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Zizek Seen Over the Handlebars

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

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