The philosophy blogosphere (to the extent that such a thing exists) blew up this week after Noam Chomsky opened a can of whoop-butt on Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. The American philosopher characterized the three European celebrities as posturing phonies who inspire cultish devotion even though their theories cannot be boiled down to meaningful principles. Zizek, the only living representative of Chomsky’s three targets, responded by chiding Chomsky for supporting Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s — a confusingly musty response, since even a brilliant philosopher ought to be allowed to make one mistake every forty years or so.
Still, a little feud between superstar left-wing philosophers is always fun, and I was able to observe with amused interest because I tend to look kindly on both Chomsky and Zizek (as well as on Derrida and Lacan). Chomsky is on strong ground when he slams these Europeans for being incomprehensible, since he himself has been consistent and intelligible (if sometimes insufficiently charismatic) during his entire long career. But I’m sure that Zizek does not merely engage in “empty posturing”. I have myself been able to gain value from reading Zizek’s essays and books, even though he tends to meander exhaustingly and dazzle disconnectedly.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a Slavoj Zizek book to the end. I probably haven’t, nor have I ever felt I needed to, because you can enjoy his books sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, and after enjoying several of these you may begin to sense that these isolated bursts of insight are the only thing he intends to deliver. It’s also easy to decide to “jump off the train” while reading Zizek because he likes to power-pack his texts with a broad array of cultural references (pop songs, movies, TV shows, ancient texts, aboriginal myths) that one may or may not be familiar with — and if one has not seen that particular Charlie Chaplin movie or read that particular Sigmund Freud essay or heard that particular Lady Gaga song, that can provide a fine excuse for closing the book and picking it up later again on a different page. This is how I’ve always read Zizek, and it works fine for me.
It doesn’t mean that he’s not meaningful, and I’m sure that even Noam Chomsky knows there is a singular point to Zizek’s career of bombastic theorizing. In trying to formulate my own response to Chomsky’s challenge, it occurred to me that I could summarize what I believe to be Slavoj Zizek’s overriding philosophical mission with a single description, and interestingly this mission appears to be grounded in the history of the country he comes from. Zizek is a proud Marxist — a Marxist who refuses to back down even despite Marxism’s terrible reputation around the world. He’s the stubborn political philosopher who will stand up for Marxism even when the other quasi-Marxists have lost their nerve. I’m come to believe that everything about Zizek’s wacky and lovably bearish persona and demeanor — is that camouflage he’s wearing in the photo above? no, he’s just sweating! — is a part of this theatrical mission.
Defending Marxism in post-1989 Europe is no easy task. It’s such a weak starting position that it calls for a scattershot, aphoristic and indirect style of argument, and perhaps this explains why Zizek is so good at writing clever, wily captivating sentences and paragraphs but so incapable of producing the kind of direct argument that Noam Chomsky finds missing. Instead of defending the principles of Marxism directly, Zizek appears to have taken an approach like that of a criminal lawyer for a defendant who everybody knows is guilty. The only thing a lawyer can do in this situation is poke holes in the prosecution’s case. The best way to understand Zizek’s entire career may be to imagine him as Marxism’s self-appointed lawyer in the world’s court of opinion.
This position explains the title of his book In Defense of Lost Causes, and it’s worth noting that in the introduction to this book he speaks quite clearly — clearly enough, one would think, even for Noam Chomsky to appreciate:
The argument is thus that, while these phenomena were, each in its own way, a historical failure and monstrosity (Stalinism was a nightmare which caused perhaps even more human suffering than fascism; the attempts to enforce to “dictatorship of the proletariat” produced a ridiculous travesy of a regime in which precisely the proletariat was reduced to silence, and so on), this is not the whole truth: there was in each of them a redemptive moment which gets lost in the liberal-democratic rejection — and it is crucial to isolate this moment.
Why would somebody be a Marxist in 2013? Well, maybe because the terrible problems that Marxism originally hoped to address have not gotten better since the rise and fall of Marxism, and may have gotten worse. More specifically in the case of Slavoj Zizek, the answer may be found in the recent history of his country, Slovenia, a relatively prosperous and culturally sophisticated state within the former Yugoslavia that had a unique encounter with Marxism under the leadership of Josep Tito. Zizek often protested against Yugoslavia’s communist government before it fell in the 1980s, but his personal experiences as a Slovenian intellectual do not conform to the cliches for repressed intellectuals behind Eastern Europe’s Iron Curtain, and after the collapse of Yugoslavia Zizek seems to have felt inspired to represent the once-hopeful political ideology that fell along with it.
Of course, no philosopher should be reduced to a function of his national history, and Slavoj Zizek happily brought many unique personal characteristics to his self-appointed mission as Marxism’s lawyer: a great sense of humor, a unique style, a natural inclination towards Freudian and Lacanian psychology. I was able to witness Zizek’s charm in person several years ago when he appeared in a debate with Bernard Henri-Levy at the New York Public Library. I wrote about this debate on Litkicks, and Zizek also wrote about the encounter himself in a book called Living in the End Times:
During a public debate at the New York Public Library a few years ago, Bernard-Henri Levy made a pathetic case for liberal tolerance (“Would you not like to live in a society where you can make fun of the predominant religion without the fear of being killed for it? Where women are free to dress the way they like and choose a man they love?” and so on), while I made a similarly pathetic case for communism (“With the growing food crisis, the ecological crisis, the uncertainties about how to deal with questions such as intellectual property and biogenetics, is there not a need to find a new form of collective action which radically differs from market as well as from state administration?”). The irony of the situation was that, the case having been stated in these abstract terms, we could not but agree with each other.
I appreciate the humor and the humanity Zizek exhibits when, after describing his debate opponent’s argument at the New York Public Library as “pathetic”, he then goes on to characterize his own argument as “pathetic” too. I wonder if even Noam Chomsky could find a clear meaning within this lovable display of raw self-deprecation. If he can’t, perhaps Chomsky is not looking hard enough.