On Zizek and Consequences

The recent controversy in the blogosphere, provoked by this critical review of Zizek in The New Republic, has me somewhat confused. It seems that the unanimous response is that the review is unfair, highly impoverished, and generally poor academic work. Yet branching from this central position, we get two qualifications. The first is critical of Zizek, and claims that, while Kirsch’s article is a failure, we should nonetheless be skeptical of Zizek’s apparent romantic adoration for totalitarian violence. The second, exemplified by Larval Subjects here, defends Zizek against this criticism, claiming that he is thoroughly an ironist, opting to defend the ‘worst’ option of totalitarianism in order to force us to reevaluate the basic ideological assumptions structuring the choice between political alternatives. The critical rejoinder to this defense is that, while irony is all well and good, we must be wary of the potential consequences of this ‘worse choice’, as the alternative potentials of traversing the ideological fantasy could be horrific. (For more on this debate, see the comments on LS’s post.)

I don’t think either position gets it right. First of all, for all the out-of-hand rejection of Kirsch’s article, everyone seems to nonetheless accept its basic point – that Zizek is an apologist for, or even an advocate of, totalitarian violence. Yet anyone with a more than superficial familiarity with Zizek’s work should know that, despite (or rather, because of) his championing of ruthless political Terror, and his praise of figures like Robespierre, Lenin, and Mao, his analyses of the latter are thoroughly critical. He does not advocate what they did, but attempts to show 1) what potentials still live on in the legacy of these figures, and 2) how these potentials were betrayed by the admittedly catastrophic outcomes of their actualization.

This criticism is captured in his seemingly tasteless claim that, while Hitler was a monster, and the genocide he presided over was one of the most disgusting episodes in human history, the problem with Hitler’s ‘revolution’ was that it was not violent enough, in that it failed to undermine the basic symbolic coordinates of the situation. The shoah was hence an impotent passage à l’acte, a hideous acting out that only served to sustain the status quo. His praise of figures like Stalin and Mao, despite similar crimes on their parts, roots from the fact that they headed abortive, but nonetheless real and important, attempts to intervene at the level of the symbolic coordinates of the possible. The totalitarian repression and purges they carried out were symptoms of the failure of these attempts. The violent terror Zizek is advocating has nothing to do with these disgusting displays, and in fact, they would be proof that a Zizekian politics has failed to come to fruition.

The basic tenet of Zizek’s conception of revolutionary politics is that, if a movement has to resort to murder, genocide, torture, and the like, then it’s not a revolution at all. The revolutionary shift must occur at the level of symbolic foundations, such that enemies of the revolution wouldn’t have to be forcibly silenced, as they would be fundamentally excluded from the field of discourse, such that their words and actions would have no more weight than those of a schizophrenic babbling to himself about conspiracies. In other words, the violence Zizek advocates is a kind of symbolic violence, and any resort to what he calls subjective violence, literally, injury and abuse sustained by actual persons, would be a sure sign of the failure of the former.

Does this amount to a prohibition of violent tactics altogether? Doesn’t this conflict with his valorization of, for example, the looting and burning of supermarkets by the favela-dwellers in Rio de Janeiro as an instance of ‘divine violence’? Here we must be clear: while we cannot rule out violence altogether, it should not be included in our tactical repertoire, but should be a desperate last resort, in the same way that a pro-choice advocate of sex-ed would not include abortion amongst the litany of birth control methods, but would reserve it for desperate situations. As for the example of Rio, or the Revolutionary Terror of 1792-4, how do we reconcile these with this logic?

The answer lies in the conception of divine violence as a break with the cycle of mythic violence, in which the revolutionary dissolution of an existing politico-legal structure is reduced to a means of establishing another to replace it. Yet if such a dissolution does not conclude with the institution of a new positive social order, how could it be more than a purely negative gesture? What is the future of a divine violence? In principle, the answer is that the very organization and mobilization that produces this dissolution must already be in-itself a new social bond, it must be enough to sustain society, as the ‘embodiment of negativity’. In this way, the dissolution is not instrumentalized, reduced to being a means to some external end – the means should be enough.

The trouble with Zizek’s examples is that they do not produce such results: they either collapse back into the previous order, as in Rio, or succeed in establishing a new Law, as in the French Revolution; or, where they do succeed, it is only temporary, as with the Shanghai Commune. Yet Zizek’s point is more nuanced than such positivism. His point is that, even where divine violence is reduced to mythic violence, as a ‘vanishing mediator’, there is nonetheless a spectral remainder, a virtual element irreducible to its actualization – Kant calls it ‘enthusiasm’, Robespierre calls it ‘generous ambition’. Moreover, it is the redemption of this spectral remainder that must serve, for Zizek, as the basis of any social bond that would escape the cycle of mythic violence. Here, Zizek is thoroughly Benjaminian. [Narcissistic side-note: if you've been following my blog, you'll recognize in this 'spectral remainder' precisely what I've been referring to as the 'ancestral dimension'.]

When Zizek does praise Terror, as in the cases of the French, October, or Cultural Revolutions, he is quite clear that his praise is aimed not at massive slaughter and repression, but rather, at the attempts at inventing new modes of sociality, new habits and rituals, to replace what had to be done with. He makes this point quite clearly in his recent work, In Defense of Lost Causes:

It is at this level that one should search for the decisive moment of a revolutionary process: say, in the case of the October Revolution, not the explosion of 1917-18, not even the civil war that followed, but the intense experimentation of the early 1920s, the (desperate, often ridiculous) attempts to invent new rituals of daily life: how to replace the pre-revolutionary marriage and funeral rites? How to organize the most commonplace interaction in a factory, in an apartment block? It is at this level of what, as opposed to the “abstract terror” of the “great” political revolution, one is tempted to call the “concrete terror” of imposing a new order on quotidian reality, that the Jacobins and both the Soviet and the Chinese revolutions ultimately failed – not for lack of attempts in this direction, for sure. The Jacobins were at their best not in the theatrics of Terror, but in the utopian explosions of political imagination apropos the reorganization of the everyday: everything was there, proposed in the course of the frantic activity condensed into a couple of years, from the self-organization of women to communal homes in which the old were to be able to spend their last years in peace and dignity. (Lost Causes, p 174-5)

When Zizek praises these revolutions, and champions political terror, he is not referring to the ‘abstract terror’ of mass murder and totalitarian repression, but to the concrete terror of the reorganization of basic social relations. This, he claims, is the ultimate lesson of the Cultural Revolution:

Although a failure, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) was unique in attacking the key point: not just the takeover of state power, but the new economic organization and reorganization of daily life. Its failure was precisely the failure to create a new form of everyday life… (LC, p 205)

Despite his recent claims that the Left should not shy away from appropriating State power, his point is that such actions must have a concrete transformation of the social bond as their ‘base’. This is, consequently, how we can reconcile his notion of ‘Bartleby politics’ with the seemingly contradictory valorization of the ‘great revolutions’: withdrawal from activity means we must fundamentally reorganize the social substance of habits and rituals, organizations of jouissance, if active intervention is to be more than impotent acting out, or some custodial ‘cleaning up after’ capitalist excess.

Concrete terror, then, means immersing ourselves in a total experimentation with our social organization and habits. This follows from Zizek’s definition of terror, which is basically that ‘there is no going back’:

Terror is this ‘self-related’ or ‘self-negated’ fear: it is what fear changes into once we accept that there is no way back, that what we are afraid to lose, what is threatened by what we are afraid of (nature, the life-world, the symbolic substance of our community…) has always-already been lost. (LC, p 434)

Bartleby politics is thus not simply abstinence, not simply doing nothing, it is rather a matter of being nothing, of coming to embody this radical loss of ground or symbolic support, of becoming that intolerable, unproductive kernel inappropriable by Capital.

This reading of Zizek can also help shed light on the apparent hypocrisy of his advocacy of revolutionary politics, despite his complacent position as a well-off, jet-setting bourgeois intellectual. While I’m not denying this hypocrisy, I think we should recognize in it what he has referred to as a ‘sincere hypocrisy’: he is obliged to work explicitly in cultural theory and philosophy because intervention in the symbolic substance of culture must precede and ‘ground’ any potent political action. Here, I have great affinity with Levi Bryant’s reading of Zizek as ironist, in his paper “Symptomal Knots and Evental Ruptures”, and over at Larval Subjects. Moreover, despite his immense disdain for Guattari’s influence on Deleuze, this is why I see Zizek as an important influence on schizoanalysis, as I understand it. Reorganization of social relations should not be imposed after the fact by a political regime, but must be the base and support preceding any mass political mobilization.

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7 Responses to On Zizek and Consequences

  1. kvond says:

    Excellent overview of the storm.

  2. Reid Kotlas says:

    Thanks Kvond. I try.

  3. joneilortiz says:

    Finally a reasoned, well-read response to Kirsch’s article.

  4. Teo says:

    You make it appear that Zizek does nothing more than rehash old common-sense notions prevalent in the American Left using controversial examples.

    Is that what you think he really does? Or does he offer something new?

  5. Reid Kotlas says:


    I don’t really understand your question. I think you are hinting that the ‘reorganization of social relations’ and intervention in culture are remainders of 60s counter-culture…but that’s not the point. Capitalism, as we know, is the greatest force of reorganization and innovation in society and culture; ultimately, what 60s counterculture failed to realize was its own compatibility, even complicity, with capitalism. This is also likely why it so often skirted the issue of economy, favoring topics like ‘anti-war’ and civil rights.

    In many ways, I think the whole sixties political culture is grounded on the utter decimation of the labor movement, as well as marxist, socialist, and anarchist political organizations in this country (among others) in the decades that preceded it. And, if what I claim Zizek is offering differs substantially from such a culture, it is in the emphasis that such reorganization and intervention must be at the same time focused on the means and relations of production.


  6. Pingback: Zizek Responds to Kirsch (Updated) « Planomenology

  7. cutter says:

    Damn! My man! Nailed it. Brilliant!

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