Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is The Weird Slavic Cultural Theorist Slavoj Žižek A "Dangerous" Proto-Totalitarian?

I'm happy to see Slavoj Žižek subjected to a serious critical analysis for once, but in the case of the furiously antagonistic review of Žižek and his ouvre by Adam Kirsch in The New Republic (which has set off all manner of excitements) we have what seems to me the fundamental mistake of taking Žižek rather too seriously in all the wrong places, and not taking him seriously where it counts.

It may well be that because I've got a bit of a tin ear for highbrow philosophical orchestration I am missing something. It's Žižek's wildly flamboyant erudition, his saucy assaults on fashionably leftish orthodoxy and his outrageous and campy perspectives on contemporary political, cultural and ideological currents that draw me to his work. I admit it. I mainly come for the trumpet blasts and the high-wire act. Still, I've been paying fairly close attention to the guy for some while - I'm currently wading through Žižek's In Defense of Lost Causes - and Kirsch leaves me wholly unconvinced.

But fair play to him. It's about time Comrade Slavoj was approached with something other than fawning adoration, and yes, let's properly interrogate this absurdly dishevelled Slovenian post-Marxist Lacanian or whatever he is. But what name does Kirsch give the exotic outline of a politics that emerges from Žižek's In Defence of Violence? "Its name is not communism. Its name is fascism, and in his most recent work Žižek has inarguably revealed himself as some sort of fascist."

To reach this conclusion, Kirsch relies upon dubiously selective quote-citing and text-highgrading, which reveals less about Žižek than about Kirsch, not least an utter tone deafness for irony. The same sort of technique cheapens Assaf Sagiv's sweeping criticism in Azure, only more transparently.

In just one instance of this from Sagiv, we read: "Žižek appears to believe that the war against the hegemony of global capitalism not only justifies, but also necessitates, taking horrific action. He thus grants an intellectual and moral seal of approval to every tyrant or terrorist who has acted under the banner of a war against 'the enemy' - namely, America and all it stands for." Note the words appears to believe, and note how the passage Sagiv cites actually supports nothing of the kind, but rather, just as easily, an opposite conclusion.

Prompted by this recent unwelcome attention to write an essay in Žižek's defense, Josh Strawn points out: "If Žižek suggests we notice the kernel in Leninism worthy of recuperation - the willingness to make the historical rupture and assume full responsibility for our political struggle toward a better world - this does not make him nostalgic for the Soviet state. This is politics as the art of the impossible and philosophy as the art of the asshole. Some like Kirsch will invariably insist that this means he is the harbinger of the next fascist apocalypse cloaked in pop culture references and irony. But looking awry from Žižek and his work, he looks less like the Elvis of cultural theory and more like Willy Wonka. There's a juvenile Socrates-cum-Johnny Rotten element to it. A gadfly who, like any great humorist, will take the joke too far--to the point of discomfort--to prove a point. A little ingenious, a little sadistic, very fallible, wildly imaginative, but ultimately well-intentioned and aware of the pitfalls that go along with the risks."

Also in Žižek's defense, but far more succinctly, the General weighs in: "It’s a bit pointless trying to discuss philosophy with people who believe that the concealment of politics and democracy are the priority and that the first and last word on Žižek is that he should be denounced as a Nazi. So I fucking well won’t."

Over here, we find Žižek defended against Kirschs's more disturbing claims, but a sober criticism of Žižek nonetheless: "As an ironist, just when you think you’ve pinned down his position, he reverses everything and articulates yet another position contradicting the first. Hence the sense that he never gets anywhere."

Elsewhere, Mikhail Emelianov writes: "I am not an admirer of Žižek, I can barely count myself as an attentive reader of Žižek, but certainly I don’t think that he is as useless and laughable (and dangerous) as Kirsch presents him to be. I am also pretty sure that this reaction to Žižek, however belated on Kirsch’s part, is exactly the calculated reaction Žižek expects and provokes."

Which is to say, the joke's on us.

Why, then, are we afraid? Who are we afraid of?


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