The deadly jester

March 9, 2009

I just found this critique of Zizek online: “The Deadly Jester”

In it do we not only get hackneyed attacks along the following lines: Zizek’s reading public being to bowled over by the pop-content of his books to read it as seriously as the author thinks he is able to (“Under the cover of comedy and hyperbole, in between allusions to movies and video games, he is engaged in the rehabilitation of many of the most evil ideas of the last century.”; “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”); we also get the author picking out the cheapest quotes to make an initial volley against Z’s work:

And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Zizek remarks that “Heidegger is ‘great’ not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement,” and that “crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough”; but this book, its publisher informs us, is “a witty, adrenalinfueled manifesto for universal values.”

The author can make reference to Badiou, but seems to forget Badiou’s  argument (though it sounds as though this author has a hate on for Badiou anyway…) that one of the most insidious aspects of liberal-democracy is its quickness to point to Nazism as absolute evil and immediately shut off one’s brain (and one might add, go on to bomb people in the name of humanitarianism). So he pulls out some quotes about Nazi’s to get the ball rolling.

What makes up the other half of these quoted sentences? Where does Zizek take them? 1) Heidegger made the right step “but in the wrong direction” – the right step was the politicization of ontology, but was wrong in that it aimed at return to the pre-modern and facism, rather than the overcoming of the current situation of exploitation (i.e. from capitalism to socialism). And if I remember correctly, Hitler’s violence “wasn’t essential enough” in that it was a displacement of the antagonism of capitalism onto the Jews, from class struggle to racism. I.e. Hitler’s was an impotent violence that couldn’t effectively change things because he refused to see the true root of the economic problems of Germany and approach it.

Overall the author just doesn’t get it – all he sees are the bright lights and the triggers that set off liberal code-reds. For insance, he just doesn’t seem to get the logic of paranoia, which he addresses at the end of the paper with Zizek’s refernce to the ideological transformation of attribute into essence: even if you find out that your wife was cheating on you, if you suspected it without having any factual reason to have done so you are paranoid. Zizek applies this formula to Nazi Germany: surely, like any other group of people, there were Jews who were greedy. It is when you transform this into the essence of their being, however, that it becomes ideological (i.e. “there are jews who are greedy” becomes the ideological “All Jews are greedy because they are Jews”). The author doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge this line of reasoning, instead focusing on the fact the Zizek repeats the list of essentialized attributes 6 times (which Z does for many of his examples – I think there were some in this week’s reading) pointing to the enjoyment that Zizek gets from repeating it.

(That said, even though he’s ‘paranoid’, maybe there’s something to the argument…)

And it almost appears that this author doesn’t get Zizek for the reason he aims at others – not being able to get the argument because they are too bowled over by jokes to think seriously about it:

Zizek wrote that “there is no difference” between life in that city and life in any American or Western European city, that “it is no longer possible to draw a clear and unambiguous line of separation between us who live in a ‘true’ peace and the residents of Sarajevo”–well, it was only natural for readers to think that he did not really mean it, just as he did not really mean that Jurassic Park is like a Bergman movie

He’s got it wrong: Zizek was serious when he said JP was like a Bergman movie. And I don’t know where the quote in question is from, but if it’s been treated in the same way as the rest of the arguments in this peice, the author hasn’t followed the argument through to where Zizek takes it. Indeed, he doesn’t explain what ZIzek has meant by any of the quotes pulled out, being content to simply raise a seemingly insane statement and move on to let one’s (liberal?) bias do the thinking.

In this next passage in particular we see the level of ‘depth’ acheived in his reading of Zizek:

This, of course, is merely a flamboyant sci-fi formulation of the old Marxist concept of false consciousness. “Our ‘freedoms,'” Zizek writes in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, “themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom.” This is the central instance in Zizek’s work of the kind of dialectical reversal, the clever anti-liberal inversion, that is the basic movement of his mind. It could hardly be otherwise, considering that his intellectual gods are Hegel and Lacan–masters of the dialectic, for whom reality never appears except in the form of the illusion or the symptom. In both their systems, the interpreter–the philosopher for Hegel, the analyst for Lacan–is granted absolute, unchallengeable authority. Most people are necessarily in thrall to appearances, and thereby to the deceptions of power; but the interpreter is somehow immune to them, and can singlehandedly recognize and expose the hidden meanings, the true processes at work in History or in the Unconscious.

As all of us know from reading as much as we have, there is nothing but appearance, those who arn’t duped by it are the one’s who are out to lunch, and the interpreter is not immune (read ‘neutral’ or ‘outside’) to appearances but fully engaged with them.

I’ll stop with another quote, in which we again get the ‘shocking’ statement without any mention of the thesis that it is the consequence of:

As Zizek observes, “while they pursue what appear to us to be evil goals with evil means, the very form of their activity meets the highest standard of the good.” Yes, the good: Mohammed Atta and his comrades exemplified “good as the spirit of and actual readiness for sacrifice in the name of some higher cause.” Zizek’s dialectic allows him to have it all: the jihadis are not really motivated by religion, as they say they are; they are actually casualties of global capitalism, and thus “objectively” on the left. “The only way to conceive of what happened on September 11,” he writes, “is to locate it in the context of the antagonisms of global capitalism.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but Zizek criticizes ‘religious fanatics’ as ‘perverts’ in the sense that the take themselves to be the embodiment of the will of the Other, which they know directly. I.e. they don’t take religious doctrine as ‘truth’, but as unquestionable knowledge. And correct me on this too, but the discourse of the analyst is the discourse of the pervert, but in form only. In this case this enables Zizek to laud fundamenalism not at the level of being anti-capital (which I don’t think he does – to say “The only way to conceive of what happened on September 11 is to locate it in the context of the antagonisms of global capitalism” does not mean that these movements are anti-capital in intent or ideology), but in that form’s being distinctly not post-ideological (i.e. not accepting the frame of Liberal-democracy and captialism as neutral frames – a position the author seems to this is valid), but caught up in truth.

It might be worthwhile (and fun!) to take this apart point by point – with the outcome that maybe in some cases the author does have something valid to say. I.e. let’s take up the charges of anti-semitism and homophobia and see if they stand up.



One Response to “The deadly jester”

  1. sonnyburnett said

    Zizek can easily be picked apart by the left or the right on his political economy & cultural commentary, but ONLY if a certain necessary condition is met: that his reading of (German) philosophy is ignored, if his breathru topological system remains unlearnt.

    This is why, when you rank his three ‘influences’, German Ideology comes first, Lacan comes second & his Marxism a distant third.

    His german philosophy is read via Lacan, of course, but when he is ‘forced to choose’ in an interview by Ian Parker (page 3), he chooses philosophy over psychoanalysis…

    Parker: So in a way Lacan is a way of getting back to Hegel?

    Zizek: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yes, I admit this, yes. If you were to ask me at gunpoint to make this ultimate choice, if I were to I wouldn’t say Hegel I would think a certain line of German idealism.

    The focus & discussion of Zizek must always be at this philosophical level, else, his cultural commentary becomes a ‘thing-in-itself’ instead of something that serves primarily to underscore his theoretical system.

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