Intellectuals possess a special kind of power. Unlike politicians, generals, or corporate bosses, they lack both the authority and the ability to impose their will directly on others. They must therefore rely on “symbolic capital,” a term the historian Shlomo Zand of Tel Aviv University explains this way:
The power of their presence in the consciousness of their colleagues, or in wider public circles, is what establishes their status. As an offshoot, their power source is predominantly the symbolic prestige capital they accumulate. This capital, in many ways similar to financial capital, is obviously not a “thing,” but an attitude. To a certain extent it may be said that the thought patterns of consumers of intellectual output are the banks in which this precious capital is accumulated. This symbolic power can be measured in academic degrees, in prizes, in the extent of mentions and attributions, in the number of publications, and in many other practices routinely employed in the stock exchange of respect and acclamation.1
By these standards, it is safe to say that a sizable quantity of “symbolic capital” is today concentrated in the hands of Slavoj Žižek, philosopher, cultural commentator, and abounding wordsmith. Since the 1989 publication of his first book in English, Žižek, a senior researcher in the faculty of social sciences at Ljubljana University, has become the hot name of the Western intellectual scene. His books, translated into dozens of languages, have earned near-unanimous acclaim: The New Yorker crowned him an “international star” and credited him with putting his mother country, Slovenia, on the world map of ideas.2 Sarah Kay, professor of French literature at the University of Cambridge and author of a critical introduction to Žižek’s work, maintains that his enormous influence on the humanities and social sciences is reminiscent of the profound impression made by French thinker Michel Foucault on these academic disciplines during the seventies and eighties.3 And Glyn Daly, a senior lecturer in politics at University College, Northampton, who published a book of conversations with Žižek, describes him as “the philosophical equivalent of a virulent plague.”4 For its part, The Chronicle of Higher Education employed a slightly less ominous metaphor to describe the unique status of the Slovenian theoretician: “Žižek,” it writes, “is the Elvis of cultural theory.”5
What would be the kind of associations that spring into mind after reading this short para? Humanitarian, egalitarian, democracy-loving, modern-minded?
His numerous books and articles, many of which are internationally acclaimed bestsellers, leave a different impression, but only to a very attentive and intellectual reader. Below are few excerpts from a shrewd analysis of his works. In the first instance, it is important to remember how he manipulates his “dialectical reversal” to free himself of self-contradiction and mould smoothly the disagreements between his thoughts and notions into the accepted modern discourse of humanism, democracy and capitalism.
It also provides a fine illustration of the sort of dialectical reversal that is Zizek’s favorite intellectual stratagem, and which gives his writing its disorienting, counterintuitive dazzle. Torture, which appears to be un-American, is pronounced to be the thing that is most American. It follows that the legalization of torture, far from barbarizing the United States, is actually a step toward humanizing it. According to the old Marxist logic, it heightens the contradictions, bringing us closer to the day when we realize, as Zizek writes, that “universal human rights” are an ideological sham, “effectively the rights of white male property owners to exchange freely on the market and exploit workers and women.”
Nor does Zizek simply condemn Al Qaeda’s violence as “horrifying.” Fundamentalist Islam may seem reactionary, but “in a curious inversion,” he characteristically observes, “religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today’s society. It has become one of the sites of resistance.” And the whole premise of Violence, as of Zizek’s recent work in general, is that resistance to the liberal-democratic order is so urgent that it justifies any degree of violence. “Everything is to be endorsed here,” he writes in Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, “up to and including religious ‘fanaticism.'”
His numerous pronunciations on violence are more appalling than merely representing a “different perspective”:
The curious thing about the Zizek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror–especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose “lost causes” Zizek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes–the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult. A glance at the blurbs on his books provides a vivid illustration of the power of repressive tolerance. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Zizek claims, “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy”; but on the back cover of the book we are told that Zizek is “a stimulating writer” who “will entertain and offend, but never bore.” In The Fragile Absolute, he writes that “the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred”; but this is an example of his “typical brio and boldness.” And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Zizek remarks that “Heidegger is ‘great’ not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement,” and that “crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough”; but this book, its publisher informs us, is “a witty, adrenalinfueled manifesto for universal values.”
Among other feats, Žižek is renowned for his genuine mixture of philosophy and psychoanalysis from one side and pop-culture and consumerism from the other. One of his touchstone messages is based on the famous movie Matrix, where Neo is revealed the reality by the phrase “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” the namesake of which has become a book by Žižek.
But Zizek is not an empiricist, or a liberal, and he has another answer. It is that capitalism is the Matrix, the illusion in which we are trapped.
This, of course, is merely a flamboyant sci-fi formulation of the old Marxist concept of false consciousness. “Our ‘freedoms,'” Zizek writes in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, “themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom.” This is the central instance in Zizek’s work of the kind of dialectical reversal, the clever anti-liberal inversion, that is the basic movement of his mind. It could hardly be otherwise, considering that his intellectual gods are Hegel and Lacan–masters of the dialectic, for whom reality never appears except in the form of the illusion or the symptom.
This sacerdotal notion of intellectual authority makes both thinkers essentially hostile to democracy, which holds that the truth is available in principle to everyone, and that every individual must be allowed to speak for himself. Zizek, too, sees the similarity–or, as he says, “the profound solidarity”–between his favorite philosophical traditions. “Their structure,” he acknowledges, “is inherently ‘authoritarian’….term “authoritarian” is not used here pejoratively.
But to know what is worth struggling for, you need theories about struggle. Only if you have already accepted the terms of the struggle–in Zizek’s case, the class struggle–can you move on to the struggling theory that teaches you how to fight. In this sense, Zizek the dialectician is at bottom entirely undialectical. That liberalism is evil and that communism is good is not his conclusion, it is his premise; and the contortions of his thought, especially in his most political books, result from the need to reconcile that premise with a reality that seems abundantly to indicate the opposite.
Hence the necessity of the Matrix, or something like it, for Zizek’s worldview. And hence his approval of anything that unplugs us from the Matrix and returns us to the desert of the real–for instance, the horrors of September 11.
What is then the essence of his message?
Zizek endorses one after another of the practices and the values of fascism, but he obstinately denies the label.
“To be clear and brutal to the end,” he sums up, “there is a lesson to be learned from Hermann Goering’s reply, in the early 1940s, to a fanatical Nazi who asked him why he protected a well-known Jew from deportation: ‘In this city, I decide who is a Jew!’… In this city, it is we who decide what is left, so we should simply ignore liberal accusations of inconsistency.”
And his views on Jews?
In Zizek’s telling, that relationship is sickeningly familiar. Invoking Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, Zizek asserts that Judaism harbors a “‘stubborn attachment’ … to the unacknowledged violent founding gesture that haunts the public legal order as its spectral supplement.” Thanks to this Jewish stubbornness, he continues, “the Jews did not give up the ghost; they survived all their ordeals precisely because they refused to give up the ghost.” This vision of Judaism as an undead religion, surviving zombie-like long past the date of its “natural” death, is taken over from Hegel, who writes in the Phenomenology of Mind about the “fatal unholy void” of this “most reprobate and abandoned” religion. This philosophical anti-Judaism, which appears in many modern thinkers, including Kant, is a descendant of the Christian anti-Judaism that created the figure of the Wandering Jew, who also “refused to give up the ghost.”
“What makes Nazism repulsive,” he writes, “is not the rhetoric of a final solution as such, but the concrete twist it gives to it.” Perhaps there is supposed to be some reassurance for Jews in that sentence; but perhaps not. For in In Defense of Lost Causes, again paraphrasing Badiou, Zizek writes: “To put it succinctly, the only true solution to the ‘Jewish question’ is the ‘final solution’ (their annihilation), because Jews … are the ultimate obstacle to the ‘final solution’ of History itself, to the overcoming of divisions in all-encompassing unity and flexibility.”
What do we make of him? His views leave no room but to call him fascist. His witty, cultured, flirting and half-joking ways conceal his real message, not unlike the real message of Plato‘s Republic and the way it was and is still understood: completely the opposite, as can be seen from an enlightening analysis of Karl Popper in his (properly named) “Open Society and its Enemies: Spell of Plato“.