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In a recent post on ‘The Sociological Imagination‘ blog, Steve Fuller provocatively argued that Zizek is “a total waste of space for a self-described ‘Left’ that wants to remain politically relevant in the 21st century” and I therefore felt that a response needed to be written. For me, on the contrary, Zizek’s ideas are far from a waste of space; they in fact provide the only space worth occupying for ‘we’ on the left today.

Fuller begins by explaining his feelings towards Zizek’s theory:

“whenever I read him, I think to myself: This guy either just wants us to feel good about ourselves after performing some self-contained Occupy-ish rituals or he is calling for outright violence in a prophylactic bloodbath.”

For a start, the charge that Zizek wants us to ‘feel good about ourselves in performing [resistive] rituals’ is simply wrong. Zizek’s very point is that we shouldn’t “fall in love with ourselves” in such acts and that we must “attack what is most dear to us” (i.e. our safe ‘bubble’ of liberal democratic everyday actions such as giving to charity or washing out baked bean cans for the recycling) in order to truly bring about emancipatory change. Regressing to feeling good about ourselves is exactly the opposite of what Zizek wants and this is explicit throughout his writing.

As for the latter part of the quotation from Fuller, it is clear that he has completely fallen for the shallow reading of Zizek’s stance on violence which is often dished out by journalists and the public alike who are not familiar with his work in any depth. In Zizek’s book on the subject (helpfully called ‘Violence‘ for ease of location) he is famous for two quotations. Firstly, that “Hitler was not violent enough…” (which is usually quoted out of context from the rest of the sentence) “…in the sense that Ghandi was more violent than HItler”. Zizek’s point is that HItler’s “bloodbath” was precisely an attempt to prevent a radical change in society, an act to ensure that everything remained the same (i.e. the capitalist mode of relation which would privilege the ‘aryan elite’). Ghandi, however, was truly violent in completely overturning the structural parameters of the Indian situation through his very symbolic (pacifistic) gestures.

The second quote from Violence is that “sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do” (which I have discussed here) pointing to the idea that, because every something and every possibility available to our imagination is caught within the ideological reference points of capitalism, the only way to break out of this is to consider the space of nothing: a Hegelian dialectic nothing full of radical emancipatory possibility. In other words, we on the left must consider what is impossible in order to break out of capitalism because this space has only been rendered impossible by the current co-ordinates of possibility – provided by capitalism – which we are resisting.

Subsequently, this is also why I argue that Zizek provides us with the only space for the left. Any other leftist project (“social scientifically literate” or otherwise) is by definition fundamentally apolitical if they only remain within the possible, but Zizek allows us to revive the ‘politics proper’ which is central to some of the most radical sociologists and social theorists (including, I would argue, C. Wright-Mills whose criticism of abstract empiricism in describing the sociological imagination embodied the Marxian dictum that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it”). Zizek shows us a way to break from contemporary ‘social sciences’ which spends its time and resources describing society in an age where it is needed more than ever to change society for the better.

Speaking of abstract empiricism, I found it particularly strange that after beginning his article with a reference to the recent Zizek vs. Chomsky debate Fuller should write the following:

“It would be a slight exaggeration to say that a vivid imagination works much better in political reasoning than supposedly solid facts, but it’s close to a truth that Zizek fails to appreciate.”

Wasn’t this exactly Zizek’s point that (contra Chomsky) empirical facts do not tell the whole story? Furthermore, a disregard for solely ‘solid facts’ is also why for Zizek it does not actually matter whether there is a conspiracy (a Big Brother style surveillance) or not: it is enough that the big Other is supposed to know, is imagined to know, as this gives us our ontological consistency to transgress it.

Finally, Fuller is also incorrect when he argues that Zizek:

“ignorantly fetishes American ‘technological priority’ (a euphemism for military might), without realizing the potential for enormous unintended and unanticipated failure. To be sure, these failures could have even more disastrous consequences than Zizek imagines, but for him to imagine them he would need to wake up from his Stalinist dystopian fantasy”

Firstly, in Living in the End Times, Zizek refers explicitly to a “potential for enormous unintended and unanticipated failure” which stems from his co-reading of both Jameson (whose dictum “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” Zizek sees as acted out in the cultural imaginary through disaster movies) and Badiou (whose idea of the ‘Event’ precisely describes the un-anticipatory and unintended nature of happenings which can completely change the co-ordinates of the situation).

Secondly, Fuller also unfortunately repeats the tired and shallow criticism of Zizek as a Stalinist nutcase which – far from acting as a critique – actually precludes any debate on the subject for its apparent self-evidence that Zizek is automatically wrong. Rather than attempting to understand Zizek’s larger point in his discussion of Stalin, Fuller relies on the ‘obviousness’ that he is wrong: a self-evidence which is post-political in relying on current co-ordinates to prove that this conversation is not worth having. In fact, Zizek himself describes the same ideological manoeuvre appearing in the notion of ‘totalitarianism’ which is regularly utilised as a ‘blatent’ signifier of evil – blurring Hitler and Stalin – but actually acts to completely shut out discussions of a leftist alternative to capitalism.

In conclusion, Fuller’s article provides a typically inaccurate representation of Zizekian theory, and I find it unfortunate that he felt compelled to use something akin to the ‘below-the-line-trolling’ which Zizek’s online articles regularly receive rather than an in-depth and informed response. As Zizek has often pointed out, when people treat him like a clown – by mentioning his discussion of Stalin, misquoting his argument on Hitler, or over-emphasising his use of jokes and popular culture – this is only because they have already pre-decided that they don’t want to take him seriously. Surely it’s this kind of shallow and ill-informed critique which is truly a waste of space for the left.

Thanks to David Hill for his comments on an earlier draft of this post.

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5 thoughts on “The Only Space: Zizek and the Sociological Imagination

  1. It’s too bad you decided to talk hermeneutics rather than politics. Other than protests and blogposts, what else constitutes Zizekian politics? Does representative democracy as normally understood play any role in it? C. Wright Mills at least inspired the Port Huron Declaration which founded Students for a Democratic Society. Zizek simply sells books, helping capitalism suck the imagination out of the Left.

    • Hi Steve, thanks for your comment. I actually tried to do both in this piece (i.e. point out some inaccuracies in your critique and point toward Zizek’s politics). Just to make the latter clearer, for me, his unique political contribution is the co-reading of Marx (radical, revolutionary, emancipatory, communist); Lacan (the role of desire and drive in ideology and revolution); and Hegel (the dialectical nothing and impossible space).
      In terms of democracy you’re right to question Zizek’s stance because he isn’t consistent across his writing (for instance, he even changed his stance between the hardback and paperback editions of Living in the End Times!) But reading him alongside his peers (Ranciere, Dean, Badiou etc) they mostly reject contemporary democracy as being ‘post-demos’ and misrepresenting the people. Consider for instance how our current prime minister is instigating widespread austerity, perhaps permanently changing society for the foreseeable future, yet didn’t even win a majority in the last election.
      I don’t see how Zizek’s popularity diminishes his ideas. Yes he has sold a lot of books – so have many on the left – but at least he offers an alternative way of thinking rather than parroting the same liberal multiculturalism that the left has become.
      It’s an interesting discussion and I don’t think we are likely to agree on much! But I look forward to reading your response.

  2. Pingback: » Does Žižek take himself as seriously as other people do? Idolatry, activism and the academic left The Sociological Imagination

  3. I’m sorry for the delay and I don’t know if I have much to contribute beyond this point. However, there is a difference between, on the one hand, views that might contribute to progressive politics in the sense of directing us to a better future, given where we are now in history, and, on the other, what might contribute to ‘leftist political theory’, an academic project that perhaps 50 years ago was connected to progressive politics but now really exists in its own parallel universe to politics. And that parallel universe is periodically performed in terms of Occupy-ish protests that often look like latter-day versions of cargo cults (i.e. they simulate political activity while remaining disconnected from its normal manifestations).

    The fact that Zizek is popular is not itself a problem — it’s rather what his popularity signifies. The works of Marx and Engels became very popular around the world and led to some substantial political changes because they became the basis for concerted and institutionalised political action, not simply a succession of street-theatre performances.

    My argument is not about the integrity of Zizek’s views, which I’m happy to leave to the hermeneuts, but about why progressive, intelligent people should take his views as the basis for anything concretely political. I really see him as the death rattle of a kind of Marxo-Freudian leftism whose political potency reached its peak in the 1970s. However, over the last 40 years, this general perspective (and the set of authors on which it draws) has been institutionalised in various humanistic and social scientific disciplines. And so the most immediate explanation these days for Zizek’s views being so popular is simply that various aspects of them have become familiar (albeit in more scholastic form) as part of general education for a significant part of this generation. But familiarity is not the same as relevance, especially when one is ultimately concerned about the future.

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