Thursday, January 29, 2009
Jews and Cyclists
A long piece by Adam Kirsch on Žižek in The New Republic. It concludes:
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.
Mr. Kirsch quotes my passage “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 is this really a call for even more killing than Hitler afforded? Here is how my text goes on: “Nazism was not radical enough, it did not dare to disturb the basic structure of the modern capitalist social space (which is why it had to invent and focus on destroying an external enemy, Jews). This is why one should oppose the fascination with Hitler according to which Hitler was, of course, a bad guy, responsible for the death of millions – but he definitely had balls, he pursued with iron will what he wanted. ... This point is not only ethically repulsive, but simply wrong: no, Hitler did not ‘have the balls’ to really change things; he did not really act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, i.e., he acted so that nothing would really change, he stages a big spectacle of Revolution so that the capitalist order could survive.”
Kirsch’s reply to the reply:
I am happy to hear that some of Slavoj Žižek’s best friends are Jews – though I wonder if any of them have evinced discomfort at remarks like the one I quoted: “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!” Or the milder, but perhaps still more bizarre, observation in The Fragile Absolute: “As Jewish children put it when they play gently aggressive games: ‘Please, bite me, but not too hard...’”. (How many Jewish children at play has Žižek observed? Does he believe that all Jewish children everywhere play the same biting game?) Or when he threatens, in In Defense of Lost Causes, apropos of the “obscene pact between anti-Semitic Christian fundamentalists and aggressive Zionists,” that “the Jewish people will pay dearly for such pacts with the devil”?
A brief observation. Consider this Communist joke (not recycled from Žižek):
‘The two things wrong with this country are Jews and cyclists.’
Ta-da! You are an anti-Semite. Ask everyone you know if they’re racist and the answer will, I imagine, be no. But ask them, in the form of the Jews and cyclist joke, whether they are unconsciously committed to modes of thought that, on examination, are unpleasant and even repulsive, and the answer is yes. Žižek is a dialectician. He will flip-flop from one position to another. He will, to a straight-laced rationalist, seem queasily interested in seeing things from the perspective of a sadist, a reactionary, an anti-Semite. He believes, Matrix-watching Lacanian that he is, that the truth is always monstrous, that we do not know what we know and that the effort of finding out will almost certainly end in tears. Consequently, I imagine, he would find the Jews and cyclists joke a more useful way of flushing out his friends’ unexamined attitudes than simply asking them, Are you an anti-Semite?
Another example. Kirsch ends on a note of horror as he recounts Žižek’s apparent relish for the tale of American doctors vaccinating Vietnamese children and the Vietcong responding by hacking off the vaccinated limbs. This is barbarism, but Žižek’s reaction is, predictably, to see how our reaction of horror masks what should be our deeper horror at the American presence in Vietnam in the first place. The Americans should not be in Vietnam, vaccinating children or not, and we save our horror until something as abysmal as this happens. That too is horrifying. And Žižek’s failure to give us the emotional payoff of dwelling on Vietcong barbarism is of a piece with his whole method, which, again, is to put all positions, including the more stomach-turning ones, in play, rejecting what we think we know the better to find out what we don’t. This last example reminds me of Le silence de la mer, which I think Žižek mentions somewhere, in which a civilized German soldier turns up in France, attempts to befriend the old French man and his niece, speaks of the fraternity between their civilisations etc. It’s all very touching, on a human level. But on a more immediately necessary level it’s irrelevant, because what the German soldier really needs to do is get lost. There is no barbarism like the barbarism decked out in the fancy dress of civilised values.
‘The two things wrong with this country are Vietcong barbarians and nice doctors who want to vaccinate children.’
‘There are two things wrong with this country are Nazi barbarians and civilised Germans who want to talk about French literature.’
So I am defending Žižek, in other words.