The "violence" of Slavoj Zizek
rabble.ca editor Derrick O'Keefe tipped me off to this assault on Slovenian philosopher and rock star Slavoj Žižek by John Gray in The New York Review of Books. Gray--the British Conservatives go-to philosopher--takes exception to what he detects is a current of violence undergirding Žižek's work. Highlighting a few passages which appear -- in the review anyway -- to support, praise or recommend the program of violence employed by Mao, Pol Pot and Hitler, Gray warns of the dangerous radicalism Žižek encourages even as he critiques it for its poststructuralist jargon and isolation from actual political practice. Interested babblers should read the whole article, but here are a few choice excerpts:
While he rejects Marx’s conception of communism, Žižek devotes none of the over one thousand pages of Less Than Nothing to specifying the economic system or institutions of government that would feature in a communist society of the kind he favors....unlike Marx he does not aim to ground his theorizing in a reading of history that is based in facts. “Today’s historical juncture does not compel us to drop the notion of the proletariat, or of the proletarian position—on the contrary, it compels us to radicalize it to an existential level beyond even Marx’s imagination,” he writes. “We need a more radical notion of the proletarian subject [i.e., the thinking and acting human being], a subject reduced to the evanescent point of the Cartesian cogito, deprived of its substantial content.” In Žižek’s hands, Marxian ideas—which in Marx’s materialist view were meant to designate objective social facts—become subjective expressions of revolutionary commitment. Whether such ideas correspond to anything in the world is irrelevant.
Note Gray's quiet sneers at Žižek's philosophical approach ("But to criticize Žižek for neglecting these facts is to misunderstand his intent..."); it's typical of Gray's style thoughout.
A celebration of violence is one of the most prominent strands in Žižek’s work. He finds fault with Marx for thinking that violence can be justified as part of the conflict between objectively defined social classes. Class war must not be understood as “a conflict between particular agents within social reality: it is not a difference between agents (which can be described by means of a detailed social analysis), but an antagonism (‘struggle’) which constitutes these agents.” ...
Žižek’s rejection of anything that might be described as social fact comes together with his admiration of violence in his interpretation of Nazism. Commenting on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s much-discussed involvement with the Nazi regime, Žižek writes: “His involvement with the Nazis was not a simple mistake, but rather a ‘right step in the wrong direction.’” Contrary to many interpretations, Heidegger was not a radical reactionary. “Reading Heidegger against the grain, one discovers a thinker who was, at some points, strangely close to communism”—indeed, during the mid-Thirties, Heidegger might be described as “a future communist.”
If Heidegger mistakenly chose to back Hitler, the mistake was not in underestimating the violence that Hitler would unleash:Quote:The problem with Hitler was that he was “not violent enough,” his violence was not “essential” enough. Hitler did not really act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, for he acted so that nothing would really change, staging a gigantic spectacle of pseudo-Revolution so that the capitalist order would survive…. The true problem of Nazism is not that it “went too far” in its subjectivist-nihilist hubris of exercising total power, but that it did not go far enough, that its violence was an impotent acting-out which, ultimately, remained in the service of the very order it despised.
What was wrong with Nazism, it seems, is that—like the later experiment in total revolution of the Khmer Rouge—it failed to create any new kind of collective life.
Yikes. Having read a great deal of Žižek, I had an idea of what Gray was up to here, and how he got this passage entirely wrong (and probably deliberately), but I'll leave Žižek to defend himself. Here is his response to Gray's invective:
If I am repelled by John Gray’s review of my two last books ('The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek', New York Review of Books, July 12 2012), it is not because the review is highly critical of my work, but because its arguments are based on such a crude misreading of my position that, if I were to answer it in detail, I would have to spend way too much time just answering insinuations and setting straight the misunderstandings of my position, not to mention direct false statements – which is, for an author, one of the most boring exercises imaginable. So I will limit myself to one paradigmatic example which mixes theoretical dismissal with moral indignation; it concerns anti-Semitism and is worth quoting in detail [the above passage]
The mutual implication is not between the Nazis and the Jews, but between the Nazis and their own anti-Semitic fantasy: "you take away the anti-Semitic fantasy, and the subject whose fantasy it is itself disintegrates." The point is not that Jews and anti-Semites are somehow co-dependent, so that the only way to get rid of the Nazis is to get rid of the Jews, but that the identity of a Nazi depends on his anti-Semitic fantasy: the Nazi is “in the Jew” in the sense that his own identity is grounded in his fantasy of the Jew. Gray’s insinuation that I somehow imply the need for the annihilation of the Jews is thus a ridiculously-monstrous obscenity which only serves the base motifs of discrediting the opponent by ascribing him some kind of sympathy for the most terrifying crime of the XXth century.
So when Gray writes that “Žižek says little regarding the nature of the form of life that might have come into being had Germany been governed by a regime less reactive and powerless than he judges Hitler’s to have been,” he is simply not telling the truth: what I point out is that such a “form of life” would precisely not have the need to look for a scapegoat like the Jews. Instead of killing millions of Jews, a regime “less reactive and powerless than he judges Hitler’s to have been” would, for example, transform social relations of production so that they would lose their antagonistic character. This is the “violence” I am preaching, the violence in which no blood has to be shed. It is the utterly destructive violence of Hitler, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge, which is for me “reactive and powerless.” It is in this simple sense that I consider Gandhi more violent that Hitler.
I've mentioned this distinction before on babble, but basically Žižek sees a difference between what he calls "subjective" violence which is the usual person to person violence and "objective" violence, which is the bloodless violence pereptuated by state apparatuses or economic systems we inhabit. The former is "reactive and powerless" in the sense that an abusive father is powerless and weak, since there is something pathetic about someone who needs to beat a child under his care. Real power, Žižek would say, is the father or figure who just needs to look at his children to get them to do as they're told. That's the kind of power Žižek says we need to do violence against the structures which oppress us -- like anti-Semitism -- in a bloodless but truly powerful way.
Anyway, I was prompted to start this thread by Derrick, so hopefully he drops by to discuss. But I know there are many babblers who have strong opinions on Žižek, so we can turn this thread into a catch-all on the Slovenian wunderkind, a punching bag for postmodernism beefs, or a pointed discussion about the opposition opened up between Gray and Žižek.