Tuesday, 15 October 2013

'Zizek is to Hegel what Fichte was to Kant'. Discuss.

The occasion of the discussion was frustration with the desperate clinging of our left-wing political intelligentsia to the performance art of the celebrity philosopher.

Zizek is never less than confusing so it is always hard to pin down what he believes in precisely, except that he holds to a form of idealism derived from Hegel and appears to propose a revival of either some form of communism or of utopian socialism.

What I was interested in was not so much what he claimed to believe at any one time but what role he was functionally playing in contemporary philosophy. 

I suppose we might summarise my view as suspicion is that he is playing the role of High Priest to a self-defining barbarian tribe who are enemies of the people, the people meaning that population of persons grounded in the business of being in the world, reproducing, having intentions and seeking a better life for themselves rather than fulfilment of some world-historical mission.

We might say that contemporary European philosophy - with its exclusions and obfuscations - stands in relation to the people in much the same way that Grayson Perry (in his first Reith Lecture today) described the art world, in which he is embedded, as a tribe with its own obfuscatory language and exclusions

I posed the question in a Facebook Group and (edited so as not to be too rude about Zizek) this was my side of the exchange though I found no defenders of Zizek.


The implicit thesis is that Zizek is doing to Hegel what Fichte did to Kant. In essence, Fichte took a Kantian position and extended it to meet his own needs. What was a conservative philosophy of 'explanation' became a radical philosophy of 'implied action' for radical intellectuals. The exploitation of the 'master' was manipulative and might be regarded as cynical, in the earlier case, if only Fichte had been subject to a more demanding critique of his purpose. 

It strikes me that Zizek is making use of Hegel (and Marx as leading historic Hegelian) and playing the same game, seducing young radicals of the Left, as Fichte seduced young German nationalists, into what amounts, on closer inspection, to be well constructed sophistic nonsense. Just as young Germans failed to investigate Kant in order to tease out his flaws so young Europeans are failing to investigate Hegel and do the same. They are taking the grounding of Zizek's thought as a 'given'.

Fichte was the destructive force that laid the grounding for national socialism (far more than the oft-accused Nietzsche or Heidegger). My thesis continues that Zizek may now be laying the ground rules for a possible new European tyranny based on a pseudo-rationalism of devastating potential for harm. Both philosophers are providers of what their small markets want - a reason to believe in nonsense (in the sense that Wittgenstein and other analytic philosophers criticised the obfuscations of such grand idealistic concepts such as 'Geist') .

Response to First Two Responses

I could not agree more with my interlocutor on the need to restore the knowing - and perceiving and creating - subject at the core of things. Sartre, raised in the discussion, is a red herring because Sartre tried to do for Heidegger what Fichte did for Kant and Zizek does for Hegel.

These are all examples of quasi-narcissistic politicised intellectuals seeking to transform a system or position where seriously deep thought has been followed through to a conclusion but under conditions where others will want something that meets more immediately political needs in the next generation (whether liberal nationalism, anti-fascism or anti-capitalism). 

It is no accident that Kant, Hegel and Heidegger were conservatives nor that Fichte, Sartre and Zizek are radicals but we should not cut the latter more slack simply because they appear, sentimentally, to be on the side of the angels to many people at key points in history - against Napoleon, against Hitler and against bankers. 

We may have another example in Saul/Paul in relation to Christ. No doubt, even now, someone is preparing to transform Foucault's thought into a politically potent weapon against something to be hated after the current crisis. I thought I might try NGOs!

This process of appropriation requires a perversion of the central insights (right or wrong) of the initiating system. Sartre wanted Heidegger and Husserl's insights to mean something in terms of action, for example, although Heidegger's one early entry into action showed staggering naivete without making his insights into the human condition incorrect. 

The Buddha was lucky in not having such a person appear in his 'next generation' but the nature of 'initiation and succession' in Western culture makes it almost inevitable that this will happen frequently. 

Zizek uses Sartre and other secondary thinkers such as Fichte, but primarily Marx, as tools for his own intellectual ambitions but he does not really seem ever to engage with what it is to be human on the one hand and what is necessary to suppress as human to create a functioning society in any direct or systematic way. 

He quasi-endorses revolutionary violence without, for example, understanding its contingency, its body/mind basis or its social psychology (which is odd for a trained sociologist) - he is perhaps the tragic consequence of the reward given for intellectualism in Western culture.

Zizek is not so much the wisdom of the ourobouros as a Slavic dog chasing its own continental tail. An analogy of Zizekian philosophy with conceptual art and financial engineering springs to mind - a contingent response to highly contingent objective conditions in late capitalism.

Time is always central to understanding the human condition (this much we take from Heidegger) but Zizek seems to see time with no more sophistication than the aforesaid Paul as a form of providential dispensation via an implicit Absolute (somewhere along the line). 

This is as ethically dangerous, the old inevitability illusion of Hegelianism, as, in an entirely different direction, the position of radical utilitarians who would place the planet before humanity - in his case, humanity as an abstract is placed before the person.

Much of this is magical thinking by Zizek. His thinking on the Muslim veil, for example, is simply stupid - what he thinks is thought by people (if I understand those who have tried to explain it to me) is not what people think. 

It is dangerous because it invents, out of the claims about what we are said to think, a puritanical theory of capitalism that holds within it the seeds of a brutal misdirection of social energy towards the repression and suppression of what it is to be human in the world. 

He is, as I say, not so much a monster (he is not) as a breeder of monsters. He enters into a world where no intelligent criticism is made of such untested absurdities as objectification theory (as a point of value statement) or claims about commodification as a process in which persons have no agency. 

The denial of agency to working people in general seems to tell us more about the despair of the massive and potentially unemployable European graduate class than it does about the heroic struggle of ordinary 'folk' to 'be' and 'become' against often extremely difficult odds.

The negative response to the veil in Europe today is not sophisticated but simply represents belief in a direct challenge to an imagined and assumed ownership of a territory. Guests and implicit 'inferiors' are showing they do not care much about 'our' prior ownership of a territory with is organically grown culture.

Worse, those who insist on the veil or support he veil wearers are seen as intending, implicitly, not merely to take their place on 'our' territory but, and this really is galling to the mass, to show no gratitude for our largesse but to seek, as we have done, in their turn, to impose their culture on us by weight of arrogance, belief and numbers - all at some indeterminate time in the future. 

It is a fear of a past being lost in an observable present to a terrifying future. I believe it is explosive and nothing to do with philosophy. It may be a wrong belief and work should perhaps be done 'rationally' to engage with that belief without making prior ideological demands on the believer but it is not entirely irrational to hold it as a belief once you start understanding what it is to be a human in the world.

Zizek is misdirecting here and therefore assisting both in halting the process of rational investigation of a phenomenon and in storing up the tensions thereby an explosion. His acolytes (much as 1848 liberals became 1870 nationalists and then anti-semites), who still speak of liberty and freedom of a sort now, may slowly become monsters of radical centralisation of power, intellectual snobbery and moral censoriousness (in the case of feminist fellow travellers) in their misplaced concern to turn theory into practice. 

Contemporary left-liberalism has become infected with this thinking. Wise 'ordinary' people will watch and may have to remove these people from influence with more force than their nice liberal natures have allowed. 

One drastic solution might be to close down or sharply reduce the university departments that allow them safe haven and perhaps to create existential-national or regional schools of intellectual resistance to future tyrannies that are based on a re-evaluation of both personal agency and pragmatic analysis. 

Austerity perhaps provides us with the opportunity.

Response to two further responses

There is also a connection between individuation and economic prosperity. We should not, I think, underestimate the shift from industrial to post-industrial and then to the 'internet' society. 

We might characterise these developments in simplified terms as a shift from corporatist or progressive bourgeois to narcissistic bourgeois to anarcho-demotic. The narcissists find now that they have more in common with the old corporatists than they do with a population that has a simple enjoyment of Miley Cyrus' cavortings. 

The anarcho-demotic is precisely not New Age (which Zizek clearly loathes and we share this dislike) because it pleasures itself in experience knowing it is experience whereas New Age thought still denies pleasure at its heart by insisting that experience is truth rather than just, well, experience. 

In that sense, Zizek's criticism of New Age thinking is valid. What he cannot do is make the journey into a Nietzschean joy and even tolerance. He cannot just smile at a hippie. He must censure. He has to impose another meaning on the West because he is not alone in not being able to let go of grand meanings and simply live.  

He tries to do this (being Hegelian) through synthesis, attempting to resynthesise progressivism with narcissism in order to repeat the ultimately sterile sociological performance of the Frankfort School but with new clothes. 

Still it is good to see philosophy back in fashion though it is like giving guns to teenagers when the philosophy is the outpourings of slovenian performance art ... Laibach is for ironists and our university departments do not produce ironists.

Response to a response [how Zizek claims to restore thesubject]

Zizek does have a point in trying to restore the subject (philosophically speaking) and he is a corrective to the worst excesses of post-modernism. In that sense, although his is a wrong turning, at least he is trying to move forward but, if he removes the value of history except as that which has happened and is not to be changed, he is in danger of removing responsibility for the future (ethically speaking).

The future is the unknown consequence of blind histories unfolding - in other words, he is in danger of dealing with ethical consequences as no more than a standing away from the situation as an observer, without responsibility except to the latest iteration of 'Geist which is to be taken as read. 

So, crimes in the future are perhaps to be treated as inconsequentially as the crimes of the past. He may not intend this but it is in the logic of the position. I do not think we can simply dismiss the costs of belief and action in the past.

We may sorrowfully understand causes and not share the sentimental transcendental disapproval of American liberalism but there is more to the case than this. 

The appropriation of the murdered by (say) Zionism may leave a bad taste in the mouth but an equal bad taste is left by declining to consider that the deaths were not just the outcome of history and no longer to be considered.

They could have been prevented by any one of a number of events. Contingency returns responsibility to us and the study of history is the study of contingencies that might well have lead to different outcomes. Zizek's world still unfolds as as a 'given' history (giving us the lunacy of the inevitability of the European Project in the hands of other Hegelians or the even dafter inevitability of the spread of Western values). 

There are two responses to this - a pessimistic responsibility mindful of the weight of consequences (the existentialist position) or a simple cynical faux-optimism that all will unfold regardless in a progressive way and regardless of the casualties along the way. 

A responsible pessimism still seeks that margin of the good through wilful engagement and choice but sees the past dead as exemplars of why we must make choices.

They are irrecoverable and certainly must not be inappropriately sanctified as they might be by the sentimental or the political (as with the Shoah) but they are dead past 'persons' of remembered consequence. The Chinese would immediately comprehends this concept of the ancestor as having their due. They are 'hungry ghosts'.

It was persons who were victims of ignorant cruelties. Our remembrance may not help them but it might help ourselves and those who come after. Zizek's position may come to be of the essence of evil, potentially a profound evil infecting our species at its core, one of ignorance.

German Idealism represents the central tenets of evil conduct in successive iterations of ideology - whether communist, fascist and liberal internationalist.

Response to Four More Responses

It is this claimed 'stand for progress' that I find most objectionable ... does the man have a psychological unconscious pre-disposition to seeing the world burn out of narcissistic outrage at its ineluctable complexity and at an 'is-ness' that does not brook the thoughts of intellectuals such as himself as having relevant meaning. 

That may be unfair but reading him on Robespierre certainly gave me the creeps. His utilitarian equivalent may be that dangerous man who writes the justifications for a slaughter of the innocents through analytical reason in order to save 'Gaia' or other species. 

We are back to Nietzsche's awareness of the death instinct amongst intellectuals and 'thinkers'. It is as if a word is constructed as a value (whether it be justice or progress) and then all humanity must bend to the Logos - the originating crime of Christianity out of Platonism, the Form of Forms. 

This is why Nietzsche is heroic - his 'ubermensch' is not a monster but an 'overcoming' of the tyranny of language. 

This overcoming of the tyranny of the word, while permitting seduction by it, is expressed in Heidegger's later Socratic teasing out of the genealogy of particular words in the German, working remorselessly towards a proposal for the pre-linguistic sentiment that enabled the word. 

One may thus be a thinking brute but a brute with no desire to find reasons to murder once language is understood as to its genealogy. Thus, the only Christian worth knowing philosophically is the one who silently gets the 'mysterium tremendum' that is beyond words and which enables all testaments to be thrust aside before the Christ on the Cross. 

Our worst monsters are wordsmiths who drive language to become the aspic in which we are all to be set. This is the word-weaving terrorism of the career intellectual ... I prefer the madman who cried over the beating of a horse.

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