Candide vs. Bartelby, Or, An Evening With Slavoj Žižek
Last night I went to the inaugural event for Picador’s new Big Ideas/Small Books series, a discussion between Slavoj Žižek (provocateur, self-proclaimed orthodox Lacanian Stalinist, and the so-called Elvis of cultural theory) and Steven Lukes; NYU professor, husband of Katha Pollitt, and generally unfortunate soul recruited to sit next to Žižek and occasionally try to get a word in edgewise. Because the discussion was loosely about the writers’ new books, Žižek’s Violence and Luke’s Moral Relativism, the talk initially took the form of alternately permitting and then trying to cut short Žižek’s manic digressions on charity, politics and liberal communism before finally settling on the election as a subject worthy of directed conversation.
The starting point between Lukes and Žižek — and what would have made for a really fun argument if it had happened anywhere other than a Barnes & Noble — was the question of morality, and specifically, the politically prescient and philosophically overcooked question that Steven Lukes posited: how can politics happen in a world comprised of many different moral universes?
Steven Lukes’ response to the great postmodern dilemma as interpreted by the NY Observer (sorry):
Moral Relativism is tame and commonsensical. Mr. Lukes, a British professor of sociology at N.Y.U., presents a sober, middle-of-the-road argument about the importance of moral judgment, but he’s unwilling to part with the flexibility of relativism—so what you get is a kind of plastic absolutism that bends and stretches and twists … and ends up sounding pretty much like the “value pluralism” Isaiah Berlin used to peddle.
Of course, while this is a perfectly reasonable argument to make, it wasn’t the reason why I had to stand at the back of the crowd after arriving 30 minutes early. In his response to the question of moral politics, Žižek argued that there are three main kinds of violence: subjective violence — “where we see people actually acting” — such as suicide bombings, political assassination, and war; objective violence — the symbolic and routine violence practiced through language; and systemic violence, the “often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems.” According to Žižek, all of these kinds of violence are inevitably and inextricably bound to ideologies, which, as both he and Lukes agree, still comprise the dominant political paradigm. Critical theorist newsflash: we don’t live in a post-ideological world. In response to these kinds of violence — and here’s why Žižek is considered both radical and radically infuriating — Žižek advocates what he called a kind of “Bartelby politics”, or abstention from politics altogether in the name of dissolving government.
As to be expected, this idea was immediately attacked by both Lukes and the crowd for being both impotent and politically irresponsible, particularly in the context of the US election. When Žižek was asked whether it would be more radically progressive to not vote than to vote for Obama this November, he remarked that while “Obama is changing the terrain about what we can talk about,” like Lula in Brazil or Mbeki in South Africa, there will be political limits to his presidency, “and we will hit them.” Even doing things to prevent other things from happening — what Žižek refers to as “inter-passivity” — is still operating within the mechanics of fundamentally violent systems, and by simply engaging with them, we perpetuate them. Consequently, the so-called “liberal communists,” people like George Soros and Bill Gates, who claim “that we can have the global capitalist cake (thrive as entrepreneurs) and eat it (endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility, ecological concern etc)” are now the true enemies of the progressive struggle. For Žižek, there are no small steps.
But to return to the talk, the question of the election illuminated one of the big problems at the heart of Violence. Žižek believes that to eradicate the ideological systems that manufacture violence is the only way to truly be progressive — drawing, in true Žižekian form, from pop culture and current events as support — but while he claims this project as a political one, in reality, it’s philosophical. If the only politically sound and morally valid position is abstention — or, alternately, the pursuit of Benjaminian divine violence — then for Žižek, politics-as-usual is an indefensible possibility. This, however, is a cop-out. If Žižek purports to be an engaged political philosopher (which is why I would imagine he writes books on Iraq and the former Yugoslavia), he must actually be one, and not simply advance a vision of politics that is too good for the systems we actually have to deal with.
From Simon Critchley’s review of Violence:
At the core of Zizek’s relentless, indeed manic, production of books, articles and lectures is a fantasy, I think: what psychoanalysts would call an obsessional fantasy. On the one hand, the only authentic stance to take in dark times is to do nothing, to refuse all commitment, to be paralysed like Melville’s Bartleby, the true hero of this book and others by Zizek. On the other hand, Zizek dreams of a divine violence, a cataclysmic, purifying violence of the sovereign ethical deed, something like that of Sophocles’ Antigone.
But Shakespearean tragedy is a more illuminating guide here than its ancient Greek predecessor. For Zizek is a Slovenian Hamlet, utterly paralysed but dreaming of an avenging violent act for which, finally, he lacks the courage. In short, behind its shimmering inversions, Zizek’s work leaves us in a fearful and fateful deadlock: the only thing to do is to do nothing. We should just sit and wait. As the great Dane says, “Readiness is all”. But the truth is that Zizek is never ready. His work lingers in endless postponement and over-production. He ridicules others’ attempts at thinking about commitment, resistance and action (we have crossed swords recently) while doing nothing himself. What sustains his work is a dream of divine violence, cruelty and force. I hope that one day his dreams come true.
For what it’s worth, I think I’ll vote.