Zizek For and Against Lefort and the Monarch, II

November 15, 2008

(I’ve started a new post to preserve the formatting to make it easier to read…)

Here is what Zizek says in Zizek! about SOI:

“…Although, I’m more and more self-critical of the first one [SOI]. It’s still too liberal. I’m for democracy there, I’m ashamed. I’m very sorry to say, [in that book] I think that there was a thing called totalitarianism which was bad, and I think there should be pluralism in society; My God, what am I talking there? I mean, you know that Marx Brothers’ joke?  – I would never be a member of a club that…you know… If I were not myself I would arrest myself.”

Now, that to me sounds like a couple of things that a liberal would endorse. But if that’s not enough to convince you that Z thinks SOI is liberal, here’s the quote from the forward of TKN:

…the underlying ethical position of The Sublime Object of Ideology, in it’s focus on the figure of Antigone, remains “phallagocentric.”

This philosophical weakness is closely linked to the remainders of the liberal-democratic political stance: SOI oscillates between Marxism proper and praise of “pure” democracy, including a critique of “totalitarianism” along the lines of Claude Lefort. It took me years of hard work to identify and liquidate these dangerous residues of bourgeois ideology clearly…(xviii).

It’s clear from the quotes above found in TKN and Parallax that this faith in Lefort is still present in TKN, and gone ‘years later’ in Parallax. This preface was written in 2g2, the year of Z’s self-proclaimed Leninist turn, and the “hard road to dialectical materialism” (the title of section 1 of the forward) ends with Lenin, while TKN ends with Hegel’s monarch.

If that’s not enough, lets look at the quote that follows the section that I originally quoted and you’ve put forward at length against my reading:

In the face of the apparent worldwide triumph of liberal-capitalist ideology, it would be far more productive to recall Hegel’s dictum that a political movement gains victory when it splits. The moment of liberal-democracy’s triumph [liberal-democracy’s triumph!!?], the moment when it its external  adversary, incarnated in the Communist “Evil Empire”, disintegrated, is in itself… the moment of confrontation with its immanent limit its own weaknesses can no longer be exculpated by means of comparison with “Them”. In the West as well as the East, we are already witnessing new political movements which are “events” in the sense elaborated by Alain Badiou: emergences of something that cannot be integrated into the existing ideological frameworks, signs of the New, the pathbreaking character of which is attested by the very fact that they no not know what they are the signs of and therefore often take refuge in the language of the past; it suffices to mention the Green movement (TKN, 270).

Clearly he’s talking about the breakup of Yugoslavia (“In the West as well as the East”; the dissolution of communism) and his involvement with the Liberal Party in Slovenia.  And it’s also clear that he sees the ‘triumph of liberal-democracy’ in it.

First, let me point out that it does not suffice to point to the “Green movement” to prove that “new social movements” can’t be absorbed by the logic of Capitalism. Rather, it provides an argument for the exact opposite. The Green Party, for example, began as strongly anti-capitalist, but is now a mainstream neo-liberal party:

The Green Party comes from a noble tradition: 1970s radicals who saw capitalism was destroying the earth, and rejected the growth-at-any-cost priorities of both sides of the Cold War. The Greens’ answer was a rainbow-coalition of social justice: anti-nuclear, anti-militarist, feminist, and pro-local development and social ecology. Greens advocated a wholesale shift from development-based growth to a sustainable, harmonious non-capitalist society.

As the Greens or closer to power around the world, those priorities withered. The German Greens dropped their anti-capitalism after the breakup of the USSR in 1991, shifting from grassroots activism and party democracy to a traditional, parliamentary model. They went on to support NATO’s bombing of Kosovo in 1998, and – in coalition with the ruling Social Democratic Party – the US-UK invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Across Europe, the Greens have entered into coalition governments with capitalist parties and ended up supporting “modernization” measures to tear up the welfare state (Greg Sharzer, New Socialist, Fall 2007, p 14).

Sharzer goes on to detail how Canada’s green party gets a lot of its ideas from Chicago-style economics.

These are the types of movements that Zizek and his first wife endorse in the “Lacan in Slovenia” interview in Radical Philosophy (copies of which I gave to you guys), where we also find the following:

[interviewers]: …it may appear strange that the Liberal Party emerged from the youth wing of the Slovenian League of Communists. Especially since, in the information bulletins of the Ljublijana Press Centre, your party is described as affiliating to the classical traditions of liberalism [the classical traditions of liberalism!!]. Could you explain more precisely where the Liberal Party stands ideologically?

[Zizek]: Our aim is to promote pluralism, and an awareness of ecological issues, and to defend the rights of minorities. This is the kind of liberal tradition we represent. Not the purely capitalist values of the free market, not Friedrich von Hayek.

It’s also in this interview that Zizek says of neo-liberalism, “If it works, why not try a dose of it? But one should at least recognize that neo-liberal economics is not a neutral technical instrument[…]. We Liberals are the only political force opposed to this – the supposed de-ideologising of the economy through the application of ‘neutral’, technically efficient measures.”

Now, I’m willing to budge on the idea of calling Zizek a straight-up “liberal” (though it sounds like he’s talking about a ‘third-way’ capitalism here), but it’s quite clear what he means when he says there was a dangerous oscillation between liberalism and Marxism in the forward to TKN and the deadlock this creates is visible in the end of TKN. Rather than explain the logic of how a Monarch could bring the “triumph of liberal-democracy” over capitalism, we merely get the suggestion that the left needn’t worry, there are workable solutions to be found to bring about the end of capitalism – we need only push the victories of the left that have been absorbed by “liberal-capitalism” further so that liberal-democracy can be “realized.”

The solution that he gives to this problem, it seems to me, is the shift from Monarch to Party as analyst, the move from the ‘positive universal’ to the ‘Negative Universal’:

We are dealing here with two opposed logics of universality to be strictly distinguished. On the one hand, there is the state bureaucracy as the universal class of society [this is a direct allusion to Hegel’s discussion of the state and the Monarch in PoR] (or, in a larger scope, the U.S. as the world policeman, the uiniversal enforcer and guarantor of human rights and democracy), the direct agent of global order; on the other hand, there is the “surnumerary” universality, the universality embodied in the element that sticks out of the existing order, which, while internal to it, has no proper place within it (what Jacques Ranciere calls the “part of no part”). Not only are the two not the same, but the struggle is ultimately between these two universalities – not simply between the particular elements of the universality, not just about which particular content will hegemonize the empty form of the universality, but between two exclusive forms of universality themselves (“Against the Populist Temptation”, 564).

The struggle is precisely that between the ‘monarch’ and ‘the Party’.

To which I would append the suggestion that the former is of a closed, ‘masculine’, ‘Antingone-esque phallagocentric’, logic; while the latter is of an open, uncertain, ‘feminine’ logic.

What worries me is that this leaves us with some sort of ‘eternal struggle’ between the forces of unification and those of dissolution (an antinomic “battle of the giants”…), that progressive movements necessarily end in stultified, bureaucratic machines, that Stalin need proceed Lenin (which Z rejects). But Zizek points to Lacan’s dissolution of his school’s as a ‘Leninist Gesture’ – that when the Lacanian psychoanalytic movement in France started to solidify, Lacan tried to keep it liquid…

(“We Should also note here that when, in the last decades of his life, Lacan worked obsessively in the formula of the psychoanalytic community, with its strange rules of passé (the analysand becoming and analyst), cartels, and so on, his problem was strictly a Leninist one: how to prevent the organization from turning into an authoritarian structure based on the transferential relationship to the Master” (Preface to TKNWTD, page xcviii, footnote 41).)


19 Responses to “Zizek For and Against Lefort and the Monarch, II”

  1. The Universal Singular said

    From FTKNWTD:

    “The moment of liberal-democracy’s triumph, the moment when it its external adversary, incarnated in the Communist “Evil Empire”, disintegrated, is in itself… the moment of confrontation with its immanent limit [THE MOMENT OF CONFRONTATION WITH ITS IMMANENT LIMIT] its own weaknesses can no longer be exculpated by means of comparison with “Them”.”

    From my previous comments:

    “Basically, my point is that, yes Zizek’s writing in SOI leans more towards liberal democracy, but does not support it as such (it is still quite Marxist, if not Communist); and that by the time he gets to FTKNWTD he is already on the road to purging traces of liberal democracy from his political position.”

    “In the forward to the 2nd edition of FTKNWTD, Zizek does say that anyone who is not ready to talk about FTKNWTD should not talk about SOI! True, very true! But not because he is ashamed of his political leanings in either! Because he makes many many corrections to SOI in FTKNWTD! In other words, he believes that you can’t discuss SOI without taking into account the corrections he makes in FTKNWTD!”

    “At the end of FTKNWTD, Zizek is not supporting Liberal Democracy. In fact, he is being quite critical of it! [see above] He is arguing that this notion of liberal democracy as the ‘end of history’ is completely stupid and that the project of the LEFT is to revive/defend the lost causes of revolution. That is why he advocates an ethics of drive!”

    “on page xviii of the foreword to FTKNWTD, Zizek does say that the philosophical weakness of SOI (not FTKNWTD) is tied to the liberal democratic political stance, but that it moves between Marxism and some kind of ‘pure’ democracy. In his later writings he distances himself from the very concept of democracy (that is, in its liberal form, i.e. liberal democracy): democracy as the master-signifier of the contemporary ruling ideology (he talks about this in various places).”

    ” In SOI, Zizek is basically shifting between the radical democracy of Laclau and Mouffe, and Lefort’s interpretation of Lacan to support the ‘democratic invention’. What the influence of liberal democracy amounts to in this book, I would argue, is basically a defense of ‘democracy’ against ‘totalitarianism’; as if even discussing totalitarianism is anti-democratic. By his later books he starts to address totalitarianism (Nazism/Stalinism), not to defend them, but to understand them better, to move beyond them. To defend lost causes, to repeat rather than return. To re-invent the revolutionary project!”

    I don’t know if we are really just arguing over something really absurd. It seems like – apart from some minor differences – we are basically saying the same thing.

    Basically, I agree that he thinks that SOI is too liberal, but I strongly feel that his critique of liberal democracy begins in FTKNWTD.

  2. battleofthegiants said

    And there’s our dispute: I don’t think it does begin in TKN. The end clearly reads as a defense of his liberal position re: Slovenia. He writes in the preface that part of his liberal-bias was his love of Lefort, which is in full effect in TKN. He says one can’t speak of SOI without TKN, yet disses SOI without mention of its counterpart. There’s hardly mention of Marxism at all in TKN, let alone any reference to Lenin’s thought (only a mention of Lenin’s corpse). The Monarch, the embodiment of the state, is in full effect, and there is no mention of the proletariat. Everything points to liberalism.

    I admit I’ve been straw doggin’, which is really crappy of me (I didn’t read you very closely, to be honest). So I’ll pull a Sonny Burnett (If I’m pissing people off, I might as well go all the way): my misrepresentation of you has helped me push myself beyond what I was originally thinking…or at least made me flesh it out to a greater degree.


  3. sonnyburnett said

    The thing about Sonny Burnett was that he was a character of a character – he filled out this necessary, internal doubling point in the show. Without such a point, there is no enjoyment to sustain our pursuits of it.

    The one thing clear to me is that when we exchange emails or reply to each other’s writing thru these screens, we are only ever self-relating. That’s what produces the (surplus) jouissance that causes some of us to come here again & again & get off on our own words (mostly in an unknowing fashion).

    The ‘positive’ product of course is a development of our own knowledge. I don’t know about y’all, but for me, thinking through how I may (or may not) respond to something greatly re-frames what I already know into a new framework – which of course is a wholly new production of knowlege (S2).

  4. sonnyburnett said

    As long as we are being honest, I almost never read Zizek’s political writings all that closely. I just don’t see that his legacy will be around what he says about Mao’s revolution or about Lefort.

    If he will go down in history, it will be his for his innovative topological structure. I’m putting all my eggs in this basket, convinced that if I get a workable understanding of it, the rest is easy (ie, understanding how he can say this or that about Mao or the Lefort will be just another ‘test case’ where I can test out my understanding as I read along).

  5. sonnyburnett said

    The thought just struck me that if our reading group gets any larger, we will need to designate a group leader, perhaps on a rotating basis, to see that order is kept & things run as smoothly & efficiently & as productivity as they could be, as we are all busy people.

    – he would have to get there a few minutes early to ensure we have an adequate space to meet & deal with any problems that may arise so we don’t use up precious time farting around with logistics

    – he would call the start & end times of the meeting and organize the upcoming meeting he would be responsible for

    – maybe most importantly, we would be responsible for keeping the meeting on track. If we are meeting to discuss ch. 2 of Ticklish & we get sidetracked, not only with obvious things like current events, but also Z material not related to the current reading, he would take out his switch & wack a few hands

    – maybe give the leader the responsibilty to present a broad summary of the week’s reading

    etc etc…

    Am I serious in proposing this? Not really. I tend to shun responsibility & structure like most leftists. And things seem to be working alright as they are now.

    But since I’m doing lots of reading about small group ‘dynamics’, as well as having been in 100s of business meetings over the years, I can’t help but wonder what the outcome would be if we experimented with being subject to a weekly, 2 hour mini-monarch?

  6. battleofthegiants said

    I think we should fully do it, and have it be someone who is totally unrelated to the group, i.e. a true mirror of the Hegelian monarch. Such that we do all the preparations, etc, listed above, while the ‘monarch’ simply opens and closes the meetings, and settles all disputes with a “X is correct; all else is incorrect”, and we acutally have to act on that person’s word.

  7. battleofthegiants said

    And word to the “I only come here to read my own posts”.

  8. battleofthegiants said

    I think the comment about “Zizek’s Legacy” is unfortunately what WILL happen. It’s like a discussion that is now ongoing on the SPT listserve: Woodie Guthries “THis Land…” has had it’s anti-capitalist sting totally evicerated from it, so now ALL that is left is its colonial left-over. The same has happened in Cultural Studies Generally, where it’s Political, Marxist root has been largely erased, which is part of the reason Zizek hates it so much. The same is true of French theory Generally (I have a friend who is writing their DIS on this), as well as Vernon’s (and ZIzek’s) version of Hegel.

    The person who hated the notion that philiosophy was separate from its politics and the actions that attend it was Marx. And I think you’d have a hard time separating Marx’s politics from his work (i.e. write on Marx and say ‘but the political bend is uninteresting to me; all I want is the logic of Capital, so as I can better understand it’… Although… Didn’t Thatcher make her minion read Marx?)

    I think it’s again an instance of separating form from content, saying the latter is unimportant, and the former omnipotent.

  9. The Universal Singular said

    One of the things I really appreciate about Terry Eagleton’s work (especially in his book, After Theory) is that he IS trying to bring politics back into Cultural Studies. That is, at least, one of the goals of my work. I think that where Cultural Studies has gone wrong is by focusing on mere representation and not going far enough to show how representations of identity (identity politics) simply displace the Real of class struggle. I think that Cultural Studies can be saved only by re-setting the co-ordinates onto class struggle. Identity politics is just another form of biopolitical post-politics.
    That is also why I feel that appeals to the State for a more just atmosphere (liberal multiculturalism) in terms of identity politics completely misses the point: that the State is the result of a false reconciliation of class antagonisms: “The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled” (Lenin).

    A political Cultural Studies would/should examine, not the representation of ruling ideology in culture, but the ideological displacement of class struggle in culture.

    This is something that Zizek, Eagleton and Fredric Jameson do (and it just so happens that this is the focus of my dissertation… focusing on Zizek).

  10. sonnyburnett said

    I can’t help recall Zizek’s plea of ‘What we need is more analysis. More theory. Not more action’ – or something close to that.

    I don’t say that we must embrace ‘form’ over ‘content’, but rather that ultimately, it is the ‘form’ that is logically prior. So that you must conceive ‘content’ as the positivization of ‘form.’

    This is what Z does over & over again in his analysis of our world. Which is what leads me to place the emphasis on the formal method at arriving at the ‘content’ of Z’s thought about our social/political world.

    Which allows me to say that Z’s legacy will not be his specific nod to this revolution or his condemnation of that uprising, but his logical thought that allowed him to give that nod and that condemnation.

    What Kant said about the French revolution, his refusal to attend his local parish, his never venturing more than 60 miles from his home, his incredibly regulated life, his thought on regicide, etc all are more or less trivial unless they are couched within his theoretical, aesthetic & practical philosophy. It’s this philosophy – his particular universal – that allows us to make sense of his quirkiness of ‘applied’ theory and moreover, illuminates the theory and even is an instantiation of it.

    Same with Z’s thought. Sure, we can support a particular change in rule in some banana republic b/c Z the master has given his nod to it & I do that all the time w/o thinking. But once in awhile someone says, ‘Why exactly do you support that guerrila movement in C’america?’ and I honestly have to stop & think for the first time of the logic Z has gone through instead of blindly accepting it which I’m all to apt to do.

    Can you honestly tell me which parties Hegel or Marx supported? Their commentary on the ins & outs of parliamentary processes? Who said what & why they supported them or condemned them? There’s tons of that stuff in Marx’s writing, but it’s meaningless to us 150 years later. Only Marx-ISM, his framework, his logical matrix survives – even for those that don’t study him as much as we have.

    150 years from now, will it really matter what Z has said about Cuba’s Castro?

    Or will his reading of Hegelian dialectics more likely be picked up & debated?

    This was posted awhile back….


    “What do you consider your greatest achievement?

    The chapters where I develop what I think is a good interpretation of Hegel.”

  11. The Universal Singular said

    I’m pretty sure Marx supported the Communist Party.

  12. sonnyburnett said

    lol, ok, i’m writing fast…. I was thinking of all those footnoted comments he has in Capital regarding the debates in various parliamentary sessions, where he comes down harder on one party, less so on another

    Z picks up on one of the analyses – that whole Legitimists, Orleanists, Royalists commentary that Marx did. He did tons of that stuff, writing on the state of the political world in mid 19th europe.

    My point was not so much that we 150 years later don’t care about these long dead political debates/analyses (and we mostly don’t care), but more that the legacy of these analyses (if any) is at the level of ‘what is the thinking behind the analysis that brought marx to say what he said about the political situation in his time?’

  13. The Universal Singular said

    Werd! But I do think that method is tied to a politics, whether or not the content of that politics shifts or transforms over time. In Marx’s case, as in Zizek’s, that politics can be summed up with the following: the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.

  14. The Universal Singular said

    Or, in other (different) words, as Zizek points out in the introduction to In Defense of Lost Causes: both Marxism and Psychoanalysis adhere to a politics of Truth.

  15. sonnyburnett said

    Weird or Word, I think we are on the same page. Coming from a Marxist background, I tend to down play the politics. That was the great debate in my mind in the early 90s, with Althusser’s ‘Economic base in the last instance’ versus the more superstructural-focused marxists.

    I sided with the ‘economic determinists’ mostly. Zizek has shaken things up for me so much.

    I now view it in another framework entirely. It’s more of a political condensation of an underlying economic logic of capital that drives my thinking. Overdetermination, sure. But it’s no longer which has the greater influence ‘in the last instance’, politics or economics?

    Zizek has reframed the question so that it is no longer a legitimate question. In quiet times, I briefly understand what he means. But still, we marxists tend to slip into this necessary question, all in order to (hopefully) see that the very gap we experience between the two is part and parcel of the very ‘natural’ antagonistic condition of our econ/pol world.

  16. The Universal Singular said

    ‘Word’… I write it as ‘werd’… kinda like ‘kewl’.

  17. The Universal Singular said

    I tend to think of the capitalist as the social-economic side of the bourgeois, which I see as the political-cultural side of the capitalist. I believe that the bourgeoisie uses the capitalist economy to extract wealth from the proletariat in order to maintain their social-economic rule, while at the same time, the capitalist uses bourgeois political-cultural ideology in order to maintain the functioning of the capitalist economy. The relation between the political and the economic is like that of a moebius band, and I believe that Zizek’s point is to act in the political at the heart of the economic: that is, a political act must help to expose and unweave the suturing of the master-signifier, to change the co-ordinates of the political, so to speak. I think that the Zizekian act aims at the political-cultural and not at the social-economic: to expose the displacement of class struggle in culture (to traverse the fantasy, so to speak) in order to get at the symptom, the proletariat, and at this point the analyst (party) can help the proletariat to identify with the sinthome.

    Does that make sense?

  18. sonnyburnett said

    It does. A pretty good, concise reading of Zizek’s position.

    I’m so used to marxists zero-ing in on capital’s inner (econ) logic that whenever I hear someone speak of the political, my gut reaction is to immediately label him as a ‘revisionist marxist’ or worse, ‘secretly in the hands of the bourgeoisie’, an ‘apologist’, etc. My long-standing bias, being trained in traditional marxist doctrine. Z is seriously (& thankfully!) challenging this for me.

    I’m recalling passages now from Z where he does say ‘the political at the heart of the economic’ and at the time it made sense when I read it. But his rationale of this I can’t carry out with me long after I’m engaged with his text. Kinda like that early morning dream logic – it only stays with you for a few minutes, then it’s gone and you are left with a puzzle (how the hell did THAT ever make any sense? You know it once did, since it’s only now, minutes later, that you are troubled by it, by the meaning of the dream).

    I find it takes an immense engagement with Z’s logical formulations, in terms of intensity & time, to be able to have a ‘spontaneous’ understanding of it.

    Sure, I can memorize formulation with the best of them, but to experience it is another story and that takes practice, practice, practice.

    Perhaps the political engagement of Z’s thought is his practice in some sense.

  19. The Universal Singular said


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