POLITICS JANUARY 7, 2009
A reply to Slavoj Zizek.
I am happy to hear that some of Slavoj Zizek’s best friends are Jews--though I wonder if any of them have evinced discomfort at remarks like the one I quoted: “Typical Jews! Even in the worst gulag, the moment they are given a minimum of freedom and space for maneuver, they start trading--in human blood!” Or the milder, but perhaps still more bizarre, observation in The Fragile Absolute: “As Jewish children put it when they play gently aggressive games: ‘Please, bite me, but not too hard…’”. (How many Jewish children at play has Zizek observed? Does he believe that all Jewish children everywhere play the same biting game?) Or when he threatens, in In Defense of Lost Causes, apropos of the “obscene pact between anti-Semitic Christian fundamentalists and aggressive Zionists,” that “the Jewish people will pay dearly for such pacts with the devil”?
Still, it is not Zizek’s personal feelings that are significant, but his writing, where he does indeed conscript Jews and Judaism into a fantasy with poisonous roots in theological and philosophical anti-Semitism. This is the fantasy that holds Judaism to be a religion of mere law, stubbornly impeding the millennium of Christian love--whose contemporary incarnation, Zizek believes, is to be found in revolutionary communism. As he writes in The Fragile Absolute: “From this Christian perspective, of course, the Jewish literal obedience to the Law cannot but appear as the ultimate opportunistic manipulation which implies a totally external relationship towards the Law as the set of rules to be tweaked so that one can nevertheless achieve one’s true aim--what bothers Christians is the fact that the Jews do not see the cheap trickery of their procedure, so that when they succeed in having their cake and eating it, in realizing their goal without disobeying the letter of the Law, they do not feel any guilt.” Typically for Zizek, after stating this malignant anti-Jewish stereotype, he performs a dialectical reversal--not by denying that it is true, which would be the decent and accurate response, but by advising Christians to imitate this Jewish inability to feel guilt (“far from being ‘the religion of guilt,’ the Jewish religion precisely enables us to avoid guilt--it is Christianity that manipulates guilt much more effectively”).
Zizek’s most repellent expression of this idea is the one I quoted from In Defense of Lost Causes, where Zizek writes, “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.” Now he says that I have misunderstood his text, that in this passage he is not explicating Alain Badiou (to whom the book is dedicated). I understand that for a man who writes as much as Zizek, it may be hard to keep track of everything one has written; but if he would consult page 5 of In Defense of Lost Causes, he will find that what he actually says is this:
In contrast to this approach, Badiou and others insist on the fidelity to the One which emerges and is constituted through the very political struggle of/for naming and, as such, cannot be grounded in any particular determinate content (such as ethnic or religious roots). From this point of view, fidelity to the name ‘Jews’ is the obverse (the silent recognition) of the defeat of authentic emancipatory struggles. 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 Christianity through the French Jacobins to Stalinism) must end up in totalitarian terror.
The reader can understand, I hope, why I believed that a passage beginning “Badiou and others insist” was meant as a description of the ideas of Badiou. And also why I believe that a morally adequate response to these ideas would not be limited, like Zizek’s, to insisting that “in the history of modern Europe, those who stood for the striving for universality were precisely atheist Jews from Spinoza to Marx and Freud.” The notion that Jews can only redeem themselves from reactionary “finitude” by abjuring “fidelity to the name ‘Jews’” is a standard trope of left-wing anti-Semitism; its source is Marx himself, who wrote in his notorious essay “On the Jewish Question,” “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” In this respect, if in few others, Zizek seems to me a true follower of Marx.
But Zizek’s attitude towards Judaism is not the major problem with his thought, and it was not the main subject of my essay. The major problem is his glorification of totalitarianism and political violence. Now he writes that the best example of what he means by violence is--Gandhi! (Is it not apparent that a man who can only praise the apostle of nonviolence as an agent of violence--indeed, of a violence greater than Hitler’s--is fatally attracted to violence?) But one swallow doesn’t make a spring, and Zizek’s praise of Gandhi does not make him a practitioner of satyagraha.
Only a reader of Zizek’s Violence, in fact, can understand how misleading his letter is. For in that book, Zizek writes that philanthropists like Bill Gates and George Soros--whom he oddly calls “liberal communists”--“are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system as such,” and calls for their murder, using the words of Brecht’s poem “The Interrogation of the Good”: “But in consideration of your merits and good qualities/We shall put you in front a good wall and shoot you/With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you/With a good shovel in the good earth.” Zizek praises as “divine” the “violent explosion of resentment which finds expression in a spectrum that ranges from mob lynchings to organized revolutionary terror.” In fact, the central thesis of Zizek’s Violence is that “to chastise violence outright, to condemn it as ‘bad,’ is an ideological operation par excellence, a mystification which collaborates in rendering invisible the fundamental forms of social violence.” This fits neatly with Zizek’s conclusion in In Defense of Lost Causes, where he defends the Jacobin Terror: “As Saint-Just put it succinctly elsewhere: ‘That which produces the general good is always terrible.’ These words should not be interpreted as a warning against the temptation to violently impose the general good on a society, but, on the contrary, as a bitter truth to be fully endorsed.” “The problem here is not terror as such--our task today is precisely to reinvent emancipatory terror”: that is Zizek’s politics in a sentence.
Why, then, does Zizeknow want to create the impression that he thinks violence is “bad”? It seems to me that his letter continues the pattern of evasion I remarked in his New York Times op-ed and his New York Public Library appearance. In his books, he praises violence and flirts with fascism; in more public venues, he gives the impression that he is just a social democrat in a hurry. Let me conclude, then, by quoting one of the most vivid illustrations of Zizek’s humanitarianism, and of his opinions about the “decency” or otherwise of the United States. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, he discusses “a well-known incident from the Vietnam War: after the US Army occupied a local village, their doctors vaccinated the children on the left arm in order to demonstrate their humanitarian care; when, the day after, the village was retaken by the Vietcong, they cut off the left arms of all the vaccinated children. ... Although it is difficult to sustain as a literal model to follow, this complete rejection of the Enemy precisely in its caring ‘humanitarian’ aspect, no matter what the cost, has to be endorsed in its basic intention.”
At least I agree with Slavoj Zizek about one thing: there are some people with whom debate is neither possible nor, indeed, necessary.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.