Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 2, 2009

Examined Life

Filed under: Film,philosophy — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

Examined Life: Philosophy is in the Streets” is very much a follow-up to Astra Taylor’s “Zizek!,” a 2005 documentary that allowed the Lacanian cultural theorist to hold forth on a variety of topics. Not being particularly enamored of Zizek’s thought, I passed on this movie. But I couldn’t resist the temptation to watch “Examined Life” since I heard good things about Taylor’s film-making skills even though I have to confess that I am no more eager to hear from the latest batch of subjects, which is heavily tilted in the postmodernist direction (Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor) this go round. Zizek makes another appearance but mercifully for only 10 minutes as is the case with the rest of the cast.

In the press notes for “Examined Life”, Taylor explains her motivation in making such a film:

Many would agree that the world is facing a multitude of unprecedented problems, from global warming to growing economic inequality. In a way, this is part of why I wanted to make Examined Life right now — I feel that the myriad problems facing us demand more thinking than ever, not less. That said, most people wouldn’t assume philosophy would have anything useful to say on these issues. Often when you mention “philosophy” people’s eyes kind of glaze over. The word conjures images of stodgy old white men pontificating on abstract matters completely irrelevant to those of us who live in the “real world.” Or maybe folks assume that philosophy simply doesn’t relate to their lives, or that people who are interested in the subject are unforgivably ponderous or pretentious.

Taylor, who will be 30 this year, got an MA in Liberal Studies from the New School For Social Research, the same place I received a MA in philosophy back in 1967. I have to confess that I didn’t continue my studies because I was one of those folks who assumed “that philosophy simply doesn’t relate to their lives.” I joined the SWP in 1967 and spent 11 years trying to apply Marxism to American society, a task that defies any attempts from individual philosophers no matter how brilliant they are. And, just between you and me, the subjects of Taylor’s movie are not that brilliant. Despite the underwhelming character of their reflections, I have nothing but admiration for Taylor’s movie-making skills and urge others to see the movie, whatever their feelings about “theory” and its postmodernist abuses.

Before I present some highly critical rebuttals to Michael Hardt and Slavoj Zizek (who I found highly captivating as film characters no matter my aversion to their ideas), let me say something about two of the more attractive personalities: Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor. The two are shown navigating the streets of San Francisco’s Mission Hill district where Sunaura, a quadriplegic, chose to live on account of its enlightened policies on disabled people.

Their segment consists of the two having a conversation about disability rights and justice, which effectively ties together Butler’s philosophy and Taylor’s personal experience. Some of you might know of Judith Butler as the butt of Denis Dutton’s “Bad Writing Contest”, something I got a big laugh out of before I discovered what a wretch Dutton was. If anything, being condemned by Dutton should be seen as a badge of distinction. Unlike the other interviewees, Butler comes across as a plain-spoken and thoughtful person-as well as visually striking. With her gaunt frame and leather jacket, she looks more like a meth dealer than a cultural theorist-just the ticket for this visually striking documentary.

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, we spend what seems like an eternity with Michael Hardt rowing a boat in a Central Park lake as he pontificates on Revolution. He begins by saying that the FMLN told him when he was in El Salvador in the 1980s that the best assistance he could give the revolution was to make one in the U.S. They suggested that he find a nearby mountain and get some guns. That’s all that’s needed. Having spent 5 years in New York City as a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, a group that was in constant contact with the FDR, the political wing of the FMLN, I can assure you that no combatant would have given such advice. They were looking primarily for people to put pressure on the U.S. government to cut funding to the Salvadoran government. They also took a great deal of interest in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Campaign in 1984. But the idea that the FMLN would tell a bookish gringo to start guerrilla warfare is complete bullshit and simply makes Michael Hardt look like a fool.

Going from the ridiculous to the ridiculousest, we meet Slavoj Zizek in a garbage dump where he spends his 10 minutes blasting what he calls “ecology”, which is nothing but a straw man that he defines as an idea that Nature is Pure and that Man violates Nature through Hubris. For Zizek, nature is anything but pure. It is filled with catastrophes that happen without human involvement such as the ice age that led to mass extinctions. He advises that in the face of nature’s imperfections that we learn-using his words-to see “perfection in imperfection”. This kind of relationship between man and nature will be a kind of “love”, as our Lacanian puts it.

Listening to him reminded me of my freshman year at Bard College in 1961 when a group of us formed something called the Welcome the Bomb Committee in response to Nelson Rockefeller’s stepped up civil defense proposals. We sent out press releases stating that a welcomed bomb would be less likely to hurt us than a spurned bomb. Unlike Zizek, we were just kidding around.

“Examined Life” opens at the IFC Film theater in NYC on February 25th.


  1. “He advises that in the face of nature’s imperfections that we learn-to use his words-see “perfection in imperfection”.

    The the question first comes to mind is, did Marx see the perfection of capitalism in its imperfection, i.e. within its contradictions? or, did he strive to sharpen the contradictions to transform the way we perceive the whole system which enables us to realize the possibility and necessity of communism.

    Besides, I doubt that Zizek’s approach is Lacanian.

    Lacan, after quoting from Sade’s Juliette, the passage where Pope Pius VI elucidates his thoughts, similar to Zizek’s, that Nature itself is destructive and every crime of ours serves its intentions (Nature wants atrocities and magnitude in crimes; the more our destructions are of this type, the more they will be agreeable to it.) states:

    “I am not telling you that the notion of the death wish in Freud is not something very suspect in itself – as suspect and, I would say, almost as ridiculous as Sade’s idea. Can anything be poorer or more worthless after all than the idea that human crimes might, for good or evil, contribute in some way to the cosmic maintenance of the rerum concordia discors (the concord of things through discord)?”

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — February 2, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

  2. “But the idea that the FMLN would tell a Duke University literature professor to start guerrilla warfare is complete bullshit and simply makes Michael Hardt look like a fool.”

    First, MH was not a Duke professor when he went to El Salvador. Second, if the FMLN was looking for *pressure* from the US to cut support for the Salvadoran govt, why would it be prima facie ‘complete bullshit’ to take that to include direct action resistance? Moreover, why is it ridiculous to think that some rank-and-file FMLN would suggest doing precisely what their organization is doing (armed resistance) in the US? If you’re trying to pull the ‘more-activist-than-thou’ card here, aren’t you beneath Hardt on this totem poll for having not actively engaged with the FMLN guerillas themselves, but only “spending 5 years in New York City as a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador”?

    Also, the only relevance ‘strawman’ has in this discussion is with respect to your rendering of Zizek’s point about ecology. He’s precisely arguing against the absurd choice between 1. global capitalist instrumentalization (and destruction) of the environment and 2. The sort of ‘deep’ ecological view which posits the entire earth as one huge organism which exists in perfect harmony and only encounters any form of discord when humans disrupt its natural balance. Obviously, we don’t have to choose between these two absurd views. The point about the ‘deep ecological view’ is that it is both inaccurate and politically dangerous. I wouldn’t want a politics aimed at simply emulating this ‘nature’ with all of its catastrophic, violent, dog-eat-dog horrors… but I’m sure that Herbert Spencer might, or even fans of ‘blood and soil’ might as well. Nothing in what he’s said suggests any of the absurd conclusions you attribute to him about ‘welcoming’ climate change.

    Comment by both theory and practice — February 3, 2009 @ 2:08 am

  3. On ecology Zizek deconstructs a false binary through the use of a false equivalence, with a calculated appeal to the availability heuristic of people who spend a great deal of time imagining how dreadful one or the other choices in the false binary might be. Unfortunately, one of the choices actually exists as the dominant factor in everyone’s lives. It is backed by armies and bombs. The other is a minority view, of a tiny powerless minority, whose views of the Gaia Hypothesis are hardly monolithic and, where it is considered in any depth, are most often accompanied by an ethical sense completely lacking in the writings of Spencer — who, himself, when push came to shove, was a doting if somewhat fussy nursemaid.

    I think Zizek would be more captivating as a screen presence if he made judicious use of squirting flowers and large bicycle horns.

    Comment by Arkady — February 3, 2009 @ 6:12 am

  4. In response to #2:

    I changed the review to reflect the fact that Hardt was not a professor in the mid 1980s but must insist that the FMLN did not urge gringos to start guerrilla warfare unless they were pulling their legs. Listening to Hardt’s blather about “revolution” persuades me that this was the case.

    On Zizek and deep ecology, I can only state that Zizek has written for Spiked Online which is notorious for promoting the use of DDT and nuclear power. If that’s supposed to be “Marxist”, then I’ll stick with the tree huggers.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 3, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

  5. Zizek (Looking Awry):

    “Chernobyl confronted us with the threat of what Lacan calls “the second death”: the result of the reign of the discourse of science is that what was at the time of the Marquis de Sade a literary fantasy (a radical destruction that interrupts the life process) has become today a menace threatening our everyday life. Lacan himself observed that the explosion of the atomic bomb exemplified the “second death”: in radioactive death, it is as if matter itself, the foundation, the permanent support of the eternal circuit of generation and corruption, dissolves itself, vanishes.”

    In his arguments on ecology Zizek often invokes Lacanian term “second destruction”, (annihilation beyond the regeneration cycle) but with an inexplicable exclusion of its radical meaning, destruction of the very socio-symbolic order, signifying chain, or whatever it is, which constructs our relationship with the external reality. Thus, what confronts us with Chernobyl disaster is not simply the menace of total annihilation of the nature, but the risk to lose symbolic formation our ideological conventions that enables us to interpret the catastrophe in a certain, regular way. For this reason, Zizek’s answer that we must regard ecological crises in its actuality without ascribing it some arbitrary massage or meaning comes short as regards to the radical dimension of the second destruction. The way to radical destruction, change, or revolution, opens up with the isolation of the historical chain, considering the existence of the subject matter dependant to the existence of symbolic order. This is what Marx precisely did with regard to capitalism. With the narrative of primitive accumulation, he designates that capitalist mode of production is not the consequence of natural, peaceful development of the forces of production, but it entails an incomparable brutal exploitation and it is not natural, internal course of human development. I think the proper way to deal with ecological catastrophe is to pass through the gates of the second destruction: Human made catastrophes like Chernobyl is strictly connected with the existing order, i.e. ruthlessly plundering the recourses of the earth by the human animal (as Badiou called) for the sake profit, for its own survival. By internalizing human made catastrophes to the nature which is already catastrophic, Zizek’s approach eliminates the radical prospect of second destruction, the destruction of capitalism.

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — February 3, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

  6. I don’t know what you mean by putting scarequotes around what Hardt may have said about revolution. Are you going on what he said in this short video, or drawing on things he’s said elsewhere?

    I saw him speak in Chicago last fall and thought a lot of what he had to say was fresh and quite interesting, although I’ll admit that I do know much about (or seem to have much use for) his work more broadly (e.g. Empire, Multitude, etc.). If you’re interested, I wrote a post about this talk he gave here: http://pink-scare.blogspot.com/search/label/Michael%20Hardt . Comments welcomed.

    Comment by both theory and practice — February 3, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  7. Whoops. That last comment should’ve read “I do NOT know much about his work…”

    Comment by both theory and practice — February 3, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

  8. I am going both on what he said in the film and what he said elsewhere:


    Comment by louisproyect — February 3, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  9. You talk about Judith Butler. She was attacked by Martha Nussbaum who teaches at University of Chicago.

    I don’t know much about Nussbaum. What do you think about her?

    Judith Butler is against Israeli State and it’s crimes.
    But Nussbaum is a little different. Look at this essay by her in Dissent magazine.


    She slyly suggests those speaking against Israeli crimes are anti semites.

    Comment by Ajit — February 3, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

  10. I know nothing about Martha Nussbaum but found her interview in the movie eminently forgettable.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 3, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

  11. FMLN’s suggestion to Hardt reminds one of a similar pisstaking antic applied by the Yanomamo tribesmen on the visiting anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. Changon enquiring names of the fellow tribesmen got the answers like fart-breath, long-dong, hairy-pussy. He sincerely recorded and used them for five months.

    Comment by Anarcho-Polpotist — February 4, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

  12. >Changon enquiring names of the fellow tribesmen got the answers like fart-breath, long-dong, hairy-pussy. >He sincerely recorded and used them for five months.

    Proof positive that the structural anthropologists were correct about cultural universals, three of which we witness here: 1) gullible academics 2) practical jokers 3) scatological humor.

    Comment by Larry Damms — February 4, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

  13. “which is heavily tilted in the postmodernist direction (Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer….”

    Peter Singer a post-modernist? He full of shit on some things, but I don’t think he is po-mo.

    Comment by Sheldon — February 5, 2009 @ 3:47 am

  14. Sorry, I wasn’t clear enough. I was listing all of the participants. Only these were pomo, in my view: Butler, Zizek, West, Ronell, and Hardt.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 5, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  15. […] that allowed the Lacanian cultural theorist to hold forth on a variety of topics,” writes Louis Proyect, self-described “Unrepentant Marxist” and no fan of Slavoj Zizek, nor, for that matter, […]

    Pingback by In New York Today, Seattle This Spring « Hot Splice — March 1, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

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