Philosophy Weekend: Slavoj Zizek, Marxism's Lovable Lawyer

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The philosophy blogosphere (to the extent that such a thing exists) blew up this week after Noam Chomsky opened a can of whoop-butt on Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. The American philosopher characterized the three European celebrities as posturing phonies who inspire cultish devotion even though their theories cannot be boiled down to meaningful principles. Zizek, the only living representative of Chomsky's three targets, responded by chiding Chomsky for supporting Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s -- a confusingly musty response, since even a brilliant philosopher ought to be allowed to make one mistake every forty years or so.

Still, a little feud between superstar left-wing philosophers is always fun, and I was able to observe with amused interest because I tend to look kindly on both Chomsky and Zizek (as well as on Derrida and Lacan). Chomsky is on strong ground when he slams these Europeans for being incomprehensible, since he himself has been consistent and intelligible (if sometimes insufficiently charismatic) during his entire long career. But I'm sure that Zizek does not merely engage in "empty posturing". I have myself been able to gain value from reading Zizek's essays and books, even though he tends to meander exhaustingly and dazzle disconnectedly.

I'm not sure if I've ever read a Slavoj Zizek book to the end. I probably haven't, nor have I ever felt I needed to, because you can enjoy his books sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, and after enjoying several of these you may begin to sense that these isolated bursts of insight are the only thing he intends to deliver. It's also easy to decide to "jump off the train" while reading Zizek because he likes to power-pack his texts with a broad array of cultural references (pop songs, movies, TV shows, ancient texts, aboriginal myths) that one may or may not be familiar with -- and if one has not seen that particular Charlie Chaplin movie or read that particular Sigmund Freud essay or heard that particular Lady Gaga song, that can provide a fine excuse for closing the book and picking it up later again on a different page. This is how I've always read Zizek, and it works fine for me.

It doesn't mean that he's not meaningful, and I'm sure that even Noam Chomsky knows there is a singular point to Zizek's career of bombastic theorizing. In trying to formulate my own response to Chomsky's challenge, it occurred to me that I could summarize what I believe to be Slavoj Zizek's overriding philosophical mission with a single description, and interestingly this mission appears to be grounded in the history of the country he comes from. Zizek is a proud Marxist -- a Marxist who refuses to back down even despite Marxism's terrible reputation around the world. He's the stubborn political philosopher who will stand up for Marxism even when the other quasi-Marxists have lost their nerve. I'm come to believe that everything about Zizek's wacky and lovably bearish persona and demeanor -- is that camouflage he's wearing in the photo above? no, he's just sweating! -- is a part of this theatrical mission.

Defending Marxism in post-1989 Europe is no easy task. It's such a weak starting position that it calls for a scattershot, aphoristic and indirect style of argument, and perhaps this explains why Zizek is so good at writing clever, wily captivating sentences and paragraphs but so incapable of producing the kind of direct argument that Noam Chomsky finds missing. Instead of defending the principles of Marxism directly, Zizek appears to have taken an approach like that of a criminal lawyer for a defendant who everybody knows is guilty. The only thing a lawyer can do in this situation is poke holes in the prosecution's case. The best way to understand Zizek's entire career may be to imagine him as Marxism's self-appointed lawyer in the world's court of opinion.

This position explains the title of his book In Defense of Lost Causes, and it's worth noting that in the introduction to this book he speaks quite clearly -- clearly enough, one would think, even for Noam Chomsky to appreciate:

The argument is thus that, while these phenomena were, each in its own way, a historical failure and monstrosity (Stalinism was a nightmare which caused perhaps even more human suffering than fascism; the attempts to enforce to "dictatorship of the proletariat" produced a ridiculous travesy of a regime in which precisely the proletariat was reduced to silence, and so on), this is not the whole truth: there was in each of them a redemptive moment which gets lost in the liberal-democratic rejection -- and it is crucial to isolate this moment.

Why would somebody be a Marxist in 2013? Well, maybe because the terrible problems that Marxism originally hoped to address have not gotten better since the rise and fall of Marxism, and may have gotten worse. More specifically in the case of Slavoj Zizek, the answer may be found in the recent history of his country, Slovenia, a relatively prosperous and culturally sophisticated state within the former Yugoslavia that had a unique encounter with Marxism under the leadership of Josep Tito. Zizek often protested against Yugoslavia's communist government before it fell in the 1980s, but his personal experiences as a Slovenian intellectual do not conform to the cliches for repressed intellectuals behind Eastern Europe's Iron Curtain, and after the collapse of Yugoslavia Zizek seems to have felt inspired to represent the once-hopeful political ideology that fell along with it.

Of course, no philosopher should be reduced to a function of his national history, and Slavoj Zizek happily brought many unique personal characteristics to his self-appointed mission as Marxism's lawyer: a great sense of humor, a unique style, a natural inclination towards Freudian and Lacanian psychology. I was able to witness Zizek's charm in person several years ago when he appeared in a debate with Bernard Henri-Levy at the New York Public Library. I wrote about this debate on Litkicks, and Zizek also wrote about the encounter himself in a book called Living in the End Times:

During a public debate at the New York Public Library a few years ago, Bernard-Henri Levy made a pathetic case for liberal tolerance ("Would you not like to live in a society where you can make fun of the predominant religion without the fear of being killed for it? Where women are free to dress the way they like and choose a man they love?" and so on), while I made a similarly pathetic case for communism ("With the growing food crisis, the ecological crisis, the uncertainties about how to deal with questions such as intellectual property and biogenetics, is there not a need to find a new form of collective action which radically differs from market as well as from state administration?"). The irony of the situation was that, the case having been stated in these abstract terms, we could not but agree with each other.

I appreciate the humor and the humanity Zizek exhibits when, after describing his debate opponent's argument at the New York Public Library as "pathetic", he then goes on to characterize his own argument as "pathetic" too. I wonder if even Noam Chomsky could find a clear meaning within this lovable display of raw self-deprecation. If he can't, perhaps Chomsky is not looking hard enough.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Slavoj Zizek and the Dream of Yugoslavia. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Tactile Philosophy, from Helen Keller to Jacques Lacan.
8 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Slavoj Zizek, Marxism's Lovable Lawyer"

by Levi Asher on

Steve, I wish this article contained a lot less harrumfing and shouting from the rooftops and just presented the simple evidence. I read one book review by Chomsky, published before facts were widely known about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge's plan to radically alter Cambodian society with a murderous government policy, in which he clearly expressed optimism about the Khmer Rouge. So what? He made a mistake. I don't understand what this article is trying to add to the conversation.

by Eamon on

In 2001, I emailed Noam Chomsky at MIT. Within a few hours, he got back to me. I had just months earlier created an alternative campus newspaper at my university to combat against the flat propaganda the university funded campus newspaper was putting out there. He actually got excited and gave me permission to run some of his articles. I thought he was very daring in some of the books and interviews he did after 9/11. His style and perspective ring powerfully with me.


by Levi Asher on

Noam Chomsky is a good guy. Again, the fact that Chomsky may have misunderstood the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s is hardly relevant to the interesting question Chomsky asked in 2013, which is whether or not Zizek, Lacan and Derrida are posturing phonies. The Khmer Rouge is a trivial distraction here -- after all, Noam Chomsky has written a lot of books since the 1970s -- and I wish Zizek hadn't brought it up. (Though, I suppose, it proves my point that Zizek's preferred approach to debate is to poke holes in his opponent's constructions, rather than to defend any major constructions of his own.)

After all this, I still like Zizek, and I still like Chomsky. And, for what it's worth, here's Chomsky's latest salvo, delivered yesterday:

by wjwiippa on

I bought 1 of Zizek's books but it didn't seem to come together, but, then most philosophers have the same problem which is why I often read Oxford University's A Very Short Introduction to series as a starting point or a refresher. A wikipedia entry comes up first when you google Zizek..

As for him being an unapologetic Marxist, I have to repeat a question I have heard only once: who's afraid of Karl Marx now that the Cold War has been over nearly a generation? And why? The Soviets were supposed to have kept Marx's early philosophical writings under wraps for a generation after the Russian Civil War because they weren't "Communist enough", so the Right may have be able to cherry pick juicy points to further their agenda [which I could not tell you what they want, except maybe to go back to 1964?]

Whenever I see a Chomsky book, I buy it but I am sad to say that he is getting long in the tooth but what I have read of his has been 100% correct and he was prescient of the drone war.

To cite what I would call the polar opposite of Chomsky, I just saw the documentary "The World according to Dick Cheney".

It's amazing the American republic survived

by wjwiippa on

I scanned this book today and want to lump deconstruction in with critical theory although when I saw this Derrida documentary i didn't feel that way.

In 2005, Routledge published a companion book, Derrida, which includes the film's screenplay, several essays on the film, and interviews with Derrida, Dick, and Ziering Kofman. The book describes many of the events that followed the film's release, including Derrida's unexpected celebrity status on the streets of New York City. This phenomenon prompted Derrida's wife to remark to the filmmakers, "I hear you've made him into Clint Eastwood."

From the film, I feel that deconstructionism is not for laymen.

I studied philosophy so I could get a degree and also because I thought I would be able to construct an accurate worldview. I wanted to get educated and I did although I had to return to Austin, Texas in 2006 to realize its emotional intelligence segment.
In the Recent British & American Philosophy course I took in 1994, a student hijacked the lecture one day, bitching that studying Frege, reading the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus and parsing the sentence, "Pegasus is a winged horse", for 15 weeks wasn't what he thought philosophy was supposed to be about. He whined for 90 minutes about this and no one else weighed in.

Robert Solomon, then a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, told me in a brief telephone interview in 1995 that phenomenology and the cognitive sciences as well as pragmatism were still viable options in philosophy and none of those can actually be boiled down to sound bites, maybe what Chomsky meant with his meaningful principles. I remember many concepts as sound bites and this infuriates the only academic I speak to about it.

Regardless of Zizek's celebrity, I can't believe there are any philosophical cults today. Today philosophy is what Rorty described it as old veterans re-hashing long forgotten battles. However, the governor of Indiana wants to outlaw teaching Howard Zinn's People's History of the USA in schools there and creationists haven't given up combating Darwin for 90 years so maybe Rorty was wrong.

by Wojciech on

We can agree that nobody has properly applied Marx's philosophy to a large scale society. It is obvious the ones who have tried have failed. Does this mean Zizek is arguing for a lost cause? I haven't read his books so this question is not rhetorical.

However, can we state that the attempts to apply democracy, at least in the last 30-40 years, have been successful? Going back further, with the history of Jim Crow, the failure in Vietnam, the cold war paranoia and even further back: with the history of slavery, can we honestly say that democracy was achieved?

I don't think so. But if you disagree, i'd love to hear your opinion. I'm just saying, yea, the attempts at Marxism have been recorded as failures, but can we honestly say that the attempts at democracy have been successful?

I am definitely drawing a line between democracy and capitalism. Can you have both? Putting a fixed price on the value of a human life might be good capitalism, but is it good democracy?

I like Chomsky. And from what I've read about him in this post, I'd probably dig Zizek too.

by mnaz on

capitalism has been successful for those who have succeeded and prevailed at capitalism.

it seems the argument in favor of "pure capitalism" as humanity's "final answer" rests on two main points: (1) economic "efficiency"-- of resource extraction, production, etc.-- efficiency only be achieved through profit-driven "free markets," with the drag of social taxation reduced or eliminated (reagan's manifesto, drafted as he took office, mentions "efficient economies," and how it's "in our interests " to promote them, and to remove inefficient (socialist) economies, even by military means. and (2), the "rising tide of capitalism will float all boats," given as much "free market" reign as possible-- the living standard will keep improving for everyone, overall.

and there is truth in these basic p.o.v. however, "pure capitalism as the final answer" is still subject to questions of sustainability. is a greed-based system, a model based essentially on endlessly-expanding markets, ultimately sustainable? will capitalism at some point begin to plow through earth's resources (including its human ones) too quickly, and/or with too much corruption and (capitalized) militarism?

who really knows for sure? ....

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