Adam Kirsch, in the New Republic, warns of the rise of another philosophic defender of bad causes, one who has perfected the technique of using a soupÃ§on of wit to disguise the real flavor of the Communism.
The curious thing about the Zizek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror–especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose “lost causes” Zizek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes–the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult. A glance at the blurbs on his books provides a vivid illustration of the power of repressive tolerance. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Zizek claims, “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy”; but on the back cover of the book we are told that Zizek is “a stimulating writer” who “will entertain and offend, but never bore.” In The Fragile Absolute, he writes that “the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred”; but this is an example of his “typical brio and boldness.” And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Zizek remarks that “Heidegger is ‘great’ not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement,” and that “crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough”; but this book, its publisher informs us, is “a witty, adrenalinfueled manifesto for universal values.”
In the same witty book Zizek laments that “this is how the establishment likes its ‘subversive’ theorists: harmless gadflies who sting us and thus awaken us to the inconsistencies and imperfections of our democratic enterprise–God forbid that they might take the project seriously and try to live it.” How is it, then, that Slavoj Zizek, who wants not to correct democracy but to destroy it, has been turned into one of the establishment’s pet subversives, who “tries to live” the revolution most completely as a jet-setting professor at the European Graduate School, a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana’s Institute of Sociology, and the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities?
A part of the answer has to do with Zizek’s enthusiasm for American popular culture. Despite the best attempts of critical theory to demystify American mass entertainment, to lay bare the political subtext of our movies and pulp fiction and television shows, pop culture remains for most Americans apolitical and anti-political–a frivolous zone of entertainment and distraction. So when the theory-drenched Zizek illustrates his arcane notions with examples from Nip/ Tuck and Titanic, he seems to be signaling a suspension of earnestness. The effect is quite deliberate. In The Metastases of Enjoyment, for instance, he writes that “Jurassic Park is a chamber drama about the trauma of fatherhood in the style of the early Antonioni or Bergman.” Elsewhere he asks, “Is Parsifal not a model for Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, with Laurence Fishburne in the role of Gurnemanz?” Those are laugh lines, and they cunningly disarm the anxious or baffled reader with their playfulness. They relieve his reader with an expectation of comic hyperbole, and this expectation is then carried over to Zizek’s political proclamations, which are certainly hyperbolic but not at all comic.
When, in 1994, during the siege of Sarajevo, Zizek wrote that “there is no difference” between life in that city and life in any American or Western European city, that “it is no longer possible to draw a clear and unambiguous line of separation between us who live in a ‘true’ peace and the residents of Sarajevo”–well, it was only natural for readers to think that he did not really mean it, just as he did not really mean that Jurassic Park is like a Bergman movie. This intellectual promiscuity is the privilege of the licensed jester, of the man whom The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed “the Elvis of cultural theory.”
In person, too, Zizek plays the jester with practiced skill. Every journalist who sits down to interview him comes away with a smile on his face. Robert Boynton, writing in Lingua Franca in 1998, found Zizek “bearded, disheveled, and loud … like central casting’s pick for the role of Eastern European Intellectual.” Boynton was amused to see the manic, ranting philosopher order mint tea and sugar cookies: “‘Oh, I can’t drink anything stronger than herbal tea in the afternoon,’ he says meekly. ‘Caffeine makes me too nervous.'” The intellectual parallel is quite clear: in life, as in his writing, Zizek is all bark and no bite. Like a naughty child who flashes an irresistible grin, it is impossible to stay angry at him for long.
I witnessed the same deception a few weeks ago, when Zizek appeared with Bernard-Henri LÃ©vy at the New York Public Library. The two philosopher-celebrities came on stage to the theme music from Superman, and their personae were so perfectly opposed that they did indeed nudge each other into cartoonishness: LÃ©vy was all the more Gallic and debonair next to Zizek, who seemed all the more wild-eyed and Slavic next to LÃ©vy. Thus it was perfectly natural for the audience to erupt in laughter when Zizek, at one point in the generally unacrimonious evening, told LÃ©vy: “Don’t be afraid–when we take over you will not go to the Gulag, just two years of reeducation camp.” Solzhenitsyn had died only a few weeks earlier, but it would have been a kind of betise to identify Zizek’s Gulag with Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. When the audience laughed, it was playing into his hands, and hewing to the standard line on Zizek, which Rebecca Mead laid down in a profile of him in The New Yorker a few years ago: “Always to take Slavoj Zizek seriously would be to make a category mistake.”
Whether or not it would be always a mistake to take Slavoj Zizek seriously, surely it would not be a mistake to take him seriously just once. He is, after all, a famous and influential thinker. So it might be worthwhile to consider Zizek’s work as if he means it–to ask what his ideas really are, and what sort of effects they are likely to have.
Zizek is a believer in the Revolution at a time when almost nobody, not even on the left, thinks that such a cataclysm is any longer possible or even desirable. This is his big problem, and also his big opportunity. While “socialism” remains a favorite hate-word for the Republican right, the prospect of communism overthrowing capitalism is now so remote, so fantastic, that nobody feels strongly moved to oppose it, as conservatives and liberal anticommunists opposed it in the 1930s, the 1950s, and even the 1980s. When Zizek turns up speaking the classical language of Marxism-Leninism, he profits from the assumption that the return of ideas that were once the cause of tragedy can now occur only in the form of farce. In the visual arts, the denaturing of what were once passionate and dangerous icons has become commonplace, so that emblems of evil are transformed into perverse fun, harmless but very profitable statements of post-ideological camp. …