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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?

  1. 1  Adam Kotsko  December 17, 2008, 6:05 pm 

    “Hard-of-reading” is the best new coinage I’ve read in a long time.

  2. 2  Leinad  December 18, 2008, 7:34 am 

    Jeez, against critiques like that Zizek hardly needs defending. There is something about the guy that drives certain ‘post-left’ types into frothing inchoate rage – which is wierd given that there are perfectly reasonable grounds on which to criticise him. Their loss, I suppose.

  3. 3  Steven  December 18, 2008, 12:11 pm 

    Thanks, Adam!

    Leinad, from the “reasonable” article to which you link:

    This is perhaps the point to mention that Kierkegaard on faith is serious and formidable. To crucify one’s intellect to ward off existential despair may be an error, but it is not a spiritually frivolous gesture.

    (Emphasis in original.)


  4. 4  Dan Bednarz  December 18, 2008, 3:15 pm 

    Good mood and level of seriousness, Steven. I especially like referring to Kirsch as a “cherry picker.”

  5. 5  Jon Elliott  December 18, 2008, 5:30 pm 

    You ask, “what idiotic things have you read recently…?”

    “Individual Palestinians may deserve compassion,but their cause amounts to Holocaust denial as a national project.”

    Now I know why you are not a fan of “Melaine Phillips”. Scarry part is she “informs” conversation and people actually pay her to write such crap.

  6. 6  Steven  December 18, 2008, 5:35 pm 

    Holy shit. Can anyone else top that?

  7. 7  hey zeus  December 18, 2008, 7:35 pm 

    “we have no animosity towards immigrants, their descendants or the followers of non-native religions”

    from the christmas message on

  8. 8  Steven  December 18, 2008, 7:38 pm 

    “non-native religions” WTF??

    Good one!

  9. 9  Adam Kotsko  December 18, 2008, 8:24 pm 

    Re: the Holbo article — I somehow don’t think that a broad audience is going to be persuaded that Zizek’s politics are dangerous because he’s getting Kierkegaard wrong.

  10. 10  sw  December 18, 2008, 9:15 pm 

    tries hard to smear Zizek as an anti-Semite, the details of which need not bother us here,

    I don’t quite agree with you that the “details of which [smear] need not bother us here” because that falls into Kirsch’s trap – insofar as he is actually on to something, but he himself fails to bother with the details. He gets out of bothering about the details by resorting to various rhetorical tricks, including unspeak, which foreclose the possibility of thinking through Zizek’s frequent references to “Jews” both in print and in the amazing time-consumers that are his online performances on YouTube. Though you accurately depict Kirsch as “cherry-picking”, there really are some sort of fruits available for picking throughout Zizek’s oeuvre. At the risk of enraging just about anybody and everybody, I would echo Kirsch to ask why Jews figure so frequently in Zizek’s analysis as figures of exteriority and as a provocation, particularly as the exemplars of the truth of the unspeakable or unsayable, as when he talks about how the Nazis might have been, at least partly, factually correct (e.g., in section 13/13 of his encounter with Cornell West)? Without falling into the trap of assuming that these views are necessarily his own, are unscrutinised, or are simply fragments of bigotry, we can still ask why this is the “Jew” who keeps appearing in Zizek’s work, and whether his investigation into this figure sustains the philosophical, moral and political complexity of either Nietzsche or Freud who land between Zizek and Hegel. We can pay attention to how Kirsch undermines the possibility of asking such questions even as he poses them – “These moments, unpleasant as they are, are not quite expressions of anti-Semitism”: not quite? – but the essential point stands.

    Or, let me put it another way. In a YouTube vignette, in which Zizek is interrupted by a mobile phone going off and does a Dead Poets Society riff on getting called from God, he makes a joke about Israel that is by no means necessarily anti-Semitic or anti-Israel but that has as its punchline a line about how Israelis think that a phone call to God would get charged at local rates. It’s quite funny. We might risk asking, though, why there is a specific conception of “Jew” that is so local to Zizek?

    At stake, I think, is not Zizek as an anti-Semite but Zizek as a scholar. His oeuvre is not so much developed as it is ejaculated across the academic landscape. He is as messy as he is fertile, given to brilliant readings but also to quick and crass ones (e.g. of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in The Parallax View where he mangles both his facts and his literary analysis). In this way, I think I find myself tenatively sympathetic when Kirsch talks of Zizek’s “moral and intellectual squalor”; the main difference is that I would probably characterise that squalor differently, and see it as potentially much more valuable. And that is what Kirsch really loathes.

    Re: Holbo: but how can we not appreciate the comparison between crucifying and wallpapering?

  11. 11  sw  December 18, 2008, 9:17 pm 

    Oh dear – I meant Kirsch wherever I wrote Kotsko. Sorry, Kotsko! Sorry Kirsch! [corrected by the management – SP]

  12. 12  Steven  December 19, 2008, 3:11 am 

    Hello, sw! It is true that what with Kirsch, Kotsko and Kierkegaard, this thread is beginning to get medievally alliterative on our asses.

    I don’t quite agree with you that the “details of which [smear] need not bother us here”

    You’re right, and on reflection I don’t agree with me either; I can only plead that by this point in the post I was entirely fed up with the idiotry before me and wanted to pick up my guitar instead.

    I would echo [Kirsch] to ask why Jews figure so frequently in Zizek’s analysis as figures of exteriority and as a provocation, particularly as the exemplars of the truth of the unspeakable or unsayable, as when he talks about how the Nazis might have been, at least partly, factually correct (e.g., in section 13/13 of his encounter with Cornell West)?

    But now you are trying to trick me into watching at least one of thirteen sections of a Youtube Zizek video “encounter with Cornell West”, without doing which I can’t address your point. And you don’t even give a link. Cruel!

    His oeuvre is not so much developed as it is ejaculated across the academic landscape.

    Thank you for that image, which I intend to spend the next few months attempting to forget.

    Re: Holbo: but how can we not appreciate the comparison between crucifying and wallpapering?

    How indeed? But I am still not sure what Holbo is saying Kierkegaard’s “error” was, after he has helpfully informed us that Kierkegaard was nonetheless “serious and formidable”, in case anyone had been under the misapprehension that he was a sort of 19th-century Danish version of Oliver Kamm.

  13. 13  sw  December 19, 2008, 3:12 pm 

    Well, since you insist . . .

    Honestly, it’s all a bit painful. While I oppose censorship and ignorance in all its forms, I might make an exception for a Cornell West-Slavoj Zizek debate.

    Your post ends with a question about what “idiotic” things we might have read recently. This morning, I read the Village Voice’s Worst Song Lyrics of 2008, which includes such gems as Ne-Yo’s “I wont’ attend your pity party / I’d rather go have calamari” (which also ought to be in the running for the Best Song Lyric of 2008). The Voice presents the lyrics as a series of competitions, in a manner familiar to anybody who follows Wimbledon. Lil Wayne, however, earns a run-off between two of his lyrics, only one of which is allowed to enter the brackets. The one that doesn’t make it is “I’m a venereal disease / Like a menstrual bleed.”

    I don’t think even Ole Dirty Bastard could come up with a line that outré.

  14. 14  Steven  December 20, 2008, 3:20 pm 

    as when he talks about how the Nazis might have been, at least partly, factually correct (e.g., in section 13/13 of his encounter with Cornell West)?

    It seems to me that that’s an unjustly and dangerously vague précis of what Zizek actually says there, given that his purpose is to illustrate that, as he says explicitly, the moment you start arguing about the supposed “facts” about Jews, you concede the ground of debate to anti-Semitism.

    And why is he talking about Jews at all, as you and Kirsch ask? Well, he begins by saying “Let’s take the question of racism” in general, and the whole section has him arguing that it is bad strategy to try to refute racism empirically. Given this theme, it doesn’t seem to me very surprising that he then takes “Germany in ’33-’34” as one of his examples: that time and place is quite a famous example of racism.

    Thank you for the link to the Village Voice lyrics competition. I must say that I think—

    Are we human
    Or are we dancer?

    —is brilliant!

  15. 15  dsquared  December 20, 2008, 5:04 pm 

    [I would echo [Kirsch] to ask why Jews figure so frequently in Zizek’s analysis as figures of exteriority and as a provocation]

    surely it’s the same reason why snooker balls figure so frequently in physics textbooks on Newton’s laws of motion – they’re such a great example. If Zizek was constantly using Jews as examples of other things, then *that* would be weird, but when it comes to “being an outsider” and “being a victim of discrimination”, who else owns the brand?

  16. 16  richard  December 20, 2008, 6:44 pm 

    Gypsies. The disabled. Women. Blacks. Minorities of all kinds. But yes, the Jews are traditional.

  17. 17  dsquared  December 20, 2008, 9:38 pm 

    Yes, and particularly traditional in the psychoanalytic literature which is Zizek’s intellectual background. Why did Freud always go on about the Jews as outsiders etc? Eh, eh, nudge nudge.

  18. 18  Adam Kotsko  December 20, 2008, 9:41 pm 

    One might also point out the simple fact that Zizek is European as a reason for his continual use of anti-Semitism as an example. Spivak has actually proposed that psychoanalysis itself is a kind of displaced attempt to analyze anti-Semitism — and Zizek’s psychoanalytically informed ideology critique does wind up ultimately saying “ideology is anti-Semitism.” (You can buy my book to learn more!)

    I might call upon the author of the site to go back and edit the post where my name was accidentally used in place of the author of this stupid article. Trying to keep my Google profile non-idiotic, you understand.

  19. 19  dsquared  December 21, 2008, 2:22 am 

    Welllll … he’s specifically Slovenian, so if he never mentions gypsies at all, there might be a legitimate question why not, but I haven’t read enough SZ to know whether he does or doesn’t.

  20. 20  Steven  December 22, 2008, 1:51 am 

    Done, Adam. Merry fascistmas to all!

  21. 21  John Fallhammer  December 22, 2008, 6:14 pm 

    Hmm, I hadn’t previously associated Slovenia with gypsies. I now find that there is a smallish Roma community in the otherwise pretty homogeneous country, and that they have a rough old time, though not to my eyes much worse than what they get in the UK. I have learnt something.

    All the same, please reassure me that you haven’t confused Slovenia with Slovakia.

  22. 22  Steven  December 22, 2008, 8:02 pm 

    I can’t speak for dsquared, but I’m always confusing it with Sligo.

  23. 23  dsquared  December 22, 2008, 8:30 pm 

    There aren’t many Jews in Slovenia either, for roughly the same reason that there aren’t many Gypsies.

  24. 24  John Fallhammer  December 23, 2008, 12:26 pm 

    Fair do’s, but I can’t find anything that indicates an unusual significance for Slovenia and Gypsies. Some deportations in WW2 but nobody seems to have any numbers they want to mention. And not so much as a word on (The photo of the 1944 oath-taking is amusingly pathetic though.)

  25. 25  abb1  December 29, 2008, 9:07 pm 

    I thought his point about antisemitism was well made but not strong enough. I’m always annoyed when I read or hear people denouncing antisemitism by insisting that all the blood libel incidents (and other relevant factoids) are always based on a pure fabrication.

    I would actually go farther and say that taking this line is not only causing you to lose the argument, but it basically makes you a sympathizer and supporter of the concept you’re ostensibly arguing against.

    It’s very similar to people insisting that “torture doesn’t work” and (presumably) believing that they’re making an argument against torture.

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