Slavoj Zizek’s On Belief: A Review, Part II

The first part of this review is located here.

It took me a while to write the second part of this review because I find the last chapters of the book to be quite inferior in quality not only to the beginning of On Belief but to the philosopher’s entire oeuvre. Žižek’s goal here is to convince us that Leninist terror and the “ideal” Communist society it aims to create can still be rescued from oblivion and taken up as legitimate political projects. Žižek realizes that any Communist project requires a profound transformation in the very nature of human beings: from separate beings trapped in our individuality we should move towards becoming driven by collective needs. Žižek realizes, of course, that in developed countries we are moving in the opposite direction, which is something he laments bitterly.
What Žižek blames for this – and what he hates the most, in a truly Leninist style – is liberalism of a certain ilk:
Every contact with another human being is experienced as a potential threat – if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me; this logic of victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard cases of sexual or racist harassment – recall the growing financial industry of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry deal in the USA and the financial claims of the Holocaust victims and forced laborers in Nazi Germany, and the idea that the USA should pay the African-Americans hundreds of billions of dollars for all they were deprived of due to their past slavery … This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the inherent supplement of the liberal free subject: in today’s predominant form of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of circumstances.
If you are surprised at the virulence of this long quote, you have to remember that there is nothing more hateful for a Communist than a move towards any kind of individualism. Unless we sacrifice what this philosopher sees as our puny personal concerns, interests, and traumas for the greater good (which, by the way, he hasn’t yet been able to specify), we are doomed to become even more narcissistic and alienated than before. Everything that makes our lives more tolerable in the here and now is hated by Žižek for the simple reason that the more content we are with our existence, the less likely is any collective agreement to a revolution and an attendant reign of terror, which Žižek is honest enough to accept as unavoidable.
On Belief  proceeds to attack the fear that a revolution will deprive us of a set of freedoms we have come to cherish and see as necessary to any satisfactory mode of existence. Žižek attacks our belief that we enjoy any freedom that matters through making a distinction between formal and actual freedom:
This is what the distinction between “formal” and “actual” freedom ultimately amounts to: “formal” freedom is the freedom of choice WITHIN the coordinates of the existing power relations, while “actual” freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates. . . We can go on making our small choices, “reinventing ourselves” thoroughly, on condition that these choices do not seriously disturb the social and ideological balance.
Of course, you can only see indivdual life choices as small, if individual lives are of lesser value to you than the collective. This is an easy position to take, since any collective is never anything other than imagined. Speaking in the name of the collective is, thus, giving a voice to a non-existent entity, one that you can easily invest with any characteristics, desires and preferences. If the collective isn’t truly there, it will not be able to contradict you.

What especially disappointed me in the second half of this book wasn’t even Žižek’s simplistic approach to Judaism and Christianity. It was the fact that this brilliant literary critic produced the most inept specimen of literary criticism I have encountered in a long time. I have heard quite a few impotent explanations of the Soviet Union’s eventual rejection of Modernism and its replacement with Socialist Realism, but none of them have been as silly as Žižek’s:

The Russian avant-garde art of the early 1920s (futurism, constructivism) not only zealously endorsed industrialization, it even endeavored to reinvent a new industrial man – no longer the old man of sentimental passions and roots in traditions, but the new man who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial Machine. As such, it was subversive in its very “ultra-orthodoxy,” i.e. in its over-identification with the core of the official ideology …THIS is what was unbearable to AND IN the official Stalinist ideology, so that the Stalinist “socialist realism” effectively WAS an attempt to reassert a “Socialism with a human face,” i.e. to reinscribe the process of industrialization within the constraints of the traditional psychological individual: in the Socialist Realist texts, paintings and films, individuals are no longer rendered as parts of the global Machine, but as warm, passionate persons.

This maladroit analysis fails, of course, to account for the Soviet rejection of ANY kind of Modernism, not just the type of avant-garde Žižek describes (which was actually in no way representative of the Russian Modernism as whole). The hatred of all major totalitarian regimes of the XXth century towards Modernist art is an issue that should not be touched upon whatsoever if the best one can do is this ridiculously manipulative analysis.
Žižek’s gaffe in analyzing the predominance of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union makes me wonder what the philosopher imagines his books audience to be like. If he expects his readers to be ignorant enough to miss all the reticences and falsehoods contained in this paragraph (as well as in many others), then how can he expect said uneducated audience to get through the previous 100 pages of his text where Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and Freud are referenced in every line?

>Slavoj Zizek’s On Belief: A Review, Part I

>I have no idea how I managed to miss Žižek’s On Belief when it first came out. Now, however, I have finally had a chance to read this book by one of the greatest philosophers of out time (actually, the greatest, in my opinion) and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Of course, Žižek wouldn’t be true to himself if he didn’t frame this book as yet another failing effort to rescue at least some sad remnants of the Russian Revolution as a genuine transformative and hopeful event. In On Belief, he does this through a very desperate “Stalin – bad, Lenin – good” sort of argument. Of course, anybody who has even the most superficial knowledge of the history of the Russian Revolution realizes that such an argument is non-viable. No amount of quotes from Kant, Hegel and Lacan can dispel the historical reality of Stalin being one of the 4 people who were the closest to Lenin at every step of the way both before and after the revolution. No kind of philosophical casuistry can deny the fact that Stalin was the most faithful  and logical, albeit quite plodding, follower of Lenin. It would be great if Žižek would quit flogging the dead horse of the Russian Revolution and realize that the stench the dead horse’s corpse is producing only makes it fit for a speedy burial. Still, even a great philosopher has a right to a small weakness here and there.

Thankfully, Žižek doesn’t spend too much time on these feeble attempts to resuscitate Lenin for the future of humanity. When he is not addressing the traumatic (especially, for someone of his origins) legacy of the Soviet Union and speaks, instead, of the present and the future, Žižek is spectacular. In On Belief, Žižek virulently assaults the contemporary pieties of certain liberal-leaning intellectuals. Their interest in all kinds of New Age philosophies that are supposed to rescue them from the evils of consumerist society deserves the philosopher’s scorn:

The ultimate postmodern irony is thus the strange exchange between Europe and Asia: at the very moment when, at the level of the “economic infrastructure,” “European” technology and capitalism are triumphing world-wide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the European space itself by the onslaught of the New Age “Asiatic” thought, which, in its different guises, from the “Western Buddhism” (today’s counterpoint to Western Marxism, as opposed to the “Asiatic” Marxism–Leninism) to different “Taos,” is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. Therein resides the highest speculative identity of the opposites in today’s global civilization: although “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement.

We have all met liberals of this ilk. They spend their lives chasing after a spirituality of a higher order that they have found in quasi-Buddhist practices. Sitting in their incense-smelling rooms, surrounded by paraphernalia they bought in a store that boasts of selling items brought directly from Tibet, they pontificate for hours against the evils of Eurocentrism, flaunt their boringly ideological vegetarianism, and celebrate the supposedly pure and miraculous spiritual, medical and sexual advances of the Easterners. Unsurprisingly, Žižek, who is opposed to any kind of hypocrisy, has something to say about that. The very talk of Eurocentrism is an act of orientalism:

Therein resides the ultimate paradox: the more Europeans try to penetrate the “true” Tibet, the more the very FORM of their endeavor undermines their goal. We should appreciate the full scope of this paradox, especially with regard to “Eurocentrism.” The Tibetans were extremely self-centered: “To them, Tibet was the center of the world, the heart of civilization.” What characterizes the European civilization is, on the contrary, precisely its ex-centered character – the notion that the ultimate pillar of Wisdom, the secret agalma, the spiritual treasure, the lost object–cause of desire, which we in the West long ago betrayed, could be recuperated out there, in the forbidden exotic place. Colonization was never simply the imposition of Western values, the assimilation of the Oriental and other Others to the European Sameness; it was always also the search for the lost spiritual innocence of OUR OWN civilization. This story begins at the very dawn of Western civilization, in Ancient Greece: for the Greeks, Egypt was just such a mythic place of the lost ancient wisdom.

One cannot escape Europeanness through a flight – either imaginary or physical – towards the East. Just the opposite, the more passionately you embrace Eastern practices, the more anchored you become in your colonizing European identity. This kind of a rebellion is not only devoid of any actual transgressive value, it actually reinforces the very practices from which it purports to liberate you. The same sad process of a formerly transgressive behavior becoming a pillar of a repressive establishment can be seen in the realm of student rebellion:

The “truth” of the student’s transgressive revolt against the Establishment is the emergence of a new establishment in which transgression is part of the game, solicited by the gadgets which organize our life as the permanent dealing with excesses.

The irony of the situation is that Žižek, whose every word is aimed at being a transgressive act, is especially loved by spoiled trust fund babies turned Ivy League graduate students who entertain themselves with Žižek’s writings as they are biding their time before taking control of the very establishment they like to imagine themselves as subverting.

In a similar way, the tolerant multi-culturalists who celebrate the Other and spend their lives in a navel-gazing privilege examination are exactly the same as fundamentalist Evangelicals in the US. We all know how much Žižek dislikes such fanatics of tolerance (and how grateful I am to the great philospher for shining a light of reason on them). I only wish that I ever find my way to formulating my objections to their peculiar brand of fanaticism as beautifully and precisely as Žižek does:

Moral majority fundamentalists and tolerant multi-culturalists are the two sides of the same coin, they both share the fascination with the Other. In moral majority, this fascination displays the envious hatred of the Other’s excessive jouissance, while the multiculturalist tolerance of the Other’s Otherness is also more twisted than it may appear – it is sustained by a secret desire for the Other to REMAIN “other,” not to become too much like us.

I have seen these attempts to enforce Otherness by our tolerant comrades more times than I care to remember on this very blog. They hate it when anybody tries to address Otherness with anything than quasi-respectful silence. These fanatics of meaningless tolerance are terrified that a discussion, an analysis, a rapprochement will reduce the Otherness of those they desperately need to be fully and completely Other. Without scratching the itchy scab of their imaginary privilege ona adaily basis, they will have no sense of their own identity, their own self-worth. This is why there is nothing more disrespectful of the Other than a refusal to discuss the limits of its Otherness. The position that “Every choice has an equal right to exist” is profoundly imbued with the capitalist philosophy, which is the reason Žižek hates it so much.

[The second part of the review is located here]