UK paperback

Some sort of fascist

More anti-Zizek hysteria

Since it has for a time been my self-imposed burden around these parts to point out idiotic things said about Slavoj Zizek and then explain at tedious length how they are idiotic (don’t ask why; I don’t even like Zizek that much), I winced when I came across Adam Kotsko’s link to this enormoslab of Zizek-hating in The New Republic. But for you, readers, I read it. And it’s quite interesting as an example of the kind of innuendo and sloppiness (not to call it deliberate fakery) that often characterises spluttering denunciations of the man. Since Kirsch does little more than cherry-pick out-of-context Zizek quotes to make the angry face at, I will adopt the same technique here in solemn hommage to his hard-of-reading spleen.

And the whole premise of Violence, as of Zizek’s recent work in general, is that resistance to the liberal-democratic order is so urgent that it justifies any degree of violence.

No it isn’t. Next!

Zizek, who sometimes employs religious tropes but certainly does not believe in religion

Religion, as I understand it in general, is the believing in a god or whatnot. But what is this believing in religion of which Kirsch speaks? It can’t be simply that I believe in religion if I acknowledge that religion exists in the world, because I don’t think Zizek denies the existence of religion. That would be silly. And yet he “does not believe in religion”. Say Zizek did believe in religion — what exactly would he be believing? Oh, forget it.

For the revolutionary, Zizek instructs in In Defense of Violence, violence involves “the heroic assumption of the solitude of a sovereign decision.” He becomes the “master” (Zizek’s Hegelian term) because “he is not afraid to die, [he] is ready to risk everything.”

What is this book called In Defense of Violence of which Kirsch speaks? I’ve never heard of it; and what is more, Zizek has never written it. In fact these quotations come from Zizek’s discussion of Robespierre published in Verso’s Virtue and Terror series, ((The first quotation, but not as far as I can tell the second, also appears in Violence, page 173. Wherever Kirsch got it, he has copied it down wrong: in both cases Zizek writes “the solitude of sovereign decision”, not, as Kirsch gives it, “the solitude of a sovereign decision”. A fuller context from Violence: “Divine violence should thus be conceived as divine in the precise sense of the old Latin motto vox populi, vox dei: not in the perverse sense of ‘we are doing it as mere instruments of the People’s Will’, but as the heroic assumption of the solitude of sovereign decision. It is a decision (to kill, to risk or lose one’s own life) made in absolute solitude, with no cover in the big Other.”)) which fact Kirsch has carefully hidden by suppressing the sentence that comes immediately after the second one he quotes: “In other words, the ultimate meaning of Robespierre’s first-person singular (“I”) is: I am not afraid to die”. Instead, Kirsch thinks it’s okay to pretend that the preceding constitutes Zizek’s own general “instruct[ion]” to wannabe violentists.

But I suppose if your head was so smoky with the fumes of righteous ire that you accidentally made up the name of a book and couldn’t be bothered to check who was writing about whom at the time — well, who would care, right? Especially if you had this up your sleeve next:

There is a name for the politics that glorifies risk, decision, and will; that yearns for the hero, the master, and the leader; that prefers death and the infinite to democracy and the pragmatic; that finds the only true freedom in the terror of violence. Its name is not communism. Its name is fascism, and in his most recent work Zizek has inarguably revealed himself as some sort of fascist. He admits as much in Violence, where he quotes the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk on the “re-emerging Left-Fascist whispering at the borders of academia”–“where, I guess, I belong.” There is no need to guess.

Some sort of fascist. Maybe the sort that’s not really a fascist but it’s fun to say so anyway because it makes your “critique” sound more important? You’ve got at least to admire the bathetic haste with which Kirsch scurries down from the solemn certainty of “inarguably revealed himself as…” to the weaselly mutter “some sort of…”, before rousing himself for the triumphant squeak of “FASCIST!”

Still, Kirsch is right that “there’s no need to guess” about that part in Violence because I can look it up, since I actually read the book and everything. Let’s see:

Leftist political movements are like ‘banks of rage’. They collect rage investments from people and promise large-scale revenge, the re-establishment of global justice […]

The problem is simply that there is never enough rage capital. This is why it is necessary to borrow from or combine with other rages: national or cultural. In fascism, the national rage predominates; Mao’s communism mobilises the rage of exploited poor farmers, not proletarians. No wonder that Sloterdijk systematically uses the term ‘leftist fascism’ […] For Sloterdijk, fascism is ultimately a secondary variation of (and reaction to) the properly leftist project of emancipatory rage. […] Sloterdijk even mentions the ‘re-emerging Left-Fascist whispering at the borders of academia’, where, I guess, I belong … [Violence, pp158-9.]

Is Zizek here “admit[ting]” that he is a fascist? Of course he isn’t: in the course of his critique of Sloterdijk, he is ironically acknowledging that Sloterdijk would call him a “Left-Fascist”. ((The term is explicated in a footnote: “The irony is that, in this work, Sloterdijk regularly resorts to the term Linksfaschismus made famous by his arch-opponent in Germany, Jürgen Habermas, who used it back in 1968 to denounce violent student protesters who wanted to replace debate with more ‘direct action’. Perhaps this detail tells us more than may at first appear, since Sloterdijk’s conclusion, his ‘positive programme’, is not so different from Habermas’s, in spite of their public antagonism.” (p194) )) Selective quotation, of course, can always be used to make it appear that the writer you are attacking endorses everyone he cites, even when he explicitly doesn’t. Weirdly, this seems to happen repeatedly in outbursts against Zizek in particular…

For his final trick, Kirsch tries hard to smear Zizek as an anti-Semite, the details of which need not bother us here, except that I will point out that an argument of the form “Even if X were true, Y would still be true” is not a sly way of somehow “keep[ing] open […] the possibility” that X really is true, as Kirsch affects to think.

Phew. So, what idiotic things have you read recently, readers?

25


Balanced

The wrongs of “Melanie Phillips”

’Tis the season of goodwill and cheer to all — except, of course, to frothing hate-puppet “Melanie Phillips”. In a devastating recent post, “she” demonstrates the evils of “human rights culture”, on the grounds that:

1) The ‘rights’ that that it claims are universal are nothing of the kind. Because they are balanced by competing rights they are highly contingent on the whims and prejudices of individual judges to decide which of them comes out on top.

The post is about Britain’s Human Rights Act, which makes the European Convention on Human Rights British law. So which rights in ECHR are, as “Melanie” says, “balanced by competing rights”? Let’s see. The rights announced by ECHR include:

  1. A right to life — this is, of course, balanced by my right to kill people.
  2. A right not to be tortured or subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment — this one is balanced by the right of “Melanie Phillips” to continue writing “her” columns, even though they inflict inhuman and degrading treatment on their readers.
  3. A right not to be subject to slavery or forced labour — balanced by the right of “Melanie Phillips” to exist only as a fictionsuit entirely under the control of a mad satirist.
  4. A right to liberty and security of person — balanced by the government’s right to lock people up without trial and export them to foreign countries for torture.
  5. A right to a fair trial (see above).
  6. A right not to be punished for an act that was not a criminal offence at the time it was committed — perhaps this one is also “balanced” by the right to punish someone for an act that was never committed at all (see 4).

It’s an open-and-shut-case so far, isn’t it, readers? Only an idiot would think that a right not to be tortured or arbitrarily killed can possibly be called “universal”, ie applying in all circumstances.

Well, perhaps “Melanie” was particularly thinking (if that is not too strong a term) of the famous rights to privacy, freedom of conscience and religion, and free expression. In that case, though, it would not be much of a gotcha to point out that they are not absolute rights, because “limitations” and “restrictions” to them are already allowed, for obvious reasons, by ECHR itself (albeit in terms of studied vagueness).

What, then, are concrete examples of the absurdities to which human-rights law leads in our fair country? “Melanie” drops a shattering example on our trembling heads:

Thus evangelical Christians, for example, find themselves arrested or sacked for upholding their Christian beliefs about homosexuality. Their right to practise their religion is struck down.

In other words, it constitutes a pernicious assault on liberty that religious zealots (but only of the self-identifying Christian type) are fascistically prevented from spreading their hatred against gays far and wide. The “right” to persecute homosexuals under the aegis of freedom of religion, it seems, is a right that definitely should be absolute. So in this case, “Melanie”‘s problem appears to be not with the whole existence of “human rights” in law, but in the particular situation that everyone’s inalienable right to bellow contumely against homosexuals from street corners all over Britain can be circumscribed by whimsical and probably limp-wristed judges.

The column reaches its juridico-philosophical climax as “Melanie” jabbers:

3) Most fundamental of all, the very idea of setting down in statute what rights we have runs absolutely counter to the foundational principle of English common law and the unique principle of liberty it enshrines – that everything is permitted unless it is expressly forbidden. Human rights law turns that into ‘only what is codified is to be permitted’ – which is deeply illiberal.

To which nonsensical batshit commenter “Jonny Mac” replies testily:

No it doesn’t. That’s flat-out wrong.

But such a pedantically fact-based response misses the paradoxical genius of “Melanie”‘s performance: if “rights” are bad, then being wrong is good!

What rights have you “balanced” recently, readers?

17


Chinese Democracy

Appetite for deconstruction

I trust that unspeak.net readers have now had time to digest the awesomeness that is Chinese Democracy by Guns N’ Roses, so thrillingly avant- and après-garde at the same time; and also to daydream about how even more mind-crushingly awesome it might have been were Slash still in the band. ((In a quixotically maximalist attempt at compensation, Axl has employed approximately 1,347 shredders to go widdly-widdly simultaneously on each track, but they never add up to the melodic improvisatory genius of a single Slash.)) But some people aren’t happy with the record. Notably, the Chinese government:

A newspaper published by China’s ruling Communist Party is blasting the latest Guns N’ Roses album as an attack on the Chinese nation […] In an article […] headlined “American band releases album venomously attacking China,” the Global Times said unidentified Chinese Internet users had described the album as part of a plot by some in the West to “grasp and control the world using democracy as a pawn.”

I think something must have got lost in translation here. How can you use a pawn to grasp the world? And how can democracy itself be a pawn? What does it get promoted to when it reaches the eighth rank? Benign dictatorship?

The album “turns its spear point on China,” the article said.

So let me get this straight. Axl Rose is playing global chess, using democracy as a pawn, while also holding a spear and pointing its pointy point at, um, China. Which is understandably frightened because it doesn’t have shitloads of nuclear weapons. These are strong allegations for “unidentified Chinese Internet users” to be making against an insaniac heavy-metal genius. ((There is some controversy over what is perhaps the album’s most insaniac moment, the way Axl sings the line “But I don’t want to do it” on “Sorry”. Chuck Klosterman thinks the accent employed here, and nowhere else, is “quasi-Transylvanian” or, alternatively, “Mexican vampire”. For my part, I am sure it is a deliberate impression of Derek Zoolander.))

But wait. Is Chinese Democracy really a musical version of neoconservative foreign policy? Let us consult the lyrics of the song that actually mentions China. It’s called, brilliantly, “Chinese Democracy”:

If they were missionaries
Real time visionaries
Sitting’ in a Chinese stew
To view my disinfatutation…

Not much about invading China and forcing democracy on it there. But the reference to “Chinese stew” as a bad thing to sit in is certainly an affront to traditional Chinese cuisine. Does this image of sitting in a stew, combined with the reference to “missionaries”, even imply cannibalism with Chinese characteristics?

I know that I’m a classic case
Watch my disenchanted face
Blame it on the Falun Gong
They seen the end
And you can’t hold on now…

Oh no, he mentioned Falun Gong, the nutty qigong sect that the Chinese government harshes on as an “evil cult”. What’s more, he seems to be endorsing whatever Falun Gong’s crazy apocalyptic vision ((A Falun Gong practitioner in comments assures us that they do not have any crazy apocalyptic vision of “the end”, which is nice.)) of “the end” is. It’s not looking good. Well, let us suspend judgment until the chorus:

Cause it would take a lot more hate than you
To end the fascination
Even with an iron fist
More than you got rule a nation
When all I’ve got is precious time

“More than you got [to] rule a nation” — well, we can relax: this whole song is merely an allegory, using geopolitical themes to describe a poisonous personal relationship. Right? Well, that is what is printed on the lyric sheet. However, in the first chorus what Axl seems to be actually singing is:

Even with an iron fist
All they got to rule a nation…

And “they” can be none other than the Chinese government, ruling the nation with nothing but their iron fists while Axl tries to grasp and control the world in his fist, which is not iron, but is holding both a pawn and a spear. It’s an exciting confrontation between massive fists, to be sure. Gary Barlow from Take That is trying to join in with his fist of pure emotion, but I’m not sure he understands the stakes.

The outro also has Axl screaming things not printed on the lyric sheet, including:

When your Great Wall rocks, blame yourself

If that’s not pointing a spear at China’s iron fist, I don’t know what is. Still, it could all be a brilliant metaphor, couldn’t it? Let us consult the artist’s own vision of what “Chinese Democracy” means. Back in 1999, Axl said:

Well, there’s a lot of Chinese democracy movements, and it’s something that there’s a lot of talk about, and it’s something that will be nice to see. It could also just be like an ironic statement. I don’t know, I just like the sound of it.

So do I! Do you, readers?

5


Disturbances

Unspeak from ‘the Territories’


I have just read the excellent new collection of essays by David Grossman, Writing in the Dark. The first essay is called “Books that Have Read Me” (2002, available online here), and had I known of its existence while writing Unspeak I would surely have cited the following passage:

When a country or a society ?nds itself — no matter for what reasons — in a prolonged state of incongruity between its founding values and its political circumstances, a rift can emerge between the society and its identity, between the society and its “inner voice.” The more complex and contradictory the situation becomes and the more the society has to compromise in order to contain all its disparities, the more it creates a different system for itself, an ad hoc system of norms, of “emergency values,” keeping double books of its identity.

I am not saying anything new here. Those who live in such a reality, as we do in Israel, will ?nd it easy to understand how fears consolidate ideals around themselves, how needs become values, and how a subjective world-view and a self-image that is wholly unsuited to reality can materialize. A special kind of language then begins to emerge, one that is usually a manipulation on the part of those who wish to prolong the distorted situation. It is a language of words intended not to describe reality but to obfuscate it, to allay it. It depicts a reality that does not exist, an imaginary state constructed by wishful thinking, while large and complex elements of the actual reality remain wordless, in the hope that they will somehow fade away and vanish. In such conditions one of our most dubious talents arises: the talent for passivity, for self-erasure, for reducing the inner surface of our soul lest it get hurt. In other words, the talent for being a victim. […]

[In 1987] I was working as a newscaster on the Kol Israel radio news. I was given dozens, if not hundreds, of items to read that sounded something like this: “A local youth was killed during disturbances in the Territories.” Notice the shrewdness of the sentence: “disturbances” — as if there were some order or normative state in the Territories that was brie?y disturbed; “in the Territories” — we would never expressly say “the Occupied Territories”; “youth” — this youth might have been a three-year-old boy, and of course he never had a name; “local” — so as not to say “Palestinian,” which would imply someone with a clear national identity; and above all, note the verb “was killed” — no one killed him. It would have been almost intolerable to admit that our hands spilled this blood, and so he “was killed.” (Sometimes the passive voice is the last refuge of the patriot.)

11


Change

Electile dysfunction

“Melanie Phillips”, the long-running British satire on pig-ignorant, swivel-eyed, paranoid, bellicose and vicious Yahooism, outdoes “herself” on this historic day on which a historical change in history itself has been happened by ourselves, the needy we changed.

Howls “Melanie”, “her” last hold on grammar burned away by the pyroclastic slime of “her” own gibbering hatred:

[T]he enemies of America, freedom and the west will certainly be rejoicing today. […] Obama has said in terms that he thinks the US constitution is flawed. America’s belief in itself as defending individual liberty, truth and justice on behalf of the free world will now be expiated instead as its original sin. Those who have for the past eight years worked to bring down the America that defends and protects life and liberty are today ecstatic. They have stormed the very citadel on Pennsylvania Avenue itself.

Millions of Americans remain lion-hearted, decent, rational and sturdy. They find themselves today abandoned, horrified, deeply apprehensive for the future of their country and the free world. No longer the land of the free and the home of the brave; they must now look elsewhere.

Sturdy ?

41


Atom thefts

Pity the poor sub

From the print edition of the IHT, October 29, p3:

Atom thefts increasing, watchdog informs UN

How can they tell?

12


Document

Freedom of information, EU-style

Poor Gordon Brown. No sooner does he save the world than he finds that, as they say, questions are being asked about Peter “Lord” Mandelson, whom he brought back into the government to help save the world some more.

Peter “Lord” Mandelson had claimed that he didn’t know yacht-owning Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska until 2006. On Friday this claim was clarified: Mandelson had in fact dined with Deripaska in 2004 “at a fashionable Moscow restaurant just weeks after he was appointed Trade Commissioner” for the EU. Later, Mandelson “cut tariffs on imports of aluminium into the EU which benefited Mr Deripaska’s company Rusal — one of the world’s largest manufacturers of aluminium — to the tune of tens of millions of pounds.”

So as to head off any suggestion of impropriety, the Telegraph has been asking the EU for the records of all Mandelson’s meetings with Deripaska while the former was trade commissioner. The EU’s response is not exactly helpful, as the newspaper reports:

Under the European Union’s “access to documents” regulations, upheld in the EU courts last year, the Commission should make public details of meetings between Commissioners, their officials and lobbyists.

But repeated requests by The Sunday Telegraph for details of meetings between Lord Mandelson and Mr Deripaska, under the EU’s transparency “1049 rule”, have been flatly refused.

The European Commission has insisted that any records or diaries of formal meetings relating to Lord Mandelson are not “documents”.

An EU spokesman said: “The concept of document to which regulation 1049 applies must be distinguished from that of information. The public’s right of access covers only documents and not information in the wider meaning. Only information contained in existing documents has to be treated under the regulation.”

Well, according to the EU regulation in question, 1049/2001, a “document” is defined thus in Article 3(a):

a) ‘document’ shall mean any content whatever its medium (written on paper or stored in electronic form or as a sound, visual or audiovisual recording) concerning a matter relating to the policies, activities and decisions falling within the institution’s sphere of responsibility

Records or minutes or diaries of meetings between Deripaska and Peter “Lord” Mandelson would evidently be “content” that concerns “activities” of the Trade Commissioner. So they clearly would qualify as “documents” as well as “information” under this definition.

The problem appears to be that, according to an analysis by Tony Bunyuan [pdf] in September, the Commission is desperately trying to narrow the definition of “document” from that given above, so as not to have to release documents it doesn’t want to. In April, for example, the Commissioners proposed to add to the above definition of document the proviso that it should have been

formally transmitted to one or more recipients or otherwise registered, or received by an institution.

In other words, if a diary or record of a meeting has not been formally transmitted to other people, it’s not a document. I suppose a cynic might point out that the kinds of document that are not formally transmitted to other people are often just those kinds of document that people wish to keep secret. Luckily, according to the Commission’s current “understanding” of what a document is, if it’s secret, it doesn’t exist!

What kinds of “document” have you denied the very existence of recently, readers?

1


Saying nothing

Against the Orwell cult

George Packer at the New Yorker, whose writing I admire greatly, has had it up to here with the vocabulary of the current US election campaign:

When this is all over, certain half-dead words will need to be put out of their misery with a quick bullet to the back of the head. My candidates for a mercy verbicide: pivot, tank, cave, pushback, gravitas, message, game-changer, challenges, the entire litany of Palinesque nouns, attack dog, battleground, pork-barrel, earmark, impacting, and impactful. Other words that are too important to be executed will need to undergo a long and painful rehabilitation before they can be safely used again: change, experience, straight, truth, lie, victory, character, judgment, populist, and elite.

So far, so potentially interesting. But one’s heart sinks at what follows:

It was Orwell, of course, who first explained the relation between decadent language and corrupt politics.

Of course, it wasn’t. The relation had been explained previously by John Arbuthnot, Confucius, and Cicero, among many others, as I pointed out in the Introduction to Unspeak. Packer goes on:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” [Orwell] wrote in “Politics and the English Language.” “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.” In our time, the corruption takes a different form. Instead of defending the Soviet purges with Latinate words like “liquidate,” politicians and journalists use clichés mainly borrowed from sports, war, and rural life in order to seem to be saying something tough-minded when in fact they’re saying nothing.

Saying nothing? I beg to differ: when George W. Bush assures the American public that prisoners are being “questioned by experts”, or when Condoleezza Rice refuses calls for a ceasefire on the grounds of seeking a “sustainable ceasefire”, or when Martin Amis complains that his society is unable to “pass judgment on any ethnicity”, they are definitely saying something. The task (heroically shouldered by this blog, among others) is to figure out what exactly that something is. Packer claims to be offering a different diagnosis than Orwell’s, but really they are making the same claim: that politicians are not worth listening to.

Such nihilism is, in my view, Orwell’s most malign influence. But there is another one, of which Packer reminds me when he goes on admiringly about Orwell’s other essays (having just edited a new two-volume edition of them). He draws our attention to “lesser-known gems” among Orwell’s essayistic output, among which is what he calls Orwell’s “brilliant takedown of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets'”. I assume he means Orwell’s 1942 essay on Eliot that was published in Poetry magazine, which luckily is also included in my Everyman edition of Orwell’s essays. Whether you think it counts as a “brilliant takedown of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets'” depends first on whether you accept that a discussion only of the first three Quartets ((In Orwell’s archly fatigued description, “these three poems, Burnt Norton and the rest”.)) should count as a “takedown” of all four; and then, I suppose, on what you think of Eliot, and of Orwell’s style of criticism.

The essay begins with Orwell’s lamenting the fact that, of Eliot’s recent poetry, he can only remember only four lines: “that is all that sticks in my head of its own accord”. Having been proven lately incapable of writing lines of poetry gluey enough to stick in Orwell’s head of their own accord, which is after all the acid test of the poetic art, Eliot is subsequently subjected to a dull-witted exegesis of the ideology that supposedly informs his poetry, and a distasteful narration of what the telepathic critic someknow knows the poet “feels”. The heart of the problem, of course, is Eliot’s religion, as Orwell generously explains:

In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process; but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree. ((“T. S. Eliot”, in Carey, John (ed.), George Orwell: Essays (London, 2002), pp.425-431.))

That sounds excitingly relevant to modern times, doesn’t it? Of course, the easy criticism of others as “mentally unfree” oddly resembles a type of speech that would later come to be characterized as “Orwellian”.

At least it cannot be denied that this kind of thing was influential. Orwell’s clunking, faux-proletarian, I-don’t-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like mode of artistic criticism is these days much in vogue among many of those British Orwell-worshippers who were so much in favour of the Iraq war. Funny, that.

49



stevenpoole.net

hit parade

    guardian articles


    older posts

    archives



    blogroll