FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Zizek Seen Over the Handlebars

by JUSTIN TAYLOR

Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle
By Slavoj Zizek 188 pgs;
Verso, 2004

There’s one particular episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (just stick with me for a moment) that I kept thinking of while reading Zizek’s Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. They’re preparing to fight some apocalypse cult or other and Buffy asks her mentor, Giles, if he knows why the cult has shown up at this place and time. Giles launches into a lengthy account of the metaphysical esoterica underscoring their problem-“Giles,” Buffy cuts in after a few moments, “I don’t need to see the math.”

So Zizek is among the smartest critic-philosophers currently working. So his sweeping rejection of both rightist populism and bourgeois liberal pretensions comes as a balm in an age where George W. Bush can pass for a president and John Kerry could pass for an opposition candidate. So he’s maybe the most succinct and astute exponent not just of Lacanian and Marxist thought, but of the notion that those two modes of thought can still lay claim to some relevance in contemporary cultural politics and analysis. So he can do a pretty kickass reading of any given Hitchcock film. All of that comes to nothing if we can’t get him to stop talking about Antigone.

“Let’s take yet again-what else?-the case of Antigone,” Zizek writes, acknowledging how much time he’s spent laboring over this “case”. The problem is that the quote doesn’t come from Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, it comes from Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, which came out in 2001 (before 9/11). So you’ll forgive this reviewer if he rolled his eyes when a subhead on page 74 of Iraq the BK announced we would now be discussing “Act, Evil, and Antigone”. His reiteration here of the theses and theories of his main text comes in the form of a rebuttal by Zizek to something that someone else wrote about something else Zizek wrote about Antigone. As such, it not only reads like an angry letter to the editor-which is what it should have been-but the information it conveys is both obfuscatory and redundant: the former because it is a jargon-heavy dredge through digressive minutiae; the latter because he’s merely showing us another “proof” of his theoretical formula in action.

When Zizek writes that “the sound barrier-the qualitative leap that occurs when one expands the quantity of resistance from local communities to wider social circles (up to the state itself) will have to be broken,” you want to agree with him, in fact you should agree with him. He’s right. On the other hand, what about the “sound barrier” of his own theoretical insulation? He gets close to addressing the realpolitik beyond the theoretical horizon-and for sure he gets a lot closer than most theorists-but at the moment where the qualitative leap of theory-into-praxis seems most likely he pulls back into the quietude and ease of deep-space theory.

“[I]n the style of Magritte’s Cest n’est pas une pipe,” writes Zizek in his introduction, “I should emphasize that Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle is not a book about Iraq.” He’s being playful with this phrasing, but he’s more right than he knows. The intro and first essay provide a masterful look at the long-lasting changes to the socio-political landscape being effected by the current White House, ideological conflicts between the USA and the EU, and the many mutually exclusive reasons offered by the USA for going to war (“the three ‘true’ reasons for the attack on Iraqshould be treated like a ‘parallax’: it is not that one if the ‘truth’ of the others; the ‘truth’ is, rather, the very shift of perspective between them”). In the other two essays Iraq doesn’t come up very much. Maybe this is why he titles them “Appendix I” and “II,” but these “appendices” comprise the back 2/3 of the book’s content.

What of this other material? As it says on the back jacket of his book, “Zizek will entertain and offend, but never bore.” True. The pace is fast, and the text is peppered with the standard Zizekian mix of high and low cultural references, personal anecdotes, and provocations. Take this passage from “A Cup of Decaffeinated Reality” from Appendix II: ” ‘[S]afe sex’ ­ a term which makes us appreciate the truth of the old saying: ‘Isn’t having sex with a condom like taking a shower with your raincoat on?’ The ultimate goal would be here, along the lines of decaffeinated coffee, to invent ‘opium without opium’: perhaps this is why marijuana is so popular among liberals who want to legalize it ­ it already is a kind of ‘opium without opium’.”

Not really. I know Zizek hates self-described “Third Way” socialists, but condom sex-flawed as it may be-is a much better deal than either celibacy or pregnancy/AIDS/etc. Ditto for the marijuana question – pot makes a lovely compromise between the rigorous dangers of opium addiction and the flat-line of sobriety – but Zizek’s dedication to his own hermeneutics have blinded him to the fact that “marijuana” is more than a shade in some conceptual spectrum; it is a actually-existing drug that is considered, consumed, and enjoyed on its own merits. (As to the decaf coffee, well I’m with him on this, but my grandparents seem to like the stuff so maybe Slavoj and I are both missing something.)

Again – you agree with him at the beginning of “The Liberal Fake,” which leads off Appendix I, and as he offers increasingly complex iterations of his argument you’re still with him (for a theorist he’s lucid), but then he suddenly declares, “Today’s predicament is that, if we succumb to the urge of directly ‘doing something’ (engaging with the anti-globalist struggle, helping the poor), we will certainly and undoubtedly contribute to the reproduction of the existing order. The only way to lay the foundations for a true, radical change is to withdraw from the compulsion to act, to ‘do nothing’ ­ thus opening up the space for a different kind of activity.”

Who should do nothing? For how long? Who are “we” and why are “we” different from the anti-globalist movement? What of the sinister implication that the group “we” in this scenario is free of any poor people, leaving “us” the luxury of figuring out whether or not to help “them”? Since I like Zizek a lot, I’m going to let that indiscretion slide. Instead, let us attempt a Zizek-style reading of Zizek.

I’m going to presume that his “we” covers Zizek himself and a generally like-minded readership. The seeming least common political denominator among “us” then, is that “we” are anti-capitalists. (Or theory-heads, maybe, but whatever.) Given that, is there not something wholly regressive in Zizek’s “radical” notion that we should “do nothing”? Is he not merely advocating that we hurry-up and-wait for the collapse of the system and then scramble to fill in the power vacuum? If so, then he’s just being silly. Marxism has described capitalism as being in its “late” or penultimate stage for going on 150 years now. But just like the thief in the night of Revelation 3:3, it seems we know not the hour at which critical mass will be reached and the Revolution come. Should we wait as long as the Christians have been waiting? Given that Zizek is also the primary exponent of the “radical core” of the “Christian legacy,” (see his The Fragile Absolute) one might be rightly concerned that this is just what he has in mind. Of the anti-globalization movement, Zizek writes “perhaps, in the Deleuzian opposition between schizophrenia and paranoia, between the multitude and the One, we are dealing with two sides of the same coin.” I’ll give him this much: He’s right that fighting the globalization of capitalism while still trying to retain it on a national level is a losing proposition. It’s like dating a vampire on the condition that it behaves nicely and doesn’t attack anybody. As Buffy and her friends learned time and time again, that’s a dangerous game and it winds up getting people killed. On the other hand, the anti-globalization movement represents the most active faction of the Left right now, and there are plenty of dedicated anti-capitalists in said movement who don’t deserve Zizek’s derision, to say nothing of the scores who might be his allies if he would only have them. It’s disappointing that he doesn’t see the potential in that group, preferring instead to offer up odds on whether it will be Lenin or Jesus that returns first, seeing as how in his mythology they represent more or less the same thing.

Meanwhile, in the real world, it seems more like he’s waiting for Guffman. Given all of this, I hope Zizek won’t be offended if I take up sides with the pragmatic incarnation of Critical Mass. Those battalions of punk rock kids on bicycles who organize interruptions to the traffic flow in cities all across the globe just to remind “us” how dependent “we” are on gas-guzzling, fume-spewing automobiles. Granted it’s no October Revolution, and we all know bike tires come from the same nasty rubber plant as car tires, but it’s anti-capitalist organization and mobilization in the public sphere and we should be happy about it – if nothing else at leasta person can stretch their legs, get their blood pumping, maybe make a friend.

JUSTIN TAYLOR is a writer, living in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at justindtaylor@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
Pete Dolack
The Bait and Switch of Public-Private Partnerships
Mike Miller
What Kind of Movement Moment Are We In? 
Elliot Sperber
Why Resistance is Insufficient
Brian Cloughley
What are You Going to Do About Afghanistan, President Trump?
Binoy Kampmark
Warring in the Oncology Ward
Yves Engler
Remembering the Coup in Ghana
Jeremy Brecher
“Climate Kids” v. Trump: Trial of the Century Pits Trump Climate Denialism Against Right to a Climate System Capable of Sustaining Human Life”
Jonathan Taylor
Hate Trump? You Should Have Voted for Ron Paul
Franklin Lamb
Another Small Step for Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut’s “Aleppo Park”
Ron Jacobs
The Realist: Irreverence Was Their Only Sacred Cow
Andre Vltchek
Lock up England in Jail or an Insane Asylum!
Rev. William Alberts
Grandiose Marketing of Spirituality
Paul DeRienzo
Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Eric Sommer
Organize Workers Immigrant Defense Committees!
Steve Cooper
A Progressive Agenda
David Swanson
100 Years of Using War to Try to End All War
Andrew Stewart
The 4CHAN Presidency: A Media Critique of the Alt-Right
Edward Leer
Tripping USA: The Chair
Randy Shields
Tom Regan: The Life of the Animal Rights Party
Nyla Ali Khan
One Certain Effect of Instability in Kashmir is the Erosion of Freedom of Expression and Regional Integration
Rob Hager
The Only Fake News That Probably Threw the Election to Trump was not Russian 
Mike Garrity
Why Should We Pay Billionaires to Destroy Our Public Lands? 
Mark Dickman
The Prophet: Deutscher’s Trotsky
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of the Toilet Police
Ezra Kronfeld
Joe Manchin: a Senate Republicrat to Dispute and Challenge
Clancy Sigal
The Nazis Called It a “Rafle”
Louis Proyect
Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor
Charles R. Larson
Review: Timothy B. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till”
David Yearsley
Founding Father of American Song
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail