Tribute to Slavoj Zizek

4 08 2011

My current relationship with the thought of Slavoj Zizek is complicated. A few months ago, I would have been far more enthusiastic about him than I am now. After saturating myself with his heavy accented English lectures, as well as reading many of his books, I have concluded, along with many others, that he is the intellectual clown of the petit-bourgeois left. That’s not to say that I don’t find much of what he writes useful or even compelling. I think he engages popular culture far more effectively than any other voice on the left. More “orthodox” Marxists have a much more ossified view of the world, as if we are still trapped in 1968, 1917, or even worse, 1848. Zizek by no means has this problem. While I may not be able to take his views on Kung Fu Panda seriously, I can at least admire the audacity of someone who tries to draw theory out of something so ridiculous and banal.

All the same, I think his books and various engagements with aspects of modern culture are obscurantist and border on intellectual titillation. At times, his random engagements with popular culture and modern capitalism seem to be akin to a dope addict trying to kick his addiction by describing what a particular high feels like. I know that I am brainwashed by ideology, and am often most brainwashed when I try to rid myself of ideology. I also know that capitalism has a lot to do with it, and even I share his pessimism regarding being able to change all of this. At the same time, when you have a young family, and children facing a bleak future at least on the societal level, you cannot afford such pessimism. One could argue that pessimism is just realism with the rose-colored glasses taken off, but one could also argue that being a pessimist and choosing to have children is the worst barbarism of all. Hope, like reason, is something that separates us from beasts and monsters.

What I gained again from reading Zizek is an appreciation for Hegel and Marx. Reading his books, I encountered certain passages from both of these authors, and recalled the false divisions between society and freedom that even I fell for until very recently. Let us turn to Zizek’s critique of ideology and say that one is not free by escaping ideology. Or rather, one is not free by escaping the realm of historical necessity. Until recently, especially in my Neoplatonic musings, that is what I believed. One had to oppose oneself to the institution, to societal change, one has to create a niche of “tradition” in the midst of late capitalist chaos, etc. In other words, a sort of nostalgic, localist, crypto-anarchism.

All of that is a pipe dream, and I know it well now. The dichotomy that postmodern man cannot get over, no matter how anti-ideological he thinks himself to be, is the false dichotomy between freedom and collectivity. In Hegel, the Absolute is human cognition going full circle: one is both object of thought and the thinker. One is freed within the context of history, and through history, and not from it. This is not guaranteed, however, as Hegel’s successor, Marx, points out. Freedom is a goal of human effort, and not the default position of humanity. It is also a collective and not a purely individual good.

All of this is what I gleamed from Zizek, however obliquely. There is no use trying to recover a past that is long gone, or seek refuge in a present that is ever changing. Both of these issues bothered me a great deal over the past five years or so. It took reading Slavoj Zizek to finally begin a search for Truth in the here and now, and not in some strange dark corner of the periphery of human thought. There is no dark place of the sacred in our society, and perhaps there never was one. The Secular is the Sacred; whatever enchantment the Old World had is also in the present under a different guise. Reading Zizek began my effort to think with humanity and not apart from it. We shall see where this leads.

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11 responses

4 08 2011
Jason Carlos Cardona

I think you’d like Paul Goodman, Arturo (or rather, he might scratch where you itch at the moment). He was an anarchist who also believed in patriotism and old-fashioned virtues. He did not like abstract imagining, and he was big on using real experience to find one’s place in the world (he was the co-inventor of gestalt therapy). Here’s a short explanation he gave of anarchism:

Anarchism is grounded in a rather definite proposition: that valuable behavior occurs only by the free and direct response of individuals or voluntary groups to the conditions presented by the historical environment. It claims that in most human affairs, whether political, economic, military, religious, moral, pedagogic, or cultural, more harm than good results from coercion, top-down direction, central authority, bureaucracy, jails, conscription, States, preordained standardization, excessive planning, etc. Anarchists want to increase intrinsic functioning and diminish extrinsic power. This is a social-psychological hypothesis with obvious political implications. Depending on varying historical conditions that present various threats to the anarchist principle, anarchists have laid their emphasis in varying places: sometimes agrarian, sometimes free-city and guild-oriented; sometimes technological, sometimes anti-technological; sometimes communist, sometimes affirming property; sometimes individualist, sometimes collective; sometimes speaking of Liberty as almost an absolute good, sometimes relying on custom and “nature.” Nevertheless, despite these differences, anarchists seldom fail to recognize one another, and they do not consider the differences to be incompatibilities. Consider a crucial modern problem, violence. Guerrilla fighting has been a classical anarchist technique; yet where, especially in modern conditions, any violent means tends to reinforce centralism and authoritarianism, anarchists have tended to see the beauty of non-violence. Now the anarchist principle is by and large true. And far from being “Utopian” or a “glorious failure,” it has proved itself and won out in many spectacular historical crises. In the period of mercantilism and patents royal, free enterprise by joint stock companies was anarchist. The Jeffersonian bill of rights and independent judiciary were anarchist. Congregational churches were anarchist. Progressive education was anarchist. The free cities and corporate law in the feudal system were anarchist. At present, the civil rights movement in the United States has been almost classically decentralist and anarchist And so forth, down to details like free access in public libraries. Of course, to later historians, these things do not seem to be anarchist, but in their own time they were all regarded as such and often literally called such, with the usual dire threats of chaos. But this relativity of the anarchist principle to the actual situation is of the essence of anarchism. There cannot be a history of anarchism in the sense of establishing a permanent state of things called “anarchist.” It is always a continual coping with the next situation, and a vigilance to make sure that past freedoms are not lost and do not turn into the opposite, as free enterprise turned into wage-slavery and monopoly capitalism, or the independent judiciary turned into a monopoly of courts, cops, and lawyers, or free education turned into School Systems.

4 08 2011
Anonymous

It seems to me that a loss of hope always leads to ideological determinism and vice versa.

Hope is the theological virtue that follows Faith and leads to Love.

There are two opposing sins against hope:
Despair-anticipated failure
and
Presumption-anticipated fulfillment.

I found that Reformed Evangelicals, the most deterministic sect in the Calvinist tradition, were the most critical of B.F. Skinner, the most deterministic of the behavioral scientists. Perhaps it is true that the traits that we hate most in others are those we do not recognize in ourselves. And perhaps it is also true that we humans are not always as logical as we like to believe.

4 08 2011
Gordie

I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road”. I think Cormac would agree with Zizek’s theory of the universe/creation and Love.

4 08 2011
Andrew P

Maybe you should move on to reading Badiou.

4 08 2011
owen white

I think a key part of the Zizek game lies with the apparent reality that there is, in the lives of most people likely to read any critical theory today, a whole hell of a lot of the “ridiculous and banal.” Thus the worth of that audacity of someone who tries to draw theory out of something so ridiculous and banal is tied to the fact that for middle class persons in the world today, the sort of people who have the luxury to major in the humanities or somesuch, the vast majority of their thinking life is given over to the ridiculous and banal, and thus if these people don’t have someone draw theory from that, what the hell are they supposed to find in their lives and experiences from which to draw theory?

Does that make sense?

There is something very postmodern about a sometime spouse of an Argentine underwear model being the most (in)famous defender of Marxism-Leninism today as he flirts between a Western Communist Lacanian gimmicky thing and his waxing eloquent in nostalgia for the old actually existing socialisms, like the one which once imprisoned his friends causing him to become a dissident. What a clown, indeed. But when he is right, he is so damn entertaining and clever in his rightness. Even if not original, he often says it better than the originals. Maybe Marxist-Leninist thought needs a Zizek to break through some ossification, even if not as a model for how theory should now be done.

5 08 2011
Anonymous

“Thus the worth of that audacity of someone who tries to draw theory out of something so ridiculous and banal is tied to the fact that for middle class persons in the world today, the sort of people who have the luxury to major in the humanities or somesuch, the vast majority of their thinking life is given over to the ridiculous and banal, and thus if these people don’t have someone draw theory from that, what the hell are they supposed to find in their lives and experiences from which to draw theory?”

What makes you think that middle class persons are using their “luxury” to major in the humanities? Only the intellectual erotics among the middle class do that–and they are relatively few in number. The majority of prosperous middle class persons are accumulating technological toys, recreational vehicles, golfing, rutting, etc. Hedonistic materialism is not generally conducive to reflective thinking.

5 08 2011
owen white

“they are relatively few in number.”

The most recent stats I can find are for the 2003/04 academic year, when humanities majors were just under 16% of all majors. Even if that number has dropped down to 10% today, we are still talking about almost 2 million humanities majors studying at American colleges and universities at the current time. I suppose we might call that “relatively few” but those numbers have not quite plummeted to the realm of niche or boutique yet.

I’d be interested to see data concerning the socio-economic backgrounds of humanities majors in the U.S. I suspect they tend to come from wealthier families than college students on the whole.

18 08 2011
Małopolanin

The next stage, the rotten core of Marxism: Homosexual publicly masturbates with lion statue in protest of the Pope, to the applause of thousands of Marxists.

13 09 2011
lorea

“It claims that in most human affairs, whether political, economic, military, religious, moral, pedagogic, or cultural,…”
You might have added “etc, etc”!
Your use of abstract terms is a real show piece..
I must already have told you that abstract terms are similar to the coordinates on a map in that they do not themselves refer to any thing or place, but are necessary to tell other people where these things or places can be seen. In other words, these abstract terms cannot be used for political action just as the coordinates of a future highway cannot be used in its construction.

13 09 2011
cantueso

This “lorea” was not intentional. I simply could not sign in. The system kept waiting for “authorization”.

25 10 2012
jkoman

Don’t forget Shakespeare and on”real” – on “truth”
Hamlet; Scene I
[Elsinore. A room in the house of Polonius.]
POLONIUS to Reynaldo:

See you now;
Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth;(70)
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out.

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