I first came across Slavoj Zizek about five years ago when an American situationist friend of mine linked me to an article of his on Lenin.
I enjoyed reading it but I didn’t hear much more of Zizek until I bought several of his books when on a philosophy kick about seven months ago. I bought Lenin Reloaded, I bought Violence and then last Saturday I bought his new book: In Defence of Lost Causes.
It his newest book which finally brings me to the decision to make an attempt at writing out some of my thoughts on Zizek. I have to admit, much like General Theory of Rubbish, every time I have attempted this before, my thoughts have fled in so many different directions that I gave up disgusted. Much like my postgraduate thesis on the first score of drafts, but that’s another story.
Something keeps pulling me back to him. I cannot decide whether it is Zizek’s outward postmodernism, or his self-identification with Marxism even while he flagrantly disregards the ground rules. Maybe it’s just a general fascination with someone who can so unapologetically defend the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat and a universal struggle for the redemption of humanity through socialism.
Certainly Zizek is different from many of the other philosophers who purport to write in the name of Marx these days, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. Beyond the critiques of postmodernism which Eagleton writes, or the concrete material summations of Stathis Kouvelakis, both of those and a lot of other socialist philosophers have a tendency to get caught up in a somewhat self-referential culture.
Zizek, on the other hand, is at once devastatingly effective at turning pop culture references to his desired effect, using open vocabulary, and constricted by his obsession with the language of Lacanian master-signifiers, and all the rest of it. We should remember that Zizek is not a traditional Marxist, thinking of all language as impenetrably self-referential rather than rooted in a materialist base, a subject he returns to at the beginning of In Defence.
For Zizek, only psychoanalysis can demonstrate the full effects of the the modernist shattering of the link between ‘meaning’ and ‘truth’ – whereas for a Marxist, despite not seeing language as a transparent medium behind which to perceive a reality, as suggested by the seminal texts of Wood or Volosinov, language is both social and materially grounded.
I’ve always liked Hill’s refutation (entitled “The Word ‘Revolution’ “) of the postmodernist idea that man must have a word for an action, in order for the action to exist.
The London Review of Books carried a letter from Zizek the other month talking about how capitalism on the current Chinese model might very well represent the future. Zizek’s argument was that all the recent economic powerhouses, the centres of modern manufacture, are repressive dictatorships. Again this shows Zizek’s departure from orthodox Marxism.
Democracy is a concession won by the working classes from the bourgeoisie; this is a concept maintained from the Communist Manifesto, through the rather mechanistic Origin of Engels to Lenin’s State and Revolution.
Yet there is no mention in Zizek of the corollaries that might allow his thesis to prove accurate, e.g. a pronounced weakness of the Chinese or Indonesia working classes, or more powerfully restrictive methods on the part of the state than existed in say Soviet Russia.
I am no doctrinaire of course, so disagreeing with Marx or Engels or Lenin doesn’t automatically relegate someone to inaccuracy or irrelevance. Ha! In the instance of many on the left, that would be a prerequisite for paying Zizek regard at all!
For all that, though we may have opposite ways of arriving at similar conclusions, though he may be impossibly grounded in the traditions of explicitly continental philosophy and his Lacanian language may on occasion be virtually opaque, nevertheless Zizek rarely fails to entertain. I heartily recommend the new work, for this cultural commentator’s wit is sharper than ever.