gle.ovo.

Zizek/Hollywood

Zizek is typically, and willfully, perverse in his praise of 300 (found via Dejan): everyone else on the Left has denounced the film as a fascist spectacle, allegorically praising militarism and the American war in Iraq, so of course Zizek must instead praise the film as a revolutionary allegory of struggle against the American evil empire.

Now, I still haven’t seen 300 (I don’t get to see many movies except on DVD these days), so I obviously can’t judge whose reading is more ‘correct.’ But that can’t stop me from wondering to what extent Zizek’s contrarianism is just a sort of idiotic macho one-upmanship (as in: I can be even more outrageous and anti-commonsensical than anybody else), of the same sort that is routinely practiced by right-wing political economists like David Friedman and Steven Landsburg (who delight in arguring, for instance, that Ralph Nader’s safety regulations caused automobile accidents to increase), or evolutionary theorists like the guys (whose names escape me at the moment) who wrote about how rape was an adaptive strategy.

There is something drearily reactive about always trying to prove that the opposite of what everyone else thinks is really correct. It’s an elitist gesture of trumpeting one’s own independence from the (alleged) common herd; but at the same time, it reveals a morbid dependence upon, or concern with, the very majority opinions that one pretends to scorn. If all you are doing is inverting common opinion, that is the clearest sign possible that you are utterly dependent upon such common opinion: it motivates and governs your every gesture. That is why you need so badly to negate it. Zizek totally depends upon the well-meaning, right-thinking liberal ideology that he sets out to frustrate and contradict at every turn. His own ideas remain parasitic upon those of the postmodern, multicultural consensus that he claims to upset.

Zizek, unlike the free-market economists and evolutionary theorists, justifies his contrianism in Hegelian terms; he’s performing the negation of the negation, or something like that. But this is exactly Deleuze’s Nietzschean point, that a critique grounded in negation is an utterly impoverished and reactive one. Zizek’s favorite rhetorical formulas all always of the order of: “it might seem that x; but in fact is not the exact opposite of x really the case?” Zizek always fails to imagine the possibility of a thought that would move obliquely to common opinion, rather than merely being its mirror reversal; and that is why I find him, ultimately, to be so limited and reductive.

Even a far better recent article by Zizek, on Robespierre and revolution, suffers from this sort of defect. Glen of Event Mechanics pointed me to this piece; Glen rightly observes that Zizek is in fact quite good here when he expounds on the view of revolution-as-event that we find in Deleuze, and in Foucault’s much-maligned (but wrongly so) comments on the Iranian revolution. To see the hope and promise of the revolutionary event, despite all that goes wrong when that revolution is later institutionalized, is essentially a Kantian position, and one that I think is necessary for us to maintain today; it is our absolute, categorical moral obligation to reject the ideology of No Alternative, and to act as if something other and better than today’s universal market capitalism were possible. We know that there will always be a gap between this moral imperative and whatever empirical accomplishments we manage to make; the revolution will always disappoint to some extent (we can, and should, try to make it less disappointing rather than more, but we will never entirely succeed); yet we may not give it up and acquiesce in the “actually existing” system of systematic injustice.

Zizek almost makes this point — but this is again where his reactivity, his will to the negative, reasserts itself and spoils everything. Zizek moves from a Kantian recognition of the gap between the noumenal and the phenomenal, or between our obligations and their (always incomplete) realization, to a Hegelian bridging of that gap via the creaky mechanisms of negation. He moves from Deleuze’s and Foucault’s Kantianianism regarding the hope of revolutionary action, to his tiresome and glibly romanticized Hegelian praise of “terror” and “ruthless punishment” as a means of institutionalizing the revolutionary event. There are the usual invocations of Lenin and even Stalin (once again, we get Zizek’s communism as a matter of anybody except Tito).

A lot of this recalls the debate, a year or so ago, on this blog, and also here, with contributions also by K-punk and Jodi among others, around the question of revolution and “subjective destitution” as raised in V for Vendetta. I am not sure I am able to revive that discussion here — if for no other reason than because (as I said) I haven’t managed to see 300. But I have to comment, at least, that the thing I found most repellent in either of the Zizek articles I am discussing was the following:

In today’s era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently “Fascist” about these values.

This is the sort of slippery slide, fueled by the spirit of negation, that I think needs to be rejected as much as acquiescence in the actual world system needs to be rejected. There is a real analytic acuity behind identifying what Zizek calls “hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology”: this has to do with the way that, for today’s neoliberal capitalism, it is much more effective to turn something into a commodity than to ban it or censor it or otherwise repress it. Anything can be commodified, and by that fact alone what has thus been packaged and offered for sale is deprived of any radical efficacy, any potential for real change. The difference of the future from the past, or what Whitehead called “Creative Advance,” is neutralized by being drawn into the structures of the market, of “individual choice” in a condition of overall “scarcity,” etc etc ad nauseam.

However, the neoliberal nostrum of the market as a regulatory mechanism for everything is a utopian (or more properly, dystopian) ideal that doesn’t actually work out in practice, which is why — as Wendy Brown in particular has written about — neoliberalism needs to be supplemented by neoconservatism, with its harshly repressive moralism. Neoliberalism without neoconservatism threatens to explode into violence and chaos, or otherwise go astray. Whereas neoconservatism on its own — the homophobic and patriarchal strictures of the fundamentalist Christian Right in America, for instance — would lead to the stagnation or collapse of capitalist productivity; which is why neoconservatism is always presented only as a supplement to neoliberalism, its Biblical moralism sugar-coated with a bizarre sense of the individual, or more often the family, as a sort of economic enterprise in its own right, to be treated with a combination of market discipline and New Age-y regimes of healing and self-regulation.

Zizek, I think, does indeed grasp this dynamic quite well. But he goes astray, yet again, when he essentializes and psychologizes the situation in terms of his theory of the superego command, or imperative, of enjoyment. In other words, he sees the psychological dilemma of meaning and groundedness — the reason why neoconservatism is needed as a supplement, why neoliberalism by itself cannot produce the social cohesion necessary for the “market mechanism” to function at all — as the root of the problem, and totally ignores the way the whoe process is driven by the drive of capital accumulation (reflected in the neoliberal replacement of all other social forms with that of the market).

The result is that Zizek displaces and misrecognizes both the motor force of capital accumulation, and the force of the Kantian categorical imperative. By identifying “hedonist permissivity” as the problem — when it is really just a product of the forces of capital accumulation — he in effect gives the exact same analysis of postmodern capitalsim as the fundamentalist Christian right does, and offers a pseudo-solution (discipline and the spirit of sacrifice) that, like theirs, only serves to preserve the world market system from its own disaggregating tendencies. Discipline, the spirit of sacrifice, and the embrace of terror also function as a sort of grotesque parody of the categorical imperative, the result precisely of betraying it by institutionalizing it. (Zizek defends the appeal to terror in the Robespierre article as a form of what Badiou calls “fidelity to the event.” I don’t know Badiou well enough to either support or reject this reading; but from a Deleuzian point of view, it is precisely a betrayal of the event to seek to incarnate or effectuate in this way; rather than practicing a “counter-effectuation,” which is how fidelity to the categorical imperative can in fact be maintained despite all inevitable disappointments).

Perhaps it is all too easy, in the wake of how the 1960s counterculture has become the official market culture (or one of its cultures) in the 21st century, to invoke Emma Goldman’s famous statement about how, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” But the denunciation of “hedonist permissivity” is certainly not the way to go — Zizek’s loathing for this, like the similar loathings on the part of fundamentalist Christians and Jihadist Muslims, is a false response, based upon a misrecognition of the basic problem. (The Jihadists are responding, in their own way, to the depredations unleashed on the world, and the Muslim world in particular, of predatory capitalism; but their solution is as bad as, or worse than, the problem, and bespeaks only the way that any liberatory or creative alternative has been systematically blocked by the marketization of everything). I don’t think emulating either the Spartans or Robespierre is much of a solution to the mess, and the exploitation, we find ourselves in. Zizek’s theories are little more than yet another demonstration, or symptom, of the situation that he himself has pointed to: the fact that, in the current climate, we find it difficult to imagine any alternative to capitalism; that in fact we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Zizek’s thought itself is one more demonstration of our current blockage of imagination.



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