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In defence of Zizek

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In response to a recent article criticising Slavoj Žižek, a reader from Slovenia presents a defence of some of Žižek's ideas and contributions to MarxismI do not feel competent to comment on the question of whether structuralism did damage to Marxism and to revolutionary politics because I do not know the history of this controversy. But, having some facts in mind, I do not see these two currents to be so conflictual in reality. Structuralists are among those rare intellectuals in Slovenia today that are calling for an establishment of a real, revolutionary left party, which I think is also the policy of the League; France, a cradle of structuralism, has been and still is among European countries with most vivid revolutionary activities; not to mention many theoretical parallels between Freud’s psychoanalysis and Marxism, like the ideal of the pursuit of truth regardless of the consequences, or analogy between Marx and Freud as establishers of completely new discourses, as Foucault explained it in his text “Marx and Freud”. Marxism and Lacanian reading of Hegel are also not as apart as Simon presented it. To go back to German idealism through Lacanian reading does not mean going counter Marxism and materialist worldview. It is true that the Real which Žižek or Lacan talk about is metaphysical and nonintelligible. But this does not mean that they are not materialists. The notion of the Real is very similar to Freud’s notion of the Unconscious: it is not accessible to our consciousness, thus it bears a certain metaphysical character. But we do know that it exists, because it has effects and manifestations in reality (Freud was a convinced materialist and proponent of scientific method). Likewise, the Real is not important in itself but due to of its manifestations in reality. Thus, as far as Žižek talks about the Real he is rather concerned about the way how it shapes reality and how it is inscribed in it. The question of whether Žižek is a Stalinist or not is an interesting one. In his later books and interviews he is giving compliments to Stalin, compliments that are usually dressed in a form of a joke. It is not hard to guess that, although he jokes and provokes, he truly feels affection towards Stalinism. In this context, Ian Parker’s assertion that Žižek “pretends to pretend to be a Stalinist” is a redundant observation: Žižek does not hide it, he clearly admits his sympathy to Stalinism (as he puts it in the documentary “Žižek!” which Simon also quotes, “what is not to be taken seriously [about the sarcastic remarks] is the very form of sarcasm”, adding “it’s the form of the joke which masks the effect that I’m serious”). The true question, however, is in what way or to what extent he is a Stalinist. My feeling is that he is not an outright, old-style Stalinist, but there are some features of Stalinism that he deeply appreciates. In his books in the late 1980s (available in Slovenian) he criticized the Communist Party of Yugoslavia for having an essentially Stalinist understanding of history. When the Party gradually launched democratisation reforms after Tito’s death in 1980, the reforms were given an interpretation that they are a historical necessity in the development of self-governing socialism. Žižek, on the other hand, argued that a true escape from this typically Stalinist discourse of history, history as a continuous progress, would be to acknowledge an essential contingency of historical process. To this he added that a real democratisation would be the one without the tutelage of the Party overlooking it and taking care that it does not get out of control. And what does Žižek like about Stalinism? In one interview he said that the only thing he finds sympathetic about Stalinism – although it is not immanent to it – is that Stalin was the only point which really scared the capitalists. He was the only point where they were really afraid. Or, as Žižek put it in some lecture, under Stalin there was no mercy: if you messed up the company, you went to the firing squad. When Žižek says that we should “first think and than act” he is criticizing the kind of liberal humanitarian appeals for immediate action that are strongly present in media today, like in Michael Palin’s travel programmes on BBC where we can hear calls not to think (about the causes of humanitarian disasters), just act, preferably by donating money to charity. Žižek’s critique is in fact limited to this discourse. The proposition of the League to arm those affected by a potential genocide, instead of allowing for an imperialist intervention, is, I believe, an alternative to this liberal discourse, and therefore Žižek’s critique does not apply to it. It is true that Žižek does not give a concrete program or guide of action. I can understand Simon’s frustration in that sense. He does give clues and ideas, though. In a way, Žižek occupies the position of a psychoanalyst in the classical setting of psychoanalytical séance, while his reader can be compared to the position of patient: the psychoanalyst does not determine and is not supposed to determine the meaning of patient’s dreams, to give an answer to his problems and a final solution. It is the patient himself who has to interpret his dreams, through the medium of psychoanalyst. Therein, the “true” interpretation is ultimately the one that he finds true, or better to say, the one that works for him (reveals a part of his unconscious or releases his inhibition and enables him to function better). The psychoanalyst is a prop in the process that has to be carried out by the patient. We are living in an age when and old era has come to an end but something new has not quite emerged yet and it has to be invented in the near future (this is why the prefix post- is so widely used: “post-modernity”, “post-politics” etc). Žižek is not to be dismissed as useless, even less as a Trojan horse, but to be accepted as a companion on this uncertain road ahead of us.