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On Zizek's "In Defense of Lost Causes

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Roger Solt, Assistant Director of Debate at the University of Kentucky. 1996. (Anti-Kritik Handbook. p.xxx.)


Not all alienation is necessarily bad; there are values as well as costs in attaining some degree of detachment from one's society. But carried too far, doubt can become debilitating. Proponents of the kritik make the valid point that our language and our discourse, our ideas and our arguments have consequences. But given this, it seems likely that too much kritik, too much skepticism, too much doubt too long sustained can also have consequences of a less than savory sort. At the risk of overusing an example, it still seems clear to me that it was in part the sustained critique of modernity current in Germany in the 1920s which paved the way for Hitler. Of course, World War I, the Treaty of Versailles, and the Great Depression were critical factors as well. But it seems unlikely that Germany would have taken the virulently racist direction it did if the basic framework of Western values had not been cast so severely in doubt. Closer to home, it does not seem unreasonable to suspect that the bombers of the Oklahoma City Federal Building may have taken the kritik of statism a bit too seriously. Is the kritik intended to turn debaters into domestic terrorists? Obviously not. Could it have that effect? Well, hopefully not. But if we take seriously the claim of the kritik's supporters that the actual effects of the words and ideas on those in the round are what matters most, then this does not seem to be a possibility to dismiss out of hand. Debaters typically develop a certain callousing in terms of the arguments they make. Debate is seen fundamentally as a game, so they tend to think that they can make some fairly horrific arguments without their own belief systems being strongly implicated. This is a tendency we sometimes criticized, and perhaps it is an unfortunate one, but if we tear down the screens between our arguments and "the real world," then it is also necessary to consider the real world implications of trying to persuade a judge (and indirectly, yourself and the rounds' other participants) of propositions like "the state should be abolished," "humanism should be rejected," "human welfare is irrelevant in light of the overwhelming importance of the ecosystem," or "human life has no value." Probably each of these positions is defensible, but I highly question the desirability of defending them.






We have declared our independence from the idol of thought that is without foundation and power. We see the end of the philosophy that serves such thought. We are certain that the clear hardness and the sure, steady competence (werkgerechte Sicherheit) of unyielding, simple questioning about the essence of Being are returning. For a volkische Wissenschaft, the courage either to grow or to be destroyed in confrontation with what is (dem Seienden), which is the first form of courage, is the innermost motive for questioning. For courage lures one forward; courage frees itself from what has been up to now; courage risks the unaccustomed and the incalculable. For us, questioning is not the unconstrained play of curiosity. Nor is questioning the stubborn insistence on doubt at any price. For us, questioning means: exposing oneself to the sublimity of things and their laws, it means: not dosing oneself off to the terror of the untamed and to the confusion of darkness. To be sure, it is for the sake of this questioning that we question, and not to serve those who have grown tired and their complacent yearning for comfortable answers. We know: the courage to question, to experience the abysses of existence and to endure the abysses of existence, is in itself already a higher answer than any of the all-too-cheap answers afforded by artificial systems of thought.


And so we, to whom the preservation of our people’s will to know shall in the future be entrusted, declare: The National Socialist revolution is not merely the assumption of power as it exists presently in the State by another party, a party grown sufficiently large in numbers to be able to do so. Rather, this revolution is bringing about the total transformation of our German existence (Dasein). From now, on each and every thing demands decision, and every deed demands responsibility. Of this we are certain; If the will to self-responsibility becomes the law that governs the coexistence of nations, then each people can and must be the master who instructs every other people in the richness and strength of all the great deeds and works of human Being (Sein).


The choice that the German people must now make is, simply as an event in itself, quite independent of the outcome, the strongest expression of the new German reality embodied in he National Socialist State. Our will to national (volfdsch) self-responsibility desires that each people find and preserve the greatness and truth of its destiny (Bestimmung). This will is the highest guarantee of peace among nations, for it binds itself to the basic law of manly respect and unconditional honor. The Fuhrer has awakened this will in the entire people and has welded it into one single resolve. No one can remain away from the polls on the day when this will is manifested.


Heil Hitler!



*Address presented by Heidegger at an election rally held by German universiy professors in Leipzig in support of the plebiscite of November 12, 1933 called by Hitler to sanction (ex post facto) Germany’s withdrawal from The League of Nations. Compiled by Richard Wolin and translated by William S. Lewis. Published in New German Critique, 45, Fall 1988.







...if there are no objections, i'd like to use this thread to type out some of my notes on zizek's new tome as well as explore some of the implications his notion of "emancipatory terror" may have for academic debate. i welcome others to chime in.

Edited by Lazzarone
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beginning at the table of contents, this book seems uniquely suited to policy debate; it's sectioned in three:

I. the state of things

II. lessons from the past

III. what is to be done?

the book's central thesis is this: rather than accept the liberal-democratic consensus, 'we on the left' ought to remain faithful to the "lost cause" of universal emancipation. in theoretical terms, this commits us to dialectic (hegel-marx-lacan). in practical terms, this commits us to egalitarian terror.

zizek offers a simple epistemological criterion for what makes an honest theory honest: a theory tells us why a specified practice failed. / "theory is the theory of a failed practice: 'this is why things went wrong ...'" (3).

he also offers a simple axiological criterion for what makes a revolutionary practice revolutionary: a practice should learn from mistakes and keep on struggling. / "try again. fail again. fail better" (quoting samuel beckett).

the first two sections of the book will diagnose revolutionaries (lenin, stalin, and mao) and intellectuals (heidegger and foucault) alike. we're to subject zizek's analysis here to his own question: is this a convincing theoretical account of where each went wrong? if not, by zizek's own logic, skepticism should overwhelm our reading of his proposed alternative, presented in the last section of the book.


INTRODUCTION: Causa Locuta, Roma Finita


rorty versus zizek on 'ideology-kritik'

although zizek writes that "a desire to draw a clear line of demarcation between sane truthful talk and 'bullshit' cannot be reproduce as truthful talk the predominant ideology" (2), he does seem to distinguish himself from 'french postmodern bullshit'.

rorty wrote in 'contingency, irony solidarity': "i share with habermas the peircelike claim that the only general account to be given of our criteria for truth is one which refers to 'undistorted communication' [i.e. 'no bullshit!'], but i do not think there is much to be said about what counts as 'undistorted' except 'the sort you get when you have democratic political institutions and the conditions for making these institutions function'. [footnote #6:] in contrast, habermas and those who agree with him that ideologiekritik is central to philosophy think that there is quite a lot to say. the question turns on whether one thinks one can give an interesting sense to the word 'ideology' - make it mean more than 'bad idea'"(84).

so, according to rorty, talking about truth may mean committing ourselves to 'no bullshit', but we can't say definitively what bullshit is except by talking it out - thus, what bullshit is relies on the results of the conversation and non-bullshit is effectively what results from free, open exchange. (this is, oddly, a dialectical notion of truth, being defended by an analytically-trained philosopher, against a continental philosopher, who believes in truth with a capital t. so much for the analytical/continental divide. ;)

i believe zizek sides mostly with habermas on this one, though in a twisted fashion. in 'the spectre of ideology', zizek wrote: "An ideology is thus not necessarily ‘false’: as to its positive content, it can be ‘true’, quite accurate, since what really matters is not the asserted content as such, but the way this content is related to the subjective position implied by its own process of enunciation. We are within ideological space proper the moment this content—‘true’ or ‘false’ (if true, so much the better for the ideological effect)—is functional with regard to some relation of social domination (‘power’, ‘exploitation’) in an inherently non-transparent way: the very logic of legitimizing the relation of domination must remain concealed if it is to be effective. In other words, the starting point of the critique of ideology has to be full acknowledgment of the fact that it is easily possible to lie in the guise of truth. When, for example, some Western power intervenes in a Third World country on account of violations of human rights, it may well be ‘true’ that in this country the most elementary human rights were not respected, and that the Western intervention will effectively improve the human rights record; yet such a legitimization none the less remains ‘ideological’ in so far as it fails to mention the true motives of the intervention (economic interests, etc.)" (61).

so, a western power intervening in the third world may effectively improve a given nation's human rights record - that is, in rorty's sense, it'd be a good idea. but even though it's a good idea, it's still ideological, because it legitimizes domination in a self-deceptive way: for instance, it obscures the underlying economic interests at play in a given intervention. here we're able to 'call bullshit' even when presented with a good idea. and this kind of 'distorted communication' is possible notwithstanding democratic institutions (free, open exchanges), thus posing a counter-example to rorty's leveling of 'truth' to 'what democracies produce'.

first question to the group: who is right here - rorty or zizek?

zizek, it should be said, turns the point one notch further than habermas: "what the tradition of Enlightenment dismisses as a mere disturbance of ‘normal’ communication turns out to be its positive condition. … what Habermas perceives as the step out of ideology is denounced here as ideology par excellence. In the Enlightenment tradition, ‘ideology’ stands for the blurred (‘false’) notion of reality caused by various ‘pathological interests (fear of death and of natural causes, power interests, etc.); for discourse analysis, the very notion of an access to reality unbiased by any discursive devices or conjunctions with power is ideological. The ‘zero level’ of ideology consists in (mis)-perceiving a discursive formation as an extra-discursive fact" ('the spectre of ideology', 63-4). ... hence even exclamation of 'no bullshit!' is bullshit, as when a politician says X is 'beyond politics' (which is actually politics at its purest).

ideological differences aside, rorty and zizek would both agree on the narrowness of common sense; they'd agree that hope in emancipatory causes, "from within the space of skeptical wisdom, cannot but appear as crazy" ('in defense of lost causes' 2), or as rorty puts it:

"only if somebody has a dream, and a voice to describe that dream, does what looked like nature begin to look like culture, what looked like fate begin to look like a moral abomination. for until then only the language of the oppressor is available, and most oppressors have had the wit to teach the oppressed a language in which the oppressed will sound crazy - even to themselves - if they describe themselves as oppressed. ... once, for example, it would have sounded crazy to describe homosexual sodomy as a touching expression of devotion..." (tanner lecture).

why the phrase 'language of the oppressor' can't be synonymous with the word 'ideology', i'm not sure.


'properly dialectical' truth

it may help to be reminded that zizek is a self-described "enlightenment guy". he's a 'high modernist' - not a 'postmodernist' - and we can place a great deal of his career under the banner: 'hegel got it right'. his analysis may get complex, and at times arguably convoluted, but he's not a philosopher interested in playing deconstructionist word-games. although he'll give anti-foundationalism its due ("at the level of positive knowledge, it is, of course, never possible to (be sure that we have) attain(ed) the truth - one can only endlessly approach it, because language is ultimately always self-referential, there is no way to draw a definitive line of separation between sophism, sophistic exercises, and Truth itself" (3)), his aim is nevertheless to write something true.

this is zizek's pascalian "wager on truth" (3) - as opposed to pomo-'anything-goes'-ism. it hinges not on "running after 'objective' truth" (that is, not looking for some particular content that would substantiate a universal claim) but "holding onto the truth about the position from which one speaks" (a la 'concrete universality' - see below). this is not, however, vulgar subjectivism - e.g., whatever i say is true is true. it doesn't take the form "i speak the truth" but "the truth itself speaks in/through me" (2). considering its importance, we'll subject this notion of truth to more stress than any other notion in the book.

he contends that marxism and psychoanalysis are the "only two theories" which still "practice such an engaged notion of truth", as they're both "not only theories about struggle, but theories which are themselves engaged in a struggle: their histories do not consist in an accumulation of neutral knowledge, for they are marked by schisms, heresies, expulsions. this is why, in both of them, the relationship between theory and practice is properly dialectical, in other words, that of an irreducible tension" (3).

here's my first line of questioning: doesn't this distinction fail? what history of any theory consists only in "an accumulation of neutral knowledge" un-"marked by schisms"? if we take kuhn seriously, such characterizations apply even to the harder sciences. couldn't we also say of ayn rand's objectivism that it's 'not only a theory about struggle, but a theory which is itself engaged in a struggle'?

ah, but (zizek might retort) objectivism isn't engaged in a struggle *with itself*. marxism and psychoanalysis not only 'conceptually ground' their theories of practice, they also must explain exactly why their practices will fail. since we live in a capitalist society, we're not going to want to hear the truth about ourselves; so presumably, we're going to resist marxist and lacanian theories, no matter how demonstrably true. it follows that these theories not only have to argue against the world (as every theory from darwinism to objectivism does), but also argue with themselves as to why their theories aren't catching on. unlike sciences, they can't simply say 'this is objectively true'. they also must say 'this is why what's true is (or isn't) acknowledged as such'. that's distinctively self-referential. like freud said, psychoanalysis would only be fully possible in a society that would no longer need it. the inverse of this is a society like ours - one that still needs psychoanalysis - is also a society in which psychoanalysis will be necessarily broken. the theory itself must continually re-account for how to fix itself.

i'm not entirely satisfied with this answer (and i have trouble imagining any other). all theories may have good cause to confront why their ideas aren't being put into practice, and it's quite likely that something internal to the theory may be the culprit. but perhaps this means that even objectivism will have to engage in some psychoanalysis. or perhaps the extent to which those who practice a theory perceive their theory's "irreducible tension" qualifies them as acting in a "properly dialectical" way (in line with hegel's 'in-itself/for-itself' distinction). in other words, every theory is dialectical, but marxism and psychoanalysis are the only ones left that admit this. thus, they're engaged in an honest struggle. the uniquely confrontational nature of marxism and psychoanalysis speaks to this as well: they're theories which target our social and personal lives, our ideological investments and unconscious presuppositions. ...i'll drop the matter here, but it does make me wonder if zizek is (in rorty's terms) saying something 'more interesting' than 'marxism and psychoanalysis are the only good ideas left (worth fighting for)'.

zizek gives us another reason why marxism and psychoanalysis display a "profound solidarity" : "in liberal consciousness, the two now emerge as the main 'partners in crime' of the twentieth century". it's implied here that their massive and persistent failures serve to demonstrate they're trying harder than all the rest. on pages 4-6, zizek reviews two recent controversies in each respective field: in marxism, badiou versus the anti-totalitarians; in psychoanalysis, lacanians versus the jews. let's take each in turn.


badiou versus the anti-totalitarians

the second paragraph on page 4. "all kinds of anti-totalitarians" ("defenders of human rights, combatants against 'old leftist paradigms,' from the french nouveaux philosophes to the advocates of a 'second mondernity') have spent decades expounding ("in scholarly treatises, but also in the mass media, to anyone who wanted to listen (and to many who did not)") on "the dangers of totalitarian 'master-thinkers'" like badiou. first it's clear that zizek regards the charge against badiou as not being worthy of direct refutation.

let's spend some time on the conclusion of this paragraph: "our proposal is to turn the perspective around: as badiou himself might put it in his unique platonic way, true ideas are eternal, they are indestructible, they always return every time they are proclaimed dead. it is enough for badiou to state these ideas again clearly, and anti-totalitarian thought appears in all its misery as what it really is, a worthless sophistic exercise, a pseudo-theorization of the lowest opportunist survivalist fears and instincts, a way of thinking which is not only reactionary but also profoundly reactive in nietzsche's sense of the term" (4).

first up, are ideas really "eternal"?... i don't think we have to interpret this word in too strict a sense. obviously, if the universe were destroyed, we wouldn't expect ideas to stick around either. it may be better to read this as 'ideas outlive the individuals who invent them'. given that, we wouldn't expect them to die off within human lifetimes. deleuze and guattari put it wonderfully in 'anti-oedipus', "people are co-opted, not works, which will always come to awake a sleeping youth, and which never cease extending their flame" (133). (cross-reference this with the notion of "literary immortality" rorty borrows from nabokov in 'contingency, irony, solidarity' : "the sense in which one is immortal if one's book will be read forever" (150) ...or, if not 'forever', at least as long as there are book-readers.)

the key question: why would badiou merely stating the persistent nature of ideas automatically reveal the miserable failure of so-called anti-totalitarian thought?

intuitively, because anti-totalitarian thought holds that ideas *can be* destroyed - ideas like totalitarianism. if totalitarian tendencies keep returning after being pronounced dead, then anti-totalitarian thinkers begin to wax philosophical on the question of whether it might be due to an essential attribute of human nature ("some strange ineradicable blindness, or an innate anthropological constant, a tendency to succumb to totalitarian temptation").

this is potentially self-negating: if totalitarian master-thinkers continue to get airplay, then this shows that the only remedy for the problem might be strong measures to quarantine or censor them. so, defending against totalitarian thought can slip into its opposite: defending the need for more social control - i.e. totalitarianism. zizek doesn't make this argument in detail, however; although it may be necessary if his above assertion is to function as more than mere assertion.

this gives us an opportunity to go over an essential concept zizek deploys multiple times without ever really explaining: nietzsche's sense of the word *'reactive'*. deleuze reminds us in 'nietzsche and philosophy' (pages 40-2 and all of chapter 4) that even though reactivity is principally regulatory, mechanical, utilitarian and self-conscious, and activity is principally transformative, creative, dionysian and noble, for all that, reactivity is still an activity, a force - which is to say, limiting an action is still an action. in fact, this is how reactive forces can come to dominate active forces in "the man of ressentiment": reaction ceases to be experienced as an action and comes to be something that's merely felt - hence internalized guilt as a form of social control. and in the case of anti-totalitarian thought, do we not have, according to the picture zizek paints, implicit calls for self-censorship as a noxious form of anti-intellectualism?

zizek appears to pay badiou a compliment by suggesting that "the growing resonance of [his] thought" is one of the "signs which disturb [our] postmodern complacency", but he also appears to suggest that the failure of anti-totalitarian thought to eliminate thinkers like badiou is the real sign. zizek says "what should have been dead, disposed of, thoroughly discredited, is returning with a vengeance". i think this means that since marxism never went away, it couldn't have returned; therefore, the rising popularity of one anti-capitalist philosopher isn't a sign of 'return with a vengeance'. indeed, it may only be an indication of anti-totalitarianism's dependence on active thinkers; deleuze wrote: "we can guess what the creature of ressentiment wants: he wants others to be evil, he needs others to be evil in order to be able to consider himself good ... what bizarre values! they begin by positing the other as evil. he who called himself good is the one who is now called evil. this evil one is the one who acts, who does not hold himself back from acting, who does not therefore consider action from the point of view of the consequences that it will have for third parties. and the one who is good is now the one who holds himself back from acting: he is good just because he refers all actions to the standpoint of the one who does not act, to the standpoint of the one who experiences the consequences, or better still to the more subtle standpoint of a divine third party who scrutinizes the intentions of the one who acts. 'And he is good who does not outrage, who harms nobody, who does not attack, who does not requite, who leaves revenge to god, who keeps himself hidden as we do, who avoids evil and desires little from like, like us, the patient, humble, and just'" (119).

in short: anti-totalitarians need others to be evil so they can consider themselves good.


lacanians versus the jews

"no wonder that those who demand fidelity to the name 'jews' are also those who warn us against the 'totalitarian' dangers of any radical emancipatory movement. their politics consists in accepting the fundamental finitude and limitation of our situation, and the jewish law is the ultimate mark of this finitude, which is why, for them, all attempts to overcome law and tend towards all-embracing love (from chrisianity through the french jacobins to stalinism) must end up in totalitarian terror. to put it succinctly, the only true solution to the 'jewish question' is the 'final solution' (their annihilation), because jews qua objet a are the ultimate obstacle to the 'final solution' of history itself, to the overcoming of divisions in all-encompassing unity..." (5).

this paragraph would be horrible if zizek really believed it. he doesn't. he's giving us an erroneous position to be rejected, and the next two paragraphs tell us why. it's interesting that zizek cites nietzsche's notion of the reactive and then connects "those who warn us against the 'totalitarian' dangers of any radical emancipatory momement" with "those who demand fidelity to the name 'jews'", since this connection immediately calls to mind nietzsche's critique of the judaic priest. deleuze again:

"we know that the nazis had ambiguous relations with nietzsche's work: ambiguous because they liked to appeal to it but could not do so without mutilating quotations, falsifying editions and banning important texts. on the other hand, nietzsche himself did not have ambiguous relations with the bismarkian regime, still less with pan-germanism and anti-semitism. he despised and hated them: 'do not associate with anyone who is implicated in this shameless racial hoax'. and the cri de coeur, 'but, finally, what do you think i feel when the name of zarathustra comes from the mouths of anti-semites!' in order to understand the sense of nietzschean reflections on judaism it must be recalled that the 'jewish question' had become, in the hegelian school, a dialectical theme par exellence. nietzsche takes up the question once again but according to his own method. he asks: how is the priest constituted in the history of the jewish people? under what conditions is he constituted - conditions which will prove decisive for the whole of european history? nothing is more striking than nietzsche's admiration for the kings of israel and the old testament. the jewish problem is the same as the problem of the constitution of the priest in this world of israel: this is the true typological problem. this is why nietzsche is so insistent on the following point: i am the inventor of the psychology of the priest. it is true that there are racial considerations in nietzche. but race only ever intervenes as an element in a cross-breeding, as a factor in a complex which is physiological but also psychological, political, historical and social. such a complex is exactly what nietzsche calls a type. the type of the priest - there is no other problem for nietzsche. and this same jewish people which, at one moment in its history found its conditions of existence in the priest, is today the people to save europe, to protect it from itself by inventing new conditions."

so, contrary to the charges of anti-semitism, we can investigate 'types' without racist stereotyping - these are what macintyre might call 'characters' ('after virtue' 27) though macintyre's concept isn't in any way racial.

the above paragraph parallels zizek's position almost exactly. his actual reply to jews who insist on their particular identity is two-fold. first, the conflict between particularity and universality is internal not external to jewish identity - i.e. part of what it means to be a jew (or anything really) is questioning what it means to be one, and part of being true to one's name is not coming to a final answer. second, exactly for this reason, jews effectively are universal: not only is the jewish struggle over naming "our central struggle today" ('should i try to preserve my particular identity at the expense of identifying with a universal cause?' is something people from all walks of life often ask themselves today), but simply being in the position of asking this question "makes them the immediate embodiment of universality". in other words, the universal character of their name isn't due to any particular content attributable to it (such as "monotheism" or "identification with the state of israel"), but is due to the struggle over their name. that's a universal struggle. and those who wage it most authentically are those "'jews of the jews themselves', worthy successors of spinoza" who risk being called anti-zionist or self-hating because they refuse to submit to the standard (e.g., national) identity. that's why deleuze says jews are "today the people to save europe". that's why this question ('is the name of the One the result of a contingent political struggle, or is it somehow rooted in a more substantial particular identity?') isn't one that only concerns lacanians in france.


hegelian 'concrete universality'

the philosophical template of that question goes deeper than the topic of fidelity to one's name (e.g., those names which designate our religious and ethnic identities; i.e., can one be true to one's name and still be true to the revolution?). it's also reminiscent of very old debates between nominalists and essentialists. we must review another essential concept for zizek, one he'll repeat over and over again: hegel's concept of *'concrete universality'*.

zizek wrote in 'the parallax view': "universality is not the neutral container of particular formations, their common measure, the passive (back)ground on which the particulars fight their battles, but this battle itself, the struggle leading from one particular formation to another" (30). notice how we can plug the name 'jews' into this formula: jewish identity is not the neutral container of particular formations, their common measure, the passive (back)ground on which the particulars fight their battles, but this battle itself, the struggle leading from one particular formation to another.

starting on page 101 of 'the ticklish subject', zizek explains this concept with a brilliant analogy to violin concertos.

"perhaps a reference to music could be of some help here; let us take the concept of a violin concerto - when, in what way, do we treat it as an actual 'concrete universality'? when we do not subdivide it simply into its particular forms (the classical violin concerto, the great romantic concertos from mendelssohn via tchaikovsky to sibelius, etc.), but conceive its 'species' or 'stages' as so many attempts to grasp - to determine, to give a form to, to struggle with - the very universality of the concept. it is already deeply significant that mozart's violin concertos are a bit of a failure (at least measured against his high standards, and compared with his piano concertos) - no wonder his most popular piece for violin and concerto is his

, which is a strange kind of animal (the violin is not yet allowed to assume an autonomous role against the orchestra, so we are dealing with a symphony in a 'concerting' mode, not with a violin concerto proper.

the reason for this probably lies in the fact, emphasized by adorno, that the violin, much more than the piano, is the ultimate musical instrument and expression of subjectivity: a concerto for solo violin, with its interaction between violin and orchestra, thus provides perhaps the ultimate musical endeavor to express what german idealism called the interaction between subject and substance; mozart's failure bears witness to the fact that his universe was not yet that of radical assertion of subjectivity, which occurred only with beethoven. with beethoven's one violin concerto, however, things again became rather problematic: he was accused, not unfairly, of accentuating the main melodic line in the first movement in an excessively repetitive way that borders on musical kitsch - in short, the balance between violin and orchestra, between subject and substance, is already disturbed by the subjective excess. the proper counterpoint to this excess is brahms, which was quite appropriately characterized as the 'concerto against the violin': it is the massive symphonic weight of the orchestra which ultimately engulfs the solo voice of the violin, fighting and squashing its expressive thrust, reducing it to one among the elements of the symphonic texture. perhaps the last link in this development was bartok's 'concerto for orchestra' (that is, only for orchestra, with no single instrument being allowed to stand out as the bearer of a solo voice), a true counterpoint to schumman's 'concert without orchestra' (the most accurate formula of his slide into madness, i.e. into psychotic seclusion gradually bereft of the support in the 'big other', the substantial symbolic order).

what all these examples have in common is that each of them is not just a particular case of the universal concept of 'violin concerto', but a desperate attempt to hammer out a position with regard to the very universality of this concept: each time, this universal concept is 'disturbed' in a specific way - disavowed, turned around, thrown off by the excessive emphasis on one of its poles. in short, there never has been a violin concerto that fully 'realized its concept' (a dialog engendering a productive tension and reconciliation between violin and orchestra, subject and substance): every time some invisible hindrance prevents the concept's fulfillment. (this inherent hindrance preventing the immediate actualization of the concept is another name for the lacanian real.)

here we have an example of hegelian 'concrete universality': a process or a sequence of particular attempts that do not simply exemplify the neutral universal notion but struggle with it, give a specific twist to it - the universal is thus fully engaged in the process of its particular exemplification; that is to say, these particular cases in a way, decide the fate of the universal notion itself."

so, mozart, beethoven, brahms, bartok, and schumman didn't just write violin concertos by following an abstract form; they redefined what violin concertos were/are through a concrete unity.


macintyre = conservative : rorty = liberal : zizek = radical

we can tie the analogy of violin concertos to zizek's notion of dialectical truth, and we can tie that to his commitment to radical politics: it's precisely *"an examination of failures"* that "confronts us with the problem of fidelity: how to redeem the emancipatory potential of these failures through avoiding the twin trap of nostalgic attachment to the past and of all-too-slick accommodation to 'new circumstances'"(3).

mark that phrase: "the twin trap" of nostalgia, on the one hand, and accommodation, on the other.

this is why throughout the course of these notes i'll be comparing zizek's position with two others: macintyre's in 'after virtue' and rorty's in 'contingency, irony, and solidarity'. they're the most intelligent defenders of the alternatives to revolutionary terror - respectively, traditional virtue (or 'nostalgia') and liberal culture (or 'accommodation').

since we might consider 'in defense of lost causes' chiefly a response to rorty-type liberals, it's not too surprising that zizek will more often side with macintyre. in footnote #4, he reminds us, "even if there seems to be no space within the existing constellation for radical emancipatory acts, the leap of faith sets us free for a thoroughly ruthless and open attitude towards all possible strategic alliances: it allows us to break the vicious cycle of left-liberal blackmail ('if you do not vote for us, the right will limit abortion, implement racist legislation ...'), and to profit from old marx's insight into how intelligent conservatives often see more (and are more aware of the antagonisms of the existing order) than liberal progressives" (463).


foucauldian 'specific intellectuals'

the defining feature of the liberal-democratic consensus is the widespread acceptance, even among apparent enemies, that there's no viable alternative to state-capitalism. this is taken to be common-sense. a sign of this, for zizek, is the fact that even the word 'capitalism' is rarely used anymore in public discourse. relatedly, in the academy, "the era of big explanations is over". and there's a bit of unspoken collusion between anti-totalitarianism/'the politics of fear' and 'identity politics'/multiculturalism in this regard.

foucault's 'what is enlightenment?' exemplifies the position zizek rejects: "the historical ontology of ourselves must turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical. In fact we know from experience that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality so as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the return of the most dangerous traditions[,] the programs for a new man that the worst political systems have repeated throughout the twentieth century" (B2).

zizek will say again and again that the crucial problem with (some of) those "programs for a new man" wasn't that they were too "global or radical" but that they weren't global and radical enough, weren't inhuman enough, and failed to go far enough in confronting the system of contemporary reality with programs of a radically new society.

we should revisit zizek's specific response to foucault on pages 100-2 in 'welcome to the desert of the real'. one might say that, largely thanks to foucault, "radical political practice itself is conceived of as an unending process which can destabilize, displace, and so on, the power structure, without ever being able to undermine it effectively - the ultimate goal of radical politics is gradually to displace the limit of social exclusions, empowering the excluded agents (sexual and ethnic minorities) by creating marginal spaces in which they can articulate and question their identity. Radical politics thus becomes an endless mocking parody and provocation, a gradual process of reidentification in which there are no final victories and ultimate demarcations ... Historicist evolutionism leads to endless procrastination; the situation is always too complex; there are always more aspects to be accounted for; our weighing of the pros and cons is never over . . . against this stance, the passage to the act involves a gesture of radical and violent simplification, a cut like that of the proverbial Gordian knot: the magical moment when the infinite pondering crystallized itself into a simple 'yes' or 'no'."

this is why zizek considers foucault's support of iranian revolution 'a right step' (in the wrong direction). we need more intellectuals like the one foucault tried to be, zizek seems to say, and fewer like the one foucault defended being.


the guillotine

we can also trace the guillotine on the cover, a graphic contrast with historicism/reformism/gradualism, to zizek's quoting of chesterton on the same pages in 'welcome...':

"The guillotine has many sins, but to do it justice there is nothing evolutionary about it. The favorite evolutionary argument finds its best answer in the axe. The Evolutionist says, 'Where do you draw the line?' The Revolutionist answers, 'I draw it here: exactly between your head and body.' There must at any given moment be an abstract right or wrong if any blow is to be struck; there must be something eternal if there is to be anything sudden."


full actualization

as opposed to nazi fascism and islamic terrorism, zizek claims that in leninism, stalinism, and maoism "a redemptive moment gets lost in the liberal-democratic rejection - and it is crucial to isolate this moment" (7). the success of the book turns on whether zizek accomplishes the task of isolating these redemptive moments. his alternative is for intellectuals (but not only intellectuals) to take the "leap of faith" that "from within the space of skeptical wisdom, cannot but appear as crazy" (2), that is, "to courageously accept the full actualization of a cause, including the inevitable risk of a catastrophic disaster" (7).

one final concept that's essential. zizek's goal is "to leave behind, with all the violence necessary, what lacan mockingly referred to as the 'narcissism of the lost cause'". this relates to what deleuze calls "the greatest danger" in 'difference and repetition' - that is, the problem of *'the beautiful soul'*.

"does the philosophy of difference not risk appearing as a new version of the beautiful soul? the beautiful soul is one in effect who sees differences everywhere and appeals to them only as respectable, reconcilable or federative differences, while history continues to be made through bloody contradictions. the beautiful soul behaves like a justice of the peace thrown onto the field of battle, one who sees in inexpiable struggles only simple 'differends' and misunderstandings" (64).

"the beautiful soul says: we are different, not opposed" (xx).

this will be the first notion zizek tries to debunk: 'an enemy is someone whose story you have not heard'. he'll take on antonio negri, simon critchley, yannis stavrakakis, ernesto laclau, and alain badiou on exactly this point - they're all, in their own ways, 'beautiful souls' to zizek.

for this and other reasons i'll show how zizek is becoming-deleuzian. this doesn't, of course, mean that he acts like a typical one. to quote levi bryant's great new book, 'difference and givenness' (which essentially refutes the leveling of deleuze to a beautiful soul), "contemporary academic discourses surrounding contintental thought give one the sense that perhaps deleuze's thought amounts to a simple thought experiment that ultimately amounts to nothing more than a set of ideas that one might try out at one's leisure. what is worse, they seem to implicitly suggest a sort of romantic belief in the possibility of achieving an unmediated state of being in which identity and the state would no longer intervene in our desire of will to power" (5).

zizek will say to his fellow leftists, you can't cherry-pick the communist tradition for its fresh fruit while abandoning its poisons - they come from one and the same tree. it's intellectually dishonest to call the good things necessary and the bad things accidental. that's wanting 'revolution without revolution' (to quote robespierre). to everyone else, zizek will say, you can't fence-sit on the question of which one is worse - fascism or communism. they were distinct in their goals, and they're not all 'just murderous ideologies'. communism saved the world from fascism; the question before us remains, can it save the world from capitalism?

zizek doesn't mean terror metaphorically; he's actually defending terrorism - radical, egalitarian, emancipatory violence. and we can see now why this book might've been subtitled, 'how to solve the problem of the beautiful soul'...

It lives in dread of staining the radiance of its inner being by action and existence. And to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from contact with actuality, and steadfastly perseveres in a state of self-willed impotence to renounce a self which is pared away to the last point of abstraction, and to give itself substantial existence, or, in other words, to transform its thought into being, and commit itself to absolute distinction [that between thought and being]. The hollow object, which it produces, now fills it, therefore, with the feeling of emptiness. Its activity consists in yearning, which merely loses itself in becoming an unsubstantial shadowy object, and, rising above this loss and falling back on itself, finds itself merely as lost. In this transparent purity of its moments it becomes a sorrow-laden “beautiful soul”, as it is called; its light dims and dies within it, and it vanishes as a shapeless vapour dissolving into thin air. [...] Now, so far as the spirit which is certain of itself, in the form of a “beautiful soul”, does not possess the strength to relinquish the self-absorbed uncommunicative knowledge of itself, it cannot attain to any identity with the consciousness that is repulsed, and so cannot succeed in seeing the unity of its self in another life, cannot reach objective existence. The identity comes about, therefore, merely in a negative way, as a state of being devoid of spiritual character. The “beautiful soul”, then, has no concrete reality; it subsists in the contradiction between its pure self and the necessity felt by this self to externalize itself and turn into something actual; it exists in the immediacy of this rooted and fixed opposition, an immediacy which alone is the middle term reconciling an opposition which has been intensified to its pure abstraction, and is pure being or empty nothingness. Thus the “beautiful soul”, being conscious of this contradiction in its unreconciled immediacy, is unhinged, disordered, and runs to madness, wastes itself in yearning, and pines away in consumption. Thereby it gives up, as a fact, its stubborn insistence on its own isolated self-existence, but only to bring forth the soulless, spiritless unity of abstract being. -- http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ph/phc2cc.htm


other concepts to review

three concepts i might not get to which may require memory-jogging before delving further into the book -- they are:

ranciere's "part of no part"
kant's "public/private use of reason" (which actually will be explained by zizek in some detail)
austin's "constantive/performative utterance".

Edited by Lazzarone
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: "some people learn from mistakes and don't repeat them; others try to block the memories and just delete them. but I keep 'em as a reminder they not killing me, and I thank God for teaching me humility. son, remember when you fight to be free to see things how they are - and not how you like 'em to be. 'cause even when the world is falling on top of me: pessimism is an emotion, not a philosophy. knowing what's wrong doesn't imply that you right, and it's another when you suffer to apply it in life. but I'm no rookie, and I'm never gonna make the same mistake twice, pussy." Edited by Lazzarone

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forgive for not having read all of your posts and documents you provide in this thread, but why is there an opposition between the Cause and Consensus? Isn't there something like a middle path, that demands Revolution but parses reforms in terms of History?


Something to the effect the progressive project: shift the debate left, build consensus from the middle and right, all the while holding the radical notion that people should be treated fairly.


I take issue with a lot of what Zizek writes, and i think this summarizes it well: Theory is the theory of a failed practice. This is where things went wrong...


-which, i suppose would be true if you are obsessed with totalitarian states that fancy themselves as hegelian; but if your data set is something radically different, say various movements - whether culminating in a transformation of the perceptible or political coordinates themselves - throughout history, a more important question might be: what in this cause isn't lost, how have our predecessors paved the way, and what needs to be done to further our demands?


But maybe my glass is half full and his glass retroactively signifies meaning when the bottom half has been drunk..

Edited by retired

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ranciere's "part of no part"


Cool thread.


Ranciere's Part that has no part:


The dream of liberalism is that politics would vanish. That we would have no need of fundamental political questions, and have only need of policy discussions. The dream of this policy oriented liberalism is a place for everyone and everyone in their place. Ranciere contends that however you add up everyone, there will always be a certain social excess, a remainder that exists beyond the policy recommendations. This can be seen most strikingly in University policies. No one loves diversity like the university, and they are constantly creating new departments like women's studies or africana studies, et cetera. But no sooner does the university believe it has now accounted for everyone, than some new group emerges: here comes the Left-handed Lithuanian Lesbians! This remainder, the group that is not counted, that exists outside of the counting logics of the liberal post-political society is what Ranciere terms the part that has no part. A part of society that is defined by exactly being seen as having no part in society. This is where we get the word proletariat from the Latin proletarius. This meant that group whose only worth was in their ability to produce children. This is as classical an understanding as a part that has no part as you can get.

The most obvious way to solve the remainder might be seen with the Nazi's Final Solution, who took a social excess and sought to finally have everything add up.

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well, the opposition isn't between cause and consensus in the abstract, but between the liberal-democratic consensus and the anti-capitalist cause specifically. zizek considers the "middle path" you suggest no different from the so-called 'third way' - i.e., "shift the debate left [while] build[ing] consensus from the middle and right". (for more on consensus, stay tuned for his reading of laclau's 'on populist reason'.)


zizek will further claim that although disagreement to fukuyama's 'the end of history and the last man' was vast, revolutionary utopian ideas are branded too extreme and confined to the margins, while the majorities of richer nations apparently endorse (however begrudgingly or implicitly) fukuyama's thesis, insofar as they acknowledge the naivete of wishes for an end to capitalism.


by these lights, even foucault was a fukuyaman. many of the movements in your proposed dataset would probably qualify as foucauldian in zizek's sense, because their "ultimate goal" is to "displace the limit of social exclusions, empowering the excluded agents (sexual and ethnic minorities) by creating marginal spaces in which they can articulate and question their identity". this is the gradualist-reformist background zizek seeks to undermine.


one is right to say, however, that the ultimate goal isn't to remain marginal, but to redefine the center - the part with no part can insist on a part; the silenced can take the floor; the excluded can demand admittance. but one has to take into account the floor one takes, the concert one attends, the play in which one plays a part. zizek will agree with deleuze & guattari (and others) that capitalism today operates by 'constant self-revolutionizing': it not only doesn't oppose the revolution parsed out in reforms; it requires it.


that's why "the notion that people should be treated fairly" isn't so "radical". as marx noted, workers can be paid fairly and still be exploited. so for zizek, what's not lost in the seemingly 'lost cause' of radical equality is the dream that we can do better than 'capitalism with a human face'.


"...obsessed with totalitarian states..." - their failure is the reason the argument 'no alternative to capitalism' has won out, and until we investigate how and why they failed to offer a decent alternative, we won't be able to defend a truly emancipatory stance today.


...........................or so saith zizek, lord of misrule.



thanks to james for 'the part of no part'-explanation, and i'll type up half of my notes for the first chapter shortly.

Edited by Lazzarone
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Cool thread.


Ranciere's Part that has no part:


The dream of liberalism is that politics would vanish. That we would have no need of fundamental political questions, and have only need of policy discussions. The dream of this policy oriented liberalism is a place for everyone and everyone in their place. Ranciere contends that however you add up everyone, there will always be a certain social excess, a remainder that exists beyond the policy recommendations. This can be seen most strikingly in University policies. No one loves diversity like the university, and they are constantly creating new departments like women's studies or africana studies, et cetera. But no sooner does the university believe it has now accounted for everyone, than some new group emerges: here comes the Left-handed Lithuanian Lesbians! This remainder, the group that is not counted, that exists outside of the counting logics of the liberal post-political society is what Ranciere terms the part that has no part. A part of society that is defined by exactly being seen as having no part in society. This is where we get the word proletariat from the Latin proletarius. This meant that group whose only worth was in their ability to produce children. This is as classical an understanding as a part that has no part as you can get.

The most obvious way to solve the remainder might be seen with the Nazi's Final Solution, who took a social excess and sought to finally have everything add up.

This is slightly unclear to me. Does this concept designate actual individuals that resist inclusion, a tendency of identity to disintegrate into smaller parts or a structural necessity in society? Or none of the above? To rephrase my question: is excess something one willfully does or something one just happens to be?

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