Coming to Grips with Zizek


Two new books by Slavoj Zizik (Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, 1038 pp., and Living in the End Times, 504 pp.) have just been reviewed by John Gray ("The Violent Visions of Slavoj Zizek") in July 12, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books. Professor Gray is to be commended for wading through 1500 pages of undiluted Zizek (and perhaps saving some of us from having to do so). I propose to review Gray's article and thus give a meta-critique, as it were, of some of Zizek's views as presented by Gray. If anyone is stimulated to go on to read Zizek so much the better, or worse as the case may be. You can find Gray's original article here:The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek by John Gray | The New York ...…. My reflections are divided into five parts.

1.) Zizek has produced over 60 books in the last two decades or so and has become one of the most famous public intellectuals in the West; propounding a sort of non-Marxist Marxism. The NY Review article has a picture of the philosopher sitting up in his bed in Ljubljana, Slovenia with a framed picture of Stalin on the wall behind him. New Yorkers may remember that he addressed the OWS movement in Zuccotti Park last October.

So what is Zizek's message? At one time he was a member of the Communist Party of Slovenia but he quit in 1988 and has since articulated a critique of capitalist society more influenced by a strange version of Hegel than by Marx. Gray says a CENTRAL THEME of ZZ's work "is the need to shed the commitment to intellectual objectivity that guided radical thinkers in the past."  Intellectual objectivity is a BOURGEOIS ILLUSION and most radicals, at least most Marxists, have always been partisans for the working class. Gray should be clearer about what ZZ is trying to express with this criticism.

ZZ wants to, in his own words, "repeat the Marxist 'critique of political economy', without the utopian-ideological notion of communism as its inherent standard." We had better be pretty familiar with, at least, the three big volumes of Das Kapital before we decide on accepting ZZ's "repeat" of Marx's project! ZZ doesn't think the world communist movement was radical enough. He writes, "the twentieth-century communist project was utopian precisely insofar as it was not radical enough." What does this mean? "Marx's notion of the communist society," ZZ writes, "is itself the inherent capitalist fantasy; that is, a fantasmatic scenario for resolving the capitalist antagonisms he so aptly described."

2.) It is all very well for ZZ to put down what he thinks is Marx's notion of communist society, but as a matter of fact neither Marx nor Engels spent much time speculating about a future communist society precisely because they thought such idle speculation unwarranted; they were more interested in dissecting the nature of capitalism and the methods needed to overthrow it. ZZ at least follows their example as Gray points out that nowhere in the 1000+ pages of Less Than Nothing does ZZ discuss what he thinks a future communist society would/should be like.

What he does discuss  says Gray (who calls the book a "compendium" of all ZZ's past work) is his new and unique interpretation of Hegel (by way of Jacques Lacan's unscientific reinterpretation of Freud) and its application to a new reading of Marx. In other words, the arch-rationalist Hegel is viewed from the point of view of the irrationalist Lacan and this mishmash of misinterpretation is used to explain Marx to us. 

One of Lacan's teachings is that REALITY cannot be properly understood by LANGUAGE. Which, if true, would make science impossible and bar us from ever understanding the nature of the world we live in. But it is language that Lacan uses to tell us something about the nature of reality, i.e., that language can't do that! Lacan also rejected Hegel's view that Reason is imminent in history. Big deal-- Marx and the entire history of post-Hegelian materialism has rejected this notion of Absolute Idealism for the last 150 years or more and no one needed Lacan to tell us about the outmodedness of this Hegelian notion. 

But ZZ thinks that Lacan has shown more than just that Hegel was wrong to think that Reason Rules the World. ZZ, says Gray, thinks that Lacan has shown "the impotence of reason."  This is a fundamental attack on the legacy of the Enlightenment upon which all attempts to understand the world scientifically and rationally are based; it is ultimately a fascist outlook.

ZZ has also been influenced by the contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou (who has been himself influenced by Lacan and, shudder, Heidegger and has developed a form of Platonic Marxism).  Using some of Badiou's ideas ZZ constructs his own view of "dialectics" as being based, Gray says, on "the rejection  of the logical principle of noncontradiction." ZZ imputes this view to Hegel and thus claims Hegel rejected reason. ZZ writes  that for Hegel a (logical) proposition "is not  really suppressed by its negation." ZZ credits Hegel with the invention of a new type of logic: "paraconsistent  logic."

This is really confused. We have to distinguish between FORMAL LOGIC where the law of non-contradiction reigns, and Hegel's metaphysics or ontology of Being where there are different sorts of logic at work-- subjective logic (thoughts) and objective logic (the external world). But even here it is not a question of a "proposition" being suppressed. Hegel says neither things nor thoughts care for contradictions and when contradictions appear there is a movement to overcome and resolve them on higher levels of understanding and reason-- this is the inherent motion driving the "dialectic" a motion to overcome and eliminate contradictions.

Despite these considerations, ZZ forges ahead with his ill conceived "paraconsistant logic."  "Is not," he writes, "'postmodern' capitalism an increasingly paraconsistant system 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?" 

At this point Gray quotes a long passage from Less Than Nothing in which ZZ lays out the main theme of his book dealing with the response needed to "postmodern" capitalism: "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." ZZ misses here the fact that the four horsemen of the capitalist apocalypse are simply four manifestations  of the same fundamental contradiction under pinning the entire capitalist system, namely, the private appropriation of socially created wealth.

At this point Gray launches an unjustified attack on ZZ, accusing him of ignoring "historical facts" such as the environmental damage done by the Soviet Union and to the countryside by Mao's "cultural revolution." You can't just blame capitalism since both the SU and China had centrally planned economies. History, Gray says, does not provide any evidence that replacing capitalism by socialism will better protect the environment. 

What does "history" really show? Just take the case of the Soviet Union. The soviets tried to build socialism but were attacked by the western capitalist powers from day one. They had to take short cuts to industrialize and fend off the Nazi attack, and then the Nazi successor state as US imperialism took up the anti-communist crusade. China has a similar history. All parties in this conflict were societies still under the rule of the law of value, the reigning economic force in commodity producing economies. Socialism did not thrive (nor could it have thrived) in the primitive backward conditions it developed under in the 20th century. If socialist central planning were to replace the social anarchy of capitalism in the advanced capitalist states of the west (including Japan) where production could be based on need not profit (thus overcoming the law of value) we would be able to reign in our four apocalyptic horsemen and literally save the planet. This is what "history" really suggests and Gray's attack on ZZ on this issue is unjustified.

However, his next attack on ZZ has merit. ZZ's "Marxism" lacks any relation to the actual class struggle and does not reflect Marx's commitment to a materialist dialectic grounded in the empirical reality of day to day economic struggle. Here is what ZZ says: "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. 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." 

This is just ridiculous. The worker treated in complete isolation from his/her class and relation to the means of production, treated as an isolated human being, is simply retrograde bourgeois idealism and in no way a more radical conception than that of Marx. It is an abandonment of the concept of the proletariat, or working class, as understood by Marxists.

3.) ZZ in fact abandons objectivity for a completely subjective position. "The truth we are dealing with here," he writes, "is not 'objective truth' 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." In other words, "truth" is what inspires me to feel good about my chosen path-- my "project" and reinforces me in my actions to attain the fulfillment of my "project." ZZ thinks a communist society would be nice but doesn't think its really possible to attain but that doesn't mean we should not act up and agitate against the status quo. ZZ also thinks its ok to engage in terror if it helps my subjective enunciation. He supports Badiou's position in favor of "emancipatory terror" and lauds Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

To top off this witch's brew of petty bourgeois pseudo-revolutionary clap-trap, ZZ, Gray points out, "praises the Khmer Rouge." For all the meaningless killings Pol Pot and his gang indulged in ZZ does not blame their fall from grace as related to their barbarity. "The Khmer Rouge, were," he says, "in a way, not radical enough: while they took the abstract negation of the past to the limit [this is how an "Hegelian" refers to the killing fields!-tr] they did not invent any new form of collectivity." Would a new form of collectivity have justified their actions? [As we shall see ZZ rejects these criticisms by Gray on the grounds that his theory of violence has been misunderstood].

ZZ even goes so far as to call himself a Leninist. Gray gives a quote from a 2009 interview where ZZ remarks that: "I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn't afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it." Gray is right to think that Lenin (as well as Marx) would hold ZZ's views in contempt. Lenin recognized the need for violence, it would be forced upon the workers by the ruling class, but he never celebrated it in the manner of ZZ who thinks it should be applied in a terrorist manner as a morale booster for the radical movement even though a successful revolution to get rid of capitalism is impossible. Gray gives another gem from ZZ on this topic: "Francis Fukuyama was right: global capitalism is 'the end of history.'" Very few, if any, people claiming to be Leninists believe that Fukuyama was right; I don't think, based on some of his current writings, that even Fukuyama thinks he was right.

4.) In this section I will deal with some valid points Gray makes against ZZ's fascination with the cult of violence, but points that are tarnished by Gray's own hyper cold war anti-communism and distortion of facts. ZZ does not think class convict has an objective basis, according to Gray, who produces this quote from ZZ maintaining that class war is not "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." It is therefore ultimately subjective-- just the opposite of what Marx and Lenin held.

To illustrate his position ZZ discusses the collectivization of agriculture and the struggle against the kulaks in the USSR in the 1920s and 30s. ZZ makes a valid observation that often non-Kulak poorer peasants  joined with the kulaks in opposing collectivization. This was a case of false consciousness. Americans are familiar with this phenomenon when they observe working people and minorities voting for the Republican Party and conservative candidates. ZZ says the Kulak non-Kulak boundary was often "blurred and unworkable: in a situation of generalized poverty, clear criteria no longer applied and the other two classes of peasants (poor and middle peasants -tr)
often joined the kulaks (rich peasants- tr) in their resistance to forced collectivization." 

ZZ goes on to say, " 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 and individual's  'true political attitudes" hidden beneath his or her deceptive public proclamations." This is, by the way, the same "hermeneutics" Americans have to use, following the maxim that "all politicians are liars and say one thing but do another," when they try to figure out what candidates are saying and how they will actually behave once in office. 

 ZZ is wrong to think of this as a subjective process of self identification. Cases of false consciousness have objective social conditions (miseducation, prejudicial propaganda, poverty, illiteracy) as their causes. Gray is wrong, I think, to call ZZ's view "repugnant and grotesque" because he appeals to hermeneutics and doesn't criticize Stalin for killing millions of people but for using Marxist theory to try and explain what the actions of the USSR were with respect to collectivization. The idea that Soviet policy was to bring about forced collectivization by killing millions of people is a relic of cold war bunko. I recommend Michael Parenti's Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism  for a balanced discussion of the role of violence in Soviet history.

However, ZZ is to be faulted for rejecting using Marxist theory to understand and explain political actions. He says that a time comes to junk theory because "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." But you cannot have a successful people's movement (struggle and engagement) without a correct  analysis of the purely objective  social facts-- otherwise the movement has to rely on spontaneity and no movement has grown and prospered that based itself on spontaneity.

An idea of how far down the wrong road a social theorist calling him/herself a "Leninist" can wander is revealed by ZZ's attitudes towards Hitler and the Nazi apologist Martin Heidegger. Concerning Heidegger, ZZ writes, "His involvement with the Nazi's was not a simple mistake [of course not-- it was the essence of his world view-- tr] , but rather a 'right step in the wrong direction.'" How does ZZ arrive at this? He has a new reading of Heidegger to propose. He says, "Reading Heidegger against the grain, one discovers a thinker who was, at some points strangely close to communism…." Gray points out that ZZ  claims that the radically pro-Hitler Heidegger of the the mid 1930s could even be classified as "a future communist."  Indeed. What future does ZZ have in mind? Heidegger died in 1976 without ever, to my knowledge, having become any kind of communist.

ZZ thinks Heidegger was wrong, but also kind of right, in being a follower of Hitler, because there was a big problem with Hitler. Here is what it was, according to ZZ's own words quoted by Gray: "The problem with Hitler was that 'he was not violent enough,'  his violence was not "essential" enough. Hitler did not really act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, 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 [ I am tempted to say it takes one to know one- tr] of exercising total power, but that it did not go far enough, that its violence was an impotent acting-out  which, ultimately, remained in the service of the very order it despised."

There is so much wrong with this that I hardly know where to begin. In the first place there was only one socio-economic order at any rate that Hitler "despised" and wanted to destroy-- that was order represented by the Soviet Union (he also despised and wanted to destroy the Jews.) Hitler used all the power at his disposal to accomplish his aims. It is impossible to conceive of what destruction Hitler could have wrought if had used (and had) the means to wreak even more violence on the world that he in fact did. He would not have destroyed capitalism as that was the economic order he furthered in Germany-- it was socialism, Marxism that he wanted to destroy. The Nazi's also rejected bourgeois democracy-- but because it was too weak to save the West from the hoards of semi-barbaric Bolshevik Untermenshen waiting to burst out of the Soviet Union and inundate Aryan Europe. If World War II was an impotent acting-out, I shudder to think what Hitler could have achieved if he was on ZZ's  political viagra.

But what about the Jews? What about anti-Semitism? Gray suggests that ZZ's attitude towards eliminating anti-Semitism from the world would also involve eliminating the Jews. This may or may not be so but it does not make ZZ an anti-Semite; it only shows, if that is what he means, that he accepts the ultra-right Zionist view that non Jews will always be against Jews and the only solution is an exclusively Jewish state. Well, what does ZZ say about all this?

He states that "The fantasmatic [ZZ's own word for "fantastic"- tr]  status of anti-Semitism is clearly revealed by a statement attributed to Hitler: 'We have to kill the Jew within us.'" He continues: "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. [Oh my! I hope Herr Hitler is not the representative spokesperson for the "Gentiles." Hitler's statement doesn't confirm anything other than his own personal anti-Semitism-tr] 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?" 

Gray admits to having problems trying to figure just what ZZ means (he is too prolix and uses terms out of context from different philosophies to describe his own quite different views) but it seems quite a stretch to suggest that ZZ may be soft on anti-Semitism. ZZ himself has taken great umbrage at Gray's comments in this review and has penned a response that it well worth reading and claims to set the record straight on this issue. [Slavoj Žižek Responds to His Critics]

5.) An example Gray gives of using terms out of context is ZZ's assertion that one may say that Gandhi was more violent that Hitler. Why would anyone want to say that except for "shock value?" ZZ says, in his reply to Gray, that Gray has misinterpreted him. ZZ believes in a type of violence in which "no blood is shed" and then refers to Ghandi's struggles against the British in India-- usually referred to as based on "nonviolence." Since "nonviolence" is a special sort of "violence" it appears that since Ghandi was more nonviolent than Hitler he was more violent than Hitler. This is the "Hegelian" dialectic run amuck.

Here is another example of ZZ, saying nothing according to Gray, engaging in meaningless 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 it movement; however, an electron's mass at rest is zero [sic], 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." I'm not sure what ZZ is trying to say here about electrons, let alone capitalism (is surplus value "magical") but I don't think the rest mass of an electron is zero in the first place. For what it is worth Wikipedia says "The electron rest mass (symbol: me) is the mass of a stationary electron. It is one of the fundamental constants of physics….  It has a value of about 9.11×10−31 kilograms or about 5.486×10−4 atomic mass units, equivalent to an energy of about 8.19×10−14 joules or about 0.511 megaelectronvolts." 

Granted it is a very small mass, an electron is, after all, a very small particle-- but it is not zero. ZZ expects us to read 1038 pages of this stuff!  It might be a good reference book to ZZ ideas-- which don't seem to be very Leninist-- the index has 10 references to Lenin while Lacan has over 2 columns devoted to his views! Gray is a hostile reviewer, but he is also hostile to Marxism, nevertheless, his review calls into question ZZ's basic methods of thinking and expressing himself (Gray says he represents "formless radicalism"). To get some idea of where Gray is coming from (I don't think it's a very nice place since it's anti-Enlightenment) check out the following: John N. Gray - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Well, so much for coming to grips with ZZ-- for more information on Less Than Nothing the next stop is

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  • Regarding his belief in Heidegger's right step in the wrong direction arises from his antipostmodernism. He takes as the central theme of postmodernism the belief in the end of grand narratives, that there no longer any master narratives. This leads to the idea that every discourse is in some way correct even capitalism. so to counteract this we need to actively support a master narrative. In this case, Heidegger took the right step, supporting and developing a master narrative, he just took the wrong master narrative as his object. it really has nothing to do with his reading of Heidegger.
    Also, i find your dismissal of Zizeks explanation of the proletariat as a subjective position rather shortsighted. If we take the marxist definition of the proletariat as the wage workers who do not control the means of production, there are two ways to interpret this: if you see it from the point of view of wage labor then you run into a problem right from the start when you have to consider that the wage laborer is gradually disappearing due to technological advances in manufacturing and industry. This was predicted by Marx and shown in the first volume of Capital when he discussed the introduction of the steam powered looms. So that leaves us with the relationship of the worker in relation to the means of production. The case of the computer programmer that works in a relatively safe environment ,with relatively good benefits and makes a comfortable wage. But the means of production and the worker are fused together in one and the same human body. There is no longer that objective distance between the worker and the means of production. therefore the only way to distinguish between the two is a subjective position. This is an insidious new development of capitalism and to stick to this "objective" definition of proletariat only leads to to the conclusion that the proletariat does not exist. this also allows zizek to make the not so radical claim that the proletariat cuts across all social classes including the bourgeoisie.
    Your entire objection to Zizek seems to rest on this conception of Marxism as a monolithic, unchanging ideology. but if you beleieve that historical materialism is true and one of the foundations of Marxism, then you have to believe that history changes and along with it objective conditions. It isnt 1917 Russia and we have to change our ideas to fit in with a revolution in the current capitalism. i take it as a matter of pride that Marxism is flexible in its criticism and not like the ideologies of the right with their seeming obliviousness of the reality that should form their reactions. This is Zizek's attempt to show that Marxism can be adapted to new situations.

    Posted by tim jackson, 08/25/2012 12:30pm (11 years ago)

  • Gray's review is absolutely disgraceful. At one point he very deliberately misreads a quote to make it sound like Zizek wants to exterminate all the Jews. It is the kind of vile distortion that immediately reveals itself if you just read the next paragraph that follows Gray's quote. Zizek singles it out himself here:

    Posted by Drewvt, 08/24/2012 11:50am (11 years ago)

  • I was wondering why is Slavoj Zizek's name constantly referred to as ZZ, in this text? His name is not Zlavoj. Thanks

    Posted by Zhel, 08/22/2012 1:26am (11 years ago)

  • when Zizek says "the abstract negation of the past to the limit" re: the Khmer Rouge he is probably referring to the declaration of a Year Zero not to the killing fields.

    Posted by DJH, 08/21/2012 11:25am (11 years ago)

  • Zizik's Marxism is Goucho Marxism.

    Posted by Steve Katz, 08/19/2012 7:02am (11 years ago)

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