In Defense of Lost Causes
by Slavoj Žižek
(Verso, 504 pp., $34.95)
by Slavoj Žižek
(Picador, 272 pp., $14)
Last year the Slovenian philosopher SlavojŽižek published a piece in The New York Times deploring America’s use of torture to extract a confession from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda leader who is thought to have masterminded the attacks of September 11. The arguments that Žižek employed could have been endorsed without hesitation by any liberal-minded reader. Yes, he acknowledged, Mohammed’s crimes were “clear and horrifying”; but by torturing him the United States was turning back the clock on centuries of legal and moral progress, reverting to the barbarism of the Middle Ages. We owe it to ourselves, Žižek argued, not to throw away “our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.” For anyone who is familiar with Žižek’s many books, what was striking about the piece was how un-Žižekian it was. Yes, there were the telltale marks—quotations from Hegel and Agamben kept company with a reference to the television show 24, creating the kind of high-low frisson for which Žižek is celebrated. But for the benefit of the Times readers, Žižek was writing, rather surprisingly, as if the United States was basically a decent country that had strayed into sin.
He was being dishonest. What Žižek really believes about America and torture can be seen in his new book, Violence, when he discusses the notorious torture photos from Abu Ghraib: “Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people; in being submitted to humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture.” Torture, far from being a betrayal of American values actually offers “a direct insight into American values, into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the U.S. way of life.” This, to Žižek’s many admirers, is more like it.
It also provides a fine illustration of the sort of dialectical reversal that is Žižek’s favorite intellectual stratagem, and which gives his writing its disorienting, counterintuitive dazzle. Torture, which appears to be un-American, is pronounced to be the thing that is most American. It follows that the legalization of torture, far from barbarizing the United States, is actually a step toward humanizing it. According to the old Marxist logic, it heightens the contradictions, bringing us closer to the day when we realize, as Žižek writes, that “universal human rights” are an ideological sham, “effectively the rights of white male property owners to exchange freely on the market and exploit workers and women.”
Nor does Žižek simply condemn Al Qaeda’s violence as “horrifying.” Fundamentalist Islam may seem reactionary, but “in a curious inversion,” he characteristically observes, “religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today’s society. It has become one of the sites of resistance.” And the whole premise of Violence, as of Žižek’s recent work in general, is that resistance to the liberal-democratic order is so urgent that it justifies any degree of violence. “Everything is to be endorsed here,” he writes in Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, “up to and including religious ‘fanaticism.’”
The curious thing about the Žižek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror—especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose “lost causes” Žižek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes—the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult. A glance at the blurbs on his books provides a vivid illustration of the power of repressive tolerance. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Žižek claims, “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy”; but on the back cover of the book we are told that Žižek is “a stimulating writer” who “will entertain and offend, but never bore.” In The Fragile Absolute, he writes that “the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred”; but this is an example of his “typical brio and boldness.” And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Žižek remarks that “Heidegger is ‘great’ not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement,” and that “crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough”; but this book, its publisher informs us, is “a witty, adrenalinfueled manifesto for universal values.”
In the same witty book Žižek laments that “this is how the establishment likes its ‘subversive’ theorists: harmless gadflies who sting us and thus awaken us to the inconsistencies and imperfections of our democratic enterprise—God forbid that they might take the project seriously and try to live it.” How is it, then, that Slavoj Žižek, who wants not to correct democracy but to destroy it, has been turned into one of the establishment’s pet subversives, who “tries to live” the revolution most completely as a jet-setting professor at the European Graduate School, a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana’s Institute of Sociology, and the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities?
A part of the answer has to do with Žižek’s enthusiasm for American popular culture. Despite the best attempts of critical theory to demystify American mass entertainment, to lay bare the political subtext of our movies and pulp fiction and television shows, pop culture remains for most Americans apolitical and anti-political—a frivolous zone of entertainment and distraction. So when the theory-drenched Žižek illustrates his arcane notions with examples from Nip/ Tuck and Titanic, he seems to be signaling a suspension of earnestness. The effect is quite deliberate. In The Metastases of Enjoyment, for instance, he writes that “Jurassic Park is a chamber drama about the trauma of fatherhood in the style of the early Antonioni or Bergman.” Elsewhere he asks, “Is Parsifal not a model for Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, with Laurence Fishburne in the role of Gurnemanz?” Those are laugh lines, and they cunningly disarm the anxious or baffled reader with their playfulness. They relieve his reader with an expectation of comic hyperbole, and this expectation is then carried over to Žižek’s political proclamations, which are certainly hyperbolic but not at all comic.
When, in 1994, during the siege of Sarajevo, Žižek wrote that “there is no difference” between life in that city and life in any American or Western European city, that “it is no longer possible to draw a clear and unambiguous line of separation between us who live in a ‘true’ peace and the residents of Sarajevo”—well, it was only natural for readers to think that he did not really mean it, just as he did not really mean that Jurassic Park is like a Bergman movie. This intellectual promiscuity is the privilege of the licensed jester, of the man whom The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed “the Elvis of cultural theory.”
In person, too, Žižek plays the jester with practiced skill. Every journalist who sits down to interview him comes away with a smile on his face. Robert Boynton, writing in Lingua Franca in 1998, found Žižek “bearded, disheveled, and loud ... like central casting’s pick for the role of Eastern European Intellectual.” Boynton was amused to see the manic, ranting philosopher order mint tea and sugar cookies: “’Oh, I can’t drink anything stronger than herbal tea in the afternoon,’ he says meekly. ‘Caffeine makes me too nervous.’” The intellectual parallel is quite clear: in life, as in his writing, Žižek is all bark and no bite. Like a naughty child who flashes an irresistible grin, it is impossible to stay angry at him for long.
I witnessed the same deception a few weeks ago, when Žižek appeared with Bernard-Henri Lévy at the New York Public Library. The two philosopher-celebrities came on stage to the theme music from Superman, and their personae were so perfectly opposed that they did indeed nudge each other into cartoonishness: Lévy was all the more Gallic and debonair next to Žižek, who seemed all the more wild-eyed and Slavic next to Lévy. Thus it was perfectly natural for the audience to erupt in laughter when Žižek, at one point in the generally unacrimonious evening, told Lévy: “Don’t be afraid—when we take over you will not go to the Gulag, just two years of reeducation camp.” Solzhenitsyn had died only a few weeks earlier, but it would have been a kind of betise to identify Žižek’s Gulag with Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. When the audience laughed, it was playing into his hands, and hewing to the standard line on Žižek, which Rebecca Mead laid down in a profile of him in The New Yorker a few years ago: “Always to take Slavoj Žižek seriously would be to make a category mistake.”
Whether or not it would be always a mistake to take Slavoj Žižek seriously, surely it would not be a mistake to take him seriously just once. He is, after all, a famous and influential thinker. So it might be worthwhile to consider Žižek’s work as if he means it—to ask what his ideas really are, and what sort of effects they are likely to have.
Žižek is a believer in the Revolution at a time when almost nobody, not even on the left, thinks that such a cataclysm is any longer possible or even desirable. This is his big problem, and also his big opportunity. While “socialism” remains a favorite hate-word for the Republican right, the prospect of communism overthrowing capitalism is now so remote, so fantastic, that nobody feels strongly moved to oppose it, as conservatives and liberal anticommunists opposed it in the 1930s, the 1950s, and even the 1980s. When Žižek turns up speaking the classical language of Marxism-Leninism, he profits from the assumption that the return of ideas that were once the cause of tragedy can now occur only in the form of farce. In the visual arts, the denaturing of what were once passionate and dangerous icons has become commonplace, so that emblems of evil are transformed into perverse fun, harmless but very profitable statements of post-ideological camp; and there is a kind of intellectual equivalent of this development in Žižek’s work. The cover of his book The Parallax View reproduces a Socialist Realist portrait of “Lenin at the Smolny Institute,” in the ironically unironic fashion made familiar by the pseudo-iconoclastic work of Komar and Melamid, Cai Guo-Jiang, and other post-Soviet, post-Mao artists. He, too, expects you to be in on the joke. But there is a difference between Žižek and the other jokesters. It is that he is not really joking.
Like them, Žižek, who was born in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, in 1949, spent his formative years under communism. As an undergraduate, he acquired what would become a lifelong fascination with the work of Jacques Lacan; later he went to Paris to be analyzed by Lacan’s son-in-law and heir, Jacques-Alain Miller, and to this day Lacanian ideas and terms form one of the foundations of Žižek’s thought. His academic career was evidently sidetracked by communist bureaucrats who believed, no doubt correctly, that his eccentric brilliance would make him politically unreliable. In the 1980s, he was involved in establishing Slovenia’s opposition Liberal Democratic Party, and he even ran for office, unsuccessfully, in the newly independent country’s elections in 1990. It would be interesting to know more about Žižek’s activities in this period, so as to understand how this erstwhile liberal democrat emerged as an idolator of Lenin and a contemptuous foe of liberal democracy.
For if Žižek benefits, practically speaking, from the repudiation of the communist dream, it is also his central grievance. Since he mixes high theory and low culture—one of his books, Enjoy Your Symptom!, is a primer on Lacan that illustrates his theories with examples from Hollywood movies—it is tempting to classify him as another postmodernist. But Žižek is quite capable of distinguishing between pop culture, which is the air we all breathe, and postmodern relativism, which he unequivocally rejects. His recent work, in fact, is strictly conservative in its hostility to the libertarian and improvisatory aspects of contemporary Western culture. His attitude toward homosexuality, for instance, is that of a mid-century Freudian: he regards it as a symptom of debilitating narcissism. In Violence, he suggests that homosexuality is a step on the road to onanism: “first, in homosexuality, the other sex is excluded (one does it with another person of the same sex). Then, in a kind of mockingly Hegelian negation of negation, the very dimension of otherness is cancelled: one does it with oneself.” Transsexuals are even more threatening: “The ultimate difference, the ‘transcendental’ difference that grounds human identity itself, thus turns into something open to manipulation: the ultimate plasticity of being human is asserted instead.” When it comes to the brave new world of contemporary bioethics, Žižek is as hidebound as any Catholic traditionalist.
Žižek suspects all these postmodernist twenty-first-century phenomena because his political program is, as he recognizes, a throwback to the political modernism of the twentieth century, with its utopian longing for a violent, total transformation of human society. Only this kind of revolution, he believes, is real politics. More: only in the violence of revolution do we touch reality at all. “The ultimate and defining experience of the twentieth century,” he declares, “was the direct experience of the Real as opposed to the everyday social reality—the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality.” Žižek, too, feels this longing for the Real, and he recognizes that this puts him in opposition to his times, in which the Virtual does quite nicely. He deplores “one of the great postmodern motifs, that of the Real Thing towards which one should maintain a proper distance.” He wants to close that distance, to seize the Real Thing.
It makes sense, then, that the popculture artifact that speaks most deeply to Žižek, and to which he returns again and again in his work, is The Matrix. In this film, you will remember, the hero, played by Keanu Reeves, is initiated into a terrible secret: the world as we know it does not actually exist, but is merely a vast computer simulation projected into our brains. When the hero is unplugged from this simulation, he finds that the human race has in reality been enslaved by rebellious robots, who use the Matrix to keep us docile while literally sucking the energy from our bodies. When Laurence Fishburne, Reeves’s mentor, shows him the true state of the Earth, blasted by nuclear bombs, he proclaims: “Welcome to the desert of the real!”
When Žižek employed this phrase as the title of a short book about the September 11 attacks and their aftermath, he was not making an ironic pop reference. He was drawing an edifying parallel. Why is it, the communist revolutionary must inevitably reflect, that nobody wants a communist revolution? Why do people in the West seem so content in what Žižek calls “the Francis Fukuyama dream of the ‘end of history’”? For most of us, this may not seem like a hard question to answer: one need only compare the experience of communist countries with the experience of democratic ones. But Žižek is not an empiricist, or a liberal, and he has another answer. It is that capitalism is the Matrix, the illusion in which we are trapped.
This, of course, is merely a flamboyant sci-fi formulation of the old Marxist concept of false consciousness. “Our ‘freedoms,’” Žižek writes in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, “themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom.” This is the central instance in Žižek’s work of the kind of dialectical reversal, the clever anti-liberal inversion, that is the basic movement of his mind. It could hardly be otherwise, considering that his intellectual gods are Hegel and Lacan—masters of the dialectic, for whom reality never appears except in the form of the illusion or the symptom. In both their systems, the interpreter—the philosopher for Hegel, the analyst for Lacan—is granted absolute, unchallengeable authority. Most people are necessarily in thrall to appearances, and thereby to the deceptions of power; but the interpreter is somehow immune to them, and can singlehandedly recognize and expose the hidden meanings, the true processes at work in History or in the Unconscious.
This sacerdotal notion of intellectual authority makes both thinkers essentially hostile to democracy, which holds that the truth is available in principle to everyone, and that every individual must be allowed to speak for himself. Žižek, too, sees the similarity—or, as he says, “the profound solidarity”—between his favorite philosophical traditions. “Their structure,” he acknowledges, “is inherently ‘authoritarian’: since Marx and Freud opened up a new theoretical field which sets the very criteria of veracity, their words cannot be put to the test the same way one is allowed to question the statements of their followers.” Note that the term “authoritarian” is not used here pejoratively. For Žižek, it is precisely this authoritarianism that makes these perspectives appealing. Their “engaged notion of truth” makes for “struggling theories, not only theories about struggle.”
But to know what is worth struggling for, you need theories about struggle. Only if you have already accepted the terms of the struggle—in Žižek’s case, the class struggle—can you move on to the struggling theory that teaches you how to fight. In this sense, Žižek the dialectician is at bottom entirely undialectical. That liberalism is evil and that communism is good is not his conclusion, it is his premise; and the contortions of his thought, especially in his most political books, result from the need to reconcile that premise with a reality that seems abundantly to indicate the opposite.
Hence the necessity of the Matrix, or something like it, for Žižek’s worldview. And hence his approval of anything that unplugs us from the Matrix and returns us to the desert of the real—for instance, the horrors of September 11. One of the ambiguities of Žižek’s recent work lies in his attitude toward the kind of Islamic fundamentalists who perpetrated the attacks. On the one hand, they are clearly reactionary in their religious dogmatism; on the other hand, they have been far more effective than the Zapatistas or the Porto Alegre movement in discomfiting American capitalism. As Žižek observes, “while they pursue what appear to us to be evil goals with evil means, the very form of their activity meets the highest standard of the good.” Yes, the good: Mohammed Atta and his comrades exemplified “good as the spirit of and actual readiness for sacrifice in the name of some higher cause.” Žižek’s dialectic allows him to have it all: the jihadis are not really motivated by religion, as they say they are; they are actually casualties of global capitalism, and thus “objectively” on the left. “The only way to conceive of what happened on September 11,” he writes, “is to locate it in the context of the antagonisms of global capitalism.”
‘Will America finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen that separates it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival in the Real world”? Žižek asked in 2002. The answer was no. Even September 11 did not succeed in robbing the West of its liberal illusions. What remains, then, for the would-be communist? The truly dialectical answer, the kind of answer that Marx would have given, is that the adaptations of capitalism must themselves prove fatally maladaptive. This is the answer that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt gave in their popular neo-Marxist treatises Empire and Multitude: as global capitalism evolves into a kind of disembodied, centerless, virtual reality, it makes labor autonomous and renders capital itself unnecessary. But Žižek, in In Defense of Lost Causes, has no use for Negri’s “heroic attempt to stick to fundamental Marxist coordinates.” When it comes to the heart of the matter, what Žižek wants is not dialectic, but repetition: another Robespierre, another Lenin, another Mao. His “progressivism” is not linear, it is cyclical. And if objective conditions are different from what they were in 1789 or 1917, so much the worse for objective conditions. “True ideas are eternal, they are indestructible, they always return every time they are proclaimed dead,” Žižek writes in his introduction. One of the sections in the book is titled “Give the dictatorship of the proletariat a chance!”
Of course, Žižek knows as well as anyone how many chances it has been given, and what the results have been. In his recent books, therefore, he has begun to articulate a new rationale for revolution, one that acknowledges its destined failure in advance. “Although, in terms of their positive content, the Communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure, generating terror and misery,” he explains, “at the same time they opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations.” He adds elsewhere: “In spite of (or, rather, because of) all its horrors, the Cultural Revolution undoubtedly did contain elements of an enacted utopia.” The crimes denoted not the failure of the utopian experiments, but their success. This utopian dimension is so precious that it is worth any number of human lives. To the tens of millions already lost in Russia, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere, Žižek is prepared to add however many more are required. He endorses the formula of the French radical philosopher Alain Badiou: “mieux vaut un desastre qu’un desetre,” better a disaster than a lack of being.
This ontology of revolution raises some questions. On several occasions, Žižek describes the “utopian” moment of revolution as “divine.” In support of this notion he adduces Walter Benjamin on “divine violence.” “The most obvious candidate for ‘divine violence,’” he writes in Violence, “is the violent explosion of resentment which finds expression in a spectrum that ranges from mob lynchings to revolutionary terror.” It is true that Benjamin did, in his worst moments, endorse revolutionary violence in these terms. But for Benjamin, who had a quasi-mystical temperament, the divine was at least a real metaphysical category: when he said divine, he meant divine. For Žižek, who sometimes employs religious tropes but certainly does not believe in religion, “divine” is just an honorific—a lofty way of justifying his call for human sacrifices.
“In the revolutionary explosion as an Event,” Žižek explains in In Defense of Lost Causes, “another utopian dimension shines through, the dimension of universal emancipation which, precisely, is the excess betrayed by the market reality which takes over ‘the day after’—as such, this excess is not simply abolished, dismissed as irrelevant, but, as it were, transposed into the virtual realm.” But if utopia is destined to remain virtual—if Robespierre is always followed by Bonaparte, and Lenin by Stalin--why should actual lives be sacrificed to it? Would it not be wiser to seek this “dimension,” this “divinity,” bloodlessly, outside politics, by means of the imagination?
But what if it is not the utopia that appeals to Žižek, but the blood and the sacrifice? That is certainly the impression he gives with his strange misreading of Benjamin’s most famous image. In Violence, Žižek cites the passage in Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that was inspired by Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus:
“This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
The moral sublimity of this image, which has made it a touchstone for so many postwar thinkers, lies in Benjamin’s opposition between the violence of history and the ineffectual but tireless witness of the angel. Violence lies in the nature of things, but the angel, who is the always-imminent messiah, resists this nature absolutely: his one desire is to “make whole what has been smashed.” Yet here is Žižek’s response to Benjamin: “And what if divine violence is the wild intervention of this angel?” What if “from time to time he strikes back to restore the balance, to enact a revenge”? Benjamin’s point could not be more completely traduced: if the angel struck back, he would no longer be the angel. He would have gone over to the side of the “progress” that kills.
That is not Benjamin’s side, but it is Žižek’s. And in his recent writings, as the actual—or, in his Heideggerian terminology, the “ontic”—possibility of revolution recedes, its “ontological” importance has increased. No, the Revolution will not bring the millennium. As a historical science, Marxism is false. Divine violence “strikes from out of nowhere, a means without an end.” And yet “one should nevertheless insist that there is no ‘bad courage.’” The courage displayed in the Revolution is its own justification, it is the image of the utopia it cannot achieve. “The urge of the moment is the true utopia.”
Žižek is hardly the only leftist thinker who has believed in the renovating power of violence, but it is hard to think of another one for whom the revolution itself was the acte gratuite. For the revolutionary, Žižek instructs in In Defense of Violence, violence involves “the heroic assumption of the solitude of a sovereign decision.” He becomes the “master” (Žižek’s Hegelian term) because “he is not afraid to die, [he] is ready to risk everything.” True, “democratic materialism furiously rejects” the “infinite universal Truth” that such a figure brings, but that is because “democracy as a rule cannot reach beyond pragmatic utilitarian inertia ... a leader is necessary to trigger the enthusiasm for a Cause.” In sum, “without the Hero, there is no Event”—a formula from a video game that Žižek quotes with approval. He grants that “there is definitely something terrifying about this attitude—however, this terror is nothing less than the condition of freedom.”
There is a name for the politics that glorifies risk, decision, and will; that yearns for the hero, the master, and the leader; that prefers death and the infinite to democracy and the pragmatic; that finds the only true freedom in the terror of violence. Its name is not communism. Its name is fascism, and in his most recent work Žižek has inarguably revealed himself as some sort of fascist. He admits as much in Violence, where he quotes the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk on the “re-emerging Left-Fascist whispering at the borders of academia”—”where, I guess, I belong.” There is no need to guess.
Žižek endorses one after another of the practices and the values of fascism, but he obstinately denies the label. Is “mass choreography displaying disciplined movements of thousands of bodies,” of the kind Leni Riefenstahl loved to photograph, fascist? No, Žižek insists, “it was Nazism that stole” such displays “from the workers’ movement, their original creator.” (He is willfully blind to the old and obvious conclusion that totalitarian form accepts content from the left and the right.) Is there something fascist about what Adorno long ago called the jargon of authenticity—”the notions of decision, repetition, assuming one’s destiny ... mass discipline, sacrifice of the individual for the collective, and so forth”? No, again: “there is nothing ‘inherently fascist’” in all that. Is the cult of martyrdom that surrounds Che Guevara a holdover from the death worship of reactionary Latin American Catholicism, as Paul Berman has argued? Perhaps, Žižek grants, “but—so what?” “To be clear and brutal to the end,” he sums up, “there is a lesson to be learned from Hermann Goering’s reply, in the early 1940s, to a fanatical Nazi who asked him why he protected a well-known Jew from deportation: ‘In this city, I decide who is a Jew!’... In this city, it is we who decide what is left, so we should simply ignore liberal accusations of inconsistency.”
That sentence is a remarkable moment in Žižek’s writing. It stands out even among the many instances in which Žižek, before delivering himself of some monstrous sentiment, warns the reader of the need to be harsh, never to flinch before liberal pieties. In order to defend himself against the charge of proto-fascism, Žižek falls back on Goering’s joke about Jews! This is not just the “adrenalin-fueled” audacity of the bold writer who “dares the reader to disagree.” To produce this quotation in this context is a sign, I think, of something darker. It is a dare to himself to see how far he can go in the direction of indecency, of an obsession that has nothing progressive or revolutionary about it.
It is not surprising that it is the subject of the Jews that calls forth this impulse in Žižek, because the treatment of Jews and Judaism in his work has long been unsettling—and in a different way from his treatment of, say, the United States, which he simply denounces. Žižek’s books are loosely structured and full of digressions, more like monologues than treatises, but for that very reason, his perpetual return to the subject of the Jews functions in his writing the way a similar fixation might function in an analysand’s recital: as a hint of something hidden that requires critical examination.
Typically, the form that Žižek’s remarks on Jews take is that of an exposition of the mentality of the anti-Semite. This is an unimpeachable and rather common forensic device, but somehow it does not quite account for the passionate detail of Žižek’s explorations. Consider, for instance, the passage in The Metastases of Enjoyment in which Žižek, in order to explicate John McCumber’s theory about “the logic of the signifier” in Hegel, writes: “In order to explain this ‘reflexivity,’ let us resort to the logic of anti-Semitism. First, the series of markers that designate real properties are abbreviated-immediated in the marker ‘Jew’: (avaricious, profiteering, plotting, dirty...)—Jew. We then reverse the order and ‘explicate’ the marker ‘Jew’ with the series (avaricious, profiteering, plotting, dirty...)—that is, this series now provides the answer to the question ‘What does “Jew” mean?’” In the ensuing discussion, Žižek goes on to recite this list of “Jewish” adjectives six more times.
It is an odd way to demonstrate a point of linguistic theory. Odd, too, is the passage in Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle where Žižek discusses the ideological function of Nazi anti-Semitism: “one could say that even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews had been true (that they exploited the Germans, that they seduced German girls, and so forth...) their anti-Semitism would still have been (and was) pathological, since it repressed the true reason why the Nazis needed anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position.” Why this need to keep open, as if for the sake of argument, the possibility that the Jews really were guilty of all the things of which the Nazis accused them? Why, when Žižek returns to this same line of reasoning in Violence—”even if rich Jews in the Germany of the 1930s ‘really’ exploited German workers, seduced their daughters,” and so on—are there quotation marks around “really,” as though the truth or the falsehood of Jewish villainy were a question to be postponed until it can be given fuller consideration?
These moments, unpleasant as they are, are not quite expressions of anti-Semitism. But in In Defense of Lost Causes, Žižek does make plain what he might call the “fantasmatic screen” through which he sees Jews. This occurs in his discussion of Man Is Wolf to Man, the Gulag memoir of a Polish Jew named Janusz Bardach. In his book, Žižek writes, Bardach relates that when he was freed from the Kolyma camp but still forced to remain in the region, he took a job in a hospital, where he worked with a doctor on “a desperate method of providing the sick and starving prisoners with some vitamins and nutritious foodstuffs. The camp hospital had too large a stock of human blood for transfusions which it was planning to discard; Bardach reprocessed it, enriched it with vitamins from local herbs, and sold it back to the hospital.” Later, when the hospital objected to this technique, Bardach found a way to do the same thing with deer blood, “and soon developed a successful business.” Here is Žižek’s reaction to this story: “My immediate racist association was, of course: ‘Typical Jews! Even in the worst gulag, the moment they are given a minimum of freedom and space for maneuver, they start trading—in human blood!’”
Now, Žižek is telling this story against himself, as an illustration of the way “racism works as a spontaneous disposition lurking beneath the surface” of all our minds. Still, there is something chilling about that “of course”: his implication is that we all harbor the association of Jews with profiteering and blood-drinking, though we ought to try to suppress it. It is at such a moment that one realizes that for Žižek, born and raised in a city that the Holocaust left almost without Jews (today the official Jewish Community of Slovenia estimates there are four hundred to six hundred Jews in the whole country), Jews are a mere abstraction, objects of fantasy and speculation, that can be forced to play any number of roles in his psychic economy.
In his recent writings, as his concerns have shifted more and more toward the political, the roles reserved for Jews and Judaism have become decidedly more negative. True, Žižek is less straightforwardly hostile to Israel than many European leftists. In his chapter on the subject in Violence, he writes that “everybody knows the only viable solution” to the Middle East stalemate is the two-state solution, with a Jewish state and a Palestinian state side by side. Yet Žižek’s sovereign disdain for fact, along with his imaginative fixation on the Jews, ensures that his portrait of Israel is a malign fantasy.
“In all honesty I have to admit that every time I travel to Israel, I experience that strange thrill of entering a forbidden territory of illegitimate violence,” he declares. “Does this mean I am (not so) secretly an anti-Semite?” (Note the disarming sincerity that expects absolution, and in Žižek’s case usually receives it.) One manifestation of this illegitimate violence, he writes, is that “the Jews, the exemplary victims ... are now considering a radical ‘ethnic cleansing’ (the ‘transfer’—a perfect Orwellian misnomer—of the Palestinians from the West Bank).” In fact, “the Jews” are not considering this at all; the only political party in Israel that did advocate such an obscenity, Meir Kahane’s Kach, was banned from the Knesset for exactly that reason. But such merely empirical considerations cannot be allowed to stand in the way of Žižek’s “dialectical” conclusion. As far back as World War II, he remarks, rehearsing one of the oldest and most pointless “ironies” of modern history, “the Nazis and the radical Zionists shared a common interest.... In both cases, the purpose was a kind of ‘ethnic cleansing.’”
This method of alleviating European guilt by casting “the exemplary victims” of the Holocaust as in some sense the agents of holocaust is far from unknown on the European left. But what is less common, even there, is Žižek’s resurrection of some of the oldest tropes of theological and philosophical anti-Semitism. The key text here is Žižek’s book The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, which appeared in 2000. It addresses “the delicate question of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.”
In Žižek’s telling, that relationship is sickeningly familiar. Invoking Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, Žižek asserts that Judaism harbors a “’stubborn attachment’ ... to the unacknowledged violent founding gesture that haunts the public legal order as its spectral supplement.” Thanks to this Jewish stubbornness, he continues, “the Jews did not give up the ghost; they survived all their ordeals precisely because they refused to give up the ghost.” This vision of Judaism as an undead religion, surviving zombie-like long past the date of its “natural” death, is taken over from Hegel, who writes in the Phenomenology of Mind about the “fatal unholy void” of this “most reprobate and abandoned” religion. This philosophical anti-Judaism, which appears in many modern thinkers, including Kant, is a descendant of the Christian anti-Judaism that created the figure of the Wandering Jew, who also “refused to give up the ghost.”
It makes sense, then, that Žižek should finally cast his anti-Judaism in explicitly theological terms. Why is it that so many of the chief foes of totalitarianism in the second half of the twentieth century were Jews—Arendt, Berlin, Levinas? One might think it is because the Jews were the greatest victims of Nazi totalitarianism, and so had the greatest stake in ensuring that its evil was recognized. But Žižek has another explanation: the Jews are stubbornly rejecting the universal love that expresses itself in revolutionary terror, just as they rejected the love of Christ. “No wonder,” he writes in the introduction to In Defense of Lost Causes, “that those who demand fidelity to the name ‘Jews’ are also those who warn us against the ‘totalitarian’ dangers of any radical emancipatory movement. Their politics consists in accepting the fundamental finitude and limitation of our situation, and the Jewish Law is the ultimate mark of this finitude, which is why, for them, all attempts to overcome Law and tend towards allembracing Love (from Christianity through the French Jacobins to Stalinism) must end up in totalitarian terror.”
Stalinism, in this reading, is the heir to Christianity, and yet another attempt to overcome law with love. Here Žižek is explicating the views of Badiou, to whom the book is dedicated, but it is safe to say that Žižek endorses those views, since precisely the same logic is at work in The Fragile Absolute, where he writes of “the Jewish refusal to assert love for the neighbor outside the confines of the Law,” as against the Christian “endeavor to break the very vicious cycle of Law/sin.” “No wonder,” Žižek says, “that, for those fully identified with the Jewish ‘national substance’ ... the appearance of Christ was a ridiculous and/or traumatic scandal.”
It does not bother Žižek that this hoary dichotomy is built on a foundation of complete ignorance of both Judaism and Christianity. Nothing could be lazier than to recycle the ancient Christian myth of Judaism as a religion of “mere law.” And nothing could be more insulting to Christianity than to reduce it romantically to antinomianism, which has always been a Christian heresy. “Christianity,” Žižek remarks, “is ... a form of anti-wisdom par excellence, a crazy wager on Truth.” But surely it is no part of the Pascalian wager that murdering millions of people will help to win it.
And there is no doubt that this scale of killing is what Žižek looks forward to in the Revolution. “What makes Nazism repulsive,” he writes, “is not the rhetoric of a final solution as such, but the concrete twist it gives to it.” Perhaps there is supposed to be some reassurance for Jews in that sentence; but perhaps not. For in In Defense of Lost Causes, again paraphrasing Badiou, Žižek writes: “To put it succinctly, the only true solution to the ‘Jewish question’ is the ‘final solution’ (their annihilation), because Jews ... are the ultimate obstacle to the ‘final solution’ of History itself, to the overcoming of divisions in all-encompassing unity and flexibility.” I hasten to add that Žižek dissents from Badiou’s vision to this extent: he believes that Jews “resisting identification with the State of Israel,” “the Jews of the Jews themselves,” the “worthy successors to Spinoza,” deserve to be exempted on account of their “fidelity to the Messianic impulse.”
In this way, Žižek’s allegedly progressive thought leads directly into a pit of moral and intellectual squalor. In his New York Times piece against torture, Žižek worried that the normalization of torture as an instrument of state was the first step in “a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone.” This is a good description of Žižek’s own work. Under the cover of comedy and hyperbole, in between allusions to movies and video games, he is engaged in the rehabilitation of many of the most evil ideas of the last century. He is trying to undo the achievement of all the postwar thinkers who taught us to regard totalitarianism, revolutionary terror, utopian violence, and anti-Semitism as inadmissible in serious political discourse. Is Žižek’s audience too busy laughing at him to hear him? I hope so, because the idea that they can hear him without recoiling from him is too dismal, and frightening, to contemplate.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.
This article originally ran in the December 3, 2008, issue of the magazine.