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February 20, 2007


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Jodi, great job. That was a brilliant riposte.


This is a fruitful debate, nevertheless. I find it very useful for my thinking on Zizek's work because it reveals, if anything, that there is not "one" Zizek. He invites multiple readings (within limits obviously), and this debate makes that apparent.

Also, there might be some truth to Stephen's claim (mostly at the beginning and later dropped) that Zizek is formulaic in his analysis of events. Zizek usually analyzes things something like: "Is not the conclusion to be drawn ... (Insert here: the Lacanian Real, Hegel's point, the need for a reversal, or some fundamental deadlock, etc...)," which can be annoying at times.


I couldn't figure it out: is Stephens' problem the American LEFT, or is it the AMERICAN Left? It was a bit hard to figure out exactly what his interest/investment was in this debate...

Also, what's up with calling Zizek "theological"? Does the fact that someone tries to think through one thought, systematically, rather than being bound to whatever occasions happen, suffice to make one theological? A very strange definition.


Jodi, i think you have some trolls skulking around. Good job on the article response !


Eek! I teach a few hours and then get invested by trolls. Anyway, thanks, folks, for your responses. AE and Patch, I very much appreciate your kind words. I often find myself stymied by the proper way to respond, the best sort of tone, how to defend myself without being defensive (or offensive, for that matter) etc...

Not Often, I agree that an advantage of the exchange is exhibiting a range of readings.

Discard--I was also wondering about that; I was tempted to call Stephens a Right Zizekian, but decided not to. I sometimes felt that the issue was "left"--in part because Stephens' critical examples involved my references to Bush and the war.

Kenneth Rufo

As someone who gives less than a fig about Zizek, or maybe who gives a really rotten fig, I was struck not by the debate over what Z says or doesn't say but the bizarre concern Stephens has with your "inappropriate" personal admissions.

I mean sure, it's obviously gendered in lots of ways, but the thought that a book of analysis should be silent about personal stakes even though everyone knows those stakes exist seems downright odd. But the thought that the revealing of those stakes, the expression of what might in a particular context seem personal or private, is actually "inappropriate" - which is normative in a way that exceeds mere scoffing or dismissal - is downright frightening.

That being said, I think Stephens is right that Zizek pretty much writes the same book over and over again (insert cut and paste joke here) and I think Jodi's right that the same book ends up being many different ones. Repetition is difference, after all. The more interesting question would be whether the variations here provide sufficient value to suffer through the repetition, and of course from a purely argumentative perspective, it seems a crush for Jodi, as Stephens is, as we say in the rhetoric/argument world, largely sans warrant and completely sans data.

That and Stephens' position probably assumes a core or kernel to Zizek's philosophy that, if truly extractable from the context of the particular instantiations of content, makes me wonder why in the world Stephens bothers reading or citing Zizek any more.

Kenneth Rufo

That and Stephens clearly does not know what the word "defied" means.

Adam Kotsko

I notice a lot of people throwing around "theological" to mean, in essence, "bad." There seems to be some implicit reference to a denial of reality, but that's as much substance as I can detect in such pejorative uses of the term. (Similar to using "faith" as a synonym for "beliefs that are stupid.")

Adam Kotsko

I wrote the comment about general use of "theological" before reading the Stephens article -- I have NO IDEA what he's trying to get at by using the term.


I think you've blitzed Stephens with one short published reply to two really poor articles and should leave off any further replies unless or until he makes some significant advancs in writing and thinking capacities.


Admitting that I haven't yet read your book - only what you've posted here and in your exchanges with Stephens - I'm not too sure what his problem is. He seems to want to make an idol of Zizek's thought, protecting it from the profanities of the every day world. In that sense, his "theology" makes sense: for him it is literally a matter of protecting the sacred (i.e., Zizek) from the profane (i.e., you - or "the Left" or "Americans").


Jodi - good response. My reading of Z Politics was as a necessary primer - not just on Z but also some of the Lacanian fundamentals - for example, your discussion on the four discourses was exactly what I needed - now when I go back to Ecrits I can start to decode it.

So if not for the American Left, for whom should political writing be directed? I agree the US Left is a mess or virtually non-existent - so what should we do - that is the question.

And when someone tries to engage that issue - proper criticism is not to be concerned with personal revelations or blog posting, but the content of the thought - the issue - is the American Left worth talking to? And for those writers (Z, yourself) working the problem - are they providing any insights - is value being created?

Considering the well-believed concept that US culture is partially to blame for political paralysis, you think that someone who can take it apart and render it in a way that is accessible to those of us who aren't full-time theorists would garner some respect.

I don't know, Stephens seems to be a symptom of the problem - an unwillingness to jump into the messy gap of argument (unfortunately with some of us not vetted by the University) and engaging ethically in trying to figure out what to do.

Obviously, I haven't learned anything from reading you or Z.


Stephens almost makes Zizek sound like the later Heidegger, where it is not a question of action but the "truth of Being." It is not appropriate to ask "What is to be done?" but how to think at the end of metaphysics (or in Zizek's case, the ubiquity of late capitalism). We are The latest of the late comers, but to early for the new dispensation of Being. This is an interesting reading of Zizek, but not the most obvious or useful one.

As for Jodi's work being part of the "banal left," that isn't really worth a response.

cynic librarian

What can a poor boy do, when it comes to the revolution? The problem I have with much so-called Leftist writing is that it's sterile and otherwordly, as though it's from another world that has no relationship with this one.

After reading much Leftist "theorizing" I feel like those people who say they've been visited (I work with one such person) at night by aliens.

I find it interesting that Zizek in some of his latest essays has tried to address this issue when he talks about trying to adapt Chesterton's and CS Lewis' plain style.

Still, when will Leftists take their theories to the streets, much in the way that--say--Simone Weil did or others of her persuasion. Is Barbara Ehrenreich the closest the Left can get to actually engaging the real world?


CL--those sorts of comments leave me cold. Why do you assume that those of us talking are not part of the real world? Why is Ehrenreich somehow more real than others? Because she faked needing a minimum wage job and trying to live off that income?

Additionally, you may or may not know that in Z's recent work he dismisses nearly all activism, seeing it as part of the perpetuation of the problem.

cynic librarian

You missed my sarcasm with Ehrenreich. She, though, is following a well-worn path first trod by Orwell and Weil, of course. Still, I do not think her work is as revolutionary as either Orwell's or Weil's.

You also miss my point about Zizek. In talking about writing style, Zizek is at least addressing the issue of being understandable. The alien quality of much academic writing leaves not only me but the rest of the world cold.

I should've added in my previous remark that the woman I know who says she's been visited by aliens is more believable than many academics.

Bully for Zizek, whose one-man snake oil show has made it even to the movies. Is there an ironic negativity of negativity here? That Zizek, in eschewing all activism, becomes a midnight movie media star? Maybe he meant to do it, maybe he didn't, but his work is reaching people that otherwise would not be exposed to these ideas.

That much of his appeal seems to pull otherwise nihilistic adolescents from the brink of the abyss is another question.


I have a difficult time reading your tone. I've met a number of abductees and found them credible and sincere--so I don't know what that has to do with anything.

Much academic writing is specialized--why is that a big deal or anything worth mentioning?

What sort of standard is accessibility? to whom and for what purpose? So, there is a difference between reading Heidegger and reading In Touch. Sure. But what are you attempting to accomplish by pointing out a difference?

Is your point about reaching an audience? If so, why would this be linked to a criticism of academics who are writing academic articles? When one publishes in, say, Theory and Event, one knows full well that they are reaching a narrow, specialized audience? So, again, what's the problem? And, why assume that writing for a narrow audience means that one does not sometimes also try to write for other audiences as well?

More: why is the standard of popularity the crucial one? To me, that seems like a ratings or marketing driven approach to thinking, ideas, and writing. And, it's one that grossly misrepresents the variety of media and fora already available.

cynic librarian

Specialization... hmmmm... Isn't that an aspect of capitalism that is the problem, or at least a problem to be overcome? I understand the need to publish, but that itself buys into the capitalist paradigms. So what have Leftist academics done, unconsciously (unknowingly) swallow hook, line, and sinker the very thing that makes capitalism so powerful?

Again, I do indeed understand the need to survive. Hell, I spent 15 or so years writing tech manuals etc. for corporate, military-industrial companies. How do I justify that? Well, it was just technical info that only techies and so forth could or would read.

There's one thing that I learned doing that, though. That is, I learned how to translate highly technical language into language that the average person might read and understand. I suggest that Zizek was making a similar plea in exploring the possibility of adapting Plain style for Leftist writing.

The question about abductees is not sincerity but believability. Sure, Leftists are sincere--perhaps deluded, but sincere--in their beliefs but they're simply not believable. Like I said, when I read academic writing--and I am as guilty of this as anyone else--about politics or religion or whatever, it's like having met an alien.

Maybe those adolescents swept away from the lip of the abyss by reading Zizek will someday write books about being abducted to by Zizek!

Let me just brain-storm an idea here (a bit of corporate speak!). What strikes as dangerous about the religious right is its incredible organization. They have built colleges, set up a vast communication network, put hundreds of thousands of missionaries in the field--notably Africa--that will create generations of believers. Given the ideological support of these groups for the capitalist-state system, the short-term and long-term future will be a decidedly Xtian religio-political backbone to trans-state capitalism.

What's the Left got to oppose this? The web, that artificial world of anonymity that purveys the illusion of praxis?

What I am suggesting is that this threat of the religio-political Right must be met and undermined. Since I think that communication is basic to existence, that effort must begin with the way that Leftists encounter and respond to this threat. Writing in a way that others can understand is a first step.

There are other aspects to this communicative-existential approach that need to be taken into consideration, most specifically its bottom-up and ideologically pure of heart dimensions. But I fear that I am already starting to sound like one of those Martians from Mars Attacks!


There's a lot more to the Left than academic Leftists. There are all sorts of different publications at different levels of difficulty and opacity.

There is also a lot more to organizing and acting than reading and writing.

Bluntly put: the problems of the Left are not lack of clarity. It's not like some abstract thinker has 'solved' the problem and the majority is simply too dim to get it. The problems are much more political--how to conceive an alternative to capitalism today and how to build that alternative. For some, this task is so huge that basic modes of thinking need to be reworked, reformed. In fact, the very problem of conceiving an alternative--or even agreeing that this is the problem--points to the difficulty of even using terms like the Left to designate anything but a feeling or aspiration.


Alain--I think your association to Heidegger is interesting. You may be on to something here. I don't know enough about Heidegger to know what the stakes or implications of such a reading of Zizek would be.

Adam Kotsko

I have discovered the key to Stephens' argument! Wherever he says "theology," insert "scholasticism." (Not all theology is scholasticism -- though Barth's Church Dogmatics arguably are a form of scholasticism.) That doesn't make his argument *correct*, but it at least renders it intelligible.


Adam--by George, you've got it! That is the only way it makes a bit of sense. Now, for a really good time, someone should rewrite his argument in Thomistic style.

Kenneth Rufo

Cynic Librarian - if that is your real name - Yawn.


Jodi, if I may, I think you have another argument available to you here with regard to CL's excellent points: What makes Zizek unique, along with Badiou, is simply the articulation of another possibility, another way of organizing social relations. The world of leftist political theory in the United States has basically been populated by two alternatives for the last few decades: On the one hand, we've had postmodern deconstructivist paradigms that have seen everything in terms of some form of textual analysis and inventiveness. I use this term loosely to refer not only to Derridean deconstruction, but Foucaultian analysis of power relations or Lyotardian analysis of language games. What we've got under this model is either a neo-liberal pragmatism tolerant of otherness (vulgarized Levinasianism), or an ethics of the care and invention of the self a la Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari. On the other hand, we've had variants of liberal democratic politics such as Habermas, where no real change is envisioned.

For me, the reason Zizek came as a breath of fresh air is that he was able to simultaneously combine the importance of "semiotically" informed forms of analysis (thereby recognizing the fact that revolutions of praxis are also revolutions in paradigms of thought), with commitment to a concrete praxis that is not afraid to intervene in the coordinates of a situation in very direct and physical ways. My praise for your book was premised on your recognition of the fact that Zizek is not simply interpretive pyrotechnics, but that there's a very real (pardon the pun) politics at work. If Zizek doesn't outline that politics, then this is because he respects situations and inventiveness, or the fact that there is no general rule but rather a series of fronts that will require shifting tactics and differing interpretive interventions so as to displace symptomal deadlocks.

It seems to me that in recent years, there is a new generation of thinkers emerging. Some of them have been around for quite some time, but still they are new in the sense that their names have been scarcely heard: Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere, Balibar, and so on. In all of these cases, the stakes of the game aren't simply hermeneutic-academic-interpretive, but about how to engage in that speech act that makes the difference and that intervention that makes another opening possible. Our praxis is only ever as good as our beliefs and conceptual framework, and it seems to me that this is precisely what Zizek targets with his ideological analyses.

cynic librarian

Ken, Is that your real name? need some no-doz, do ya? OTOH that might be the most intelligent you've said for some time; not that I've followed much of what you do write. What I have read, though, wouldn't get you a cup of coffee in any diner I visit.

cynic librarian

Adam, I was just going to say much of the same thing about academic Leftism. Given the abstractions, plethora of jargon, and downright unreadability of much of the stuff, what's a poor working stiff to do--not to mention anyone else looking for an alternative to drugs, sex, and rock and roll? I am beginning to become convinced that deconstructionism is just another form of capitalist Magister Ludi but with a French bias.

cynic librarian

J, I like what you say about coming up with alternatives to capitalism. I think that's a Zizekian point that resonates across many different strands of thought. Kierkegaard said something similar, from a religious viewpoint of course. Yet, it's that religious viewpoint that's becoming increasingly apparent must be met and dealt with in a way that the more positivist advocates of Leftism find reluctant to if not opposed to confronting.

Zizek appears to talk about this work of imagination in another essay somewhere when he talks about writing alternative fiction. He seems to think that the Left has not done this but must do so. I am not sure what work he's talking about here, though perhaps his allusions to CS Lewis have some bearing on the remarks.

I can only say that I think that this task of imagining alternatives to capitalism is somehow anti-theoretical. But that may be my Wittgensteinian and Kierkegaardian prejudices showing.

On the other hand, I think that a new historical awareness is required to pull this off; I take my lead in this from recent work by Pocock, one of whose mentors was Collingwood, who famously once said that imagination is key to understanding and writing history.

One of your remarks that sticks with me is when you wrote that the Xtian Right is rewriting history. Indeed they are, as any visit to a theocon or neocon forum will attest.

For me, Pocock is important because he has written that historiography is political--and those who write the history do so with political ends in mind. For Pocock, at least, the history of politics is in fact political philosophy in action.

Pocock's own telling of the rise of capitalism, liberalism, and the state--with roots in Renaissance and Enlightenment contexts--while often anti-Marxist, doesn't have to be so, something he himself seems to admit at times--when he calls Marx a classical virtue-based philosopher, for example.

cynic librarian

PS Speaking of imagining alternatives: I have this friend who's a Trotskyist and is active at the community level. She does cartoons--like 500-page ones--that mix Marxist themes with video-game type, mythological characters (in the Kanga style) interacting with "real" cartoon people.

I mentioned that she should try to use animation software to turn this stuff into Youtube clips or even 35mm. Anyone know of someone who has this know-how and who'd be interested in looking at her stuff? She works like three jobs, but she says she has time.


Zizek talks about CS Lewis? Where?


Dominic--is it perhaps in On Belief or Puppet? He has a long quote from Lewis's account of his conversion.

Kenneth Rufo

I can't tell what's weirder, CL, your dismissal of my work coupled with your proclamation that you don't read my work, or the fact that apparently you think it's normal to get free coffee at a diner in exchange for talking about how deconstruction isn't real activism.

Sinthome, as always, is generous in his treatments, and I appreciate his division of leftist political types, and my tendency is to think that the "new crop of thinkers" he's identifying are united by two trends: an emphasis on a theory of the act and a sort of post-theory malaise that produces a desire for something more lively from the new thinkers, be they pop culture divas or reclaimers of the universal, or both.

For me, it's much more about the cultural conditions these thinkers emerge from than it is the thinkers themselves, but that's probably not a useful delineation on my part. I do think, though, that the new crowd shares with the Habermasian liberal democratic political types a rather distressing inattention to mediation.

Which makes me think it might be worth mentioning a fourth group of leftist academics, those who respond to the contemporary political scene as an aftereffect of a media environment: Virilio, Baudrillard, Kittler, Stiegler Rushkoff, and so on.


I'm surprised that you would say that Zizek is inattentive to mediation given his emphasis on ideology and the discussions of 'cyberspace' in his earlier work.

Kenneth Rufo

Yeah, it's true I wasn't thinking of these, though I thought his discussions of cyberspace to be pretty weak. When I say he's inattentive to mediation, I don't mean to say he's not talking about important media, but that for him mediation is a secondary figure that demonstrates the truth of a mode of thought, not the thing that determines that truth. Which is a different sort of practice than the ones I listed previously.


Hi Jodi, I do not mean to interupt. But in response your question about Heidegger, I have not spent much time thinking through the comparison to Zizek. But it just struck me that Stephen's scholastic reading seems to suggest an Heideggarian notion of thinking at the end of Metaphysics - one that requires being open to the next dispensation of being. I doubt Zizek would accept the comparison but you never know. I just found the review so "protective of the master." How dare anyone (particularly an American academic leftist) appropriate the master for such pedantry.


Jodi, I'd be interested in hear more as to just what you have in mind when you refer to an inattention to mediation. With Badiou, in particular, I've struggled with a number of issues pertaining to questions of mediation or just what would render a subject open to the event in the first place, but I'm not sure if you're referring to the same sort of issues.


Thanks, Alain.

Sinthome--this is Kenneth Rufo's point, not mine. I disagree with it. In fact, I'd say the opposite is the case--Zizek's discussion of the stain, the vanishing mediator, and the universal as it shines through the particular are all indications of an attentiveness to mediation, in my book (I mean opinion, not actual book, actually, although the points do appear in Publicity's Secret which is about mediation and materialization).

Kenneth Rufo

Hmm, Jodi and I may not be disagreeing... would it help if I replaced the word mediation with technics? I'm more than willing to admit that mediation may have been a poor word choice on my part given the connotations it carries in different modes of thought.

Suffice it to say there are those that think that technics determine the possibility for thinking something like an event, a subject, language, etc. and then there are those for whom technics express more fundamental and essential conditions that exist in a manner functionally distinct from the technics in which those conditions obtain. That's all I'm suggesting.

Kenneth Rufo

Specifically, regarding Badiou, he is very explicit that the question of technics is subsequent to the political determination of the event, which is something I've posted about previously over at Ghost.

Ranciere is more interesting because of his efforts to associate different political modalities relative to different aesthetic ones, but that seems to me to be the endpoint, not the launching point, and the specific technical/technological configurations that might codetermine both aesthetics and politics never really gains much purchase.



The discussion of Lewis that Jodi is referring to is indeed from Puppet and the Dwarf (21-22) and includes a long passage from Surprised by Joy.


Well that is interesting. There are two significant "conversion" experiences in That Hideous Strength; the first is Mark's moral awakening, which is not instantaneous but carefully plotted, and the second is Jane's encounter with the ultra-Masculine creator deity (which cures her of her tiresome feminist insistence on being an *individual*, and restores her to a proper sense of herself as cosmic plaything...yes, Lewis's gender politics really do suck that badly).

I haven't yet read Surprised by Joy, but there was something about Jane's cosmic encounter in particular which struck me as authentic, in spite of the hideous gloss Lewis puts on it. I think he was writing from experience - specifically from a (variety of) religious experience, which none of the dismal apologetics he subsequently engaged in can quite clog up or obscure.

Lewis was a pretty awful person who became a Christian; he went on to be a pretty awful Christian, but the transformation was real and his Christian conversion did I think present him to himself as a pretty awful person who was nevertheless - to use Rowan Williams's formula - "created, loved and healed". I can see where Zizek's interest in that transformation might lie; I'll have to find the passage for myself.


and let's not forget: a pretty awful theologian


I guess Rowan Williams is not the British comedian who plays a priest from time to time, the one who was in Love, Actually and 4 Weddings and a Funeral and had his own movie, too, I think.

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