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A Conservative Reading of Zizek
on April 29, 2012
There was a time when conservative intellectuals could engage their progressive brethren in a discussion on the interpretation of Marx and Freud. They would refer to the same canonical texts, raise abstruse points of doctrine, and discuss each other's perspectives in cross-references and detailed readings. Coming from the right or from the left of the political spectrum, they would meet on common ground and benefit on both sides from their intellectual exchange. In the French context, Raymond Aron, a conservative intellectual if there ever was one, would provide the best introduction to Marx for generations of students; and his disciple François Furet would give serious consideration to Marxist historiography of the French revolution as exemplified by Albert Soboul. In the US, Alan Bloom would confess that his education "began with Freud and ended with Plato," and he counted leftist intellectuals like Susan Sontag among his best friends.
One important condition for such meetings of minds was that politics be left at the door. Die-hard conservatives could engage leftist radicals on intellectual subtleties in Marx, Freud, and their epigones precisely because they excluded politics from their discussion. Of course, their debates were all about politics; but like good-mannered social guests, they conspicuously avoided the topic at the dinner table. If they did discuss politics, it was on a joking or self-depreciative mode. Of course, bourgeois counter-revolutionaries would be hanged and disemboweled when the proletariat avant-garde takes power. Naturally, leftist intellectuals were proto-terrorists on the loose who should be brought to justice and punished for their pernicious influence. But the great fight between the two camps was forever deferred to an uncertain future; in the meanwhile, they had so much to share and to learn from each other!
A reason I relish Zizek and keep coming back at him despite all odds is because he reminds me of this past period of intellectual exchanges across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, this tradition has all but disappeared from our cultural horizon. Marx and Freud only subsist in obscure corners of academia, where their commentary has become a cottage industry without any grip on contemporary debates. For all practical purposes, Marx and Freud are dead. For many conservatives, this is a welcome development. It clears the way for a world bereft of ideologies. But--and this is an insight I share with Zizek--ideology is at its most potent when it is denied as such by the bearers of authority. Today the fundamental level of constitutive ideology assumes the guise of its very opposite: non-ideology. As Zizek underscores, we live in an era which perceives itself as post-ideological. But it is precisely when we adopt ironic distance and look down on the absurdity of our faith that ideology exerts its strongest hold over us. As Lacan would have it, "les non-dupes errent". Those who think they see through the veil of false beliefs and shared lies are transfixed by the dominant dogma through and through.
As Zizek writes, the "spontaneous" state of our daily lives is that of a lived lie or a conscious dream, to awake from which requires a continuous struggle. Breaking oneself free of ideological fetters requires more than intellectual smartness. It is an act of courage, a struggle against oneself in which one must be ready to put conscience on the grill. This is where Marxism and psychoanalysis are useful references: they are struggling thoughts, or combat disciplines. Not only do they understand life in terms of a struggle, be it class struggle or subconscious resistance. They are thoughts engaged in a struggle, and they can provide weapons that one can turn against oneself to break free of our invisible chains. Here, whether these doctrines are true is only of secondary importance: an engaged truth, writes Zizek, is measured "not by its factual accuracy, but by the way it affects the subjective position of enunciation." The stones in our head need to be pulverized, blood needs to flow again into our clogged arteries, and we have to wake up from our intellectual slumber.
Zizek provides us with such a wake-up call. His call to arms is intellectual dynamite, and he stands ready to blow it all. His specific angle, which seduces so many readers, is to mix philosophical references with a running commentary on the imbecility of our mass culture. Here I must confess that part of his impact is missed on me. I am not familiar with most of his references to pop culture. His analysis of Hollywood movies, TV series, and best-seller novels or rock band concerts provide entertaining interludes, but they are not part of the core of his thinking which I find most stimulating. They provide a sort of reality check to some Lacanian formula or Hegelian concepts: if a complex thought can be rendered trivial and debased to the point of futility, then it must contain a kernel of truth. The same holds true of his constant provocations: as Einstein said, "if at first an idea does not seem absurd, then there is no hope for it." Or Adorno: "nothing is more true in psychoanalysis than its exaggerations."
Much more valuable to me than his references to modern trivia are Zizek's close readings of classical texts by Marx, Hegel, Schelling or Kant. These are the parts some readers are tempted to skip, and indeed his digressions on low-brow cultural productions amid long dissertations on high theory sometimes provide a useful break, allowing the reader to catch his breath and gather his spirits. But the challenge of philosophy remains the most fascinating. Here I think that Zizek's contribution is twofold. First, he has mastered the art of reading one author through the lenses of another: Hegel through Lacan, Marx through Kant, or Marx and Hegel as commented by modern critics like Chantal Mouffe or Kojin Karatani. These rare encounters allow the philosopher-in-training to broaden his horizon and to discover new aspects of canonical authors through unfamiliar angles. Second, Zizek is a master of dialectical reversals, unexpected conclusions, and shifts of perspectives known as parallax. His favorite trick is to show how two opposites are really the two sides of a same coin when seen from a third perspective. This allows him to savagely attack liberal progressives, who are shown as objective allies of reactionaries.
What are we to make, then, of Zizek's politics? How do we interpret his urge, very apparent in this book, to offer a running commentary on various political issues? Some people may be attracted by his call for a new kind of political engagement and by his vocal positions on the issues of the day, but to me they provide little more than shock value. I suspect many readers feel the same: few people would read Zizek to learn about his personal positions about climate change, biogenetic research, or the plight of the Congolese people. True, some readers may show interest for his "radical emancipatory politics", but to me his political stance only mixes the boisterous, the bizarre and the burlesque. I am ready to offer Zizek a chance as a philosopher and as a social critic, but not as a politician. Like Popper wrote, "I do not believe that human lives may be made the means for satisfying an artist's desire for self-expression."