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Evangelist Zizek and the End of Philosophy – II

March 16, 2009
Idea of communism? Courtesy Oscar's global blog
Idea of communism? Courtesy Oscar’s global blog

Today was the third and final day of the ‘Idea of Communism’ conference and it was the truly most bizarre experience – bizarre philosophical experience, I should say – of my life. Let me start backwards today.

The preacher from Ljubliana was in full form and he closed his own hour-long (or was it 55 minutes) presentation ‘To Begin from the Beginning, Over and Over Again’ with the following: “If the rumour that Gilles Deleuze was writing a book on Marx before he died, is true then this should be seen as a sign that after having spent a life time away from the Church he wanted to come back to its fold…We welcome all those anti-communist Leftists who have spent their lifetimes attacking us to come and join us.” I may have missed a word or two here and there but this was it. This was also, if I did not miss the point partly aimed at Negri and Hardt, both of whom (Deleuzians of sorts, I should imagine) had reportedly left the conference by then. A questioner who actually took on Zizek on this and asserted the significance of Deleuze in terms of understanding ‘the unconscious’ not as a theatre of desire but as a factory and of desire itself as productive rather than as a lack, was quickly snubbed by him (in what his co-panelist Judith Balso had to term ‘demagogic’ style), by saying that you don’t know that in many countries the capitalists claim that they are the real Deleuzians, mobile, rhizomic, nomadic etcetera – and that was supposed to be a refutation of Deleuze’s philosophy. If this is a philosophical argument coming from one of the biggest superstars of philosophy, I think it is really the end of philosophy. This performance by Zizek was in fact the high point of the conference in many ways, for among other things it was a throwback to sometime four-five decades ago, with this doyen of philosophers openly arguing for terror: “We want a strong disciplinay terror” he said, citing fellow philosopher Alain Badiou’s advocacy of proletarian terror as one of the four things that constitute ‘the communist invariant’. And believe me, there was no irony in this – it was all very straightorward. But for the time being, let me rewind a bit.

Yesterday, 14 March, there were two sessions. The first was entirely a session of the Italian far Left with Alessandro Russo speaking on “Did the Cultural Revolution End Communism?” and Alberto Toscano on ‘Communist Power/Communist Knowledge” and finally Toni Negri (“Communisme: Reflexions sur le concept et la pratique”). Negri spoke in Italian giving the gist of each point that was then read out from a translated text. The entire session was didactic and dry and amounted simply to a reiteration of faith in a somewhat philosophical language. Negri’s presentation, true to his style and his now well-known positions, basically reiterated that ‘for communists all history is the history of class struggle’! Those who do not understand do not realize that capital is itself a social relation and the struggle is embodied in the social relation. Among other gems of his thought was the claim that ‘there is no room for narodniki any more’ as ‘there is no longer any outside’. ‘There is no longer any outside to capitalism and exchange value, no longer any place for use-value’. All struggle is therefore lodged within capital. Thus all struggle is class struggle. QED

It is important to hold on to this point for it recurs in different ways through the conference. In the afternoon session we had a hall packed – easily the most crowded and packed session of the three days when Terry Eagleton, Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou spoke. Eagleton, whom I have always fancied as an English Aijaz Ahmad, at least displayed some typical British sense of humour – something that seemed to be missing otherwise. For the rest his talk was basically around Shakespeare and his character Gonzalo from The Tempest, as the exponent of the idea of communism. Fair enough. For Eagleton started by confessing that he for one did not quite see the need to hold this conference but ‘Slavoj seems to be a philosopher of the impossible and would like to do impossible things as far as possible…’ Ranciere was his unassuming best and spoke on the authority of his favourite philosopher – the ignorant schoolmaster Jacotot. He spoke of ‘Communism without communists’ – an irony that was passed over in somewhat embarassed silence by the audience and fellow speakers. For, Ranciere spoke of the ‘communism of intelligence’ – there is no superior intelligence hence no pedagogic enterprise, hence no communists! This was of course clearer in his title but in the talk it was put a bit elliptically. And then, at the end of the day we had Alain Badiou defining ‘communism’ and the ‘communist hypothesis’ for all of us. His speech was basically a recapitulation of his initial statements that called forth this conference in the first place. This was embellished with his larger philosophical take on the ‘Event’: ‘An Event is the rupture in the normal disposition of bodies and languages’, ‘it is the opening of a new possibility’ – such is the communist hypothesis – A Badiou-ian Event. The sheer metaphysics of it is mindnumbing till we are given its translation into ordinary language as the ‘communist invariant’. This communist invariant is defined by radical egalitarain justice, a radical voluntarism with the enunciation of a new collective subject and finally of proletarian or popular terror!

One of the points of debate among the participants was the question of the state. Negri and Badiou of course are known for their anti-state positions. While Negri’s is a more radically anti-state position Badiou does recognize the need for some kind of engagement – hence his formulation of acting at a distance from the state. Both however agree with Negri’s formulation that for this reason socialism (which is a statist imaginary) can only be replaced by communism which is radically anti-state. However, Zizek struck a pragmatist note here to argue with Badiou and Judith Balso as to what, operationally, this ‘at a distance’ can possibly mean and how this is a pathetic anarchist recipe for marginality. It can never influence the main course of events. While there is some point to Zizek’s argument at a theoretical level, it was an amazingly non-theoretical, pragmatic political and indeed stalinist reaffirmation of the state that repeatedly came through his interventions. This was also evident in an exchange between Negri and Zizek when the latter asked the former why he supported Lula (who Zizek claimed ‘was a friend of Bush’) and opposed Chavez (who was doing some radical things with the state? Negri’s response was interesting. He said he had known Lula for thrity years and seen him at work and was deeply impressed by the way he built the party from within the workers’ movement. He distrusted Chavez’ politics as that was purely based on the state, he said and added: ‘The temporal moment of renewal in Lula has stopped, I accept, but in Chavez it never started.’ Clearly, the point was not of immediate politics where I suspect, Negri might support Chavez against the US but one of potentialities and possibilities. And to that extent, Negri’s seemed to me to be a more philosophical assessment rather than a crudely political one that is moreover based on pure slander (a Leninist word that should gladden Zizek’s heart, but what else is it to say that ‘Lula is Bush’s friend’!)

The Grand Finale

So, this was the debate of sorts. Today there were three speakers slotted for the day: Slavoj Zizek, Gianni Vattimo and Judith Balso. But it was Zizek’s day. Like Stalin at the end of a comintern conference, Zizek spoke almost as if possessed, leading the chair of the session too to remark that it was like a Sunday ecclesiastical session. He took everyone to task – everyone who he thought was deviating from the practical tasks at hand into vague philosophical definitions or elaborations of communism. The man who had begun the session with the classic ‘We must resist the temptation to act’ was now berating thought and every argument he made was to counter a philosophical theoretical one with a crude – well almost ‘but the children are dying in Africa’ kind of broadside. The main theoretical intervention by him was his take-off from Susan Buck-Morss’ take on ‘Hegel in Haiti’, where he argued that the Haitian revolution was the ‘true repitition’ of the French insofar as it took the values and slogans of the French revolution more seriously than the French, thus giving the universalite to its ideals it only possessed potentially. The Haitian revolution was important for Europe’s becoming Europe. This is true universalite…

Well so far so good. But then he went on to expound on the present, the ecological crisis etc . In this context he then ridiculed Evo Morales, and his apparent claim that all this destruction of the environment began with industrialization and the industrial revolution. Citing from a letter written by Morales, where he had said that therefore ‘Mother Earth no longer exists’, Saint Zizek proclaimed that if there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that ‘Mother Earth no longer exists’ – amidst a slightly emabrassed applause from the audience. “We must remain resolutely modern” he further proclaimed. Brilliantly said, but as one questioner later asked him, what was his remedy for the ecological crisis except homilies (actually the questioner did not quite ask him this; it was Zizek who understood this to be his question). And Zizek answered in perplexity that he had after all said what his solution was: it was radical egalitarian justice! Now, did I get him wrong? We can be resolutely modernist, we must resolutely industrialize, see to it that every bit of the earth is transformed into a commodity and the ecological crisis will take care of itself simply because everyone will be made to sink to the sea in equal measure? But no, I confirmed from others. This was all that the great communist philosopher had to offer: ridicule for Evo Morales and some vague unthought masquerading as the philosophical resolution of the ecological crisis.

However, there is news for Zizek – as also for Badiou and Negri who think that ‘there is no outside to capitalism’ and that it s a good thing (I am not sure the latter two share this part though) that mother earth no longer exists. And the news is that at least in India, like in large parts of Africa and South America, mother earth still exists. The ferocious battles over land acquisition that have been and are still being fought in India are not simply because land is good livelihood but because it is mother earth. The further news for them is that whether they like it or not, whether they think it is regressive or not, a majority of people in countries like India – indeed large parts of Asia and Africa – live outside the dictatorship of ‘exchange value’ (why exchange value in itself should be a synonymous with capitalism is yet another question) in an economy of sharing, where ‘the common’ (a la Negri) is a way of life. This is not to romanticize these values in toto but there is something, a deeper connection with life and fellow beings that still exists. What is called ‘piracy’ in the language of contemporary capitalism and which has been taken over and valorized by radicals in the west is, in a manner of speaking an ethic of sharing that sustains our lives. And no Zizek or Badiou can ever tell me that it is regressive and that it is best that we should adopt the ways of life of Europe and the West that is focused almost exclusively around the figure of the possessive individual. And maybe some of them know this as well – just that it does not all fit into their theories very neatly. How else would one not attempt to theoretically reference either the Chiapas revolt or Morales’ Movement for Socialism (India, Nepal etc are too far, I grant) in attempting a retheorization of ‘communism’ in the twenty-first century? After all, unlike Lula or Chavez, their sole reference points are not capital-labour relations or ‘imperialism’ in some generic sense. Theirs are questions that pose a serious challenge before modernist marxism, even though they continue to establish a link with the idea of socialism and communism. Maybe it might be better for philosophers to start looking at ways in which these struggles resignify ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ before they start their flights of fancy.

And of course, finally we must state for the record that even apart from these issues, there are others – a whole range of them – that have nothing to do with the capital-labour relations or with ‘imperialism’ as such, but without an understanding of which such radical politics can only make sense to a very small, white western population. One of these is the Palestine issue, linked to which are a range of others that the sign ‘Islam’ for instance represents today. If the audience and the speakers at the conference were exclusively white and the speakers almost entirely male (with one exception) – with a very small sprinkling of Asians and NO blacks, then there is something seriously wrong with your radicalism Saint Zizek. It is of course beyond our comprehension why such scholars as Stuart Hall and Cornell West or the likes of Judith Butler or Chantal Mouffe, just to name a few, could not be included in the conference? Is it because they would have made you uncomfortable? Feminist issues, as an aside, have never been resolved by armed capture of state power. They have to be tackled at this level and if you cannot, then it simply means that you have no room for any other kind of politics except the one that you desire – masculine and state-centred.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2009 7:01 AM

    Thanks for the exhaustive reports and the polemics too :-) In the near complete absence of a political left, there is bound to be more heat than light and more hair splitting than path breaking.

    I feel the David Harvey and he group around MR (Rick Wolfe, JB Foster..) have been writing extremely illuminatingly on the Great Crisis of our times esp. Harvey’s recent blog post on the question of consolidation of class power.

  2. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    March 16, 2009 5:27 PM

    Thanks, rw. Yes, I agree with you on Harvey and some others of the MR group – at least they are dealing with real issues of contemporary capitalism. Even their textual exegesis is in terms of attempting to understand what is going on – and people like John Bellamy Foster place the ecological question right there upfront. Having said that though, may I say, that even they are a bit too orthodox, but preferable anyday to the great metaphysicians:)

  3. Brideshead revisited permalink
    March 17, 2009 8:59 AM

    This letter from Chris was forwarded by a friend from the LRB in the letters to the editor section, i think it to a limited extent it speaks about the role of philosophers taking recourse to the safer haven of theorizing rather than inclusion and change.

    From Chris Harman

    ‘Sit at home and watch the barbarity on television’ seems to be Slavoj Žižek’s new slogan for fighting capitalism. He writes of the
    million-strong demonstration against the war on Iraq: they ‘served to
    legitimise it.’ All that happened was that ‘the protesters saved their
    beautiful souls.’ Žižek’s brilliant dialectical insight allows us to
    see that all struggles that do not fully achieve their objectives
    sanctify the status quo. So the events of May 1968 in France must have
    legitimised the Gaullist regime, the Cuban revolution continued US
    domination of Latin America, the independence of India the British
    Empire, the revolutions of 1848 European reaction, the civil rights
    movement American racism. And if the US now attacks Iran we must at
    all costs not take to the streets against it. Perhaps the philosopher
    should go beyond interpreting the world in confusing ways and try to
    change it.

  4. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    March 17, 2009 4:01 PM

    I agree with Chris Harman on this point as far as his reading of some of Zizek’s recent pronouncements are concerned. However, the point is not to pose ‘the philosopher’ in opposition to action to ‘change the world’. If it was interpreting the world in general that Marx was talking about in the Theses on Feuerbach (the eleventh thesis that the last lines allude to), then we really have to explain why it was AFTER writing these fateful lines (1845) that he wrote Das Kapital (Vol 1 1866)? Das Kapital was, if anything, a mind-bogglingly ambitious effort to ‘interpret the world’. If all Marx was saying was that we must simply act and that we have had enough of theory and intellectual activity, then that was surely not the time to begin writing his magnum opus! And surely, what we have today as the legacy of Marx, is his intellectual legacy, not his role as an activist or organizer.
    Is it possible then that in those celebrated and fateful lines Marx was really outlining a different role for intellectual activity and philosophy: philosophy itself as an intervention in the world or maybe, as some have argued, the displacement of sepculative philosophy with social theory and political economy. In either case, it was not a simple case of down with theory and long live practice.:)

  5. March 17, 2009 8:31 PM

    Hello again, you don’t need to publish this, but you might be interested to see that someone has uploaded clips onto Youtube here:

  6. March 19, 2009 8:11 PM

    Aditya, fascinated by your critique in your other post I have been doing a bit of searching and I think Zizek trys to deal at least partly with some of it here: (from 9 minutes on) and going over into here:

    I must admit that I am largely illiterate with this sort of stuff, so I look forward to your response.

  7. satish permalink
    March 19, 2009 11:41 PM

    Aditya – many thanks for your synopsis and critique.

    Zizek’s writings and theoretical pronouncements have become tiring over the years not to mention uneven. I did enjoy reading his earlier works but gradually got turned off as the structure of his argument became repetitive whether he was discussing Descartes’ cogito or Cromwell’s murder mystery. The man does not complete his train of thought because he is always ahead of himself, thanks to the preemptive mode of Lacanian thinking which is constantly and pervasively underlaid by the principle of paradox wherein the opposite of what one seemingly believes is actually true.

  8. Anant M permalink
    March 20, 2009 10:10 AM

    Satish, did you just give us the master key to Zizek’s brain? He says ‘yes’ when he really means ‘no’?

  9. Aniruddha Dutta permalink
    March 20, 2009 11:58 AM

    Dear all, I just thought of adding my two bits to the conversation, taking off from some of the points mentioned in the report although I cannot really claim to encompass any of the complex questions involved. But this is about the whole ‘inside’-‘outside’ schematisation invoked by Negri and Hardt and more implicitly Zizek – as in their claims that there isn’t (now? no longer? since exactly when?) any ‘outside’ to Modernity and/or Capitalism which we could appeal to or be nostalgic for (‘narodniki’). If I am reading him correctly, Aditya Nigam contrapuntally asserts near the end of an essay that there however IS an outside for many of us, which the aforementioned speakers from their respective theoretical/epistemological positions may not be willing to re/cognize. Now, without going into the question whether such an ‘outside’ (of the ‘mother earth’, of the ‘commons’ and ‘sharing’ etc.) ‘really’ exists or not, I’d like to at least note that the ‘inside’/’outside’ schematization – in Negri, Hardt and Zizek but also perhaps in Nigam – leaves the ‘inside’ rather unproblematised and monochromatically-rendered; to be analysed primarily through the lenses of class and capital-labour relations even as the outside (in its putative absence or presence) is consigned to the sphere of the commons, sharing, use-value etc. (Was there ever any ‘use-value’ of any ‘thing’ unmediated by social relations and ideologies, based on ostensibly direct consumption? Is the sphere of ‘exchange-values’ mediated through social relations merely encompassing class?) Perhaps I am not phrasing my questions very well or in sound theoretical language; but what is bothersome is that the ‘border’ of the inside/outside division seems to remain – in both the Big-Theorists mentioned and in Nigam’s critique – rather unproblematised and premised on an old Capital-Community binary which perhaps remains reflective of particular metropolitan (Euro-American) experiences. Perhaps not even adequate to those, as the appearance of Modernity/Capital ‘there’ in the ‘centre’ has always been connected to the appearances of Modernity/Capital in other parts of the world including South Asia – so over and above merely ‘local’ histories of this ‘inside’ or that ‘outside’ (or worse, of an all-encompassing ‘inside’) we need more nuanced, multi-sited, yet systemic analysis spanning heterogenous but interconnected locations. Among many enigmas that remain unaddressed or blatantly excluded by a rigid inside/outside binary – How does one explain in the Indian context the success of some business castes and communities during colonialism and beyond; how the does explain the collusion of the ‘modern’ legal system and of ‘tradition’ in the standardisation of kinship relations; how does one explain the capitalist ideology of the virulent-or-soft communitarian Hindutva brigade; the liberalism (not merely rhetorical) of the implicitly or explicitly Casteist anti-reservation campaigners; the list just goes on. Looking at Modernity/Capital from certain central/metropolitan locations – refusing to engage with their histories elsewhere – creates a partial and obfuscating view of what those categories can connote or encompass. This view can then get universalised as the ‘inside’ from which there is apparently no escape (just because the theorists from their respective positions can see no better, as Nigam cogently critiques). But the critique launched by Nigam – claiming a certain outside defined against the inside – I think, may preserve that obfuscating paradigm that we are trying to work a way out of in the first place.

  10. Anant M permalink
    March 20, 2009 3:30 PM

    Satish, just to say sorry if the last comment from me sounded facetious. Didnt mean it that way. :)
    Having studiously avoided thinking about Zizek’s complicated relationship with radical democracy and communism… i found these threads difficult to understand. And then your note suddenly brought up a powerful and funny visual image. If I understand you correctly, by the time Zizek figures that the opposite of what he believes in at the moment is actually true and embraces it, the exact opposite – that is, that which he has just abandoned becomes true again. So it goes on….

  11. satish permalink
    March 20, 2009 5:24 PM

    No problem Anant:) Watch him on youtube (time and inclination permitting) and you’ll know what I am talking about. There a couple of docus on him that are in circulation.

  12. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    March 20, 2009 5:56 PM

    Satish, I couldn’t agree with you more. I used to find his earlier writings interesting and exciting – and occasionally, even now he does produce interesting stuff, when he is not posturing that is. But as you say, now I too find him so tedious and tiring that I barely manage to get myself to read him. He has in the meantime produced his own public – people losing faith, who needed a new messiah and he decided to play to that gallery.
    Aniruddha, thanks a lot for your very thought- provoking comment. I agree that this idea of the ‘boundary’ between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside needs to be complicated, that there are layers of different articulations of capital and noncapital, the modern and the traditional etc. I agree therefore that we need more ‘multi-sited analyses of heterogenous but interconnected locations’ as you put it so well. My problem is not whether ‘there really is’ an outside and if so, where…My point is that there are different ways of thinking about capital, modernity etc. One which is totalizing and where the ‘structure’ is always a structure, complete, whole – a totality enveloping everything in itself. So, with the rise of capitalism and the world market, it is true to say, that everything gets incorporated into that capitalist world market. Even a far off Asian peasant is not untouched by it in some form or the other. World market prices and demand determine what they will produce and how much etc. Even if they do not produce directly for the world market, their local and national markets are determined fundamentally by the logic of the world market. So, it is not incorrect, at this level, to say that capital formally subsumes all forms of ‘labour’ and production. However, does that mean that all production is now organized according to the capitalist production organization and the wage-relation? No. But you could say – as not only Hardt and Negri but all metropolitan marxists virtually without exception would say – all social realtions are now subsumed under capitalist relations.
    But there could be another way of looking at the same thing (?). We could say that even though capitalist social relations have enveloped them at one level, this structure called capitalism is not a complete, closed totality, it is an ever incomplete structure, always having to deal with these social forms that continue to threaten it. They are what we could call, following Derrida via Laclau and Mouffe, its ‘constitutive outside’. What is structure is, is never determined by the internal relations of its different elements alone but equally by that which the structure cannot take into its fold. You could also call these, if you want to get a bit Deleuzian, the lines of flight which constitute the means of escape from the forces of repression and stratification. The boundaries are therefore simultaneously there and not there. When the state (say in India currently) seeks to impose value-added tax and thus bring all transactions within the logic of its accounting and nonetheless ninety percent or more of the transactions are never registered on its radar, we have the perfect example of such a situation. The structure seeks to envelope and take control, but that which it seeks to control slips out. We can go on about this but I will leave that for another occasion.
    Now, capital versus community. Yes and no. This too is difficult to comprehend in terms of a boundary. I do think that we cannot do away with community as if it were some illegitimate object and simply continue to talk of capital – the sole legitimate thing. However, my interest here is in something else. What I am struck by while thinking about our situation in India is that even though individual bourgeois property right may have become formally so pervasive as to give the impression that that is what determines our lives, for most people this property (a house in the city, for example) remains something simply for personal use. For the most part, say in small towns and villages, bourgeois property in its juridical form continues to exist with social relations where the ‘community’ still governs our imagination. This is not to say that people are not fighting over property but as Partha Chatterjee has argued recently, what he calls non-corporate capital functions on a different logic than that of accumulation. Providing for livelihoods rather than accumulation indicates a different and very powerful imagination that is still very much part of our contemporary.
    Finally, I do think that despite a couple of centureis of colonialism, independent capitalism etc, we have still vast sectors of the population that relate to the land as mother earth and that may be our only hope in the face of an impending ecological disaster.

  13. stereogram22 permalink
    March 21, 2009 3:55 AM

    The inside/outside problematic is an old one in philosophy which may have begun to become new quite recently.

    The issue concerns thresholds, and the question of where divisions lie, all the way down the line. Between subjects and objects, the self and the world, the private and the public, the citizen and the grid.

    But if it is true that the extension of new media into every sphere of life (new media which makes it possible for me, in Berlin, to discuss these issues with you, in India and elsewhere) it is clear that borders are not once where they were. How does impact on philosophy? About ways of thinking about the world, and about politics, and about the place of the intellectual surmise of the world, undertaken in a lecture hall in London?

    If anything, I think Zizek and company still retain too much faith in the outside – in the idea that they can step back from the world, and totalize it in their brains, and then coin some kind of program to be spread by cadres… This is the unthought here… the problem of how these brilliant theories – or perhaps, not so brilliant – could actually come to get a grip on the world. This is yesterday’s politics…the politics of totality which somehow, magically, does not include the space and position in which this concept of totality is produced and elaborated.

    Against Z’s conceptual politics, and the vision of politics as a politics of battling concepts, there needs to be some kind of post-conceptual practice which sidesteps this rabbit hole…

  14. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    March 21, 2009 2:47 PM

    Well, yes, this is another sense of the outside and I entirely agree with you.

  15. March 21, 2009 10:53 PM

    Thanks for the great updates, Aditya. I’m feeling a little better about skipping the conference, which I meant to go to, as it seems that Zizek – who I confess I’m reading a great deal ofl these days, perhaps futilely – basically repeated a lot of what he’s been saying, in person and in print and in cyberspace, for quite a while now.

    But I think there are interesting implications and paradoxes in the kinds of positions he’s taken of late, even though they’re so often so unsound, and sometimes sound totally crazy. His personal style, the gesticulations and fidgeting and emphases, which are often genuinely witty and comical (and therefore, like all good comedy, very serious) contribute to this – it’s very difficult to separate the style of delivery from the substance.)

    His repeated avowal, for instance, of the need ‘to refuse the temptation to act’. Now we can interpret this – as Zizek himself sometimes does, as an injunction to step back, reclaim the space for some kind of critical thought, and refuse to be seduced by pre-formatted paths of action that reproduce dominant structures. This is a negative plea that I think has considerable force, and the demand for a space to think creatively, in ways that might be new and might actually matter, is important. But at the same time Zizek is more obsessively engaged in the dubious art of political prescription than he has ever been before in the post-Cold War era. People on this thread have already observed that Zizek frequently means the opposite of what he says, and this is true. It’s also true that, in his current theoretical practice, he is doing, ‘in a precise sense’ (to use his favourite phrase) the opposite of what he says we should all be doing.

    Zizek’s current declamations fall into two categories of injunctions. First – become Bartleby in some form or another; simply refuse to engage with the world on the terms the world offers you. In this context Zizek endorses Saramago’s ‘Seeing’, where the refusal to vote radically dissolves all familiar political coordinates. His appeal to step aside from charity follows the same line of reasoning.

    The second injunction: enact the truly revolutionary Act that breaks the existing coordinates, that cannot be reduced to its pre-existing conditions. Zizek’s Lenin, as he would perhaps admit, is a figure constructed as a symbolic referent for this Act – the Lenin of April 1917, who assumed responsibility for a historical wager ultimately grounded in nothing but itself, irreducible to its ‘conditions of being’, and thus changed reality.

    Now leaving aside the debate on the implications of Zizek’s endorsement of Lenin (which would necessitate a debate on his relationship to liberal democracy, and there’s a great deal of complication and confusion on both these questions), what strikes me as intriguing about these injunctions is that they in a sense persistently betray the regulative idea behind them: the need to step aside from the constant injunctions from the Big Other – society, the state, advertising, academic discourse, charity, etc, etc (the apparatus of liberal democracy, as Zizek would see it) – to ‘engage’ and ‘intervene’ in ways that are always secretly pre-determined. At no other stage in his writing has there been quite this frenzied, hysterical ‘engagement’ with ongoing political issues. His interventions till the late 1990s seemed more able to abstract underlying patterns of thought, belief and action from the world around and render them in rigorous, and often exciting and original philosophical ways. That was also, interestingly enough, when he was most dogmatically Lacanian – when one got the sense that for Zizek, the world was a series of footnotes to Lacan’s seminars. This was idiosyncratic enough to produce some brilliant insights – they’re littered across ‘Looking Awry’, ‘The Plague of Fantasies’, ‘For They Know Not What They Do’, ‘The Sublime Object of Ideology’, and other books. From this work, I got the sense that Zizek fancied himself as analyst, and the world as analysand – this was, I think, at some level a regulating conceit. And while it was a provocative and irritating conceit, I think it produced some work that was rigorous and adventurous at the same time (I think ‘Looking Awry’ is a great example of this).

    From the early 2000s, though (perhaps 9/11 is the big caesura here, though I’m not sure about this), while there’s been some more or less rigorous work, he has clearly in a sense obeyed the very temptation to act ‘in ways that reproduce the logic of Empire’ (to misquote from the Badiou quote which Zizek reproduces ad nauseum) that he warns against all the time. In his own practice as philosopher, he has felt the need to respond to every change in the world around, felt the need to say something he considers meaningful about 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, New Orleans, the Danish cartoons about Muhammad, the Palestinian question, Obama, the credit crunch and the crash, the ecological crisis….and he’s done this in an endless stream of monographs, online and print journals, and he’s repeated himself ad nauseum, copy-pasting whole passages and pages of text from one publication to another. Now I’m not necessarily dismissing this – if it’s produced a lot of hot air and rhetorical bombast of the kind Aditya’s dissected so well in his posts, it’s also more occasionally produced insights that are genuinely provocative and interesting (at the beginning of ‘In Defence of Lost Causes’, a book with many awful bits, for instance, he outlines the pathologies of Zionism quite brilliantly). But the point is that this constant anxiety about the contemporary, the fear that events will outstrip him, that he has to write incessantly, even if it often means sacrificing coherence and rigour, and repeating the same words and exhortations endlessly – I think all this is quite revealing. There’s some kind of fundamental anxiety that makes him repeat the need for some sort of radical withdrawal, even as his own work completely fails to achieve that.

    I think there’s a clue to this in another text-event that Zizek cites constantly – Marx’s panicked reaction to the Paris Commune, to the fact that it happened before he had time to finish ‘Capital’ – Zizek cites this almost wistfully, and somewhere else he says that he’d really like to withdraw and write big philosophical tomes…so for Zizek himself, I suppose the truest act would be to ‘repeat Capital’, or maybe repeat Hegel’s ‘Logic’, or whatever his current fix is :), write something original enough to genuinely shatter the existing coordinates of much contemporary thought. Instead of which, he seems more preoccupied than ever with the contemporary, the immediate world of political events, which he has to approach explicitly, rather than implicitly. If we follow the line of his thought (and to follow it is not necessarily to endorse it), the ‘truth’ of Zizek’s positions will not be disclosed by megastar conferences, or by the publication of responses to contemporary events written within a month or two of the events themselves, but by the strength of his actual (theoretical) practice. The only question is whether he’ll be able to produce that truly original work that is able to go beneath the surface of the immediate to illuminate it, like Marx or Hegel or Freud or Lacan (to stay within his own frames of reference) did. Either that, or to use another of Zizek’s favourite quotations, from Beckett, his capacity to ‘try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ So far, it doesn’t look as though he’s been able to fail better.

    Which brings me, in a circular loop, to the earlier discussion on this thread about Marx and the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. The key point of tension there was summed up in Chris Harman’s acerbic comment: ‘Perhaps the philosopher should go beyond interpreting the world in confusing ways and try to change it.’ I completely agree with Aditya’s response, that this is not a case of ‘down with theory and long live practice’, but I’d like to extend this a little. Marx’s eleventh thesis probably holds some sort of world record for most frequently cited political quotes on the Left. What is easily missed out so often in commentary, because it’s so obvious, is precisely that this injunction is addressed to philosophers. The grounding dogmatics of this statement are remarkable – it is philosophers, through their practice, who must change the world. This is anything but a declaration of the ‘futility’ of philosophy.

    The point is not ‘what Marx actually meant’, because if ever a text had a life beyond its author, this statement has had one, and continues to. And there have been two large, totalizing (though not mutually exclusive) paradigms of interpretation (and extension) here. On much of the Left, this has taken the form of an exhortation to action, struggle, active political engagement, sometimes in place of thought, sometimes as its necessary, and more urgent, complement. What doesn’t always get noticed is that the reverse of this has been equally true on much of the history of the twentieth-century Left – practice itself has constantly to be rigorously theorized, even grounded in theory. Think of Lenin relentlessly theorizing every strategic move, every tactical shift during and after 1917. Or, even more obviously, Trotsky and ‘permanent revolution’ – why the need for such conceptual rigour in grounding one’s contingent, often pragmatic choices?

    Equally, the sense of thought itself as political practice, across the variegated fields of radical critical theory, history, and so on, replicates this dogmatic (but fruitful) insistence….consider, for instance, E.P. Thompson’s brilliant but absolutely intemperate attack on Althusser. Why is there this conviction, on the part of a historian who was deeply politically engaged, who was certainly not divorced from ‘the real world’, that a line of thought is dangerous enough to have to want to annihilate?

    Or, to take another instance, in a great deal of post-structuralist thought, why is the need felt to posit a form of thought, ‘totalizing’ or ‘teleological’ as something more than an intellectual obstacle, but an active POLITICAL danger, repressive or ‘totalitarian’?

    Or even just the phrase ‘theoretical commitment’ – what does this welding of vocabularies from the fields of academic and political practice signify, but a dogmatic commitment to a very specific knotting together of practice and theory, action and thought?

    The point is not the correctness or otherwise of these separate, and often opposed, lines of thought, but the underlying structure of ‘commitment-to-praxis’ (just one way of putting it, there could be others) that they share. Theory and practice, thought and action, are articulated in very specific ways within this structure. In their articulation, it is by no means obvious that theory and thought are the subordinated terms.

    A long line of thinkers and political practitioners have tried to establish this relationship, to define ‘praxis’ concretely, in different ways. Zizek is part of this inheritance, and his recent, bombastic pronouncements, I think, express a deep anxiety about the success of his own efforts to articulate these relations. We probably haven’t seen either the best or the worst of these efforts yet.

  16. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    March 22, 2009 12:03 AM

    Thanks for this Bhochka. What more can I say; you have said it all and so well. Minor disagreements apart, apart I agree with most of what you say. Just two quick points for the record.
    One: I do agree with what you say about Zizek’s efforts and I am in full agreement on ‘resisting the temptation to act’ – even while recognizing that often that luxury is denied to us. When the war began or when the massacres in Gujarat took place, we all had to take to the streets. Chris Harman’s irritation on this score might be understandable: all action seems not onl futile but counter-productive in his rendering of Z and if that is what he really said it might be problematic in the extreme. So my problem is with the direction of his thought – despite occasional brillainces, which I have so often myself cited – which ‘repeats’ or want to repeat some foundational Event – an Event (or Act), grounded in nothing but itself and whose Universal Truth is only evident to him who partakes of that Act. That is what has produced revolutionary subjectivity and there is no other option of possibility – those who know neither Marx nor Lenin or neither the Paris Commune nor October 1917 be damned. Well, our side of the world can simply turn back and say, ‘you be damned, your majesty!’ In the face of this, what is the meaning of this rhetorical claim to universality…most of the world could not cafre less.
    Second:as some other comments here have indicated, and you also underline, that it is by no means clear in the whole range of polemical writings that ‘theory and thought are the subordinated’ terms. Indeed, the world of Chris Harman or other actvists is one that valorizes ‘practice’ while there is the world of the professional academic philosophy and theory that valorizes ‘theory’ (very schematically). I am more in agreement with the spirit expressed in stereogram’s comment that this reified thing called ‘thought’ might itself be the problem and we need to think of practices themselves differently (nothing horribly new here, just underlining some things we might all agree with). My only point in relation to ‘totalizing’ and ‘teleological’ thought and its critique is that for much of the twentieth century it has produced intellectual cultures that were politically dangerous as well – and I can tell you from my own previous incarnation on the other side, that in India at least, we exercized a dangeous control over thought. The ambition has still not changed – and I am not talking of the party apparatus or the politburo etc, but see for instance Prabhat Patnaik’s writings after Nandigram were everyone opposed to his party was branded pathologically anti-Left. The only difference is – and thank God for that – nobody is in their control anymore.

  17. atreyee permalink
    March 22, 2009 12:53 AM

    I would want to hear from Aditya about the ownership of Left bastions in India. I haven’t read much Zizek or Badiou, but was following these posts with interest. But now, I want to put forth a few questions about the trajectories of the Indian Left.

    The latest EPW carries a section on local self-governance in Bengal, with various accounts of changing categories of ‘party’ identity, those that have seeped deeply into religious, cultural, familial iconography of rural Bengal. These accounts, especially those from Manabi Majumdar and Rajarshi Dasgupta, I believe, could make for interesting canvases for the sort of collapsing of the thought-action dichotomy that is being spoken of here, making room for thinking about the practices surrounding thought.

    Would want to hear from Aditya’s memoirs from the Other Side about the Young Turk (in this case, Young Commie) sojourn into the Real Worlds to spread the treasured texts of Marx and Lenin. The materiality of print being an important site for the practice and politics of thought has widely discussed in Marxist scholarship. I came across one such by Regis Debray in the New Left Review recently.Would want to hear Aditya’s thoughts on it.

    I recently read Donham’s Marxist Modern with its narrative of the Young collegiate socialist evangelical in rural Ethiopia, to ready up the ‘pre-modern’ peasant society with the right cultural tools to be worthy citizens of the socialist hullabaloo. It sounded very much like the 70s Nokshaal story we hear over chai in Kolkata.

    Further, I had the opportunity to clue into some of the postsocialist buzz about where the socialist-glorified categories go, once they are stripped off the glory. I am talking about the nitty-gritties of the socialist world, and not so much the epistemological/ideological concern over the future of Communism as a watertight (or not) idea.

  18. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    March 22, 2009 10:18 AM

    The thoughtful discussion on these two posts has been immensely engaging. I am tempted to come in on the question of the Eleventh Thesis, arguably the most misunderstood of Marx’s pronouncements. Apart from the points others have made above, reflecting on the great theory/practice divide this thesis is continually invoked to sustain, I would like to remind ourselves that this is after all the Eleventh Thesis, and there are ten preceding ones, all of them comprising a critique of a certain materialism – one which assumes a world that exists outside, and independently of, our minds. In other words, Marx addresses his Eleventh Thesis to those materialists who, like Feuerbach, (mistakenly) believe precisely that ‘theory’ happens inside our heads, thus rendering the world a mere object of contemplation. I have written a separate post on this earlier, so will not do a Zizek here!
    (Bhochka’s noticing of the large-scale copy-and-paste method of Z is a warning to us all…)

  19. Cynthia Stephen permalink
    March 22, 2009 11:46 AM

    Hi Nivedita:

    I’m not much into New Left philosophy but had a sudden thought – this dichotomy you speak of – “where one assumes, mistakenly, that there is a world that exists independently of our minds” – sounds to me like a non-duality and hence echoes a philosophical forerunner – the Advaita of Sankara. Wonder what Marx and Sankara would have made of each other !

  20. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    March 22, 2009 5:02 PM

    Cynthia – I really don’t think non-duality of world and mind is what Marx meant in Theses on Feuerbach! He was critical of the kind of materialism of Feuerbach which assumed that the mind can only passively contemplate a world that exists outside it. Marx’s own materialism as he outlined it in the Theses involves the assumption of a dialectical relationship between external reality and human thought. It is very much a duality, but the ways in which we perceive the world also simultaneously shape it. He thus insisted on human agency in its everyday practice as shaping the “reality” of the world, rejecting the idea that the “real” world is to be grasped by abstract laws of progress of matter.
    (All of this does not rule out the reality of Brahminical Marxists, of course!)

  21. March 22, 2009 5:55 PM

    It is with some hesitation that I’m commenting on this thread, partly because this is a subject on which I am manifestly less well informed than everyone else in this discussion. So in a way this is pre-emptive apology in the event that I’ve completely missed the point.

    I’m inspired to write however because of the link Nivedita provides to her earlier article, which I thought was beautifully written. I’d like to say something on the question of the interaction of thought and action however, in particular the implications of thinking about a materialist doctrine where the process analysis of society can be separated from the object of analysis…thought separated from any implications in a `real world’ if you like.

    This post is tagged under capitalism (fundamentally an economic concept), discusses a conference on communist and left theory and talks about Marx. Within that context, I’d like to bring up what I’ve always thought is an interesting implication of neo-classical economic theory, ‘capitalism+’ if you like. I hasten to add that I recognize that the discussion here goes beyond the economic actions of human beings, that Marx (and everyone here) was and is referring to much more than economic behaviour – indeed probably primarily to questions of social interactions and subjectivities of caste, class or gender. And little of what I’m pointing out may apply to those questions (I agree with much of what has been said here on those points).

    So to the question of thought/materialist doctrines/analysis in abstraction however – a central concept in economic theory and modern game theory, constructed using a rational agent model is that of fixed point equilibria. The search for an equilibrium is a mathematical exercise in practice but philosophically is quite interesting I think. It implies a construction where an individual can think of herself, can think of other people, can think of them thinking about her, and so on infinitely. She can act as per her thoughts whilst being aware that others are doing the same. And in equilibrium, there is an economic outcome, influenced by the decisions of each agent, by their thoughts given their knowledge but stable – by definition – to their analysis of the whole. This of course allows for an external philosopher/analyst/economist to consider the system with the objectivity that is being sought here…simply because a rational equilibrium applied to the analyst and everyone else is self sustaining. Mathematically, lets say f(x)=x, so that f(f(x))=x also. We are allowed within this framework, to now think of economic interventions and analyze their outcomes and to do so in a solvable, self consistent manner. Philosophically, there should be little restriction on the values we place here or ascribe to society at large. The point is that it is a framework that elegantly, in its very construction, deals with some of these problems.

    I’m not suggesting any of this helps us understand the role of the philosopher or the thought/action duality in far more complex spheres of social and moral interaction that go beyond the economic activities of human beings. But Marx was many things, including an economist. So I think its interesting to consider what modern economic theory…pitted so often against the left…seems to suggest

  22. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    March 22, 2009 6:43 PM

    What you ask for is huge – and probably can be taken up on some other occasion. For one thing, I wonder how many people here would simply be interested in my experiences of ‘taking marx to the people’. And some of the other questions require that I read some of the things you refer to. The EPW articles are interesting from another point of view. Maybe Rajarshi could himself come in in the point you raise with regards to his and Manabi’s piece.

  23. Utisz permalink
    March 31, 2009 6:32 PM

    Thanks for the reports. Interesting what Saint Z says on the ecological crisis. I certainly hope he wasn’t saying that the solution is more industrialization. He may at least be right in saying we need to ditch the ‘Mother Earth’ idea, but if we see everything as capitalism, as already socialised by labour then we are just sinking deeper into fetishism, I suspect. Surely the need is to rescue and extend those parts of the natural world which aren’t subsumed by commodification.


  1. The Two Zizeks | Kafila

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