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Slavoj Žižek – The Elvis of Philosophy?
Chris Bainbridge zips through the greatest hits of the celebrity post-Marxist.
“The thinker of choice for Europe’s young intellectual vanguard”, a “punk philosopher”, “a roller-coaster ride”, “sometimes bonkers but never boring” and “the Elvis of philosophers” are among the many things that have been said about Slovenian philosopher, culture critic and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek and his works. Žižek (born 1949), who packs out public lecture halls around the world, is currently International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London and Senior Researcher at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Ljubljana – from which he was expelled in the 1970s because his PhD thesis was “too Hegelian and not Marxist enough.” He’s made films too, including one entitled The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema (2006). There is even an Institute of Žižek Studies. When Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991, it instituted a four-person Presidency, for which Žižek stood. He came fifth.
Žižek has a Stakhanovite work ethic and has published some sixty books, six in 2014 alone. His main influences are Hegel, Marx, Jesus, and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. You meet the same ideas, even identical chunks of text, in several of Žižek’s works; so if you don’t grasp an idea first time, you’ll have a better chance the second or third time around. He illustrates his points with a wide range of cultural references, from classic Hitchcock films such as Psycho and Rear Window, more recent films such as Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer (a lesser-known facet of the US President’s early career), to Wagner, Mozart, contemporary Hegelian philosophers such as Catherine Malabou, and Jane Austen, who he claims was a Hegelian writer, though I doubt she was aware of it. But then, after Derrida, we know that what the author intends is not the point.
Žižek uses many jokes in his works, which he claims illustrate profound philosophical points. They are often racist, sexist, anti-semitic, or combinations of all of these. He can be provocative, rude and aggressive – hence the punk comparison – although the punk-rockers of the 1970s were not generally accomplished musicians, whereas Žižek is an extremely erudite thinker. He likes to study and quote writers who are normally considered right-wing because he doesn’t think the left has come up with many original ideas in recent times. And the left does seem to be on the defensive in most of the West. In Europe, it’s on the run from right-wing anti-immigration populist movements.
Žižek’s very fond of arresting statements such as “Hegel was the first post Marxist”, “Gandhi was more violent than Hitler” and “ only a radical leftist can be a true conservative today.” When talking about the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno, Žižek wrote that: “the brilliant paradox works precisely in the same manner as the Wagnerian leitmotif: instead of serving as a nodal point in the complex network of structural mediation, it generates idiotic pleasure by focusing attention on itself.” (Living in the End Times, 2013, p.227). But he could have been talking about himself, because Žižek’s own work is full of brilliant paradoxes which force attention on themselves. The question is, is he just forcing attention on himself, or does he have a coherent philosophy?
It’s difficult to summarise such a prolific writer. To help you answer that question, I will focus on the more narrowly and explicitly ‘political’ aspects of his work, as opposed to the psychoanalytical, epistemological, cultural, or religious aspects – although as any 60s radical and/or feminist knows, this is an artificial distinction, since life is politics and politics is life.
Hegel As The First Post-Marxist
One of Žižek’s key claims is that we are living in the End Times. Capitalism is dying. But we don’t know what to replace it with. Communism as developed by Marxists has been a disaster: firing squads, gulags, mass starvation, and miserable mediocrity even when it was working well. So to find out where we went wrong we have to go back past Marx, to Hegel.
Žižek’s first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, was published in 1989 and puts forward the idea that Hegel (1770-1831) was the first post-Marxist. Hegel died when Marx was thirteen – seventeen years before Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto. So how can this idea be credible?
What Žižek means is that for Marxists all conflicts and struggles – national, race, gender, sexuality, ecological – in society can and must be subsumed under the class struggle, and they’ll be resolved when the proletariat takes power, and not before. But it’s not so for post-Marxists, and it was not so for Hegel, either.
By the 1950s it was becoming evident that the proletariat, as generally understood then in the West – white male skilled and semi-skilled manual workers, and labourers – were not going to lead a revolution. They had been bought off by the cars and TVs provided by consumer capitalism. So revolutionaries had to look to marginal and excluded minorities, such as blacks, gays, students, and the ‘lumpenproletariat’. This thesis was formulated and popularised by Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man (1964). Hegel had said something similar. First, that there was not one overriding conflict that would subsume all the others; and second, that there would always be a pobel – a rabble on the fringes of society who would never be fully integrated into it. Žižek returns to this theme in Less than Nothing, his major work of 2012, in which he nobly tries to bring Hegel back to the centre of the philosophical stage by saying that the pobel, like the poor, will always be with us. The underclass may erupt from time to time in outbursts of violence, as in parts of London in 2011, or LA in 1992, or Paris in 2005, but the violence was largely directed against local shopkeepers and business owners, the people closest to them, and is ultimately futile. The underclass don’t have the skills, or the will, to transform society.
Slavoj Žižek ready for the revolution. Portrait by Darren McAndrew 2016
Is Capitalism Nearing Its End?
According to Žižek in Living in the End Times, the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ are:
1. Worldwide ecological crisis (global warming, resource depletion).
2. Imbalances within the economic system (the financial crisis of of 2008).
3. The biogenetic revolution.
4. Exploding social divisions (the riots, the growth of various type of fundamentalism, at the moment, notably Daesh/Isis).
Hence his view that capitalism is nearing its end.
I’m somewhat sceptical of this claim. Trotskyists have been telling us that capitalism is nearing its final crisis – its ‘death agony’ – since the 1930s, but even though it lurches from crisis to crisis with greater or lesser frequency, it’s still with us. However, capitalism’s solution to social tensions and problems has always been continuing economic growth, and it’s hard to see how the planet can support that indefinitely.
In Trouble in Paradise, one of his shorter and more accessible works, published in 2014, Žižek takes issue with the people we might call right wing optimists – those who think that the present is the best time in human history, thanks to capitalism. He also quotes the sociobiologist Stephen Pinker, who in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), argues that human society is less violent now than it’s ever been. This view seems somewhat difficult to square with our experience of Isis/Daesh, the desperate plight of the Syrian refugees, and the continuing violence in Palestine. No doubt the optimists would claim that these are mere eddies in the calm river of history, exceptions rather than the rule. Perhaps it’s only the West that’s in the economic doldrums: the developing world is continuing to grow, to such an extent that there are now economic migrants going from Portugal back to its former colony, Angola.
The country that Žižek says typifies the ‘paradise’ in which we’re now living is South Korea. Here “we find top economic performance, but with frantic intensity of the work rhythm; unbridled consumerist heaven, but permeated with the hell of solitude and despair; abundant material wealth, but with the desertification of the landscape; imitation of ancient traditions, but with the highest suicide rate in the world” (TIP p.17). He goes on to say (in yet another ‘brilliant paradox’): “today’s conservatives are not really conservative. While fully endorsing capitalism’s continual self-revolutionising, they just want to make it more efficient by supplementing it with some traditional institutions (religion, for instance) to constrain its destructive consequences for social life and to maintain social cohesion. Today, a true conservative is the one who fully admits the antagonisms and deadlocks of global capitalism, who rejects simple progressivism, and who is attentive to the dark obverse of progress. In this sense, only a radical Leftist can today be a true conservative” (p.19).
Žižek On Violence
What Žižek means by saying that “Gandhi is more violent than Hitler” is that Gandhi achieved more fundamental and lasting change than Hitler. Thus he’s using the word ‘violent’ in a completely different way than we normally use it. I detect here, and in his other ‘brilliant paradoxes’, something of the Law of Academic Overkill, as formulated in the 1960s by the anthropologist Max Gluckman: To get people to take notice, young and/or unknown academics have to overstate their case. Just saying that “Gandhi achieved more radical and lasting change than Hitler” is fairly uncontroversial, and innocuous.
However another theme of Žižek’s is that we shouldn’t rush to condemn the violence of revolutionaries, since established society is itself based on violence. Indeed, the definition of a state is ‘that which has the monopoly of the legitimate use of force in a given territory’. There’s nothing new in all this – Žižek quotes Mark Twain to this effect:
“There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’ if we would remember it and consider it – one wrought in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood. Our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, so to speak, whereas what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak?” (from A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur, quoted in TIP, p.204).
Žižek’s attitude to violence seems to be profoundly ambiguous, both abhorring it and proclaiming more violence to be necessary. His critics slate him for saying that Stalin and Pol Pot “weren’t violent enough” – but he doesn’t seem to mean they should have killed even more people, but rather that they should have been more like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., in the sense of having a better idea of what they were trying to replace the present system with.
Salvaging Christianity For The Revolution
Žižek also believes that there’s a progressive element to Christianity that we should preserve and develop. He believes that Marxism and Christianity both have an interest in social progress, and should unite against New Age Spirituality, which he claims can lead to great cruelty. But neither can it be denied that Marxism and Christianity have also both been associated with great cruelty.
For Žižek you don’t have to believe that God exists to find value in Christianity. The important thing is to practice agape – old Greek for ‘unconditional love’. He’s fond of quoting Jesus’s statement that “Wherever two or three people are gathered together in my name, that’s where I am”, and he claims that the Holy Spirit is to be found in the Communist Party or any other “radical emancipatory collective.” But he also makes a great deal of Jesus’s statement that “I bring not peace, but a sword.” His idea of Jesus seems to be a dedicated revolutionary in the mould of Che Guevara, although he is also well aware of the cruelty of Guevara’s vision: to love the people as a whole, you sometimes have to kill some of them as individuals.
Žižek talks about communism in most of his works, but he uses the word in several different ways. At the end of Trouble in Paradise he says that “Communism today is not the name of a solution but the name of a problem, the problem of commons in all its dimensions – the commons of nature as the substance of our life, the problems of our biogenetic commons, the problem of our cultural commons (‘intellectual property’), and last but not least, the commons as the universal space of humanity, from which no one should be excluded” (p.214).
Is this just another example of his idiosyncratic use of words? Elsewhere Žižek characterises communism as the collective provision of bridges, streetlights, flood barriers – all things that we take for granted now, but which haven’t always been uncontroversial.
Communism for Žižek is encapsulated in the music of Eric Satie, who, Žižek tells us, was on the Central Committee of the French Communist Party in the 1920s. Satie said his music was intended as a backdrop, and that it didn’t matter what order the sections of his pieces were played in. Žižek claims that this is communism in music: “a music which shifts the listener’s attention from the great theme [as explored by, say, Beethoven] to its inaudible background, in the same way that communist theory and politics refocus our attention away from heroic individuals to the immense work and suffering of ordinary people” (Living in the End Times, p.381).
Another key point about Žižek is that he thinks that the three most important philosophers are Plato, Descartes and Hegel. Plato’s forms don’t exist in the real world but they are what we measure the real world against. Similarly, communism is the ideal society which we can never attain, but also the yardstick against which we measure our social and political arrangements. His description of communism, as given above, is somewhat vague and hazy, and he says it’s necessarily so. Yet how can we judge our societies if we only have a vague idea of the standard we’re judging them against? Other utopians, such as Thomas More, William Morris, and Plato himself in the Republic, went into quite a lot of detail about their ideal societies.
What Is To Be Done?
If communism is the question rather than the answer, what should we do, here and now, to face down the four horsemen and move towards the vague ideal? In another arresting paradox, Žižek says: “Don’t act: think.” But he does sketch a few prescriptions for action.
One of the ideas he does consider to be worth pursuing is that of a ‘Citizen’s Income’, to which everyone is entitled whether they work or not. It has been introduced, or is being introduced, in one form or another, in Utrecht, Finland, Brazil and Alaska. Put forward by Thomas Paine in the Eighteenth Century, it has been advocated by thinkers on both the left and right. It appeals to the left because everyone has a guaranteed level of income, and so security, whatever their circumstances, and it’s also a way of resolving the age-old contradiction between freedom and equality. It’s also been advocated by right-wing philosophers such as the German Peter Sloterdijk, since it guarantees that people will be able to afford to buy the goods capitalism produces. Sloterdijk argues that it’s not the rich who exploit the poor any more, it’s the other way round. We’re all dependent on creative geniuses such as Steve Jobs and George Soros, who give to the world out of a sense of honour and pride. We are all social democrats now, in that it’s the redistribution of the wealth created by the gifted few that keeps the system going. A nice, plausible thesis, until you consider who it was that the state had to bail out in the recent economic crisis.
What are the problems with the idea of the Citizen’s Income? It will lead to an improvement in the pay and conditions of workers at the bottom of the pile; but will they become so choosy that the worst jobs won’t get done? And if so, will it matter? There is already a great deal of resentment about welfare claimants. How could we sell people the idea that work becomes purely voluntary, a matter of ‘honour’ and ‘pride’? And perhaps the biggest issue is, who counts as a citizen – who is included and who’s excluded? The spectre of right-wing populism raises its head again here. Perhaps the Citizen’s Income idea needs to be implemented initially on a European scale before trying to apply it to the world as a whole. In any event, we should watch the current experiments with interest.
In fact, Žižek is very keen on Europe, and considers social democracy its finest achievement. But Europe needs to be remade in very different terms – he thinks the contemporary EU requirement that all EU states should eradicate their debt to be absurd, a recipe for economic depression. He held out great hopes for the Syriza government in Greece, but not so much now since it seems to have capitulated to Germany’s demands.
In Trouble in Paradise he says that we need a “new Master” (sic), a Thatcher of the Left: a leader who would repeat Margeret Thatcher’s transformation of the field of presuppositions shared by the political elite of all persuasions, but in the opposite direction. But “a true Master is not an instrument of discipline or prohibition.” His message is not ‘you cannot’ or ‘you have to’ but a liberating ‘you can’. Steve Jobs came close to the concept of a true Master when he said “It’s not our job to figure out what people want. It’s our job to figure out what we want. It’s then up to the people to decide if they will follow” (p.185).
John Gray, another famous analyst of modern society, writes, “Interpreting Žižek is not without difficulties. There’s his inordinate prolixity, the stream of texts that no one could read in its entirety, if only because the torrent never ceases flowing” (New York Review of Books, 2012). We’ve taken a short ride on the roller coaster. Our reaction may be “That was great!” or “Thank goodness it’s over!”, but are we any further down the line, or do we just get off at the same station we got on at? Does Žižek have a coherent philosophy which shows us the way forward? I’ve been reading Žižek for a few years and haven’t found a satisfying philosophy yet, at least partly because I haven’t fully comprehended all his influences. But I hope – and think – that it’s in there somewhere. In any event, it’s well worth going along for the ride, if only for the astonishing range of writers, filmmakers and musicians he quotes. I’d recommend you start with Trouble in Paradise, as it’s relatively short. But you do need to take him with a huge pinch of salt.
One of the southern Slav (Yugoslav) words for ‘Cheers’ is ‘Zivali’. So here’s a toast: “Zivali Žižek!”
© Chris Bainbridge 2016
Chris Bainbridge works as a transport planner in London and is a member of Barnes Philosophy Club: barnesphiloclub.blogspot.co.uk.