Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 13, 2010

Zizek as shock jock

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

Slavoj Zizek’s article Joe Public v the volcano that appeared in the April 29 2010 New Statesman illustrates once again the perils of being the shock jock of academic Marxism. One can imagine him stroking his beard and saying to himself after writing such an article: “Hah, that will get ‘em talking”. Yes, it might get people talking but the goal is to raise their awareness, not just get them talking.

I am afraid that Zizek gets sidetracked in these sorts of intellectual dead ends because he, like many big-time “theorists”, operates pretty much as a lone wolf. In the rarefied world of plenary sessions and featured articles in the New Left Review, the professional intellectual operates like a novelist or a composer. They have to make a big impression and that means carving out some turf that cannot be confused with some other second-rate talent. Unfortunately, when it comes to Marxism, you really need to be part of some kind of collective discussion or else you end up veering off in odd directions. Of course, within that framework you have to have the ability to think for yourself. Ironically, the crisis of Marxism today is largely a function of people like Zizek operating in their own hermetically sealed intellectual space on one hand, and on the other hand “Marxist-Leninists” functioning like the Borg in Star Trek. You need both the collective framework and the freedom to speak your mind.

Zizek’s article was inspired by the volcanic eruption in Iceland:

We are living in an age when we are both able to change nature and more at its mercy than ever –– as the Icelandic volcano has proved.

Many of those who have a fear of flying are haunted by a particular thought: that is, how many parts of such a complicated machine as a modern plane have to function smoothly in order for it to stay in the air? One small lever breaks somewhere, and the plane may spiral downwards . . . When you start to think how many things could go wrong, you cannot help but panic.

The people of Europe have experienced something similar in the past few weeks. That a cloud from a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland – a small disturbance in the complex mechanism of life on earth – can bring to a standstill the air traffic over almost an entire continent is a reminder of how humankind, for all its power to transform nature, remains just another living species on the planet.

Starting from a major event taking place in nature outside of society, Zizek spins off into some questionable musings on ecology that by its very definition involves human agency. His main problem is that he lacks a class analysis. Note carefully in the following excerpt how freely he uses the words “we” and “our” as in the following: “our best hope of understanding those threats, and the means through which we may find a way of coping with them”. Between someone like myself and a shrimp swimming around in the Gulf of Mexico on one hand and BP and the Obama administration on the other, there’s not much “we” going on.

Most of the threats we face today are not external (or “natural”), but generated by human activity shaped by science (the ecological consequences of our industry, say, or the psychic consequences of uncontrolled genetic engineering), so that the sciences are simultaneously the source of such threats, our best hope of understanding those threats, and the means through which we may find a way of coping with them.

Even if we blame scientific-technological civilisation for global warming, we need the same science not only to define the scope of the threat, but also, often, to perceive it in the first place. The “ozone hole”, for example, can be “seen” in the sky only by scientists. That line from Wagner’s Parsifal – “Die Wunde schliest der Speer nur, der Sie schlug” (“The wound can only be healed by the spear that made it”) – acquires a new relevance here.

How much can we “safely” pollute our environment? How many fossil fuels can we burn? How much of a poisonous substance does not threaten our health? That our knowledge has limitations does not mean we shouldn’t exaggerate the ecological threat. On the contrary, we should be even more careful about it, given that the situation is extremely unpredictable. The recent uncertainties about global warming signal not that things are not too serious, but that they are even more chaotic than we thought, and that natural and social factors are inextricably linked.

Things go from bad to worse when Zizek invokes Donald Rumsfeld as a kind of epistemological authority in a clear bid to be outrageous—expecting his readers to email their friends: “Did you read Zizek’s piece in the New Statesman where he cites Rumsfeld? Wow!”

When it comes to the risk of ecological catastrophe, we are dealing with “unknown unknowns”, to use the terms of the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge. Donald Rumsfeld set out this theory in a bit of amateur philosophising in February 2002, when he was still George W Bush’s defence secretary. He said:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns”, things we don’t know that we know – which is the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself”, as Lacan put it. To the assertion that the main dangers in the Iraq war were the “unknown unknowns” – the threats that we did not even suspect existed – we should reply that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns”, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions to which we are not even aware we adhere.

So, dear reader, you might find yourself asking what the fuck does this have to do with the environment. Well, at least, that’s what I would ask. Here’s how Zizek answers that question:

Humankind should get ready to live in a more nomadic way: local or global changes in environment may demand unprecedented large-scale social transformations. Let’s say that a huge volcanic eruption makes the whole of Iceland uninhabitable: where will the people of Iceland move? Under what conditions? Should they be given a piece of land, or just dispersed around the world? What if northern Siberia becomes more inhabitable and appropriate for agriculture, while great swaths of sub-Saharan Africa become too dry for a large population to live there – how will the exchange of population be organised? When similar things happened in the past, the social changes occurred in a wild, spontaneous way, with violence and destruction. Such a prospect is catastrophic in a world in which many nations have access to weapons of mass destruction.

Well, Slavoj, there is a precedent for moving people around but not in the way that you envision. One of the most significant achievements of the Cuban revolution has been its ability to evacuate its citizens from the path of an oncoming hurricane, as seen in this AP dispatch:

HAVANA, Cuba – When Hurricane Ike struck Cuba, Ronald Matos didn’t think twice about fleeing his one-room wooden house for a government shelter.

The 34-year-old construction worker and his wife, Emma Jean, got soft beds, free meals, the attention of a doctor and solicitous social workers — and the companionship of other friendly Cubans.

“We passed the night talking and telling stories, because Cubans never lose their smiles or their sense of humor,” he said. “There is no electricity, but we are better protected than in our homes.”

With an inefficient centralized economy and a U.S. embargo that has stifled trade, Cuba doesn’t have resources to build new, hurricane-proof buildings. It doesn’t have fleets of Humvees to charge through the floodwaters. Few of its people have cars to flee in, and fewer still can check on loved ones by cellphone.

But if there’s one thing the communist island does right, it’s evacuations. And in the end, that saves more lives than anything else.

One imagines that despite being a “Leninist”, Zizek would be not that impressed with such measures in light of his general displeasure with the island’s “stagnation”, something I commented on in a prior post:

It appears that our Lacanian theorist took a trip to Cuba a while back and didn’t like what he saw very much, to put it mildly. He was struck by all the “poverty”, “stagnation” and “inefficiency” that he interpreted as the Cuban leadership’s attempt to prove its “authenticity”.

Well, I don’t know. Those evacuations sound pretty efficient to me.

Then, of course, there’s the question of what this has to do with “great swaths of sub-Saharan Africa” becoming “too dry for a large population to live there”. I would say there are two problems with this. First of all, it puts climate change on the same plane as volcanoes. To my knowledge, the first is a problem associated with untrammeled capitalist production while the second is a product of nature. To confuse the two is mischievous, to say the least. The other problem is that it assumes that the population of sub-Saharan Africa can be picked up and moved somewhere else. This would be a daunting task even under socialism. It is much better in fact to draw a line in the sand and say that the great majority of humanity (i.e., the workers and the peasants) will not stand for such a catastrophe brought on by the ruling class’s disregard for elementary ecological principles. What would strike any normal, class-conscious person is that Zizek’s recommendations are utterly fatalistic and defeatist at the core, so at odds with his “Leninist” pretensions.

16 Comments »

  1. Louis, reading your writings on Zizek is like watching an usual scene from a Marx Bros. movie where Harpo harasses a serious person and he desperately tries to deal with him in a rational and civilized manner.

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — May 13, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

  2. I have always considered Zizek as more of an entertainer than a theorist or Marxist academic, and it is worth noting that he received a cult hero’s welcome at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco a few years ago, when that movie about him was released, almost like a rock star or champion surfer. The one thing that I have taken away from him has been his emphasis about how a liberal, rights based system of social relations can be put to nefarious purposes. That can be very helpful to both Marxists and anarchists.

    Your comment about the New Left Review is interesting. First off, it is worth noting that is rather dubious to characterize it as Marxist publication anymore, rather it is more internationalist and sociologically based. Second, I don’t think that most of the people who publish there are necessarily compelled to make a big impression. In that respect, Zizek is an exception (along with Mike Davis, I might add, and for some reason, I find him more and more tiresome), and his work that is published in it is more nuanced than what appears elsewhere. But there are quite a number of people who publish there, like Gopal Balakrishnan, Tony Wood and R. Taggart Murphy, just to name a few, who are definitely worth reading, as long as you keep in mind that any relationship to Marxism or other left political forms is tangential. The NLR’s ongoing emphasis upon China makes it essential reading for anyone on the left who wants perspectives independent of the mainstream media, with an article by Richard Walker a few years ago, “The Capitalist Road”, I think it was called, being most enlightening.

    But there is no question, there is an academic separation between what appears in the NLR, and what goes on in the real world, as there is most instances, unfortunately.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 13, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

  3. Mehmet Çagatay,

    I agree with you that Louis Proyect unbelievably misrepresents Zizek in the last passage, although Louis is right to say that Zizek should not say ‘we’ and that Zizek should stop repeating that Rumsfeld anecdote. I would like to invite you however to have a serious debate strictly on the validity of Zizek’s philosophy (not his role as an intellectual or his ‘crazy’ politics). The forum to the debate is linked in my name. Hope to see you there!

    Comment by Noa Rodman — May 13, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

  4. Louis, I quite like Zizek sometimes and I have quoted from him freely in my forthcoming book on Trotsky – but then, it was mostly from his introduction to Trotsky’s Terrorism & Communism, that offers a no-nonsense account of War Communism (which, however, seems to bank heavily on Lars T Lih’s work). I know he has much of an entretainer, as I ran across him as he made a conference on his The Parallax View in Rio de Janeiro Federal University, which was broadcast from the University hall through a widescreem into the arena theater, and where he had Caetano Veloso (among others) in the audience. Later he signed copies of his book, and as I handled him mine, he asked : (a)my name, upon which he asked (b)wheter I was a namesake of Ilitich Ramirez… But then he is only a detail in a greater picture, as I am reminded when I witness the inability of the Brazilian Left Academy to even begin offering something in the way of an alternative to Lula’s politics….

    Comment by Carlos Rebello — May 13, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

  5. I thought the New left review was addressing the stuff Zizek was actually warning about, In the case, he was saying that oil drilling on the ocean floor is a terrible option.

    Comment by Jenny — May 13, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

  6. Good catch, Jenny. That’s what I get trying to write an article during lunch break.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 13, 2010 @ 11:17 pm

  7. Louis, reading your writings on Zizek is like watching an usual scene from a Marx Bros. movie where Harpo harasses a serious person and he desperately tries to deal with him in a rational and civilized manner.

    That’s the nicest thing anybody has ever said about me. Another old friend said that when I go on the attack against Zizek or some other Marxist celebrity, it is like watching a small but tough hunting dog biting the nose of a bear.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 14, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

  8. I made a similar argument in regards to the more influential, Liberal Democrat supporting, activist icon here in the UK—George Monbiot:

    http://necessaryagitation.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/monbiot-the-volcano-the-banks/

    Comment by necessaryagitation — May 16, 2010 @ 9:10 am

  9. […] tuligsa si Louis Proyect, nagpapakilalang “hindi nagsisisi sa pagiging Marxista” kay Slavoj Zizek. Artikulo tungkol sa […]

    Pingback by V para sa Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia « Kapirasong Kritika — May 27, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

  10. Zizek said oil drilling down from the ocean bottom’s a very bad idea, Obama(who the public seem to still love) said drill baby drill(just not as loudly as Palin), yet if you asked the average pleeb who they trust more as a person of good judgement, they wouldmsay Obama over Zizek. They most likely would site for their reasons the difference in mannerism and dress codes. Which goes to show that there are –tragically– few people who truly “grow up” in this country.
    I don’t see how anyone can believe in the people anymore, consumer society has made the US a nation of children, it’s a tragedy that makes it impossiblemto be a populist.
    Maybe when ppl lived in communities and had connections with the group and with the land, populism had more substance to it. Today, populism is reduced to peoples love of wrestler-esque pols like Palin. Just more proof no one is adult, as the poor are deprived of community, time, and substance. Consumers are stunted children, who are constantly barraged by a flood of ads distracting them from political organization.
    In china, those in power have built empty cities that look quite nice to live in, so they can wave these in front of the working poors noses. There always the story of the family who started a business or who worked hard enough to buy a place in these media cities, built for a camera.

    Comment by Nate — June 1, 2010 @ 9:58 am

  11. Louis, I have to say – I think your critique unfortunately undermines itself by taking the errors in to which Zizek’s article tendentiously slips for the core of the argument from the beginning. Because of the narrow, terrier-like focus on what weak parts you can possibly get your teeth into you not only miss the broader implications of the article, but even seem to be critiquing Zizek for saying what you yourself substantively say – not to mention dragging the article away from much of its initial context.
    Let us take a few examples. First of all, you start off with the big claim about the economy of intellectual production which must overdetermine the product – so we already know, before any reading of the article we supposedly know what we essentially find in any case – a commodity determined by its shock value in a neoliberal economy of attention and intellectual consumerism. Clearly you feel you know what you will find also, so the reading is not of the article, but for signs of this form which is a priori. Given the general validity of these assumptions about such a structural setting, we still might ask how the particular ‘shock value’ might operate – does it produce a genuine disequilibrium or is it a fake? – then we could at least glimpse something of the article itself from under the shroud of this reductive abstraction. Second, when you start the reading, giving, I admit, your readers a generous quotation from the text which allows an independent view, you impute to Zizek quite the opposite from what, I, at least, took away with me saying that he is “starting from a major event taking place in nature outside of society,” whereas I thought the whole point was that it is precisely the complex interconnection and technological entanglements of society that make it, at a broader level, even more exposed and delicate in relation to the mediation of these ‘natural’ disturbances… Zizek does not start from the volcano as a geological phenomenon, but from the point of view of a grounded passenger at an airport. Your comments about a lack of class analysis are true and clearly valuable, but instead of carrying that through systematically, your focus is on Zizek’s narcissistic expectation that his readers will email each other in joy when they see he has trotted out the Rumsfeld quote for the millionth time. Which is not something that actually presents itself in the text we’re supposedly reading, nor, in fact, do you read it. Its by now a cliché and was only ever a clever conference room set-piece for about 12 minutes during Operation Iraqi freedom, but it is not citing Rumsfeld as an authority in anyway, I think it both exposes the sophistry the original thought and inverts its mechanism to quite good use. Isn’t it an old Marxist canard to say that our position is already latent in capitalist ideology as that which it instinctually avoids, denies, skirts around? Speaking of which, what you seem to be skirting around is that Zizek actually has anything to say at all in the article – “So, dear reader, you might find yourself asking what the fuck does this have to do with the environment.” This may be what you ask yourself, but it seems fairly clear – the fact is that we 1) do not where and how dangerous the tipping points in ecological catastrophe are exactly and 2) the basic assumption in our society that somehow a real disaster is not going to happen, that nature is a given, is fundamentally and sadly undisturbed. Third point: when Zizek makes those sadly glib remarks about evacuating sub-Saharan Africa, you take a good opportunity to put Cuba in the frame – something criminally absent from the intellectual landscape today – yet Zizek’s whole argument does lead exactly to framing a Cuba style response to a world-scale – hardly a crime against socialism. You correctly point out that Zizek basically fantasises this whole logistical nightmare into possibility, yet this kind of scenario does bear thinking about – precisely because it does not come from a defeatist position. Zizek’s standard argument on climate-change, stated in numerous places – In Defence of Lost Causes has it as running theme – is not much different from yours, with the standard Lacanian/ Transcedental Materialist apparatus (which I find appealing, but which may be unnecessary/ in need of correction) – is that we should assume the worst future is already ‘locked in’ – climate catastrophe, and treat the present opportunities as desperate, unquestionable, effort to negate that future and make new possibilities – so he hardly can be accused of suggesting that climate change struggles are not the front line of eco-politics. Beyond this though, we do not have to say that should not consider how the disaster of an eco-crisis, which might occur due to the amount of global warming which is already guaranteed as a result of current emissions – no matter how swiftly they may fall in the future, should be dealt with. Why not take the attitude of Lenin to WWI, or even of Mao to nuclear war– we don’t want it, we’ll do everything to prevent it, but we aren’t afraid of it, and are willing to use it to our advantage.That does not come from defeatism, but from the idea that no defeat is final, that every defeat actually opens up the opportunity for a victory. Zizek’s perverse optimism “from defeat to defeat to final victory” is a good ethical stand in my view- capitalism’s victories only destabilise it more, while the defeats of the left purge us of illusions and clarify the lines of struggle (it also seems like a fairly succinct formula of actual historical victories and their unfolding). Suggesting that we can assuredly prevent disaster from happening by winning the political struggle to reduce emissions and managig to enforce basic ecological principles is actually dangerously naive – especially as climate change is actually the tip of the ecological iceberg.
    Every point you had against Zizek was valid, but they were just that, isolated points, that did engage the broad arguments or their full implications. That is achieve, as you could clearly achieve a much more incisive critique if you engaged more fully – rather than relying on the resentment of your audience for the public ego dominance of pop-intellectuals like Zizek. Okay, maybe it is shock-commodity intellectual production – but maybe the shock does actually denote something about genuine fault-lines in capitalism?
    I wholeheartedly agree with you that “the crisis of Marxism today is largely a function of people like Zizek operating in their own hermetically sealed intellectual space on one hand, and on the other hand “Marxist-Leninists” functioning like the Borg in Star Trek. You need both the collective framework and the freedom to speak your mind.” Yet the way to intervene in this crisis is not to attack one-side then the other, working out our little resentments against each in a point-scoring exercise. When you used the example of Cuba to destabilise Zizek’s “hermetically sealed intellectual space” you actually came close to a perversely Zizekian move – ‘short-circuiting’ his discourse by applying it to a concrete situation that he structurally excludes, and thereby both exposing its inadequacy and using it to get to a more determinate point. That is what I think should be done – we can actually use each of these failed and failing discourses to ‘short-circuit’ each other, because want we want is a disjunctive synthesis, a hybrid –both, yet neither: “both the collective framework and the freedom to speak your mind” yet neither ultimate equivalents of the ‘group-mind’ enclosed Marxist-Borgist nor the guru-figure of the intellectual with the great formula.

    Comment by brendan — June 17, 2010 @ 4:31 am

  12. Brendan, in the future you should divide long comments into paragraphs. It makes them easier to read.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 17, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

  13. sure thing, apologies.

    Comment by brendan — June 23, 2010 @ 4:47 am

  14. Louis, before you become too flattered perhaps you should remember that everyone loves Harpo’s antics, roots for him against the dull witted buffoon who tries to be “civilized” in those old Marxist movies.

    Comment by Douglas Lain — July 27, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

  15. i love your blog…your writing…would very much like to receive via my email…thanks ~C

    Comment by cecilia p norris — November 23, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

  16. […] and everyday cynics rejecting him in synch. Of the former category, Louis Proyect, for one, accuses Žižek of being a ‘shock jock’ and has taken issue with his misrepresentation of Lenin merely to outrage liberals. Richard Seymour […]

    Pingback by In defence of Slavoj Žižek « Necessary Agitation — January 3, 2011 @ 12:42 pm


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