Zizek is typically, and willfully, perverse in his praise of 300 (found via Dejan): everyone else on the Left has denounced the film as a fascist spectacle, allegorically praising militarism and the American war in Iraq, so of course Zizek must instead praise the film as a revolutionary allegory of struggle against the American evil empire.

Now, I still haven’t seen 300 (I don’t get to see many movies except on DVD these days), so I obviously can’t judge whose reading is more ‘correct.’ But that can’t stop me from wondering to what extent Zizek’s contrarianism is just a sort of idiotic macho one-upmanship (as in: I can be even more outrageous and anti-commonsensical than anybody else), of the same sort that is routinely practiced by right-wing political economists like David Friedman and Steven Landsburg (who delight in arguring, for instance, that Ralph Nader’s safety regulations caused automobile accidents to increase), or evolutionary theorists like the guys (whose names escape me at the moment) who wrote about how rape was an adaptive strategy.

There is something drearily reactive about always trying to prove that the opposite of what everyone else thinks is really correct. It’s an elitist gesture of trumpeting one’s own independence from the (alleged) common herd; but at the same time, it reveals a morbid dependence upon, or concern with, the very majority opinions that one pretends to scorn. If all you are doing is inverting common opinion, that is the clearest sign possible that you are utterly dependent upon such common opinion: it motivates and governs your every gesture. That is why you need so badly to negate it. Zizek totally depends upon the well-meaning, right-thinking liberal ideology that he sets out to frustrate and contradict at every turn. His own ideas remain parasitic upon those of the postmodern, multicultural consensus that he claims to upset.

Zizek, unlike the free-market economists and evolutionary theorists, justifies his contrianism in Hegelian terms; he’s performing the negation of the negation, or something like that. But this is exactly Deleuze’s Nietzschean point, that a critique grounded in negation is an utterly impoverished and reactive one. Zizek’s favorite rhetorical formulas all always of the order of: “it might seem that x; but in fact is not the exact opposite of x really the case?” Zizek always fails to imagine the possibility of a thought that would move obliquely to common opinion, rather than merely being its mirror reversal; and that is why I find him, ultimately, to be so limited and reductive.

Even a far better recent article by Zizek, on Robespierre and revolution, suffers from this sort of defect. Glen of Event Mechanics pointed me to this piece; Glen rightly observes that Zizek is in fact quite good here when he expounds on the view of revolution-as-event that we find in Deleuze, and in Foucault’s much-maligned (but wrongly so) comments on the Iranian revolution. To see the hope and promise of the revolutionary event, despite all that goes wrong when that revolution is later institutionalized, is essentially a Kantian position, and one that I think is necessary for us to maintain today; it is our absolute, categorical moral obligation to reject the ideology of No Alternative, and to act as if something other and better than today’s universal market capitalism were possible. We know that there will always be a gap between this moral imperative and whatever empirical accomplishments we manage to make; the revolution will always disappoint to some extent (we can, and should, try to make it less disappointing rather than more, but we will never entirely succeed); yet we may not give it up and acquiesce in the “actually existing” system of systematic injustice.

Zizek almost makes this point — but this is again where his reactivity, his will to the negative, reasserts itself and spoils everything. Zizek moves from a Kantian recognition of the gap between the noumenal and the phenomenal, or between our obligations and their (always incomplete) realization, to a Hegelian bridging of that gap via the creaky mechanisms of negation. He moves from Deleuze’s and Foucault’s Kantianianism regarding the hope of revolutionary action, to his tiresome and glibly romanticized Hegelian praise of “terror” and “ruthless punishment” as a means of institutionalizing the revolutionary event. There are the usual invocations of Lenin and even Stalin (once again, we get Zizek’s communism as a matter of anybody except Tito).

A lot of this recalls the debate, a year or so ago, on this blog, and also here, with contributions also by K-punk and Jodi among others, around the question of revolution and “subjective destitution” as raised in V for Vendetta. I am not sure I am able to revive that discussion here — if for no other reason than because (as I said) I haven’t managed to see 300. But I have to comment, at least, that the thing I found most repellent in either of the Zizek articles I am discussing was the following:

In today’s era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently “Fascist” about these values.

This is the sort of slippery slide, fueled by the spirit of negation, that I think needs to be rejected as much as acquiescence in the actual world system needs to be rejected. There is a real analytic acuity behind identifying what Zizek calls “hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology”: this has to do with the way that, for today’s neoliberal capitalism, it is much more effective to turn something into a commodity than to ban it or censor it or otherwise repress it. Anything can be commodified, and by that fact alone what has thus been packaged and offered for sale is deprived of any radical efficacy, any potential for real change. The difference of the future from the past, or what Whitehead called “Creative Advance,” is neutralized by being drawn into the structures of the market, of “individual choice” in a condition of overall “scarcity,” etc etc ad nauseam.

However, the neoliberal nostrum of the market as a regulatory mechanism for everything is a utopian (or more properly, dystopian) ideal that doesn’t actually work out in practice, which is why — as Wendy Brown in particular has written about — neoliberalism needs to be supplemented by neoconservatism, with its harshly repressive moralism. Neoliberalism without neoconservatism threatens to explode into violence and chaos, or otherwise go astray. Whereas neoconservatism on its own — the homophobic and patriarchal strictures of the fundamentalist Christian Right in America, for instance — would lead to the stagnation or collapse of capitalist productivity; which is why neoconservatism is always presented only as a supplement to neoliberalism, its Biblical moralism sugar-coated with a bizarre sense of the individual, or more often the family, as a sort of economic enterprise in its own right, to be treated with a combination of market discipline and New Age-y regimes of healing and self-regulation.

Zizek, I think, does indeed grasp this dynamic quite well. But he goes astray, yet again, when he essentializes and psychologizes the situation in terms of his theory of the superego command, or imperative, of enjoyment. In other words, he sees the psychological dilemma of meaning and groundedness — the reason why neoconservatism is needed as a supplement, why neoliberalism by itself cannot produce the social cohesion necessary for the “market mechanism” to function at all — as the root of the problem, and totally ignores the way the whoe process is driven by the drive of capital accumulation (reflected in the neoliberal replacement of all other social forms with that of the market).

The result is that Zizek displaces and misrecognizes both the motor force of capital accumulation, and the force of the Kantian categorical imperative. By identifying “hedonist permissivity” as the problem — when it is really just a product of the forces of capital accumulation — he in effect gives the exact same analysis of postmodern capitalsim as the fundamentalist Christian right does, and offers a pseudo-solution (discipline and the spirit of sacrifice) that, like theirs, only serves to preserve the world market system from its own disaggregating tendencies. Discipline, the spirit of sacrifice, and the embrace of terror also function as a sort of grotesque parody of the categorical imperative, the result precisely of betraying it by institutionalizing it. (Zizek defends the appeal to terror in the Robespierre article as a form of what Badiou calls “fidelity to the event.” I don’t know Badiou well enough to either support or reject this reading; but from a Deleuzian point of view, it is precisely a betrayal of the event to seek to incarnate or effectuate in this way; rather than practicing a “counter-effectuation,” which is how fidelity to the categorical imperative can in fact be maintained despite all inevitable disappointments).

Perhaps it is all too easy, in the wake of how the 1960s counterculture has become the official market culture (or one of its cultures) in the 21st century, to invoke Emma Goldman’s famous statement about how, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” But the denunciation of “hedonist permissivity” is certainly not the way to go — Zizek’s loathing for this, like the similar loathings on the part of fundamentalist Christians and Jihadist Muslims, is a false response, based upon a misrecognition of the basic problem. (The Jihadists are responding, in their own way, to the depredations unleashed on the world, and the Muslim world in particular, of predatory capitalism; but their solution is as bad as, or worse than, the problem, and bespeaks only the way that any liberatory or creative alternative has been systematically blocked by the marketization of everything). I don’t think emulating either the Spartans or Robespierre is much of a solution to the mess, and the exploitation, we find ourselves in. Zizek’s theories are little more than yet another demonstration, or symptom, of the situation that he himself has pointed to: the fact that, in the current climate, we find it difficult to imagine any alternative to capitalism; that in fact we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Zizek’s thought itself is one more demonstration of our current blockage of imagination.

86 thoughts on “Zizek/Hollywood”

  1. Pingback: cine:plom
  2. As has been said before, capitalism only ends when it can sell us an alternative.

    Great post; I had just read Zizek’s piece and felt my heart sink. His presence over Cinema Studies is now so monstrous and large that it has its own dimension. Discussing cinema without reference to him is almost an act of disobdience. And yet, there’s this disquieting tendency to treat the dialogic of film as a plateau to inculcate and subjugate is in a number of his writings of film. “They’ve got it wrong, precisely because they’ve got it right.” The double bind may be a lobster, but its also usually a cop out.

    That Rousseau looked up to Sparta is great, but so did Mussolini and Franco.

    And to read the film 300 without a mention of the sexualized body is, you could comfortably assert, a pathological act in itself. The text of the film is just not a political narrative; it is mostly about masculinity, as was the comic and the 60s film on which that was based. All three transform the nihilist male subject into a peversely transcendant Kantian. If you see it, be prepared for peels of laughter as you try to imagine it outside of its sexual context.

    So if we’re to pathologise what we see in culture, I see Zizek casting himself in a role he wishes to occupy, against heathen hordes. Talk about splitting the real, symbolic and imaginary…

  3. For what it is worth: I think you can safely reject Zizek’s reading of Badiou in that Robespierre article. This kind of use of Badiou ignores entirely Badiou’s insistence that “fidelity to the event” creates a new subject (Zizek presupposes the “old” subject taking charge of the new order in this reference). This happens habitually in Zizek/Badiou encounters because Zizek insists on reading his (rather transhistorical) Lacanian subject in the context of Badiou’s arguments about the event and the creation of a new subject — contra Badiou. A willful and perverse misreading. Hallward is pretty good on this point as on many others.

  4. And to read the film 300 without a mention of the sexualized body is, you could comfortably assert, a pathological act in itself.

    Exactly, Christian, and that’s also because dr. Zizek is here privy to a very particular sexualized body, that of the ”top” patriarchal Spartan macho, whose symbolic efficacy stands in hard contrast to the ”bottom”, invaginated, feminized, queer body of the symbolically inefficient Persian Empire, full of ”weaklings” and ”degenerates” and gays. This is a profoundly nationalist, mysoginist and also fascist trope, but if dr. Zizek actually TALKED about it, he would reveal his dialectically negated identification with the trope, what Shaviro here brings into view, which he also already did 15 years ago in his support for Slovenian nationalism.

  5. Steve, I’m glad to see you inveigh against fashionplate Zizek. I have read a few of his books and they do seem to follow the norm of simply contrarian thinking. I loved this bit from his book On Belief:

    Zizek argues in this book along with Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling) that there should be a “teleological suspension of the ethical category” in favor of the religious. In Kierkegaard’s book he says that Abraham is asked by God to suspend the ethical in order to kill his son Isaac. Of course God stops the killing before it takes place via an angel who holds Abraham’s hand after it’s already in motion, but first he wants to test whether Abraham is willing to suspend the ethical in order to give primacy of place to the religious. Zizek uses this paradigm to argue that Leninists had the right to suspend the ethical in order to put their religious fervor to the test by slaughtering liberal Mensheviks, and millions of others, after the October revolution. But this time there’s no angel to hold back the Bolsheviks, and God never told them to do what they did. Lenin did.

    Zizek then goes on to argue that communists should: kill all liberals to prove your religious fervor for a secular religion that is widely discredited for asking for such mass murder. Zizek appears to condone the killing of millions by communists in the twentieth century through using Kierkegaard’s paradigm for understanding Abraham and Isaac.

    As for the movie The Spartans it’s coming out of Victor Davis Hanson’s books, I think, where he argues that the west always wins because the Orient doesn’t allow Individuals to think. How the Spartans did allow this is beyond me, but I guess they did a wee bit more than the Persians, if not nearly as much as the Athenians.

    Hanson’s chapter on the battle of Midway is a roaring crescendo of triumphalism. I loved it, I have to admit, simply for what an operetta it turned out to be (Zizek as light opera isn’t bad either), but if you want to think seriously about anything you almost these days have to simply leave the left. It’s just garbage from one horizon to the other. All thinking in fact is in a shambles. I don’t see it being done anywhere at all except when it’s being done negatively to shred someone.

    I like it when someone like you tears someone like Zizek apart. It’s a good beginning, and it cheered me up considerably!! It might be a good idea to tear the whole world of the French fashionplates entirely apart and begin again with a common basic and utterly unfashionable dude like James Madison. and Federalist Letter #10.

    His thinking is the last political philosophy that actually functioned to create a stable prosperous society.

  6. Thanks for pointing me to this piece and for your comments on it. I recognize that Zizek’s thought is highly problematic but I do appreciate his recent work as an interlocutor with religion. I appreciate it simply because he satisfies a necessary, though often elementary, place of serious secular engagement with theology–something that assists in clarification and a refinement of presumptive beliefs. Anyway, his reliance on Hegel is interesting as I only recently read somewhere that an engagement with Hegel was considered essential for most contemporary theological thought (the same as Kant is seen as indispensible to contemporary philosophy).

    The issues you point to in respect to Zizek’s ultimate conclusions register with me especially strongly as I only just completed Herbert McCabe’s superb 1969 study “What is Ethics All About?” and these concepts inform many of his own ideas. His argument has a lot to do with then current social reactionism and his conclusions seek to recognize the ways in which the rejections of norms are rarely revolutionary, but are mostly parasitic as you say. He argues for a revolutionary vision that goes beyond what is merely reflective and reductively limited in ambition.

    Of course, I defer heavily to Alasdair MacIntyre’s neoclassicism in isssues of social philosophy, so that gives you a pretty good idea as to where I’m coming from (his Riddell lecture on “Secularization and Moral Change” is also brilliant, btw, and relevant to the above discussion).

  7. Bravo! You’ve compellingly and persuasively put your finger on something that’s been bothering me in Zizek for a long time and given me the resources to articulate or express these reservations. I’ve front paged a link to this post over at Larval Subjects with a small bit of commentary on your interesting observations on Deleuze and the event for some of my own future work.

  8. I doubt if there is any real or substantial alternative to capitalism just as I don’t think there is any real or substantial alternative to food.

    We can ask that there be a minimum of corruption and that the economy can be based on a fair and clean set of laws that are always enforced impartially.

    The give and take of capitalism is part of our condition. Changing it for Marxism doesn’t really matter. Marxism is just a kind of capitalism that doesn’t work since it puts the industries into the hands of party hacks who can’t think about how to run a factory with the bottom line in mind.

    Raymond Aron comments that a successful entrepreneur is rarer than a great poet and that society should mollycoddle them instead of killing them the way that communist countries did.

    If you kill them you end up with North Korea and very few sandwiches to go around. Capitalism not only is like food, but it is literally about the distribution of things like food. We can ask that our food be clean and free of disease-causing materials, but I don’t see how we’re going to go without food.

  9. Kirby, aren’t you supposed to be a Christian? Didn’t the Romans also think their Empire would last forever, before the Christian idea arrived? Why would miracles not be possible?

  10. Dejan, when the Second Coming arrives I think things will look different. Until then, things will look pretty much the same.

    Perhaps some theorist will pull rabbits out of some old hat until then, but mostly we will have to settle for the fact that capitalism is just ducky.

  11. Communism creates the demise for capitalism, as history has aptly deserved. At that point sandwiches become scarce, as they are in North Korea right now. That is, unless you’re running the Party, in which case you can order any kind of sandwich you like, as you have a personal chef.

  12. yeah right Kirby, there’s no corruption in capitalism! All sweet and tender and angellic here. Marxism didn;’t provide a good economy, but it’s indispensable as a critique of capitalism and a resource for curbing its power. Get rid of that fanatical black and white thinking please because that’s exactly what will lead you to 300, Kirby!

  13. Capitalism, like our nature, is corrupt. That’s why it functions! It’s such a wonderful thing, our nature.

    Communism depends on us to be sweet and tender and angelic.

    Share and share alike.

    That’s for the next world. This world is about jostling to get fed.

    Capitalism is adequate to our fallen nature. Augustine realized this already. We are under no compulsion to share and share alike in this world. We only undertake to follow the laws.

    I love capitalism because of it’s impurity, and in its recognition of the food chain as it actually exists.

    Communism is a system for angels, and it is actually based on the other kingdom that communists don’t even believe in.

    We see this manifestation now in the tasteless attempt by communists to get away from the food chain thorugh substitution of beans.

    Thank you for the discussion!!

  14. Capitalism is adequate to our fallen nature. Augustine realized this already. We are under no compulsion to share and share alike in this world. We only undertake to follow the laws. Communism is a system for angels, and it is actually based on the other kingdom that communists don’t even believe in.

    Nonsense Kirby. Christianity is faith. God doesn’t want us to give up on hope. Even if we fall and fail. And what about the fact that it is only due to Marxism that Europe has an economically prosperious social democracy that satifies the majority, with free health care for everyone in Holland.

    Your Christianity is dreary sado-masochism and has nothing to do with God.

  15. Holland isn’t a Marxist country. It’s prosperousness is entirely due to capitalism. Holland was the first capitalist country. Has been since Tulipomania and even before when it was a commercial trading empire.

    Hooray for capitalism.

    Health care is part of the Lockean thesis of life, liberty, health and property which is the basis of capitalist democracies.

    We’re still working on the health part over here in the US. Meanwhile, people are becoming obese due to their enjoyment of all the food flying out of the factories. There’s just so much food here, and most of it is unhealthy and should be ignored by anyone who wants to live long.

    We do have a separation between faith and state in Lutheranism. It’s what makes the Lutheran societies a bit to your north even better than what’s left of your adopted Calvinist country.

  16. So people are becoming obese because capitalism caters to their ”natural” proclivity to hyperproduction, right? It’s not food poisoning by capitalism? And what about all the wars and murders capitalism necessitates in order to dump the surplus? It seems that your religion ENJOYS man’s fallen nature.

    Holland has a very strong tradition in collectivity, harkening back to at least the Middle Ages. Though this doesn’t originate in socialism itself, socialism has since the 19th century only served a positive role in strengthening and developing collectivity in Holland.

    Anycase you can’t responsibly claim that socialism was either only good, or only bad.

  17. I don’t understand the Christian socialist tradition of Holland. I can’t read Dutch, and that side of the national past of Holland is almost completely impossible for me to understand.

    In Finland it was the Christian socialists who were responsible for putting together a health care system that is now widely considered the best in the world (rivalled only by Sweden, Norway, and Iceland). I assume that it was also Lutheran socialists in those countries who lobbied for health care protections that still stand (but every year there are legislators who try to tear them apart).

    Actually existing Marxism squashed Christianity when and where it could. It’s too bad because many of the goals were the same, but power is difficult to share, no doubt, esp. when you think that that’s all there is. The battles between Proudhon and Marx underscore the useless nitpicking between them. Marx insisted on being the sole author of the left and insisted on squashing everyone else.

    It’s too bad. I think that in doing so he pretty much squashed the best impulses of humanity — at least in the west, and setting up a horrific bureaucracy that would defend and propogage his increasingly monstrous legacy (the worst police states ever known).

    But you’re right to say that there is something in socialism that is worth salvaging. All the socialism that had nothing to do with Marx is worth salvaging, or at least looking at once more: the anarchists, the other socialists. Fourier was a lot of fun, esp. if you like opera.

    I do, but only in principle.

    Marxism is a nasty weed. Get it out of the socialist garden and you begin to have something that looks like it could be beautiful.

    Holland has a lot of other books by thinkers who are much more interesting: Homo Ludens is worth all of Marx.

  18. actually these depressing Calvinist misers prefer the word ”gezellig” (pronounced with a guttural G like a goose) which means ”cosy”, without any actual cosiness

  19. I don’t understand the Christian socialist tradition of Holland. I can’t read Dutch, and that side of the national past of Holland is almost completely impossible for me to understand.

    You can find a lot of information in Simon Schama’s book ”The Embarrassment of the Riches”. It’s in English.

    Actually existing Marxism squashed Christianity when and where it could.

    This is only partially true. In the Second World War, the Orthodox church in Serbia and the Communists were completely aligned in their resistance to Nazism. They were able to cooperate because they share a communal vision of humanity.

    at least in the west, and setting up a horrific bureaucracy that would defend and propogage his increasingly monstrous legacy (the worst police states ever known).

    I am sorry but that epithet-slamming doesn’t work. I find the current police states in the West increasingly monstrous, and I find that they have cheerfully adopted the instruments of the Communist police states as well. Which among other things should tell you that it’s a thin line between Communism and Capitalism when it comes to terror. Furthermore Western capitalism may be more merciful to its own citizens, but the things it does to the states it conquers exceed Communist terror in sheer volume.

  20. I don’t think anything in the west can compare to Stalinism, or to Maoism, or to North Korea today.

    I’ve heard the word gezellig. I studied Dutch once for a year as a lark.

    Can you tell me what Marx would have argued should be Marxist cuisine? Lutherans in this country seem to prefer green jello. It’s almost a sign of Lutheranism to see green jello on the table. Then we have a lot of German potato salad and bratwurst. Luther did argue against hunting as a sport, but he wasn’t against eating bear meat or deer meat that had been shot as long as the animal was eaten.

    Did Marx hunt? Did Engels? Did they think there should be a kommunist kuisine?

    I know that in actually existing kommunist societies the choice in many kases was famine for those outside the Party, as it is today in N. Korea, but inside the Party, was there a politically correct communist cuisine? In Tito’s Yugoslavia, did he subject his dietary regime on the country as a whole?

    Today in America we have a few communists such as Peter Singer who are trying to subject us to a meatless diet. Singer is a total vegetarian from what I can gather.

    I assume that the left in Holland is also trying to go toward a vegetarian diet. Is there any precedent for this in the writings of Marx and Engels?

    Did they know that their system was highly likely to result in famine?

    In liberal systems according to Amartya Sen there has never been a famine, and according to him it is unlikely there ever will be a famine.

    Ukraine was one of the worst under Stalin. Millions dead while they had to reap wheat. Penalty for eating any of the wheat you harvested was instant capital punishment. At least it was instant!

    My fear about utopia is partially against any kind of sado-masochism. I want people to live within limits because I think it is more likely there is enough food to go around. But today people are killing themselves in America with obesity. It’s approaching fifty percent morbid obesity in some communities. It’s amazing to walk through many towns and see the sheer numbers of fatsos. In Wal-Mart there are now something like twenty percent who can no longer walk because they are so fat so they take the electric wheelchairs and clog the aisles looking for Twinkies.

    I would like to see it as a spiritual famine, but then there are a number of these rotundities in Lutheran churches as well!! What gives??


  21. Kirby, I think that it is false to say that “in liberal systems there has never been a famine.” The contrary is demonstrated quite cogently by Mike Davis in his book Late Victorian Holocausts.

  22. Hi Steven – great post. Perhaps the success of Zizek has to do with the relatively narrow spectrum of perspectives within the humanities – he has little problem staking out a position which attracts attention because the range of discussion in the humanities is rather limited. To my mind, British philosopher John Gray is the wiser and more substantive contrarian. He is that rare thinker who is not afraid to change his mind (he went from socialism to Thatcherism to severe critiques of globalization), and he shows an openness that does carry over in ways into his own work that are both unnerving and productive. _Straw Dogs_ is an exhilarating attack on Christianity, Marxism, and all other humanisms as forms of anthropocentric illusion and hubris. The book maps out instead a rigorously Homeric ethic, while attacking the submissiveness of Heidegger. Unlike Zizek, Gray ruthlessly undermines all utopian projects, and in the wake of his deconstructions generates a pitiless lucidity, which to my mind is not a bad place to begin theorizing (I should add that I do not agree with everything he says).

    The discussion seems to have branched off into the age-old debate over capitalism vs. communism (in which I cannot resist taking part). In the 20th century, the well-being of Western liberal democracy during the darkest period of crisis (Nazism) was preserved to a decisive extent by the Stalinist USSR. No nation sacrificed more than the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler, and: the levels of casualties endured by the Soviets were far beyond what would have been considered acceptable by the US or the UK. Indeed, the relatively slow advance of the Western allies through France had much to do with Eisenhower’s constant worries about heavy losses undermining the war effort back home in what many regarded as a “European war.” Needless to say, Stalin, Zhukov, and Konev were liberated from such concerns. The prosperity of liberal democracy during the Cold War was born up by the sacrifice of millions of Soviet patriots. As inhuman, inept, and hypocritical as Stalinism (and Soviet communism) was, it is also impossible to deny that it performed a vital and necessary historical task. It is, furthermore, to be noted that one of the historians making this argument is John Lukacs, who describes himself as a reactionary Catholic.

    As for the Dejan-Kirby Olson debate, I’ll say that while communism might be a system for angels, capitalism can be described a system designed to tolerate devils. Capitalism does work because it approximates the limitations posed by insatiable human appetites, but there comes a point at which the number of active exploiters reaches a critical mass and the system begins to disintegrate into incessant strife and limitless violence, the war of all against all. In other words, capitalism has no mechanisms to defend itself against the possibility that the devils will become too numerous to keep exploitation down to stable and manageable levels. What comes next? Tyranny or some new form of authoritarianism, as thinkers as diverse as Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Vico have all observed.

  23. I also wanted to add a couple of observations to Zizek’s ideological use of the Spartans (as opposed to 300, which I have not yet seen) —

    The relevance of the Spartans to revolutionary politics is limited because of the fact that their highly militarized society was not really aimed at offense, but built around defense. Indeed, the Spartans often proved reluctant to engage in foreign wars because their men were needed at home to suppress potential slave revolts. Indeed, they were far from being “armed missionaries” ready to spread a new creed throughout the world, and their leaders proved liable to corruption when exposed to more luxurious ways of life. On the other hand, the key to Sparta’s longevity, according to Machiavelli, was the fact that it was ‘content to maintain itself,’ meaning that it did not seek to expand into an empire, as Rome and Athens did. If one accepts that revolutionaries must build empires for the sake of liberating the masses, then it is difficult to see how the Spartans can provide a model for such a politics. The Spartans lacked philosophy, and were defeated decisively by a philosophizing general, Epaminondas.

    As for the hedonism vs. discipline question, I wonder how long it will be before Hollywood takes on Thebes and the Sacred Band (the elite unit made up of lovers), who were responsible for crushing Spartan hegemony after Sparta’s victory in the Peloponnesian War.

  24. kirby:
    Capitalism is predicated on exploitation…..and find me a capitalist country where there isnt an increasing polorization of rich and poor. With the poor outpacing the rich.

    Since when does capitalism work? Where??????? the rape of africa and the destruction of iraq seem to indicate a need to float an economy atop a war machine. 2 billion a day on defense should, um, tell you something.

    good notes peter paik…..stalinist legend is often just that…….and the soviets DID indeed endure more death and sacrifice than the western forces. This is like the endless demonizing of any resistance to capital……cuba comes to mind….and more and more these days Venezuela. Its very easy to be ahistorical………to not track the russian revolution back to the romanovs…..etc.

    When communism fell here in eastern europe (im in a former commie country) the suicide rate spiked……and this due to what? To the lack of security…..bad paying jobs is always better than NO job. And the famine argument is nonsense, actually. People complain, oh, not enough food recently in cuba….and always forgetting a 50 embargo and countless covert attempts to destablize the country (and of course kill castro). The fantasy of capitalist prosperity is just that, a fantasy. The US has no health care, and the highest per capital prison population in the world (90% of which is poor people). A charming system.

  25. Steve, thanks for this. I looked up Mike Davis’ book at Amazon.com and found this comment:

    “For Davis, as with all Marxists (and all idealogues for that matter, whether left or right) there is no room here in the explanation of actions for the role of human decision making. Humans only act in the way that economic forces shape them. It is of course the old charge against Marxism, of determinism writ large, and Davis suffers from this very much. Thus the Queen’s Minister’s in India, are responsible for the suffering (plausible), and her ministers make decisions purely out of economic motives. Even when they are moved to pity, economics overrides it and brings them back to being automotons driven by economics — forced to do evil and strip the last amount of surplus value out of the Indian “riots” — peasants. Thus all colonial officials and their local lackies are inescapable robots.

    The corrollary is of course that the local, traditional means of production were superior (the noble savage theory once again), but they were displaced by the newer modes of production, eg. Davis continually cites the fact the train lines and their spurs concentrated grain stores in single huge areas and did not distribute it as widely as the traditional Indian & Chinese methods. It is an interesting theory, but I do not know how he would prove it since his book includes no description of famines in pre-colonial times for any of the countries.

    Davis mentions briefly the famines in China in the 1950s / 60s directly instigated by the communist party. Yet, in true ideological style — throw out common sense and flow with the dogma — he makes the asinine statement that Mao’s policies were driven with good intent, but he lacked a feedback mechanism to know what was actually going on — millions died, but Mao’s heart was in the right place. This, in Davis’ opinion, actively contrasts with the attitude of the British who actually engage in active efforts to make the famine worse.

    The above is plain idiocy, intellectually dishonest: contrasting the “Great Leap Forward Famine” with that of the British India Famines of 1877 and 1900, Mao created the famine and then mismanaged it. Even by Davis’ own analysis, the British did not start such a famine.

    Also it is worthwile to note that in 400 pages of contrasting famines Davis does not once — not once! — mention the Stalinist famine in 1930s Soviet Union (where as many as 20,000,000 may have died). Such an oversight is done consciously and reminds me that Davis has put together a monumental book with a lot of original work, yet in final analysis it is a heavy ideological tract worthy of Lenin himself. Davis has his truth. It is that capitalism causes famines.”

    At any rate, I haven’t read the book and didn’t know of it before your mention of it. But I still don’t see how the British under a royal family could be considered a liberal democracy esp. as it concerns a third world country that didn’t vote for the queen. Sen’s point is that voting allows marginalized populations to make their voice heard and forces officials to react in terms of giving them food for fear of being voted out of office. Centralized economies such as Marxism offers is virtually a blueprint for famine.

    At any rate, in this country perhaps a little communism would do a lot of good since everybody is so fat except for the handful of anorexics. Perhaps someone could put out a book called The North Korean Diet: How To Get The Whole Country Thin in One Month or LEss.

    All we need is Kim Il-Sung for president.

    (Peter, I liked your comment about how capitalism produces devils, but I would argue that we are devils to begin with. Checks and balances coming out of Madison assumes that we are all devils. It seems to me that we need a system that assumes we are all devils. Madison’s does account for this. This is why it functions.)

  26. It is an interesting theory, but I do not know how he would prove it since his book includes no description of famines in pre-colonial times for any of the countries.

    Kirby in the Simon Schama book you will see how profoundly the Calvinist mind is haunted by the specter of FAMINE. In the midst of opulent overabundance, the Dutch were always terrified of starving. Why do you think those Old Master’s paintings feature such emaciated, almost skeletal bodies. Even now the Dutch ideal of beauty is ascetic. The Dutch have a very developed collecting instinct, for this is meant to stave off thoughts about FAMINE. A Dutchman never throws away. The ”binary” way they flip from comic excess (raunchy sex, prostitution, transgressivity bla) to solemn restraint (the Calvinist Miser) also testifies to the fact that their mind is preoccupied with scarcity. It is a completely spectral scarcity, though, because Holland has enough money and gold to sustain the country for 30 years after the Apocalypse. So Kirby even if there is no real famine, capitalism, that brainchild of Calvinism, will PRODUCE it, Deleuze-style.

    No nation sacrificed more than the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler, and: the levels of casualties endured by the Soviets were far beyond what would have been considered acceptable by the US or the UK.

    Peter, thanks for pointing this out. Nowadays people forget how much the Christian Orthodox Serbia sacrifised to defeat Hitler, as they champion the Second Coming of Jesus, Godot, sorry, Marx, as staged by Dr. Zizek.

  27. Peter, your description of Sparta matches a description of Slovenia almost perfectly!

    Except that the Slovenians never had any military force to speak of

  28. Peter, I would still argue that the reason the Soviets were capable of sacrificing so many on the battlefield is the same reason they were willing to sacrifice so many to the five-year plans: there was no real voting in place. The central planners didn’t have to worry about being voted out, so they could easily sacrifice 20 million. While this might have been an opportunistic boon to the west on the battlefield it certainly wasn’t that wonderful to have been a Soviet soldier or a Soviet farmer and to have happily erased for the sake of the central planners. In the Winter War in Finland the Soviets sent 2 million men against Mannerheim’s well-entrenched divisions and 1.2 million came back in boxes within the first month after having been mowed down by Finnish machine guns. Would somebody have dared to complain under Stalin? I don’t see this as a positive, or to be a valid reason to adopt Marxism.

  29. Zizek isn’t a military historian. Victor Davis Hanson I think is more precisely behind the 300 film although I haven’t seen the film yet. Hanson is a hugely popular conservative military historian who teaches in the U of California system and is a specialist in ancient Greece. He argues in his book Carnage and Culture that the Persians had no personal stake in winning Xerxes’ battles. Before the naval disaster at Salamis where some 80,000 Persians perished, one father asked Xerxes if just one of his 5 sons could remain alive. Xerxes asked which one is your favorite, and then had that son torn apart before his father’s eyes, leaving the corpse separate on the two sides of the road through which Xerxes’ men were forced to march to their slaughter. Hanson argues that the west had a personal stake in winning.

    The way that Xerxes handled recalcitrant troops is very similar to the way in which the Soviets shot machine guns at their own troops if they tried to run from battle.

    Hanson’s book was renamed Why the West Has Won after 9/11 and continues to be a very popular book. The best chapters are the one about Salamis and the incredible chapter on the battle of Midway, which turned the tides against the Japanese imperial navy. His last chapter argues that Islam doesn’t stand a prayer against the west.

    Whenever you have central planning you will have a weak army, a weak food distribution system, a lack of morale, and ultimately, cultural suicide. This is Hanson’s thesis, but I think he’s probably right. The 300 (it was actually 299 according to Hanson) at Thermopylae had their own private property, among other things, to look forward to. The Persians had nothing of the kind. Here’s a brief bit from Amazon.com. Sorry to belabor this, but I would like to cult-crack one or two readers this Monday morning:

    “Victor Davis Hanson’s 463 pages of gore now seem fundamental to civilization, but they were not always so. Hanson’s theme is that some six elements in the Western pursuit of war have led us to our current world view. They are 1) personal freedom, which “does not begin earlier than the Greeks,” 2) civic militarism, in which duty calls citizens to the defense of their property and ideals, 3) civilian audit, placing limits on the independence of the military, 4) scientific tradition, bringing both its logic and its technology, 5) decisive shock battle by disciplined infantry, 6) and private property, providing soldiers a vested interest in the outcome.”

  30. of sacrificing so many on the battlefield is the same reason they were willing to sacrifice so many to the five-year plans: there was no real voting in place.

    Kirby, I am deeply sorry for speaking in politically incorrectese, but if you really believe this, you’re a disgrace for Christianity. Russians were able to sacrifice because they were able to sacrifice – sacrifice is a holy creed of Christian Orthodoxy. Have you ever watched Tarkovsky (”Sacrifice”) or read any Dostoyevski before you came to this reductionist analysis? Or is your masochistic Lutheranism working on you again?

  31. Bet Dejan, according to what I’ve read about the Finnish front the Russians tried to run, but their officers had them shot.


    They should have had better generals, and something worth fighting for. The best general, Zhukov, was constantly being hampered by political hacks like Zhdanov, and this cost the lives of millions. Russians tried to defect to Finland and many of them succeeded but after the war Stalin demanded these men return to the USSR, where he had them shot.

  32. So Kirby you´re explaining this complex bravery as basically a militaristic metaphor or something, just to defend your argument against socialism.
    Kirby, it´s kind of endearingly mischievous, but as an argument quite
    reductionist, so I don´t know how and why to respond.

  33. And the moral imperiousness of your Christian views does not quite match the morality on display in your interpretation of the Russian sacrifice against Hitler

  34. One of my favorite things to go over was the battle of Stalingrad. I love the bravery of the soldiers on both sides both fighting for equally demented causes. The individuals on both sides I’m sure were very often decent people who in better circumstances would have made good fathers. Many Lutherans on the Nazi side — many Eastern Orthodox on the Russian side. Both fighting for socialist variants that have nothing to do with Christianity in which the individual (Christianity is all about the individual before God according to Kierkegaard) was submerged into a terrifying THEM — into a squirming pod mass of loserdom.

    Stalingrad was a sad strange cold spectacle. One of my special favorites! Topped only by the Killing Fields and the gulags themselves.

  35. Stalingrad was a sad strange cold spectacle. One of my special favorites! Topped only by the Killing Fields and the gulags themselves.

    Well I would say this explains perfectly the cold blooded Reaganite capitalism full of racist undertones related to Bushian Christianity that I think lurks behind your idyllic facade, sort of like a David Lynch movie but then being played out at McDonald’s… I am also reminded of Stephen King’s CARRIE somehow.

  36. Personally, I think that two bads equals a good. When two genocidal countries go at it, it’s good for everybody. It’s like -1 x -1 = 1.

    It’s that simple.

    But be careful what you project on me, Dejan. Your Freudian slip is showing!!

  37. Zizek does not say that Hedonism is the “source of the problem”. As you quote, he says that “hedonist permissivity [is] the ruling ideology” of the west. Elsewhere, Zizek spends time discussing how it is Capital that is behind current global problems. This is why he takes issue with identity politics – he claims that in fighting for recognition within the existing order, one forgets to ask questions about relations of production and Capital. In his essay on Lenin, for example, he talks about Captial today. In Particular, his project is to try to show that we need to break out of what he calls the liberal-democratic deadlock and move beyond Capital.

    His paper on Robespierre is the same – his project is to try to suss out how one can break a deadlock, and not merely hysterically “act out” and maintain the logic of the deadlock. This break he calls the Act proper. And when he talks about all the murder and destruction that follows, he is trying to show that one must accept the consequences of the Act, and that they will not be pretty. To avoid the consequences is to expect someone else to do the dirty work, while you get to reap the benefits.

    He does not, however, justify all the terror meted out by Lenin – he confines his discussion to a very particular point in history. Zizek holds that Lenin, at the time of the revolution, stepped up and made it happen (rather than waiting for the right moment, waiting for a guarantee that the revolution would succeed, which never comes) and accepted the consequences of so doing. He goes on to identify when Lenin went wrong.

    As for his engagement with Badiou, he is very open about his take – look at the third and fourth chapters of the Ticklish Subject. He agrees with much of Badiou, including that each situation has an event particular to it. Where he differs with Badiou is in his conception of the subject. Zizek claims that Badiou holds the subject to be a new creation of each event. Zizek differs in that he thinks there is not a new subject, but a new subjectivization (identification). It is the void of the subject proper that, for Zizek, makes any particular subjectivization possible. And it is certainly not the “old subject” that takes charge of “the new order” – he argues that the death drive clears away the old subjectivizations, making room for a new one – with the event. In sacrificing all one has, including one’s life, one becomes open to what the Event offers.

  38. Zizek’s reading of the film is contrarian to a point, but more significantly it falls prey to that other move Zizek is open about – pulling everything and anything into the vortex of his theory. His reading here represents less any ‘fascist tendencies’ he may have, and more his pulling out that which matches the goals of his project. I don’t think it matters to him that there are other possible readings – finding fascim, sexism, homophobia, etc, and I’m not totally convinced that he would deny some of their validity. What matters for him is that he can use the film to explain what his ideas are. Which, of course, is problematic. Seeing the review this way, however, displaces the problemactic presented here – from his supposed fascism and ‘Hegelian trickery’, to the unabashed re-reading of cultural texts.

  39. I like Zizek for precisely the reasons that I think Dejan hates him. Every once in a while he makes sense.

    But I like Dejan because he can be funny. The Carrie business was really funny. I thought at first he meant (John) Kerry — who is truly a nightmare and then later I realized he was thinking about the Sissy Spacek vehicle and her explosive revenge on her high school. And that the Spacek character had a terrible upbringing with a monstrous mom who was a crazed Christian.

    And then I realized he thought that about me. LOL.

    Thanks for that. It was almost more fun than I can stand!

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