Zerohour's Report: Žižek at Left Forum

zizek in NYC March 11Kasama received the following report from philosopher Slavoj Žižek's March 11 talk at the CUNY Graduate Center, “Resist, Attack, Undermine… Where Are We 40 Years After ’68?” Feel free to add your own recollections, notes and links to reports of this event.

* * * * *

by Zerohour

I didn’t take notes but it was far livelier and more interesting than Wolff’s presentation. More importantly, it was grounded in the present. I’ll put down my fragmented memories, maybe someone else can fill in the gaps and/or correct my impressions:

- Critique of ideology is a central concern for him. Keep in mind he does not use “ideology” in the commonly accepted sense, to refer to a set of ideas. He uses ideology the way Marx does, as a central component of “false consciousness”. In Marx’s usage, ideology is counterposed to “science”.

- He hated the movie I Am Legend but loved the original book. At the end of the movie we see a re-insertion of Christian themes [mother and child with a mysterious sense of purpose] combined with a romanticism of gated communities. The book’s ending, he is killed by the vampire-zombie things and becomes a legend for them just as they were once legends for us. He also refers to the movie They Live [an awesome movie] as a great example of ideology critique in film. He uses the movie’s metaphor of the glasses a bit [”Put on the glasses!”]

- Refers to “masturbathon” [tells a couple of jokes here - how can one resist?] and internet use as instances where atomized activity paradoxically involves large numbers of people - “social isolation” as normal mode of being

- The dark secret of the left is the “fear of really finding the revolutionary subject” which is really the fear of exercising power, in particular state power. [My comments now] I found this interesting that he brought the psychological element of “fear” into the discussion. Usually when we have political debate, it revolves around two axes: conceptual clarity or factual accumulation. Are conceptual clarity and a sufficient amount of facts all that are needed for a revolutionary strategy? Mao touched on this insufficiency with his slogan: “Dare to struggle, dare to win.” But the [western] left in general does not dare. Suggestive of how psychoanalysis might play a part in political prognosis[Back to Zizek] He gives an account of Lacan telling the Paris protesters in 68: “You are just aestheticians looking for a new master; and you will have one.” Underneath the great slogans, the kinetic energy and the millions of people in the streets, Lacan saw what DeGaulle saw: the fear of exercising power.

- Whereas Foucault advocated suspicion of power, and resistance to it, we must begin to think about how to exercise it. Someone gave him an example of Chavez as popular power, and Zizek agreed but reminded them that Chavez is one man with a state apparatus who is not afraid to use it to enforce an agenda [Zizek critically supports Chavez]

- Refers to the Lavalas government of Aristide as an example of “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the sense that this party was always responsive to the people

- Makes a case for communism [calls himself a “communist”] deriving from a sense of “the commons”; identifies four key antagonisms [interestingly, not “contradictions”]: bioethics [intellectual property], ecology, enclosure [gated communities], and the fourth relates to the conditions of the people [slums].

- Says that, for Marx “proletariat” is not synonymous with “working class” but refers to the concept of “substance without essence” - from Descartes?

- Identifies as a “Leninist” but “which Lenin”? He tells a joke here: Someone asks Marx, Engels and Lenin which they would rather have, a wife or a mistress? Marx is more socially conservative, so he says “a wife”. Engels is a bon vivant so he says “a mistress.” Lenin says “both.” But what will you do with them? Lenin says” “I will tell the wife about the mistress, and the mistress about the wife.” Then what will you do? Lenin says: “Then I will learn, learn, learn.” Zizek likes that Lenin was not afraid to get into a messy situation to come out the other side.

I’m sure there’s more than I’ve related here, and I can’t verify my accuracy but I’m pretty confident I’ve captured some sense of the event.

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  • saoirse wrote:

    thanks zerohour. jeez I am bummed I missed this talk. even your description of the event incites me.

    Indeed the ending of I am Legend the film was terrible and a break with the politics of the original although the alternate ending now available on the DVD (and youtube) is much closer to spirit of Matherson novel.

    Zizek seems to be one of the few left intellectuals that truly engages popular culture from mainstream to the marginal with a critical eye and a deep sense of respect.

  • Guest - Skwisgaar

    I understood his discussion of the character of the rule in Haiti when Aristide was (sort of) in power as more than just that of being "responsive to the people." I think his point was that it was a vital example of the D of the P in the sense that political rule was expressed not just through the state apparatus but rather through an integrated combination of state action and the broad mobilization of the popular sectors in the streets again and again. It was this combination that allowed them to carve out what gains they could in the context of the extreme constraints imposed on them from the outside, gains that couldn't have come via the state alone.

    In this way, I think he was driving at exactly the same point that I think various people on this blog have made in the past, that the D of the P needs to be thought of, or maybe rethought, as being about the expanding agency of the organized oppressed, and not just about the party/state acting in the name of the oppressed.

  • Guest - Eddy

    <Blockquote>He uses ideology the way Marx does, as a central component of “false consciousness”. In Marx’s usage, ideology is counterposed to “science”.</Blockquote>

    I have encountered this 'false consciousness' summation before, but apart from a letter from Engels to Schmidt (1890)about the 'false consciousness' of idealism, where have either Marx or Engels juxtaposed ideology and 'science' (not there, either, as Engels was referring to religion and philosophy)?

    Certainly that's not an argument made in The German Ideology, or Feurerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.

  • Guest - zerohour

    Eddy -

    A quote from <i>The German Ideology</i>:

    "We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist. The history of nature, called natural science, does not concern us here; but we will have to examine the history of men, since almost the whole <b>ideology</i> amounts either to a distorted conception of this history or to a complete abstraction from it. <b>Ideology</b> is itself only one of the aspects of this history."

    Mainly Marx didn't contrast ideology and science directly but from the way he denigrated ideology and upheld science, it can be reasonably inferred. Even if not spoken in the same breath, it's safe to say that the rejection of one position and advocacy of another are related.

  • Guest - Eddy

    <BLOCKQUOTE>A quote from The German Ideology:

    “We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist. The history of nature, called natural science, does not concern us here; but we will have to examine the history of men, since almost the whole ideology amounts either to a distorted conception of this history or to a complete abstraction from it. Ideology is itself only one of the aspects of this history.”</BLOCKQUOTE>

    ... is a draft paragraph and not in the published editions of The German Ideology. (but included as a footnote in the Progress Publishers Selected Works version) And, again, they are arguing against an idealist conception of consciousness.

    A bit further on, the argument is grounded in the material conditions of society; the social relationships of the society. Specifically they describe how "the ideas of the ruling class" which are presented sans ontology, as "in ideal form," in fact reflect specific social and economic relationships. Their criticism throughout of "the 'thinkers,' the 'philosophers,' the 'ideologists' who are understood as the manufacturers of history" is a criticism of subjective idealism and the ideological hegemony of the ruling class.

    And earlier (in TGI) they argue: "Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. [...] As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or as an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists."

  • Guest - zerohour

    Eddy -

    The quote may not be <b>canonical</b> Marx but it doesn't mean it's not representative or consistent with his mode of thinking.

    "A bit further on, the argument is grounded in the material conditions of society; the social relationships of the society. Specifically they describe how “the ideas of the ruling class” which are presented sans ontology, as “in ideal form,” in fact reflect specific social and economic relationships."

    Both Marx and Engels, esp. Engels, are pretty clear throughout their writings in using the word ideology as a perjorative, while highly valuing, and aspiring to, science. Even a "proletarian ideology" [a phrase I don't don't recall in Marx] implies class struggle as a horizon which cannot be crossed because it assumes an acceptance of class relations, even one in which the proletariat has the upper hand. In Marx's thinking, only science works toward universalization of freedom, through negation of class struggle

    The point you are bringing up reminds me of a point that Etienne Balibar <a href="/http://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Marx-Etienne-Balibar/dp/1844671879/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-9465146-1002457?ie=UTF8&amp;s=books&amp;qid=1205850201&amp;sr=8-1" rel="nofollow">made</a>, that because Marx never codified his philosophical system, "Marxist philosophy" is a systematization after the fact, in which people have worked to delineate consistencies, noting blind spots and anomalies, while accounting for changes in perspective and formulation over time. To say that Marx "never said it" because you can't find that precise formulation is to miss the ways in which he <b>did</b> say it, and is a reductionist way to approach a theory.

  • Guest - Eddy

    <Blockquote>To say that Marx “never said it” because you can’t find that precise formulation is to miss the ways in which he did say it, and is a reductionist way to approach a theory.</Blockquote>

    and beside the point here.

    The argument regarding 'false ideology' claims as its basis a direct quote. And in fact the only instance of that phrase (that I have found, in an attempt to understand the argument being made about so-called 'false consciousness') exists on one (semi-private) letter written by Engels.

    Apparently from this one statement some scholars have constructed a false dichotomy. (A reductionist fallacy, in fact.)

    Simply put, 'science' and 'ideology' do not form a unity of opposites. Nor is that an argument Marx or Engels ever made.

    Marx and Engels are hardly dismissive of ideology <I>per se</I>. As we know, they spent a great deal of effort to show how ideology is grounded in social relationships. And in that regard, <I>The German Ideology</I> is a compelling argument for dialectical materialist ideologies and against idealist ideologies.

    (Just as the <I>Dialectics of Nature</I> argues for a dialectical materialist, rather than empiricist, basis for understanding natural sciences.)

  • Guest - Rosa Lichtenstein

    It's worth recalling that 'false consciousness' does not appear in Marx, and only once in a letter written by Engels late in life.

    http://marxmyths.org/joseph-mccarney/article.htm

    Why we use this term, therefore, is a mystery.

  • Guest - Quorri

    "the D of the P in the sense that political rule was expressed not just through the state apparatus but rather through an integrated combination of state action and the broad mobilization of the popular sectors in the streets again and again. It was this combination that allowed them to carve out what gains they could in the context of the extreme constraints imposed on them from the outside, gains that couldn’t have come via the state alone."

    This is how I view the dictatorship of the proletariat, too. :) Wasn't the GPCR in China an example of this?

  • Guest - tellnolies

    My understanding is that "False Consciousness" was taken up widely as a concept in the Second International. It features prominently in Lukacs's "History and Class Consciousness" though I think his discussion pushes the concept to its limits and prepares the ground for its critique.

  • Guest - Rosa Lichtenstein

    Maybe so, but that does not imply it means anything, or is of any use.

    False teeth are not teeth, a false friend is not a friend, a false door is not a door; false consciousness...well what is it?

  • Guest - tellnolies

    When, many years ago, I had forty bucks to my name and a three-card monte player had me convinced I knew which card was the ace of spades, that was false consciousness and it cost me twenty bucks. When a fraction of the US population persists in the belief that Sadaam Hussein was involved in 9-11 that is false consciousness.

    The problem with the concept of "false consciousness" is not that it doesn't exist, but that in most cases it is inadequate in explaining the actual relationship of peoples' "interests" to their ideas. The idea that there is a clear and knowable set of "proletarian interests" and that all that is needed is to rip the veil away from the workers eyes is not going to get us where we need to go, but that doesn't mean there isn't an element of truth in it. God does not exist and the belief that he does IS a form of false consciousness. The important point is that it is also so much more.

  • Guest - zerohour

    Clarification: I don't remember Zizek himself attributing any specific definition of ideology to Marx, nor using the phrase "false consciousness." That was my extrapolation.

    That said, thanks Eddy and Rosa for reminding me why it's important not to rely so heavily on Marxists [no matter how erudite], when one can look up the old man directly.

  • Guest - Skwisgaar

    <blockquote>This is how I view the dictatorship of the proletariat, too. :) Wasn’t the GPCR in China an example of this?</blockquote>

    Indeed. I suspect the reason that Zizek used Haiti as his example rather than the GPCR, even though the latter was much larger, had deeper politics, etc., is that the former was sort of cleaner. The great bulk of the masses were united, they had focused targets, and so on. On the other hand, the GPCR was highly chaotic, with students fighting students, confusion many times about who the main enemy was, and other complexities that kind of need to be explained at some length to people who don't already grasp the character of the GPCR. Just my speculation.

  • Guest - zerohour

    Zizek's take on Mao can be found <a href="/http://www.lacan.com/zizmaozedong.htm" rel="nofollow">here</a>.

  • Guest - blackstone

    Tellie that's a horrible explanation of false consciousness. I think your showing one of the weaknesses of the revolutionary left, just stamping things with meaningless, abstract and overly simplistic keywords.

    Refer back to Mike's anecdote about Linc. You would probably, and incorrectly, say that Linc wasn't revolutionary or rebeling or striking, because of 'false consciousness'. But as Mike's story details, it is certainly not the case.

    Saying Americans believe sadam hussein was behind 9/11 as false consciousness is overly simplistic. So what about the people who think israel or the government was behind it? is that true consciousness?

  • Guest - Rosa Lichtenstein

    Tellnolies:

    "that was false consciousness and it cost me twenty bucks."

    It was a false belief perhaps, but surely not 'false consciousness', a term that has yet to be explained.

    "The problem with the concept of “false consciousness” is not that it doesn’t exist, but that in most cases it is inadequate in explaining the actual relationship of peoples’ “interests” to their ideas."

    The problem is: no one knows what the term means.

  • Guest - zerohour

    Rosa -

    Engels himself explains what he means in the article you linked to: "‘Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces’."

    It seems pretty clear, but like others, I do feel it's a suggestive, but inadequate to account of the complex relationship between ideas and experience. Before we rake Engels over the coals for imprecise formulations, remember that this is a single phrase in a personal letter, so I think we should not expect the same degree of conceptual rigor as we would in a document intended for publication.

  • Guest - Rosa Lichtenstein

    Unfortunately, that does not explain it, it merely uses it.

    Engels does not say ideology and 'false consciousness' are one and the same, just that "Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness." So, it looks like 'false consciousness' is something that produces (??) ideology.

    But then, what is *that*?

    Now, I agree, we shouldn't criticise Engels for a single example of loose phraseology, and in a letter, but then again, we shouldn't use a term if we do not know what on earth it means.

    And the article I linked to debunks the whole idea.

  • Tellnolies: equating "false consciousness" with "just a mistaken idea" (as you did in your 3 card monty story) does not get at the issue. "False consciousness" is used to describe a view of why sections of the people have views that are contrary to our perception of their interests. For example "What's wrong with Kansas?" has a whole elaborated thesis of why people are "voting against their interests."

    It is true that the ruling ideas of each period are the ideas of its ruling class. And it is true that those ideas are foisted off on people. But it is not so simply true that "wrong ideas" (including political judgements) among the people are basically a result of indoctrinations like that. (As if people are a blank slate, and as if the ruling class just pours in the juice of its wrong ideas, which resides in the heads of people as "false consciousness" -- in crude contradictions to their own social being and interests).

    I just don't think ideas (worldviews and politics included) arise like that in people's heads. People think, they have experiences, they live as people "within capitalism" (and are not just influenced by capitalist ideas, but develop their own ideas based on life in the dog-eat-dog privatized society).

    Clearly there are all kinds of summations that are pumped at people, and other summations that are suppressed (Meet Rev. Wright and the moment of suppression within "responsible" circles!)

    But the fact is that broad numbers of people in the U.S. have all kinds of elaborated ideas that we (and I believe many objective observers) will conclude are false... ideas of all kinds about the cosmos, afterlife, social life, values of self, view of how change happens, view of the government... I have written several polemics on this subject in the course of our common process here: Letter 5 on Christianity, the post on "Are People Blank?" and the post on "Linc and Me." I am attempting to reach a theoretical understanding of how such elaborated world outlooks arise, and how they are rooted. How they become undermined, challenged and changed. Much of it has to do with the particular history of a place and its people -- the framework in which they live and experience, the larger social ideas that have taken root in that context (ideas that are often different among different classes and nationalities).

    On the other hand, chunks of this thread are a bit frustrating: Why the big focus on what marx or engels may have said -- and how they viewed the word "ideology" and whether they may or may not have used "false consciousness."

    I don't think we reach new insights through a search for quotes -- but getting into what is meant by the concept (by those who do use it) and why that may not correspond with reality. It is a dogmatic method to argue about what Marx or Engels meant by "ideology" -- we should note and assimilate what they worked on, but then ask afresh: what do we mean by "ideology" and do we think "false consciousness" is a concept that gets at some of reality. I have expressed above why I think it does not. And why it implies to linear and simple a connection between social being and objective interests... and that it misunderstands the origins of "wrong ideas."

    put another way: is there a "true consciousness" that contends with this "false consciousness" -- or aren't all the ideas of people contradictory, and in motion? Do some ideas arise from a "true" path (from the social being of the oppressed) while other ideas largely arise from imposition of the ruling class? Is it really like that? Don't some backward ideas arise spontaneously (precisely from the social being of the oppressed, including their mutual competition for survival under capitalism) while other ideas (like communism, or dialectics) arise "from without," from other arenas of society where people are developing such ideas?

  • Guest - zerohour

    Rosa -

    Engels's notion of "false consciousness" is explained in the next two sentences: "<b>The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him</b>; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. <b>Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces’.</b>”" You may find this explanation cursory and inadequate, but considering the ad hoc nature of the term itself, what else can you expect?

    "Engels does not say ideology and ‘false consciousness’ are one and the same"

    True, but I'm not arguing that point.

  • Guest - Rosa Lichtenstein

    But this:

    “The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces’.””

    tells us nothing about 'false consciousness', despite the fact that you seem to think it does.

    In fact, what Engels says here does not seem to make much sense.

    Otherwise, ths would apply to Engels himself. He is not above Marx's claim that social being determines consciousness, and Engels was a capitalist.

    If Engels is above such forces, then so are the ones he is speaking about, and we are back to square one.

    "True, but I’m not arguing that point."

    The we are still not clear what 'false consciousness' is.

  • Guest - Rosa Lichtenstein

    The last sentence should be:

    Then we are still not clear what ‘false consciousness’ is.

  • Marx's phrase that "social being determines consciousness" is an observation that applies at a reltively high level of abstraction, through a number of levels of mediation.

    No one thinks that this means "Engels is a capitalist, therefore his thinking must be capitalist." Such mechanical and reductionist thinking is rendered absurd by the most passing acquaintance with reality (and with real human beings). Marx is talking about larger trends in life: where (to take one example) the massive urbanization of Black people laid the basis for a major change in consciousness (where bitter conditions became increasingly intolerable.) It means that you can't abolish religion until you abolish the conditions that give rise to religion (i.e. oppression, powerlessness, desperation and the weight of ruling class ideas).

  • Guest - Rosa Lichtenstein

    Mike:

    "Marx’s phrase that “social being determines consciousness” is an observation that applies at a reltively high level of abstraction, through a number of levels of mediation."

    Except, Marx did not say that of this idea. We have to add these riders to bale Engels out.

    "No one thinks that this means “Engels is a capitalist, therefore his thinking must be capitalist.” Such mechanical and reductionist thinking is rendered absurd by the most passing acquaintance with reality (and with real human beings)."

    Then Marx was wrong.

    We certainly derive the opinions of the capitalist class from their class position and interests.

    Or, was Engels a superhuman being, incapable of 'false consciousness'?

    If so, do we not have here our very own 'immaculate concepts' to mirror the 'immaculate conception' of the Catholics --, a sort of materialist miracle?

  • Guest - Eddy

    <BLOCKQUOTE> On the other hand, chunks of this thread are a bit frustrating: Why the big focus on what marx or engels may have said — and how they viewed the word “ideology” and whether they may or may not have used “false consciousness.” </BLOCKQUOTE>

    As perhaps the sequence of this thread indicates, the argument goes beyond a definition of 'ideology'; it also points to the significance of arriving at an accurate understanding of 'ideology' as a category of human activity, and what that means for the emancipation of humanity.

    In certain circles of discourse (so-called 'post-marxists', for example) 'false consciousness' is used to describe (and distort or reduce) the Marxist analysis regarding the relationships of thinking and being and the role of these relationships in the transformation of society. (for example, simplifying 'marxism' to a 'forces of production' argument)

    <BLOCKQUOTE>Marx’s phrase that “social being determines consciousness” is an observation that applies at a relatively high level of abstraction, through a number of levels of mediation.</BLOCKQUOTE>

    In at least one place, Marx and Engels formulated this as 'social being determines social consciousness', which I think is an important distinction. But while Marxists since have spoken/written to the social quality of consciousness, not enough consideration has been given to how this actually works out.

    Of course, the brain is an organ (matter that thinks) and individuals are organisms (which exercise autonomy in many types of activity), but there is no such thing as the asocial human being.

    Human consciousness is impossible without social interaction. The thesis that 'ideas come from social practice' is true on many levels, but it is specifically true. Cognitive development; the acquisition of language and other types of symbolization; and the internalization of 'rational' knowledge all take place through social practice. Optimally consciousness is enacted and transformative through still further social practice. (And it is tested for validity or obfuscated through social practices as well; as Marx &amp; Engels wrote, communism requires 'two most radical ruptures'.)

    Vygotsky made a start (in the 20s and early 30s) in studying (among children, for example) how this works out in its formative stages, but most of his research is still mainly available to specialists and mainly in Russian.

    To paraphrase Mayr, the debate over thinking and being has been "one long argument" among social revolutionaries, one in which the dialectical materialists must step up. And in that regard, it relates directly to the critique centered around this website.

  • Correct ideas come from applying a scientific method to understanding the conditions - of going from social practice to theory and back to social practice and testing the ideas against reality.

    Incorrect ideas come from not applying this and go off in various directions from reality - tend toward subjectivism and idealism of various sorts.

    Most people experience reality without applying any type of scientific process to their experience - although they can learn a lot from attempts that they make to change the reality around them - however these attempts can lead to false conclusions as well.

    I think that is the underlying thing that is going on here and at any point in time each of us will hold some incorrect ideas in relation to objective reality - not only because we are limited in our own experience but mankind's knowledge itself is limited while at the same time everything in the universe is in motion.

    Rosa Harris

  • Guest - Paul

    I don't see the appeal of Zizek. Perhaps someone can explain.

    His references to Marx and Lenin seem to me to be affectations. As Anindya Bhattacharyya
    wrote, "one gets the impression that the primary reason for Zizek choosing this
    terminology is to shock the liberal academy. His contrarian audacity in this regard
    is always charming, but it often acts to paper over his own complicity with the
    capitalist ideology he so ruthlessly criticises."

    This complicity is evident when he writes about Yugoslavia. In that context his
    support for imperialism and hatred for the left becomes apparent. Or consider "The
    Marxist Lord of Misrule" with its references to "bio-cosmism" and Jung Chang. It's not
    that he's just that he's anti-Communist or anti-Maoist, since there are (too) many
    smart scholars who are anti-Communist, but it shows he has no scholarly standards
    at all.

  • Guest - zerohour

    Zizek's appeal is that he combines Lacanian psychoanalysis with Hegelian and Marxist thinking to produce unique analyses of culture, ideology, ethics, politics, et., He writes in an creative and engaging thinker who is able to draw from a wide range of resources from popular culture to difficult theory to give his ideas an accessible concreteness. I don't agree with everything he says, as I don't think any of his admirers do. What I appreciate is his willingness to turn accepted verdicts upside down to see how they contain the seeds of their own undermining, to remind us that we cannot take our own certainties for granted.

    His history with Marxism is long-established and can be confirmed with a quick trip to Barnes &amp; Noble or just use Google. It is not an affectation adopted for shock value.

    As for his complicity with imperialism, please provide a link or reference. He has many critics and I've never heard him charged with that. Hating "the left" can be justified depending on concrete circumstances. It has historically been the case that "the left" in many countries have and deserve to be hated.

    I have problems with his position on Mao, and I suspect he's hesitant about it too [even the Chang/Halliday reference was qualified] but that doesn't mean he has nothing of value to say. I'm trying to sort it out but I think a recourse to orthodoxy is just going to lead us into a dead end.

  • Guest - zerohour

    I meant "He <b>is</b> a creative and engaging..."

  • Guest - John Steele

    Back to ideology and "false consciousness" for a moment.

    Many people are speaking as if individual ideas are formed or transmitted, or face the test of reality, in an individual and atomistic way. Ideas are part of structures, and you have to understand both thinking and the world in structural and dynamic ways.

    For example, when Marx discusses, in Capital, the way in which "social being determines consciousness" (although that's not a phrase he uses in that work), he shows the ways in which the structuring dynamic of capitalist production makes for a certain kind of representation of the social world in consciousness -- mainly that the relative autonomy and separation of the sphere of circulation of commodities from the sphere of production, creates a kind of spontaneous social consciousness which has truth (in that it reflects the realities of the exchange and circulation of commodities), but falsifies the deeper truths of production. What Marx wants to lay bare is the secrets at the heart of capitalist production. This is where exploitation can be seen, whereas in the sphere of circulation everything appears free, fair and equal.

    (I don't have a copy to reference right now, but this sort of discussion can be found, early on, in the famous "fetishism of commodities" section, and later, when he talks of descending from the sphere of circulation, "where everything takes place in the sunlight," down to the sphere of production, where the light is dim and we're met with a sign, "No Admittance Except On Business." (I'm quoting from memory, of course, but it's a very witty passage, as Marx often is.)

    Two points: Mistaken ideas also reflect reality. It's usually a matter of adequacy and distortion. And ideas are part of dynamic structures, and they are assimilated and tested as such.

    There's also the point that our thoughts and ideas are formed through interaction with people and reality. It's not a passive taking on of ideas (or structures).

    Finally: On this question ideology and false consciousness. You can certainly draw out a conception of Marx's theory of ideology, and there are several books devoted to that topic. But it's very complex, mainly because it isn't a word Marx (or Engels) used very much, and when he and Engels did use the word (as in Engels' use of "false consciousness"), it's in an off-the-cuff way, and the passages come from different works at different times, and Marx's thought developed quite a bit over the course of his life and work. But to take a quote isolated from its context and use that by itself as basis or proof of "what Marx thought" is not very useful.

  • Guest - Paul

    You haven't heard about his complicity with imperialism? He's frequently written about the former Yugoslavia. He said, "I definitely support the bombing' of Milosevic's regime by Nato." http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/modernism/Henwood_Zizek.htm

    He stood for election as President of Slovenia in the LDS. The core values of the Liberal International are to "strengthen liberal protection from totalitarianism, fascism and communism. It has since become the pre-eminent network for promoting liberalism, individual freedom, human rights, the rule of law, tolerance, equality of opportunity, social justice, free trade and a market economy."

  • Guest - zerohour

    Paul -

    Sorry to get into a "battle of quotes" here, but he seems to have changed his mind: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/zizek/zizek-nato-the-left-hand-of-god.html. Zizek's candidacy for the LDS was in 1990 - a pretty long way back. He might have believed in those values then, but do you have any evidence he still holds onto those views? He had since declared his affiliation with Marxism and "communism."

    I think the larger issue here is how we are to engage with intellectuals. On this, RCP is right, we have to deal with the substance of their ideas regardless of their political affiliation. Using one's positions in the past to characterize their ideas now, makes no allowance for intellectual growth or a simple change of opinion. It's a way to avoid dealing with what one actually says, or learn from another methodology. Even reactionary thinkers are able to capture important aspects of reality that should not be dismissed.

    John -

    "Finally: On this question ideology and false consciousness. You can certainly draw out a conception of Marx’s theory of ideology, and there are several books devoted to that topic. But it’s very complex, mainly because it isn’t a word Marx (or Engels) used very much, and when he and Engels did use the word (as in Engels’ use of “false consciousness”), it’s in an off-the-cuff way, and the passages come from different works at different times, and Marx’s thought developed quite a bit over the course of his life and work. But to take a quote isolated from its context and use that by itself as basis or proof of “what Marx thought” is not very useful."

    I think the larger danger is not whether Marx is being misrepresented, but whether such an approach prescribes a limit on Marx<i>ism</i>. Focusing on isolated parts of a literal text prevents us from apprehending a consistency of theoretical position. It reduces a theory to a set of empirical statements, blocking any consideration of methodology that would help us generate new insights about the world, a la Marx. From there, it is just a simple matter of saying that Marxism is just "what Marx said."

    I don't think it's wrong to make sure we are accurately presenting Marx's stated positions. At the same time, if we're too intently focused on this, we can lose sight of the larger questions: How did Marx tend to view the relationship between experience and ideology? How would we use/modify his framework in the light of over a century of historical and theoretical development?

  • Guest - Paul

    There are also Žižek's attacks on the Russian Revolution and on Stalin and Lenin's practice.
    They derive from sources such as Robert Conquest, demonstrating Žižek's anti-Communism and lack of
    concern for truth.

    I recall a bizarre and nonsensical horror story of a ship of prisoners killed by filling the ship
    with water and freezing it, presented without citation. In the same book there's an account of
    Bukharin's confession that has attracted criticism even from opponents of Stalin:
    http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/pen-l/2000m01.5/msg00027.htm

    Grover Furr offers a different, but equally critical, view:
    "The entire proceedings of the February-March 1937 Plenum have been published – naturally,
    or Getty / Naumov would not have been able to use them. I have them. Zizek too could have
    obtained, and studied, them. So why didn’t he? Maybe Zizek was lazy! Studying a thousand pages
    or so of this transcript would be a lot of work. Far easier to 'theorize' from Getty’s discussion."
    http://www.chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/research/remarks_on_the_moscow_trials.html

  • Guest - Paul

    This new text isn't much better. For example, contrary to Zizek NATO did in fact "set off the very ethnic cleansing that it was supposed to be preventing." Zizek continues to write of "Serbians monsters."

    "I think the larger issue here is how we are to engage with intellectuals. On this, RCP is right, we have to deal with the substance of their ideas regardless of their political affiliation."

    Rather, the question concerns the merit of Žižek's work. Which intellectuals? Which ideas? Engagement does not mean
    a suspension of critical intelligence.

  • Guest - Rosa Lichtenstein

    John Steele, thankyou for your well-considered response, however:

    "But to take a quote isolated from its context and use that by itself as basis or proof of “what Marx thought” is not very useful."

    Maybe so, but we still haven't a clue what 'false consciousness' means.

  • Guest - zerohour

    Paul -

    "Engagement does not mean a suspension of critical intelligence."

    I completely agree, but it <b>does</b> mean trying to understand what a thinker is doing, and just as importantly, what they are NOT doing.

    Zizek is not a historian but a philosopher/cultural critic. Whether he is commenting on history or contemporary events, he will rely on others to do primary research.

    In the first article you linked to, Proyect asks sarcastically, what new insights he could possible have.

    From the tone of the article, it seems he has a bone to pick, not just with Zizek but with cultural theory in general - he gratuitously refers to "oppressive and phallic metanarrative called History" a phrase not in found in Zizek's article. Cultural theory can be jargon-filled nonsense, but history-writing can be simplistic empiricism. Cheap shots are cheap for a reason.

    He quotes Bukharin's testimony, then misquotes Zizek's perfectly reasonable interpretation. Fundamentally,his criticism is that Zizek portrays Bukharin as someone who willingly let himself be a sacrificial lamb. Proyect says Zizek portrays Bukharin as a fanatic but Zizek says "So, to put things in a proper perspective: ultimately, the reproach of the Central Committee members to Bukharin was that he was not ruthless enough, that he retained traces of human weakness, of "soft-heartedness..."

    The second article reproaches Zizek for laziness for accepting Bukharin's innocence. He says Zizek was too influenced by Getty on this matter. Funny because the first article also protests Bukharin's innocence based on Stephen Cohen's account. This is not so damning since many well-informed comrades' opinions of Bukharin were influenced by Cohen, but are you prepared to question the merit of Proyect's work on this basis? Furr criticizes Zizek for trying to produce a psychological explanation for Stalin, but that would be incorrect - more on that later. Furr only criticizes Zizek on his account of Bukharin, and does not generalize to his entire work, which you seem intent on doing.

    The first disagrees with his approach altogether and the second criticized him for making the same mistake many well-meaning communists make. Reputable scholars disagree with each other all the time, often on matters of fact. I can't believe they all show "lack of concern for truth".

    Zizek did not introduce any new facts into the discussions you referenced. He did not suggest any new historical framework. What he tried to do was uncover some of the psychological and cultural undercurrents that ran through historical events. Bringing in references to contemporary pop culture makes the point that these undercurrents are still active. For Zizek to have a psychological <b>explanation</b> for Stalin's behavior implies a supplanting of a materialist historical method for "psychohistory" which is not what he was doing. He was disclosing the psychological element of the larger explanation - adding dimension to it, not replacing it.

    As far as him being an anti-communist, I disagree but what if he was?

    I don't think it's productive to go looking for reasons to trash thinkers, before you try and understand them.

  • Guest - John Steele

    Zerohour says: "I don’t think it’s wrong to make sure we are accurately presenting Marx’s stated positions. At the same time, if we’re too intently focused on this, we can lose sight of the larger questions: How did Marx tend to view the relationship between experience and ideology? How would we use/modify his framework in the light of over a century of historical and theoretical development?"

    I agree completely. (Although I'd still note that "ideology" is a somewhat vexed word, and you can't simply take it to have an obvious and unambiguous meaning, in the Marx/Engels context or any other.)

    On Zizek - In the documentary "Zizek!" he mentions some of his earlier writings with some embarrassment, at one point, as being "liberal." He also expressed anger at the condescension of Euro-American leftists who would tell him what was "really" going on in the former Yugoslavia and how it should be interpreted (he's probably referring to the early '90s). It's obvious in any case that Zizek is very much a work in progress, and that his thinking has moved and developed very rapidly. Even more than is true for most people, it's a mistake to try to freeze him into a position or category. My own problem has been to have trouble seeing him as representing a consistent view overall, as opposed to slotting him.

    Is he consistent? Probably not -- certainly not, if you take his work over the past 15 years altogether. Is he a Marxist? Certainly (Marxism is a big house). But the more relevant questions would be: Is he valuable politically? Is he valuable for our thinking? (And here I'm referring particularly to the sort of rethinking and reconceiving that's pointed to in the Nine Letters.) Yes, yes, and again yes!

    I've almost never come away from reading Zizek without being provoked, both theoretically and politically. Also inspired, both by the brilliance of his thinking (not the same as correctness, obviously) and his willingness to take chances. (I may also come away with some frustration, a flash of anger at something he said....) I take that to be very valuable, especially now, when so much in contemporary thinking and theory is stultified and sterile. And anyone who thinks his attacks on the academic left and its orthodoxies is not politically valuable, has not been paying attention to the way these orthodoxies have played out.

    As to his appeal, which was the question from Paul that started off this round on Zizek - Well, if someone asked whether you wanted to read (or hear) a brilliant and original thinker who would draw all kinds of unexpected connections and challenge many standard categories, but who might be sometimes inconsistent or maybe even incorrect -- what would you say?

  • Guest - onehundredflowers

    PG -

    Contra Marx:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/01/23.htm

    Note this passage: <b>In America we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced at it. It is also an advance when a country which has hitherto been exclusively wrapped up in its own affairs, perpetually rent with civil wars, and completely hindered in its development, a country whose best prospect had been to become industrially subject to Britain — when such a country is forcibly drawn into the historical process.</b>

    I don't bring this up to paint Marx as a Eurocentric colonialist, but to point out the shallowness of this method of attack. If you have a substantial critique, post it, but pointing out where Zizek takes questionable, or even bad, positions is hardly enough to invalidate a whole body of work.

    Marx reversed his position on Mexico in later years and considering that Zizek is still alive, there's no reason to believe he isn't capable of the same.

  • Guest - Paul

    Žižek in himself is uninteresting. What is interesting is that self-identified Marxists take him seriously. They are
    the exceptions to Rebecca Mead's comment that "when Zizek invokes Stalin or Lenin or Communism in a lecture,
    he is met with knowing chuckles, since no one could possibly be so unsophisticated as to take him literally."

    Does support for Žižek represent a real line of demarcation for Marxists? Maybe so, since his social chauvinism, his
    [Slovenian] nationalism, his support for the dismemberment and invasion of Yugoslavia, his Eurocentrism, his Islamophobia,
    his advocacy of "humanitarian intervention," his libels of Socialism, are all common errors that divide liberalism from
    the revolutionary left.

    RNK's comment on "The Marxist Lord of Misrule" on revleft.com is instructive:
    "It seems to me like an enormous waste of time. The author is obviously quite literate and articulate, but overall the entire article is more abstract philosophy, witty phrases and the expression of personal quirks and eccentricities than any materialistic attempt to analyse the Chinese revolutionary experience.

    "The last paragraph said it all for me --

    "Quote:
    "the extension ad absurdum of Mao's ruthless decision to starve tens of millions to death in the late 1950s
    "This if anything is the tell-tale sign of crap. I mean, it's a shame that such a wonderfully-written article happens to be based on crap, though I'm sure there are legions of communists who'd flock to its defense. It's an extension of the misconception, even outright lie that Mao 'decided' to 'starve millions to death'. Anyone who was even remotely interested in fact would be well able to realize that there was no totalitarian decision - the accusation is nothing more than a feeble attempt to seduce gullible-minded anti-authoritarians. Oh, Mao starved millions! No, circumstance starved millions; Mao tried to prevent it, and although he may have had a role in its inception (indirectly), he did not sign some Final Solution decree, nor did anyone else."

    Millions died, and it's a shame; the bigger shame is not realizing the truth behind it, so that it can be prevented and avoided as much as possible in the future. An even bigger shame is how even apparent intellectuals can be goaded by the deluge of misinformation and anti-communist rhetoric. Here's a good example of why "if you say it enough times, it becomes as good as fact" is a serious strategy utilized by capitalist intelligence agencies the world over.
    __________________

  • Guest - hegemonik

    Contra SWP:

    Just so that we're not unclear here: the Lenin's Tomb blog is a mouthpiece of the SWP (UK). As such, it's clear that their politics are (unfortunately) in command here, particularly in the section discussing the uprising of the Paris suburbs.

    Clearly, the SWP have had a muddled line at best on oppressed nations and nationalities, and of national liberation in general. I've brought it up time and time again: wherever there's been a genuinely Left national liberation struggle, the SWP (and their across the water brethren the ISO) they pretty much stuck to the pattern familiar to those who've read "Left in Form, Right in Essence" by Carl Davidson -- that is, they'll produce volumes of literature *condemning* national liberation struggles such as in Vietnam or China.

    Of course, flash forward to today and the SWP's in alliance with George Galloway who needs some Muslim votes to get in Parliament -- ah, now here's the denkverbot on any criticism or critique of Islamism (or Islam in general).

    The particular essay Lenin's Tomb apparently decides to call Zizek an "Islamophobe" for was an essay on the uprising of the Parisian suburbs. Now, here's the rub: Zizek didn't condemn the rioters for rioting. In fact, in "On Violence" (the book where it most recently appeared in the UK) he considers it the most ground-level form of protest (he invokes Benjamin's use of the term "Divine Violence" for the suddenness of it all).

    Lenin's Tomb takes a particular passage of Zizek pointing out that the uprising in the Parisian suburbs burning an area mosque, and attempts to say that this is just Zizek's Eurocentrism/racism coming out. Wrong and wrong. Zizek pointed this out to belie the common misconception of the uprising as a phenomenon of Islam, or of some nonexistant radical clergy in France, when in fact it was a much more proletarian and lumpen in character.

    Therein lies part of the problem. In accepting the liberal multiculturalism of Great Britain -- apparently, everyone is entitled to their own ghetto to control, so long as it's all focused on enforcement of reactionary mores -- and attempting to force a sort of bizarrely anti-materialist (feudal even!) analysis of things, the SWP once again show themselves unable to understand questions of nation and nationality.

  • Guest - Paul

    &gt;Lenin’s Tomb takes a particular passage of Zizek pointing out that the uprising in the Parisian suburbs burning an area &gt;mosque, and attempts to say that this is just Zizek’s Eurocentrism/racism coming out. Wrong and wrong. Zizek pointed this out &gt;to belie the common misconception of the uprising as a phenomenon of Islam, or of some nonexistant radical clergy in France, &gt;when in fact it was a much more proletarian and lumpen in character.

    Zizek writes, "No, the first thing they were burning were their own mosques and so on." That never happened. (Early on
    the police threw tear gas bombs at a mosque. 19 days into the rioting, fire bombs were thrown at a Saint-Chamond mosque, but it did not burn.) Zizek is lying, and you're repeating the lie.

    The rest of what you write is such nonsense I imagine you must yourself be aware of it. Zizek is an opponent of national
    liberation, and seeks a third way between imperialism and national liberation. It's comical that you claim opposing national
    liberation is supporting national liberation. Taking Zizek to task for accusing Hamas of intending genocide is not
    equivalent to forbidding "any criticism or critique of Islamism." Your babbling about the SWP and national liberation struggles and Zizek's favorite bogeyman, "liberal multiculturalism," is so much obfuscation. Any idiocies the SWP may be
    responsible for are irrelevant to the merit of the various critiques offered; if ad hominem arguments are to be permitted,
    then Zizek ought to be held to account for his continuing role in Slovenia.

    I agree with these comments:

    "The fact is, on one hand Z says comparisons of Israeli domination to Nazism are crazy and obscene and on the other his go-to analogy for Hamas and Hezbollah is fascism. He buoys his rambling on a sea of cliches and MSM straw men. I.e., letting a minority strand of polemics stand-in for criticism of Israel ("they're Nazis"), so as to knock it down, and then making fascism his go-to comparison for Hezbollah and Hamas, while perpetuating the myth that they're genocidal maniacs. This clarifies nothing. It's parasitic contrarianism presented as "Socratic" wisdom. Like intelligent leftists really need to be disabused of the notion that Israelis are Nazis and that Hamas and Hezbollah are unproblematic freedom fighters. His singular critique more or less arrives at nothing other than left-liberal common sense (at best).

    "So why does he take this hackneyed line?

    "After all, if there is consensus in leftist rhetoric about Israel it's with the Apartheid analogy, not this 'Israelis are Nazis' line. Everyone from Norman Finkelstein and Ilan Pappe to Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu has, with clear qualifications and varying degrees of sophistication, appealed to the Apartheid analogy.

    "... Why instead does he reiterate (wholly) the standard US liberal (imperialist) obfuscations (I.e., the Israeli State is a civilized western democracy and Hezbollah and Hamas may be lumped together as fascists)?

    "There is only one answer. By lending force to the critique of Israel as an apartheid state, Zizek could in no way distinguish *himself*. Such solidarity with people like Pappe and Finkletsein, who have devoted their academic lives to this subject(at personal costs greater than Z has ever known), would have no contrarian cache for the preeminent gadfly.

    "He is a fucking egotist. And when it leads him into further degrading the level of public thought and discourse on something as devastating and vexed as the Israel/Palestine conflict--while claiming explicitly that he brings the clarity only a philosopher can--it's despicable.

    "And as someone active in Palestinian solidarity politics and not simply an academic convinced that debunking "liberal multiculturalism" is the great fight of our day, it makes me furious. His comments on the Paris riots were equally grotesque, but you can visit the Lenin's Tomb comments on that. Likewise the contrast between his active politics and Badiou's (a no less sophisticated philosopher who actually deigns to engage in immigration and anti-racist struggles) in those comments is instructive.

    "Seriously, Zizek is a self-serving blowhard, whose reactionary tendencies ought to be taken to task--and he just shut the fuck up about the Middle East. He's becoming an outright liability and threat to (internationalist) leftist politics."


    http://jdeanicite.typepad.com/i_cite/2008/05/zizek-on-democr.html

  • Guest - hegemonik

    Is Hamas a force of national liberation? No. They espouse a right-wing ideology. They formed as a conscious effort of the Israelis to create a right-wing front *against* a PLO that, at that point, was the actual national liberation front of the Palestinians. At the moment, they've been forced into an objective united front with the other armed resistance groups. That's not a baptismal certificate into the Left; that's a fact of Palestinians attempting to live under something other than the Zionist apartheid state.

    Moreover, this rubbish of not being able to call a fascist a fascist and a liberal a liberal is bullshit. Hamas's ideology does, in fact, fit the profile of fascism. Israel is, in fact, a liberal state.

    The only reasons for not being able to say this:
    • An ideological desire to rehabilitate liberalism (as if we are for liberalism!)
    • A straying from materialist analysis of fascism and its historic role (as the "passive revolution" against liberalism, that never quite unseats it).
    • A right-opportunist willingness to sell revolution short: since when are we content to take crumbs off of the table of fascism OR liberalism?

  • Guest - onehundredflowers

    Paul -

    Conscientious Marxists take any thinker seriously who is obviously having an impact on intellectual and political debates, regardless of whether they pass a political litmus test.

    What this entails is actually trying to understand the key elements of a thinker's arguments and the ways in which they have developed over time. This is best accomplished by actually reading the thinker's substantial work for oneself rather than pre-definiing a position, seeking others to confirm your position, then proclaiming a verdict.

    The point is not to "defend" or "support" Zizek and every single position he takes, but to support the project of expanding the Marxist theoretical terrain, and break out of intellectual deadlocks, of which he is a part. You don't have to agree with his politics, but your opinion is supported only by superficial cherry-picking on your part. I suspect no amount of evidence will change your mind since you've already decided that it was "uninteresting." Unfortunately, this kind of "investigation" seems all to familiar. It reminds me of an article in an old RCP journal, <i>The Communist</i> titled "Plato: Classical Philosopher of Reaction." The notion that political agreement determines the substance of ideas reflects a habit of thinking resistant to ideological challenge.

    The real problem is not that Marxists take Zizek seriously, but that not enough Marxists take theory seriously.

  • Guest - Alain Badiou: Another Take on

    [...] about Alain Badiou, the contemporary philosopher? Like Zizek, he has attracted much attention among people looking for new avenues both intellectually and [...]

  • Guest - mcdtito

    You must either modify your dreams or magnify your skills.