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December 04, 2008


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One thing that interests me about the responses to Kirsch's piece from all corners of the theoriasphere is that they seem to have no familiarity with Kirsch.

Had one been keeping up with his reviews mostly of literature, or with his poetry, one would know well in advance that he is barely even "liberal" in the contemporary sense; he is a small-minded antiquarian who rhymes "marriage" with "baby-carriage" and means it. Yes, I understand that the stature of the New Republic means this essay somehow has to be taken seriously as What The Liberal Mainstream Thinks of Zizek, but really, why waste your time pointing out that a guy who's politics could best be described as "like T.S. Eliot if Eliot was stupid" willfully and hatefully misreads any given left thinker? (and, of course, would surely prefer for Obama to be "the left," which the left should be utterly ashamed of allowing to be spoken without riposte).

One scarcely needs to agree with Zizek to find this essay risible, and not worthy of response.


Jane--thanks for this. I've never heard of Kirsch. Had I done a little homework, I may have spared myself the intervention (I had doubts about it, worries that it was giving attention where none was due). Oh well. Live and learn--and I wouldn't have learned this otherwise.


Hi Jodi,
Very thoughtful post. I wouldn't worry about dignifying Kirsch with a response. I don't think he reads I cite.
I think there was one other point to be taken seriously in Kirsch's thoughtless piece. That is that many of Zizek's "enjoyers" are simply not as radical as he is, or not as radical as some of his writings allow for. Your article on Zizek and democracy is excellent on this score: it brings to light just how consistent an argument there is across his writings contra democracy and how genuinely radical is it, as opposed to say pseudo-radicalisms of Laclau and Mouffe. Some of his writings on violence and revolution could bear the same comparison (although you are right that his conception of a "violent act" could also include Gandhi or MLK - nonetheless, real violence is still on the table as well). So the point is that there are many people who want to enjoy the critique of liberalism and capitalism (and what is more enjoyable than a work by Zizek?) but not accept the challenge to endorse alternatives, esp when those alternatives may be as radical and violent and uncertain as he often portrays them. In other words, DO most people take him seriously when he seems to endorse old-fashioned communism, or do we assume this is performance?
Thus the point was about the relationship of critique to normativity. Can psychoanalytic critique be accepted without implying any particular normative response? Could one be a liberal Zizekian in the end? (Say a la Bill Connolly?) A conservative Zizekian? (Maybe this is what Nietzsche was as an aristocratic immoralist.)

I really appreciated your point about enjoying Zizek though. I think it could be explored. It reminds me of a phenomenon in my field. For certain scholars, it is not enough to be defending an argument, advancing scholarship or making novel contributions. In addition, there often seems to have to be present the surplus enjoyment of believing that in doing so one is countering some form or another of "Orientalism." It seems to be vital for their enjoyment of their own scholarship that there be some windmill of "Orientalist scholarship" which is being radically and heroically undermined by their contribution. Of course, the problem is that the substantive and methodological point is often very banal, something which other scholars take for granted or have no problem admitting. Wouldn't one have to say that in a way these anti-Orientalist scholars are themselves "enjoying Orientalism," of necessity a deracinated "Orientalism" of their own identification?

So your point got me thinking: Is something similar going on on the part of those of us who love Zizek? Is there a similar enjoyment which reading and citing Zizek gives us by permitting us to believe that we engaged in a certain kind of activity?


I would say that our assumption in a situation like this is that the New Republic piece (and other anti-Left writings in high-profile Liberal magazines) deserves a response. This is a point of political strategy that might not interest everyone, but is of interest to me.

I added my voice to the chorus denouncing the article as profoundly dishonest, and I was compelled to do so because I was, quite frankly, outraged. Why? Easy. I enjoy Zizek, too, and I hate listening to miserable, moralizing speeches from hypocritical Liberal pundits. I'm with Zizek and Badiou when I say that they're the biggest theoretical enemy. Theirs are the arguments we have to counter. Jodi is right. There's no joke if you're thinking seriously about social change.

The enjoyment was a huge factor in my outrage. My enjoyment was being characterized as illegal, violent, and dangerous, and that moralizing element was probably what made me put all work aside a couple of days ago to bang out a few angry paragraphs. It was also my source of relief when I saw the post on I Cite.


But, Coleman, isn't it precisely being "illegal, violent, and dangerous" that IS the enjoyment?


I'm not quite sure why it's good left strategy to spend time responding to a knee-jerk response which merely pretends to content, and in doing so to act as if the author is somehow part of substantial political discourse. What next — precious time debunking the WSJ?

I must also say that Zizek's positions have in no way been "consistent...across his writings contra democracy." Witness his pro-Obama vote position, noted (positively, I regret) here at I Cite, which shares the two qualities of being pro-democracy and being profoundly intellectually dishonest (either that, or he just couldn't track the absurdity of his own logic).

And I say this not at all as an anti-Zizekian. Let's be clear: the issues he raises, quite inconstantly I would suggest, want debate. The fact that a social medium whose mission is to exclude such thinking turns out to exclude such thinking — well, I'd rather actually puzzle over the issues.

Joe Clement


Are you suggesting that when Zizek comes out in favor of Obama his position is the same as the millions of others in the United States who went ape-shit for him? I would like you to point out an example of this, because I haven't seen it, and your claim to Zizek being inconsistent or dishonest about this issue seems to rest on that kind of example. It was possible to vote for Obama without supporting him AND without doing it from the disgustingly cynical bend-over called "the lesser of two evils." Who thought that voting, this time or ever, was more than a procedure in administrative re-structuring?

Jodi Dean

At the risk of reducing anyone's position or speaking for someone else, I'll say how I read Jane's remark, namely, as a challenge to those of us (and I'll say to me) who talk revolution and socialism and even violence and then vote for Democrats in general elections and who don't simply do this privately or personally but who also make a public statement about it such that this political position becomes part and parcel of a larger set of political claims and suppositions. After all, an election isn't a 'state of exception.'

I also don't read Jane as letting us off the hook. I'm being unclear, though. It will be easier just to put this in terms of my own position: I knew full well that Obama was a neoliberal and had supported FISA etc. I viewed and view him as a better choice than McCain. This isn't cynical and it isn't support. But it's also not radical struggle; nor does it involve any challenge to electoral politics or the false choices of electoral politics. Does this thus make politics just another topic for blogging or thinking or theory, despite claims and suppositions to the contrary?


Thanks for the thoughtful response, Jodi. That seems, dunno, affectively right?

I was thinking back to Shaviro's Zizekian defense of voting Democratic; maybe I am crediting Zizek with some reasoning that is more properly Steve's.

My understanding of the position is this:
1) Kant reminds us that we might stand in solidarity with those who support the French Revolution for, even though we may hate the specifics of The Terror ourselves, the desire for the Revolution is the general desire for real change in conditions.
2) Correspondingly, though we may not cotton to the specifics of Obama's program, to vote for him is to stand in solidarity with the general hope of others for a real change in conditions.

Do I have that right, more or less?

I find that position objectionable because it analogizes two incommensurate moments: one in which people actively chose to entirely change the form of government, and one in which people chose the exact opposite. And so it is that a demand for an actual and absolute changes in the form of government is forced to testify for maintaining the form of government as it is, which seems to me to deeply misrecognize (and dishonor) what the French revolution was.

I don't think there is that much debate about which candidate was better but rather, as Jodi notes, what would constitute radical action, and what it means to defer it endlessly beyond the horizon — who that finally serves. If Ziek, like Badiou, has a political value, for me it is the preservation of radical action as a non-ironic and immediate possibility, even if — and this is what Zizek at his liberal-baiting best makes evident — it is necessarily perjured and certain to result in some degree of contradiction and harm. So I find Zizek fails when he abandons that position.


I don't know - something strikes me as distinctly ideological in this Obama debate. It reminds me of something Zizek said (I believe in Mapping Ideology, but Jodi will know) about left intellectuals in the West who were disappointed in their erstwhile counterparts in the East who allowed themselves to be hopeful about the demise of communism. I think the line was something like "there is something ideological in these Western intellectuals begrudging Eastern Europeans (what they, the Western leftists, already have) namely political freedoms and some consumer goods." I am quoting from memory but I think that gets the gist of it.

So aren't we here in the same place when we treat Obama like another Gore or Kerry. "We stand with those befuddled people who want an end - any end - to Bush/Cheney, but really..."

The ideological element (this is what I think Zizek might say if he were analyzing our discourse here) is in overlooking the racial element. Isn't there something ideological in our holding our noses at an election which means so much for the millions of descendants of slavery, just like Western socialists who held their noses at Eastern Europeans who (I think Zizek is amongst them) didn't know yet what to think of post-Communism?

Joe Clement


You are right that these are two incommensurate moments, but I do not think the second one is on target in the first place.

Where has Zizek said, effectively, "vote for Obama; don't shit in the middle of the parade"? The allusions to Kant, which Shaviro already made well before the election, weren't ever part of a suggestion for or against certain voting behaviors. Zizek didn't bring up Kant until after the election anyway. There the point was basically that Obama's victory and the energy behind it may be premised on a bunch of illusions, but we (on the Left) should both remain critical of Obama and turn to the former energy of his campaign (ready to return to cynicism at the drop of a hat) and say, "you want change, follow us."


>I also don't read Jane as letting us off the hook. I'm being unclear, though. It will be easier just to put this in terms of my own position: I knew full well that Obama was a neoliberal and had supported FISA etc. I viewed and view him as a better choice than McCain. This isn't cynical and it isn't support.

It sounds something like disavowal.

(But I voted for him too, so...)


Hi Jodi

It has been a while since I have commented. But I think the NR review gets some basic things right about Zizek. However broadly one defines a political act, Zizek often equates its authenticity with a certain demonstration of violence. One can point this out without it being a criticism. I personally do not think zizek is being ironic, or clever or disengenuous. But I also think he never really makes a cogent argument as to how one could sustain or accomplish the goals of a violent revolution - why does a Stalin always follow a Lenin?

Also, I have no idea whether Zizek is personally anti-semitic. In fact, i am inclined to believe he is not. But he repeatedly uses the cliche opposition of the Jews inability to give up the spectral supplement - as opposed to Christianity as the religion of Love. And the reviewer is correct that "the Jew" is one of several hack stereotypes that Zizek returns to repeatedly in order to clarify a larger point. Given that his big target is the neo-liberal post modern west, is the holocaust really the biggest or best example for him? The holocaust (along with the gulag, and the cultural revolution) is used by liberals to prevent us from considering more radical political projects - I think we get it by now. Personally, it gets annoying.

Jodi Dean

Hi Alain, good to hear from you. You are right that Zizek connects violence with the Act, but he also changes/complicates the notion of violence. So, subjective destitution is a kind of radical violence. But this does not mean machine guns and bombs. Also, Zizek often uses anti-Semitism as an example. He also repeats examples from Hitchcock movies. He doesn't often use the holocaust as an example.


I think the NR article is a better critique of Badiou than Zizek, and often it seems that when Zizek discusses the "event" or other such ideas he is just channeling Badiou. That having been said, populating the cartoon with caricatures of Hitler and Stalin is something Zizek enjoys very much.


I was pleased to see jane's contribution to this thread, esp. regarding Kirsch. I had been surprised that so many took his Zizek article seriously. I speak as someone with very little knowledge of Zizek (outside of blogs like this), but it seemed clear to me that the only purpose of such a piece in TNR is as one of their regular attacks on the Left. Content and accuracy are quite beside the point.

(Incidentally, I'd found myself persuaded by Shaviro's posts in favor of voting for Obama--and posted to that effect at my own blog--even though I agreed completely with jane's intervention in those threads. Can these be reconciled? My excuse, I guess, was that I don't see voting as much of a political act.)


Going back to Jodi's original comments on the Kirsch article - I was glad to read it, not because the NR article had made any serious points, but because her typically reflective, self critical comments helped me to think through the question of 'enjoyment of Zizek'; she made the Kirsch article an opportunity for thought - and that's always welcome.

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