WHO IS SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK?
The problem is where to begin with a writer like Žižek? One thing I'm sure of, after reading his thousand page tome, Less Than Nothing, is that he can't simply be dismissed in the manner of Chomsky, who lumps his work, along with that of many other writers - Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, et cetera - with something called Theory - Post-Structuralist, Post-Modernist, Deconstruction and so on. Žižek certainly quotes Hegel, Marx, Freud and Lacan rather a lot, which I suppose would immediately label him as a representative of Theory. But perhaps that only shows he's more literate than others. For my own part, I must confess that I come out in hives these days whenever I come across any thing which smacks of Theory. And Žižek is often no exception. Yet one thing saves him from that kind of obloquy and that is that, for a Marxist anyway, he is both highly idiosyncratic and entertaining. He puts on the mask of the clown to 'speak truth to power' - much like the Fool in King Lear, who gets away with it precisely because the 'home-truths' he utters are cloaked in tomfoolery. Compared to Žižek, Chomsky himself is as dry as dust. He deals with facts, but, let's face it, facts can be boring. And most of what Chomsky writes is boring as well; he belongs to the Anglo-American analytic tradition in philosophy, which must be the most boring philosophical tradition that has ever been invented. If you want to put people off philosophy for life, set them Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy or any book by A. J. Ayer to read. That should do the trick admirably. In fact they probably won't read another philosophy book for the rest of their lives.
One could say something similar about a lot of ‘Continental Philosophy’ of course, but somehow, despite its obscurities of language, it does seem to offer a lot more to get your teeth into. It has taken on board the Kantian notion that analysis is a philosophically sterile way to arrive at the truth because all it gets its teeth into in the end are concepts and definitions. Imaginative syntheses - what Kant might have called transcendental horizons - play no part in it. There’s a world out there beyond the stuffy precincts of Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard, and at least ‘Continental Philosophy’ has tried to engage with it. It can be difficult and recondite, of course, but maybe, just maybe, that’s a price one has to pay for moving outside the sterile analytical tradition, which is the one Chomsky, a linguist, is obviously at home in. Žižek himself is much more in the continental tradition and furthermore is hugely wide-ranging. He won’t let himself be detained by dry analyses of concepts for one minute. That is his weakness of course. It is also his strength. It allows him to take a much longer stride.
I am not going to say too much about Lacan. Concepts like The Big Other, The Master Signifier, The Name Of The Father, le objet petit a (notice the lower-case!) and many others are all a bit like water off a duck's back to me - I'm afraid to say. And it doesn't matter how often they are re-iterated or explained, I won't get my head round them. Not that when I read Lacan all those years ago, I did not find many of his ideas interesting, but it came with a lot of jargon as well, which I have always found hard to deal with. Lacan and Hegel and others are not really what interest me in Žižek. What does are the surprising things he can say 'to one side' as it were, his sudden and illuminating remarks about aspects of the world we live in which I had not considered before. They are numerous, but I will quote only one at this juncture. He is talking about the 2011 riots in England. "Zygmunt Bauman was on the right track when he characterised the riots as acts of "disqualified and defective consumers": more than anything else they were a consumerist carnival of destruction, a consumerist desire violently redirected when unable to realise itself in the proper' way (by shopping). As such they also, of course, contained a moment of genuine protest, a kind of ironic reply to the consumerist ideology with which we are bombarded in our daily lives. "You call on us to consume, while depriving us of the possibility to do it properly - so here we are doing it the only way open to us..." The problem with such riots is not their violence per se, but the fact that it is not truly self-assertive - in Nietzsche's terms it is reactive, not active, impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force, envy masked as triumphant carnival." I would much rather Žižek wrote all the time in this vein, and relied less on the way the Big Other infiltrates us on behalf of the capitalist system or patriarchy or whatever. The riots have been called the first Post-Modernist riots and Žižek, whom Chomsky lumps with the Post-Modernists, uses their example to express his distance from Post-Modernism - which is so consumerist-oriented. And it is this distance he takes from Post-Modernism, which nonetheless influences him strongly, which distinguishes a lot of his work.
His astuteness is especially pronounced in relation to politics. In one of his books, Violence I believe, Žižek discusses the Stalin Purges of the 1930s and finds a parallel in them with Mao's Cultural Revolution of the 60s. What they both had in common was the desire of both Stalin and Mao to keep themselves on top of their respective political piles by playing different factions of the ruling Communist Party off against each other. Here ideology was being used to mask purely political struggles for power. Without such skilful political manoeuvres, neither Stalin nor Mao would have stayed on top as they did in what for them was a genuine life-or-death struggle. Ideology - especially in the form of religion - has always been used as a mask for holding on to political power. Jacob Burkhardt, writing about the Italian Renaissance, discusses how the Catholic Church at the time of the Renaissance had become so corrupt and people had become so disillusioned with it that it was almost on the point of collapse. What saved it? Ironically, Protestantism. Thanks to Protestantism it now had an external enemy and was able to shore up its flagging support by launching the Counter-Reformation. This, of course, is how politics works. (Who's to say that this isn't how Islamic Fundamentalism also works?) It's how people get and stay in power and both Žižek and Burkhardt display considerable insight in pointing out the purely political machinations involved.
Žižek has obviously gone to school with Machiavelli. That's not a bad thing. Machiavelli was much more of a realist than a fully-fledged cynic. He had an extra-ordinary grasp of what a Prince needed to do to hold on to power. Žižek is a disciple, I suspect. That's why I wonder what he might make of Winston Churchill - a really cynical political operator if ever there was one - who, it has been said, deliberately provoked the Blitz to shore up his flagging political support at the time. I don't want to go into that little story, as I dealt with the Second World War in an earlier blog. All I'll say is we should take the scales from our eyes and see politics as it is - a cynical zero-sum game which some people master and some people don't. And it is always the ruthless and unscrupulous who come out on top. Those who don't have the right qualities - like the good 'King' in Alexander Dumas's The Man In The Iron Mask, who was sent back to the dungeon - are consigned to political oblivion. I mean, Jimmy Carter always struck me as being a reasonably 'decent' human being, which perhaps explains why he was such an abject political failure. He was probably not psychopathic enough.
Žižek's political acumen, of course, owes a good deal to his study of Marx. It is almost de rigeur for a Marxist to be a political realist, but Žižek, unlike many Marxists, is willing to apply his realism to societies which are ostensibly Marxist as well, to show how politics works in those societies no differently from how they work in ours. Cynicism is the political name of the game, whatever ideological clothing is worn to conceal it. That he recognises this is one of his strengths. He can even praise Ayn Rand for saying that Anarcho-Capitalism has the advantage of making domination indirect rather than direct, because its relations are mediated by money rather than politics. Of course, he recognises that this is no solution either. A boss is still a boss is still a boss. What I like about Žižek is that he can juggle all these different alternatives in a truly 'Hegelian' fashion without any of the balls falling to the ground. Playing the fool probably helps him here. Jugglers, after all, often wear the painted faces of clowns during their acts.
Yet for all my actual attraction to Žižek, I am not altogether easy about all that he says, which is too much slewed in a Marxist direction. And it is at this juncture that I start to agree with Chomsky - without renouncing what I have said about him. Chomsky is an anarchist. If he shows sympathies with Marxists at all, it is usually those whom Lenin would have denounced as infantile leftists. This includes Rosa Luxemburg , who took issue with Lenin's undemocratic practices, his destruction of the Soviets and promotion of vanguardism. I can't be sure, but I suspect that Žižek would have sided with Lenin rather than Luxemburg. He would, despite his recognising the retroactive aspect of 'history', probably invoke 'historical necessity' to justify his support and ask what other alternatives there were. Lenin and the Bolsheviks equated with Robespierre and the Jacobins in many ways. The Revolutionary Terror of 1792-4 was, to Žižek, justified by history, though that, of course, can only be said from hindsight. "On the eve of the revolution, the only choice is between the old 'organic' order and revolution, inclusive of its terror." A kind of determinism is being invoked here - "it could have happened in no other way". But actually, I don't think that we can have any idea what might have happened if another path had been taken. After all, the American Revolution didn't have its own version of The Terror, although, as Hannah Arendt says, it did not have the same social make-up that the French Revolution had, which was driven by a desperately poor sans-culottes.
Žižek spends a lot of time in Less Than Nothing dealing with some of the philosophical conundrums posed by Quantum Mechanics and how the idea of the collapse of the wave-function is, like history itself, retroactive. That is to say that it cannot be determined until after it has happened. We don't know which slit that photon or electron will pass through until it has passed through it. Until then, it is just a 'probability-wave'. So what does Quantum Mechanics do to such concepts as 'historical necessity', when there are always more items on the menu than the one you finally choose? Perhaps probability is the nearest thing you can get to certainty here. "Well, if this path had been taken, it's likely that this and that would have happened." And so on and so forth. But nothing is certain. And Leninists often talk about Lenin as if he was guided by some kind of divine hand which enabled him to infallibly choose the correct path through the 'slit'. How do they know there weren't other paths which might have been equally or even more efficacious? After all, if your only real historical criterion is how it actually turned out, how can you tell whether the 'right' path was chosen or not? I certainly don't know. And I find it hard to believe that Žižek does either. In the end, it might not come down to 'historical necessity' at all, but the persuasive and authoritarian personality of this or that leader at a particular moment in time. That much at least Chomsky's aware of.
Despite all this, and the all too often way he himself dismisses ideas he himself doesn't agree with - as if, like Lenin, he was gifted with infallible knowledge - Žižek is a thinker to engage with rather than simply dismiss in the manner of Chomsky. He is a writer who is alive enough to sustain huge contradictions. After all, doesn't he also say that history is retroactive, registering and interpreting events after they have taken place? There is no such thing as "history in the making", a history whose significance you can grasp while it is actually happening. History is what happens after it has happened and Žižek is fully aware of this fact, although often he appears not to be. I have lots of other bones of contention with Žižek, not the least being that direct democracy, according to him, can only work during a revolutionary situation when people are organising to thwart counter-revolutionary enemies. Otherwise, Comrades, just leave it all to the wisdom of the leadership. The curious thing is that, for a Marxist, the mother of all enemies is Mother Nature herself, and why shouldn't direct democracy therefore work to deal with her 'counter-revolutionary insurgency' as well - in relation to the field of work and running society to meet our material needs? Žižek's Marxist blinkers seem to prevent him from recognising this possibility, which he would no doubt dismiss as utopian.
Nevertheless, for all his faults, Žižek is well worth reading, since he has a lot of important things to say, in spite of himself. I would certainly recommend him as one the few thinkers who, though he often uses the jargon, has genuinely transcended the sterility of Post-Modernism and can be provocative and challenging in all sorts of interesting ways.