A continual source of surprise to me is precisely how crude the analysis of those professing to be the “Third Way” turn out to be. Any number of New Labour apparatchiks have confessed to me how much superior they think Tories are to Trotskyists. Apparently the American versions, many of whom are to be found amongst the staff of The New Republic, don’t seem to be much more nuanced. One of them has been attacking Slavoj Žižek – and the terms of the criticism are telling.
So unsophisticated is Adam Kirsch’s understanding that he must resort to selective quotations and deliberate misinterpretation of much of what Žižek says. Consider the following example. Kirsch wants to attack Žižek for his base view of American culture.
What Zizek really believes about America and torture can be seen in his new book, Violence, when he discusses the notorious torture photos from Abu Ghraib: “Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people; in being submitted to humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture.” Torture, far from being a betrayal of American values actually offers “a direct insight into American values, into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the U.S. way of life.”
What Žižek is really saying is much less simple. First of all, the ‘obscene enjoyment’ which Žižek is referring to is the injunction of the super-ego. As a psychoanalyst in the Lacanian mould, Žižek believes that the appeal of consumerism – a culture of unrestrained enjoyment – is sustained by this super-ego. It is this super-ego underside to the visible which Žižek is trying to examine.
Žižek gives the example of homosexuality amongst soldiers; explicit homosexuality is attacked, but the underlying expression of this ethos is a succession of crude practices, gay innuendoes and in-jokes. Žižek’s attempt is to establish the dialectical underpinning to an expressed ideology of repression – and thus it is with the practices at Abu Ghraib that Žižek moves on to discuss.
He points out that the ritual humiliation conducted at Abu Ghraib – not simple brutal torture, as existed under Saddam’s regime – provides an echo of certain themes in American life. Torture in high art, perhaps, or the initiation ceremonies of the fraternities and secret societies of Ivy League universities, or even simply acts of bullying – though in all of these, it need not be limited to American society.
The Lacanian super-ego is the rebalancing between the ego-Ideal (our accommodation with social norms) and the law of desire, that which demands we carry out our desires. Žižek is positing that the social norms under which soldiers live create a pressure which must act out, and this ‘traumatic excess’ is the function of the super-ego.
Indeed, Žižek goes further. He suggests that the actions of the soldiers were sanctioned informally by the obscene underside to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, something like a ‘Code Red’ in the film A Few Good Men, a term based on real military slang; ‘blanket parties’ or ‘wolfpacks’ on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. From Žižek’s perspective, I think, this is the natural result of a contradiction between the speech-act of American military intervention and discipline, and its much harsher reality.
All of this can be found between pages 145 and 149 in Žižek’s book, Violence.
A soldier friend of mine has called this ‘hyper rationalisation’ and he may have a point – but agree or disagree with Žižek, my point is that it is extremely evident how little Adam Kirsch wished to engage with Žižek’s thesis. Most obviously Kirsch for several pages simply fails to even mention the psychoanalytical aspect to Žižek’s work, which is crucial to his epistemology and thus to his very conception of the real historical situations he sets out to engage with.
Indeed Kirsch prefers ad hominem attacks about Žižek’s personal style, which, I have to confess, is highly engaging if somewhat erratic. Similarly, it is much easier to brand Žižek with the slaughter of millions of people, the blood of whom obviously (in Adam Kirsch’s mind) stains Žižek’s hands because he sets out to discuss Lenin, Stalin, Robespierre, Mao etc with a tone that is academic, indeed sometimes playful, rather than the outraged and indignant attitude which Kirsch’s worldview clearly demands.
I do not necessarily agree with much of what Žižek says, but he is certainly an irreverent challenge to a Left which can be rather stodgy. One has to admit, a sense of humour as regards politics is hard to find on the Marxist (or post-Marxist, whatever the bugger that means) Left. If we are to challenge some of what Žižek says, and I believe we should, I think it should be framed as a rejection of the Lacanian accoutrements which Žižek seems to unnecessarily carry.
Were I to pick a few things that have recently been niggling at me, I should choose some of the following from ‘In Defence of Lost Causes‘. It seems to me that much of Žižek’s reasoning chains are too easily picked at. For example, on page 176, Žižek discusses how transposing Marx to a ‘universal’ application required doing violence to Marx’ own reasoning.
He says that, as a ‘universal’ Christianity required the betrayal of St Paul (presumably he is referring to the purity rites of the early Judeo-Christian communities), to displace Christianity from a specifically Jewish context, so Marxism required the ‘betrayal’ by Lenin to rip it from a mid-19th century German context. Žižek suggests that this is in the nature of universal ideas. He goes on to posit Mao’s ‘reinvention’ of Marxism as a second violent transposition.
The discussion of Paul’s appropriation of Jewish Christianity is accurate, so far as it goes, and it is borne out by the record of Acts of the Apostles. Yet the analogy is not sufficient for Marxism; first of all, even the works of Karl Marx himself are hardly a unitary whole. Marx posited a method of social analysis, but experimented and tinkered with that method til his death. Engels experimented with it after him. Lenin and Mao and Stalin also, though we might believe of at least Stalin that this was done for cynical reasons rather than in the spirit of genuine intellectual experimentation.
I would also suggest that the vaunted transformation of Marxism visited by Lenin was not so traumatic as Žižek suggests. The Soviets were based on the Paris Commune; “That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, gentlemen!” as Engels said. The much discussed ‘vanguard’ of Lenin was an adaptation forced upon the Bolsheviki by the concrete historical circumstances of Tsarist oppression, one they did not easily shake off even after the fall of the autocratic government.
On a more general note, I should rather like to dispute the epistemological foundations of the Lacanian Left, which Žižek wholly subscribes to – as his discussion on Robespierre shows (pp164ff). I do not believe that every ‘truth’ must be grounded by the discourse of the Master – that, as Žižek puts it, “It is so because I say it is so!” I much prefer the more mundane arguments of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio Criticism.
However, I am not yet ready and literate enough to mount my challenge and I will content myself with the original thesis: like him or loathe him, so far there are few or none who have engaged Žižek seriously, and this latest attempt falls far short, into the behaviour more worthy of an internet troll than of a literary reviewer. Another defence against this specific review can be read here, by Terry Glavin.