Zizek & Harper’s Magazine

October 30, 2009

I’ve been missing the boat for some time but leave an offering in supplication.

Having read the recent Jester posting and commentaries, thought it worthwhile to mention Zizek’s appearance  in the October issue of Harper’s: an excerpt from the imminent First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, titled “To Each According to His Greed.”

The only truly surprising thing about the 2008 financial meltdown is how easily the idea was accepted that its happening was unpredictable. Recall the demonstrations that throughout the last decade regularly accompanied meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank: the protesters’ complaints encompassed not only the usual antiglobalization motifs (the growing exploitation of Third World countries, etc.) but also how the banks were creating the illusion of growth by playing with fictional money and how this would all have to end in a crash. It was not only economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz who warned of the dangers ahead and made it clear that those who promised continuous growth did not really understand what was going on under their noses. In Washington in 2000, so many people demonstrated about the danger of a financial collapse that the city had to mobilize 3,500 local policemen. What ensued was tear-gassing, clubbing,and mass arrests… (Readings, 15)

Notably, an excerpt from the “terroristic” carnival called the Invisible Committee also finds a home in the same issue right after Zizek, with an excerpt from The Coming Insurrection.

Both question and oppose in varying ratios the litany of calls for autonomy and self-sufficiency in relation to returns to the steady-state, depoliticized harmony of  ‘real economies’, ‘real communities’, and (yes) ‘families,’ the best master signifiers and sanctioned material effects of any ‘return to normal.’

The IC suggest the good family, like the “good” fundamentalism of devoted indifference, is no longer possible, that “the one coming back is not the same that went away.” What good family was there? The small family commando unit (Virilio)?  The pack? The initial martial body and ideal pastoral cell through which oikos was a matter of survival and cellular struggle against lurking vertebrate structures, but became also the biopolitcal confinement ensured via enforced conduct? Or, maybe the family holding out as the good biopolitics of Esposito’s positive content of bios and ways of life prior to whatever invasive colonizations we detect with our theoretical and political registers?

Deadly Jester Part II

October 24, 2009

Apparently the person who wrote “the deadly jester” has struck again. The comments are far more interesting that the article itself.

I couldn’t find Zizek’s letter, however. The links on the website didn’t work for me.


The unambiguous “red” thread (both of Ariadne and Marx) that runs through Zizek’s work is the attempt to rescue universalism from naysayers of all sorts. A major core of this project are his discussions of the importance of the Cartesian subject. At one point, (I can’t remember where) he chastises Adorno and Horkheimer for not being historical enough in their denunciation of Descartes, in their claims that the Cartesian subject is the root of instrumental rationality and the destructive tendencies of modernism. Ellen Wood’s brief treatment of modernity and enlightenment in The Origin of Capitalism is highly enlightening on this point, providing an historical account that separates the universalism of the Enlightenment as it appeared in feudal France from the ideology of improvement that accompanied modern thinking in capitalist England. That is, she attempts to show that some of the core values – notably the progressive values of modernism – are in fact the product of a non-capitalist system, and suggests (she makes a point of making it clear that she does not consider her discussion a fully fledged argument) that the root of instrumental rationality is more likely to be traced to the philosophies produced under a capitalist one.

One of the first divisions that need be pointed out is that ‘bourgeois’ does not (or at least did not) refer to capitalists, but city dwellers. “Bourgeois” in absolutist France, for instance, were professionals, office holders and intellectuals (184). This means that something like the French Revolution, which is held up to be one of the culminating points of the Enlightenment, was not a revolution of a capitalist class over aristocrats but of professionals, etc. who wanted access to the offices of the absolutist state in order to make their fortunes. It is here, of course, that we find the discussion of universal suffrage and the rights of man at the centre of political discourse.

Wood points out that many of the biggest know Enlightenment thinkers in France were aristocrats, not capitalists, while in England they were closely linked to capitalist expansion. In France, she argues, one finds Cartesian rationalism and rational planning, in England one finds empiricism (think Hume) and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – i.e. the anarchy of the Market. In France, the ideology of universal human emancipation; in England the ideology of ‘improvement’ (i.e. making land profitable). She points to the French “Gardens of Versailles” and English “natural” landscape gardening as the cultural expression of these two versions of modernity.

A formal French garnden

A formal French garnden

An English landscape Garden

An English landscape Garden

While she acknowledges that there were overlaps and cross pollinations, Wood wants to show that the above were the dominant trends and that they accompanied very different economic logics. In this way she seeks to show that the emancipatory legacy of universalism as it appeared in France is worth keeping and shouldn’t be conflated with ‘capitalist logic’ or capitalist ideologies.

It’s worthwhile to note that the classic (Leninist) trivium runs English pragmatism, French politics, German Philosophy: it was Kant who synthesized the rationalism of Descartes and the “radical empiricism” of Hume; it was Hegel (according to Zizek) who was more Kantian than Kant, thereby completing the Kantian project; it was Marx who made Hegel walk on his feet and synthesized English political economy, French political thought (think The Eighteenth Brumaire of L.B., etc.) and German philosophy. Given the argument that Wood presents, the question that must be asked is in regards to the economic situation in Germany – i.e. what was it? That I can’t answer, but I suspect its beginnings can be found in a paper by one of Woods students, George Comninel, in his “Marx’s Context” (History of Political Thought, 21:3, 2000)

From Marx’s introduction to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of law:

…the German conception of the modern state, which abstracts from real man, was only possible because and in so far as the modern state itself abstracts from real man or satisfies the whole man in a purely imaginary way. The Germans have thought in politics what other nations have done. Germany has been their theoretical conscience. The abstraction and arrogance of Germany’s thought always kept pace wit the one-sided and stunted character of their reality. So if the status quo of the German political system is an expression of the consummation of the ancien régime, the completion of the thorn in the flesh of the modern state, then the status quo of German political thought is an expression of the imperfection of the modern state, the damaged condition of the flesh itself (Early Writings, 250-1).

The broken body made whole in the imaginary; Germany as superego; and the constitutional monarch as Jesus FTW!

Parker Vs. Zizek

May 27, 2009

This is an article by Ian Parker that starts off by accusing Zizek of being a ‘commissar’ for monitoring and controlling dissident behaviour for the Communists before the succession of Slovenia from Yugoslavia.

Zizek’s response to this accusation is on the IJZS website.

Discipline, Thought, RED

April 8, 2009

In the last Issue of Upping the Ante there was a review of Defense of Lost Causes that I pointed out to a few of you. For the next issue I was asked by one of the editors to write a response to the review in the form of a letter. In an attempt to avoid a ‘battle of the egos’ I wrote something more-or-less unrelated to the review… and was told to rewrite it. What I ended up with was something that I think has a few good points in it, but nonetheless serves as an intellectual battle cry (though a weak one).

This is exacerbated by the edited version of the letter that is to be published later this month (or early the next). Below is the full version of my letter, as well as the author’s response to that response. The letters are posted here that the dialogue might continue. (The author will soon be added as an admin to the blog.)

As letters, they have the interesting strangeness of being directed to a non-person, the journal as such. I’d like to continue in that vein. Like the speaker of the house in the Canadian Parliament, “dear UtA” can act as the “symbolic medium” by which we discuss, without having to attack each other at the level of the ego… (“Mr Speaker, my worthy opponent…”)

[On second thought, ‘the speaker’ probably stands as the ego-ideal through which to attack another ego…]

Read the rest of this entry »

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.”

Read the rest of this entry »


So I’m still thinking over that last paragraph before the section on “The violence of the imagination” (p.45 new edition) where Zizek goes over the idealist and materialist “options” in the form of questions, and I am still not sure if I’m getting what he means by each option, and further, if or how he moves beyond the two. I’ve written out the two options with some questions that arose for me while attempting to summarize. Sorry if my use of some of the terminology is a little rough to you veteran Lacanian/Zizekians, but hopefully my meaning is clear enough to stimulate some discussion.

Idealist and Material Options:

Idealist option: “is the monstrosity of the chaotic aggregate of phenomena just the extreme of our imagination, which still fails to convey the proper noumenal dimension of the moral Law?”

– Way to deal with this seems to be to attempt to better interpret and incorporate the noumenal dimension, i.e. to expand concepts to be more rational, more in line with this realm (less chaotic), as chaos itself is brought about by the imagination and can be fixed by the understanding? Or by Reason? Though I guess understanding and Reason are not the same…

– Here, imagination itself gives rise to the monstrous as it tears apart the seemingly unified prior state of the Real (pre-symbolic, pre-ontological).

Materialist option: “is the moral Law itself, in its very sublime quality, ‘the last veil covering the monstrous’, the (already minimally ‘gentrified’, domesticated) way we, finite subjects, are able to perceive (and endure) the unimaginable Thing?”

– Here it is not the imagination that gives rise to the monstrous, but the Real itself, imagination then functions to veil it and make it knowable and bearable.

– Is there recognition here that the monstrosity of the Real may have itself resulted from the work of the imagination? Or would this put us back in the idealist position?

The moments of going through the two positions might look like this:

Moment 1: world torn apart by imagination; ‘night of the world’; monstrosity thus seen as function of imagination acting on the world. (Out of curiousity, how does this relate to symbolic castration? It is the same thing?)

Moment 2: world as torn apart; the Real is understood as torn apart and as the monstrous itself that needs imagination to be made sense of or put back together. Is the “dismembered” Real understood from this position as original, in other words, as “naturally” monstrous and chaotic, though from the idealist position the experience of the Real as monstrous is itself a function of the negating imagination?

– Since it is inaccessible to the imagination, Kant tries to locate the monstrous in the noumenal Beyond. In the previous moment, when the “chaotic aggregate” is understood as a function of the imagination, the imagination is seen as failing to properly connect to the noumenal realm, or perhaps as failing to effectively or totally create order out of chaos. The second moment is where the moral Law of the noumenal realm properly enters the picture and can then adjust imagination (and understanding?) to “veil” the chaos or to make it more orderly/intelligible. In the second position, if we recognize this Law as a “veiling” – one that maintains the necessarily indirect access to the Thing – we are identifying the “chaotic aggregate” in the Real, in contrast to the first moment where we see that the chaos is imposed on to the Real via the imagination when it breaks the pre-symbolic, pre-ontological with the ‘night of the world’ or the splitting of the Real into material that can become symbolic.

A question: what the hell is the pre-symbolic, pre-ontological? Is it anything really, or no-thing, hence, creation ex nihilo? How are we to discuss it when our only access to it is from already within the symbolic order (Freud’s Wolfdude eg.)?

Main issues I want to raise:

The materialist position seems like an outgrowth of the idealist position, as it rearticulates the monstrosity created by the idealist imagination as belonging to the Real itself. It naturalizes what it has itself done before it could know what it was doing.

So what is the next step? The materialist position cannot be the final position, because here we suppose that the splitting/breaking/negating imposed by the subject’s imagination in relation to the Real is in the Real itself. But if we instead place it in the subject’s imagination, there we are in idealism again.

I think this calls for some rereading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, or maybe just the next chapter of Ticklish.

If both idealist and materialist options/moments are constitutive of the process of entering the symbolic order, is theorizing the next step only possible phenomenologically, i.e. in terms of moment after moment experience, in which case, what moment comes after the moral Law that veils the monstrous? Is there a way to understand that the imagination and the moral Law veil the monstrous, and that this monstrous that need be veiled is itself created by entering the symbolic order through imagination, without collapsing back into idealism? Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions, or framing them too narrowly with the idealist tendencies I have.

I need someone/thing to save me from this dialectical nightmare. The Big Other perhaps? Just throwing that out there, it’s not that clear to me yet.


What do you guys make of the distinction Zizek makes between historical materialism and dialectical materialism (particularly in the introduction to The Parallax View)?  Am I wrong to think that this has to do with his distinction between historicism and historicity, respectively?

Does his (dialectical) materialism have to do with the way in which the conscious ‘Self’ integrates the material/physical (‘ontic’?) world into its own phenomenal frame of reference, such as in the way he differentiates between psychoanalysis and the cognitive brain sciences (in chapters 3 and 4 of Parallax)?

Put differently, does Zizek’s understanding of dialectical materialism have to do (precisely) with the Hegelian differentiation between substance and subject:  the brain is the fleshy substance in your skull, and consciousness is the phenomenal level of subjectivity?  Or, put differently, could it be argued that the differences reside, for example, in that the cognitive brain sciences can examine the ways in which a shock to the body can have some kind of neurological effect on the brain; but the brain sciences are still not capable of understanding how the conscious ‘Self’ makes sense of this shock, i.e, how the subject integrates it into her own field of subjective meaning?  This seems to suggest the relation to Hegel’s ‘phrenology’:  ‘spirit is a bone’.

I seem to recall something about this in Tarrying with the Negative.  Does anyone know the reference?

Happy New Year to all…

Does anyone off the top of their head know how Z weighs in on this or where he speaks at length on it? I’m certain he speaks of it in his books, but I never really paid all that much attention to it. I haven’t read his ‘Violence’ yet – he must say something there, right?

The Unnameable Act

December 29, 2008

Near the end of the first chapter of Parallax View, Zizek refers to a critique made against him by Bruno Boostels.  Boostels, it seems, argues in favour of Badiou against Zizek.  Zizek addresses this critique by stating:  Boostels’s “central Badiouian objection to this topic of death drive qua self-relating negativity… is that, by giving priority to the Act as a negative gesture of radical (self-relating) negativity, as ‘death drive’ in actu, I [Zizek] devalue in advance every positive project of imposing a new Order, fidelity to any positive political Cause…” (p. 64).

What confuses me is Zizek’s response.  It’s not clear to me how Zizek defends himself against this accusation.

Further down he discusses the difference between Badiou’s and Lacan’s conception of Act.  He says:  “for Lacan, the Unnameable is absolutely inherent, it is the Act itself in its excess over its naming” (Ibid).

Am I right to assume that Zizek’s response is that, rather than advancing any “positive project of imposing a new Order” – in order to argue against naysayers such as Boostels – the Act itself becomes its own legitimation?  That is, as a radically negative gesture, the Act is its own guarantee and radical negativity means not advancing some positive project as something that we ‘ought’ do; the Act occurs as something that we ‘must’ do.  In other words, is this a case of the difference between ‘willing nothing’ – willing that nothing should occur – and ‘willing Nothing’ – willing Nothingness, negativity (without guarantees), itself?