30 November 2017

Žižek, modern-day Critias


I’ve always been of two minds or more about Slavoj Žižek, because he has a peculiar talent for sounding erudite and occasionally saying things that make sense, but always lacking a certain depth of understanding. He has a particular ‘critical’ frame in which everything must be made to fit and of which he himself is the sole guardian and gatekeeper. There is a reason that it is not the International Journal of Lacanian-Hegelian-Marxian Idealist Studies, but instead Žižek Studies, tells one that one is dealing with, let me put this bluntly, a fetish. I mean, my God, the man’s alive and running his own Ruhnama reading club. So of course he criticises ‘Western Buddhists’ and the cult of pseudo-anti-capitalist motivational reading and ‘awareness’; they’re competing for the same gig.

Reading Žižek often – not always, but often – makes me feel like Charlie Brown running up to kick Lucy’s football. He does hold the football in place, for most of his writing, holding out the hope of a more ‘emancipatory’ political dream that can be realised through critique and examination of various ideological formations, but in the end he pulls the football away. At the end of the day, he’s still the man who, all the while protesting and proclaiming his leftist radicalism, willingly served the nationalist and national-liberal forces that tore apart his own native Yugoslavia, for what turned out to be a neoliberal pittance. He’s still the man who supported Trump, despite knowing (correctly) Trump to be essentially a ‘centrist liberal’ with a façade of risque jokes and cheap populist kabuki theatre. He’s still the man who ragged on us opponents of the Iraq War for doing precisely what he advocates, that is ‘demanding the impossible’. He can’t pass up a chance to look more-radical-than-thou even though many of his public policy positions are dollar store knock-offs of Habermas.

Note the ambiguity and contradictions in his position. He gets to defend himself on the topic of 2016 in one of two ways – or both ways simultaneously. Firstly he can take refuge in the (to my mind, true) claim that between Trump and Clinton, Trump was the one who presented himself more ‘honestly’: not in the sense that he told fewer outright lies, but in the sense that he presented himself as a ‘nonpartisan’ force which in the US has been the traditional ground of independents and political moderates. Secondly, he can take refuge in the opposite, contradictory, heighten-the-contradictions claim, which can also be held as true in a sense, that Trump is actually the ‘radical’ candidate who will shake up the system.

So even though Žižek is saying things that are true, he presents himself to us as a kind of Critias of the Platonic Dialogues. Although I differ slightly from Bernard Suzanne in his punchline on the Critias itself (as well I might, being at best a Christoplatonist rather than, can I say palæoplatonist?), here is what he has to say about the character of Critias as he appears in the Charmides:
Definitions, in the hands of Critias, are like statues of Dædalus, which run away unless you tie them down, and which are used as an example by Socrates to help Meno understand the difference between true opinion, which may be true only by chance, and knowledge, which is tied by dialectical reasoning. By playing sophist with a sophist, Socrates is trying to show us that Critias may be able to recite all the right answers, like a good pupil reciting a lesson, but that he is unable to stand by them, because they are no more than opinions to him, and he will change them as he sees fit to please his interlocutor. You may have the words, but it doesn't mean you have the meaning behind them; you may speak the truth (by chance), but it doesn't mean you understand it.
Žižek does, you will note, much the same thing with his dialectical games. He will give us a great number of theoretical analyses and definitions which are true and which make – at least on the surface – a good deal of sense. (If one leaves aside the contradictions between them, naturally.) He will build up an Atlantean mythology, as Critias does in the Timæus-Critias, which draws us in and appeals to some ‘primal’ urge for emancipation (located, tellingly, in some distant Ur-West of a long-lost, ruined Enlightenment past). But – like any ‘good’ Athenian tyrant – he will always leave himself an escape route with a ship waiting at the docks for the deluge. And the thing is, we let him get away with it because he himself is aware of it. He lets us see the escape routes. Like Trump, he spells it out ‘honestly’.

So we must give Žižek his due. He is a penetrating thinker. He gets very close to the truth. He even speaks the truth – or rather, several different versions of it. (He’s not even averse to acknowledging the radical potentialities of Christianity, which is refreshing in its way, but we’re deluded if we think it means he’s questioning his own religious commitments!) And even though he won’t say as much, he wants us to believe that in merely speaking these truths, he has a certain set of radical bona fides, but he won’t stand behind them. Chomsky, though quite correct to call Žižek to task for his Lacanian recitals, was still being a bit too heavily Chomsky for his own good. That is to say, he ought to have engaged a bit more dialectic, as Socrates did to Critias in the Charmides, to show the emptiness of the ‘theory’ from the inside.

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