pseudopodium
. . . Zizek

. . .

Against the Millennium

I've recently seen a few online academic leftists

(I hate calling them leftists. It's not like they have anything to do with the pragmatic, boring, and downright disgusting work of American politics. Better to describe them as millenarians. It's like reading Pat Robertson, except that Pat Robertson actually wields power.)

I've recently seen a few online academic millenarians attack "liberals" (or, better yet, "right-wing liberals") for having brought us, well, everything that the Reagan and Bush administrations brought America.

It seems to me that the only way liberals can be held responsible for Bush initiatives is by not having prevented them. On which academic millenarians haven't scored well either.

* * *

The public intellectual can sometimes be effective when brought to bear on particular issues and policies. But that role ranges between absurd and dangerous when we judge entire forms of government. An "honest outsider" wouldn't have a high-risk bet on the game.

Of course, since Žižek was born and raised in Tito's Yugoslavia, his celebration of Lenin is about as "outside" as an American liberal celebrating the New Deal.

* * *

Yes, liberal democracy works for class mobility, and yes, that weakens class struggle. But, given the relative powers of the upper class and the lower class, you'd have to be either insane or rich to think class struggle is a good fight to bet on. The big rock candy mountain generally turns out to be rat excrement. The most successful revolution of the twentieth century was the one Franco raised against the Spanish Republic.

* * *

Democracy's inherently divisive power can balance the inherently coalescing power of wealth only so long as other forces stay unaligned. What typically seems to wreck the balance (other than invasion) is religious or nationalist mania whipped up by a good propaganda network. But in a secular capitalist democracy the balance is always in question.

It's easy to see why those of us with a taste for absolutes and verities lose our patience. The promise of liberal democracy hasn't been and never can be fulfilled. That's because all it promises is to maintain tension. Any fulfillment must be tactical and temporary for the simple reason that politics won't go away.

I admit that sometimes, in some places, even that much faith seems misplaced.

But anyone capable of swallowing Lacan has lost all right to skepticism.

* * *

Anyway, Žižek's not into fantasizing revolution for social equity. He's into it because it lets him be simultaneously naughty and puritanical. Here, he plays Uncle Joe to the simple serfs of America, with many spankings in store for nubile pop stars.

Hey, I got a sample population for you, Slavoj, 'cause those Kansas proles are my people. (Well, Missouri. Next best thing. My mother worked for Ashcroft's campaign.) All my high school friends whether skeptic, undecided, closeted, Republican, Nazi, Democrat, or just scared have been born again. (Not that things seem to be going better for them second time round.)

And you know what? They'd hate you worse'n I do.

Responses

Grrr. My Grranddad's middle name was 'Kansas'. For reals. Here's S.Z. on Abu Ghraib: "the Iraqi prisoners were effectively being initiated into American culture" also "You can find similar photographs in the US press whenever an initiation rite goes wrong in an army unit or on a high school campus" - Rush Limbaugh for bookworms.

My own dislike for Žižek is moderated by his open fraudulence. As he explains in the link above and here, when he got a chance to play an effective role in politics, rather than attacking the "liberal-democratic hegemony", he helped found the Liberal Democratic Party. And when he got a chance to try out the claims of Lacanian analysis, he wasted his therapy on hoaxing his analyst.

That doesn't mean I've grown exactly fond of him. As a hoaxer, he'll never reach the sublimity of Duchamp or Buñuel. With his steady stipend and his rotation of wife-tenders and his millenarian admirers, he's got a comfy shtick and he's shtuck there. And don't get your hopes up when people praise his prose style. They mean it's lively compared to other Leninist Lacanians.

But such naked craving for attention is more embarrassing than hateful. (I hope.) Worse are the fool's zanies, making moon-eyes at his "playful" "trickster" antics while swearing by the patent medicine.

DID IT FLY?
Like much of academia, the fondness for Zizek is cultish. It's only his appearance in mags like In These Times (to wildly negative reviews) that seems to make liberals nervous. The troublesome thing is not what he says so much that seemingly intelligent people buy into it. But then again, why should that surprise me?

Mitsu Hadeishi writes:

It seems to me that Zizek suffers from a tendency towards what I would call a sort of intellectual inconsistency --- on the one hand, the whole point of postmodernism is to critique the notion of a totalizing (and totalitarian) single world view --- and Zizek is consistent in the sense that he criticizes Stalinism for this --- he does seem to have such a fondness for socialism not so much as a totalizing system but as a symbol of attempts to help the working class that he constantly attempts to use postmodern insights to prop up arguments in favor of state intervention on behalf of workers, a fondness which is perhaps a bit irrational. I don't, however, think it is accurate to accuse him of "millenarianism" --- such a concept is actually thoroughly unpostmodern, it is precisely opposed to pretty much everything that any postmodern thinker ought to take seriously. In fact, I see Zizek rejecting this totalizing impulse quite thoroughly when he discusses Stalinism, which he sees as a degeneration of socialism. However, still does seem to be guilty of a certain irrational bias in that his articles often seem to be aimed at the "goal" of a sort of postmodern version of socialism though I haven't seen a clear picture of what this would mean in practice.

As far as I can tell, he does criticize Lenin on postmodern grounds for making a couple of key mistakes: the most egregious of which is his conflation of a supposedly objective necessity (the criticizers of the revolution are objectively opposing the advance of social justice, and thus ought to be shot) with a radical subjectivism (*I* have decided that these ideas are opposing social justice). He rightly says this sort of totalitarian impulse is based on a fallacy (I noticed in researching this, however, that Lenin in fact said these words two years after the Bolsheviks had abolished the firing squads, so he was clearly speaking metaphorically, at the time.)

He is really, it seems to me, simply being sort of impish in his use of Lenin, here, because he's not actually suggesting a return to Lenin, but simply a resurrection of a simple notion, which is that choice is not merely choice between two alternatives within a single framework, but rather also includes choices between frameworks. His use of Lenin is meant to be provocative, but hardly serious in the sense that it seems pretty obvious he doesn't mean a literal return to Lenin, merely a resurrection of that aspect of his thought which happens to coincide with something that isn't entirely crazy.

The problem I have, of course, with Zizek here, is that I don't know if he really has an understanding of economics. The basic idea that one ought to question whether or not one has the best set of choices rather than merely questioning one choice or the other --- this is obviously a valid point. Zizek is not arguing in favor of a suppression of alternate points of view; he's rather arguing in favor of the increase in the number of points of view, to re-include some now semi-discredited notions of socialism as an ideal. However, I think Zizek probably doesn't really understand the central problem with state intervention, which isn't that there is a problem with trying to help the lower classes but rather simply with the notion of centralized bureaucratic decision-making, which is, ironically, the same problem with overly powerful corporate concentrations of capital.

I agree with your general critique of him, however, in that I happen to believe the function of politics ought not to be the creation of an ideal state, but rather merely the prevention of the devolvement into a disaster. Thus, to me, Democrats v Republicans are a real choice: a choice between a relatively stable society which remains somewhat unfair and a society headed for doom. In this sense Zizek and other similar intellectuals miss the point in a sort of ivory tower idealism. Nevertheless what they're saying I don't think is quite as crazy as it is being made out to be by some. It seems to me Zizek's essential point is framed correctly (i.e., that one ought to question the choices as well as question the choice) --- I just think he nevertheless overromanticizes socialist impulses as the alternative (as well as overromanticizing the possibility of an idealized state).

My outbursts were far from clear on this score, but by "academic millenarians," I meant the American citers of Žižek rather than Žižek himself.

. . .

"Why do men [sic] halt between two opinions, and expect histological impossibilities?"

My recent outburst prompted the outburst below, recieved under the above title. I just hope Clifford D. Simak felt this proud when he read Fire the Bastards!

I'm tempted to have it carved on my tombstone. But, considering the financial burden that would put on my heirs (drat this Estate Tax!), I'll probably stick with my original choice of epitaph: "STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!"

Waitamminit, you don't name (or link) names, so I'm not sure of this; but --you're mad at teachers who accuse, say, the Clinton administration of being responsible for proto-bushian injustices so you point out Zizek's absurdity and threaten him with the disgruntlement of a mob of lumpen Christians? Not that there's anything wrong with your view of SZ --I especially liked the wordsalad he produces in the interview to which you linked, and it was indeed impossible for those who only intended to establish their state capitalism to rely on the revolutionary mobilization of the people (most effective revolution, though? by what criteria?)-- but something in the chain of argument reminded me of FrontPageMag's Derrida obit, and the longstanding canard that materialism by itself would reduce ideas to mere passive accompaniments of economic activity. There is a whole universe of meaning to be rescued and redefined: maybe it's just not a good time of year to level accusations against "academics." It *is* important, Ray, to remember that positive motivation to do something is aroused by the expectancy that one's behavior will be followed by positive consequences. Consider not just two prosodically similar statements, but *three*:

"None of that in Kubrick, who manipulates his films like a chess player, who makes an operational scenario of history."

"The destruction of craftsmanship during the period of the rise of scientific management did not go unnoticed by the workers."

"Understandably, hostile or uncooperative witnesses seldom grasped the nature of the hearings they were so forcibly attending."

I mean, it turned out to be advantageous for Kerensky, but at what price? Tom Frank is essentially trying to figure out how the Right's propaganda machine works, right? And had his book been universally ignored, they might have resented every blasphemous word of it. Does that, in your eyes, make him a class traitor by reminding him of your Bryn Mawr profs? These habits of life are of too pervading a character to be ascribed to the influence of a late or brief discipline. I lack the confidence to charge this danger equally to every part of the discourse; I no longer know what objects and ends are in my field of awareness. But surely your Missourian cohort would be equally unhappy with Chip, whose wound has closed up, for his elitism. Signs carrying social information vary as to reliability. Is it beyond your credence that there are teachers (and remember that SZ is not one) who provide political educations, who raise students' consciousness sufficiently to change their lives, and who still don't let the DLC off the hook, and remain appalled by Angela Davis' support for Clinton, or by Carter's having opened up the WH to the bornagainers' leaders? What then do you think of Riesman's view that there's such a thing as a "national character"? I dread hearing you say that the argument for child labor followed the same line, when the Constitution Party presented it in early 2000.

. . .

Interviewer: I'm reminded of Casanova's famous expression that "the best moment of love is when one is climbing the stairs." One can hardly imagine a homosexual today making such a remark.

MF: Exactly. Rather, he would say something like, "the best moment of love is when the lover leaves in the taxi." [....] It is when the act is over and the boy is gone that one begins to dream about the warmth of his body, the quality of his smile, the tone of his voice. This is why the great homosexual writers of our culture (Cocteau, Genet, Burroughs) can write so elegantly about the sexual act itself, because the homosexual imagination is for the most part concerned with reminiscing about the act rather than anticipating it. And, as I said earlier, this is all due to very concrete and practical considerations and says nothing about the intrinsic nature of homosexuality.

- Michel Foucault, "Sexual Choice, Sexual Act."

Sex is a perfidious intellectual digression into physical reminiscences.

- Laura Riding, "The Damned Thing"

Plenty of homosexual men are goal-driven, and there's also the boy in the taxi to consider. And some women and heterosexual men are nostalgic sensualists; even so stereotypically straight a guy as Fellini detested Casanova.

Well, it's an interview; Foucault speaks loosely, drops a crumb from his pastry, it's easily brushed away, it's all due to very concrete and practical considerations. This is, in short, an uninteresting disagreement.

The main point, that some such contrast of sexual imagination can be found, I agree with. It's a thought I've often had, in words no more exact than Foucault's, thought and rethought till the shoddy material's gray and gummy with handling. Foucault gives no relief: his formulation lacks the secure snap that would let me stow the thought away and the crafted surface that would make it pleasant to take down again. Our mere coincidence of mind might be taken as reassuring, but really, even I'm not that emotionally needy.

Riding's formulation is nothing but snap. I can't say whether I agree or not acknowledgment seems the most liberty she'd permit but this I can predict: every time I morosely chew the reheated canned spinach of my and Foucault's thought, Riding's grain of grit will be there.

Responses

Josh Lukin:
Damn right Foucault speaks loosely, and it's disturbing how his highly experimental ideas and his most casual remarks have been solidified into dogmas.

Case in point: what the often-admirable Halperin and the pedagogically gifted Zizek have made of an offhand speculation or perhaps wisecrack of Foucault's on the subject of fisting. MF would offer some choice words on amateur philosophers.

Yeah for example, I'm pretty confident he could tear me a new one without much effort....

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.