Dear Professor Johnson

I hope that you won’t mind too dreadfully me searching for your contact information online beyond the bounds of the forum where I found this piece to which I have a quick response. The thing is, one thing that is often missed by Zizek’s critics is that he makes otherwise difficult theory lucid, which is at least in part why he is so adored by undergraduates; that he also makes otherwise lucid theory difficult is perhaps why he is less appreciated in other circles. As someone on the left who believes that changing the world also requires really seeing it, the thrill in reading his work is that seldom do I find myself disagreeing with what seem to be quite astute characterizations of numerous situations (Berlusconi as clown, Paris riots checking the connection, financial crisis as yet indeterminate). Yet, overall, I share some anxiety that someone whose orientation toward Stalinism seems so…hazy, is more dangerous than he is worth. Bravo for taking his work seriously enough to critique it. I’ve signed up for the Dissent blog just for a chance to read your ongoing posts on the matter. But I have a question; hence the email.

At the core of your most recent post, you quote, from Did Somebody say Totalitarianism? an excerpt which ends with the following:

“So what if one is accused of being “anti-democratic,” “totalitarian…“.

I recently framed an essay, after laying out a troubling picture of the relationship currently existing between reporters and politicians, with a similar, apparently glib “so what?” Yet my intention was not to dismiss the problem out of hand, but (while obviously being a bit provocative) to suggest that solutions to the problem lay in better understanding the nature of our anxiety. That is, I intended that the question be read in the register not of ‘we should not be worried about it’ but in the register of ‘what exactly is it, as a matter of principle, that we are worried about?’ Your latest piece depends on an interpretation in the former register, and I am not sure it provides enough evidence to justify that interpretation. Can you say more about why you think that Zizek is being glib? Does his argument in the book, following this quote, support your reading?

This is especially important, given that there is evidence that this wasn’t his intention. First, he doesn’t say ‘so what if we return to totalitarianism'; he says “so what if one is accused of being anti-democratic and totalitarian.” Neither the accusation, nor even a personal orientation, would necessarily imply endorsement of a totalitarian politics. The second, though you have dismissed it out of hand, is the use of ‘inverted commas’ which suggest that it is only “democracy” as defined under liberal democratic coordinates ( an orientation to question of democracy you clearly don’t endorse) not democracy in the ideal, which he is attempting to muddle.

There is further support for this more generous reading; one could look outside the book to sources in which Zizek has unequivocally criticized the authoritarian tyranny of Socialist Bloc policies: here in his review of The Lives of Others (in which he suggests that western leftists could be easily be misled by the film about how bad the system was) and here (a video, in which he says at 2:25 “Let me make one point extremely clearly. I think that the Communism of the 20th century – more specifically, all the network of phenomena we refer to as Stalinsim, are maybe the worst, ideological, political, ethical, social (and so on) catastrophe in the history of humanity.”) But it is perhaps fair to respond to such outside sources with an observation that Zizek is wont to hedge his bets.

I would have put these remarks in the comments, but that doesn’t seem to be possible on the Dissent website.

Looking forward to your next critique, and if you find time, some further thoughts on this specific example.

1 comment to Dear Professor Johnson

  • Everett Wilson

    I shall conserve my argumentative energies for other matters. As we both know, I have some writing to do!

    But, honestly, how dangerous can Zizek truly be in our world at this present conjuncture? If every regime needs an ideal-typical (1) Prince, (2) Poet and (3) Philosopher to provide the polity with a renewable source of respective (1) machinations, (2) interpretations and (3) evaluations, I fail to see how Zizek could come to represent either the Poet or the Philosopher of our age. He certainly is no Prince. To the contrary, if one wishes to call our current regime ‘liberal’ (however one chooses to hyphenate the word or add a prefix), it would be more accurate to say that Obama is one of our leading Princes; Lady Gaga is one of our leading Poets; and Hayek is one of our leading Philosophers. If one of the ends of critical theory is to unearth what is most worrisome (or latently dangerous) about an actually-existing regime, then starting with an audit of this trio (and similar trios) seems to be a far better point of departure than beginning with a critique of Zizek’s presumably authoritarian disposition. Indeed, so what if Zizek thinks dangerous thoughts?

    I beg the ‘so what’ question not with the intent of diminishing the significance of his work, but to contest the compulsion to evaluate his worthiness from the vantage point of an assessment of the consequences that could conceivably result from translating supposedly heterodox positions into imprudent actions in the field of politics. Filippo Marinetti might have inspired Benito Mussolini. But, are we prepared to say that Marinetti was responsible for Mussolini or that the line dividing a Futurist aesthetic from a Fascist politics is incredibly thin–perhaps dangerously thin? The same rhetorical question seems to apply in the case of Zizek and the relationship between poesy and politics in his own work.

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