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Criticizing Žižek

ZizekA 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.

  1. December 18, 2008 at 4:29 am

    Reminds me of an awful review of the film Zizek! by Johann Hari… I don’t think people realise that philosophers can, and do, joke around.

    On the supposed radical break with regard Marx-Lenin, I’d argue the notion of an intellectual departure with regard “socialism in one country” between Lenin-Stalin – which you occasionally hear reference to – is similarly false (for if true, it would imply that Lenin broke radically from Marx on the issue of the state and the transition to communism).

  2. December 18, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Well, as an internet troll, it’s a pretty impressive attempt for starters.

    I look forward to reading your book on it, and specifically to an early chapter on how Lacan is reckoned to be re-interpreting the Marxist structure-agency dialectic to become a sort of agency-agency dialectic. I’m sorry, I still just don’t get it. What happened to the material? maybe I’m just short of a plank or two but I can’t accommodate the apparent disappearance of a material reality into loads of stuff in my head; I still think a lot of what Zizek is talking about, and to which you refer, could be explained more straightforwardly as a product of the 21st century capitalism having developed the ability to skim ever higher levels of surplus value by selling us back our own ‘technologised reality’ and heightening good old fashioned alienation from (soldiers’) labour. I actually think the old hippie sociologist Ricahrd Sennett does this stuff pretty well in his fairly recent ‘The Culture of the New Capitalism’ when he talks about ‘the specter of uselessness’ which haunts the post-industrial West, though I hardly buy his semi-prescriptions

    But it’s very early days in my reading this stuff, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get more than a cursory grasp of this whole mind-bending area.

    In terms of your central point – that the Third Way simply do not get Marxist/post-Marxist theory and do not want to get it, I think you are bang on. One of the great victories for the right is to have been able to portray the ‘Third Way’ as some kind of radical, groundbreaking new philosophy with its own never-been-done-before epistemological basis of communitarianism, which when looked at close up is simply a completely essentialist statement about what a ‘community’ is and how it operates. Utter bollox, in short.

    But having Giddens and Etzioni front the respectable sociology/philosophy side of it, at the same time as being on hand to develop the consequnet policy prescriptions of continued reliance on capitalist power while talking a good game about being fair to people, was in hindsight a masterstroke because it’s created a new generation of public policy wonks who don’t actually feel theu need to read books that appeared before 1992. Its even more impressive when you consider communitarians appeal to guild socialim to create its historical precedent discourse.

    As I think you’ve said elsehwere, it’s the Political Education Officers that are missing.

  3. December 18, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    You’re quite right Paul, in much of their writings, the Lacanians are effectively a new ‘materialised’ Hegelian, and to be fair, many of them admit such. Hegel and Badiou are quoted by Zizek every bit as much as Marx, sometimes with awful results.

    What is much more worrying than the attacks on the ‘post-Marxist’ Left is when you see what alternatives this Left proposes, Zizek in particular towards the conclusion of In Defence of Lost Causes. In fact, I might actually devote an article to that shortly.

    Charlie, the nature of philosophy requires interpretation and re-interpretation. For example, Marxism today looks a lot different to Second International Marxism, which was, for my money, excessively deterministic. However that excessive determinism was a useful ideological tool for the awkward and retiring leaders of the International.

    It allowed them to treat Marxism almost like a religion; if workers believed, then eventually there would come a day of reckoning when all would be set right. The only thing required was to evangelize the working class.

    There is something to this about Stalin’s ‘reinterpretation’ of Marx and Lenin. Far from being a positive turn which opened many doors to new practice, as both Lenin and Marx did, Stalin’s reinterpretation was to ossify DiaMat into a blunt tool which could be turned to leadership benefits.

    This was not true for either Marx or Lenin; their philosophy was a remarkably flexible design, far from the line-changing demanded by Moscow of the Comintern in the inter-war years. I would suggest that, just as the philosophy of the Second International was ossified by bad practice, so was that of Stalin – and thus whilst we might see ideological continuities, we should regard these as illusory on the grounds that they are lightly held, in order to permit a contradictory practice.

  4. December 20, 2008 at 3:07 am

    The ossification of “Marxism-Leninism” resulted from the historical conditions of the era – not surprisingly the bureaucracy’s use of what was a science turned it into a dogma, but my point about Lenin/Stalin on “socialism in one country” is that I can’t see things being that much different if Stalin were to have been replaced by Trotsky – less purges perhaps, but certainly a theory along the lines of “socialism in one country” would have been advanced.

  5. December 20, 2008 at 9:42 am

    Where do you get that idea? Don’t get me wrong, while Trotsky was part of the Soviet government, he adopted some strange positions, including initially supporting the carrying of revolution into Poland on bayonet points.

    But Trotsky’s whole worlview was centred around global revolution. What makes you think otherwise?

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