"The time of big theories was the time of big results." - G.K. Chesterton, Heretics
Reading Žižek, this Barnum of the radical Left: how can you prepare, except by a regimen of intellectual calisthenics, or perhaps even a cross-country yomp – on a rain-flayed moor, in the depths of November - with the breeze-block of Lacan's Écrits in your backpack? His flashing eyes, his waving hair...
A certain Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Professor der Allerley-Wissenschaft of Weissnichtwo, sitting alone in the Grüne Gans in that venerably ancient university town:
..over his tumbler of Gukguk ... reading Journals; sometimes contemplatively looking at the clouds of his tobacco-pipe, without other visible employment: always, from his mild ways, an agreeable phenomenon there; more especially when he opened his lips for speech; on which occasions the whole Coffee-house would hush itself into silence, as if sure to hear something noteworthy. Nay, perhaps to hear a whole series and river of the most memorable utterances; such as, when once thawed, he would for hours indulge in, with fit audience: and the more memorable, as issuing from a head apparently not more interested in them, not more conscious of them, than is the sculptured stone head of some public fountain, which through its brass mouth-tube emits water to the worthy and the unworthy...
“A wild note pervades the whole utterance of the man,” Carlyle goes on, “like its keynote and regulator...”:
..now screwing itself aloft as into the Song of Spirits, or else the shrill mockery of Fiends; now sinking in cadences, not without melodious heartiness, though sometimes abrupt enough, into the common pitch, when we hear it only as a monotonous hum; of which hum the true character is extremely difficult to fix.
Thomas Carlyle, of course, was satirising the scholar-enthusiast - peculiarly European, peculiarly remote from the workaday world: Sartor Resartus is a batty exercise in almost Popean debunkery. The twentieth-century uneasily subverted the stereotype with figures from Sartre to Bernard Henri-Levy entering the public arena, styling themselves as political theorists, activists and commentators – but, on the whole, they betrayed themselves as ideological charismatics too readily seduced by fame.
Slavoj Žižek – tenured Professor of Things-in-General at the University of Ljubljana as Carlyle's Teufelsdrockh was at the University of Weissnichtwo – emerged in the Nineties as a tireless explicator of radical politics through the prism of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Forbiddingly prolific, he has written some thirty three books with such playfully riddling titles as Enjoy Your Symptom! and Everything You Wanted to Know About Lacan ... But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock. Doubtless he'll have written another by the time I reach the end of this paragraph...
Since the public intellectual is somewhat in bad odour these days, you might be inclined to regard Žižek as a sort of latterday Comus, Milton's seductive magus, tripping the light fantastic toe... Few thinkers so exult in the play of thought, so plausibly leaven their arguments with illustrations from Hollywood blockbusters – treating them with due seriousness, as Žižek does here in the case of 300, for example – even fewer still can set forth their arguments with such charm and humour. A book by Žižek is an expansive tour d'horizon, and Žižek himself is a Tiggerish guide. Yet, his customary brio and zing notwithstanding, Žižek's thought remains ineradicably pessimistic, acknowledging as it does the nameless obscenity at the core of the human subject. History, if we're to be less deceived, must be recognized as a charnel house; human nature as a corrupt enigma; and the two unassailably entwined. Among the lost causes in this book, a 'global emancipatory politics' might only be achieved if we come to terms with our species-being itself; and effect a renovatio on an unprecedented scale...
“Better a disaster of fidelity to the Event,” Žižek pronounces in the first pages of In Defense of Lost Causes, “than a non-being of indifference towards the Event. To paraphrase Beckett's memorable phrase ... after one fails, one can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbecilic Being.” And what might this Event whereof he writes actually be? Žižek appropriates the concept from the Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou, who describes it in his study Ethics as one of the 'major dimensions of a truth-process', “...which brings to pass 'something other' than the situation, opinions, instituted knowledges; the Event is a hazardous [hasardeux], unpredictable supplement, which vanishes as soon as it appears..” The term clarifies a little with examples, with the event “..compel[ling] us to decide a new way of being..”:
Such events are well and truly attested: the French Revolution of 1792, the meeting of Heloise and Abelard, Galileo's creation of physics, Haydn's invention of the classical musical scale... But also: the Cultural Revolution in China (1965-67), a personal amorous passion, the creation of Topos theory by the mathematician Grothendieck, the invention of the twelve-tone scale by Schoenberg... [Ethics, p. 41]
(A radical twist on the Black Swan meme, one might say: something that springs unbidden from the merely contingent, undetermined by it, which changes everything...) Žižek, taking his cue from Foucault, adds the Iranian Revolution to this list - “..a momentary opening that unleashed unprecedented forces of social transformation.” But Foucault was wrong, Žižek asserts. “How so?” you may find yourself asking. In celebrating the irruptive Event of the 'collective will' that pointed a way out of the 'deadlock' of European modernity and Western liberal democracy, Foucault 'blundered':
One can claim that he did the right thing for the wrong reason: the manner in which he theorized and justified his engagement is misleading. The framework within which Foucault operates in his analysis of the Iranian situation is the opposition between the revolutionary Event, the sublime enthusiasm of the united people where all internal differences are momentarily suspended, and the pragmatic domain of the politics of interests, strategic power calculations, and so forth – the opposition which, as we have already seen, directly evokes Kant's distinction between the noumenal (or, more precisely, the sublime which evokes the noumenal dimension) and the phenomenal.
Clear? Splendid. Žižek appears to concede that Foucault's error was in applying too inflexible a theoretical framework on a political moment that was complicated in excess of the abstract binarism he sought to bring to bear on it... In this regard, Žižek extenuates Foucault's failure by arguing that it wasn't fully grounded in his philosophy. (Indeed Foucault seems not to have understood what was happening at all – hence his 'blunder'.) Heidegger's flirtation with Nazism, on the other hand, Žižek puts down firmly to its consonance with the logical progression of his thought. He may have 'erred ontically'; but, ceteris paribus, was on the right track 'ontologically'. And Žižek wonders if perhaps Heidegger needed his suspect engagement with Nazism in order fully to grasp the implications of his ideas, to work them through to their fullest realisation... The 'technological nihilism' critiqued by Heidegger – the modern stain – could only have been effected from within it. So argues Žižek.
He cites these examples of woefully misplaced political faith, not because he simply wants to indemnify these great figures, but because in both we find a comparable gap between the rightness of the theory and the blind alley up which its misapplication led them. The pure virtuality of their philosophies was corrupted by those 'politics of interests, strategic power calculations, and so forth' – and it was their profound distrust of liberal democracy, and their ill-starred bid to locate an alternative, that brought them to the logical impasse of Nazism and Islamic theocracy. Theory and praxis were tragically ruptured. Žižek, however, must burrow deep into the Heideggerian corpus to turn up his mitigations. (There's more than a hint of special pleading to it.) Yet it is Žižek's purpose to persuade us that the sole rejoinder to the advance of what he calls biopolitics must be a determined recovery of the old 'grand narratives' – post-Marxist, Lacanian – and the “'Messianic' standpoint of the struggle for universal emancipation.”
Not so much lost causes as forms of radicalism seemingly rendered obsolete by the onward march of liberal democracy and the unassailable preponderance of capitalism:
Modern society is defined by the lack of an ultimate transcendental guarantee, or, in libidinal terms, of total jouissance. There are three main ways to cope with this negativity: utopian, democratic, and post-democratic. The first (totalitarianism, fundamentalism) tries to reoccupy the ground of absolute jouissance by attaining a utopian and harmonious society which eliminates negativity. The second, the democratic, enacts a political equivalent of “traversing the fantasy”: it institutionalizes the lack itself by creating a space for political antagonisms. The third, consumerist post-democracy, tries to neutralize negativity by transforming politics into apolitical administration: individuals pursue their consumerist fantasies in the space regulated by expert social administration.
The bloodless hollowed-out inauthenticity of such a society – with its managerialism and atomised self-involvement – must be countered; its prevailing doxa challenged. Žižek makes the rather unexpected claim that revolutionary movements such as the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks essentially grasped the problem of societal change – in spite of the sanguinary sequelae – and they oughtn't be so readily dismissed for how they conducted themselves subsequently... “Instead of withdrawing from political engagement,” Žižek writes, “one should remember the motto that, behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.” (Žižek urges the identification of a 'third term' between liberal democracy and Islamo-fascism.):
The ideological universe of movements such as Hezbollah is based on the blurring of distinctions between capitalist neo-imperialism and secular progressive emancipation: within the ideological space of Hezbollah, women's emancipation, gay rights, and so on, are nothing but the 'decadent' moral aspect of Western imperialism...
In Defense of Lost Causes is densely argued, wildly digressive (Žižek can't resist kicking an insight around, stress-testing it); and oftentimes jars with its outré formulations. Its waywardness has its charm – sometimes Žižek reads like a mild Chestertonian paradoxographer; sometimes his prose edges dangerously close to unreadability as such. A diffuse book, frustrating and exhilarating by turns; overillustrated, too much in hock to theoretical esoteria. But, taken all in all, the casual reader may well find the whiff of nostalgie de la boue about it – its demonstrative patience with revolutionary terror, its plea-making on behalf of unpleasant ideologies – a little too much to stomach.