The phenomenal Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Žižek is less a philosopher than a phenomenon. The son of Slovenian Communists, and the representative on earth (so to speak) of the late French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Žižek has been travelling the globe like an intellectual rock star for the past twenty years, gathering as he goes an immense fan club. He is outrageous, provocative and entertaining. He was, he tells us, tempted to suggest for the dust jacket of one of his books: “In his free time, Žižek likes to surf the internet for child pornography and teach his small son how to pull the legs off spiders”.
He has been the subject of an art installation entitled Slavoj Žižek Does Not Exist, has starred in two films (Žižek! and The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema) and appears on one of his own dust jackets lying on Sigmund Freud’s couch beneath an image of female genitalia. His forty or so books, with titles such as The Sublime Object of Ideology, The Ticklish Subject, Enjoy Your Symptom! and Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Lacan (But Were Too Afraid To Ask Hitchcock), are dishevelled collages of ideas, ranging from Kant to computer science, St Augustine to Agatha Christie. There seems to be nothing in heaven or earth that is not grist to his intellectual mill. One digression spawns another, until the author seems as unclear as the reader about what he was supposed to be arguing. Moreover, to every reviewer’s horror, Žižek’s books are growing fatter by the year. The Parallax View, almost 400 densely printed pages on everything from biopolitics and Robert Schumann to brain science and Henry James, appeared only two years ago; In Defense of Lost Causes, a book that scoops up Lenin and Heidegger, Christ and Robespierre, Mao and ecology, is an even weightier door-stopper.
Slavoj Žižek, then, is Europe’s prime example of a postmodern philosopher. He is a cross between guru and gadfly, sage and showman. In typically postmodern style, his work leaps impudently over the frontiers between high and popular culture, swerving in the course of a paragraph from Kierkegaard to Mel Gibson. Trained as a philosopher in Ljubljana and Paris, he is a film buff, psychoanalytic theorist, amateur theologian and political analyst. He is a member of the Ljubljana Lacanian circle, as improbable an association as the Huddersfield Hegelians. When it comes to politics, he is as adept at unpacking the intricacies of Rousseau or Carl Schmitt as he is at delivering instant journalistic judgements on Parisian rioting, the war on terror, or Turkey’s relations with the European Union. He was once a politician himself back home in Slovenia, and the shadow of the Yugoslavian conflict falls over his mordant commentaries on war, racism, nationalism and ethnic strife.
But if his books are postmodern in method, they are nevertheless lucid in style. In this respect, he presents something of an embarrassment to those convinced that Continental philosophers suffer from word-disorder. Žižek’s prose is crisp and consumer-friendly. Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked that he would like to have written a philosophical work consisting of nothing but jokes; and though there is a lot more to Žižek than funny stories, the comic anecdote is one of his finer literary modes. He has a good line in sardonic East European humour, as when he reports that the difference between the Soviet Union and the mildly more reformist Yugoslavia was that whereas in the Soviet Union the people walked while their political representatives drove cars, in Yugoslavia the people themselves drove cars through their political representatives. Many of the regulations in China that specify what counts as a state secret, he informs us with grisly relish, are themselves classified as state secrets. To illustrate the interplay of presence and absence, he recounts in another of his books the story of a guide conducting some visitors around an East European art gallery in the Soviet era and pausing before a painting entitled “Lenin in Warsaw”. There is no sign of Lenin in the picture; instead, it depicts Lenin’s wife in bed with a handsome young member of the Central Committee. “But where is Lenin?” inquire the bemused visitors, to which the guide gravely replies: “Lenin is in Warsaw”.
There are two jokes in particular that are, so to speak, on the Žižekian reader. The first I have just touched on: Žižek looks like a fun read, and in many respects is so; but he is also an exceptionally strenuous thinker reared in the high traditions of European philosophy. The second is that Žižek is not a postmodernist at all. In fact, he is virulently hostile to that whole current of thought, as this latest book illustrates. If he steals some of the postmodernists’ clothes, he has little but contempt for their multiculturalism, anti-universalism, theoretical dandyism and modish obsession with culture. In Defense of Lost Causes is out to challenge the conventional wisdom that ideologies are at an end; that grand narratives have slithered to a halt; that the era of big explanations is over, and that the idea of global emancipation is as dead in the water as the former proprietor of the Daily Mirror.
Žižek is deadly serious about all this, though there is a typical element of contrariness about it as well. He began his publishing career as some kind of post-Marxist, and has now backed his way from there into Marxism. It is a cussedness which marks his sensibility as a whole, as idées reçues are mischievously upended. Paradox for Žižek is the stylistic equivalent of dialectical thought. And nothing could be more paradoxical than scrambling on board the revolutionary vessel at just the moment when it has been holed below the waterline. As he himself has grown more fashionable, his political case has become less so. He has only to scent an orthodoxy to feel the itch to put his foot through it; so that now Marxism is out of fashion, there is a certain twisted logic in the fact that he should return to it so assertively. In this book, as in several of its predecessors, he presses what one might call postmodern techniques (irony, paradox, lateral thinking, multiplicity, even at times a certain barefaced disingenuousness) into the service of thoroughly traditional positions.
The self-consciously outrageous case the book has to argue is that there is a “redemptive” moment to be plucked from such failed revolutionary ventures as Jacobinism, Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism. Žižek is by no means a champion of political terror: the Mao he offers us here, for example, is the mass murderer who mused that “half of China may have to die” in the Great Leap Forward, and who remarked that though a nuclear war might blow a hole in the planet, it would leave the cosmos largely untouched. His aim is not to justify such demented views, but to make things harder for the typical liberal middle-class dismissal of them. In pursuing this goal, the book offers us a wealth of political and philosophical insight; but it is not at all clear that it validates its central thesis.
Take, for example, his “defence” of Heidegger’s espousal of Nazism in the 1930s, and of Michel Foucault’s championing of the Iranian revolution some forty years later. Both commitments Žižek views as deeply objectionable; but in his view they were at least commitments to the need for revolutionary change, even if both Heidegger and Foucault backed the wrong horse in this respect. Behind this case lies Žižek’s indebtedness to the leading French philosopher Alain Badiou, to whom this book devotes some critically sympathetic pages. For Badiou, the good life, ethically and politically speaking, consists in a tenacious adherence to some “Event” which bursts unpredictably on the historical scene, transforms the very coordinates of human reality and refashions from top to toe the men and women who remain loyal to it. One of the atheistic Badiou’s examples of such an event is the life and death of Christ.
There is a certain rather Gallic formalism about this notion. As with existentialism, the precise content of the redemptive event, as opposed to the miraculous fact of its occurrence, is not always the main point at stake. Žižek agrees with Badiou that it is better to cling disastrously to such a revelation of truth than to remain indifferent to it, which is surely not the case. There is nothing admirable in fidelity for its own sake. Luke-warmness is not the most heinous of crimes. French radical thought has often turned on a contrast between some privileged moment of truth and the bovine inauthenticity of everyday life, and Badiou is no exception in this respect. There is a spiritual elitism about such ethics, which is hard to square with this book’s suggestive reflections on the idea of democracy.
The keynote of the ethical life for Žižek, Badiou and Lacan is refusing to back off, staying obdurately true to one’s desire. Only by pushing one’s desire all the way through, in the manner of the classical tragic protagonist, can one flourish. Lacan’s great icon is thus Antigone, who refuses to settle for half. There is something perilous as well as attractive about such an ethics; but in this book, it is a view that allows Žižek to defend the idea of revolution while rejecting revolutionary terror. For the point about Robespierre and Stalin, so he argues, is not that they were too extreme, but that they were not revolutionary enough – and that had they been so, political terror would not have been necessary. The Jacobin terror, for example, is seen somewhat implausibly as bearing witness to the group’s inability to carry out an economic as well as a political transformation. Something similar is asserted of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
It is not the nave of its central thesis which makes this book so compelling, but its side chapels. Slavoj Žižek, as usual, seems gratifyingly unable to remember what case he has just been pursuing, and there are some splendid digressions, including an account of the changing role of the scherzo in Shostakovich, a disquisition on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, and reflections on Eisenstein’s lost masterpieces. In Defense of Lost Causes is a frenetic, eclectic parody of intellectual scholarship, by one so assured in his grasp of the finer points of Kafka or John le Carré that he can afford to ham it up a little.
TimesOnline, April 23, 2008