Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Slavoj Žižek: great philosopher or frivolous highbrow "concern troll"?

It's only relatively recently that I've read anything by the Slovenian Slavoj Žižek or head any of his speeches or in interviews. He is typically described as a "Marxist". But he has always struck me as more of a neoconservative sort, if not some kind of reactionary. Kind of a Marxist version of the "concern troll".

It always particularly bothered me that Žižek makes a point of saying that Stalin was worse than Hitler, a stock argument used by those seeking to minimize the horrors of Nazism. And, as José Pablo Feinmann reminds us, Stalinism was a feature of a society organized around non-capitalist lines, a social state that is arguably today only the case for China, Cuba and North Korea; and even in China something very much like capitalism predominates in the economy. Hitler's National Socialism, on the other hand, was very much a product of a capitalist society, something of which he have no scarcity today. And in fact it was a form of state terror organized to defend the capitalist system and the established class structure in Germany. A distinction which even stating a superficial equivalence between Stalinism and German National Socialism obscures.

John Gray seems to also think Žižek is a bit of a fake. In The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek New York Review of Books 07/12/2012 issue; accessed 06/20/2012), he argues:

Žižek was dismissed from his first university teaching post in the early 1970s, when the [Yugoslav] 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. [my emphasis]
Gray also thinks that Žižek makes a dubious, if not frivolous, reading of Hegel on the idea of the "cunning of reason" as it develops in history:

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?" [my emphasis]
Hegel rejects Reason? And maybe Nietzsche loved the Protestant and Catholic Churches of his day? And maybe Kant was the leading opponent of the Enlightenment? Good grief! But those argument would make about as much sense as the idea that "Hegel rejects reason itself."

Radical-sounding quotes like this one from Žižek can also fit very well into a far-right apocalyptic vision, from his book Living in the End Times:

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.
As Gray comments matter-of-factly, "What he describes as the premise of the book is simple only because it passes over historical facts."

He describes another act of Žižek’s posturing this way: "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." And it's not at all clear that Žižek’s version of "revolutionary commitment" is meant to lead to state of greater justice, equality and more humane use of the world's resources. Gray says that he makes "regular recourse to a laborious kind of clowning wordplay."

Gray suggests not-so-subtlely that the Slovenian philosophy is engaged in stereotypical navel-gazing:

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."
Gray also suggests, plausibly I think, that Žižek’s abstract celebration of revolutionary violence is similar to the ideas advocated by the quirky French philosopher George Sorel (1847-1922) in his 1908 work, Reflections on Violence.

Gray doesn't use the phrase, but his analysis fits my impression of Slavoj Žižek as a highbrow version of the "concern troll." One who, in Gray's words, achieves "a deceptive substance by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision." A social critic can point out real problems without necessarily defining solutions. But, as Gray says, "Žižek seems to be more "engaged — wittingly or otherwise — in a kind of auto-parody."


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