Slavoj Zizek Meets Bernard-Henri Levy at the New York Public Library

Slavoj Zizek, a furry and fiery “rockstar philosopher” from Slovenia who calls himself a Communist and rages at the hypocrisy of wealthy American liberals, appeared in a raucous debate at the New York Public Library last night. Zizek’s opposite partner was French activist and intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, who typically argues for idealistic solutions and pragmatic steps towards a more peaceful world.

Bernard-Henri Levy can usually command a stage by himself (he made a strong impression on me earlier this year in a presentation about Darfur with Mia Farrow). But Slavoj Zizek was the bigger draw for last night’s crowd, and Zizek’s loud, passionate arguments frequently threw Levy into the role of straight man. Bounding with energy, sputtering, shouting and pointing fingers in a way that is not often seen at polite literary panel discussions, Zizek kept the conversation so riveting and fast-moving that moderator Paul Holdengraber could not bear to break in to attend to questions from the crowd.

Holdengraber opened the talk by asking Levy to speak about the meaning of recent youth riots in Paris, which inspired to Levy to wax sentimental about the greater Paris riots of May 1968 (a recent topic here on LitKicks) where he felt the thrill of possible true societal change. This was an opening, of course, for Zizek to mock Levy’s hopeful positivism. It’s not clear what practical steps Zizek supports to improve our disappointing world, but it’s clear that he feels utter contempt for those who satisfy themselves with easy answers, or who do not agree with him that western-style capitalism is too rotten to be saved.

Zizek’s new book Violence opens with a rather startling attack on the pretensions of idealistic Americans (the newly philanthropic Bill Gates is frequently mentioned) who believe they can improve the world through charity. This is an old theme but Zizek argues it with a new vehemence in this chapter, padding his points with deft pop-culture references from M. Night Shyamalan to P. D. James, and concluding with some quoted verses that suggest the depth of Zizek’s anger: he truly seems to wish to see Bill Gates strung up for his sins (personally, I’ve occasionally wished to see Bill Gates strung up for creating the mediocre Microsoft Windows platform, but I’d never blame him for his charitable efforts).

I have only begun reading Zizek, but I am intrigued enough to read more. If the world of intellectual/progressive political thought is divided into Zizek-ians and Levy-ians, I am certainly in the Bernard-Henri Levy camp rather than the Slavoj Zizek camp. I believe real social change is not only possible but is present in our current world (Levy made this point several times during last night’s talk), and I believe that problems from Israel/Palestine to Darfur/Sudan can and should be improved through a variety of pragmatic steps.

At the same time that I agree with Levy more than with Zizek, I can’t deny that Zizek is a thrilling speaker, while Levy struggles to keep his expressions of righteous optimism from slipping into cliche or naivete. It’s tough out there for a Leftist/moderate idealist, so maybe Bernard-Henri Levy deserves some applause just for keeping up his side of the debate last night.

Ultimately, Zizek says, liberalism is a failure because it keeps losing ground to its opposite: fundamentalism. This painful fact, well known to Americans who watched Al Gore lose an election to George W. Bush in 2000 and then watched John Kerry lose an election to George W. Bush in 2004, hit home with the liberal New York audience last night. “You will have Sarah Palin as President!” Zizek cackled as last night’s conversation wore to an end. I didn’t think all of Zizek’s arguments were effective, but this particular one really hurt.

* * * * *

The New York Public Library‘s literary events sure are good this year! Tonight I’m heading right back to the same room for a session with critics James Wood and Daniel Mendelsohn, moderated by Pico Iyer. Not bad for two nights in a row.

12 Responses

  1. Bill Gates and his charitable
    Bill Gates and his charitable efforts are often targeted as pseudo-charity. Carlos Slim, who was and maybe is the richest man in the world, bashed him for it in an interesting stand, considering he is widely believed to be one of the problems (corrupt) in a country where the wealth gap is huge (Mexico). Plus, putting all your money in a giant charitable trust isn’t quite the same as donating it to charity or doing something good with it. It is now just sitting there, doing absolutely nothing. I’m sure he loudly gives the interest to .orgs every now and again, but he could do better if he really wanted to.

    That debate sounds incredibly interesting. I would love to see that. They should ax the next presidential debate and air that instead, just so people remember what a debate is. Maybe the standards would rise and we wouldn’t have to listen to Stephanopoulos ask questions like: Do you think Palin is too girly to be vice president?

  2. “he truly seems to wish to
    “he truly seems to wish to see Bill Gates strung up for his sins”

    That’s one major problem with communists. … always trying to string people up for their sins.

  3. Good post!

    The French left
    Good post!

    The French left is struggling much as our own is. Leftists such as BHL (Bernard-Henri Levy as he is known in France) continue to be a force, but the people are voting for right-wingers like Sarkozy.

    Still, I believe change can come. It must come.

  4. Communists get a little hot
    Communists get a little hot under the collar and want to string a few up, but capitalists are cold enough to buy everyone out, if not as slaves then as employees.

  5. Don’t get hung up on Zizek’s
    Don’t get hung up on Zizek’s posturing–his half-joking Stalinist-sympathy and his endorsement of revolutionary terror. It’s sort of a pathological defense against being misinterpreted, since he’s misinterpreting himself. But his project of the constant interrogaton of ideology is deadly serious, and he seems to be about the only one who learned anything about ideology after the fall of Communism. He may be the “rock star,” but he’s far more perceptive in his arguments than BHL, a toothless celebrity-intellectual if there ever was one.

  6. As it has been said many
    As it has been said many times, in theory, Communism works. In practice, not so much. Judging by the piece, Zizek’s ego has the best of him.

    The fact that liberalism is losing out to fundamentalism is quite problematic, giving the state of the nation at present and the damage that Bush has done during his regime. Poor decision making, at its finest.

  7. Now there are people whose
    Now there are people whose world view and what they choose to see in the mirror are painted and chiselled for them by the mass media. Then there are people who spend time philosophising, debating and veiwing debates who feel that they are exercising their right to hold independent opinions, but look at the cliched discussion so far…
    leftists, communists, liberals, rock-star philosopher, right-winger, fundamentalist, stalinist.
    I see the urge to classify issues and individuals into species/collective nouns that have now turned adjectives; rather than treat each for what it is worth. Where do you draw a line between each of these? Thats between the charitable millionaire gates and the self-annihilating sacrifice of a bolshevik towards the greater good. Each is trying to move the world to attain what he/his ego thinks is his end.
    Half the worlds problems is people who identify problems and trying to solve them. The other half probably is that civilisation has broken its bunds.

  8. I just saw this debate on
    I just saw this debate on c-span:

    I’m surprised at the degree to which these comments don’t even respond to the points being made by the debaters. This isn’t a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, it’s a matter of understanding what is being discussed. The commenter “A” says “in theory, Communism works. In practice, not so much. Judging by the piece, Zizek’s ego has the best of him.” Presumably responding to Zizek. But Zizek wasn’t defending that kind of communism. In fact Levy said, to paraphrase, if you mean this [the things Zizek described] by communism then I am a communist too. So in this silly world of making up what the participants are saying and not understanding their points, Levy is a communist. So let’s have a discussion about Levy being a communist. Doesn’t he know about Stalinist crimes?! Of course, that’s ridiculous. So when Zizek says the communism of Stalin, the Central Committee, the all-powerful party is over, he must mean something else by communism. But what? This would require listening to what is being said and knowing the arguments.

    Similarly, this Bill Gates/charity stuff. The commentators focus on Bill Gates and lose the larger point (and remember I’m not even asserting that the larger point is correct, but just that it should be known by the discussants). That the way charity in general (not just Bill Gates’ charity) exists in contemporary capitalism is, in part, as a way to mask the basic, underlying exploitation in the economic system. It provides ideological cover for non-charitable, systemic processes that lead to the impoverishment of the weak. But, if one listens and actually hears the arguments, Zizek also says that the mainstreaming of charity – the Starbucks coffee you buy that sends money to a deformed child, etc – is an example of moral progress, partly due to the social movements of the late sixties. I know it’s hard to believe but the idea is that there are multiple social processes that are going on and we may want to understand them.

    Asher writes: “Ultimately, Zizek says, liberalism is a failure because it keeps losing ground to its opposite: fundamentalism.” That’s not what he’s ultimately saying. He said that we need to see the interrelationship between liberalism and fundamentalism. How do they create each other? And then further, how is talk of liberalism and fundamentalism as political-cultural organizations an avoidance of economic relationships and motivations that don’t care about (political) liberalism and fundamentalism? The US and European elites are fine working with fundamentalists – Saudi Arabia, etc. – if it furthers economic goals. That’s the problem with Levy: he focuses so exclusively on political-cultural conditions and forgets that there is the economic – who gets what and how. That doesn’t mean that the liberal freedoms aren’t precious and need to be cultivated. It means that you want to understand how the actions of liberal societies can generate illiberality because of the underlying economic interests that motivate so much action.

  9. I understand, of course, your
    I understand, of course, your inclination towards the liberal philosophy of BHL. But there are some important things to consider about him. He is the son of a billionaire, and has a considerable investment in the liberal capitalist society of France. He was regarded as an incredibly mediocre student at ENS, and when he visited Jean-Paul Sartre near the end of his life- Sartre refused to speak with him, as he thought him an American agent. His work is widely regarded as lacking in both philisophy, and factual evidence. His shirts cost $1200 a piece, so he looks the part when he speaks about poverty and Darfur.

  10. I hope that the world of
    I hope that the world of intellectual/progressive political thought is not divided into Zizek-ians and BHL-ians. What a sad perspective. Isn’t there any alternative to “rockstar philosophy? Actually I am sure there is.

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