Saturday, November 27, 2010

Slavoj Zizek's On Belief: A Review, Part II

The first part of this review is located here.

It took me a while to write the second part of this review because I find the last chapters of the book to be quite inferior in quality not only to the beginning of On Belief but to the philosopher's entire oeuvre. Žižek's goal here is to convince us that Leninist terror and the "ideal" Communist society it aims to create can still be rescued from oblivion and taken up as legitimate political projects. Žižek realizes that any Communist project requires a profound transformation in the very nature of human beings: from separate beings trapped in our individuality we should move towards becoming driven by collective needs. Žižek realizes, of course, that in developed countries we are moving in the opposite direction, which is something he laments bitterly.

What Žižek blames for this - and what he hates the most, in a truly Leninist style - is liberalism of a certain ilk:
Every contact with another human being is experienced as a potential threat – if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me; this logic of victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard cases of sexual or racist harassment – recall the growing financial industry of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry deal in the USA and the financial claims of the Holocaust victims and forced laborers in Nazi Germany, and the idea that the USA should pay the African-Americans hundreds of billions of dollars for all they were deprived of due to their past slavery … This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject's precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the inherent supplement of the liberal free subject: in today's predominant form of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of circumstances.
If you are surprised at the virulence of this long quote, you have to remember that there is nothing more hateful for a Communist than a move towards any kind of individualism. Unless we sacrifice what this philosopher sees as our puny personal concerns, interests, and traumas for the greater good (which, by the way, he hasn't yet been able to specify), we are doomed to become even more narcissistic and alienated than before. Everything that makes our lives more tolerable in the here and now is hated by Žižek for the simple reason that the more content we are with our existence, the less likely is any collective agreement to a revolution and an attendant reign of terror, which Žižek is honest enough to accept as unavoidable.
On Belief  proceeds to attack the fear that a revolution will deprive us of a set of freedoms we have come to cherish and see as necessary to any satisfactory mode of existence. Žižek attacks our belief that we enjoy any freedom that matters through making a distinction between formal and actual freedom:

This is what the distinction between "formal" and "actual" freedom ultimately amounts to: "formal" freedom is the freedom of choice WITHIN the coordinates of the existing power relations, while "actual" freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates. . . We can go on making our small choices, "reinventing ourselves" thoroughly, on condition that these choices do not seriously disturb the social and ideological balance.
Of course, you can only see indivdual life choices as small, if individual lives are of lesser value to you than the collective. This is an easy position to take, since any collective is never anything other than imagined. Speaking in the name of the collective is, thus, giving a voice to a non-existent entity, one that you can easily invest with any characteristics, desires and preferences. If the collective isn't truly there, it will not be able to contradict you.

What especially disappointed me in the second half of this book wasn't even Žižek's simplistic approach to Judaism and Christianity. It was the fact that this brilliant literary critic produced the most inept specimen of literary criticism I have encountered in a long time. I have heard quite a few impotent explanations of the Soviet Union's eventual rejection of Modernism and its replacement with Socialist Realism, but none of them have been as silly as Žižek's:
The Russian avant-garde art of the early 1920s (futurism, constructivism) not only zealously endorsed industrialization, it even endeavored to reinvent a new industrial man – no longer the old man of sentimental passions and roots in traditions, but the new man who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial Machine. As such, it was subversive in its very "ultra-orthodoxy," i.e. in its over-identification with the core of the official ideology …THIS is what was unbearable to AND IN the official Stalinist ideology, so that the Stalinist "socialist realism" effectively WAS an attempt to reassert a "Socialism with a human face," i.e. to reinscribe the process of industrialization within the constraints of the traditional psychological individual: in the Socialist Realist texts, paintings and films, individuals are no longer rendered as parts of the global Machine, but as warm, passionate persons.
This maladroit analysis fails, of course, to account for the Soviet rejection of ANY kind of Modernism, not just the type of avant-garde Žižek describes (which was actually in no way representative of the Russian Modernism as whole). The hatred of all major totalitarian regimes of the XXth century towards Modernist art is an issue that should not be touched upon whatsoever if the best one can do is this ridiculously manipulative analysis.

Žižek's gaffe in analyzing the predominance of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union makes me wonder what the philosopher imagines his books audience to be like. If he expects his readers to be ignorant enough to miss all the reticences and falsehoods contained in this paragraph (as well as in many others), then how can he expect said uneducated audience to get through the previous 100 pages of his text where Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and Freud are referenced in every line?


Richard said...

It is always nice to see a proper book review that does more than simply summarize what is in the book. Zizek appears to be an anachronism in his adherence to Leninism and Communism in general. Still the fact that you find a lot of merit in his work and are still willing to subject him to some quite intelligent criticism suggests there is a lot more depth to his writings than would appear at first glance.
It is also surprising that he is Slovenian in that of all the former Yugoslav Republics, Slovenia was always the most Western oriented. Indeed Slovenia to this day claims to be an ‘Alpine’ not Balkan country and culturally is much closer to Austria than Serbia.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, Richard! There are two prevailing attitudes towards Zizek: a complete, uncritical acceptance of every single word he utters and a similarly complete rejection of every point he makes. I think that both these attitudes fail to do justice to this philosopher. There is a lot that can be rescued from his thinking if one gets rid of this need either to accept or reject him unthinkingly on ideological grounds.

eric said...

I loved Zizek's '90's works--The Ticklish Subject, Tarrying with the Negative, etc., because during that period he dared to question the prevailing post-Cold War orthodoxy: "The Soviet Union is over, so now all we have to do is set liberal capitalism on the path to perfection," etc. In the 2000's, though, he got lazy, and started writing the same book over and over, from The Fragile Absolute onwards. Now that "postmodernism" as a cultural and intellectual force, with all its attendant irony and playfulness, is considered a bit quaint (if not "dead," if Alan Kirby is to be believed), it will be interesting to see where Zizek's analyses take him. His attempt to revive Leninism, and more generally, a version of classical humanism that posits the individual as radically self-creating, if only said individual would have read the right authors, is not the wave of the future. And the same sort of holistic/environmental thinking that he excoriates as being just another in a long line of bourgeois infatuations is turning out to be our last best hope, given that visceral hatred of such thinking is shared by Faux News groupies and the Tea Party crowd. In that respect, much of Zizek's post-millennial ruminations can best be described as an inverse conservatism.

rakoenigsberg said...

Zizek provides insight in many domains, but the fact that someone of his status defends Communism suggests the corruptness of contemporary intellectual life.

According to most historians, Communism has been responsible for the greatest number of societally generated deaths in the Twentieth Century. More people were killed (by Lenin, Stalin and Mao) than were killed in all the wars of the Twentieth Century.

And it is precisely the hatred of individuality and love of the collective that generated mass-murder. See my online publication on THE LOGIC OF THE HOLOCAUST:

This is what Nazism and Communism had in common: belief that "society" (National SOCIALISM) had priority over the lives of individuals. Hitler could not bear the idea that people would not sacrifice their lives for the community.

So Zizek it would appear is embracing totalitarianism: negation of the individual for the sake of the "community." That is what Hitler, Stalin and Zizek have in common: worship of the collective; a form of religious obedience (unto death).


Richard Koenigsberg

Clarissa said...

Yes, I agree with you completely. Zizek is investing his impressive intellectual powers into resurrecting an ideology that should be dead and buried by now. He struggles with his idea of community and everything it entails in his other books. I hope to review them in the foreseeable future.

Welcome to the blog, Richard!