Do you see common ground between you and Michel Houellebecq, with his critique of Western liberal societies, combined with no justification for reactionary alternatives like Islamist or Russian ones?
Yes, definitely. Crazy as it may sound, I have much respect for the honest liberal conservatives like Houellebecq, Finkielkraut, or Sloterdijk in Germany. One can learn from them much more than from progressive liberal like Habermas: honest conservatives are not afraid to admit the deadlock we are in. Houellebecqâ€™s Atomised is for me the most devastating portrait of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. He shows how permissive hedonism turns into the obscene superego universe of the obligation to enjoy. Even his anti-Islamism is more refined than it may appear: he is well aware how the true problem is not the Muslim threat from the outside, but our own decadence. Long ago Friedrich Nietzsche perceived how Western civilization was moving in the direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment. Unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security, an expression of tolerance with one another:
A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. â€œWe have discovered happiness,â€ â€” say the Last Men, and they blink.
When todayâ€™s Left bombards the capitalist system with demands that it obviously cannot fulfill (Full employment! Retain the welfare state! Full rights for immigrants!), it is basically playing a game of hysterical provocation, of addressing the Master with a demand which will be impossible for him to meet, and will thus expose his impotence. The problem with this strategy, however, is not only that the system cannot meet these demands, but that, in addition, those who voice them do not really want them to be realized.
For example, when â€˜radicalâ€™ academics demand full rights for immigrants and opening of the borders, are they aware that the direct implementation of this demand would, for obvious reasons, inundate developed Western countries with millions of newcomers, thus provoking a violent working-class racist backlash which would then endanger the privileged position of these very academics? Of course they are, but they count on the fact that their demand will not be met – in this way, they can hypocritically retain their clear radical conscience while continuing to enjoy their privileged position
‘Letâ€™s be realists: we, the academic Left, want to appear critical, while fully enjoying the privileges the system offers us. So letâ€™s bombard the system with impossible demands: we all know that these demands wonâ€™t be met, so we can be sure that nothing will actually change, and weâ€™ll maintain our privileged status!â€™
â€” Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, â€œHappiness after September 11â€³, from Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 75-77.
Still an irredentist Communist himself, philosopher/clown Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek nonetheless refuses to join the rest of the Left in worshiping Fidel.
We all remember the classic scene from cartoons: a cat walks over the precipice and magically goes on, floating in the airâ€”it falls down only when it looks down and becomes aware that it has no ground under its feet. In the same way, one can say that, in the last decades, Cuban â€œsocialismâ€ continued to live only because it didnâ€™t yet notice it was already dead. …
One gets tired of the conflicting stories of the economic failure and human rights abuses in Cuba, as well as of the twins of education and healthcare that are always trotted out by the friends of the revolution. One gets tired even of the really great story of how a small country can resist the biggest superpower (yes, with the help of the other superpower).
The saddest thing about todayâ€™s Cuba is a feature clearly rendered by the crime novels of Cubaâ€™s literary icon Leonardo Padura, which features detective Mario Conde and are set in todayâ€™s Havana. Paduraâ€™s atmosphere is the one not so much of poverty and oppression as of missed chances, of living in a part of the world to a large extent bypassed by the tremendous economic and social changes of the last decades.
All of the above mentioned stories do not change the sad fact that the Cuban revolution did not produce a social model relevant for the eventual Communist future. I visited Cuba a decade ago, and on that visit I found people who proudly showed me houses in decay as a proof of their fidelity to the revolutionary â€œEventâ€: â€œLook, everything is falling apart, we live in poverty, but we are ready to endure it rather than to betray the Revolution!â€ When renunciations themselves are experienced as proof of authenticity, we get what in psychoanalysis is called the logic of castration. The whole Cuban politico-ideological identity rests on the fidelity to castrationâ€”no wonder that the Leader is called Fidel Castro! …
So what about pro-Castro Western Leftists who despise what Cubans themselves call â€œgusanos/worms,â€ those Cubans who emigrated to find a better life? With all sympathy for the Cuban revolution, what right does a typical middle-class Western Leftist, like too many readers of In These Times, have to despise a Cuban who decided to leave Cuba not only because of political disenchantment but also because of poverty? In the same vein, I myself remember from the early 1990s dozens of Western Leftists who proudly threw in my face how, for them, that Yugoslavia (as imagined by Tito) still exists, and reproached me for betraying the unique chance of maintaining Yugoslavia.
To that charge, I answered: I am not yet ready to lead my life so that it will not disappoint the dreams of Western Leftists. Gilles Deleuze wrote somewhere: â€œSi vous etes pris dans le reve de lâ€™atre vous etez foutu!â€â€”If you are caught in the dream of the other youâ€™re ruined. Cuban people paid the price for being caught into the Western leftistsâ€™ dream.
Bertrand Russell on Aristotle
â€œI do not agree with Plato, but if anything could make me do so, it would be Aristotleâ€™s arguments against him.â€
Jean-Paul Sartre on Albert Camus
â€œCamusâ€¦ a mix of melancholy, conceit and vulnerability on your part has always deterred people from telling you unvarnished truths. The result is that you have fallen prey to a gloomy immoderation that conceals your inner difficulties and which you refer to, I believe, as Mediterranean moderation. Sooner or later, someone would have told you this, so it might as well be me.â€
Camille Paglia on Michel Foucault
â€œThe truth is that Foucault knew very little about anything before the seventeenth century and, in the modern world, outside France. His familiarity with the literature and art of any period was negligible. His hostility to psychology made him incompetent to deal with sexuality, his own or anybody elseâ€™s. â€¦ The more you know, the less you are impressed by Foucault.â€ …
Bertrand Russell on Georg Hegel
â€œHegelâ€™s philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get sane men to accept it, but he did. He set it out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious.â€
Noam Chomsky on Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek
â€œThereâ€™s no â€˜theoryâ€™ in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to findâ€¦ some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a 12-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I canâ€™t. So Iâ€™m not interested in that kind of posturing. Å½iÅ¾ek is an extreme example of it. I donâ€™t see anything to what heâ€™s saying.â€
Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek on Noam Chomsky
â€œWell, with all deep respect that I do have for Chomsky, myâ€¦ point is that Chomsky, who always emphasizes how one has to be empirical, accurateâ€¦ well, I donâ€™t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong.â€
Karl Popper on Ludwig Wittgenstein
â€œNot to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.â€ (On being challenged by a poker-wielding Wittgenstein to produce an example of a moral rule; the discussion degenerated quickly from there.)
Karl Popper on Martin Heidegger
â€œI appeal to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger. This man was a devil. I mean, he behaved like a devil to his beloved teacher, and he has a devilish influence on Germanyâ€¦ One has to read Heidegger in the original to see what a swindler he was.â€
Arthur Schopenhauer on Georg Hegel
â€œHegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense.â€
Marxism’s clown philosopher offers his own take on the great libertarian novelist.
His supposed aperÃ§u is just a typical bit of Slavonic verbal acrobatics. Rand’s philosophy is “an embarrassment” only in the sense that it is a direct contradiction of 2000 years of Judeo-Christian ethical prescription thereby flying in the face of deeply-ingrained cultural assumptions.
It is amusing though to see the characteristically-indiscreet Å½iÅ¾ek freely acknowledging the extent of Rand’s influence in a perverse sort of outlaw solidarity.
The problem for the hysteric is how to distinguish what he or she is (his true desire) from what others see and desire in him or her. This brings us to another of Lacan’s formulas, that “man’s desire is the other’s desire.” For Lacan, the fundamental impasse of human desire is that it is the other’s desire in both subjective and objective genitive: desire for the other, desire to be desired by the other, and, especially, desire for what the other desires. Envy and resentment are a constitutive component of human desire, as already Augustin knew it so well – recall the passage from his Confessions, often quoted by Lacan, which describes a baby jealous of his brother sucking the mother’s breast: “I myself have seen and known an infant to be jealous though it could not speak. It became pale, and cast bitter looks on its foster-brother.” Based on this insight, Jean-Pierre Dupuy proposed a convincing critique of John Rawls theory of justice: in the Rawls’ model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated only insofar as they also help those at the bottom of the social ladder, and insofar as they are not based on inherited hierarchies, but on natural inequalities, which are considered contingent, not merits. What Rawls doesn’t see is how such a society would create conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of resentment: in it, I would know that my lower status is fully justified, and would be deprived of excusing my failure as the result of social injustice.
Rawls proposes a terrifying model of a society in which hierarchy is directly legitimized in natural properties, missing the simple lesson of an anecdote about a Slovene peasant who is told by a good witch: “I will do to you whatever you want, but I warn you, I will do it to your neighbor twice!” The peasant, with a cunning smile, asks her: “Take one of my eyes!” No wonder that even today’s conservatives are ready to endorse Rawls’s notion of justice: in December 2005, David Cameron, the newly elected leader of the British Conservatives, signaled his intention to turn the Conservative Party into a defender of the underprivileged, declaring how “I think the test of all our policies should be: what does it do for the people who have the least, the people on the bottom rung of the ladder.” Even Friedrich Hayek.
Lacan shares with Nietzsche and Freud the idea that justice as equality is founded on envy: the envy of the other who has what we do not have, and who enjoys it. The demand for justice is ultimately the demand that the excessive enjoyment of the other should be curtailed, so that everyone’s access to enjoyment will be equal. The necessary outcome of this demand, of course, is ascetism: since it is not possible to impose equal enjoyment, what one can impose is the equally shared prohibition. However, one should not forget that today, in our allegedly permissive society, this ascetism assumes precisely the form of its opposite, of the generalized injunction “Enjoy!”. We are all under the spell of this injunction, with the outcome that our enjoyment is more hindered than ever – recall the yuppie who combines Narcissistic Self-Fulfillment with utter ascetic discipline of jogging and eating health food. This, perhaps, is what Nietzsche had in mind with his notion of the Last Man – it is only today that we can really discern the contours of the Last Man, in the guise of the predominant hedonistic ascetism. In today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol… and the list goes on. What about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness (the idealized Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight)? Virtual reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance, of the resisting hard kernel of the Real – in the same way decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like real coffee without being the real one, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being one. Everything is permitted, you can enjoy everything – on condition that it is deprived of the substance which makes it dangerous.
Jenny Holzer’s famous truism “Protect me from what I want” renders in a very precise way the fundamental ambiguity of the hysterical position.
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.
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. …