Jan 15, 2011

What does Zizek want?

Slovoj Zizek is a frustrating thinker -- entertaining, always, often really interesting, but perpetually, perpetually frustrating. He's really undisciplined and always fainting and preforming, and always on the edge of collapsing into parody or shtick. He's provocative, in good ways and helpful ways, mostly, but then also sometimes you have to stop, when you're reading him, and just ask, "what?"

His recent recycling of racist remarks on the Roma is a case in point. There might be a case that could be made about how what he said shouldn't be understood as stupidly racist*, but it would be a stretch. The reality seems to be -- as pointed out by An und für sich, Lenin's Tomb, & Stalin's Mustache -- that Zizek has jumped the shark.

He kind of always is, though. And, as when, in response to a charge of anti-semitism, he blithely countered that his Jewish friends didn't think so, he has a knack for being tone deaf, and weirdly out of touch, and for turning a good or interesting point into a moment of stupidity.

I don't know if there was a good point in Zizek's defense of those who are racist against the Roma or not, but if you put aside the racist stuff and the silly arguments and stupid assumptions, and you go down to where the point would be if there was a point, Zizek does say something interesting. He says, "nobody clearly answered the local 'racists' what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them."

Zizek's point, then, bracketing off the other stuff, is that "liberal multiculturalism" condemns racism, but offers no real practical solution to the problem that, even if we wouldn't and shouldn't describe it in the same way the local racists would, is a problem. Liberal multiculturalism condemns, allows a class of people to feel better about themselves, and moves on. There are a lot of better examples about the limits, internal contradictions and false fronts of multiculturalism, so Zizek's apparently reflexive reach for this anecdote is troubling. But that point is an interesting and worthwhile: what are the concrete solutions, beyond scapegoating racists or pointing out how bad somebody is?

You know what makes it a really good point, though? How well it applies to Zizek himself.

He has repeatedly, incessantly, returned to politics (despite claims that what he really wants to work on is Hegel), and sometimes his descriptions and his analysis are really interesting, but in the end, I have no idea what he wants us to do.

Wait for divine violence?

Act out?

Opt out, like Bartleby?

Be more like Stalin? Like Lenin?

Critique the hegemonic ideology to death?

Say I want what he calls "liberal totalitarianism," that that sounds good to me. How does one act to further that end?

The critique that "liberal multiculturalism" offers no concrete solutions to the problems perceived by red necks or Euro trash or poor whites really isn't true, either. Liberalism is full of solutions, from education to social safety nets to enfranchisement. Regardless of what one thinks of the solutions or whether they'll help the real problems, what "liberalism" is, at it's core, is bundles and bundles of programs and pieces of legislation designed to respond to practical problems. It's Zizek who has no concrete solutions. The critique he makes when he makes his point at the end of the stuff about the Roma doesn't really work the way Zizek maybe wants it to, but it's a pretty good critique of Zizek himself.

He seems to believe there's a political answer -- an answer that's more than philosophic. At least, he regularly suggests that there should be such an answer, and to strongly claim that others have failed to the degree that they've failed to come up with this practical, pragmatic solution, yet I really couldn't tell you what he thinks that answer is. He has never, so far as I know, "clearly answered ... what [we] should concretely do to solve the very real problems" he's always going on and on about.

Zizek's recent piece on Wikileaks, for example, is interesting. Though my first response, when he started, as is his shtick, with a discussion of The Dark Knight was, to quote the web comic Dead Philosophers, "Pfft ... Batman," his analysis of the seems worthwhile: "what isn’t questioned in these critiques is the democratic-liberal framing .... The (explicit or implied) goal is to democratise capitalism .... But the institutional set-up of the (bourgeois) democratic state is never questioned."

But then what? Say I agree with him. What's the right response? What does Zizek want me to do?

Asked directly, he gives a non-answer:

"It is very difficult; I am still working on it. My conclusions are not some kind of conservative or liberal vision according to which Stalinism should be pointed out as kind of a logical demonstration of any project of our so-called post-political era: the idea that the time for projects is over, all we can do is accept capitalist world-market economy, globalism, and so on."

Great: "And so on" and what it's not. That's concrete. Way to help us with the "real problem," Slovoj.

Other times, he just rejects the demand for an answer, saying that's not his job. "I despise the kind of book which tells you how to live," he told The Telegraph. "Philosophers have no good news for you at this level! I believe the first duty of philosophy is making you understand what deep s--- you are in!"

Maybe that's fair. I'm more than a little sympathetic to the anti-practical idea of philosophy, but from a guy who keeps pounding everyone for offering insufficient answers, for not being concrete in their suggestions to "local 'racists,'" this is just frustrating.

*An example: Zizek might be read as trying to show how anti-racism is a cover for the perpetuation of racism, and argument he has made elsewhere, saying, for example, "The prohibition of racist speech should not then be taken literally: rather it is a way of imagining ‘us’ as beyond racism, as being good multicultural subjects who are not that. By saying racism is over there –‘look, there it is! in the located body of the racist’ – other forms of racism remain unnamed, what we could call civil racism."