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Daring hypothesis

Published : Feb 24, 2012 00:00 IST

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Slavoj Zizek argues for a return to the ideals of the past despite the risks.

IF one living philosopher can be named as the heir to Michael Foucault, it is Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian thinker and critic, now a professor at the European Graduate School and the Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. He is also a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and a visiting professor at a number of universities. A provocative writer with a wealth of philosophical insights, Zizek has written more than 40 books on subjects ranging from the analysis of Hitchcock movies to Lacanian thought, and from the deconstruction of the film Titanic to Christian theology.

Full of unusual thought and exhilarating wit, his book In Defense of Lost Causes is a daring hypothesis that argues for a return to the ideals of the past despite the risks. He gets his impetus from Samuel Beckett's advice: Try again. Fail again. Fail better. It is with this perseverence and indomitable courage to face defeat that Zizek makes a case for revolutionary terror and the dictatorship of the proletariat. His impassioned critique of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, or the tragic aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, and the terror unleashed by Robespierre also contains a deep optimism over these failed movements. A rather unconventional position, it nevertheless has behind it the intellectual rigour and historical relevance that Zizek's charismatic writing is famous for.

Though his detractors would scoff at the master narratives of Marx, Freud or Mao, Zizek holds on to the defence of the so-called lost causes. He stands up for Martin Heidegger even though he was guilty of defending the Nazi machinery. For Zizek, revolutionary thinkers took the right step in the wrong direction. Behind those steps there might have been dreams of ushering in a liberated and just society and idealism and hope for a better tomorrow. It was unfortunate that such movements ended in carnage and despair on an unthinkable scale, but the goal was always a joyous future. Objecting to Hitler's energies being spent on the extermination of Jews rather than the destruction of capitalism, Zizek says that when it came to ushering in real change, he put it in the deep freeze. Hitler's mistake was that he was not radical enough and failed to disturb the basic structure of the modern capitalist social space.

It is with a deep sense of seriousness and philosophical insight that Zizek takes the risk of projecting a standpoint that looks at the brighter side of totalitarian politics, which would apparently provoke intellectual outrage in thinkers who examined history from the perspective of anti-human or totalitarian movements. Indeed, it is a daring effort close to the ferocious thought of Hannah Arendt in its reconciliation with the true nature of evil' and its genealogical underpinnings that draw us towards inherent motivations that are always positive. Zizek is not trying to defend Hitler or Robespierre; his aim is to underscore the importance of not disregarding them, especially by Left intellectuals who need to reinvent their ideological stance so as not to give in easily to the onslaught of capitalism. Let the failures of the great revolutions not discourage the Left in its passion for transformation.

And let post-postmodernists like him not merely hit out against capitalist hegemony from the margins, but begin to regard the marginalised or the proletarian masses of the world as the site of action for egalitarian terror against any infringement on human rights or attack on the welfare of the ecological system. Zizek believes in giving the dictatorship of the proletariat a chance and in a worldwide egalitarianism that would bestow on every citizen of the earth equal rights and equal obligations towards the preservation of our planet. This, therefore, is Zizek's way of supporting his friend and philosopher Alain Badiou's thesis of democratic materialism, a kind of universal emancipation through the eternal Idea of revolutionary-egalitarian Justice, supported by a philosophy of human autonomy and responsibility grounded in the Cartesian cogito.Positioning himself at a postmodern juncture, Zizek argues that in an era of panoply of positions which struggle for hegemony, we need to break away from foundationalism to systems of philosophy that do not look for big ideas or grand theories or explanations: the violent imposition of grand solutions should leave room for forms of specific resistance and intervention. Interestingly, Zizek points out at the outset that even those who consider postmodernism as a bag of bullshit share its aversion towards strong thought' and its large-scale explanations.

Keeping in view the cultural contradictions of capitalism by which it undermines its own ideological conditions, Zizek argues for a need to draw a line between what we can think and what we can do. Knowing fully well that there is no viable alternative to capitalism even as its operation has shown how it makes all loss social and all gain only for the select, the answer lies in a conservative liberalism or the Third Way which brings about a blend of economic liberalism with a minimally authoritarian spirit of community that counteracts the system's excess. Or, as Anthony Giddens points out in his book The Third Way, Global problems respond to local initiatives but they also demand global solutions. We can't leave such problems to the erratic swirl of global markets and relatively powerless international bodies if we are to achieve a world that mixes stability, equity, and prosperity.

The new Right first gloated at the demise of the Soviet Union, and then turned around and attacked the new democratic-capitalist reality. As Zizek points out in a recent essay, at first it was better dead than red and now it is better red than eat hamburgers. The rise of the rightist populism is not an Eastern European specialty, but a common feature of all countries caught in the vortex of globalisation. The rise of anti-communism is another phenomenon that is seen in many of the erstwhile satellite states of the Soviet Union, such as Hungary or Lithuania. In Slovenia, the Left is seen as a continuation of the old communist ideology. This new anti-Communist scare even goes after symbols. In June 2008, Lithuania passed a law prohibiting the public display of communist images like the hammer and sickle, as well as the playing of the Soviet anthem. In April 2009, the Polish government proposed expanding a ban on totalitarian propaganda to include communist books, clothing and other items: one could even be arrested for wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. The conclusion one derives from such a scenario is a feeling of being betrayed both by the forces of both capitalism and communism. But herein lies Zizek's case of replacing the postmodernist scepticism with a leap of faith, a faith in lost causes. The change that it suggests is the shift from authoritarianism to the truth that emerges from the situation itself. In other words, the truth' itself speaks: Not by running after objective truth' but by holding onto the truth about the position from which one speaks.

In this context, Zizek looks at Marxism and psychoanalysis and feels these are the only two theories which imply and practise such an engaged notion of truth. They are both struggling theories about struggle and their histories do not consist in an accumulation of neutral knowledge, for they are marked by schism, heresies, expulsions. That is why, in both of them, the relationship between theory and practice is properly dialectical, in other words, that of an irreducible tension: theory is not just the conceptual grounding of practice, it simultaneously accounts for why practice is ultimately doomed to failure, or as Freud put it concisely, psychoanalysis would only be fully possible in a society that would no longer need it. It is clear that Freud's five clinical reports are reports on partial success and ultimate failure. And so are the Marxist historical accounts of German Peasant Wars, of the Jacobeans in the French Revolution, of the Paris Commune, of the October Revolution, of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Such failures confront the theoretician with the possibilities of seeking out features of emancipatory potential' in these movements. This formulation can be further corroborated by Alain Badiou's thought which castigates the master narratives of anti-authoritarian thinkers who are long dead but, as argued by Badiou himself, true ideas are indestructible and come back to life, particularly at junctures of their demise.

Sifting through this dense philosophical argument, one comes to the understanding that spectres of radicalism emerge at the moment when we most feel that Marxism is dead. We gradually move from state-centred to multilayered global politics where the demand for economic equality becomes the growing scream of the public. Contestation is basic in this highly complex world of interstate systems and the ongoing brawl between localism and the governance schema generated by the forces of globalisation. And amid all these free market equations. global transformist thought in areas of social justice, universal human rights, the rule of law, global anti-war movements and transnational amity remains an aspiration of survival and a motivating force behind all liberation movements. In such a political and economic scenario, Slavoj Zizek needs to be given serious consideration. Any discussion in the area of social scientific practice and philosophy cannot ignore his prolific work, which has the unique merit of coalescing the rich tradition of modern social thought with the challenges of whatever is new and unprecedented in our post-traditional world.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 24, 2012.)

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