Slavoj Zizek is the most fascinating of contemporary theorists: I always find him compelling, irritating, insightful, wrongheaded, inspiring, and obnoxious by turns – but never dull. He writes too much for me to keep up with, as well. The latest book of his that I have read, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, is no exception…
This book is a meditation on politics after 9/11. Zizek offers (as he often does) a bracing critique of liberal, tolerant multicultural pluralism – an ideology shared by Disney Corp animated features and right-thinking Seattle supporters of Howard Dean – suggesting that it is actually very much complicit with the Bush/Ashcroft “war against terror” and “compassionate conservatism” that it claims to oppose. For that matter, Zizek persuasively (and rightly, to my mind) deconstructs Bush’s us/them dichotomy of democracy vs Al Qaeda, showing how they are both symptomatic of the same world system of capitalist globalization. In doing this, he skewers both those liberals (like Alan Dershowitz – Zizek’s example, or Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman – mine) who end up being in complicity with Bush/Ashcroft repression because of their embrace of the crusade against Al Qaeda, AND those leftists (like Noam Chomsky, who goes unnamed but is clearly Zizek’s target) who perform a sort of calculus of victimization, and end up belittling the horror of the 9/11 attacks, or even excusing them altogether, because of the higher body count that has been caused by United States over the years. I think that Zizek is altogether right in rejecting both these forms of equivocation, and insisting instead on an ethical position that condemns both Al Qaeda and American imperial policy, and indeed recognizes their interlocking structure, they way they feed off of one another. We need to adopt a stance that offers a radical alternative to both Bush and bin Laden, because it refuses to accept the self-evidence of the global capitalist marketplace as the only thinkable horizon of human life today. These are all things that very much need to be said, and that aren’t being said in mainstream discourse (not even, or especially not, in mainstream leftist discourse of the Chomsky kind).
What, then, is it about this book, and Zizek more generally, that i find irritating, wrongheaded, and obnoxious? Well, first, and most generally, there is the way Zizek pulls Lacan (and Hegel) out of a hat in order to resolve nearly every perplexity, and to show that the actual state of affairs is paradoxically precisely the opposite of what it might seem to be. Despite Zizek’s wit in citing these authorities and making these arguments, the result is ultimately far too neat and programmatic. (This is one reason why I prefer a theoretical stance that is more eclectic and variable in its sources). Also, his zeal in opposing left-liberal American “political correctness” leads him into some quite dubious places, such as when he quite incredibly calls the anti-pornography legal activism of Catherine MacKinnon “the predominant American feminism.” This is ridiculous as a statement about American feminism, and really seems to have no rationale other than Zizek’s wish to discredit all of feminism by association with MacKinnon’s odious stances. (Such an approach is particularly counterproductive if what we want to criticize is the way that many white American feminists refuse to recognize their own position of privilege vis-a-vis class, or the global misdistribution of wealth).
But finally, what I distrust most about Zizek (even though I admire it aesthetically, you might say) is what I can only call his hyper-romanticism. In opposition to the complicit positions that he denounces – such as the armchair leftism of the American professoriat (the people, like me, who buy his books, invite him to their campuses, and go to hear his lectures) – he offers the vision of an existential commitment to which one must sacrifice one’s comfort, one’s possessions, and even one’s life; an ultra-radical commitment to the exemplary revolutionary act, a Kierkegaardian leap into the void, “a radical risk… with no guarantee about the final outcome” (152). It would be too easy to say that Zizek himself shows no more evidence of staking his life on such an Act than do the American professors whose complacency and pseudo-radicalism he criticizes. But I think it is fair to say that such a notion of an Act is empty, when Zizek offers no idea about what might constitute such an Act, how once could get to the point of doing it, and how this would actually change things in the world (in the way the historical examples he gives of such an Act do: he mentions, among other events, Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution, and De Gaulle’s organizing of the Free French forces after the Nazi/Petainist occupation of France). There’s a kind of Bataillean bravado here, but without Bataille’s matching (and matchless) irony. In short, while I love reading about “the radical ‘transcendental Risk’ ” of the Act, I don’t believe Zizek’s political claims for it.