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?