It may well be that Zizek slams you unneccessarily – I can’t say because I havn’t read your book. But you most certainly misrepresent his thought in your crappy letter.



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