“The giant of Ljubljana provides the best intellectual high since Anti-Oedipus.” So says the Village Voice about Zizek’s latest, In Defence of Lost Causes, which is almost enough to put one off reading for life (the blurb, that is, not necessarily Zizek). It’s a pretty bad example of theory as fashion accessory, getting you ‘high’ on your own intellectualism, making you feel good about yourself for reading an actual philosopher! It’s even stranger when the inside of the book is one of the most bloodthirsty efforts Zizek has yet written (no doubt under the influence of his ‘best-friend’ Badiou). Do we understand him to be fulfilling the role of the ideological provocateur? Isn’t he cute? He thinks we need to reconsider Stalinism!
Although, anecdotally, I’ve encountered a number of people who were shocked by how misanthropic his recent little Guardian interview was- they were genuinely angered by his nihilistic punnery and its intrusion into their gentle Saturday routine, so his gaucheness probably has some intellectual capital when transplanted into the public forum.
Zizek has always struck me as somewhat akin to an improvising philosopher, rather than a composer of philosophy. He has a certain number of concepts, which he deploys regularly in various different rhythmic permutations over a prolific number of books. The same metaphor appears used to highlight various different points in various different texts across various different years. It’s difficult to consider individual aspects of Zizek’s thought, as it often disappears when you look closely at it, leaving just his structure of dialectical antagonism and anti-intuition. I suppose that's what so much Lacan will do to you.
Anyway, the chapter on Mao has an interesting little passage, which exemplifies the most interesting aspect of the latest book, Zizek’s belated Beckettianism:
“If we analyse [the Cultural Revolution] as an Event, as an enactment of the eternal Idea of egalitarian justice, then […] its catastrophic failure and reversal into the recent capitalist transformation does not exhaust the real of the Cultural Revolution: the eternal Idea of the Cultural revolution survives its defeat in socio-historical reality, it continues to lead an underground spectral life of the ghosts of failed utopias which haunt the future generations, patiently awaiting their next resurrection.”
Zizek does make a convincing case for the historical failure of revolutions to be often locatable in the inability to remake the very core of society after the tumult, to fail to enact the negation of the negation, but in amongst the smorgasbord of philosophical references in the passage above, I worry about this combination of the necessarily-failed project, the Beckett-Derrida axis, and the Idealism, which he seems to get from Badiou. If we, as good materialists, hold to our understanding that there is no horizon of being, no messianic end-point, no ‘eternal Idea’, does that reduce justice to just one arbitrary course of behaviour amongst others? Is there an ethics that doesn’t require some kind of leap-of-faith, granting the ‘other’ properties and privileges that one knows are not actually present, or materially justified? Hmmm…