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November 21, 2005

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Alain

Jodi, I have not had a chance to read the whole piece but my first reaction is that it starts out rather promising, discussing the terrain of the various reactions from the left and Right. But unfortunately, he ends up cutting and pasting previously published stuff, talking about several films. He conconcludes that there is not redemption for the violence we endure or perpetrate, etc... I need to read it closer when I get a chance but I am curious as to what you think?

Jodi

I agree entirely. It's so frustrating. Why does he do this? By the end, it's huge hunks of Ticklish Subject, primarily.

I did have one thought, namely, in repeating himself he's flagging things that he's said before that have bearing on the current topic. But, there is a place where he repeats (pastes) several sentences that he already used in earlier in this same piece. Argh.

Amish Lovelock

I often wonder how much this might be down to English not being his first language. Often when you are writing in another language you feel a sense of having to really work to get your message across. You find yourself repeating arguments or phrases more to make sure that your reader knows that you are talking about what you talked about 3 pages earlier. If you have work in print then you find yourself saying 'this is what I said back here, you remember, you understood me then, right?' etc...

Virgil Johnson

I think what we lack here is historical perspective. Many of those trapped within these communities come from areas previously colonized by France. This was their hope - since their land was sacked, and billions withdrawn from their economy by aggressive capitalistic force, there might be a prospect of hope in the land which absorbed their richs. Currently, it is going to an elite which the Euro/American alliance has set up in the region - their aristocracy they always erect that allows them to further pillage the nations.

So leaving the ruins, by no less than the invitation of the aggressor, seemed the only palusible solution. My retort is, what other alternative was there for their future? Than, likewise, what made them think there was a future with their abusers? It is a vicious circle - because capitialism is moved by nothing but brute force, it moves by brute force to take what does not belong to it.

They have no future with the current condition - if you compare it to America, you see the same trademarks that you find with the disenfranchised in France. There could be a dialog like there was in America to bring progress, but the civil rights dialog was not without it's riots - they almost seem to compliment each other. Many of the supposed advances made in America are cosmetic - it is like an onion with many layers, each oppressive layer must be peeled back to gain any progress. Nothing is easy, and the process continues to this day - you must recognize the beast for what it is, deceptive and ready to roll back any progress except for the chosen few (whatever the criteria).

What you have happening in France is what is happening throughout the world, it is merely a small illustration of a much bigger problem. Until we have a radical world systemic change these same issues will arise - however, this does not mean that we cannot try to better the local manifestations. So you have a "clash" but it is not merely cultural - it is brought about by a capitalistic system that is unbridled. If priviledge and power does not have the ability to bend and become malable, it will eventually be broken. I think it is best to address these issues before they erupt, what do you think? Those treated with inequality because they are the targets of systemic prejudice will ALWAYS eventually revolt.

TypeKey

Re: "the total absence of any positive utopian prospect among the protesters"
When you're living in the middle of shit, terrible housing and being followed/harassed by undercover cops all the time; when there're no prospects of anything changing or people in "respected society" giving a damn - in that situation, chasing the cops out of the neighborhood may be the closest thing to utopian aspirations you get. Burning cars: at least it makes the news, and politicians start stressing. The most common demand is that the securitarian populist Sarkozy resigns. And by the way, what most don't know, in the 10 months before november there were already 2800 cars burnt (in the whole of France). This is not totally new.

Peter Paik

Doesn't his closing analysis of Mystic River suggest that Zizek, far from being a revolutionary, is in fact a pragmatist or even a liberal moderate? Aside from the standard references to Lenin and Stalin, who are the political figures Zizek admires? Rabin, de Gaulle, even the Nixon who went to China, that is to say, conservative statesmen who "do the impossible," Rabin paying with his life for trying to make peace with the Palestinians and de Gaulle having to endure an assassination attempt for pulling the French out of Algeria. I can't help but suspect that Zizek's affirmative references to Stalin and Lenin have a largely exoteric significance, in the Straussian manner of putting falsehoods on the surface to mislead and pull in one's readers. In this case, Zizek's provocative endorsements of revolutionary terror and dictatorship are intended to draw in a readership among those who consider themselves to be politically Left, on the basis that, to paraphrase BH Levy, there is more glamour in being Sartre and intoxicated than being Raymond Aron and sober.

Jodi

Peter, I've heard this view before. I don't buy it. I don't think Zizek would deliberately employ a language or rhetoric of trickery and deceit. Maybe I'm gullible, but that just seems too far fetched.

Textually, one can, as you rightly do, mention those Zizek admires. And, for this analysis to make sense, it would need to explain why he admires them, as you also suggest, for their willingness to go to the limit etc. But, with that same logic, one would have to recognize that Zizek condemns liberal moderates most of all.

Peter Paik

Okay, maybe it's not deliberate. But could it not also be argued that a liberal moderate by himself or herself is inadequate for making "the passage to the act," and that, on the other hand, a "successful liberal moderate" must have an authoritarian streak, or at least must in be in a state of tension with his or her illiberal shadow, in order to pursue a policy which the majority know is necessary but a small but intransigent group is ready to kill to prevent? For de Gaulle to prevail against Salan and the OAS, he had to be far more than a liberal moderate.

I am also thinking here of the argument (put forth by C. Lasch among others) that liberalism has relied to a large extent upon the religious beliefs of the citizens to reinforce the ties of community, and that liberalism on its own is unable to prevent society from dissolving into an atomistic assortment of individuals. In other words, there are liberal moderates who believe that the secular, technocratic liberal order is itself sufficient (these are the reformists condemned by Zizek), and liberal moderates who realize that the vitality of liberalism relies upon an illiberal foundation.

Furthermore, I think his analyses of Stalinism are quite valuable because they show what horrifying contradictions and monstrous perversities can lie behind a rhetoric of political progress and humanitarianism. These phenomena I think are not exclusive to the totalitarian regimes, but in fact appear in any state in a condition of disintegration and collapse. This is a matter that calls for much lengthier analysis, beyond the scope of this post, so I'll have to leave off at this point.

So, the doctrine of exotericism and the possibility of deception aside, I think it's still possible to reach the point of view I stated earlier.

Alain

Peter, this Straussian reading of Zizek is very intriguing. But then how to reconcile is rather dismissive remarks about the Straussian neocons at the end of his Iraq book? I ask because there in fact could be a very plausible means of reconciling those comments with a larger esoteric strategy.

And I apologize Jodi but it is a fun thought experiment. Afterall, he seems to admire Hitchens, Chesterton, etc...

Marc Lombardo

The problem I see with the esoteric Zizek is that there's nothing hidden there. Or as Zizek himself would say, the surface is profound. Obviously, Zizek is closer to a liberal than any of the authors he cites... consider who his friends and patrons are! But I don't find this that much of a secret; in today's political environment what alternative is there? Zizek is at his best when he struggles with this question... if he doesn't resolve it and form a specific alternative, can we blame him?

I think that the problem he gets himself into is better stated in terms of feeling the need to respond to events as they happen, without taking the time or doing the work necessary to process the meaning of these events more systematically. In some respects, I think even taking a more philosophical position, which doesn't as directly try to intervene would be more sufficient. I think Lacan would have gotten quite a kick out of the way the word "intervention" is used today in Leftist theoretico-political circles. When the word doesn't simply signify the speaker's impotence it also seems to suggest an intervention more of the AA variety than anything political. I think at this point we need to stage an intervention against those who intervene! Specifically, will someone please intervene and break into Zizek's computer and disable the cut and paste feature?

Peter Paik

Alain, I'm actually pretty close to Marc on the issue of the surface being more important than whatever depths might be partially concealed and waiting for the proper reader to fathom and extract. The "surface" after all is all we have as readers, not least after the author passes on.

As for Zizek's criticisms of the neocons - Strauss himself is a figure of great controversy among his former pupils. I've heard from one that he was in fact a New Deal Democrat. One of Allan Bloom's students, William Galston, was an advisor to Clinton, and writes articles for the liberal American Prospect. Strauss's disciples are certainly capable of criticisms against each other that are just as strident as those mounted against the neo-cons from the anti-war left and right.

That said, esotericism nevertheless can be used by an author to negotiate changes of perspective - to leave certain points deliberately unresolved because one has not arrived at a definitive conclusion on an issue of vital importance. As Marc points out, Zizek is at his best when he struggles, and his appeals to Lenin and Stalin, after going through five or more of his books, strike me as rather conventional and mechanistic, cutting short his real insights into contemporary politics - it's as though Zizek's thinking ends when the references to revolution kick in (as well as when he uses the paste function on his word processor).

This brings me to what I consider to be the most valuable and worthy element of his analyses, which for me raises him head and shoulders above almost every one of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors in the realm of theory: he achieves a breakthrough to the proper study of the political, as opposed to the sterile aestheticist tendency to linger upon its aporias or the immersion in a moralizing discourse that obfuscates the problem of power. In a time of flux when revolution is not really an alternative and consequences are usually unintended and often catastrophic, Zizek points us to the closest thing to an alternative via Chesterton, which is courage. Zizek accomplishes the truly indispensable service of unmasking the insidious power of the desire for happiness as the force that makes us captive and complicit in the capitalist order. The only authentic, if not revolutionary, politics, is one that is beyond the pleasure principle. If the future is radically uncertain, and reformist and revolutionary programs have been undermined by the shadow of historical failure as well as by the prevailing mood of cultural exhaustion, then only courage can provide the basis for weathering the chaos ahead and keep alive the hope to build a more just order when the time arrives. This may not exactly be the "esoteric message" concealed by Zizek's extravagantly inhuman rhetoric of revolutionary violence, but I think it's what is most worthy and commendable in his recent writings.

Alain

Peter, I generally agree with your assessment of Zizek's "positive" contribution. Clearly his insights into the insidious "desire for happiness" are a great contribution to political theory. But I fear his analysis can just as easily lead to despair rather than courage.

And he has to slow down on the movie reviews - he starts to sound like a film critic for the downtrodden leftist sect.

hugh


"Insidious power of the desire for happiness" (Peter) ?

"Insidious 'desire for happiness'" (Alain) ?

As human beings, desire for happiness is part of what we come equipped with. The above quotations seem to me to come close to suggesting that desire for happiness is itself problematic, wrong, perhaps sinful. To suggest this is to deny the possibility of health altogether. Such a denial, besides its consequences for oneself, also has some pretty scary political implications. If I don't think I can or should be happy, I'm going to need to find someone else to be happy for me -- to wit, a Master. This is the kind of thing that Zizek helps me to think through.

Perhaps this isn't really so far from the points that Peter and Alain were making, namely, that Zizek helps us to come to terms with the potentially problematic aspects of (what could be called) the desire for happiness. But, Peter, when you call for a politics "beyond the pleasure principle", what does that mean? Is that even possible? My reading of Zizek suggests to me that there will inevitably be pleasure in politics; the question is where that pleasure will be located.

petar milat

Jonathan Lear's "Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life" has been one of those books that Zizek blurbed in his singular affirmative manner and I guess that this is one of the places to look for when linking Zizek to something like "beyond the desire for happiness".

Lear shows how those 2 prominent signifiers, "happiness" (Aristotle) and "death" (Freud) are eventually deadlocks - both within the theory and praxis.

hugh

Thanks, petar. I think maybe I was misunderstanding the sense of "happiness" as used by Alain and Peter -- either of you two care to clarify? Or, petar, could you say a word about how Lear understands it? (The book you mention is unfortunately not available in my university library.)

petar milat

hugh,

i'll have lear's book in e-format, so drop me your email.

Peter Paik

Hi everyone - I had to reboot my computer recently and did not have internet access at home while sorting through the mess.

Zizek attacks happiness as a specifically pagan category in Puppet/Dwarf: "Happiness is inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things that we really do not want" (43). He also calls it the category of the pleasure principle, which can only be undermined by going beyond the pleasure principle.

THE CASE AGAINST HAPPINESS:
The opposite of happiness is not unhappiness - unhappiness is in fact the truth of happiness. In the modern world, happiness is the state in which we are merely in a state of distraction from the fear of death. The formula of Herodotus, count no man happy until he is dead, means that those who are truly happy are the ones who have done their duty (i.e. gone beyond the pleasure principle, as in the examples of the happy life, ending in a violent death on a battlefield, that Solon gives to Croesus), or that no one in the pagan world is happy, because it is inevitably ephemeral (Kierkegaard's view).

The opposite of happiness (or rather, the conglomerate entity 'happiness-unhappiness') is in fact joy, which involves the loss of self. As Simone Weil writes, "Perfect joy excludes even the very feeling of joy, for in the soul filled by the object no corner is left for saying 'I.' We cannot imagine such joys when they are absent, thus the incentive for seeking them is lacking."

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