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The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek

Reiner Riedler/Anzenberger/Redux
Slavoj Žižek at his apartment in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2010

Few thinkers illustrate the contradictions of contemporary capitalism better than the Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek. The financial and economic crisis has demonstrated the fragility of the free market system that its defenders believed had triumphed in the cold war; but there is no sign of anything resembling the socialist project that in the past was seen by many as embodying capitalism’s successor. Žižek’s work, which reflects this paradoxical situation in a number of ways, has made him one of the world’s best-known public intellectuals.

Born and educated in Ljubljana, the capital of the People’s Republic of Slovenia in the former Yugoslav federation until the federal state began to break up and Slovenia declared independence in 1990, Žižek has held academic positions in Britain, America, and Western Europe as well as in Slovenia. His prodigious output (over sixty volumes since his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, was published in 1989), innumerable articles and interviews, together with films such as Žižek! (2005) and The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), have given him a presence that extends far beyond the academy. Well attuned to popular culture, particularly film, he has a following among young people in many countries, including those of post-Communist Europe. He has a journal dedicated to his work—International Journal of Žižek Studies, founded in 2007—whose readership is registered via Facebook, and in October 2011 he addressed members of the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park in New York, an event that was widely reported and can be viewed on YouTube.

Žižek’s wide influence does not mean that his philosophical and political standpoint can be easily defined. A member of the Communist Party of Slovenia until he resigned in 1988, Žižek had difficult relations with the Party authorities for many years owing to his interest in what they viewed as heterodox ideas. In 1990 he stood as a presidential candidate for Liberal Democracy of Slovenia, a party of the center left that was the dominant political force in the country for the rest of the decade; but liberal ideas, aside from serving as a reference point for positions he rejects, have never shaped his thinking.

Žižek was dismissed from his first university teaching post in the early 1970s, when the Slovenian authorities judged a thesis he had written on French structuralism—then an influential movement in anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, and philosophy claiming that human thought and behavior exemplify a universal system of interrelated principles—to be “non-Marxist.” The episode demonstrated the limited nature of the intellectual liberalization that was being promoted in the country at the time, but Žižek’s later work suggests that the authorities were right in judging that his intellectual orientation was not Marxian. Throughout the enormous corpus of work he has since built up, Marx is criticized for being insufficiently radical in his rejection of existing modes of thought, while Hegel—a much greater influence on Žižek—is praised for being willing to lay aside classical logic in order to develop a more dialectical way of thinking. But Hegel is also criticized for having too great an attachment to traditional modes of reasoning, and a central theme of Žižek’s writings is the need to shed the commitment to intellectual objectivity that has guided radical thinkers in the past.

Žižek’s work sets itself in opposition to Marx on many issues. For all he owed to Hegelian metaphysics, Marx was also an empirical thinker who tried to frame theories about the actual course of historical development. It was not the abstract idea of revolution with which he was primarily concerned, but a revolutionary project involving specific and radical alterations in economic institutions and power relations.

Žižek shows little interest in these aspects of Marx’s thinking. Aiming “to repeat the Marxist ‘critique of political economy’ without the utopian-ideological notion of communism as its inherent standard,” he believes that “the twentieth-century communist project was utopian precisely insofar as it was not radical enough.” As Žižek sees it, Marx’s understanding of communism was partly responsible for this failure: “Marx’s notion of the communist society is itself the inherent capitalist fantasy; that is, a fantasmatic scenario for resolving the capitalist antagonisms he so aptly described.”

While he rejects Marx’s conception of communism, Žižek devotes none of the over one thousand pages of Less Than Nothing to specifying the economic system or institutions of government that would feature in a communist society of the kind he favors. In effect a compendium of Žižek’s work to date, Less Than Nothing is devoted instead to reinterpreting Marx by way of Hegel—one of the book’s sections is called “Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx”—and reformulating Hegelian philosophy by reference to the thought of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

A “post-structuralist” who rejected the belief that reality can be captured in language, Lacan also rejected the standard interpretation of Hegel’s idea of “the cunning of reason,” according to which world history is the realization by oblique and indirect means of reason in human life. For Lacan as Žižek summarizes him, “The Cunning of Reason…in no way involves a faith in a secret guiding hand guaranteeing that all the apparent contingency of unreason will somehow contribute to the harmony of the Totality of Reason: if anything, it involves a trust in un-Reason.” On this Lacanian reading, the message of Hegel’s philosophy is not the progressive unfolding of rationality in history but instead the impotence of reason.

The Hegel that emerges in Žižek’s writings thus bears little resemblance to the idealist philosopher who features in standard histories of thought. Hegel is commonly associated with the idea that history has an inherent logic in which ideas are embodied in practice and then left behind in a dialectical process in which they are transcended by their opposites. Drawing on the contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou, Žižek radicalizes this idea of dialectic to mean the rejection of the logical principle of noncontradiction, so that rather than seeing rationality at work in history, Hegel rejects reason itself as it has been understood in the past. Implicit in Hegel (according to Žižek) is a new kind of “paraconsistent logic” in which a proposition “is not really suppressed by its negation.” This new logic, Žižek suggests, is well suited to understanding capitalism today. “Is not ‘postmodern’ capitalism an increasingly paraconsistent system,” he asks rhetorically, “in which, in a variety of modes, P is non-P: the order is its own transgression, capitalism can thrive under communist rule, and so on?”

Living in the End Times is presented by Žižek as being concerned with this situation. Summarizing the book’s central theme, he writes:

The underlying premise of the present book is a simple one: the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its “four riders of the apocalypse” are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.

With its sweeping claims and magniloquent rhetoric, this passage is typical of much in Žižek’s work. What he describes as the premise of the book is simple only because it passes over historical facts. Reading it, no one would suspect that, putting aside the killings of many millions for ideological reasons, some of the last century’s worst ecological disasters—the destruction of nature in the former Soviet Union and the devastation of the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, for example—occurred in centrally planned economies. Ecological devastation is not a result only of the economic system that exists in much of the world at the present time; while it may be true that the prevailing version of capitalism is unsustainable in environmental terms, there is nothing in the history of the past century that suggests the environment will be better protected if a socialist system is installed.

But to criticize Žižek for neglecting these facts is to misunderstand his intent, for unlike Marx he does not aim to ground his theorizing in a reading of history that is based in facts. “Today’s historical juncture does not compel us to drop the notion of the proletariat, or of the proletarian position—on the contrary, it compels us to radicalize it to an existential level beyond even Marx’s imagination,” he writes. “We need a more radical notion of the proletarian subject [i.e., the thinking and acting human being], a subject reduced to the evanescent point of the Cartesian cogito, deprived of its substantial content.” In Žižek’s hands, Marxian ideas—which in Marx’s materialist view were meant to designate objective social facts—become subjective expressions of revolutionary commitment. Whether such ideas correspond to anything in the world is irrelevant.

There is a problem at this point, however: Why should anyone adopt Žižek’s ideas rather than any others? The answer cannot be that Žižek’s are true in any traditional sense. “The truth we are dealing with here is not ‘objective’ truth,” Žižek writes, “but the self-relating truth about one’s own subjective position; as such, it is an engaged truth, measured not by its factual accuracy but by the way it affects the subjective position of enunciation.”

If this means anything, it is that truth is determined by reference to how an idea accords with the projects to which the speaker is committed—in Žižek’s case, a project of revolution. But this only poses the problem at another level: Why should anyone adopt Žižek’s project? The question cannot be answered in any simple way, since it is far from clear what Žižek’s revolutionary project consists in. He shows no signs of doubting that a society in which communism was realized would be better than any that has ever existed. On the other hand, he is unable to envision any circumstances in which communism might be realized: “Capitalism is not just a historical epoch among others…. Francis Fukuyama was right: global capitalism is ‘the end of history.’”1 Communism is not for Žižek—as it was for Marx—a realizable condition, but what Badiou describes as a “hypothesis,” a conception with little positive content but that enables radical resistance against prevailing institutions. Žižek is insistent that such resistance must include the use of terror:

Badiou’s provocative idea that one should reinvent emancipatory terror today is one of his most profound insights…. Recall Badiou’s exalted defense of Terror in the French Revolution, in which he quotes the justification of the guillotine for Lavoisier: “The Republic has no need for scientists.”2

Along with Badiou, Žižek celebrates Mao’s Cultural Revolution as “the last truly great revolutionary explosion of the twentieth century.” But he also regards the Cultural Revolution as a failure, citing Badiou’s conclusion that “the Cultural Revolution, even in its very impasse, bears witness to the impossibility truly and globally to free politics from the framework of the party-State.”3 Mao in encouraging the Cultural Revolution evidently should have found a way to break the power of the party-state. Again, Žižek praises the Khmer Rouge for attempting a total break with the past. The attempt involved mass killing and torture on a colossal scale; but in his view that is not why it failed: “The Khmer Rouge were, in a way, not radical enough: while they took the abstract negation of the past to the limit, they did not invent any new form of collectivity.” (Here and elsewhere the italics are Žižek’s.) A genuine revolution may be impossible in present circumstances, or any that can be currently imagined. Even so, revolutionary violence should be celebrated as “redemptive,” even “divine.”

While Žižek has described himself as a Leninist,4 there can be no doubt that this position would be anathema to the Bolshevik leader. Lenin had no qualms in using terror in order to promote the cause of communism (for him, a practically attainable objective). Always deployed as part of a political strategy, violence was instrumental in nature. In contrast, though Žižek accepts that violence has failed to achieve its communist goals and has no prospect of doing so, he insists that revolutionary violence has intrinsic value as a symbolic expression of rebellion—a position that has no parallel in either Marx or Lenin. A precedent may be seen in the work of the French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who defended the use of violence against colonialism as an assertion of the identity of subjects of colonial power; but Fanon viewed this violence as part of a struggle for national independence, an objective that was in fact achieved.

A clearer precedent can be found in the work of the early-twentieth-century French theorist of syndicalism Georges Sorel. In Reflections on Violence (1908), Sorel argued that communism was a utopian myth—but a myth that had value in inspiring a morally regenerative revolt against the corruption of bourgeois society. The parallels between this view and Žižek’s account of “redemptive violence” inspired by the “communist hypothesis” are telling.

  1. 1

    Slavoj Žižek, “Have Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Rewritten the Communist Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century?,” Rethinking Marxism: a Journal of Economics, Culture and Society, Vol. 13, No. 3–4 (2001), p. 190. 

  2. 2

    Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View ( MIT Press, 2006), p. 326. 

  3. 3

    Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 328. 

  4. 4

    I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it.” Quoted by Jonathan Derbyshire, New Statesman, October 29, 2009. 

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