24 November 2008

"The Most Despicable Philosopher in the West"

When I found the latest New Republic in my mailbox, I noticed a blurb in the bottom left corner of the cover advertising an article about "The Most Despicable Philosopher in the West." I didn't even need to open the magazine to the table of contents to know that Adam Kirsch was writing about Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian critic best known for his practice of illustrating nuances of Lacanian psychology or political science with examples from popular movies or TV shows. That practice alone might mark him as a twit for some people, but Zizek asks for stronger condemnation because he dares to call for revolutionary violence -- revolutionary terror, in fact -- toward the overthrow of liberal democracy.

You can read the review here, but I needn't discuss it in detail. Kirsch appears to be a classic liberal, and from his perspective Zizek can only be an abomination. But as long as Kirsch is content to portray Zizek as someone with mass murder on his mind, why can't we characterize liberals like Kirsch as creatures of infinite complacency, the sort who can tolerate unlimited suffering by countless people so long as they don't have to kill someone. Perhaps he's the kind that can stand it when a system or a society kills people, but can't when another man does, for whatever motive. Maybe he's a pacifist, someone who believes that all the world's problems can be solved through the tactics of Gandhi and King, or that all the world's problems have been solved by those tactics. And maybe he thinks that, if or when those tactics fail, there's nothing left to do but suffer gracefully -- better that than to coerce someone!

I've been playing the devil's advocate here, but that's part of what I've learned from reading some of Zizek's books. He's the sort of thinker who, when someone declares certain acts or notions intolerable, will wonder what that person does or will tolerate. I'm not ready to march under his banner -- his idea of radical human emancipation remains nebulous to me -- but I find him useful and invigorating because he challenges readers to look at seemingly straightforward positions from different angles. It's his view that conventional liberal morality overlooks or acquiesces in quite a bit of immorality or injustice, and it's no answer to his argument to call him a totalitarian -- which is pretty much all that Kirsch does. I take that back. This being The New Republic, it's probably no surprise that he also calls Zizek an anti-Semite.

Zizek outrages many liberals because he dares speak out in the name of Humanity or "the People." He really seems to believe in an imperative for people to become "the People," however totalitarian that prospect might sound to some folks. He suggests that "the People" (and these are my quotation marks, not his) will find itself through revolutionary commitment, which can take the form of "divine violence" and terror in the revolutionary sense of the world -- an effort to force people to become "the People." Zizek has read and seen too much history to assume that all this is inevitable, or to think that success is assured. He infuriates right-minded writers like Kirsch, however, by daring to assert that, despite past failures, revolution the way the French did it, the way Lenin did it, is worth trying again, and should be tried again in order to succeed where the French and the Bolsheviks failed. He does not assume that we'll succeed next time, or ever; he concedes sometimes that there will always be conflict in human society. But he insists that people can attain their highest state of moral commitment by trying just the same for the goal of radical emancipation. If you're going to argue against that, you have to come up with something better than "thousands of people could die" because, as I said, thousands of people die preventable deaths due to poverty every day. You also have to do better than vowing not to kill people as means to an end, because the logical end of that train of thought is one selfish person sitting on the track and blocking everybody else's path, forever. When is it wrong to force him out of the way? When is it right? And when is it right to run him over? If you declare such questions off limits, you're in some way limiting human progress. I'm sure Adam Kirsch doesn't see himself that way, but that's why he should read Zizek more carefully instead of just picking out passages to condemn.

But again, you can't rule out the possibility that Zizek himself is just nuts. Try this sample on for size. There's plenty more like it out there.

4 comments:

crhymethinc said...

He's pretty difficult to understand at times. His idea of what quantum physics is, is not even close to being correct. I don't know that he's clinically "insane", but that boy ain't quite right. But then, how many philosophers are?

I really wonder though, if there were a revolution and he were pulled out on the street and shot, what his last thought would be?

Revolution may become necessary to destroy and old order which is no longer useful, but the revolution in and of itself will not solve problems. The problems facing the human race today can only be solved by each individual person making the choice to NOT do "bad". And for society as a whole to make the decision that it will no longer stand idly by and allow individuals to do "bad".

Better to drag offenders out on the street and publicly execute them than to commit to a revolution, which will also cause death, destruction and chaos, but on a much wider scale than simple vigilantism.

bigbadbull said...

What is your evidence that his view on quantum physics is incorrect? This is simply a set of assertions. As far as your description of revolution--I don't think Zizek would disagree. All of his provocations--and he is indeed a VERY self conscious performer--are designed to move his readers beyond the masturbatory indulgence of individualism, especially in its so-called progressive incarnations, and towards a politics that addresses itself to the structural totality. One can be concerned with the totality, to be totalitarian in the dimension of analysis, without necessarily being against personal liberties, etc.

Samuel Wilson said...

The two comments so far raise a lot of questions. Like Crhymethinc, I wonder whether Zizek believes that revolution is an end in itself, that it's the act of revolution, not any particular result, that accomplishes the "emancipation" he seems to desire. As to his response if the revolution turns on him, Zizek has cited Robespierre as a model for his willingness to face anything the revolution dishes out rather than be afraid of revolution because of its potential consequences. "Bigbadbull" is right to stress Zizek's emphasis on interaction over individualism as the true human condition, as well as his commitment to provocation. But while the poster states correctly that a concern with "totality" doesn't "necessarily" rule out personal liberty, that statement alone doesn't automatically absolve Zizek of the charges against him.

crhymethinc said...

His take on quantum physics seems to be that the universe is a void---that nothing exists, and then matter just "pops" into existence. That doesn't jibe with what most theoretical physicists say. Yes, the overwhelming majority of the universe is empty space, but matter does not just appear randomly out of nothingness, which is what Zizek seems to be saying. Of course, given his inability to speak English very well, I could be misunderstanding what he is saying.