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The Revolution, Like a Zombie, Still Stalks the Earth

From Slavoj Zizek's most recent tome, In Defense of Lost Causes, the concluding passage, in fact:

It is easy, from today's perspective, to mock the "pessimists", from the Right to the Left, from Solzhenitsyn to Castoriadis, who deplored the blindness and compromises of the democratic West, its lack of an ethico-political strength and courage in dealing with the Communist threat, and who predicted that the Cold War had already been lost by the West, that the Communist bloc had already won, that the collapse of the West was imminent - but it is precisely their attitude which was most effective in bringing about the collapse of Communism. In Dupuy's terms, their very "pessimistic" prediction at the level of possibilities, of linear historical evolution, mobilized them to counteract it. We should thus ruthlessly abandon the prejudice that the linear time of evolution is "on our side", that History is "working for us" in the guise of the famous mole digging under the earth, doing the work of the Cunning of Reason. But how, then, are we to counter the threat of ecological catastrophe? It is here that we should return to the four moments of what Badiou calls the "eternal Idea" of revolutionary-egalitarian Justice. What is demanded is:

{Note: what follows is pure philosophico- (black) comedic gold}

1. Strict egalitarian justice (all people should pay the same price in eventual renunciations, namely, one should impose the same world-wide norms of per capital energy consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and so on; the developed nations should not be allowed to poison the environment at the present rate, blaming the developing Third World countries, from Brazil to China, for ruining our shared environment with their rapid development);

2. Terror (ruthless punishment of all who violate the imposed protective measures, inclusive of severe limitations on liberal "freedoms", technological control of prospective law-breakers);

3. Voluntarism (the only way to confront the threat of ecological catastrophe is by means of large-scale collective decisions which run counter to the "spontaneous" immanent logic of capitalist development);

4. And last, but not least, all this combined with trust in the people (the wager that a large majority of the people supports these severe measures, sees them as its own, and is ready to participate in their enforcement). One should not be afraid to assert, as a combination of terror and trust in the people, the reactivation of one of the figures of all egalitarian-revolutionary terrors, the "informer" who denounces the culprits to the authorities. (In the case of the Enron scandal, Time magazine rightly celebrated the insiders who tipped off the financial authorities as true public heroes.)

Does, then, the ecological challenge not offer a unique chance to reinvent the "eternal Idea" of egalitarian terror?

There is much that could be said of these propositions. For the present, I'll note simply that while there is something to Zizek's case for Western pessimism as the ultimate self-confidence, it isn't as though Communism was internally coherent; the accursed thing was collapsing of its own dead weight. Moreover, strict egalitarian justice is precisely injustice: never in all the history of the world have standards of living been leveled, inasmuch as this is impossible over the vast diversity of geographic, cultural, economic, etc. regions, spaces, and forms that exist; hence, what this "justice" mandates is compulsory like treatment of unlikes, which is to say, the application of terror against the arbitrarily-defined "exceptions". And, through it all, there is the assumption that the (true) people already incarnate this supercollective will, which can be discerned by the attentive mystagogue; the obverse of this is that expressions of popular will running counter to this ideal are manifestations of false consciousness.

Ah, Critical Theory! So much more interesting than the collected works of Lenin, and yet you end up at the same destination, a longing for the apocalyptic exsanguination of mankind.

Comments (10)

never in all the history of the world

And this is the crux. Some of us believe there is something new under the sun. There is newness in being.

Your reading of that passage makes Zizek out to be some kind of generic American communist, the kind you'd find wandering around the US in the 30s. Which simply isn't correct; you can only portray him this way by leaving phrases like "the (true) people" completely unquestioned. And "exception"? That is one of Zizek's key terms, and you seem to be using it in a completely common sense way, divorced from his own Hegelian/Lacanian usage.

I'll admit it, I'm a fan of Zizek. He is exactly what I think a public intellectual should be - provocative and self-contradictory. Not some leader of the people.

I haven't read Lost Causes, but really, I'd be more than happy to really hash it out with you sometime in the fall. A good, detailed reading.

Somehow I've missed Mr. Zizek's latest, though I see it has for its cover the a picture of the stained blade of a guillotine. That probably answers my following question in the affirmative, but you've read it, and I haven't. Is he really arguing for a new revolutionary terror, or is this just more PoMo transgressive "play?"

Well, it wasn't my intention to portray Zizek as just another tired old commie. No, my point was just that, for all of the differences, many of the same animating passions have carried over. I find this disquieting; the revolutionary myth walks the earth, undead, with both lefties and faux-righties invoking versions of it in order to justify their policy fantasies. The substances differ, well, substantially, though there are substantive overlaps in addition to the formal similarities. The most obvious difference is that the right presents its myths as the triumph of freedom on earth, the summoning of freedom from the hearts of all men, while the left occasionally admits that it desires the power to coerce.

That said, I don't really loathe Zizek at all. For example, there is a passage in the book in which he posits that Stalinism saved conservatism in the Soviet Union; it is overstated, in my opinion, but it resonates for me, inasmuch as my wife and I have had much the same conversation, minus the theory. I do find him provocative, though this impression is the result of desultory skipping about in the two books of his that I own, the aforementioned Lost Causes and Welcome to the Desert of the Real!. And I fully acknowledge that with Zizek, there is always some degree of tongue-in-cheek transgression. Moreover, I do plan to read both books thoroughly; I was going to mention that in the post, but I was tired last night. Health and children cooperating, I'll actually do something I've not done for a decade: read some critical theory for the pure hell of it. And no, I've not read Lacan; it is a lack the remedy for which does not excite me - nothing against Lacan per se, it's just that my health ain't great, and the time during each day is at a premium.

Nah, he really does want to shoot some people.

Well, that wasn't exactly my reading. But I'll enjoy this moment, during which my reading of High Theory is more sympathetic than Mike's.

I actually did just laugh out loud.

"I'll admit it, I'm a fan of Zizek. He is exactly what I think a public intellectual should be - provocative and self-contradictory." Okay, I can swallow that. But then when you add: "he really does want to shoot some people," and I'll be getting right off that bus.

The idea that a guy calling for a new Terror could be somehow admirable, is the kind of thing you need a graduate degree to believe.

My best guess is that he's not trying to be funny. When skeptics rightly bring up degrading statism hiding under all the environmentalism, defenders get coy, say that it's just paranoia, and no one has really made any proposals yet anyway. Well, exhibit A...

So he's serious. If he's a "critical theorist," I'm not at all surprised. But it does make me ill. I have not one shred of sympathy. Not one. Paul, you can save yourself the trouble and just stay of the bus to begin with. :-) Scott W., amen. But of course, if you're a "critical theorist," you have your own way of being coy: Hiding in talk of "irony" and junk like that. So it may be hard to get him to admit that he wants to shoot some people--those nasty environment-destroying capitalists, I presume.

Based on the book-cover and the few captions above, reading Zizek appears a waste of time. Like the French philosophes, or tribunes of the Weimar Republic, this "provocative thinker" is intellectually acclimating us to the killing fields infesting his ghoulish imagination. Nihilism is the very air we breathe, so it's hard for me to see the value of inhaling more incense from one of it's lesser, high priests. A superficial verdict, perhaps, but as Wilde once remarked;"It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances."

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