Doug Henwood Interviews Slavoj Zizek
If a character like Slavoj Zizek showed up in a draft version of one of David Lodge's broad satires on academic life, the editor would probably tell him to eliminate it because it was overdrawn. As a permanent fixture of high-toned left journals and academic conference plenaries, Zizek usually seems to be lampooning himself.
If nothing else, his embrace of the terminally self-important and boring Reaganite filmmaker David Lynch should have made him the laughing-stock of the intelligentsia, both professional and organic. Perhaps it was a calculated bid to one-up a French academy that had attached itself to Jerry Lewis.
In "The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime," Zizek solemnly announces that:
"Lenin liked to point out that one could often get crucial insights into one's enemies from the perceptions of intelligent enemies. So, since the present essay attempts a Lacanian reading of David Lynch's 'Lost Highway,' it may be useful to start with a reference to 'post-theory,' the recent cognitivist orientation of cinema studies that establishes its identity by a thorough rejection of Lacanian studies."
Needless to say, with this on page one, a sensible reader would take the first exit off this highway and put the book in the trashcan.
I would instead refer students of film to the review of "Lost Highway" on www.mrcranky.com, a critic with far more sense than the gaseous Zizek:
"If you want some help in understanding this film, think of it as a Mobius strip - which is what Lynch is trying to do to your brain - twist it into a confused mass. Two stories occupy each half of the film. First there's Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) having trouble with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), then there's Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) having trouble with Mr. Eddie's (Robert Loggia) girlfriend, Alice (Patricia Arquette). Explaining any more than that would ruin your sense of utter frustration - and my sense of justice: sometimes knowing others will suffer is my only joy in life."
For reasons having something to do either with the zeitgeist of the post-Cold War era or something they put into the drinking water on certain prestigious college campuses, Zizek has emerged as a kind of standard-bearer for the woozy, academic, post-Marxist left. In the latest issue of "Bad Subjects," there is an interview with Zizek (eserver.org/bs/59/zizek.html) by Doug Henwood, the president of the Slavoj Zizek fan club.
It combines the usual Zizek preoccupations over the dangers of multiculturalism and the undiscovered joys of Lenin, who is to Zizek as some remote and exotic island resort is to a contributor to Travel Magazine. "Have you had a chance to visit St. Lenin lately? The beaches are pristine and the natives so well behaved."
For veteran Zizek-watchers like myself, it was a surprise to see him also take swipes at anarchists and at Noam Chomsky. For Zizek, "the tragedy of anarchism is that you end up having an authoritarian secret society trying to achieve anarchist goals." After reading this, I nearly resolved to change my name to Louis Zero and listen to Rage Against the Machine 12 hours a day.
The hostility to Chomsky is another story altogether. Bad Subjects editor Charlie Bertsch sets the tone for this in the introduction to the interview: " For anyone who has tired of the dumbing down of mainstream political discourse in the West, who finds it hard to believe that the bone-dry American leftism of a Noam Chomsky represents the only possibility for resistance, who wants to critique global capitalism without falling back on faded Marxist slogans, Zizek's work flashes the promise of something better."
Of course, it must be said that the "something better" referred to above must be connected to the sort of success that Zizek enjoys in certain circles. For Bertsch, this very well might have more to do with how many times you appear in New Left Review rather than speaking on Pacifica Radio or at a campus teach-in on the war in Afghanistan:
"It's hard to become a superstar in the world of scholarly publishing. Most of the people who read its products can also write them. To stand out in a crowd this smart requires both luck and perseverance. Slavoj Zizek has demonstrated plenty of both."
Ah, to be a superstar. One would hope that Charlie Bertsch gets a chance to look into Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run" or Norman Podhoretz's "Making It" to find out how it's really done.
Turning to the interview itself, we discover that the big problem with Chomsky is not just that he doesn't know how to connect Lacan to Peewee Herman. Rather it is that he is too preoccupied with "facts". Henwood poses the question to Zizek:
"Chomsky and people like him seem to think that if we just got the facts out there, things would almost take care of themselves. Why is this wrong? Why aren't 'the facts' enough?"
Zizek's reply is extraordinary:
"Let me give you a very naive answer. I think that basically the facts are already known. Let's take Chomsky's analyses of how the CIA intervened in Nicaragua. OK, (he provides) a lot of details, yes, but did I learn anything fundamentally new? It's exactly what I'd expected: the CIA was playing a very dirty game. Of course it's more convincing if you learn the dirty details. But I don't think that we really learned anything dramatically new there. I don't think that merely 'knowing the facts' can really change people's perceptions."
In reality, the big problem has always been the lack of facts in American society on questions such as these. Mostly, what the Central American solidarity movement had to contend with was the immense propaganda campaign against the FMLN in El Salvador and the FSLN in Nicaragua. People like myself joined CISPES or built Tecnica to help counter this disinformation campaign that cost the lives of so many people. When you involve thousands and then millions of people in vast movements opposed to the Vietnam War, the wars in Central America or the wars going on today, much of the effort revolves around getting the truth out. This is what distinguishes Noam Chomsky. It is also what makes Slavoj Zizek such a enormously superfluous figure. When is the last time anybody would pick up a book by Zizek to find out the economic or social reality of a place like Nicaragua or Afghanistan? You might as well read Gayatri Spivak to find out about how to overturn the Taft-Hartley Act.
When Zizek, a Slovenian, finally descends from Mount Olympus to speak about a topic that he presumably has some direct knowledge of, namely Yugoslavia, the results are even more appalling. Contrary to Chomsky who believed that "all parties were more or less to blame" and that "the West supported or incited this explosion because of its own geopolitical goals," Zizek blames the dastardly Serbs. Not only was "it over the moment Milosevic took over Serbia," there is no evidence that the "disintegration of Yugoslavia was supported by the West."
Well, what can one say? Surely, with all the scholarly research on the role of German banks, etc. that has been written by people like the late Sean Gervasi about the breakup of Yugoslavia, one can't blame Zizek for avoiding the facts like a dirty dog avoids a bath. In any case, for all of Zizek's Leninist posturing, the main thing he gets wrong is the need to take a principled stand against NATO military intervention in the country he once called home. In an April 24, 1999 Independent interview, Zizek is quite blunt about what should happen:
"The Slovenians were the first to be attacked by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, in the three-day war of 1990. That conflict revealed the extent of international apathy towards Milosevic's aggressive nationalism, which has culminated in the Kosovan war. Today, Zizek lambasts 'the interminable procrastination' of Western governments and says that 'I definitely support the bombing' of Milosevic's regime by Nato."
Because of statements like this, Lenin decided to start a new movement in 1914. It is singularly obscene that Zizek now holds academic conferences on Lenin. Better he should stick to David Lynch.
Finally on the topic of Lenin himself, Henwood asks Zizek: "What do you find valuable in Lenin, or the Leninist tradition?"
Zizek answers, "What I like in Lenin is precisely what scares people about him - the ruthless will to discard all prejudices."
Just to make clear, Zizek is not referring to opposing imperialist war or supporting the self-determination for oppressed nationalities. He has much bigger fish to fry:
"Let's take the campaign against smoking in the U.S. I think this is a much more suspicious phenomenon than it appears to be. First, deeply inscribed into it is an idea of absolute narcissism, that whenever you are in contact with another person, somehow he or she can infect you. Second, there is an envy of the intense enjoyment of smoking. There is a certain vision of subjectivity, a certain falseness in liberalism, that comes down to 'I want to be left alone by others; I don't want to get too close to the others.'"
Poor Lenin is reduced to a leftist version of Rush Limbaugh, who has also harped upon his right to smoke in restaurants.