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The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek

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The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek


by John Grey


The New York Review of Books






Slavoj Žižek at his apartment in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2010



Few thinkers illustrate the contradictions of contemporary capitalism better than the Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek. The financial and economic crisis has demonstrated the fragility of the free market system that its defenders believed had triumphed in the cold war; but there is no sign of anything resembling the socialist project that in the past was seen by many as embodying capitalism’s successor. Žižek’s work, which reflects this paradoxical situation in a number of ways, has made him one of the world’s best-known public intellectuals.


Born and educated in Ljubljana, the capital of the People’s Republic of Slovenia in the former Yugoslav federation until the federal state began to break up and Slovenia declared independence in 1990, Žižek has held academic positions in Britain, America, and Western Europe as well as in Slovenia. His prodigious output (over sixty volumes since his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, was published in 1989), innumerable articles and interviews, together with films such as Žižek! (2005) and The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), have given him a presence that extends far beyond the academy. Well attuned to popular culture, particularly film, he has a following among young people in many countries, including those of post-Communist Europe. He has a journal dedicated to his work—International Journal of Žižek Studies, founded in 2007—whose readership is registered via Facebook, and in October 2011 he addressed members of the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park in New York, an event that was widely reported and can be viewed on YouTube.


Žižek’s wide influence does not mean that his philosophical and political standpoint can be easily defined. A member of the Communist Party of Slovenia until he resigned in 1988, Žižek had difficult relations with the Party authorities for many years owing to his interest in what they viewed as heterodox ideas. In 1990 he stood as a presidential candidate for Liberal Democracy of Slovenia, a party of the center left that was the dominant political force in the country for the rest of the decade; but liberal ideas, aside from serving as a reference point for positions he rejects, have never shaped his thinking.


Žižek was dismissed from his first university teaching post in the early 1970s, when the Slovenian authorities judged a thesis he had written on French structuralism—then an influential movement in anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, and philosophy claiming that human thought and behavior exemplify a universal system of interrelated principles—to be “non-Marxist.” The episode demonstrated the limited nature of the intellectual liberalization that was being promoted in the country at the time, but Žižek’s later work suggests that the authorities were right in judging that his intellectual orientation was not Marxian. Throughout the enormous corpus of work he has since built up, Marx is criticized for being insufficiently radical in his rejection of existing modes of thought, while Hegel—a much greater influence on Žižek—is praised for being willing to lay aside classical logic in order to develop a more dialectical way of thinking. But Hegel is also criticized for having too great an attachment to traditional modes of reasoning, and a central theme of Žižek’s writings is the need to shed the commitment to intellectual objectivity that has guided radical thinkers in the past.


Žižek’s work sets itself in opposition to Marx on many issues. For all he owed to Hegelian metaphysics, Marx was also an empirical thinker who tried to frame theories about the actual course of historical development. It was not the abstract idea of revolution with which he was primarily concerned, but a revolutionary project involving specific and radical alterations in economic institutions and power relations.


Žižek shows little interest in these aspects of Marx’s thinking. Aiming “to repeat the Marxist ‘critique of political economy’ without the utopian-ideological notion of communism as its inherent standard,” he believes that “the twentieth-century communist project was utopian precisely insofar as it was not radical enough.” As Žižek sees it, Marx’s understanding of communism was partly responsible for this failure: “Marx’s notion of the communist society is itself the inherent capitalist fantasy; that is, a fantasmatic scenario for resolving the capitalist antagonisms he so aptly described.”


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. In effect a compendium of Žižek’s work to date, Less Than Nothing is devoted instead to reinterpreting Marx by way of Hegel—one of the book’s sections is called “Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx”—and reformulating Hegelian philosophy by reference to the thought of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.


A “post-structuralist” who rejected the belief that reality can be captured in language, Lacan also rejected the standard interpretation of Hegel’s idea of “the cunning of reason,” according to which world history is the realization by oblique and indirect means of reason in human life. For Lacan as Žižek summarizes him, “The Cunning of Reason…in no way involves a faith in a secret guiding hand guaranteeing that all the apparent contingency of unreason will somehow contribute to the harmony of the Totality of Reason: if anything, it involves a trust in un-Reason.” On this Lacanian reading, the message of Hegel’s philosophy is not the progressive unfolding of rationality in history but instead the impotence of reason.


The Hegel that emerges in Žižek’s writings thus bears little resemblance to the idealist philosopher who features in standard histories of thought. Hegel is commonly associated with the idea that history has an inherent logic in which ideas are embodied in practice and then left behind in a dialectical process in which they are transcended by their opposites. Drawing on the contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou, Žižek radicalizes this idea of dialectic to mean the rejection of the logical principle of noncontradiction, so that rather than seeing rationality at work in history, Hegel rejects reason itself as it has been understood in the past. Implicit in Hegel (according to Žižek) is a new kind of “paraconsistent logic” in which a proposition “is not really suppressed by its negation.” This new logic, Žižek suggests, is well suited to understanding capitalism today. “Is not ‘postmodern’ capitalism an increasingly paraconsistent system,” he asks rhetorically, “in which, in a variety of modes, P is non-P: the order is its own transgression, capitalism can thrive under communist rule, and so on?”


Living in the End Times is presented by Žižek as being concerned with this situation. Summarizing the book’s central theme, he writes:


The underlying premise of the present book is a simple one: the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its “four riders of the apocalypse” are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.


With its sweeping claims and magniloquent rhetoric, this passage is typical of much in Žižek’s work. What he describes as the premise of the book is simple only because it passes over historical facts. Reading it, no one would suspect that, putting aside the killings of many millions for ideological reasons, some of the last century’s worst ecological disasters—the destruction of nature in the former Soviet Union and the devastation of the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, for example—occurred in centrally planned economies. Ecological devastation is not a result only of the economic system that exists in much of the world at the present time; while it may be true that the prevailing version of capitalism is unsustainable in environmental terms, there is nothing in the history of the past century that suggests the environment will be better protected if a socialist system is installed.


But to criticize Žižek for neglecting these facts is to misunderstand his intent, for 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.


There is a problem at this point, however: Why should anyone adopt Žižek’s ideas rather than any others? The answer cannot be that Žižek’s are true in any traditional sense. “The truth we are dealing with here is not ‘objective’ truth,” Žižek writes, “but the self-relating truth about one’s own subjective position; as such, it is an engaged truth, measured not by its factual accuracy but by the way it affects the subjective position of enunciation.”


If this means anything, it is that truth is determined by reference to how an idea accords with the projects to which the speaker is committed—in Žižek’s case, a project of revolution. But this only poses the problem at another level: Why should anyone adopt Žižek’s project? The question cannot be answered in any simple way, since it is far from clear what Žižek’s revolutionary project consists in. He shows no signs of doubting that a society in which communism was realized would be better than any that has ever existed. On the other hand, he is unable to envision any circumstances in which communism might be realized: “Capitalism is not just a historical epoch among others….


Francis Fukuyama was right: global capitalism is ‘the end of history.’”1 Communism is not for Žižek—as it was for Marx—a realizable condition, but what Badiou describes as a “hypothesis,” a conception with little positive content but that enables radical resistance against prevailing institutions. Žižek is insistent that such resistance must include the use of terror:

Badiou’s provocative idea that one should reinvent emancipatory terror today is one of his most profound insights…. Recall Badiou’s exalted defense of Terror in the French Revolution, in which he quotes the justification of the guillotine for Lavoisier: “The Republic has no need for scientists.”


Along with Badiou, Žižek celebrates Mao’s Cultural Revolution as “the last truly great revolutionary explosion of the twentieth century.” But he also regards the Cultural Revolution as a failure, citing Badiou’s conclusion that “the Cultural Revolution, even in its very impasse, bears witness to the impossibility truly and globally to free politics from the framework of the party-State.”3 Mao in encouraging the Cultural Revolution evidently should have found a way to break the power of the party-state. Again, Žižek praises the Khmer Rouge for attempting a total break with the past. The attempt involved mass killing and torture on a colossal scale; but in his view that is not why it failed: “The Khmer Rouge were, in a way, not radical enough: while they took the abstract negation of the past to the limit, they did not invent any new form of collectivity.” (Here and elsewhere the italics are Žižek’s.) A genuine revolution may be impossible in present circumstances, or any that can be currently imagined. Even so, revolutionary violence should be celebrated as “redemptive,” even “divine.”


While Žižek has described himself as a Leninist,4 there can be no doubt that this position would be anathema to the Bolshevik leader. Lenin had no qualms in using terror in order to promote the cause of communism (for him, a practically attainable objective). Always deployed as part of a political strategy, violence was instrumental in nature. In contrast, though Žižek accepts that violence has failed to achieve its communist goals and has no prospect of doing so, he insists that revolutionary violence has intrinsic value as a symbolic expression of rebellion—a position that has no parallel in either Marx or Lenin. A precedent may be seen in the work of the French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who defended the use of violence against colonialism as an assertion of the identity of subjects of colonial power; but Fanon viewed this violence as part of a struggle for national independence, an objective that was in fact achieved.


A clearer precedent can be found in the work of the early-twentieth-century French theorist of syndicalism Georges Sorel. In Reflections on Violence (1908), Sorel argued that communism was a utopian myth—but a myth that had value in inspiring a morally regenerative revolt against the corruption of bourgeois society. The parallels between this view and Žižek’s account of “redemptive violence” inspired by the “communist hypothesis” are telling.


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.” Applying this view when discussing Stalin’s assault on the peasantry, Žižek describes how the distinction between kulaks (rich peasants) and others became “blurred and unworkable: in a situation of generalized poverty, clear criteria no longer applied, and the other two classes of peasants often joined the kulaks in their resistance to forced collectivization.” In response to this situation the Soviet authorities introduced a new category, the sub-kulak, a peasant too poor to be classified as a kulak but who shared kulak values:


The art of identifying a kulak was thus no longer a matter of objective social analysis; it became a kind of complex “hermeneutics of suspicion,” of identifying an individual’s “true political attitudes” hidden beneath his or her deceptive public proclamations.


Describing mass murder in this way as an exercise in hermeneutics is repugnant and grotesque; it is also characteristic of Žižek’s work. He criticizes Stalin’s policy of collectivization, but not on account of the millions of human lives that were violently truncated or broken in its course. What Žižek criticizes is Stalin’s lingering attachment (however inconsistent or hypocritical) to “‘scientific’ Marxist terms.” Relying on “objective social analysis” for guidance in revolutionary situations is an error: “at some point, the process has to be cut short with a massive and brutal intervention of subjectivity: class belonging is never a purely objective social fact, but is always also the result of struggle and social engagement.” Rather than Stalin’s relentless use of torture and lethal force, it is the fact that he tried to justify the systematic use of violence by reference to Marxian theory that Žižek condemns.


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:


The problem with Hitler was that
he was “not violent enough
,” his violence was not “essential” enough. Hitler did
really act, all his actions were fundamentally
, 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
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. 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 does make plain that there would be no room in this new life for one particular form of human identity:


The fantasmatic status of anti- Semitism is clearly revealed by a statement attributed to Hitler: “We have to kill the Jew within us.” …Hitler’s statement says more than it wants to say: against his intentions, it confirms that the Gentiles need the anti-Semitic figure of the “Jew” in order to maintain their identity. It is thus not only that “the Jew is within us”—what Hitler fatefully forgot to add is that
he, the anti-Semite, is also in the Jew
. What does this paradoxical entwinement mean for the destiny of anti-Semitism?


Žižek is explicit in censuring “certain elements of the radical Left” for “their uneasiness when it comes to unambiguously condemning anti-Semitism.” But it is difficult to understand the claim that the identities of anti-Semites and Jewish people are in some way mutually reinforcing—which is repeated, word for word, in Less Than Nothing—except as suggesting that the only world in which anti-Semitism can cease to exist is one in which there are no longer any Jews.


Interpreting Žižek on this or any issue is not without difficulties. There is his inordinate prolixity, the stream of texts that no one could read in their entirety, if only because the torrent never ceases flowing. There is his use of a type of academic jargon featuring allusive references to other thinkers, which has the effect of enabling him to use language in an artful, hermetic way. As he acknowledges, Žižek borrows the term “divine violence” from Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (1921). It is doubtful whether Benjamin—a thinker who had important affinities with the Frankfurt School of humanistic Marxism—would have described the destructive frenzy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution or the Khmer Rouge as divine.


But this is beside the point, for by using Benjamin’s construction Žižek is able to praise violence and at the same time claim that he is speaking of violence in a special, recondite sense—a sense in which Gandhi can be described as being more violent than Hitler.5 And there is Žižek’s regular recourse to a laborious kind of clowning wordplay:


The…virtualization of capitalism is ultimately the same as that of the electron in particle physics. The mass of each elementary particle is composed of its mass at rest plus the surplus provided by the acceleration of its movement; however, an electron’s mass at rest is zero, its mass consists only of the surplus generated by the acceleration, as if we are dealing with a nothing which acquires some deceptive substance only by magically spinning itself into an excess of itself.


It is impossible to read this without recalling the Sokal affair in which Alan Sokal, a professor of physics, submitted a spoof article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” to a journal of postmodern cultural studies. Equally, it is hard to read this and many similar passages in Žižek without suspecting that he is engaged—wittingly or otherwise—in a kind of auto-parody.


There may be some who are tempted to condemn Žižek as a philosopher of irrationalism whose praise of violence is more reminiscent of the far right than the radical left. His writings are often offensive and at times (as when he writes of Hitler being present “in the Jew”) obscene. There is a mocking frivolity in Žižek’s paeans to terror that recalls the Italian Futurist and ultra-nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Fascist (and later Maoist) fellow traveler Curzio Malaparte more than any thinker in the Marxian tradition. But there is another reading of Žižek, which may be more plausible, in which he is no more an epigone of the right than he is a disciple of Marx or Lenin.

Whether or not Marx’s vision of communism is “the inherent capitalist fantasy,” Žižek’s vision—which apart from rejecting earlier conceptions lacks any definite content—is well adapted to an economy based on the continuous production of novel commodities and experiences, each supposed to be different from any that has gone before. With the prevailing capitalist order aware that it is in trouble but unable to conceive of practicable alternatives, Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility. That there should be this isomorphism between Žižek’s thinking and contemporary capitalism is not surprising. After all, it is only an economy of the kind that exists today that could produce a thinker such as Žižek. The role of global public intellectual Žižek performs has emerged along with a media apparatus and a culture of celebrity that are integral to the current model of capitalist expansion.


In a stupendous feat of intellectual overproduction Žižek has created a fantasmatic critique of the present order, a critique that claims to repudiate practically everything that currently exists and in some sense actually does, but that at the same time reproduces the compulsive, purposeless dynamism that he perceives in the operations of capitalism. Achieving a deceptive substance by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision, Žižek’s work—nicely illustrating the principles of paraconsistent logic—amounts in the end to less than nothing.

  1. 1
    Slavoj Žižek, “Have Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Rewritten the Communist Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century?,” Rethinking Marxism: a Journal of Economics, Culture and Society, Vol. 13, No. 3–4 (2001), p. 190.
  2. 2
    Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View ( MIT Press, 2006), p. 326.
  3. 3
    Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 328.
  4. 4
    I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it.” Quoted by Jonathan Derbyshire, New Statesman, October 29, 2009.
  5. 5
    “It’s crucial to see violence which is done repeatedly to keep the things the way they are. In that sense, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.” See Shobhan Saxena’s interview with Žižek, “ First they called me a joker, now I am a dangerous thinker,” The Times of India, January 10, 2010.

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