Sunday, 17 July 2011

In Response to Alan Johnson

This Article has been written in response to an Article By Alan Johnson In the Jacobin Magazine found here To understand the context of this post please read this link, if not the post still should make sense.

I have come across Alan Johnsons writings before and his critique of Zizek is typical of this article. What frustrates me immediately is the absence of referencing to all the quotes he uses, as I’d like to see the full context. It is easy to pick something Zizek says and attack his work without fully understanding what he means. 

Alan Johnson is picking and choosing what theories of Lenins he approves of whilst not offering Zizek the same grounds completely dismissing Zizeks works out right; I don’t think that this is acceptable.

If he wishes to be consistent all theoreticians have aspects of work which have many empirical truths in them whether we like it or not. Off the top of my head, take Fukuyama as an example. I completely disagree with his analysis but what he is saying should be understood as a legitimate argument. I do agree that it is important to understand the pit falls particularly in Zizek who does construe jargon throughout his works, but the beauty of jargon is that in many cases is it a puzzle waiting to be unravelled and the nature of jargon is that it often holds different messages for different people. This aspect of theory particularly interests me as opposed to being something that is snobbery, and is thus nothing to be afraid of, and I feel the interjection of it is some of the best writings of Zizek. Take his approach to religion as an example. Although what he does with religion is controversial if an atheist sees no absolute value in religious text, but if it is to be understood as offering ‘value’ then inferences to religion can be suggested, such as; when Jesus died on the cross (Jesus in this instance is the embodiment of god and not Jesus the prophet), that it was no longer the case that people need to pray to god because he is dead. And so it is no longer that we should trust god (as he is dead) but that the death of god meant that god trust us, and so WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR OWN ACTIONS. There is no redemption or forgiveness! As Zizek says “There is no big Other telling you what your duty is... it is up to you to come up with what your duty is.

On democracy thinking that zizek is anti-democracy is wrong in an abstract sense. When he is critiquing democracy as the greatest of all evils he is trying to encourage a debate over the real possibility of society ordering itself in a much more radical manner not yet conceived. Society is often and in this instance all too willing to maintain the way things function, as this is form of democratic organisation is what we know as opposed to approaching the much more difficult task of trying to conceive ‘radical new modes of social production’. In my understanding, if what would form as a result of taking a Zizekian approach would turn out to be a dictatorship suppressing and maiming the world population, then Zizek would see this as “an absolute failure” and far from the message he, somewhat awkwardly, tries to convey.

I would also mention here that I recently read a collaborative book called Democracy in What state?​cracy-State-Directions-Cri​tical-Theory/dp/0231152981 and I would like to write the closing paragraph:

When Rosa Louxembourg wrote that “dictatorship consists in the way in which democracy is used and not in its absolution,” her point was not that democracy is an empty frame that can be used by different political agents (Hitler also came to power through – more or less –free democratic elections), but that there is a “class bias” inscribed into this very empty (procedural) frame. That is why when radical leftists came to power through elections, their signe de reconnaissance is that they move to “change the rules”, to transform not only electoral and other state mechanisms but also the entire logic of the political space (relying directly on the power of the mobilised movements; imposing different forms of local self-organisation; etc.) to guarantee the hegemony of their base, they are guided by the right intuition about the “class bias” of the democratic form.

This is far from the simple assumption that Zizek dismisses democracy.

On Violence I do feel that the Liberal message of peaceful revolution and radical social change whether in the form of a workers democracy or a communist realisation would most necessarily end result in some form of violence. It is ignorant to believe that no violence would occur in the event of such an act. And so it is right of Zizek to contextualise that very possibility and to theoritise over the meaning and outcome of such inevitabilities. If such scenarios where to take place we must not cower over the reality that it was a good message turned bad and so therefore failed from the start but to move on with the understanding that violence is, whether humans like it or not, part and parcel of what it means to be a human. This is not to suggest that systematic violence, such as the atrocities caused by Stalin and Hitler is the same as the violence that occurred during the 1917 Russian revolution, and to jump slightly, it is not the same violence as domestic abuse, violence indeed needs to be contextualised and understood, it is not a topic that we can dismiss or claim not to be an inherent occurrence in the human social edifice!

An article by Zizek article in the same issue of the Jacobin Magazine​er-2011/the-jacobin-spirit​/ is a good accompaniment to this article. 

Whilst I recognise the need for these types of Zizeks works, as Zizek is indeed as this article suggests lurking in the realms of the unknown, a theoretical arena of how to come to terms with the mission to overhaul the current organisms of neo-liberal capitalism, and how to re-appropriate them if the revolution was to occur. I am very aware of the dangers that lurk in zizeks writing, as the task he sees is an empty space where conceptions for a new society, as he puts it, a blank paper have yet to be created and this is a dangerous almost taboo area to be dealing with. So it is only natural for people like Alan Johnson to view Zizek in this misconstrued way, a result of which leads me to conclude that he fails in his, necessary critique.


  1. I think we should be clear that Zizek’s fetishism of revolutionary terror is central to his philosophical program. Simply look at his publications since 2007:
    “Virtue and Terror” (in praise of Robespierre’s divine terror);
    “Terrorism and Communism” (where he applauds Trotsky’s assault upon Kautsky’s sentimental appeal to human rights);
    “On Practice and Contradiction” (where he approves of Mao’s divorcing communism from any and all humanist impetus);
    “In Defense of Lost Causes” (Heidegger’s support for the Nazis was the “right step in the wrong direction” — “…the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough. Nazism was not radical enough, it did not dare to disturb the basic structure of the modern capitalist social space…”; his theoretical aversion to protecting non-combatants in revolutionary situtations: “there are no innocent bystanders in the crucial moments of revolutionary terror…”; his willingness to be anti-democratic: “the trust in democracy… This is the hard kernel of today’s global capitalist universe”; more on Trotsky: “…the figure of Trotsky nonetheless remains crucial inasmuch as it stands for an element which disturbs the alternative ‘either (social-)democratic socialism or Stalinist totalitarianism’: what we find in Trotsky, in his writings and his revolutionary practice in the early years of the Soviet Union, is revolutionary terror, party rule, and so forth, but in a different mode from that of Stalinism. One should thus, in order to remain faithful to Trotsky’s real achievements, dispel the popular myths of a warm democratic Trotsky…”; etc.)
    “Violence” (call to realize the divine virtue of violence, but then ends the book by asserting the truly ‘essential’ violence we must engage in is non-action, resisting the temptation to “do something”; but the idea remains that once a proper theory is constructed that can properly challenge contemporary global capitalism, another sort of mass violence will likely be in the equation)

    “First as Tragedy…” I just finished this book last week. It has all that we’ve come to love about Zizek: crude humor, pschoanalytic paradoxes, ocassionally coherent analyses, and above all a call to move beyond the utopian ideology of “global capitalism as the end of history.” He frames this latter bit in terms of a necessity, which pours fuel on the fire for those of us who see the urgency of creating an alternative (for us, democratic socialism). All of this can be found in Zizek’s earlier work. And like his other writing, such appealing flourishes are in service of his more central program: reinvigorating the ideal of revolutionary terror. this time, it is in the form of a re-committment to communism (which he opposes to socialism): “…a good dose of just that ‘Jacobin-Leninist’ paradigm is precisely what the Left needs today. Now, more than ever, one should insist on what Badiou calls the ‘eternal’ Idea of Communism, or the communist ‘invariants’–the ‘four fundamental concepts’ at work from Plato through the medieval millenarian revolts and on to Jacobinism, Leninism and Maoism: strict egalitarian justice, disciplinary terror, political voluntarism, and trust in the people.” Zizek insists that he is not calling for an assault on democracy as such, but only its limitations in its parliamentary form. His solution to the problem, however, is communism. And his communism is essentially defined by the previously listed four qualities that I think we, as democratic socialists, should reject.

    And regarding whether or not Zizek is a Stalinist: Let’s again be clear, Zizek himself claims that the humorous form of his comments (the shock-factor) actually conceals his seriousness. He’s pretty straight forward about this. See, for example, his comments regarding the portrait of Stalin in his apartment in the film ZIZEK!