Reading Žižek Seriously

Slavoj Zizek complains that he is not taken seriously as a theorist and this is just one more way to silence him. He admits this is partly of his own doing.

A recent piece here on CounterPunch which I very much enjoyed criticized Zizek for saying Hitler was not violent enough. Like him or not this is a misleading characterization. Again perhaps by Zizek’s own doing. But this is intentional. He is assuming a certain intelligence on the part of his reader. He is assuming that most people when they hear “Hitler was not violent enough” will not immediately say “kill more Jews” but rather will interrogate violence and fascism in general.

Lost in our politically correct discourse today is the ability to ask such questions. We are supposed to simply think straightforwardly without enjoyment. Thus intellectualism is left to prudes. There should be no idea too provocative. Forgive me for using the dreaded word of civilization but it is civilized society that solves problems through ideas rather than violence. Being a Marxist I, of course, don’t think civilized capitalist society is able to solve these problems but we must try.

It is just a willful misunderstanding to claim Zizek wants a more violent Hitler without elaborating on the fact that he said Gandhi is more violent than Hitler. By this logic he could just as well be saying Hitler should be more like Gandhi. What Zizek meant by this is that Gandhi radically changed society by overthrowing British colonial rule while Hitler merely entrenched capitalism.

Zizek’s specific critique of Stalinism which in my mind should be one of his least controversial stances is that Stalinism posed a unique danger to society because it operated on a logic of the ends justifying the means. In Zizek’s best work Sublime Object of Ideology he discusses the concept of dying twice. One example he uses is Tom and Jerry, where the cat and mouse regenerate their bodies after every fight scene. Another example he uses is communism where Stalinism is willing to take history ‘on credit’, assuming that if the future generations implement social programs it will justify massive violence.

As for the claims that Zizek is Eurocentric. Again he is tongue-in-cheek here. Listen to his whole argument and it is quite leftist whether one agrees with it or not. It reminds me of the moral panic around Chapo Trap House which called them racist and sexist without understanding their irony. Maybe we are past the place where jokes can be understood. I’d like to think not but it is possible.

Humor at its best is a social critique and usually the best one. Failure to understand that does lead to those making overly serious arguments about the clash of civilizations and the like win the day.

But let’s interrogate Zizek’s immigration views. One thing he talks about is that immigrating are from the middle class of poor countries are not the worst off. Fundamentally true and necessary to point out if we are interested in helping out those too poor to move. The second thing is that he notes a clash of cultures. Let’s not get too uptight here. Different regions have different cultures and this is being politicized to divide and conquer. We can acknowledge this while still condemning bigotry against such different cultures. But again this is liberalism and it is going to be ultimately be limited in its ability to solve the problem.

Immigration is a hot-button issue these days even though I don’t see anyone taking notice of the Biden administration’s brutal policies. Pro-immigration really is just anti-Trumpism for much of the country. This is not a moral condemnation. It is a problem we must acknowledge in order for it to be overcome. Why does everyone talk about the human rights of immigrants when no one is willing to take one into their home? This is a contradiction in liberalism and I guarantee all those who claim to be pro-immigration would claim to be anti-Eurocentrism because they don’t have real politics.

Zizek’s article which may have a provocative title “A Leftist Plea for ‘Eurocentrism’” is actually not about white supremacy or what have you but more about universalizing the basic human rights traditionally granted to Europeans. Basically, the article is about a campaign to defend four arrested journalists. They were arrested by the communist party but so what? We do take the side of the rights of journalists over government officials and I know Karl Marx would too. Maybe Zizek’s title is politically incorrect but it puts eyeballs, which is more important since this is real politics rather than posturing.

The most interesting critique I saw of Zizek in the CounterPunch article was this:

“Žižek, like Badiou, is not a historical materialist.[80] Neither of these philosophers engage in rigorous analysis of the concrete, material history of capitalism and the world socialist movement, and they eschew serious political economy in favor of discussing superstructural elements and products of the bourgeois cultural apparatus. Both of them openly indulge in an idealist philosophical approach that privileges ideas and discourses, and they are metaphysicians who defend an anti-scientific belief in superstition.”

If I have learned anything from Zizek it is to interrogate what the politics of putting historical materialism rather than human superstition first would entail. Is this not exactly the critique of Stalinism which went so far as to see human beings themselves as cogs in the history of materialism who could be sacrificed for the future advancement of materialist production? Was Stalinism not in this way the same as Eurocentric rationality which sacrificed real human beings for the advancement of so-called civilization?

As for the claim that 99% of people are boring idiots by Zizek. I’m sorry that’s funny! I’m a boring idiot. I don’t study this stuff. I’m not an academic. I wish I was smart enough for that but I’m not. I’d much rather have the academic see me as an equal and joke with me than to explain things to me like a baby. If Zizek hates regular people why is he the only theorist even willing to go near popular culture let alone take it as seriously as the greatest in the high arts and philosophy?

I don’t see communism as impossible and if this is truly what Zizek believes then I disagree with him. But in Sublime Object of Ideology, he comes to Marx’s defense. Many read Marx simply as ‘the limit of capital itself’ while Zizek argues that Marx recognized that capitalism adjusted to changes in the means of production. (Again the idea of multiple and distinct deaths).

How I read Zizek is that he is a Hegelian/Lacanian critiquing Marxists who opportunistically use Marx. He is arguing that it is human beings who can and do change history rather than simply materialist production. Who runs materialist production? Those in charge. What will they sacrifice to change it? Human beings and ecology.

Later Zizek critiques Marx saying Marx forgets his own point and contradicts himself when Marx says that capitalist forces stall and this is the moment for socialism to intervene. He rightly accuses the authorities in charge of bastardizing Marx’s ideas to further industrialize society only to abandon them when this growth is achieved. This is exactly what is going on in China right now.

Later Zizek uses Marx to critique Mussolini who said the fascists can rule Italy because they have a program and this program is to rule Italy. Likewise, Zizek sees Marx as critiquing a surplus value that justifies itself through use value (things are bought because they are useful therefore they are made because they are useful even when such production may create the need itself and so on). Not quoting Zizek directly just using and so on for fun.

Another reference to Marx in Sublime Object of Ideology references Lacan who credits Marx with pointing out that a crisis in capitalism is necessary for capitalism to reproduce normal capitalist relations. Then Zizek clarifies his use of Hegel to critique Marxists in that he wants normal people to be able to have themselves represented within the rulers where the rule of the people becomes the will of the powerful rather than have alienation be overcome through abolishment of said power.

As for Ukraine I would strongly disagree with Zizek on some points but again he makes a good critique of leftist foreign policy which is a mix of liberalism and libertarianism: “This is the new world vision, and they even call it the new decentralization, multiculturalism, which means you can cut women’s clitorises, be against LGBT, whatever you want. You do it there. We do it here, whatever we want. This is the new vision of sovereign neofascist states and the whole world is at least on one level moving in this direction….”

I think what Zizek is saying here is that the politics of simply doing nothing in the face of a Russian invasion is cowardly. Again I’m for total pacifism. No wars ever. So I disagree here but quite frankly I know what he is talking about and this tendency is largely coming from the American far right who see human rights as a joke.

Zizek reluctantly takes a shot at Chomsky who is preoccupied with the more popular intellectual just as I am preoccupied with Chomsky: “This is exactly the abstract pacifism that German propaganda was playing on in Europe just before World War II — they [called] it…anti-imperialism. French, English, and American imperialism tries to dominate Europe, we will provide Europe [with] autonomy, we will save Europe and so on and so on. And the paradox is that Chomsky, who proclaims himself politically an anarchist, ended up not supporting Russia. The popular term today is “understanding Russia.”

This is politics. A serious statement like it or not. Zizek is arguing that he sees similar trends in Americans refusing to fight fascists today as he saw in World War II and he sees it as disingenuous nationalism. Ok. I would contend that all wars are working class wars and fail to achieve progress but we have to put it in a context that he is making a militant anti-fascist argument rather than arguing Hitler did not kill enough people.

The article I saw on Counterpunch was far better researched than mine and I am sure there are good critiques in there. But I don’t think I’m hoodwinked in saying Zizek has taught me a lot about philosophy, culture and politics and is one of the few who makes it fun along the way. I greatly prefer his style to that of someone like Noam Chomsky who seems to be less open to debate and silliness.

Zizek to me seems very happy to share his intellectual gifts with the rest of us. For this I am grateful and I hope that if there are conservative strains in his thoughts, we can still use his redeemable ideas to make the world a better place.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at