Ljubljana: Enjoy your symptom!

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The Austrian-sounding man striding across the main square (actually a circle) of the Slovenian capital is bellowing into his Handy “BIN IN LAIBACH!”. I feel entertained that he’s used the German name of the city. I happen to know this because a) I’m sort-of German myself and b) it’s a name of a well-known Slovenian mock-totalitarian rock group/art collective which has produced a series of hilarious records and videos from the late ’80s onwards and also started their own nation state. Although I’m no defender of German totalitarian imperialism I do think it’s worth acknowledging that the name ‘Laibach’ is much easier to spell and pronounce than ‘Ljubljana’. #nursagen.

As I don’t have much money as of September 2009 I’m staying in a hostel. Whenever I stay in such places I start to feel like one of my English language students. The lingua franca of such places is International English, the lexicon of which doesn’t feature lower-frequency vocabulary such as ‘snoring’. The Turkish guy who’s spent all night making more noise than a large-scale military coup doesn’t understand the word but was at least polite enough to ask me how I’d slept (I hadn’t). Hold on, he says, when he wakes up and I try to teach him the English equivalent of horlama. I’ll put my glasses. Eight years later I’m still waiting for him to tell me where he’s going to put them. In the event I’m almost tempted to tell him to stuff them down his fucking throat in case it stops him from snoring, but luckily he tells me he go back to Turkey the same day, which come as a relief.

It’s hard to learn languages, especially from scratch. I blearily reflect upon this as I sit in the just-waking-up market square with an enormous coffee and a giant slab of breakfast burek. It’s difficult to start collecting vocab and building up a working grammar when you can barely remember how to say please, let alone water, tree, food or sunhat. Not that I’m trying: I’ve just arrived from London on the first step of a mini-grand tour of Northern Italy and environs. I could do with a sunhat, because every day (and very night, although my memory may have been warped by lack of sleep) it’s blisteringly warm and blindingly sunny.

I am not here to track down Slavoj Žižek. I’m not what is already becoming known in September 2009 as a fanboy. I try to avoid mentioning the subject altogether so as not to appear overeager and thus uncool. This is a bit silly, as no one knows me here. I might as well put on an ‘Enjoy your symptom!’ t-shirt, teach myself the Slovenian for “DO YOU KNOW WHERE ŽIŽEK LIVES? DO YOU KNOW WHERE ŽIŽEK LIVES?!” and run round the circle in circles until someone takes pity on me and tells me where this is.

As I look at the big metal map of the city in the main circle (Žižek’s house is thankfully unmarked), I get talking to a lovely couple, local kindergarten teachers who want to use their softly-spoken English. They’ve never heard of Slavoj Žižek. Later the same evening they take me on a brief walking tour, including a particularly significant spot where some people were shot, or raised a banner, or maybe it was where they themselves first had sex, or something. It was, as I’ve mentioned, several years ago now.

Ambling around on my own in the early evening amidst the refreshingly chilled old stone of the however-you-say-parte-vieja-in-Slovenian, I come across a (hooray!) critical theory bookshop. The guy who’s working there speaks better English than I do and is doing a PhD in the post-Deleuzian semiology of hair product advertising (I’m making that up. This was almost eight years ago.) He grew up near the border with Croatia, and the stories he tells me of petty rivalry and racism remind me of smalltown Britain, just with a few more military uniforms and some occasional ethnic cleansing. The (fascinating) conversation reminds me of a similar encounter eight or so years earlier in San Sebastian with a young guy who worked in the castle I clambered up to one sweaty donostian afternoon. On the back page of my Spanish-Portuguese dictionary (get me!!!) there’s a scribbled diagram of the relationships between the Spanish and Basque states, the different Basque political parties, and some assorted words in Basque. I don’t take notes on my Slovenian conversation. The bookshop guy is, like all Slovenians I mention him to, fond but critical of Žižek, and doesn’t know where his house is.

In my memory of events I give my new friend a hug and then skip down the cobbled streets. Thinking about it now it strikes me that this may have been one of the couple of times in my life when I was on antidepressants. There are some stalls on a bridge selling what I recall as half-litre plastic glasses of white wine for a single euro. I float around for a bit guzzling my massive drink and listening to the murmury language in which I imagine, possibly incorrectly, that everyone is discussing which ideologies are the most sublime and which absolutes the most fragile. Drifting round a corner I see that there’s a naked young naked woman in the middle of the street having her portrait painted naked by an eager not naked crowd. It’s a wonderful scene. To see all…the people…there’s just a really…nice…civic atmos…totally naked woman.

A hundred metres away there’s a stage with what appears to be a military brass band playing ‘Jump’ by Van Halen. I could repeat that sentence but I’ll leave it up to you, if you do want to read it again there it is. Now, several years later, it strikes me as strange that it didn’t occur to me to move there, grow a beard, start to learn the language and maybe even take up painting. I had no particular commitments in London, having just finished my Master’s, and I was living in one of the three crummiest parts of the city. I wonder what my Lacanian psychotherapist would have said. Probably just nodded and blinked. Who knows, maybe all those nods, blinks and occasional snores were a subtle form of direction to Slovenia, Venice, Mexico and beyond. Probably a good thing, on the whole, that he didn’t tell me where in Ljubljana Slavoj Žižek lives.

* Many thanks to Ben Rozman for Slovakian language translation guidance and consultation services.

Mélenchon and Žižek; Accelerationism and Edgelordism

There’s a particular set of attitudes or postures which I’ve always known as Ultraleftism. A central element of this is the notion that the masses need to hit rock bottom in order to gain consciousness of their plight, that things will only start to get better when they get as bad as they possibly can.

This idea seems to be undergoing a revival, particularly online. I recently learnt a new word: edgelord. It designates someone who, in the words of urbandictionary.com, “uses shocking and nihilistic speech and opinions that they themselves may or may not actually believe to gain attention and come across as a more dangerous and unique person”.

The term seems to have derived from the forum 4chan, the breeding swamp of the ‘alt-right’. It’s inevitable that in the face of the various crises assailing humanity disaffected teenagers feel inclined to sound like they can tough out armageddon, and hence it’s routine to see expressed on Facebook pseudo-nihilistic sentiments like ‘the human race is a blight on the planet’ or sub-Nietzschian statements like ‘morality is for assholes’.

However, there’s also an ideological rationale for such outbursts: Accelerationism. Derived partly from Deleuze and Guattari, this is a dense and complex theory with a number of variants but in simple terms it proposes that the self-destructive processes inherent to capitalism should be accelerated in order to provoke radical social change, that (as Steven Shaviro puts it here) that “the best way to shorten capitalism’s lifespan is to push it to the extreme”.

Someone else who has written on the subject and who you can see here addressing it in a excerpt from a speech which actually accelerates in speed and incoherence towards the end, is Slavoj Žižek. Although he seems to dismiss the notion of accelerationism in that clip, an exemplary instance of it in a contemporary poltical context is his endorsement of Trump. It’s easy to dismiss this as yet another semi-serious pantomime attempt to provoke his audience. However, if we link it to his purposefully obnoxious statements about those who help refugees, we can see accelerationism (or, as I would call it, ultraleftism, and possibly more than a little edgelordism) at work. It is of course essential to remember that Žižek is cleverer than his audience, and that he wants to stay ahead of it at every turn. When he attacks ‘liberals’ and bemoans the failures of ‘the Left’ it is those who read his books, attend his lectures and share his videos that he is targetting (and blaming). For all his crypto-Maoist invocations of a divine revolutionary ‘event’, he knows that there can be no ‘True Left’ and we are no more about to try to build one than he is to command it. He is leading his (mostly young and in many cases very impressionable) audience on. He is, after all, whether he accepts the responsibility or not (and I believe that his trolling his followers in this way is a characteristically perverse way of rejecting the role), a political leader and the people he leads are, whether he or they accept the label or not, pretty much all left-liberals*.

Recently in France there has been a surge of support for a more conventional left-wing political leader: Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He has a proud history of fighting fascism, but in the wake of his failure to make the second round of the presidential election he has refused to back the centrist candidate, leaving wide open the possibility of a fascist victory on Sunday. One common argument from his followers is that there is no point voting against the far-right now as they will only grow in strength over the next five years of ‘neoliberalism’. His failure to pronounce in favour of the only candidate who can beat Le Pen has inspired a movement for absention, with only one third of his first-round voters saying they will vote against her. If the Front National wins on Sunday it will be largely thanks to the ‘Left’.

In Paris nowadays it’s common to see armed soldiers on the streets. The same is true of Rome, where I live. They’ve never bothered me, although more than once I have seen them stop random black people walking into metro stations. They’re there to prevent terrorist attacks, which are by no means a remote possibility. But if there was a sudden change in political power the mechanisms of armed repression would already be in place, and the same is true in France.

Is the French ‘Left’ in a position to resist a militarised fascist dictatorship starting in two days’ time? In the coming years, as the rising tide of racism meets the coming climate crisis, we will all need to engage in acts of bravery and sacrifice. Are we ready, powerful and united enough to do so now? Once they see a hard-right government in power, will the masses be magically compelled to rebel and bring about socialism? No, no and non. As things stand, the Left hasn’t even managed to sand off the hard edge of market fundamentalism. It has failed to cohere and communicate a specific programme, and whether in the US, the UK or France it refuses to accept any responsibility for the consequent rise of the far-right. Letting Le Pen get elected – just like allowing Trump to take power in the States – would be a hysterical response to that failure, a gesture of impotence and despair, not all that different in essence from the empty and petty words of politically frustrated teenagers on internet forums.

In the midst of this petulant quasi-adolescent posturing, it’s refreshing to see that there are still some adults on the Left. This week Yanis Varoufakis laid out clearly why failing to vote for Macron to stop Le Pen would be a catastrophe and a betrayal. He rightly finds the notion that ‘neoliberals’ and fascists are equatable is particularly egregious. The epithet ‘neoliberal’ has become synonymous with the name Macron, as a handy political insult. Up until now I’ve continued to use the term despite the widespread lack of clarity with regard to its meaning. Having read lengthy books on the subject by writers such as Philip Mirowski and David Harvey, I don’t think that its existence is by any means a myth. However, seeing the cataclysmically inane way it is being thrown around in this election (as Mirowski says, it is often used nowadays as “a brainless synonym for modern capitalism”) I’m now inclined to agree with Geoffrey Hodgson that its use should be abandoned**.

*****

We live inside the Temple. If it collapses, we all die. That doesn’t mean we can’t dismantle it, or prepare for our eventual escape. But if we think it’s just a matter of blowing it up we may as well join Isis. Such self-destructive impulses have nothing to do with enlightened or egalitarian values. Such thinking is more a form of Nihilism than anything remotely progressive.

If you have a vote in the French election, use it. Don’t be an ultraleftist connard.

* Some are currently finding that rejecting the label ‘liberal’ and using it as a term of abuse puts them into pretty unsavoury company. Incidentally it’s now been pointed out to me that Žižek is indeed abusing his position to argue the same irresponsible nonsense as he did with Trump. Because Donald’s really been wobbling on his throne of late, hasn’t he. I’d give American cryptofascistneoliberalcapitalism a week more at the very most. In the meantime, fascist victory Sunday, communist revolution Monday, ça marche pous vous?! Don’t forget the book signing! Exit through the death camp!

** Anyone even vaguely interested in these issues should read that article. There’s also a far more articulate and evenly-tempered reponse to this whole depressingly predictable/predictably depressing Zizek-doesn’t-mind-Le Pen furore here.

*** This article didn’t go down too well on one particular Zizek fanboy forum. Oh well, if you can’t beat em, join em:

Shame, Self-awareness and Zinedine Zidane

downloadWriting teaches you some salutary lessons about yourself, the world and the relationship between the two. Last week someone gave me an article about the ten phrases Italians most hate to hear in their own language, the equivalents of ‘literally’, ‘basically’, ‘shouldn’t of’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘going forward’, etc. One curious example of an infuriating phrase is ‘piuttosto che‘, which means ‘instead of’, but instead of using it to mean ‘instead of’ increasing amounts of people (particularly in the north) use it to mean ‘or’, which causes obvious confusion and widespread rage. I thought it would be fun to write something in Italian which contained all those expressions, partly as a laugh and partly as a means of exploring questions of language and identity: who does a langauge belong to, who has the right to make mistakes, who defines what a ‘mistake’ is, etc. However, I screwed up. I overestimated myself. I didn’t (get Chiara to) check what I’d written properly so it didn’t work, being full of my mistakes, the typical ones that foreigners make. The sixteen people who read it will not have been nearly as amused or impressed as I wanted them to be. Che imbarrazzante! – how embarrassing, indeed shameful. I exposed my pretensions, the gap between what I want to be able to do and what I am able to do, who I want to be and who I am, who I am on the inside and who I am to others.

This often happens when speaking other languages. In making a claim on another identity I risk being seen as an imposter, a fraud, an outsider. (I wrote about how this feels here). A language learner can use this to their advantage – shame can burn itself into your brain so you never make the same mistake twice. Hence self-consciousness can be a source of self-awareness, the former implying shame and the latter a sense of control. Interacting in another language partly comes down to learning one’s lines, knowing how to act in a given routine situation so as not to lose face.

One of the people who has best developed this metaphor is the sociologist Erving Goffman, particularly in his book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. His ‘dramaturgical’ analysis of social interaction distinguishes between front and back stage behaviour. The goal of our performance as human beings is to be accepted by the audience.

As we develop we learn to play the role of ‘ourselves’. By the time we become adults we should, in theory, have become aware of who we are and how we should act. Hence being a teenager involves a lot of self-consciousness and shame. Teenagers shame each other, ridiculing each other’s pretensions and pretences. In my own cultural background (the north of England) ‘getting ideas above your station’ was scorned. A common source of shame is being exposed as fancying someone, wanting what you can’t have. Celebrating shame, enjoying one’s exclusion has long been a central element in youth culture, as the deathless popularity of figures such as Morrissey and Jim Morrison attests. Shut out of mainstream society, disaffected teenagers develop their own theatrical rituals and codes.

I have always admired people who surpass those fledgling anxieties about being who they want to be, who write their own scripts and improvise without fear. Two prominent examples died this year: Prince and Bowie. A less commercially recognised example is Momus, who has written very perceptively and eloquently about the English tendency to anticipate and thereby ward off shame by deprecating oneself*. The artist Grayson Perry, in his Reith Lectures of 2013, talked with his customary brazen wit and charm about the risks young people take in declaring themselves ‘artists’. Creating one’s own character can be a hazardous undertaking, but going off-script is essential for living a meaningful life**.

George Michael is a curious case. As he grew older he was notable for his total lack of shame in his private life but he remained conventional and conservative in his artistic endeavours, seemingly driven by fear of the market. Then there’s Trump, who appears to have no shame. It’s shameful to be completely shameless. It makes you look like a very bad person indeed.

Another very interesting case study of the absence of shame and self-consciousness is the documentary ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait‘, in which the camera follows the footballer throughout the course of an entire match, only very rarely cutting away to show the rest of the action. It shows him completely absorbed in the game, caught up in the flow. The footage (which mostly consists of him scratching his nose*** and looking a bit énervé****) is accompanied by his gnomic insights into the profound business of kicking a ball around some grass*****. On one level it’s a study of someone at work, a time-and-motion study of a global superstar. He doesn’t look at the camera; the world is a camera. What’s interesting about Zidane is not his skill but his visibility. His work is not so much trying to create chances and score goals as to be watched. The film is therefore more interesting as a reflection on spectacle and self-consciousness (and, given our awareness of his spectacular headbutt in the World Cup Final later the same year, on shame and its absence). How does it feel and what does it mean to be constantly observed, contemplated, regarded? What is it like to exist solely as an image? What does life as spectacle mean?

Sometimes, when I remember to, I like watching strangers out in public and imagining that they’re acting. People are simultaneously very good and very bad at playing themselves. What they are particularly good at is depicting self-consciousness. Cinema and photography (and now selfies) mean that we are constantly producing and consuming – literally and mentally – images of ourselves. I notice this in myself, when stepping off a plane, or leaving the cinema. Goffman called these ‘dramaturgical moments’. Images, particularly those in adverts, teach us how to act. When consuming products and services we are not just being watched on CCTV, we are also monitoring ourselves. We aspire to be images. We fantasise about being part of the spectacle. Hence the Zidane film is partly a voyeuristic morality tale, about how we are to behave as images of ourselves. It has elements of both going to a zoo and of watching pornography, and is also an anthropological study of spectacle that is itself spectacle.

There is a curious dimension to these issues, which is our use of smartphones. We increasingly use them to escape from awkward situations, ones that could cause us shame. Awareness and awkwardness are closely related, and conversation and eye contact make you vulnerable, potentially involve you in a tangled web of social obligations. Hence we employ our device as a shield and a screen to ward off psychic interference from others.

What does this do to our awareness of our actions? Are we self-aware when we’re online? Do we believe at some level that our devices render us invisible? What happens to our self-consciousness when we’re scrolling through our Facebook feeds on a bus? Does shame exist online? (There’s certainly shaming. One reason I stopped using Twitter is that the medium knows no shame when it comes to lying, being wrong and shaming others). It would be interesting for an artist to make portraits of people absorbed in using their mobile devices. When we do so are we on or offstage? Are we in public or in private? Does Goffman’s metaphor break down at any point? What would a film of someone famous texting for ninety minutes be like? Would a documentary featuring Kanye West playing with his iPhone 8, accompanied by a hauntological soundtrack and captions in which he reflects on fame and self-awareness, be a big hit?

I’m aware that these thoughts are not original. Perhaps I need to read some more Susan Sontag or Jean Baudrillard or something, or maybe just some more books about the joys and horrors of child-rearing. One point of writing these things here is to think things through. Another is to start conversations. I find it curious that people will occasionally praise what I write but rarely respond to the actual content. Maybe that’s because it’s boring, or not very well-expressed, or incoherent******, or blindingly obvious. It would be shameful, mortifying to be told that. But thankfully I’m 44 years old now, so I don’t have to worry so much about such things. Or at least, I shouldn’t. So why am I so excited about getting a new pair of spectacles? Is it about seeing better, or being seen better? Che presuntuoso.

* I would never do that, anyway I’m German.

** I feel very self-conscious about the fact that all of the people mentioned in this paragraph are men. I’m also aware that the last sentence sounds a bit like Alan de Button. I could change it but at the end of the day, Brian, I tend to write these things quite quickly so I can dedicate more time to thinking about what to put in the footnotes. 

*** Although not as much as Žižek, another supposed philosopher whose name also begins with Z and who also had a documentary which was just called by that surname, does.

****https://www.google.it/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=%22pissed%20off%20in%20french%22

***** I wrote about my somewhat ambiguous relationship with football here.

****** Eg. obvious criticism of this article: shame and self-consciousness are not the same thing.

Screening Thought: Slavoj Zizek and Paul Taylor (by ICALondon).

Zizek is not quite on top form in this not-quite-an -interview from the ICA a few months back, although he does better than the rather hapless guy (and the annoying woman) asking the questions, who handles the task with such a lack of aplomb that it could almost be me up there. It may not be a barnstorming performance from the sweaty Ljubjaban pretend-madman but there are still as always a few points of considerable interest:

Zizek’s simple analysis of the King’s Speech echoes mine (although i’m not suggesting that he read it, in the same way that I’m aware that I have told more people that I Met Caetano Veloso than he has told that he met me. I digress).

In a spectacular piece of geopolitical gossip, Zizek tells us that he was told by a friend that the Chinese Culture Ministry recently banned all films and shows involving time travel or fantasy from TV on the basis that they are morally ambiguous and promote negative thinking. A cursory google proves this to indeed be the case. Bloody hell.

And finally, two anecdotas involving coffee, thankfully this time not involving sugar substitute (incidentally, did you know that the coffee industry is the biggest employer in the world? Well I never. And a propos of nothing I’d just like to mention once again that The UK’s biggest industry is weapons. I suspect I may be digressing again.) Zizek talks about the scene in the film ‘Brassed Off’ in which the female character whose name I can’t google cos I’m writing this on the tube asks the Ewan McGregor character in for a late-night coffee, and when he responds that unfortunately he doesn’t like coffee, nattily tells him that that’s okay because she doesn’t have any coffee anyway…this nice little celuloid paradox apparently illustrates an otherwise very arcane aspect of Hegelian negation, as does the following joke: A man goes into a coffee shop and asks for a coffee without cream, to which the waiter answers that they only have milk, so perhaps he would prefer coffee without milk instead. More of this kind of thing, but not many actual jokes, can be found in Mr Z’s mammoth 7,000 page Meistertome on Hegel, which is coming out later this year, and which I will Not Be Reading Myself.

Another nugget of paradoxical philosophical commentary was the point made earlier this evening by Claude Lanzmann at the rather scrappy Q & A following the full day showing of Shoah. He remarked that the strongest empirical evidence of the Nazi holocaust is the absense of corpses. More on this very soon.

We also learn from the ICA talk that Zizek has never heard of Flora margarine; I do actually intend to write something about this too before too long.

by Rich

Denial 1: On denialism

mmezqI mentioned to a friend that I had foolhardishly bought a ticket for a full showing of the nine and a half hour long Holocaust documentary Shoah. He responded that it would be effective aversion therapy for a Holocaust denier. Now personally I have never thought of myself as a Holocaust denier, but I guess there must be a reason why I have decided not just to subject myself to presumably the most upsetting and depressing celuloid experience of my life but also to pay a much delayed visit to Auschwitz this summer. Maybe, deep down, without knowing it, I am a Holocaust denier. Or maybe my interest is more casually macabre, like this guy (or on another level WG Sebald may have something to do with it). Perhaps we all are Holocaust deniers, in that most of the time, we go about our daily lives not reflecting upon the import not only of that most base of human achievements, but all the horrors that we know full well are going on around us, some of which we know at some level that we are deeply implicated in (and the means we increasingly use to try to escape from this reality allow us to also avoid our ethical responsibilities: a friend’s facebook profile reads, ‘Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine…’…hmm, no need to worry about the ethical consequences of what we do all day at work then). Perhaps, as someone wise once speculated, we simply choose to be blind.

As Zizek pointed out, some traumas are too, well, traumatic to be integrated into the human psyche. There is no rational or appropriate response to knowledge of the Holocaust. It simply defies our categories of knowledge and belief, shatters the coordinates of our reality. In a very similar way, there would be no appropriate response to the coming horrors of climate chaos, and no visible means by which we can alert ourselves, those we love and those who do not exist yet in order to somehow prevent it from happening. So we all, at some level, deny it is happening.

Speaking of the holocaust, the French philosopher Raymond Aron articulated very well how ideology works today: ’“I knew, but I didn’t believe it, and because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.” Sven Lindquist said something similar: “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” George Marshall of the Climate Outreach Information Network makes a similar point with reference to Climate Change: we need to stop calmly telling people about what is happening and concentrate on showing them how scared and angry we are. Actually, he didn’t say scared, I did. Here is a video in which he explains what he means; you can find much more of this sort of thing here:

Review: Žižek is endlessly elliptical and self-reflexive

Slavoj Žižek recently proclaimed that ‘only a strong dose of the left can protect liberal freedoms’. At a moment like this, such a clear statement of the importance of radical left-wing ideas and of activity inspired by the Socialist tradition has of course to be welcomed. Žižek has become a hugely influential figure over the last few years. His work reaches a readership far beyond that usually achieved by often very lengthy books dealing with the ideological form and content of subjectivity, Marxist cultural analysis and the urgent need for radical political transformation. He writes prolifically, speaks to overflowing auditoriums worldwide and is the star of at least two films dedicated to his work. It is clearly a good thing to have left-wing ideas achieving such wide circulation.

His new book ‘Living in the End Times’ deals principally with our collective response to the various forms of armageddon that we are faced with. He applies psychoanalytical concepts and ideas borrowed from thinkers such as Hegel to look at the origins of denial of the consequences of the economic and ecological crises that threaten to assail the globe and the possibility and probability of radical transformation. Along the way he takes in subjects as diverse as the children’s movie Kung Fu Panda, environmentalism as a new opium of the people, the case of Josef Fritzl, and glimpses of a utopian society in the work of Franz Kafka, producing his usual dazzling succession of highly entertaining and inspiring insights, along with a few frustrating and puzzling diversions on the way.

His work can sometimes be very hard to follow, given that in employing concepts from the work of Jacques Lacan it often echoes his endlessly elliptical and self-reflexive style; this is mixed with the eternal negations of Hegelian thought. A complete understanding of Žižek’s work would demand an indepth familiarity not only with those two thinkers, but also Marx, Kant, Heidegger, Lukacs, Adorno, Althusser, Marx, Freud, and many more, not to mention Wagner and the Bible. In the process of using (his often very idiosyncratic version of) those works to identify deadlocks in contemporary ideology, he encounters deadlocks in his own thinking, which he often neatly sidesteps by shifting the focus from political analysis to psychoanalysis to philosophy, using the tools of each to interrogate assumptions in the others. Put simply, he has a habit of changing the subject when it becomes clear that his argument is leading nowhere, but so captivating is his manner of doing so it can easily blind the reader to the inconsistencies of his arguments.

How useful is Žižek’s work to non-academic Marxist revolutionaries? He is keen to stress that he is a Marxist, but caution is called for; after all, Derrida and Baudrillard also allegedly defended the Marxist tradtion of thought, and Žižek himself has made it clear that none of his pronouncements are to be taken at face value. Echoing Alain Badiou’s notion of the messianic revolutionary (but entirely unpredictable) event, he often leans in the direction of Maoism. He also tends towards arguments of an ultraleftist variety; for example it is difficult to tell when he is being serious, joking or merely being provocative when he says that the protests against the Iraq war were counterproductive and served to legitimise it. Outside of an academic context such an argument would immediately be dismissed as ultraleftism, and the consistent tone of pessimism which characterises his work finds an appreciative audience among those keen on radical ideas but unwilling to engage in radical action. It contains a great deal of often vague exhortations to overthrow liberal capitalism but with no suggestion as to the means of doing so. At times he does seem to embrace the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, and at other times dismisses them out of hand and disparages the notion of building a revolutionary organisation along twentieth century lines. In a similar way he explores the radical core of Christian thought, but is very keen to stress his atheist credentials. As for his occasional embrace of certain aspects of Stalinist terror, he most often seems to be joking, which even the most cursory knowledge of psychoanalysis would recognise as a sign that he has an uncomfortable relation with Stalinism. The same can be said for his talk of the need for revolutionary terror in some form, echoing the Maoist cultural revolution.

Žižek has explained that his notion of the role of the philosopher is not to answer questions but to show that the wrong questions are being asked. Nevertheless, many people look to him for answers. His most consistent answer is: wait, think. His books can therefore be enlightening and inspiring but there is nothing that tells what to do, rather a confusing guide to what *not* to do. Also, as Ian Parker points out in his critical guide to Žižek’s thinking, there are clear limits to the use of the concepts of Lacanian psychoanalysis, concepts intended to be applied in the process of individual analysis, as a strategy for radical political transformation. Žižek’s works provides an invaluable tool in the struggle to interpret the world; in terms of our understanding of the task of how to change it, we need to look elsewhere.

Slavoj Žižek on ‘Liberal Communism’


You know, from a certain perspective, you could be forgiven for thinking that all is well with the world at present. Bill Gates, formerly one of the most avaricious capitalists on the planet, is giving away his fortune as quickly as he can and is now is already the single greatest benefactor in the history of humanity, spreading his munificence to fight malaria and Aids and to provide education for all those people who so desperately need a chance in life. Bongo off of U2, one of the most famous and admired (although not in my house) global celebrities, a man with an undoubtedly sincere commitment to social justice and equality, has persuaded some of the most powerful corporations on the planet to donate significant portions of their wealth to progressive causes, and furthermore is on such good terms with the our present global overseers that he recently presented his friend George with gifts of an ipod and a Bible, as well as getting his buddy Condoleeza to write about her top ten musical favourites in the edition of the Independent he guest-edited this week.

Is it even conceivable that anyone might have a problem with any of this? The rich and powerful have been converted to social justice and equality, the struggle is over, all that is being asked of us is that we spend spend spend our way to freedom, equality and prosperity!!!

Well, I for one have a bias to confess which is that I cannot fucking stand the Independent; a wretched and desperate attempt to find or create a newspaper readership among those people too clever for the Times but who for some inexplicable reason feel unable to read the Guardian. I find it as gimmicky, dull and inconsequential as a copy of Que! or Metro. But that is just my own probably-at-the-end-of-the-day-a-little-extreme-Richard p.o.v. I do on the other hand love a good read of the London Review of Books, which is where the Wisest Man Alive Today, Slavoj Žižek, recently wrote the following words:

So who are these liberal communists? The usual suspects: Bill Gates and George Soros, the CEOs of Google, IBM, Intel, eBay, as well as court-philosophers like Thomas Friedman.

Bill Gates is the icon of what he has called ‘frictionless capitalism’, the post-industrial society and the ‘end of labour’. Software is winning over hardware and the young nerd over the old manager in his black suit. In the new company headquarters, there is little external discipline; former hackers dominate the scene, working long hours, enjoying free drinks in green surroundings. The underlying notion here is that Gates is a subversive marginal hooligan, an ex-hacker, who has taken over and dressed himself up as a respectable chairman.

Liberal communists are pragmatic; they hate a doctrinaire approach. There is no exploited working class today, only concrete problems to be solved: starvation in Africa, the plight of Muslim women, religious fundamentalist violence. When there is a humanitarian crisis in Africa (liberal communists love a humanitarian crisis; it brings out the best in them), instead of engaging in anti-imperialist rhetoric, we should get together and work out the best way of solving the problem, engage people, governments and business in a common enterprise, start moving things instead of relying on centralised state help, approach the crisis in a creative and unconventional way.

Liberal communists do not want to be mere profit-machines: they want their lives to have deeper meaning. They are against old-fashioned religion and for spirituality, for non-confessional meditation (everybody knows that Buddhism foreshadows brain science, that the power of meditation can be measured scientifically). Their motto is social responsibility and gratitude: they are the first to admit that society has been incredibly good to them, allowing them to deploy their talents and amass wealth, so they feel that it is their duty to give something back to society and help people. This beneficence is what makes business success worthwhile.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Remember Andrew Carnegie, who employed a private army to suppress organised labour in his steelworks and then distributed large parts of his wealth for educational, cultural and humanitarian causes, proving that, although a man of steel, he had a heart of gold? In the same way, today’s liberal communists give away with one hand what they grabbed with the other.

According to liberal communist ethics, the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. Developed countries are constantly ‘helping’ undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World. As for the opposition between ‘smart’ and ‘non-smart’, outsourcing is the key notion. You export the (necessary) dark side of production – disciplined, hierarchical labour, ecological pollution – to ‘non-smart’ Third World locations (or invisible ones in the First World). The ultimate liberal communist dream is to export the entire working class to invisible Third World sweat shops.

Wow. Slavoj Žižek, ladies and gentlmen: I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce his name, but he certainly knows how to tell ’em.