Sunday, December 7, 2008

In Defense of the Deadly Jester

Obviously I write a lot with reference to two Marxists: Alain Badiou, a much respected French thinker prolific over the last 40 years; and Savoj Zizek, who seems to be either loved or hated, a cultural phenomenon who has been described as "the 'Elvis' of Cultural Theory". I have alluded to but not addressed adequately as yet his last major work "In Defense of Lost Causes" and now already he has produced along with seemingly endless articles a new book "Violence" which takes up certain themes introduced in that prior work. Zizek's style is one laden with ironic humor. Just recently he was vehemently attacked by the left publication The New Republic where he was labeled "The Deadly Jester". The critical response to this attack from others the leftist community, Zizek's intellectual fans and those who may not consider him such a superstar, but nonetheless find him provocative and important, has been very interesting and fun to follow. I felt that some coverage of this debate would be informative and revealing as to why the "wild-eyed Slovanian" is such a draw.

Both Badiou and Zizek are of the Marxist school related to "structuralism" and the line of the political philosopher and Marxist Louis Althusser. Also they both are aligned with the extremely influential psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who made certain critical developments from Freud. Badiou doesn't seem to have much to say about Zizek, but Zizek more than infrequently launches his expositions from the ideas of Badiou, with his own inimitable twists. The relationship of Badiou and Zizek thought is very complex but over simply put: Badiou's revolutionary "Events" that occur historically, periodically, are vehicles of virtual "Truths" that in a creative process produce "Subjects" who in fidelity to that "Truth" engage in actions that give actuality to there having been the "Event"; while Badiou posits that such "Events" are not logically predictable nor can they be perpetrated by pre-evental subjects (since in his view such subjects do not yet exist), Zizek,as I understand him, engenders a concept of revolutionary practice by individuals engaging in recovery of as yet actualized truths that remain virtual following historical developments he considers lost causes worthy of re-invigoration. This is why, I argue, Zizek is experienced as so confrontational, why there is so much conflict around his work.

I think this is illustrated by the uproar around the article in The New Republic from which I provide some excerpts. Here Zizek's views on violence, though seen as cleverly clad in highly entertaining humor, are condemned as the guise of a "deadly jester":

The Deadly Jester - by Adam Kirsch

".. the only true solution to the 'Jewish question' is the 'final solution' (their annihilation), because Jews ... are the ultimate obstacle to the 'final solution'.. Zizek worried that the normalization of torture as an instrument of state was the first step in 'a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone.' This is a good description of Zizek's own work. Under the cover of comedy and hyperbole, in between allusions to movies and video games, he is engaged in the rehabilitation of many of the most evil ideas of the last century. He is trying to undo the achievement of all the postwar thinkers who taught us to regard totalitarianism, revolutionary terror, utopian violence, and anti-Semitism as inadmissible in serious political discourse. Is Zizek's audience too busy laughing at him to hear him? I hope so, because the idea that they can hear him without recoiling from him is too dismal, and frightening, to contemplate."

You should read the entire article first, but this excerpt gives you an idea of the author's position. We will get several more quotes from the article if you look at some of the replies in other publications by other authors taking issue with the allegations of Kirsch. Yes, Zizek is confrontational, some say obscenely so, find him "dirty" even. Zizek's "anti-Semitism" is but one of the Jester's deadly ideas according to Kirsch, but I thought it was a pretty good starting point. So it is apropos to start the counterarguments with the following from the progressive Jewish left publication, Jewcy (excerpts):

In Defense of Zizek

Nowhere is the problem with Kirsch's analysis more apparent than in his attacks on Zizek's recent book 'Violence'.. He tells his readers that Zizek means to tell us that "resistance to the liberal-democratic order is so urgent that it justifies any degree of violence." Not so. The author is very clear. He says that his intent is to expand our conceptual understanding of violence beyond it's more obvious eruptions. He wants to explain violence not as merely the act of violence with which we're most viscerally and morally aware (what he calls 'subjective' violence), but more thoroughly--as inclusive of the network of relations and circumstances that make that violence possible (he calls this 'objective' violence). Sure Zizek quotes Lenin's directive to "Learn, learn, learn." That doesn't make him a Bolshevik.. but the difference between an honest reader of Zizek and a detractor on a mission is that the reader would deal with what comes after.. that this point is raised primarily to discuss what's wrong with terrorism"

The article in Jewcy gives a very good overview of Zizek's ideas on the topic and at one point makes the definitive point:

"Through disparate and disjointed (often repetitive) volumes and lectures, the most unifying thread in Zizek's oeuvre is the fearlessness to say what dare not be said. To leave open the horizon for saying the unsayable and doing the unthinkable. It's inevitable that if you say that you have a fascination with the Jewish state as the living exemplar of the violence involved in all state creation, someone is going to call you a racist. So Zizek calls himself a racist first as a joke, much as a Jew who mocks himself by bestowing slurs upon himself before the anti-Semite does. Zizek and any serious reader knows the statement is anti-statist, not anti-Semitic."

By far the best analysis of the debate over the article by Kirsch is found at the blog Larval Subjects to which contribute a number of scholars. The text below links to one of the entries therein that in turn will lead you to several other pieces:

More Reflections on Zizek and the New Republic Article

"Žižek is a consummate ironist with all of the problems attendant to irony as a.. rhetorical maneuver Žižek strives to effect a sort of transcendence of reigning conditions and ideology, introducing new alternatives into the social system. In this respect, Žižek’s texts can be thought as not unlike Plato’s famous allegory of the cave (which Žižek often references), where the participants, the interlocutors, cease playing the ideological game (trying to name what image will appear on the wall next), and instead leap into an entirely different game.. I attempted to argue that where Badiou’s political strategy consists in the affirmation of an undemonstrable event and the truth-procedures that follow from that declaration, Žižek’s political strategy consists in trying to force the event, to produce the event, or in opening a void space within the hegemony of the ideological structure where new alternatives become available."

Another excellent blog I like to follow, Perverse Egalitarianism, has another view on the article, one by no admirer of Zizek, but nonetheless highly critical of the article:

The New Republic (Finally) Reveals What Zizek "Really Believes"

"An article from the next The New Republic on Zizek finally puts all things Zizek in their places and reveals the secret of “what Zizek really believes” - intrigued?.. He [Kirsh, the NR writer] was being dishonest. What Zizek really believes about America and torture can be seen in his new book, Violence Zizek does not have readers, like other writers, readers who might agree with one point and disagree with another, Zizek has admirers, we are told, who expect a certain type of Zizekian gesture every time they see his name in the print. I am not an admirer of Zizek, I can barely count myself as an attentive reader of Zizek, 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 Zizek, however belated on Kirsch’s part, is exactly the calculated reaction Zizek expects and provokes. Why? How would I know? I’m not Adam Kirsch, I have no idea what Zizek 'really believes'.”

Well, that's a good one. But what about people like me, who do read and admire Zizek - despite my age I confess to be what somebody somewhere writing about Zizek's avid readers derisively calls a Zizek "fan-boy"? A really nice rejoinder from another blog, I Cite, in conclusion:

I Cite: Quick and Dirty: Zizek and NR

"So what, then, is worth considering in the NR piece? Our enjoyment of Zizek.. addresses a point readers of Zizek should acknowledge: our enjoyment. Do we make excuses for it? Or maybe do we acknowledgment as an element of all theoretical and philosophic work.. There is no such thing as pure reason; the very drive for purity produces a stain of enjoyment. To express this stain is not to excuse the obscenity but to acknowledge it, to grapple with it, to hear its call and feel its unbearable pressure.. We might laugh about it. This laughter expresses our unease and discomfort with those obscene dimensions of life we hate to acknowlege, cannot excuse, and must not avoid. The ostensibly pure condemn this expression, and use this condemnation as proof of their purity (a smugness long characteristic of the NR and its writers). But this does not mean that the rest of us can or should write off their remarks as not getting the joke. It's not a joke."

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