Friday, April 28, 2017


Scruton on Slavoj Žižek

Roger Scruton has a very funny--and bothersome--article in The City Journal on the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, his many influences, the recent history of Marxist thinking and the seemingly zombie-like persistence of leftist revolutionary thought. Some selections are below but here is a link to the article:
On Slavoj Žižek, a new kind of leftist thinker

Assuring the world that they had never really been taken in by Communist propaganda, leftist thinkers renewed their attacks on Western civilization and its “neoliberal” economics as the principal threat to humanity in a globalized world.

Lacan’s collected Écrits, published in 1966, were one of the sources drawn upon by the student revolutionaries in May 1968. Thirty-four volumes of his seminars followed, published by his disciples and subsequently translated into English, or at least into a language that resembles English as closely as the original resembles French. The influence of these seminars is one of the deep mysteries of modern intellectual life. Their garbled regurgitation of theories that Lacan neither explored nor understood is, for sheer intellectual effrontery, without parallel in recent literature.

Unexplained technicalities, excerpted from set theory, particle physics, linguistics, topology, and whatever else might seem to confer power on the wizard who conjures with them, are used to prove such spectacular theorems as that the erectile penis in bourgeois conditions is equal to the square root of minus one or that you do not (until worked on by Lacan) “ex-sist.”

For Lacan, the big Other (capital A for Autre) is the challenge presented to the self by the not-self. This big Other haunts the perceived world with the thought of a dominating and controlling power—a power that we both seek and flee from. There is also the little other (lowercase a for autre), who is not really distinct from the self but is the thing seen in the mirror during that stage of development that Lacan calls the “mirror stage,” when the infant supposedly catches sight of himself in the glass and says “Aha!” That is the point of recognition, when the infant first encounters the “object = a,” which, in some way that I find impossible to decipher, indicates both desire and its absence.

Lacan’s ruminations on the Other appear constantly in Žižek’s writings, which offer proof of one feature in which the Communist system had the edge on its Western rivals: they are the products of a seriously educated mind.
As an indication of Žižek’s style, here are some of the topics touched on in three consecutive pages, chosen more or less at random, from his engaging 2008 book In Defense of Lost Causes: the Turin shroud; the Koran and the scientific worldview; the Tao of physics; secular humanism; Lacan’s theory of fatherhood; truth in politics; capitalism and science; Hegel on art and religion; postmodernity and the end of grand narratives; psychoanalysis and modernity; solipsism and cyberspace; masturbation; Hegel and objective spirit; Richard Rorty’s pragmatism; and is there or is there not a big Other?
The machine-gun rattle of topics and concepts makes it easy for Žižek to slip in his little pellets of poison, which the reader, nodding in time to the rhythm of the prose, might easily swallow unnoticed. Thus, we are not “to reject terror in toto but to re-invent it”; we must recognize that the problem with Hitler, and with Stalin, too, is that they “were not violent enough”; we should accept Mao’s “cosmic perspective” and read the Cultural Revolution as a positive event. Rather than criticizing Stalinism as immoral, we should praise it for its humanity, since it rescued the Soviet experiment from “biopolitics”; besides, Stalinism is not immoral but too moral, since it relied on the figure of the big Other, which, as all Lacanians know, is the primordial mistake of the moralist. We must also recognize that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is “the only true choice today.”
...all this might have served to discredit Žižek among more moderate left-wing readers, were it not for the fact that it is never possible to be sure that he is serious. Maybe he is laughing—not only at himself and his readers but at an academic establishment that can seriously include Žižek alongside Kant and Hegel on the philosophy curriculum...
From Lacan, Žižek also takes the idea that mental processes fall into three distinct categories: fantasy, symbol, and the reaching for the Real. Desire comes through fantasy, which proposes both the object = a (the objet petit a), and the first subjectivization: the mirror stage, in which desire (and its lack) enter the infant psyche. The notion of fantasy is connected with that key term of Lacanian analysis—a term that incidentally entered and dominated French literary theory under the influence of Roland Barthes—namely, jouissance, Lacan’s substitute for the Freudian “pleasure principle.” Fantasies enter our lives and persist because they bring enjoyment, and they are revealed in symptoms, those irrational-seeming fragments of behavior through which the psyche protects its achieved terrain of enjoyment from the threatening realities of the world beyond—from the unvisitable world of the Real.
This thought gives rise to a spectacular emendation to Freud’s idea of the superego, expressed in terms that unite Kant with the Marquis de Sade:
It is a commonplace of Lacanian theory to emphasize how [the] Kantian moral imperative conceals an obscene superego injunction: “Enjoy!”—the voice of the Other impelling us to follow our duty for the sake of duty is a traumatic irruption of an appeal to impossible jouissance, disrupting the homeostasis of the pleasure principle and its prolongation, the reality principle. This is why Lacan conceives Sade as the truth of Kant.
Ideology, in the classical Marxist analysis, is understood in functional terms, as the system of illusions through which power achieves legitimacy. Marxism offers a scientific diagnosis of ideology, reducing it to a symptom, showing how things really are behind the fetishes. By doing so, it “opens our eyes” to the truth: we see exploitation and injustice where previously we had seen contract and free exchange. The illusory screen of commodities, in which relations between people appear as the law-like motion of things, crumbles before us and reveals the human reality: stark, unadorned, and changeable. In short, by tearing away the veil of ideology, we prepare the way for revolution.
...this brings me to the heart of Žižek’s leftism. The Real, touched by Lacan’s magic wand, vanishes. It is the primary absence, the “truth” that is also castration. The wand waves away reality and thereby gives fresh life to the dream. It is in the world of dreams, therefore, that morality and politics are now to be implanted. What matters is not the discredited world of merely empirical events but the goings-on in the dream world, the world of the exalted intellectuals, for whom ideas and enthusiasms cancel mere realities.

Thus, in a singularly repulsive essay on “Revolutionary Terror,” Žižek praises the “humanist terror” of Robespierre and Saint-Just (as opposed to the “anti-humanist, or rather inhuman,” terror of the Nazis) not because it was particularly kind to its victims but because it expressed the “utopian explosions of political imagination” of its perpetrators.

For what matters is what people say, not what they do, and what they say is redeemed by their theories, however stupidly or carelessly pursued, and with whatever disregard for real people. We rescue the virtual from the actual through our words, and the deeds have nothing to do with it.
There is the kind exemplified by the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1783, in which essentially law-abiding people attempt to define and protect their rights against usurpation. And then there is the kind exemplified by the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, in which one elite seizes power from another and then establishes itself by a reign of terror.
In Žižek, we find astonishing evidence of the fact that the “Communist hypothesis,” as Badiou calls it, will never go away. Notwithstanding Marx’s attempt to present it as the conclusion of a science, the “hypothesis” cannot be put to the test and refuted. For it is not a prediction or, in any real sense, a hypothesis. It is a statement of faith in the unknowable.

As in 1789, as in 1917, as in the Long March of Mao, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, the work of destruction feeds on itself. Žižek’s windbaggery serves one purpose: to turn attention away from the actual world, from real people, and from ordinary moral and political reasoning. It exists to promote a single and absolute cause, the cause that admits of no criticism and no compromise and that offers redemption to all who espouse it. And what is that cause? The answer is there on every page of Žižek’s writings: Nothing.

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