First they called me a joker, now I am a dangerous thinker

by John Holbo on February 2, 2010

To judge from this interview with Zizek in The Times of India, they were right the first time.

How can you dismiss Buddhism so easily? It’s the fastest growing religion in the world.

In the West, Buddhism is the new predominant ideology. Things are so unstable and confusing that with one speculation you can lose billions of dollars in a minute. The only thing that can explain this is Buddhism which says that everything is an appearance. That’s why the Dalai Lama is so popular in Hollywood.

You have also been critical of Gandhi. You have called him violent. Why?

It’s crucial to see violence which is done repeatedly to keep the things the way they are. In that sense, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.

UPDATE: Apparently Zizek was misquoted. At any rate, one person who claims to have been present for the interview says so, and it seems plausible enough.

{ 205 comments }

1

TheSophist 02.02.10 at 5:48 am

I happen to think that Zizek is at least interesting, if rarely right, on many topics, but on Buddhism he’s just incoherent (at best). What was it that somebody said about Derrida – “not even wrong.” On p.27 of”The Monstrosity of Christ” (at least he gets credit for provocative titles!) he mentions the New Age idea that Zen Buddhism cuts straight to the core of spiritual experience, while bypassing any “institutional and dogmatic mediations.” And then, with no explanation whatsoever , we get “The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.”

At which point, trying very hard to be civil, I respond WTF?!

I suppose it could be argued that the unstated warrant for this rather surprising claim is in the quote that JH cites above, but I don’t think that this can be what he means by “the intimacy of spiritual experience.”

He also argues “Buddhism bad” in either Parallax View or Defense of Lost Causes”, largely rehashing arguments that he’d made earlier in (I think) “On Belief”. In those texts, though, I don’t recall him linking Buddhism to Capitalism, but rather making the “Zen doesn’t provide any moral basis for rejecting atrocities” claim. (Which may be true – I’m not claiming expertise here – but doesn’t seem to lead to any basis for preferring Xtianity or Islam over Zen, as both have frequently been read as actually providing a moral ground for atrocities.)

2

Substance McGravitas 02.02.10 at 5:56 am

You have also been critical of Gandhi. You have called him violent.

Know who else was violent? HIT- oh jeez he did that.

3

mike 02.02.10 at 7:47 am

I’m not sure many people in the west can actually comprehend eastern religions, they just fain to do so. Zizek is not saying anything about Buddhism itself, he is only speaking about how it is experienced in the west. I’m not sure he is wrong on that one. A great discussion on the problems of resolving eastern and western philosophies, for people from the west, with a great quote from Jung (on eastern religion in the west): http://www.pandalous.com/topic/resolving_eastern_and

4

ben w 02.02.10 at 7:53 am

Wait, what is this sense in which Gandhi was violent?

5

noen 02.02.10 at 7:59 am

Zizek breaks violence into objective and subjective categories. So Hitler was subjectively violent (violence against persons) where Gandhi was objectively violent because he actually changed political institutions.

Zen is “the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism” because it advocates a detachment from the reality of what you are doing. So that during the day you bankrupt the global financial world and destroy the lives of thousands and then you can go home and meditate yourself free of all guilt.

Zizek “doesn’t seem to lead to any basis for preferring Xtianity or Islam over Zen, as both have frequently been read as actually providing a moral ground for atrocities”

He has referenced Torquemada as a western example of the same idea here. Mainly that in both the East and the West members of the warrior class could engage in the highest spiritual and cultural expressions and then turn around and torture and butcher by the hundreds. Zizek’s point is that their spirituality was exactly what allowed them to keep their psyche intact after a hard day of hacking peasants into little bits.

Today’s multinational corporate CEO is our modern Zen warrior.

6

Hidari 02.02.10 at 8:27 am

Come back Baudrillard, everything is forgiven.

7

Zamfir 02.02.10 at 8:57 am

Today’s multinational corporate CEO is our modern Zen warrior.

It’s a bit strange to claim that CEOs need Zen to do whatever they do, when the far majority of CEOs does not actually use Zen in any way.

8

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.02.10 at 9:01 am

@4: where Gandhi was objectively violent because he actually changed political institutions

That’s not what he’s saying in that interview; it’s the opposite, actually. When asked to elaborate he responds:

Though Gandhi didn’t support killing, his actions helped the British imperialists to stay in India longer. This is something Hitler never wanted. Gandhi didn’t do anything to stop the way the British empire functioned here.
For me, that is a problem.

It sounds like he’s saying that preventing and suppressing a violent reaction against injustice (whatever the means) is itself violence. Which seems like a reasonable proposition.

9

Keir 02.02.10 at 9:38 am

Yeah, Zizek’s got weird beliefs about violence. It is, as the peasant said to the king, about the violence inherent in the system.

(as far as i can tell Zizek is very clever but not very useful.)

10

Keir 02.02.10 at 9:39 am

And whoever is teaching you lot Zen needs to stare at some more walls a while longer.

11

John Meredith 02.02.10 at 9:56 am

“Yeah, Zizek’s got weird beliefs about violence. “

No he hasn’t. He just likes to use the word sometimes in a completely idiosynchratic way to bait opponents. He is a clown, a troll.

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.02.10 at 10:36 am

Well, “paradoxical reversal” is his bread and butter.

13

Hidari 02.02.10 at 10:41 am

‘Though Gandhi didn’t support killing, his actions helped the British imperialists to stay in India longer.’

For what it’s worth, that is not, in actual fact,true.

14

bert 02.02.10 at 11:21 am

Well, it might be arguable, Hidari.
Canada-like status – which would, note, have avoided partition – was on offer from a Labour government as early as the 1920s. Gandhi played a full part in its failure, and thereby played into the hands of imperialists such as Churchill. See here. But that’s me arguing that there might perhaps have been a negotiated path to dominion status. Zizek is arguing instead for his preferred method: a bit of cathartic killing.

Unarguably true:
“I am like a fly that annoys you and provokes you but should not be taken seriously.”

15

Alex 02.02.10 at 11:33 am

Actually, Hitler often said he intended to leave India to the British, at least when he was in a mood to talk about talks. Arguably, his actual policies with regard to France and its empire suggest he might even have done so.

It’s not trolling if you’ve got tenure.

16

Alex 02.02.10 at 11:39 am

come to think of it, one might be forgiven for thinking that somebody whose entire world-view was based on racist imperialism would not be an obvious candidate to end it…

17

Hidari 02.02.10 at 11:46 am

‘Like the rest of the Congress leadership, Gandhi knew that attendance at the London conference would be political suicide. Congressmen would be forced to follow an agenda set by the British and they were certain to return home with far less than they demanded. Moreover, and this galled, Congress would have to sit alongside other ‘representatives’ of India, most notably the princes. They were forthrightly denounced by Gandhi as ‘pawns’ created and used by the British.” (Lawrence James p. 524).’

‘It’s not trolling if you’ve got tenure.’

Translated into Latin, this should probably be the official motto of all Universities.

18

Belle Waring 02.02.10 at 11:50 am

Zizek is a punk troll. bob mcmanus could out-troll him with one hand tied behind his back.

19

bert 02.02.10 at 12:40 pm

Yeah, the link I gave has more along the same lines.
Including scepticism about professed British concern for the untouchables – a big bone of contention with the high-caste representatives of the Congress.
Zizek claims a similar concern in the interview.

As far as the negotiations go, it boils down to two things. Was Labour sincere in its professed sympathy with the oppressed classes? Was it capable of delivering its end of any bargain?
Ramsay MacDonald isn’t a great source of reassurance on either question.
Kind of like Ehud Barak, when you come to think of it.

20

Fr. 02.02.10 at 12:46 pm

How relevant can a comparison between Gandhi’s positions and a systematic, planned process of mass extermination really be?

21

Fr. 02.02.10 at 12:50 pm

(As far as I understand SZ’s dialectic, it seems equivalent in logic to the following proposition: “This orange is really orange. It is more of a vegetable than this carrot.”)

22

alex 02.02.10 at 1:10 pm

But, you see, the thing is, SZ got in the paper, and now we’re talking about him. And at the end of the day, going forward, that really is the only thing that matters. To him, at least. I could expatiate on the truly tragic fact that a lot of people who consider themselves Marxists and soc1alists (and thus fine, upstanding human beings), regard him as a hero/icon, but then I’d just be giving him more consideration than he deserves.

23

Fr. 02.02.10 at 1:19 pm

Well, I am willing to read more than a few lines by Chomsky, but I would never read more than a snippet of SZ. I read his stuff like I read advertisements.

24

niceorimmorally 02.02.10 at 1:27 pm

Zizek should not have right to use thoughts !

25

daelm 02.02.10 at 2:14 pm

@noen

‘Zen is “the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism” because it advocates a detachment from the reality of what you are doing. ‘

ummmm. no it doesn’t. the exact opposite, in fact. zen buddhism – there is no such thing as ‘zen’ – advocates a total immersion in what you’re doing, while at the same time a detachment from using it as a way of burnishing your self-image. which pretty much makes it utterly anti-capitalist, if you accept that one of the engines underlying the captalist programme is everyone’s belief that you are enobled by material accomplishment and accumulation, much like traditional fetish objects are supposed to bestow qualities on you.

the notional separation of ‘zen’ (or ‘meditative accomplishment shorn of any moral context) from ‘buddhism’ is one that was flighted by d.t. suzuki and others in the 1930’s in japan. it served to allow them to argue for japanese exceptionalism and imperial ambition. in this, zizek is correct, but he’s only correct because he’s resting his famous laurels squarely on brian victoria’s work in Zen At War. unfortunately, he’s only resting his ass on it, and that’s obviously been a poor way for him to absorb brian victoria’s work, which covers the aftermath of those attempts and the full re-integration of zen/chan/dhyana into the buddhist moral framework. that framework invalidates “…detachment from the reality of what you are doing” and “…destroy(ing) the lives of thousands and then (going hiome to) meditate yourself free of all guilt.”

if zizek had done any more than browse the new age section of local bookstore, he’d know stuff like this, but he’s a pop-star, so knowing shit isn’t necessary. he’d also know that the american fascination with zen (and with theravada buddhism, which arguably went further than zen) started with the notion of meditation as technique, but avoided the mistake of believing the technique was context-free. both streams of western buddhist practice flowing from these sources have specifically embedded themselves in the moral framework of buddhism.

for some reason people seem to be fascinated by his capacity for juxtaposition, as though juggling cliches and bored mis-assessments – which is all he ever does – were some kind of intellectual event. but honestly, juggling cliches is pretty low-rent way to make a living, as titillating as the article titles it generates are.

d

26

alex 02.02.10 at 2:27 pm

Like I said, dude, like I said…

27

tomslee 02.02.10 at 2:50 pm

Zizek is the Houellebecq of the academy.

28

b9n10t 02.02.10 at 2:54 pm

I just wanna pipe in here and say that the most widely listened to Buddhist (and a Zen Buddhist, at that!) on the left coast is Thich Naht Hanh. His writings and lectures display very antithesis of the spiritualism/activism divide that Zizek tries to leverage into provocation.

29

Bill Gardner 02.02.10 at 3:10 pm

In the West, Buddhism is the new predominant ideology.

Zizek has an important point here. I have often felt sympathy for the Christians here in America, imagining how they must feel in a culture so saturated in Buddhism. Especially, think of how sad their children must feel on Losar, when the dakinis come to all the other houses to deliver treats. Or, for adults, the inconvenience when work stops for the solemnities of Bodhi Day, and their need to tolerate the ubiquitous images of mythical characters like Avalokiteshvara on his supposed birthday.

30

James Conran 02.02.10 at 3:11 pm

Aw, come on, I enjoy Zizek. He’s an indulgence and prone to bullshit. But he also has frequent nice and true apercus and is very funny. His bullshit is dressed in the sweet perfume of pop references and elaborate jokes rather than the impenetrable verbiage of, say, Baudrillard. I suppose it depends what you’re looking for from him – serious philosophy or light entertainment.

On Buddhism, I (perhaps like Z) know virutally nothing about it but Zizek’s basic point is that in transcendental Buddhism as in capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air”.

31

TheSophist 02.02.10 at 3:21 pm

Thanks to Daelm ; your comment is what I was hoping to learn from this thread – exactly where SZ’s analysis of Buddhism falls short. I’m reminded of Sarah Kay’s comment on his early forays into Christian theology – something along the lines of “Zizek writes on theology without showing any signs of having read any.”

But – a qualified defense of SZ: I’ve seen High School students become attracted to the larger world of “theory” through Zizek. You don’t have to buy the totality of his edifice to see that he’s on to something with his analyses of (eg) Capitalism and Ideology. This can be a scales-falling-from-the-eyes experience for teens, and can allow the teacher/mentor to lead them to the other theorists that make similar points in more rigorous ways. (And before anyone points out that I’m clearly talking about smarter-than-the average -bear students, I’ll absolutely concede that point.)

And lastly, even given that he’s wrong in a number of very important ways about Zen Buddhism, I’ll contend that there is some value (again, especially for younger students) in at lest broaching the idea that a meditative process can have geo-political implications.

32

alex 02.02.10 at 3:37 pm

@31 – getting students to appeciate the handling of ‘theory’ by exposure to SZ [rather than, perhaps, S/Z? Hohoho…] is surely akin to putting GTA IV on a drivers’ ed. syllabus…

33

DivGuy 02.02.10 at 3:41 pm

One thing that was always weird to me about Zizek is that whenever he starts talking about Asian religion, he starts spewing the exact same shit that colonialist scholars did in the 19th century – “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” lack ethics and are entirely world-denying. You see similar problems in his writings on Paul with the characterization of Judaism – and Badiou is even worse on this.

There may be an underlying philosophical point that has some sort of merit, but for a religion scholar reading Zizek on anything but Christianity is like travelling a century back in time. (Zizek’s semi-Christian theology is reasonably interesting.)

34

DivGuy 02.02.10 at 3:42 pm

On Buddhism, I (perhaps like Z) know virutally nothing about it but Zizek’s basic point is that in transcendental Buddhism as in capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air”.

Zizek is very clear on this point. No one is misunderstanding him.

The issue is, he’s wrong, and he’s repeating vicious mischaracterizations which have a long history in colonialist and racist literatures.

35

DivGuy 02.02.10 at 3:44 pm

(On Zizek and Judaism, he returns to the same crap about Judaism as a “legalistic” religion that needs a notion of the transcendent, which he links to “the event” of the crucifixion. Then he draws an equation between Greco-Roman religion and Hinduism. It’d be embarrassing if it weren’t so pernicious.)

36

Hidari 02.02.10 at 3:53 pm

‘he’s resting his famous laurels squarely on brian victoria’s work in Zen At War. unfortunately, he’s only resting his ass on it, and that’s obviously been a poor way for him to absorb brian victoria’s work…’

‘One thing that was always weird to me about Zizek is that whenever he starts talking about Asian religion, he starts spewing the exact same shit that colonialist scholars did in the 19th century – “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” lack ethics and are entirely world-denying. ‘

Another person who has become a world expert on the entire Buddhist tradition by skimming through Zen at War in Waterstone’s is Christopher Hitchens.

http://www.slate.com/id/2241080/

The fact that Zizek and Hitchens seem to be ‘at one’ here (almost in a Buddhist stylee) does not make me think more highly of Zizek’s view of Buddhism or capitalism.

37

Platonist 02.02.10 at 3:54 pm

Dog pile, meet circle jerk.

38

alex 02.02.10 at 4:16 pm

OK, now I think it’s time for someone to defend him, I haven’t kicked a puppy for simply ages…

39

Treilhard 02.02.10 at 4:26 pm

Not a defense exactly, but one of the comments from the Edit Room:

I read this interview on Sunday and I am sorry to report that the journalist has taken some serious liberties with Zizek’s responses. I can say this because I was present for the interview. While I understand the constraints of newspaper journalism and their problems with space, the journalist has here presented Zizek’s answers in such a way that they seem arbitrary and silly. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but I want to clarify that this was not the case. Zizek, though controversial and provocative, gave a detailed response to each question, explaining all his comments, contextualizing them. More importantly, if memory serves me right, the answer about Gandhi and Hitler has been completely misquoted. Zizek said, (at more than one event in New Delhi) the exact opposite of what this report has printed. He DID NOT say “his actions helped the British imperialists to stay in India longer. This is something Hitler never wanted. Gandhi didn’t do anything to stop the way the British empire functioned here,” he in fact said the opposite, that the paradigm shift that Gandhi wanted required an inherent violence. I don’t agree with what Zizek said, but in any case, it was not what has been reported. I am deeply disappointed with the way this interview has been manipulated and printed.

http://blogs.widescreenjournal.org/?p=1757

40

Lemuel Pitkin 02.02.10 at 4:27 pm

Zizek is the Houellebecq of the academy.

Including the part where his first book really was genuinely original and even kind of brilliant, before he started writing parodies of himself?

41

Treilhard 02.02.10 at 4:32 pm

I didn’t realize it, but the above is actually from Kuhu Tanvir, one of the editors of the WSJ (and not just some “commenter”).

42

Platonist 02.02.10 at 4:33 pm

@39

“Including the part where his first book really was genuinely original and even kind of brilliant, before he started writing parodies of himself?”

You can’t mean Extension of the Field of Struggle (translated as Whatever)–it was an uninspired rehashing of The Stranger.

Elementary Particles was really fascinating, though.

43

bianca steele 02.02.10 at 4:34 pm

If Zizek was worth engaging with, we would see engagement with his ideas and what he says, instead of the blanket dismissal which is what we do see. In fifty years he will be forgotten.

At best, he shows that academics, too, can be amusing, who talk an awful lot like your uncle who smoked a little too much back in the day. (Any guesses about what he’s referring to with “violence that is done repeatedly”?)

I might guess that, among the people who don’t see anything wrong with getting your knowledge about Buddhism from the New Age shelf at the airport bookshop, he is assumed to be satirizing others who “probably” think Christianity really is a monstrosity. How could a civilized nation like France give tenure to someone who really thought that. No, there’s nothing wrong with “us,” it’s all because of infection from Buddhism usw.

44

daelm 02.02.10 at 4:37 pm

and the winner is……number 29.

congratulations go to Bill Gardner who has won the thread.

45

noen 02.02.10 at 5:03 pm

I wasn’t defending him Alex, I was just giving my understanding as best I could. I’m just a lay person trying to understand a few things and sort of kinda sometimes agree with Zizek when I imagine that I understand him. Zizek is my gateway drug.

But I stand by what I originally said. Zizek’s conception of violence is taken from Walter Benjamin. Here is Zizek’s reply to this question:

Here is how my text goes on: ‘Nazism was not radical enough, it did not dare to disturb the basic structure of the modern capitalist social space (which is why it had to invent and focus on destroying an external enemy, Jews). This is why one should oppose the fascination with Hitler according to which Hitler was, of course, a bad guy, responsible for the death of millions–but he definitely had balls, he pursued with iron will what he wanted. … This point is not only ethically repulsive, but simply wrong: no, Hitler did not ‘have the balls’ to really change things; he did not really act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, i.e., he acted so that nothing would really change, he stages a big spectacle of Revolution so that the capitalist order could survive.’

In this precise sense of violence, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler: Gandhi’s movement effectively endeavored to interrupt the basic functioning of the British colonial state.”

About Zen
“ummmm. no it doesn’t. the exact opposite, in fact. zen buddhism – there is no such thing as ‘zen’ – advocates a total immersion in what you’re doing, while at the same time a detachment from using it as a way of burnishing your self-image.”

That may be the correct Buddhist dogma, I don’t know, but I doubt that most people’s casual understanding is so deep. For many people outward forms of religiosity can serve as an emotional buffer between what you imagine you are doing, good works, versus what you are actually doing, keeping the machine well greased.

46

jacob 02.02.10 at 5:05 pm

I hesitate to contribute, now that a thread winner has (correctly) been declared. Nonetheless, I want to offer a qualified defense of the Gandhi point, made without reference to the actual truth value of his historical claims about Gandhi.

I have long been troubled by the way we draw boundaries around the concept of violence. We include political activities that attack only property, but exclude the systemic deaths and maimings of industrial accidents. We include the political and apolitical crime that resist capitalism. but exclude the misery that capitalism creates. I’m not expressing it well here, I don’t think–sorry–but the point is that our definition of violence inherently supports the status quo.

If, in some utilitarian accounting, Gandhi’s supposed prolongation of British colonialism could be shown to have preserved more of this silent, systemic violence for longer than Hitler created explicit, overt violence, perhaps Zizek has a point. Of course, as I say, this defense is offered entirely irrespectively of whether or not Gandhi did prolong the Empire, which I find doubtful.

47

Treilhard 02.02.10 at 5:10 pm

Not a defense exactly, but from Kuhu Tanvir:

“I read this interview on Sunday and I am sorry to report that the journalist has taken some serious liberties with Zizek’s responses. I can say this because I was present for the interview. While I understand the constraints of newspaper journalism and their problems with space, the journalist has here presented Zizek’s answers in such a way that they seem arbitrary and silly. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but I want to clarify that this was not the case. Zizek, though controversial and provocative, gave a detailed response to each question, explaining all his comments, contextualizing them. More importantly, if memory serves me right, the answer about Gandhi and Hitler has been completely misquoted. Zizek said, (at more than one event in New Delhi) the exact opposite of what this report has printed. He DID NOT say “his actions helped the British imperialists to stay in India longer. This is something Hitler never wanted. Gandhi didn’t do anything to stop the way the British empire functioned here,” he in fact said the opposite, that the paradigm shift that Gandhi wanted required an inherent violence. I don’t agree with what Zizek said, but in any case, it was not what has been reported. I am deeply disappointed with the way this interview has been manipulated and printed.”

http://blogs.widescreenjournal.org/?p=1757

48

bob mcmanus 02.02.10 at 5:13 pm

“I am deeply disappointed with the way this interview has been manipulated and printed.”

Me too, though I am used to it and even grown to expect it.

49

TheSophist 02.02.10 at 5:23 pm

Maybe here’s a little of the defense that Alex was asking for…

Bianca Steele states that we see blanket dismissal of Zizek’s ideas. That’s certainly true in the context of this thread; I don’t think there’s much disagreement that, as (inter alia) DivGuy and daelm have pointed out, Zizek is badly out to lunch on Buddhism.

But the engagement with Zizek’s ideas takes place in other areas of his corpus. Sarah Kay, Jodi Dean, and Adrian Johnston have all written books on Zizek which engage sympathetically, but by no means uncritically, with what I’ll contend are the important ideas in his work. I realize that a (somewhat) Lacanian critique of Capitalism doesn’t originate with Zizek (and certainly requires denying Chomsky’s claim that Lacan is nothing more than a charlatan), but it does seem to me to be useful. (Useful, in this instance meaning “having explicative power.” Similarly, I find myself sufficiently unsettled by his claim that whining about the evils of capitalism is what we do in order to avoid taking responsibility for actually confronting it, to think that that argument might have something to it.

If we were to judge every thinker by his/her weakest work, the pantheon would get pretty bare pretty fast. (The next question at this point, of course, is whether the weakest/worst work can be jettisoned from the corpus or (see Heidegger, Martin) whether it’s an intrinsic part of the whole (Zizek on Heidegger in Lost Causes, was, I thought, rather good, by the way), and it seems to me that everything that Zizek says on Buddhism can be safely ignored without creating tension with his other work.

50

TheSophist 02.02.10 at 5:28 pm

Hmm…if I’m not smart enough to nest parentheses properly, maybe I shouldn’t be commenting on Zizek. There should be a closing parenthesis after “power” in para 2 above and another at the end of para 3.

51

noen 02.02.10 at 5:32 pm

“our definition of violence inherently supports the status quo.”

And if the status quo demands a certain level of both subjective and institutional violence would supporting that also be a kind of violence?

The truth value of whether or not Gandhi did prolong the Empire isn’t really what Zizek is referring to. His comment goes to Gandhi’s intent, which was to interrupt the smooth functioning of the British empire. Gandhi acted where Hitler merely reacted. Seems pretty straight forward to me.

52

Adam Kotsko 02.02.10 at 5:47 pm

When I read this interview, I was confused, because Zizek seemed to be saying the opposite of what he would normally say. The claim that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler because he was proposing a radical change in the social structure makes sense in terms of Zizek’s philosophy. The claim that Gandhi was keeping the British in power, etc., made no sense in terms of his philosophy or in terms of anything. Now we learn that he was brutally misquoted and that what he said was in fact the thing that would make sense in terms of his philosophy. I think that this is sufficient grounds to discuss his actual philosophy instead of continuing to pillory him for something that he did not actually say.

Incidentally, I agree that his treatment of Buddhism is unconvincing and say so in my book — available wherever fine academic books are sold. I suspect that he gets his Buddhism through Hegel, just as he basically gets his Christianity through Hegel. In the case of Christianity, this arguably leads to something interesting; in the case of Buddhism, not so much. As I write in an article, I do think that his treatment of Judaism is more interesting and less generic than most people assume, but I do see how it’s less than totally clear (Badiou’s position actually does rehash traditional anti-Jewish themes in my view).

53

Substance McGravitas 02.02.10 at 5:57 pm

The claim that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler because he was proposing a radical change in the social structure makes sense in terms of Zizek’s philosophy.

Not on Earth though.

54

Treilhard 02.02.10 at 6:45 pm

For alex and the other puppy kickers, I think that the way in which Zizek uses “Buddhism” is going to disappoint anyone who is looking for a well-researched history of various Buddhist traditions, their teachings, or a comparative of their ethics. Instead, Z seems to be following a long tradition of the so-called continental theorists who, from Kant & Hegel to Deleuze & Critchley use “Buddhism” as a kind of shorthand for some idiosyncratic Western perspective (passive nihilism in the face of religious disappointment, for Critchley e.g.).

Maybe people are right to point out the dangers of throwing around colonialist jingoisms like “all that is solid melts into air”, but I don’t think that it should warrant a complete dismissal of Z’s thoughts on violence and social order.

55

democracy_grenade 02.02.10 at 6:54 pm

Not on Earth though.

This depends entirely on whether one is willing to allow Zizek his peculiar definition of the term “violence” (or at least the “additional” and non-standard definition of that term). I believe that Zizek defends this usage (indirectly and implicitly) by arguing that his writing benefits from an excessive or provocative register because this makes his formulations harder to co-opt (I’m trying to turn up an exact quotation on this and failing). In that sense, at least, he is a troll or a self-publicist or a jester or whatever. But, simultaneously, Zizek is clearly on to something: what he says about Hitler (quoted @ 44) is really on the money, I think. Even if it is basically cultural criticism rather than political philosophy.

56

rea 02.02.10 at 7:41 pm

First they called me a joker, now I am the Gangster of Love . . .

57

dsquared 02.02.10 at 7:48 pm

colonialist jingoisms like “all that is solid melts into air”

? That’s a quote from Karl Marx!

58

matt 02.02.10 at 7:49 pm

What did Kant ever say about Buddism?

59

nmlo 02.02.10 at 8:04 pm

“from Kant & Hegel to Deleuze & Critchley use “Buddhism” as a kind of shorthand for some idiosyncratic Western perspective “

Kant and Hegel see Buddhism as Western? That would be…odd.

I thought Zizek must be entirely joking in this article because what he says *is* funny. It is absurdly wrong and so over the top–most dangerous philosopher in the West! Gunfight at the OK corral! But now that I read these comments I am wondering if it is possible for him to make a joke at this point in his career.

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Adam Kotsko 02.02.10 at 8:05 pm

52: Fair enough. All I’m doing is reprising my long-time internautical role of making sure that people who are disagreeing with Zizek are actually disagreeing with Zizek rather than some imagined complex of ideas they have decided to call “Zizek.” It’s a thankless and herculean task — indeed, I’m not sure that I’ve actually gotten to the point of discussing Zizek’s ideas directly in internet forums, much less (as people constantly think I’m doing) defending them — which is why I don’t do it very much anymore.

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Hidari 02.02.10 at 9:14 pm

If this thread has achieved nothing else, it has at least planted the seed for a new internet ‘phrase’:

Puppy Kicking.

Which hopefully will replace the tiresome ‘to Fisk’. At least amongst puppy kickers. Of which I am proud to be one, in this particular context, at least.

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gmoke 02.02.10 at 9:42 pm

The basis of Gandhi’s method was an attempt to “live in truth.” He would not do anything that he felt was violent even if it meant taking much more time in the struggle for freedom. He retreated many times in order to regain his center in truth. He also theorized an economic system based upon truth and non-violence, non-exploitation for all (the notes from my readings on Gandhian economics, a very interesting subject, are available at globalswadeshi.net).

From my own study of Gandhi, Zizek has an argument but he doesn’t have a point.

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dsquared 02.02.10 at 9:54 pm

#60: indeed, I find myself wanting to say “good lord, man, perhaps you are right to say that Zizek has a woefully inadequate conception of Buddhism based on nothing more than a few magazine articles, never having consulted a primary source before making his slipshod arguments against a simulacrum of his own devising. But hell, man, have you looked at your own criticisms of Zizek!

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john c. halasz 02.02.10 at 10:21 pm

http://mikejohnduff.blogspot.com/2007/10/heidegger-nazism-zizek-and-politics.html

For those who’d care to take the time, a not uninteresting blog post criticizing Zizek on Heidegger, from which one can gain a clearer idea of what Zizek means by “violence”, as intrinsic or “necessary” to transformative political thought/action, though the upshot, I take it, of the post is that Zizek/Heidegger doesn’t adequately distinguish between the transformative “violence” of thought and the consequential violence of action, even if the violence of both inheres in the ineliminable risk of political thought/action as concerned with (or repressing) transformative change, without excuses.

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Treilhard 02.02.10 at 10:57 pm

@58 You’re right, Kant’s not good example (even if he a Chinaman from Koeningsburg).

@59 Not as Western in origin, but as satisfying the description of some term in their own philosophical framework (being-within-self in the pursuit of nothingness as end, maybe).

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Timothy Waligore 02.02.10 at 11:09 pm

To see just what kind of actual violence Ghandi apparently justified, search googleBooks for “Ghandi killed monkeys”

Ghandi was ready to kill monkeys who went after his crops: “I do not hesitate to instigate and direct an attack on the monkeys in order to save the crops.” Ghandi told one of his friends that the friend had done no wrong in rounding up 60 rabid dogs. Ghandi said: “A roving dog…is a danger to society and a swarm of them is a menace to its very existence.” Similarly, Ghandi conceded that it is sometimes justified to kill humans: “At times we may be faced with the unavoidable duty of killing a man who is found in the act of killing people.”

(Source: Sankar Ghose, Mahatma Ghandi [Bombay: Allied Publishers Limited, 1991], p. 106)

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Alex 02.03.10 at 12:48 am

Zizek breaks violence into objective and subjective categories. So Hitler was subjectively violent (violence against persons) where Gandhi was objectively violent because he actually changed political institutions.

Wait, so Hitler didn’t change any political institutions?

And that’s the oddest use of “subjective” and “objective” I’ve ever seen. Since it’s Zizek who’s made up a new definition of “violent”, I would’ve said the “subjective”/”objective” distinctions should be the other way round – there was nothing “subjective” about the violence of the Holocaust.

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Adam Kotsko 02.03.10 at 2:13 am

If only he had a book that addressed this topic, maybe one entitled Violence… then people could learn what he had to say in detail instead of taking petty swipes at people’s attempts to explain it in a four-sentence format.

Although really, there’s only one book you need to read!

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John 02.03.10 at 2:34 am

Zizek likens himself to a cliche. He’s a gadfly. No need to cite Plato’s Apology of Socrates. It sounds good for the hoi polloi. Next we’ll hear that he suffers unfair and unjust ridicule or critique, but that it is better to be a Socrates unsatisfied than a pig satisfied.

Zizek is amusing, says many profound things, points to all sorts of paradoxes and contradictions, and is all around likable–but for what? Leninism, Stalinism, etc. One wonders if his Lacanian joke in the mirror isn’t inspired by the perverse reflection of himself, but rather by the lines of coke waiting to be snorted.

If Zizek wants to defend his advocacy of violence on Heideggerian grounds (a dubious project to begin with), he may as well begin to deal with Heidegger himself. He won’t do this. Why? His structuralist Lacanism melded with Marx but somehow different from Althusser is strangely more gentlemanly (Zizek may call it scientific) than that. Zizek is all pyrotechnics (and god bless him for it), but he merely becomes a leftist version of Bellow’s Ravelstein as a consequence.

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Treilhard 02.03.10 at 2:41 am

But that, Adam Kotsko, would require a serious examination of his actual ideas, and not knee-jerk “He’s a clown!” reactions to a poorly edited interview given in the ToI. You’re no fun at all, are you?

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Shmoe 02.03.10 at 2:57 am

Zizek is what happens when a decent education is mixed with a total disregard for clarity of thought or purpose; and possibly large quantities of dope. He’s more a sort of psychedelic taxonomist, than a philosopher. His “real”, and it’s categories, are a perfect example of this.

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tomslee 02.03.10 at 3:02 am

In defence of petty swipes: this is a comment thread. Personally I treat it as one step above a bar conversation. I try to be polite, but if I have to read the literature before I contribute, well count me out.

Same with dsquared @63 – I love it that there are educated people here who know far more about many things than I do (eg about Zizek) but comparing criticisms of the man in a comment thread to his own statements as a professional academic is apples and oranges. When I speak as a professional, I like to think I do my research and I’m careful. Here, not so much.

But if he was actually wildly misquoted, that’s really too bad. Unfortunately, we can’t retract comments here. So it goes.

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Shmoe 02.03.10 at 3:22 am

“In defence of petty swipes: this is a comment thread. Personally I treat it as one step above a bar conversation. I try to be polite, but if I have to read the literature before I contribute, well count me out.”

I agree entirely. While I am here to learn, part of what I’m learning is to express myself in a clear, and hopefully useful, manner. That would be difficult in a climate of constant worry over whose bailiwick I’m trespassing into.

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Jon H 02.03.10 at 3:46 am

“But that, Adam Kotsko, would require a serious examination of his actual ideas, and not knee-jerk “He’s a clown!” reactions to a poorly edited interview given in the ToI. You’re no fun at all, are you?”

The thing is, Zizek’s not worth the effort. If you spent the time taking down Deepak Chopra, at least you might save the health and money of some gullible people.

Apparently, according to someone upthread, Zizek’s only redeeming quality is that he’s like a leftist Ayn Rand for naive teenagers who are bright but lack common sense.

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Matt Austern 02.03.10 at 4:08 am

“Not even wrong” is attributed to Wolfgang Pauli. I don’t think anyone knows which unfortunate young physicist was the target of that remark. (The attribution is probably authentic, even though the exact context has been lost — the quote appears in Sir Rudolf Peierls’s biography of Pauli, and he was careful to distinguish between real and apocryphal Pauli stories.)

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John Holbo 02.03.10 at 4:19 am

I have to agree with Tom Lee that defending Zizek on the grounds that his philosophy is surely no worse than your average blog comment attacking Zizek is soft bigotry of low expectations.

As to the Zizek we have before us today. If, as seems likely, it is badly misquoted, then obviously there’s no point. But, in general, I object to the taking of outrage at the taking of outrage at the outrageousness of Zizek. I think dsquared’s remarks on contrarianism are appropriate here, actually:

“Okay, point one. The whole idea of contrarianism is that you’re “attacking the conventional wisdom”, you’re “telling people that their most cherished beliefs are wrong”, you’re “turning the world upside down”. In other words, you’re setting out to annoy people. Now opinions may differ on whether this is a laudable thing to do – I think it’s fantastic – but if annoying people is what you’re trying to do, then you can hardly complain when annoying people is what you actually do. If you start a fight, you can hardly be surprised that you’re in a fight. It’s the definition of passive-aggression and really quite unseemly, to set out to provoke people, and then when they react passionately and defensively, to criticise them for not holding to your standards of a calm and rational debate.”

http://crookedtimber.org/2009/10/22/rules-for-contrarians-1-dont-whine-that-is-all/

I think Zizek himself is in the clear on this one. But some defenders of Zizek have tended to fall down on the job at this point.

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Treilhard 02.03.10 at 4:30 am

@73

According to someone upthread? I don’t mean to come across as a Zizek apologist, but if this thread’s criticism of Z’s use of the term “Buddhism” is supposed to demonstrate that Zizek is a leftist Ayn Rand, then perhaps as other candidates for the Chopra/Rand treatment we should include Hegel (who knew, let’s face it, jack shit about actual Buddhism but had no problem lecturing on the subject) , likewise Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and any number of modern theorists who employ “American Buddhism” and “European Buddhism” to describe not the fact that we all celebrate Losar (as the “thread winning comment” upstream would have you believe), but rather a certain nihilism that has disrupted political engagement from the left.

Should Zizek be ranked amongst the greatest thinkers of all time? Of course not. Should he be so casually dismissed as a Rand or a Chopra? This ToI interview hasn’t convinced me of it.

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Treilhard 02.03.10 at 4:36 am

@John Holbo

Again, I’m no Zizek apologist, and I’m certainly not the most well-read when it comes to theory. Maybe I’m one of the defenders of Zizek who has fallen down on this point, but is it really too much to ask for substantive criticisms of his ideas (as contrarian as they might be) and not this “Did he really just mention Hitler and Ghandi in the same breath *gasp*!” response? Particularly when the only text provided is a poorly executed interview?

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John Holbo 02.03.10 at 5:09 am

“Maybe I’m one of the defenders of Zizek who has fallen down on this point, but is it really too much to ask for substantive criticisms of his ideas (as contrarian as they might be) … Particularly when the only text provided is a poorly executed interview?”

Well, no. I thought I made at least that second bit clear. “If, as seems likely, it is badly misquoted, then obviously there’s no point.” That is, there’s no point critiquing an inaccurate interview transcription. My point about contrarianism is just that, in general, it’s a bit odd to defend Zizek by intimating the need for a sort of intellectual fastidiousness from critics that Zizek himself does not exhibit – very much by design. Of course if the critics claim they are being very scrupulous and careful and rational, that’s a different matter. But just taking as read that it is inappropriate to attack Zizek in fast, loose, out-of-control fashion seems odd. Why shouldn’t it be appropriate? Doesn’t Zizek invite it?

Someone – perhaps Adam K – would argue that despite outrageous appearances, it’s all very careful and correct, or can be pulled together. I don’t buy it, but it’s still beside the point. If you write in a way that is clearly calculated to produce the impression that you are fast, loose, and out-of-control, you – and your defenders – ought not to act wronged when success is achieved: that is, the conclusion is drawn, by readers, that you are fast, loose and out-of-control. (This is admittedly a variation on the contrarianism point. The general rule is: don’t act all surprised when people do just what you would expect them to do.)

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Keir 02.03.10 at 5:15 am

I should note that I have read Violence, Adam, and that is in fact why I think Zizek has daft beliefs about that subject.

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noen 02.03.10 at 5:28 am

“is it really too much to ask for substantive criticisms of his ideas”

No, it is not. See Fredric Jameson’s review of “The Parallax View” in the LRB.

“I cannot conclude without explaining my hesitant apprehensions about Žižek’s project. Clearly, the parallax position is an anti-philosophical one, for it not only eludes philosophical systemisation, but takes as its central thesis the latter’s impossibility. What we have here is theory, rather than philosophy: and its elaboration is itself parallaxical.”

“Yet theory was always itself ‘grounded’ on a fundamental (and insoluble) dilemma: namely, that the provisional terms in which it does its work inevitably over time get ‘thematised’ (to use Paul de Man’s expression); they get reified (and even commodified, if I may say so), and eventually turn into systems in their own right.”

“My occasional fear is, then, that by theorising and conceptualising the impossibilities designated by the parallax view, Žižek may turn out to have produced a new concept and a new theory after all, simply by naming what it is probably better not to call the unnameable.”

That does seem to me to accurately describe what he is about as well as why he gets the reaction he does from academia. Meh… I liked Pervert’s Guide, that was quite good.

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Treilhard 02.03.10 at 6:26 am

@ John Holbo 78

You are right to point out that Zizek has himself opened the door to a “fast and loose” maneuver, and that his critics shouldn’t be reproached for responding in a similar fashion. Certainly no shortage of these (in my mind unhelpful) Zizekisms can be found (“Vegetarians? Degenerates! They will all turn into monkeys!”). IMHO however, much of the “fast and loose” contrarianism in Zizek’s work is found in its periphery, like this ToI interview, his appearance on HardTalk, or those writings of his that are clearly just reshufflings of his previously published insights and much repeated anecdotes (“Interrogation of the Real” e.g.).

I only suggest that if discussions are to be had on matters like these, maybe evaluating Z’s assessment on the lack of “essential” violence wrt Hitler as compared to Stalin or Ghandi, his criticisms of the timidity of the contemporary left, or even the implications of theory’s use of “Buddhism” in general as shorthand for something that isn’t actually Buddhism would be more profitable than shooting off one-liners in response to an interview, which, even if it weren’t poorly edited, is still at the periphery of Zizek’s writing.

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Keir 02.03.10 at 7:46 am

But at that point we’re doing so much work ourselves we may as well start from scratch with more promising base material.

I mean, some old commie’s opinions on the modern left’s timidity are not hugely interesting, especially given his general clownishness.

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R. Pointer 02.03.10 at 8:00 am

Can anyone interpret Zizek’s Gandhi through Fanon?

I have an idea, but I want to see what you have to say…

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John 02.03.10 at 8:36 am

So Jameson and and Jameson’s Zizek have fessed up to a problem that Tocqueville spoke of nearly contemporaneously with Marx. Except Jameson and I guess Zizek will have nothing to do with politics–

“As far as politics is concerned, it seems to me that Žižek’s lesson is as indispensable as it is energising. He believes (as I do) that Marxism is an economic rather than a political doctrine, which must tirelessly insist on the primacy of the economic system and on capitalism itself as the ultimate horizon of the political situation (as well as of all the other ones – social, cultural, psychic and so forth). Yet it was always a fundamental mistake to think that Marxism was a ‘philosophy’ which aimed at substituting the ‘ultimately determining instance’ of the economic for that of the political. Karl Korsch taught us eighty years ago that for Marxism the economic and the political are two distinct and incommensurable codes which say the same thing in radically different languages.”

This is probably good in that it avoids the shameless pandering to Carl Schmitt of Derrida or Chantal Delsol without ever looking to Leo Strauss’s devastating critique of Schmitt in terms of the endless game of modern philosophers each trying to out-Machiavel the next.

Zizek is a silly captain Ahab on a ship of fools, and I guess Jameson wishishes to be First Mate Starbuck–or was that Gilligan!

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alex 02.03.10 at 8:47 am

At this point I’d like to return to something that was mentioned upthread as definitely SZ in his own words:

“This is why one should oppose the fascination with Hitler according to which Hitler was, of course, a bad guy, responsible for the death of millions—but he definitely had balls,…”

What I’d like to know is, who has SZ been hanging around with to encounter the view that the important thing about Hitler was his balls? Either literally or metaphorically, it’s certainly not a quality the British have been quick to grant him. [And always worth bearing in mind, to our shame, that we have given SZ a job at Birkbeck, London.]

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John 02.03.10 at 8:57 am

Hitler’s balls sounds like the stupid line heard over and over again that Mussolini made trains run on time. The thing to be said about Nixon is that for all his ineptitude and paranoia he was one tricky son of a bitch–delivering hundreds of pizzas to Humphrey campaign was hilarious. Clinton may have been saccharine, but at least he had the ingenuity to use a cigar for sexual purposes. Bush may have been an obtuse abuser of executive power, but when he was a coke snorting hell raiser I bet he was fun to hang with. Obama may be a nerd from Harvard and Columbia using a brain trust to push through his “fundamental” transformation of America, but you know he can shoot a three pointer.

Stalin had balls too.

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sg 02.03.10 at 9:03 am

actually alex I think that view is fairly common among British older people I know, mixed with a certain shamefaced (and usually carefully hidden) respect for his schemes for racial homogenisation. Also, I think there’s a whole branch of scandinavian heavy metal which depends on that fascination for about 20% of its content.

And if Scandinavian heavy metal isn’t the very definition of “public intellectual”, I don’t know what is.

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alex 02.03.10 at 9:07 am

Wow, that’s interesting, so perhaps SZ has been hanging around with saloon-bar fascists all these years?

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dsquared 02.03.10 at 9:58 am

But just taking as read that it is inappropriate to attack Zizek in fast, loose, out-of-control fashion seems odd. Why shouldn’t it be appropriate? Doesn’t Zizek invite it?

sure – but once you’ve accepted the invitation, it’s rude not to attend the party. You’re trying here to establish some kind of position under which it’s not-OK for Zizek to make uninformed statements, OK to make uninformed criticism of Zizek, but not-OK to have a go at people who make uninformed criticisms of Zizek.

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daelm 02.03.10 at 10:10 am

treilhard:

‘ For alex and the other puppy kickers, I think that the way in which Zizek uses “Buddhism” is going to disappoint anyone who is looking for a well-researched history of various Buddhist traditions, their teachings, or a comparative of their ethics. Instead, Z seems to be following a long tradition of the so-called continental theorists who, from Kant & Hegel to Deleuze & Critchley use “Buddhism” as a kind of shorthand for some idiosyncratic Western perspective (passive nihilism in the face of religious disappointment, for Critchley e.g.).’

humpty dumpty and alice:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

the question is whether you can simply appropriate words, creed, and categories willy-nilly and still make claims to analysis. the notion of a specific western type of nihilism that ‘Buddhism’ is meant to be shorthand for is nice – however, Buddhism already HAS an agreed-upon meaning, and qualities, and attributes. these specifically exclude the meaning that’s being imposed. if you’re interested in the history, the reason they specifically exclude it is because Buddhist philosophers and academics at Nalanda and Vikramashila universities fought tooth and nail to ensure that the prajnaparamita literature did not give rise to mere nihilism, as it might have if one glossed it. this took place around 1600 years ago, and the programme has continued to the present. it is, in fact, one of the engines of the modern Buddhist moral framework, something that’s vastly more complex than “everything vanishes into air’. for the Buddhist community in the west, and their transitional teachers in the east and west, these concerns are as alive today as then and this leads them to place an inordinate focus on the classical moral framework.the point i’m making is that – at best – what Zizek (and others) describe is a specific western idiosyncrasy that has little or nothing to do with Buddhism, other than the common use of some syllables to designate something. worse, the proponents of western Buddhism – that is, the very same people that Zizek (here and elsewhere) requires carry his definitions, repudiate them by the very nature of their engagement with Buddhism. so, what exactly is he talking about? and why should anyone care, since he obviously doesn’t care enough to know the basics of the concepts he introduces?

(dsquared, this is a view that i’ve been forming for a while – it’s not a reaction to this article, though this article may have forced me to clarify it.)

i agree with treilhard, quoted above – what he’s referring to is almost certainly “passive nihilism in the face of religious disappointment”. however, the term ‘Buddhism’ (meaning a tradition, a history of events, a body practices, a moral framework, innumerable texts and a very sophisticated ontology) doesn’t support that reading. nor if we move the goalposts a little, does the term, ‘Western Buddhism’, which actually explicitly guards against nihilism and works hard to remain aligned with the great moral programme of the last 1000 years. it’s not merely that he’s wrong – it’s that he’s wrong in easily correctable ways, that he never seems to have the intellectual curiosity to correct. we’re left with nothing but sloppiness, inept designations and loosely coupled, unsubstantiated conclusions. and so people defending Zizek in this thread have only been able to do so by arguing that HIS words mean something different to what YOUR words mean. that’s a really, really, really weak defense.

ziziek could as easily have made the following his thesis: “western culture has a strain of amoral nihilism in it. this strain is always trying to appropriate new forms and ideologies, as these are encountered.” but if he’d made that that thesis, he’s have noticed that evangelical Christianity (the permanent stain that can only be removed by the blood of the lamb, and which no good works can affect) is a both a greater and more current source of western nihilism in the face of immorality than anything else around. but everyone bashes evangelicals and it’s neither particularly controversial, or sufficiently impressive.

does it bother anyone else that the defence of Zizek always seem to turn on claims that what he means by a word is something other than what everyone else means? while I accept that this thread is a reaction to nothing more than a disputed interview, we’ve already discovered that ‘violence’ means something other than itself ‘Buddhism’ means something other than itself, and Hitler merely reacted, and we’ve learned nothing of any value, nothing new or insightful, by making those concessions. when does changing the language to sound cool start to pay off? or is it a game we all can play? Ghandi was a Robber Baron (in my special language).Walden was a violent, bloody revolution, not an excercise is self-sufficiency (in my special language).

how far do we go with this before we start to inlcude less academically visible nutters?

d

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daelm 02.03.10 at 10:53 am

@nmlo:

“from Kant & Hegel to Deleuze & Critchley use “Buddhism” as a kind of shorthand for some idiosyncratic Western perspective ” Kant and Hegel see Buddhism as Western? That would be…odd.”

actually, Buddhism’s been appropriated for all sorts of programmes. the original translation of the Pali Canon into English was done by the Pali Text Sociey, a Victorian institution that hoped to find a secular Jesus – one shorn of his miracles – to replace the magic Jesus that science was busy undermining. they sought in the canon a secular justification for the cold-shower Christianity-cum-Stoicism that they believed in. and where they couldn’t find it, they supplied it. we still struggle with their translation terms, with things such as ‘virtue’ (which there is a case for replacing with ‘skill’) and ‘noble’ (which there is a case for replacing with ‘changed’) causing us endless trouble. there’s a long legacy of this stuff. even the term Buddhism, a blanket term that covers all sorts of traditions (some of which would have objected to the inclusion of others) is a Victorian phenomenon and does not exist in the traditions it’s intended to cover.

so there is a case for arguing that ‘Buddhism’ is western, if we’re referring to the misapproriations. however, these are historical arguments. this cannot be the western nihilism that Zizek was referring to, since the intention of the creators of this version of Buddhism were relentlessly moral, and eschewed meditation – Buddhism, for the Pali Text Society was a scriptual thing, not a practical thing.

@noen
“That may be the correct Buddhist dogma, I don’t know, but I doubt that most people’s casual understanding is so deep. For many people outward forms of religiosity can serve as an emotional buffer between what you imagine you are doing, good works, versus what you are actually doing, keeping the machine well greased.”

except that Buddhsim, esecially, in the west, is a practical thing. there’s no avoiding the dogma, because the dogma is inherent in the practice, which is the disitilled fruit of the moral framework – and which contradicts these claims. these aren’t even real arguments – they were thoroughly discredited years ago. (which is my whole point – zizek doesn’t know enough about the things he professes to know about, and when called on it, says ‘i meant something else’.)

this is not even wrong, as someone aptly quoted above. it’s the low-grade, low-sophistication regurgitation of claims made against asian cultures and communties in the late nineteenth century, when it was supposed to contrast them with the manly, forthright, outward -looking west. the claim is usually couched in something like the following terms:

“Buddhism with its focus on suffering and belieef in many lives, made asian cultures passive and accepting of injustice, unlike ours which is manly and forthright and outgoing. Why look! There we are slauughtering the wogs again – what a spectacle! What sounds, What lights, what colours! Ahh, Maude! Makes one feel proiud to be European, dash it.”

nowawadays, it’s be charles murray saying this, or its equivalent. zizek’s not even bothering to add anything to his inept slurs. they’re just cynically deployed, and if called, the defence will be the humpy-dumpty defence i quoted earlier.

d

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alex 02.03.10 at 10:57 am

Oh, we’ve been here all the time, dear.

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daelm 02.03.10 at 11:13 am

@treilhard
“I only suggest that if discussions are to be had on matters like these, maybe evaluating Z’s assessment on the lack of “essential” violence wrt Hitler as compared to Stalin or Ghandi, his criticisms of the timidity of the contemporary left, or even the implications of theory’s use of “Buddhism” in general as shorthand for something that isn’t actually Buddhism would be more profitable than shooting off one-liners in response to an interview…”

i tried to avoid this… :)

sorry to all who didn’t want to wade through a rant about the misappropriation of Buddhism. it’s just happens to serve as a good example of the kind of lazy, goal-post shifting, pseduo-insight that i think Zizek has become famous for. i grant the people on this thread that there may be a kernel of value in the mess (perhaps earlier, perhaps in his Theology, perhaps in Violence). but at this point, the kernel would have to be a library’s worth, simply to be visible in the cloud of bullshit that he lives in, and i’m not convinced it’d be anything special, when we did find it.

d

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Martin Wisse 02.03.10 at 11:24 am

Buddhism actually has at least two meanings, one being that (set of) religion(s) orginating from India and other points east of Europe, the other whatever treehugging hippy New Age crap/guilt absorbing coping strategy for middlemanagers pablum that is being sold as “buddhist” or “zen-buddhist” in what’s increasingly inaccurately called “the west”.

If Zizek argues with definition two in his work, this is not some crazy idiosyncracy he thought up, but soemthing that’s long been used that way.

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Adam Kotsko 02.03.10 at 1:13 pm

I don’t think Derrida is in favor of Schmitt’s ideas. His critiques of Schmitt are more unrelentingly negative than in the case of anyone else he critiques, including the great villain Hegel. He does talk about Schmitt, though, so I can see how you’d be confused.

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alex 02.03.10 at 1:23 pm

Assuming this is Schmitt the Nazi we’re talking about, is anyone in favour of his ideas, as opposed to willing to engage with them? Mind you, it sounds above as if some of us know some people who might be.

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sg 02.03.10 at 2:25 pm

alex: saloon-bar fascists, I don’t know. But a million brits voted for a guy who thinks that Hitler just “went a bit too far”, and now he’s in the European parliament. Maybe that’s the kind of fascination Zizek was referring to?

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John Meredith 02.03.10 at 2:31 pm

“What I’d like to know is, who has SZ been hanging around with to encounter the view that the important thing about Hitler was his balls … it’s certainly not a quality the British have been quick to grant him. “

Quite. In fact it is commonly accepted among the British that Hitler didn’t even own a full set. It does seem that Zizek hangs aropund with some pecularly and unsavoury types.

100

b9n10t 02.03.10 at 3:06 pm

Treilhard

“IMHO however, much of the “fast and loose” contrarianism in Zizek’s work is found in its periphery”

Aren’t we allowed to reject fixed notions of “periphery” and its opposite? Does not Zizek invite us to use the appearance of “Zizek” as the object of Zizek? Or something like that?

101

Salient 02.03.10 at 3:28 pm

Zizek is a punk troll.

Wait, that position is taken? Then what am I doing here?

And if Scandinavian heavy metal isn’t the very definition of “public intellectual”, I don’t know what is.

We’ve already had Hair Metal. What we need now is some Head Rock.

…there’s no point critiquing an inaccurate interview transcription.

True. So. … I wonder what Zizek would think of the new Vampire Weekend.

Is the song “Giving Up The Gun” a call to Violence?

102

taj 02.03.10 at 3:44 pm

I’d like to point out that the Times of India crossed the threshold of idiocy years ago, and if anyone accuses them of poor journalism, it’s okay to take the accusation at face value until proven otherwise.

103

Substance McGravitas 02.03.10 at 3:53 pm

Yay! Ponies!*

*A pony meaning “a sigh of exasperation”.

104

alex 02.03.10 at 8:16 pm

@98: John, dahling, don’t explain the jokes, it’s so infra dig.

105

John Holbo 02.04.10 at 1:34 am

“IMHO however, much of the “fast and loose” contrarianism in Zizek’s work is found in its periphery, like this ToI interview, his appearance on HardTalk, or those writings of his that are clearly just reshufflings of his previously published insights and much repeated anecdotes (“Interrogation of the Real” e.g.).”

Well, in my experience, the more you read Zizek, the more you realize it is ‘periphery’ all the way through to the core, in this sense of ‘periphery’. That is, the style of argument is not really different in his ‘serious’ works than in his interviews or his less ‘serious’ writings. It is all of a piece, stylistically, and the style is the source of the concern: namely, if you are just going to jump around like this, making claims without giving any reasons why people should believe what you say, why should anyone believe what you say? (Entertainment is another matter, of course. If you like to watch him do his thing, then go ahead. By all means.)

106

Jon H 02.04.10 at 4:42 am

“If Zizek argues with definition two in his work, this is not some crazy idiosyncracy he thought up, but soemthing that’s long been used that way.”

Then he should be more specific and use something like “pop Buddhism”.

But, if he wants to mangle terms with his own definitions, why not use “quantum physics” instead of “buddhism” and pretend to have the credibility of rigorous science? Hell, if he wants to be a clown, why doesn’t he substitute “grunties” for “buddhism”, and conclude his lectures by smashing a watermelon with a giant hammer?

But what do I know. At the end of the day, I’m just a commenter on a blog, but people take his bullshit seriously, publish him, give him highly-paid BS-generating sinecures, and audiences apparently hang on his every mangled word.

107

voyou 02.04.10 at 6:28 am

42: Extension of the Field of Struggle (translated as Whatever)—it was an uninspired rehashing of The Stranger.

Surely Whatever is a parody of The Stranger, rather than a rehash. The various scenes from The Stranger that are referenced in Whatever are all re-staged in a setting of such suburban banality as to undercut any existentialist pretensions, I would have thought.

108

soru 02.04.10 at 1:50 pm

The key to decoding Zizek is not that he is using unusual definitions of the words _violence_ or _Buddhism_, but that he is using an unusual definition of the word Gandhi.

109

Adam Kotsko 02.04.10 at 1:58 pm

105: I’d just say that probably the person who’s read the most Zizek in this thread (me) thinks this position is incorrect, as does Jameson in the above-posted review. Just to throw that out there.

110

engels 02.04.10 at 2:35 pm

I haven’t read a lot of Zizek but I still tend to be suspicious when he is quoted as saying the exact _opposite_ of what he says in _everything_ I have read, as in this post. It’s surprising this didn’t ring any alarm bells with any of the formidably well-read and judicious Zizek critics on this thread, including the original poster.

111

engels 02.04.10 at 2:55 pm

Also interesting to see him being repeatedly crapped on by the same ‘radical’ wing of the CT comments section that defends Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty and ‘postmodernism’ to the death…

112

JoB 02.04.10 at 3:12 pm

Ah, ‘defending postmodernism to the death’ … the world can be a most beautiful place.

113

Adam Kotsko 02.04.10 at 3:57 pm

One day, I want to troll a thread on postmodernism and repeatedly say to the critics, “Well, that’s true for you, I guess — can’t we just get along?”

114

alex 02.04.10 at 4:16 pm

Could there be anything more ‘postmodern’ than pretending to be a Leninist in the 21st century? One thing you have to say about SZ, he certainly has balls.

115

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.04.10 at 5:09 pm

Personally, I like both Zizek and Fish. And zizek with fish.

116

john c. halasz 02.04.10 at 5:55 pm

117

alex 02.04.10 at 6:42 pm

No, he’s pretending to be Lenin, which is obviously just crazy…

118

John Holbo 02.05.10 at 2:47 am

“I’d just say that probably the person who’s read the most Zizek in this thread (me)”

Adam, does this mean you are finally willing to argue with me about Zizek? Or will it just be the same-old same-old.

119

John 02.05.10 at 7:38 am

Let me restate what I said below–“Zizek is amusing, says many profound things, points to all sorts of paradoxes and contradictions, and is all around likable—but for what? Leninism, Stalinism, etc. One wonders if his Lacanian joke in the mirror isn’t inspired by the perverse reflection of himself, but rather by the lines of coke waiting to be snorted.”

Zizek is an incredibly difficult thinker to read. After thinking I sort of understood Hegel’s Encyclopedia, Phenomenology, Philosophy of Right; Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, and Capital; Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity; Barth’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, (to throw in something unmentioned); Heidegger’s Being and Time; Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Weber’s Politics and Science as a Vocation lectures; Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel; Bataillle’s Accursed Share, etc. , etc. Then we have Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, Vattimo, Agamben, Negri, Habermas, etc.

We Americans (of whom I include myself at the end of the day) read this stuff through the easygoingness of Richard Rorty, but even John Rawls in Political Liberalism tells us it’s all contingent meaninglessness, and Judith Butler speaks of the possibilities of making ourselves while simultaneously Nancy Fraser reminds us of our historical determination. And then all sorts of “democratic” theorists from Chantal Delsol to Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe to Jean Luc Nancy tell us to embrace the “melee”–speaking of Carl Schmitt as one of many (but the most important) “choice” in the bazaar of choices.

Yes, Carl Schmitt provides a serious tonic to liberalism, but insofar as the friend and enemy cannot remember Book I of Plato’s Republic regarding why justice for one’s own is ultimately contradictory, Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction should be taken with much doubt (and not simply because of the actual history of the man).

Then along comes Zizek who wants to rewrite all of this (recent all things considered) history in terms of Lenin and Lacan. Lacan is surely one of the most difficult writers ever, and Zizek’s Hitchcockian interventions don’t help. While interesting on Hitchcock, I wonder if he sheds light on either Psycho or Lacan. Brian De Palma is probably a better interpreter of Hitchcock than Zizek–and I say this outside Jameson’s brief remarks on De Palma.

That said, Zizek is a real character. He dazzles–but as great as it is, it desires “charisma” in a way that is too much for me.

120

Adam Kotsko 02.05.10 at 4:22 pm

No, I was just making an argument from authority. The last time we argued about Zizek, I did a ton of work only to get dismissed (and point I’m also not going to argue about), and my “never again” policy still applies. I’m pretty sure everyone I know would think I was an absolute idiot to violate that rule, given your track record.

121

John Holbo 02.05.10 at 5:23 pm

Same-old same-old it is then. As you like it.

122

Adam Kotsko 02.05.10 at 7:05 pm

I apologize for not living up to your rigorous argumentative standards. It’s a burden I’ll have to live with the rest of my life.

123

alex 02.05.10 at 7:39 pm

Ladies, please…

124

john c. halasz 02.06.10 at 7:56 am

Where’s the “World Wrestling Federation” when you need ’em? The Real is the impossible? That’s logically impossibly! All chair smashes allowed!

125

John Holbo 02.06.10 at 2:37 pm

I’m ok with that, just so long as we’re clear – and agreed – that the rigorous argumentative standards of which Adam K speaks are ordinary and sensible things, not some idiosyncratic holbonic bar I set high, just to see people fall.

For the record: the straw that broke the camel’s back, leading to Adam’s (possibly sensible) ‘never again’ policy was, if memory serves, that I asked whether he could provide textual evidence for his interpretation of Zizek (since it looked pretty far from the text to me, and the text was well-known to me.) He said it would be too much work to do so, and I should take his word for it as an authority on Zizek that such support could be found. I said he was entitled to his expert opinion but, since it didn’t look right to me, I wasn’t going to take his word without some textual evidence. And then the camel’s back clean broke. Much to my surprise, although the poor thing had been getting on in blog years.

I don’t even think I was being particularly snarky. Honestly. But it was all long ago and in another thread.

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/anticipatory_retrospective_and_presentism_now_two_papers_ive_published_late/

Scroll down about 2 miles. You can’t miss it.

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Adam Kotsko 02.06.10 at 3:12 pm

If anyone actually reads that thread, then reviews the previous debates in the background, and then comes to an informed opinion about our long-running dispute, they should be taken out back and shot, because obviously their finite time on earth is of absolutely no value to them.

127

JoB 02.06.10 at 3:40 pm

May I be rich in this thread?

Please.

128

Treilhard 02.06.10 at 4:52 pm

I tried to be that person, Adam, I really did.

I’m new around these parts, and after your “never again” at 120, I became curious. I googled “Holbo Kotsko Zizek”, read an entire Holbo review of the Parallax View, got halfway through the comments section on some Valve post, and have decided to back away very, very slowly. At this point I think I would have to be an intertubes masochist before I’d even consider clicking the link Holbo provides.

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Adam Kotsko 02.06.10 at 6:09 pm

Does anyone remember that time that Rich said he was going to keep a database of all the mean things he said and send it to potential employers? Good times.

130

bianca steele 02.06.10 at 6:23 pm

Oh that Valve post. I’d totally forgotten.

131

JoB 02.06.10 at 6:35 pm

Universes in which one is tempted to google “Holbo Kotsko Zizek” are universes that utterly deserve what’s hiding behind the link in 125.

132

Adam Kotsko 02.06.10 at 8:32 pm

Sorry, the mean things I said.

133

Lemuel Pitkin 02.06.10 at 9:01 pm

125 is not so bad. This from Adam is one of the clearer and more interesting comments on Zizek’s Leninism that I’ve seen. I would cheerfully read lots more like it.

I can understand why debates with Jon H. get frustrating. (Like the schoolyard rules for debates with Zizek he proposes in 79, which are quite a contrast with the contortions of interpretive charity he puts himself through for Jonah Goldberg or the Volokh crowd. No friends on the left is the meta-principle at work, I guess.) I think we’d all be better served if Adam stopped arguing with Jon and instead just focused on explaining clearly to the rest of us the points he’s given up convincing Jon H. of.

134

Lemuel Pitkin 02.06.10 at 9:06 pm

er, John H. Sorry.

135

JoB 02.06.10 at 9:45 pm

Lemuel has a good point in 133, most certainly in the first two lines thereof.

136

Lemuel Pitkin 02.06.10 at 9:54 pm

I feel bad about the bit in parentheses already. You shouldn’t urge others to make positive arguments and then keep trying to score debating points yourself. Consider it retracted.

137

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.06.10 at 10:29 pm

I feel bad about the bit in parentheses already.

Yeah, looks like you got envious of John’s jouissance for a moment.

138

Adam Kotsko 02.06.10 at 11:43 pm

If you liked that Zizek exposition, I’ve written a whole book of the same kind! And an above-linked article! And I’ve got two forthcoming articles! Life is good for the lover of Kotsko’s Zizek exposition — it’s an embarrassment of riches.

139

Keir 02.07.10 at 12:44 am

From Jonathan at 125’s link: I barely understand what is going on, since it always seems to me that every comment thread is simply the continuation of a previous debate, the stakes of which are largely invisible to those on its margins.

So, so true.

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John Holbo 02.07.10 at 1:03 am

“the contortions of interpretive charity he puts himself through for Jonah Goldberg”

?

That’s completely bizarre, Lemuel. Where have I put myself through contortions to defend Jonah Goldberg?

141

John Holbo 02.07.10 at 1:07 am

“Like the schoolyard rules for debates with Zizek he proposes in 79”

What the hell kind of school did you go to? My schoolyard didn’t have debating rules.

In general, what’s so weird about the idea that if someone seems to be not-so-serious, it’s ok not to take them seriously?

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John Holbo 02.07.10 at 1:21 am

“I barely understand what is going on, since it always seems to me that every comment thread is simply the continuation of a previous debate, the stakes of which are largely invisible to those on its margins.”

This one is actually worth addressing. For four years Adam K has been insisting that there is something seriously and indeed obviously wrong with my critique(s) of Zizek on theology/faith/Kierkegaard/Lenin, and for four years I have been trying to get him to state what that thing is. To date, his answer is: it’s a thing known to experts – specifically, himself. This is, of course, quite possibly true. Of course it’s a waste of time to drag the thing out, given that this is how it’s going, since it’s obviously not going anywhere. But I think there is a certain amount of comedy to restaging Plato’s “Euthyphro” as an epic, spanning scores of threads. You’re all here, aren’t you? And Adam brought it up …

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Treilhard 02.07.10 at 4:40 am

I did it. I clicked. I got as far as, “Obviously Lenin is a utilitarian because he’s happy to stack the bodies up like cordwood” before my eyes glazed over (Really? Lenin the Utilitarian? When did “peasant shrewdness” become identitified with the utilitarian calculus?).

At the very least, the post helped me clarify my priorities: I am now about to paint my cousins black & gold, and I have no plans of thinking about Zizek vis a vis Lenin vis a vis Kierkegaard until the Who Dats bring back a trophy (i.e. you probably won’t hear from me for another 43 years).

144

John Holbo 02.07.10 at 5:55 am

“Really? Lenin the Utilitarian? When did “peasant shrewdness” become identitified with the utilitarian calculus?”

I’m not sure exactly when, but I think by the time Lenin embraced Fordist production principles, on reasoned utilitarian grounds, we were either past the point of peasant shrewdness, or else that shrewdness had grown into utilitarianism. Seriously, this isn’t historically obscure material. Check out the wikipedia entry for ‘Fordism’.

Or, if it’s old Valve threads that really turn your crank, this one:

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/was_lenin_a_utilitarian/

I got a lot of objections to the whole ‘Leninism is utilitarianism’ thing for the longest time. None of them made any damn sense, as far as I can see. You are welcome to try to make me see otherwise.

(I don’t think I’ve ever made the point with reference to Lenin’s Fordism before this comment. But it seems a fine way to underscore what I’m getting at. There are many ways of making the poin.)

145

Lemuel Pitkin 02.07.10 at 8:34 am

I just got back from my reading group. (We were discussing a couple recent pieces by Gerard Dumenil.) Hard not to be struck by the contrast between the norms of that kind of conversation and what goes on online. It would be almost inconceivably rude to behave, face to face, the way we all constantly do here.

Adam K.:

I’ve written a whole book of the same kind! And an above-linked article! And I’ve got two forthcoming articles!

I’d like to read the book, I really would. But given the rampart of books-that-need-to-be-read rising around this chair, it would be foolish to think that I likely will. Articles, ok … but they are presumably intended for specialists, which I in no way am. On the other hand, for better or worse, I do read this blog. And a lucid couple of paragraphs on how Zizek’s admiration of Lenin is based on seeing him as like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith is both manageable and *useful*, in a way that not much that one reads on blogs is. It’s something I will bring to whatever I next read on or by Zizek on Lenin. So while I can understand the temptation to say serious analysis is for books and articles, and blogs are for indulging one’s polemical impulses, I hope you’ll resist it.

It’s hard to articulate the what seems like very simple point I am trying to make: that there is a qualitative difference between saying something true, and pointing to something false, and the former contributes to something (what exactly? this is hard) in a way the latter doesn’t.

John H.:

Where have I put myself through contortions to defend Jonah Goldberg?

Hey, you read his book didn’t you?

Anyway, like I said, I shouldn’t have said that. But what I meant was you post a lot on him (and the Volokhs, etc.) and my impression was that most of those posts took the form not just of pointing and hooting, but asking, what serious point could this seemingly silly argument be making and what is my substantive disagreement with it. In contrast to your treatment of Zizek here. But rereading it seems my impression was wrong: you use Goldberg, like Zizek, mostly just as a punchline.

In general, what’s so weird about the idea that if someone seems to be not-so-serious, it’s ok not to take them seriously?

Nothing, insofar as not taking them seriously means ignoring them. But if you are going to take the trouble of criticizing someone’s arguments, there are universal argument-criticizing standards that come into play. But then, writing this I’m already a hypocrite. By the same standard one should respond to your posts when they’re useful or interesting (as they often are) and ignore them otherwise.

146

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.07.10 at 9:34 am

Lenin was, of course, an extraordinary politician, a tactical genius, and in that sense a utilitarian. He was also a sectarian marxist (“bolshevik”), calling other marxists names like “renegade” and “prostitute”. That doesn’t sound very utilitarian.

147

John Holbo 02.07.10 at 10:03 am

“Hey, you read his book didn’t you?”

Sorry, how does it follow from the bare fact that I read Goldberg’s book that I am “putting myself through contortions to defend it”? Given that I didn’t have a kind word to say for it, and a great many unkind words. (For that matter, I have read several books by Zizek. Does it follow automatically that I am putting myself through contortions to defend him, too? I have read quite a few things Adam K. has written. Am I, therefore, defending him too strongly? I really don’t get this at all.)

“But if you are going to take the trouble of criticizing someone’s arguments, there are universal argument-criticizing standards that come into play.”

No, I think this is a mistake. If you are criticizing someone, who is nominally offering arguments, but who really isn’t arguing seriously, you are under no ethical obligation to be the butt of the joke as it were. It’s a better idea to be clear about what is really going on, under cover of pseudo-argument. I think that’s a pretty important thing to realize.

“Lenin was, of course, an extraordinary politician, a tactical genius, and in that sense a utilitarian. He was also a sectarian marxist (“bolshevik”), calling other marxists names like “renegade” and “prostitute”. That doesn’t sound very utilitarian.”

And Jeremy Bentham wanted his embalmed corpse wheeled out for meetings. That doesn’t sound very utilitarian by half. But there you are. Now. Back to Lenin: what’s the objection to his philosophy being characterized as utilitarian?

148

John Holbo 02.07.10 at 10:30 am

Sorry, I fired too soon. I see that Lemuel has recanted the Goldberg point.

It’s pretty important to me that my critiques of Zizek do not consist of pointing and hooting. I have offered reasoned arguments, based on the assumption (which I don’t really believe, but I’m willing to adopt it for experimental purposes) that he’s up to something serious. Then it falls apart and I conclude that he isn’t up to anything very serious.

In saying that I don’t think people are obliged to take Zizek seriously – which I did say above, and which I think is true – I didn’t mean to imply that I haven’t, myself, taken him as seriously as it is possible to take him. You see the distinction?

149

Keir 02.07.10 at 10:53 am

Eh, as far as I can the idea is to make Lenin sexy, and get away from that dull politics into the happy uplands of gestures and daring and risking it all and oh Lenin you’re so daring!

Because Zizek’s a crap politician.

150

Adam Kotsko 02.07.10 at 4:40 pm

I promise that I have told you what I think is wrong with your article, multiple times. The fact that you disagree with my assessment does not change the fact that the assessment was, in fact, offered. I said you were wrong about Zizek on Lenin, and I offered an alternative interpretation that I thought was correct. You disagreed, but I still did that. It’s really ridiculous to keep claiming that I’ve never gotten around to telling you what’s wrong with your article — convincing you, no, but telling you, yes. My reluctance to go into great detail was shown to be completely warranted by how dismissive you were when I finally did so. I’m not asking to be revered as an expert — I’m asking to be treated with respect instead of with passive-aggressive condescension. The passive-aggressive routine is awesome when you’re using it against conservatives, but I don’t deserve to be treated like I’m Megan McArdle. I know you don’t think you treat me badly and you don’t like me saying that you are, but by the time I instituted my “never again” rule, ours had basically become the blog equivalent to an abusive relationship. That is all I’m ever going to talk about whenever you bring up that old argument.

The above-linked article isn’t necessarily for specialists. I like to think I write clearly enough that the educated reader can follow it. I’m glad you find my more substantive comments helpful, but I’m unwilling to do any heavy lifting in violation of my “never again” principle.

151

Adam Kotsko 02.07.10 at 5:14 pm

Okay, I’ve pretty clearly violated said “never again” principle. Not letting these comments through moderation would be an act of mercy.

152

bianca steele 02.07.10 at 5:50 pm

I think those Valve posts–and comments–would have been improved if their authors had been compelled to footnote them, Wikipedia style, on pain of being accused of “plagiarism.” But I guess this makes me a utilitarian.

1. John H.: I think you are too hard on Rorty.

2. I’d guess most blog readers (regular commenters with reading groups aside) would be better served by having the term “Kierkegaardian knight of faith” explained to them, than by assumptions that everyone knows both this and the correct way of construing the position of St. Paul in the history of Christianity, in the service of persuading them they ought to read Zizek. (I assume that the knight of faith is something like what Jesse Pitts describes as acting from a position of grace, but I also assume, possibly incorrectly, that nowhere does Kierkegaard make any abstract statement along these lines. I have assumed, too, that there is a good naturalizing description of “knight of faith” available that in no way trivializes or denigrates the standpoint, thus that using the term does not commit me to a position “for” or “against religion.”)

None of that is likely to happen.

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Treilhard 02.07.10 at 6:25 pm

I really don’t understand the Fordism example at all. Is the argument that because in the 1920s particular modes of regulation were encouraged, some of which privileged efficiency over the revolutionary ideal, and therefore Bolshevism, in general and/or at its heart, is a utilitarian political program? By this same logic, because the Lenin endorsed the NEP, therefore Bolshevism is, in general and/or at its heart, capitalism. Is

In any case none of this helps explain what you mean by the quote I mentioned above: That it is “obvious” that Lenin is a utilitarian, because after all, he’s got bodies stacked like cordwood out back. Was Robespierre a utilitarian? Plekhanov? The Narodnya Volya? I fail to see the obvious connection between terror and utility- in fact, I would’ve thought almost the opposite would be true. Rabid attachment to a radical ideal, even when it seems horrific, has an element of “do justice, let the heavens fall” to it.

154

Jake 02.07.10 at 6:55 pm

The “knight of faith” bit was confusing at first, but it turns out that even using “I’m Feeling Lucky” on Google will give you a very serviceable definition. And Kotsko had a point that you can describe Lenin as such a person. But Holbo had a point that Leninism and “what Lenin believed” are not the same.

155

John Holbo 02.08.10 at 1:05 am

Treilhard, I understand that you gave up in exhaustion at that point, but it might have helped if you had at least finished out the sentence.

“But obviously Lenin is a utilitarian because he’s happy to stack the bodies up like cordwood, so long as he is convinced that there would have been more suffering the other way.”

Obviously if you have evidence from his writings that he was more of a ‘do justice, let the heavens fall’ kind of guy, officially, then you are right and I am wrong. If it turns out that he was just rabid – a not entirely unreasonable hypothesis – then he wasn’t, in practice, a Leninist. Because Leninist does not actually advocate rabid nihilism.

Now this quote you plucked is from a blog comment, not actually from the post itself, so maybe ‘happy to stack’ is a bit harsh. Perhaps the tone of the comment is off, but do you have any problem with the content of the post itself?

The whole point is just that Lenin explicitly justified the high body count of the revolution on the grounds that you would have had an even higher body count doing anything else. This was WHY it was ok to have a revolution. This is the official justification. You maximize the good. (Or minimize the bad.) It isn’t deontology, it isn’t virtue ethics. It’s utililitarianism. Hence his (official) philosophy of politics, hence his Fordism. He really was an unusually utilitarian Marxist, philosophy-wise, and there were elements of his personality and temperament that fit with that as well (even if there were some others that cut against the utilitarian grain, which is also true of Bentham himself). Quite possibly I should say ‘consequentialist’ instead, because that gets us away from particular implications that we are maximizing ‘utils’. Would you accept that Lenin is a consequentualist? (I really only used utilitarian because I was reading some stuff, and a few people were taking ‘Leninism is basically a form of utilitarianism’ as read. Which is all I wanted to do.)

Another problem may be that you are wondering how this truth – that Leninism is basically a form of utilitarianism – is going to help us sort out lots of other interesting niceties about post-revolutionary communism. Well, no. It’s really more of a trivial, obvious, unobjectionable point. Saying that Peter Singer is basically a utilitarian doesn’t help you solve any problems, so it isn’t usually even worth mentioning, but it’s basically true. If someone were really confused and thought Peter Singer was a devout follower of Confucius, then being informed that he’s actually more or less a utilitarian would be helpful. Likewise, if you think Lenin is a Kierkegaardian knight of faith, it’s helpful to know that, actually, he couldn’t have been, because he was more or less a utilitarian, officially. And anyone who is officially a utilitarian is not going to be a Kierkegaardian knight of faith.

Bianca, if you want to read my original Zizek piece, you are welcome to. I think it contains a reasonably clear account of what a Kierkegaardian knight of faith is. It was the official starting point for this discussion, so many years ago.

http://homepage.mac.com/jholbo/homepage/pdf/holbozizek.pdf

The running joke between Adam K and I is just that he has spent four years insisting that there is something terribly wrong with that piece, and I have been asking what it is. And he still hasn’t seen fit to say. Obviously I suspect that he really doesn’t have an objection to it, but I persist in pretending that he really does, only he’s too shy to say. (Not a very good joke, perhaps. But the very fact that the whole thing has taken up 4 years and no doubt hundreds of thousands of words is a Kierkegaardian joke in itelf. Which suits me. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to a mere philosophical fragment. If you will.)

I think it’s pretty important, Jake, that you really can’t describe Lenin as being such a person. One of the most essential features of a knight of faith is suspension of the ethical. And the most essential thing to understand about that concept is that it doesn’t just mean giving up a lower ethics – say, conventional bourgeois morality – for a higher ethics – revolutionary ethics. It means acting for no ethical reason whatsoever. Without just being insane.

156

Adam Kotsko 02.08.10 at 3:31 am

In the spirit of making this a two-way running joke: I would gladly tell you my objection, if you had ever written an article on Zizek in the first place!

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Adam Kotsko 02.08.10 at 3:34 am

But how could you write an article about anything, given that you don’t even exist? Nor does Zizek? NOR DO I?!

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John Holbo 02.08.10 at 3:50 am

Well, I suppose that settles that. But it calls into question the coherence of your whole ‘never again’ principle, Adam K. What’s the ‘again’ doing in there? Or the ‘never’, for that matter.

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Lemuel Pitkin 02.08.10 at 6:36 am

I read John’s article. He writes:

the clearest proof of Zizek’s confusion is the Brecht poem. The man who shoots the good man “suspends the law,” thereby bridging the gap “between the domain of moral norms and Faith, the unconditional engagement.” This is utter confusion. The poem is nothing but rational self-justification. … The executioner makes his speech because he is a consequentialist: the future good of the many necessitates present sacrifice of the few. Ordinary standards of decency have their justifications but are trumped by higher standards that will seem indecent to those who cannot apprehend their rationality. Yet Abraham, though he may be the father of faith, is not remembered as the father of utilitarianism.

The poem referred to is The Interrogation of the Good. The interesting thing about it, in light of what John says, is that the poem doesn’t actually say anything about “the future good of the many,” or about anything relating to the future at all. There’s nothing about why the execution is necessary or useful — it’s all about the ways in which the victim’s goodness wasn’t really good. People should read the poem and decide for themselves, but to me it seems absolutely clear that the victim is being executed because he *deserves it*, not because of the consequences of the execution, which are not even hinted at. The point is that what seemed like good qualities in private bourgeois life can really be very bad qualities in a revolutionary context, and merit punishment rather than praise. But the claim “you failed to think about the consequences of your acts, therefore you deserve to be punished” is not itself consequentialist. (What makes it work as a poem is that the lines in the end are quite sincere — the person’s good qualities really are good, and they aren’t negated or outweighed by his being a counterrevolutionary; they just don’t apply to the question of whether he deserves to be shot.)

Or again, John H. quotes Lenin in response to Western critics, ““Who wants to know—the statesmen who have just sent sixteen million men to their deaths?”, and glosses it as “Lenin is an arch-utilitarian. He acknowledges the a priori rationality of the proposition that the good should be maximized.” In the thread, he clarifies that he takes Lenin to mean that without the Revolution things would have been even worse. But to me, it seems obvious that this quote has nothing to do with consequences or counterfactuals — the point is just that these critics do not have the moral standing to judge the revolutionary government.

The larger point — which I can’t really articulate now — is that what if Zizek’s argument is that one becomes a revolutionary not because of any calculations about the useful effects that might be produced but because revolutionary politics seems like the only morally acceptable response to the society that we live in, that seems important and true. To be a communist is to be a good person in this world. Holbo says no, communists are monsters. Well, we are not going to resolve that here (or anywhere else, probably.) But if you don’t feel at least a little of that impulse, then maybe Zizek — and certainly Brecht — is just not going to make sense to you. That pre-analytic difference in experience or outlook might be why it seems to Adam Kotsko — as to me — that he’s made clear, convincing arguments where John Holbo genuinely can’t see any arguments at all.

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John Holbo 02.08.10 at 7:01 am

“Holbo says no, communists are monsters.”

Why are communists monsters, according to me? I’ll address the rest of the comment a bit later (must teach in an hour.) But in case Lemuel is on the line: I don’t think communists are monsters, nor did I say that, nor did I imply it, so far as I can see. So where is this coming from? Here is one possibility: I said that Brecht is a utilitarian? Are you – Lemuel – assuming that all utilitarians are moral monsters, so that, by calling Brecht a utilitarian, I’m calling him a monster? But utilitarianism is a rather respectable moral theory, actually. I at least think so. (Do you disagree?)

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John Holbo 02.08.10 at 7:04 am

Sorry, I realize that sounds implausible – all utilitarians are monsters; communists are utilitarians; therefore, communists are monsters – but I am at a loss to see how else we got to communists are monsters. Allegedly. I’m not being snarky, I’m just honestly drawing a complete blank.

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Lemuel Pitkin 02.08.10 at 7:32 am

It’s the tone of the piece. Zizek is talking about the Lenin of What Is To Be Done; you turn that into Stalin and SMERSH and the gulag.

Some people think of the Bolsheviks as in some sense spiritual ancestors, as profoundly heroic and admirable even if we would not want to imitate them in any concrete way. You are clearly not one of those people. Is this something to argue about?

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Keir 02.08.10 at 7:38 am


Some people think of the Bolsheviks as in some sense spiritual ancestors, as profoundly heroic and admirable even if we would not want to imitate them in any concrete way.

It should be noted this is about as unbolshevik an idea as you could possibly have. Bolshevism is a tool, like a spade or a shovel. It isn’t for looking at, it is for using.

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Lemuel Pitkin 02.08.10 at 7:44 am

Of course you are right. I expressed myself poorly (as usual). What I meant by “not imitate in a concrete way” was not to have one’s political efforts culminate in a system like the Soviet Union. Obviously, the attitude I am talking about includes a commitment — in some sense — to the broader political project of communism.

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JoB 02.08.10 at 9:22 am

155, A-ha, yes, you should have said consequentialist. You really should have. Utilitarian is like the guy calculated before he acted; or found calculations important running up to actions. Not a lot of evidence for that. But I’m sure he preferred his actions to others because he thought they had better consequences. People like that always do.

In this sense you surely are right about putting lots of territory between him and Kierkegaard – the latter, at least conceptually, busied himself with the possibility of non-consequentialism (in real life that was a bit harder though).

Not being very much interested in Zizek & Lenin, I think I get John Holbo’s point: you shouldn’t go all romantic on Lenin (or even in the direction of somewhat romantic on Lenin) because he is in some way pure in his motivation to plot a course that led to what it led to. Or shorter: any real Leninist is a potential monster.

But on a mroe interesting note: given what is happening in liberal democracies nowadays, one is in need of a Kierkegaardian leap of faith to stick to defending it.

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JoB 02.08.10 at 9:22 am

last word should have been “them” not “it”.

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Adam Kotsko 02.08.10 at 12:43 pm

Saying “it’s dumb to romanticize Lenin” makes perfect sense. Saying “because it’s dumb to romanticize Lenin, I’m going to assume that you haven’t done so and then conclude that you somehow got Kierkegaard wrong because of that” does not make sense to me.

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JoB 02.08.10 at 12:48 pm

Also, after I was introduced here as to the difference between Marxists and Marxians, surely it would be more à propos if Zizek would call himself a Leninian.

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JoB 02.08.10 at 12:51 pm

167- if that refers to what I said, I disclaim I ever said the second thing quoted.

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Adam Kotsko 02.08.10 at 1:06 pm

169-It refers to the argument in the article we’re supposing the non-existent Holbo to have somehow written.

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alex 02.08.10 at 1:14 pm

Please, please stop. Every time I check in here I hope someone will have said something else funny, and I’m tired of the disappointment.

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daelm 02.08.10 at 1:24 pm

interestingly, when you image-search “Adam Kotsko” you find pictures of Zizek. this leads me to think – by the same process of logic that led to Gandhi’s excessive violence – that Adam is Zizek. here’s what that process sounded like in the privacy of my own head:

(a wooden stage, containing only a microphone and a podium; a heavily bearded man in a crumpled dress shirt enters, stage left; he takes the microphone, stands at the podium, and clears his throat; he begins to speak)

Star Trek is the metaphor for the journey that can never be ended – Zizek is the borg. Adam has been assimilated. But also, Adam is the borg and Zizek has been assimilated. Hah! There is no Zizek! A ‘star’ nothing more than a ball of gas – what a perfect description of the Zizek. And it expires brightly, as the Zizek does. ‘Trek’, it means to journey, to move from place to place, to migrate. The Adam has, so to speak, migrated to Zizek, he has MOOOOVED to the Zizek. But what of the non-existence of the Zizek? The Zizek that motivates the Adam-move is an appeeeeeeeeeeearance of a Zizek, like a star seen in the night sky, after mastrubation, that no longer exists – it is a WEEESH for a Zizek. It is the Zizek of the imagination, the Zizek that dances before you, like a swan, and like the swan that ravished Leda, the eeeeemage of Zizek – the desired Zizek, the lusted after Zizek, the Zizek with an aftertaste of cabbage and sweat and shaving rash and old shirt and cologne – drives Adam on, until, like the star that is Zizek, he consumes his own self and expires brightly, in an orgy of self-ravishment, calling others to follow. That is capitalism.

And Adam? Adam EEESSS the first man, the seeker after knowledge, the pursuer. Adam is in pusuit, he seeks a meaning in the the Zizek, but, as we see, he finds none. Only gas. So he turns to Eve, and seeks his meaning in the carnal pursuit of Eve, in Eros and the pornography of the ordinary, which, though never satisfying after tasting of the heightened flesh of the scintillating, allows him to sink into his ANNNNIMAL nature.

But despite sinking into Eve so many times, Adam still yearns after the Zizek, lusts for him, dreams of him (as we all do – after all what is a boy scout?) never knowing he EEESSS the Zizek. He has finished his Trek, found his Star in its expiry, and become it. The lusted-after Zizek is the Zizek of the self, and the lust is masturbatory, like Theodre Roosevelt. Or Hitler.

Like the lust for the mother, it is disgusting, and it is this disgust that is holy. Because it is holy, the actions that are motivated by it and the self-hatred at the heart of the Western philosophical programme, that is holy. Animated by this holiness, Adam-Zizek sets out to find the Zizek at the heart of Adam-Zizek. All things are filled with this holiness, and Adam-Zizek is now nowhere and everywhere, inciting Gandhi to cruelty, Britanny Spears to poetry and many lesser lights to violence. (Violence of the ordinary type, it must be said). This is the journey of the self-discovery. This is the trophy that must be won by each person. This is the film that each person plays a role in. All roles are Zizek. But Zizek does not exist.

Thank You.

(bows; leaves)

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JoB 02.08.10 at 1:39 pm

170- odd argument, certainly coming from a non-existent, but named, individual.

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alex 02.08.10 at 2:40 pm

@172: thank you very much, that was almost moving.

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Ravi Padiyar 02.08.10 at 3:13 pm

Hi..This is Ravi Padiyar from MP..Ujjain

I just wanted to make a point that the Times of India makes no contribution towards real journalism…

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John Holbo 02.08.10 at 3:55 pm

“It’s the tone of the piece. Zizek is talking about the Lenin of What Is To Be Done; you turn that into Stalin and SMERSH and the gulag.”

On a more historical note, I actually didn’t turn the one thing into the other; it did. If you are going to talk about what is to be done, it seems worth considering what actually was done. Seriously. As JoB says: “any real Leninist is a potential monster.” I take consequentialism seriously, but I don’t exactly admire Lenin. I regard it as inappropriate to gloss over the aftermath of all that optimism.

But I forgive all, Lemuel, because of the hint (which I see you have politely retracted) that somehow analytic philosophers are averse to considering, on grounds of manifest monstrosity, cases in which one innocent is sacrificed to save many. It was refreshing to have someone say, in frustration: ‘you know, the problem with you analytic bastards is that you just won’t touch trolley problems with a 10-foot pole!’ That’s not one I get every day.

Right, now that we’re clear of all that. As to the Brecht poem:

“The interesting thing about it, in light of what John says, is that the poem doesn’t actually say anything about “the future good of the many,” or about anything relating to the future at all. There’s nothing about why the execution is necessary or useful—it’s all about the ways in which the victim’s goodness wasn’t really good”

I agree that the poem doesn’t literally expound a consequentialist philosophy in so many words, but I don’t see that there’s anything in it about all the ways in which the victims goodness wasn’t ‘really good’. Or any hint that the person deserved it, and that’s why it is happening. It’s a hard necessity. That’s the mood.

But it’s always possible to put contrary readings on poems, with a bit of ingenuity, so I’ll just shift to this point. One thing that makes me sure I’m reading the poem rightly, Lemuel, is Brecht’s reputation as an unusually hard-nosed end-justifies-the-means kind of thinker. Try Googling “brecht utilitarianism” or “Brecht consequentialism” or “Brecht ends justify the means”. That sort of thing. See if the man’s name doesn’t turn out to be associated with these concepts, by other authors and commentators who are not in the business of grinding my axe for me. Here’s one. Read this poem, and the associated commentary. See if it doesn’t support my reading.

http://www.harpers.org/archive/2008/01/hbc-90002129

But the most basic point, really, is the one I have to make in response to this comment:

“The larger point—which I can’t really articulate now—is that what if Zizek’s argument is that one becomes a revolutionary not because of any calculations about the useful effects that might be produced but because revolutionary politics seems like the only morally acceptable response to the society that we live in, that seems important and true.”

But if that’s really true – if a certain action “seems like the only morally acceptable response” to a situation (whether for utilitarian or generalized consequentialist or deonotological grounds) then we aren’t dealing with the sort of thing Zizek says we are: a Knight of Faith. Abraham isn’t the model of this leap of faith because killing his son for no apparent reason seemed like the only morally acceptable response to a situation that didn’t, apparently, call for son-killing. Zizek is reaching for an extreme of absurdism as a model for intervention in the political realm in which I, to the contrary, would prefer to seek morally acceptable lines of action.

Finally, Adam K.:

“because it’s dumb to romanticize Lenin, I’m going to assume that you haven’t done so and then conclude that you somehow got Kierkegaard wrong because of that”

I’m glad the non-existent you isn’t talking about the non-existent article that the non-existent me didn’t write. Because as a reading of the existent article that existent me wrote that would be downright pitiful. How fortunate for all involved!

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John Holbo 02.08.10 at 4:01 pm

Also: what daelm said!

178

John Holbo 02.08.10 at 4:12 pm

I mean. Damn. “That is capitalism.”

179

JR 02.08.10 at 4:13 pm

Gandhi that if you find a starving child and all that there’s around is meat than the child should be allowed to starve. He was after all a religious fundamentalist.

Zizek’s foibles and indulgences and bits of sharp observation are more interesting than yours, That’s all. Is there anyone worth reading in any other way? The best minds are 400 hitters and if Zizek hits 200 no one here would make it up to double A. All I’m reading here are librarians and bureaucrats arguing over their favorite writers. Write something that anyone other than your copains would read and I’ll be impressed.

If an open society but on questions and argument [the most important of which is: utility for what?] is attacked and puts its defense in the hands of an army run on standard military utilitarianism [meaning “Get it done!”] does that make the society itself is now founded on utilitarian principles?

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Treilhard 02.08.10 at 5:12 pm

“Our task is to put the question bluntly. What is better? To ferret out, to imprison, sometimes even to shoot hundreds of traitors from among the Cadets, non-party people, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, who “come out”… against Soviet power…? Or to allow matters to reach such a pass that Kolchak and Denikin are able to slaughter, shoot and flog to death tens of thousands of workers and peasants? The choice is not difficult to make…

Whoever has not yet understood this, whoever is capable of whining over the ‘iniquity’ of such a decision, must be given up as hopeless and held up to public ridicule and shame.” [“All out for the fight against Denikin!” 1919]

I guess that about settles it for me. Thanks for giving me a reason to reread my Lenin, John Holbo.

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Lemuel Pitkin 02.08.10 at 5:15 pm

I agree that the poem doesn’t literally expound a consequentialist philosophy in so many words, but I don’t see that there’s anything in it about all the ways in which the victims goodness wasn’t ‘really good’. Or any hint that the person deserved it, and that’s why it is happening. It’s a hard necessity. That’s the mood.

I don’t know what else to do but post part of the poem:

You cannot be bought, but the lightning
Which strikes the house, also
Cannot be bought.
You hold to what you said.
But what did you say?
You are honest, you say your opinion.
Which opinion?
You are brave.
Against whom?
You are wise.
For whom?
You do not consider your personal advantages.
Whose advantages do you consider then?

The speaker is not saying that good consequences will follow form the execution. He is saying that personal virtues are not virtuous if they are practiced without regarded for the larger system they are supporting or opposing. There’s really no other way to read it.

One thing that makes me sure I’m reading the poem rightly, Lemuel, is Brecht’s reputation as an unusually hard-nosed end-justifies-the-means kind of thinker. Try Googling “brecht utilitarianism” or “Brecht consequentialism” or “Brecht ends justify the means”.

Wow. Just wow. You are seriously saying that if a poem doesn’t seem to say you expect it to, based on received wisdom, you should ignore the text and just assume it fits with the writer’s “reputation,” backed up with a few Google hits. I think that is literally the worst way to read a poem I have ever heard of.

And by the way, when I pick up my copy of Brecht’s Collected Poems, To Those Born Later is the page it falls open to. But if you can’t hear the music, we’ll just have to talk about something else.

if a certain action “seems like the only morally acceptable response” to a situation (whether for utilitarian or generalized consequentialist or deonotological grounds) then we aren’t dealing with the sort of thing Zizek says we are: a Knight of Faith. Abraham isn’t the model of this leap of faith because killing his son for no apparent reason seemed like the only morally acceptable response to a situation that didn’t, apparently, call for son-killing. Zizek is reaching for an extreme of absurdism as a model for intervention in the political realm in which I, to the contrary, would prefer to seek morally acceptable lines of action.

Here’s (what I think is) the idea: the persistence of a world of exploitation, imperialism, alienation and war is unbearable. Revolution is an absolute moral necessity. And yet, revolution is impossible. So we have to find a way conduct ourselves as if it were possible, without deluding ourselves about the facts of the situation. That’s the problem I see Zizek’s Lenin struggling with, and it seems like a very timely problem and also one with clear resonances with Kierkegaard. You say absurdism, I hear Mario Savio.

And that, to me, is what this whole debate is like. I’ve never been a huge Zizek fan. But I keep hearing you say “Zizek says X, which is obviously wrong and absurd,” and thinking, “X sounds totally reasonable to me. Maybe this Zizek guy is onto something after all.” So at least one good thing has come out of this, for me anyway — I’m much more inclined to think Zizek has something serious and important about Lenin than I was before. As a matter of fact, I just ordered his Lenin anthology on Amazon. So, thanks!

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Walt 02.08.10 at 5:16 pm

Since I read Holbo (and Kotsko, for that matter), but I have never read Zizek, apparently you’re completely wrong, JR.

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Treilhard 02.08.10 at 5:27 pm

“Our task is to put the question bluntly. What is better? To ferret out, to imprison, sometimes even to shoot hundreds of traitors from among the Cadets, non-party people, Mensheviks and Soc1l1st-Revolutionaries, who “come out”… against Soviet power…? Or to allow matters to reach such a pass that Kolchak and Denikin are able to slaughter, shoot and flog to death tens of thousands of workers and peasants? The choice is not difficult to make…

Whoever has not yet understood this, whoever is capable of whining over the ‘iniquity’ of such a decision, must be given up as hopeless and held up to public ridicule and shame.” [“All out for the fight against Denikin!” 1919]

I guess that about settles it for me. Thanks for giving me a reason to reread my Lenin, John Holbo.

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John Holbo 02.08.10 at 5:38 pm

“He is saying that personal virtues are not virtuous if they are practiced without regarded for the larger system they are supporting or opposing. There’s really no other way to read it.”

Yes. That’s because he’s a consequentialist, an ends-justify-the-means type-guy. That’s my point, anyway. The larger ‘system’ is the greater good. So what’s the objection to my reading?

The Mario Savio comparison is interesting, actually. But it seems to me politically … well, there’s not that much THERE there. The valid point that sometimes desperate times call for desperate measure should be made plainly because it’s actually a plain point, and not dressed up as a misreading of Kierkegaard. But best of luck with the Lenin anthology.

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John Holbo 02.08.10 at 5:41 pm

Thanks, Treilhard.

186

Lemuel Pitkin 02.08.10 at 5:51 pm

The valid point that sometimes desperate times call for desperate measure should be made plainly because it’s actually a plain point, and not dressed up as a misreading of Kierkegaard.

Well, here we agree. I prefer plain writing to fancy — that’s one reason I haven’t read much Zizek in the past. But I’m going to make a good faith effort to read some of the Lenin stuff. If I find anything worthwhile, or if I decide it’s all nonsense after all, I’ll let you all know.

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John Holbo 02.08.10 at 6:03 pm

In the interest of extra good feeling, Lemuel, let me be a bit more inviting to contrary readings. Upthread you wrote:

“People should read the poem and decide for themselves, but to me it seems absolutely clear that the victim is being executed because he deserves it, not because of the consequences of the execution, which are not even hinted at.”

Why does this seem clear to you? It seems to me that the idea of shooting a strong, honest, hardworking, brave, intelligent, but ethically deluded man against a wall does not call forth a clear ‘he deserves it!’ chorus. That’s why I linked to “To Those Born Later”, because it’s an exploration of the same theme. The idea isn’t supposed to be that those born later will say ‘the bastard had it coming’. The idea is that they will say ‘he didn’t deserve THAT’. And Brecht agrees. Yet it had to be done. But surely only because of some good thing that could come out of this inherently regrettable act of violence. In itself it is only senseless and ugly, so it would never be done except for the sake of some thing to come. Hence the concern that, before the something has come, these sorts of acts ‘distort our own features’. How do you read it differently?

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JoB 02.08.10 at 6:33 pm

Revolution is an absolute moral necessity. And yet, revolution is impossible. So we have to find a way conduct ourselves as if it were possible, without deluding ourselves about the facts of the situation. That’s the problem I see Zizek’s Lenin struggling with, and it seems like a very timely problem and also one with clear resonances with Kierkegaard.

Believe you me, I would have liked to have disagreed with John (and on procedure I do probably disagree with him a lot). But things like the above quoted passage get me. I do not know about Zizek (the Gandhi/Buddhism stuff is kinda seducing), and I do not care about Lenin, but the only connection between Kierkegaard and your impossible (yet so very necessary revoluion) is (imagine psychedelic sound byte here) paradox.

Kierkegaard is about individuals and their inspiration. Individuals that think they need to save the world or something are definitely in the “Either” part of it all. I guess you’re free to think of a Kierkegaardian person whispering in Lenin’s ear and remaining out of the picture. But Lenin himself?

I don’t think Kierkegaard works (I’m rather consequentialist) but he made one heck of a valiant attempt to rey to make it work. Going all revolutionary paradox on him is not helpful. Not helpful at all.

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JR 02.08.10 at 6:39 pm

“He is saying that personal virtues are not virtuous if they are practiced without regarded for the larger system they are supporting or opposing. There’s really no other way to read it.”

“Yes. That’s because he’s a consequentialist, an ends-justify-the-means type-guy. That’s my point, anyway. The larger ‘system’ is the greater good. So what’s the objection to my reading?”

So the choice is between consequentialism and hypocrisy and you’re choosing hypocrisy.

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew… It’s better to wait.”

But don’t accuse me of dumbing things down, you’re doing too good a job of it yourself.

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gmack 02.08.10 at 6:43 pm

John Holbo’s comment at 186 puzzles me, perhaps because I’m not altogether interested in the ins and outs of utilitarian moral theories. Anyway, correct me if I’m wrong, but for the utilitarian, the good is a function of the happiness that results from the action; if the murder of our honest, hardworking, intelligent guy leads to the glorious utopia/overall happiness, then by definition the act was good, and the guy did actually deserve it. We should shoot him not only without regret, but with a sense that we have done the right thing.

So if Brecht thinks it’s true that “he didn’t deserve that, but that it had to be done anyway,” how could he be utilitarian? If he was a utilitarian, wouldn’t he simply deny that the violence was regrettable, and assert instead that it was good because it produced good consequences? Or another way of framing my puzzlement: If Brecht thinks that the action is still somehow wrong even if it produces good results or even if it “had” to be done, then the rightness/wrongness has to come from something other than the consequences of the action. If so, then perhaps for Brecht there is an ethical transcendence (an “infinite responsibility” perhaps?) that exceeds the results of the utility calculus, and it might be that Zizek’s examination of Kierkegaard’s knight of faith is an effort to highlight or illuminate it. (My apologies if this is way off; I am no expert in Zizek, Kierkagaard, Lenin, or utilitarianism).

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JR 02.08.10 at 6:48 pm

Zizek described the last section of a holocaust novel: Jews are being loaded on a train, packed in like cattle. The train goes east for 3 days in freezing temperatures; by the time it reaches its destination only a small group of children are left alive, kept warm by the bodies of the adults who had moved them to the center of the car. When the children are discovered the SS set the dogs on them. Two escape and run off in the snow. Of the two of them the younger one stumbles and the elder reaches back to help. He pulls him up as the dogs find them and attack.

How do justice to the fact of the crime and the inability to do anything but read or watch, how do justice to memory and at the same time to the moral imperative of hope? Zizek says the novel succeeds, but wonders how one could make the film. The easy solution to the ending is to freeze on the image of the clasped hands, but that makes hope too easy, protecting us from the real end. One answer would to freeze the frame but not the sound.
JR: “So idealism in the context of narrative.”
SZ “Yes!”

From my dinner with Zizek.

buh-bye

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Substance McGravitas 02.08.10 at 7:12 pm

Zizek says the novel succeeds, but wonders how one could make the film.

The interesting thing about the holocaust is that when someone writes a book about it you get to wonder how you would film it.

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john c. halasz 02.08.10 at 9:59 pm

Having taken the sensible advice and not gone back to re-read the old threads, here being rehearsed in faded-to-irrelevancy form, it seems to me nonetheless that part of the problem is Holbo’s tendency to read by translating into his own terms. Lenin wasn’t an ethical philosopher, nor necessarily any sort of philosopher, let alone an academic one, but there are three kinds of academic ethics, de-ontic, utilitarian or virtue, and Lenin must be fit in somewhere. “Utilitarian” is an odd, fractured fit, to which only parts of Lenin’s writings (as a political actor) can be accommodated, but then, aha!, it’s consequentialism that is the relevant feature, which is conventionally a “utilitarian” feature. And thus that can have nothing to do with Kierkegaard’s reflections on faith and faithfulness, closely read.

But Kierkegaard’s reflections concern the *teleological* suspension of the ethical as the key determinant of “faithfulness”, (and the horror of the immoral sacrifice is contrasted with mere resignation, with the absurdity that requires the suspension of the ethical consisting in that neither of the contradictory aims of the action are renounced). Granted the issue is being transposed from the religious context of Kierkegaard to a secular political, if still vaguely “theological”, context, but is it really so far fetched and a violation of interpretive norms that an analogy can be drawn between the two? Especially considering that a) the absurdity of acting according to contradictory aims might not be avoidable, and certainly can’t be ruled out a priori, and b) that the “higher” end that would “justify” the violation of conventional moral norms in the status quo is not just a matter of the end “justifying” the means, but that the “end” aimed at is precisely difference from the proximate and available means and conditions, an otherwise than the prevailing order and economy of Being, which can’t be calculated securely from priors. The risk of “absurdity” in political action can’t be cleanly separated out from its hope.

And then just how are “systemic” considerations to be ruled out of ethical/political consideration, in favor of intentional considerations oriented toward the maintenance of the “integrity” of personal identity, as if that latter might not be what is questionable, as if it isn’t (adherence to) the system itself that kills, a la Dr. Stockmann. Why should the structural violence of the prevailing system of social relations, which conditions and contaminates all intentions and dispositions within its terms and ambit, be ruled out of consideration? By “definition”, then, were such “systemic” considerations ruled in, then all intentions would be impure and actions contradictory. Absurdity and non-self-identity would be inseparable from consideration of the political situation “ethically”, unless “ethics” are to be merely academic. It seems to me a more complex reading of the Brecht poem might be in order, other than a mere reflection on the “ends justifying the means”, even if political instrumentalism is a considerable component of Leninist thinking.

And lastly, why should a liberal preference for a morally tailored and guided politics be regarded as self-evident or unquestionably reasonable? What if politics rather concerns unavoidable conflict between differing and incommensurable moral codes and positions, which can’t be resolved and reconciled by “superior” moral reasoning? Which, furthermore, in fact, are structured as ideologies by extra-moral material and social conditions? What if any political “morality” must take account of its exposure to the amorality of the political, on pain of otherwise indulging in evasiveness and bad faith? The self-identity and “integrity” of the autonomous individual ego, which somehow has mastered its role and intentional dispositions within systems of collective action, is not necessarily the terminus ad quem of rationality per se, let alone its application to political questions. Comfortably ensconced professors in Singapore might think so, but others might be much differently situated. And retrospective narratives about calm seas after the storm has passed hardly suffice to answer questions about how precedents are to be evaluated and transposed with respect to the urgencies, exigencies and pressures of prospective action. (The example of Max Weber’s “ethics of responsibility” comes to mind here, as re-enforcing the very rationalization tendencies that he himself criticizes and bemoans, an instance of the absurdity involved in reproducing the status quo).

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voyou 02.08.10 at 10:17 pm

surely only because of some good thing that could come out of this inherently regrettable act of violence.

What, in the poem, justifies the “surely” here? You may think that that is the only reason one might approve of the killing of the “good man”; but, obviously, you can’t just assume that Brecht agrees with you about this.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 02.08.10 at 10:20 pm

Treilhard, 182. The Denikin piece doesn’t have anything to do with his philosophy, he merely gives party organizations some talking points.

I don’t think there’s any controversy about his philosophy: it’s revolutionary marxism, slightly modified to fit the local/contemporary conditions. Capitalism achieved its highest and last stage, and it has nowhere to go but to be replaced by communism via revolution, dictatorship of the proletariat, industrial armies, all that. That required a vanguard party, to deal with all the complicated details; distributing talking points, among other tasks. All this development was inevitable anyway, he was just doing god’s work.

Is anything wrong with this interpretation? Is it still utilitarian?

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Tim Silverman 02.08.10 at 10:27 pm

Perhaps both consequentialism and anti- (or non-) consequentialism are to be found in The Interrogation of the Good, and that is causing some of this disagreement?

To me, there seems to be something of a disjunct in the poem toward the end. I agree with Holbo that the bulk of the poem is clearly arguing consequentialism against some kind of virtue ethics: the usual virtues (integrity, honesty, etc) don’t give him any claim to moral worth, because in fact his actions have evil consequences. (In fact, lemuel pitkin seems to agree with this, but doesn’t seem to regard it as consequentialism, which seems strange to me.)

But: the shooting at the end seems to go the opposite way. It seems clear to me—as also, apparently, to lemuel p—that the preceding material is the case for the prosecution, and the sentence of death is not imposed because it is necessary or because of any good consequences, but because the “good man” is, in reality, a bad man, and he deserves to be punished. There’s no thought of future deterrence—which is the usual consequentialist argument for punishment. There may be consequences in the background, but the prime impulse seems to me to be the impulse to punish.

On the other hand, the “good shovel” business, etc seems to be a return to the attack on the notion of virtue—the goodness of the shovel (its “virtue”, one might say) does nothing whatever to avert the evil consequences for the man who is about to be shot—in fact, the excellence of the bullets, if anything, makes the consequences worse. And presumably, when a man is about to be shot, Brecht imagines, the consequences are more significant to him than the virtue of the instruments of death.

(Incidentally, it also seems to me that the entire thrust of the poem is not that the virtues of the man are genuinely good, but that they have no moral value whatever. They are fakes, substitutes for consequentialism for people who don’t want to think about the consequences of their actions.)

So there seems to be some internal disagreement in the flow of the poem. Though I don’t think that this damages it as a poem, even if it damages it as moral philosophy.

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Adam Kotsko 02.08.10 at 10:40 pm

I think that the Brecht poem becomes much more comprehensible if you imagine it addressed to a centrist Democratic senator.

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John Holbo 02.09.10 at 1:49 am

voyou: “You may think that that is the only reason one might approve of the killing of the “good man”; but, obviously, you can’t just assume that Brecht agrees with you about this.”

Well, yes. That’s why I’m not just assuming it (obviously).

But let me turn it back at you. Over at Adam K.’s site I notice that you have written: “I wonder, did anyone ever take issue specifically with [Holbo’s] reading of the Brecht poem? Because claiming that that poem is utilitarian is so tone deaf as to almost count as illiteracy.” I have to wince a bit at ‘reading’. Saying that “Romeo and Juliet” is about love is not really a ‘reading’. It’s just a relatively trivial thematic observation. Likewise, I didn’t really give a ‘reading’ of the poem by saying it thematizes a certain sort of harsh, end-justifies-the-means attitude or judgment. I just take that to be relatively obvious. On internal evidence of the poem. (Why kill someone who is ‘good’? Maybe because they are actually bad. But at worst this fellow is misguided. Is that a hanging offense? Some kind of payback revenge drama? Some sort of Kantian deonotological thing? What?) Also on external evidence of the poet. There is a reason he writes poems with titles like “To Those Born Later”, and that poem titles like that get selected as anthology titles. Brecht thinks we need to do hard stuff now, not as an end in itself, but so that those born later will have it better.

Now you – in your literacy – think this view is not just non-obvious but patently ludicrous. That is, not only are there other ways to read it, but my way is clearly insupportable. Well, for the record: my take that Brecht is basically an ends-justifies-the-means guy, thematically, is a pretty standard, so it is going to turn out that most critics and commentators and translators on him are ‘illiterate’. But these things do happen, perhaps. Are you prepared to shoulder that burden of push-back against the received wisdom among Brecht readers? If so: how? Please give specifics.

Moving right along, john c. halasz: “Lenin wasn’t an ethical philosopher, nor necessarily any sort of philosopher, let alone an academic one, but there are three kinds of academic ethics, de-ontic, utilitarian or virtue, and Lenin must be fit in somewhere.”

Sorry, john halasz, why couldn’t Lenin be something else besides this? I certainly would never try to deduce in this way (would you?) I think you may be projecting your own tendency to put things in tidy boxes (usually: I’m the one who gets boxed) onto me. The argument that Lenin is a consequentialist does not proceed by process of elimination – like a game of “Clue” with whodunnit?, where? and with what ethical philosophy? cards. The proof in the pudding is reading Lenin and seeing what he says and noting that he’s obviously a consequentialist. It’s fine if you don’t want to call him a consequentialist ethical philosopher, because he doesn’t spend so much time talking about consequentialism, per se. Mostly he just assumes it. It’s the ethical logic behind his politics. So he’s a consequentialist. That’s all I’m insisting on.

““Utilitarian” is an odd, fractured fit, to which only parts of Lenin’s writings (as a political actor) can be accommodated, but then, aha!, it’s consequentialism that is the relevant feature, which is conventionally a “utilitarian” feature.”

You lost me here. First, I don’t think there are elements of Lenin’s writings that contradict my reading. There are elements of Lenin’s writings that aren’t exclusively about consequentialism. It’s like I’m saying it’s a doughnut, and you are objecting that it can’t be because it’s glazed with sprinkles – here and here and here and here. That is, it’s true that I’m not enumerating all the details, but it doesn’t follow that what I’m saying is wrong. Also, why would you think that consequentialism is ‘conventionally’ a utilitarian feature. Rather, utilitarianism is a particular form of consequentialism, and not by convention. It’s conceptually necessary, unless you know better …

Henri writes: “The Denikin piece doesn’t have anything to do with his philosophy, he merely gives party organizations some talking points.”

You don’t think there’s any ethical philosophy of the-end-justifies-the-means is implicit in those party organization talking points? If the proposal to kill lots of people, to save more people, has nothing to do with his philosophy – that is, if he doesn’t have a consequentialist philosophy – then why do YOU think he is in favor of killing the people?

In general, there’s nothing wrong with saying that Lenin is a Marxist, a communist, etc. But all that is consistent with what I say. (Doughnut point again.)

Finally, Tim Silverman: “There’s no thought of future deterrence—which is the usual consequentialist argument for punishment. There may be consequences in the background, but the prime impulse seems to me to be the impulse to punish.”

I think it’s important to remember that we are, presumptively, in the context of a revolutionary struggle. There are probably a hundred ‘good’ men about to be shot, summarily. The logic here isn’t juridical deterrence, in the conventional sense – although I think there are deterrence effects to mass shootings, for sure. Deterrence is a status quo sort of thing, and this isn’t that. It’s radical human engineering and social surgery. Carving up the body politic violently to repair it and make a better body. It’s that sort of consequentialist view. The pain of the carving is justified by the greater good of the final formation. And that good is measured by how much it serves true human happiness and flourishing in the long run. (Geeze. I’m starting to sound like a Leninist.)

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ALWC 02.09.10 at 2:34 am

I think this discussion of the Brecht poem is to some extent overthinking it. Was Stalinism consequentialist, deontologist, or based in virtue ethics? I think if you can answer that, you have your answer as to what ethical system the Brecht poem is coming from, as the worldview of it seems to me to be more Stalinist than anything. Brecht was quoted as saying of the victims of Stalinist purges that “the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot”, and that poem strikes me as basically an artistic expression of that viewpoint. Whatever else the “good man” was, the important thing by the standards of the poem is that he is, in whatever sense, seen as not being on the same side as those who are to execute him, and this is all that is required to warrant his death. Everything else about him is considered entirely irrelevant, or relevant only to the extent that his “good” qualities are seen as making him even more deserving of death, since he wasn’t using those qualities in service to the right cause. The question of what his death is intended to accomplish is also essentially irrelevant, as it’s taken as axiomatic that revolutionary violence will bring about positive results.

This, as I say, seems like Stalinism to me more than anything, which would make sense given what Brecht’s politics were (even if he did have his qualms about it at times), and I don’t think this position can be pinned down as consequentialist, deontologist, or virtue ethic-based. One could probably make a case for any of them, but Stalinism was so fundamentally incoherent that I don’t think any of them really apply- likewise with regards to the ethical worldview of that poem. I think it’s a pretty nasty piece of work, myself (as was Brecht himself), but then, I think that there’s not much difference between Stalinism and Leninism (Treilhard’s quotations from Lenin at 182 aren’t even the worst of it- Molotov once said that Stalin was a mere lamb compared to Lenin), and that Zizek’s admiration of Lenin, however qualified, is on a moral and intellectual level not really different than admiration of Mussolini (or Stalin, for that matter) would be. (I’d comment further on Zizek’s idea of Buddhism, but the discussion has moved on and daelm and DivGuy said everything I would.)

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geo 02.09.10 at 3:45 am

I loathe Lenin as much as the next nonviolent libertarian soc1alist, but I do think he deserves a better answer than he’s gotten so far in this thread. The passage @182 has a certain plausibility. To reply “But they don’t deserve to be shot, and there’s an end of it!” is no help. Why, after all, is it more important to treat people according to their deserts in this instance (or all instances) than to save hundreds of thousands of innocent lives? One answer to this question would be: because we can’t really know if it would save hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, and we don’t trust your not-at-all disinterested judgment. Another would be: because it would set a precedent so dangerous that the eventual result might be even worse than the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives — might be utter chaos, the war of all against all. Another would be: because the accumulated wisdom and experience of our civilization has gone into the making of certain fundamental rules, based on our collective judgment that the kind of trade-off you’re proposing, in addition to the precedent mentioned above, would undermine a certain sympathetic reflex — call it a taboo, if you like — against inflicting harm that we simply cannot afford to undo, without risking a change in our moral constitution, our species being, that we dare not contemplate.

These are all reasonable answers to Lenin. But they are all consequentialist answers — they all take the form of: “The results of what you propose would probably, on the whole and in the long run, be more bad than good.” I don’t, actually, see that any conceivable answer could take any other form. Which is to say, consequentialism seems to me a null hypothesis — the only kind of morality there is. Deontological and virtue ethics are merely forms, or alternative formulations, of it.

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john c. halasz 02.09.10 at 4:38 am

“Also, why would you think that consequentialism is ‘conventionally’ a utilitarian feature. Rather, utilitarianism is a particular form of consequentialism, and not by convention. It’s conceptually necessary, unless you know better …”

Umm…, because I thought, as I read the earlier part of this thread, that why is Holbo insisting on “utilitarianism”, when what he means is “consequentialism”, which was later confirmed by your own “confession”. And, since the initial quote from Zizek has proven to be false, this thread amounts to commentary on argumentative/interpretive impasses, proximately between you and Adam K., but perhaps applying more generally to the broader issues involved. FYI I’ve never been a fan of Lenin, and have regarded Leninism as a deformation of Marxism, but it’s still worth reconsidering the historical precedents involved, rather than consigning them to “the enormous condescension of posterity”. I tend to regard Lenin as a Machiavellian political actor, and thus, yes, a “consequentialist”, and, yes, some of his putative aims, such as the industrialization of the former Russian empire by administrative fiat, had “utilitarian” features. But he wasn’t explicitly an ethical philosopher. On the other hand, it does little good to ignore the historical opposition that he faced,- and its own violence,- and, while regarding him in Kierkegaardian terms, as a “knight of faith”, might seem odd, circa 1920, (though the exemplary instance of Lukacs might make it more plausible), the main point about the “teleological suspension of the ethical”, in retrospect, at least, qualifies any strict instrumentalism. Your interpretative approach is “responsibly” choosing what it acknowledges and what it denies, which might be the “whole” point. At any rate, what Kierkegaard is concerned with, (though this might be an Adornian take), amounts to a negative version of “virtue ethics”, hence a kind of “consequentialism” other than utilitarian.

It strikes me as odd that you insist upon a poem as textual “evidence”, as if that were the only sort of evidence that would “count”. A poem is liable to be ambiguous, full of contradictory tensions, ironical, shifting in perspectives, etc. A poem is never a “statement”. In fact, the poem in question is an indication that Brecht, friend of Benjamin, for all his commitment to “crude thinking” and the stripping down/alienation of bourgeois sentiment, felt the reparative burden involved in commitments to political violence. Perhaps a way to look at the matter might be to consider literary productions by Sartre, in which the point-of-view of the condemned man is taken. That’s an equal absurdity in the “face” of a fascist executioner. Cui bono? Who and what gets to decide upon the “good”? And on the “level” on which it occurs?

“It’s radical human engineering and social surgery. Carving up the body politic violently to repair it and make a better body. It’s that sort of consequentialist view. The pain of the carving is justified by the greater good of the final formation. And that good is measured by how much it serves true human happiness and flourishing in the long run. (Geeze. I’m starting to sound like a Leninist.)”

Precisely. You and Brad DeLong, who’s at least a professed utilitarian, despite its contravention of the methodological canon of neo-classical economics. It’s not as if “social engineering” is avoidable within capitalist/industrialist modernity and its conceptions of “policy”, as suborning human agency. And it’s not as if “good people” aren’t dying, steadily, in ways large and small, in the “name” of some sort of authoritatively self-appointed “greater good”. It’s more a matter of who will claim the corpses and how they will name them.

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John Holbo 02.09.10 at 5:34 am

john c. halasz: “Umm…, because I thought, as I read the earlier part of this thread, that why is Holbo insisting on “utilitarianism”, when what he means is “consequentialism”, which was later confirmed by your own “confession”.”

I’m not sure what my ‘confession’ was. Your use of the word seems to be the first in the thread, but I am happy to settle any lingering confusion about terms. I think it used to be the case that people – philosophers and non-philosophers, intellectuals and writers – used ‘utilitarianism’ when they meant what we (philosophers) would today call ‘consequentialism’: maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. From which follows (to a first approximation): the ends justify the means. Today ‘utilitarianism’ tends to be reserved for a narrower set of consequentialist positions about what ends truly do justify the means. Utilitarianism is, by definition, a type of consequentialism. When I wrote the Zizek piece I was reading older stuff about Lenin – Edmund Wilson, for example (I think I’m remembering rightly what I was reading) – who tend to use ‘utilitarian’ where we would now say ‘consequentialist’. I sort of got into the habit. This may have caused some confusion, but I don’t really think it was unclear, in the paper, how I was using my terms.

“On the other hand, it does little good to ignore the historical opposition that he faced”

Yes, I would not be in favor of that either. Do you think I’m committed to doing that? Or actually doing that? Why, and how so?

“It strikes me as odd that you insist upon a poem as textual “evidence”, as if that were the only sort of evidence that would “count”.”

It strikes me as odd that you assume that regarding one thing as evidence is incompatible with regarding anything else as evidence. Where’s the sense in that? At any rate, I disclaim such a narrow view.

Why pick a poem at all? Am I unaware that poems can be tricky to interpret? No, actually I got the memo on that one. I didn’t pick the poem. Zizek did. Zizek says: this is the sort of thing I’m talking about. So we look and see: what sort of thing is it? It might be better to substitute something from Sartre, but it wouldn’t exactly be fair to Zize, since he picked Brecht.

I don’t think it’an especially good poem. It’s got a kind of ugly, calculating swagger to it – it smacks its lips in satisfaction while it counts the costs – which is not really what you are looking for in a sane and safe consequentialism; yet I don’t think it’s calculated to be ugly that way. So it strikes a false note. “To Those Born Later” is more in the line you specify: reparative burden-bearing. But it’s all consequentialism. The niceties of poetry interpretation are not going to discover that really the whole thing is a Deathwish revenge drama, after all, and the guy against the wall killed the speaker’s daughter and now it’s – payback! Or anything radically non-consequentialist like that.

As to geo’s point that all ethics is consequentialism, so calling someone a consequentialist is trivial – well, I would entertain tha possibility up to a point. Many apparently non-consequentialist ethical values are best regarded as disguised consequentialism. But it’s not trivially obvious that they all are. That’s a fairly bold claim, actually.

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geo 02.09.10 at 6:16 am

anything radically non-consequentialist like that

Would a revenge killing be non-consequentialist? Well, suppose you asked the potential revenge killer, whose daughter has been killed, for a moral justification. He might say: “F*ck justification! The b****rd ruined my life, so I’m going to kill him!” This is not a non-consequentialist justification; it is not any kind of justification. Or he might say: “He took an innocent life, so he deserves to die, but he’s rich and well-connected, so he might escape punishment if I don’t kill him. I know there are good reasons in general for not taking justice into one’s own hands, but I just couldn’t bear it if he got off.” This again (“I couldn’t bear it”) is not a justification of any kind, consequentialist or other. Or he might say: “He deserves to die; why shouldn’t I administer the punishment?” Then we go over the (consequentialist) reasons for not taking justice into one’s own hands (nemo judex in causa sua; rules are the indispensable framework of social life, etc.), and ask if he has any argument for overriding them, If he does, they can only, I suggest, be consequentialist ones. I can’t conceive of any other kind, in this case or Lenin’s.

Can you or someone else offer a reason in either of these cases that doesn’t take the form of “You should/shouldn’t do this because the results will probably, on the whole and in the long run, be better/worse if you do”?

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John Holbo 02.09.10 at 6:31 am

Geo, suppose I say ‘he took an innocent life, and everyone who does that deserves to die, so he deserves to die.’ That is a justification for killing him (close enough that we can let the details float – maybe the state should execute him). And it is not consequentialist. It says nothing about that. The reason that those who kill deserve to die is that it is right – just. And now I should probably do my best to say what I mean by right and just. But it is not a foregone conclusion that I will say that they reduce to maximizing the good.

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Keir 02.09.10 at 7:01 am

Treilhard, 182. The Denikin piece doesn’t have anything to do with his philosophy, he merely gives party organizations some talking points.

Hitherto the philosophers etc etc. The point of Marxist philosophy is that it distributes talking points, that it leads revolutions, that it makes the world a better place.

The problem with Zizek is not that he is a Marxist, or even a Leninist. It is that he is an astonishingly bad Marxist, and an astonishingly bad Leninist. Kotsko somewhere talks about a Democratic Senator as the good man of Brecht’s poem, but that’s nonsense. Neither Zizek nor Kotsko have any intention of actually going out and having a revolution.

I mean: “Revolution is an absolute moral necessity. And yet, revolution is impossible. So we have to find a way conduct ourselves as if it were possible, without deluding ourselves about the facts of the situation.” is nonsense, it’s anti-leninist, it’s utter shite. The revolution is not a moral necessity that can be impossible. That’s just not what the revolution is to Lenin. To Lenin, the revolution is a thing like electrification.

The Zizek project is a way to pretend you have a “commitment” to communism with doing anything “concrete”, but unfortunately, the bones of communism are concrete.

NOTE FROM THE MANAGEMENT: comments close automatically after a week and they just closed for this thread. I thought I could just open them up again – since folks are still commenting – but apparently not. Maybe I’ll start a fresh thread if folks want to keep it up. Apologies also to a few commenters who got stuck in the queue and only got turned on after the show was over. That was my oversight. – JH

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