“Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?” by Slavoj Zizek, 2001
Zizek has written another book that only indirectly relates to the title or concise back-cover description. For socialists the main ideological issue preventing the re-spreading of Marxist and socialist ideas is, of course, the identification of socialism with ‘totalitarianism’ or ‘terrorism.’ In the conventional American discourse, once pronounced a ‘totalitarian,’ all argument is at an end. That, ostensibly, was the purpose of the writing this book – as part of that ideological combat.
Zizek has written an excellent introduction to Trotsky’s “Terrorism and Communism,” decrying the domestication of some Trotskyists in comparison to their inspiration (and indirectly, many other Marxists and ‘socialists’), proving that he does not shy away from hard questions. So one might expect this volume to be as clear and forceful as Trotsky on the issue of totalitarianism. Quite the opposite.
Zizek starts this 5 chapter book on totalitarianism with a long section on Lacanian dialectics and theatrical tragedy. As impenetrable as always, I can only refer to David Foster Wallace and George Orwell’s discussions of academic ‘dialect’ as being transferable to these almost useless pages of culture philosophy dialect (Kulturkampf Kriticizm?):
“I regard academic English not as a dialectal variant of Standard Written English, but as a gross debasement.,,” - David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage.”
Academic English is ‘a mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence’ in which ‘it is common to come across long passages which are almost completely devoid of meaning.’ - George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”
And Wallace again, “the obscurity and pretension of Academic English can be attributed in part to a disruption in the delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer’s own resume. In other words, it is when a scholar’s vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed … by opaque abstraction …Etc. (“Authority and American Usage”)
Or perhaps Lacan made him do it. This chapter contains a lengthy defense of Christianity as a religion in which Christ broke the ‘chain of payment’ by dying for love of humanity – an Act ostensibly outside history, and thus unlike any other religion. Including some handy arguments against Gnosticism and paganism, which Zizek opposes as philosophically conservative religious traditions, he nevertheless is less than convincing. Much less. I think Zizek is preparing here for more help on the issue of voluntarism and the Revolutionary Act.
Chapter 2 is a short inquiry into fascism, one of the traditional forms of totalitarianism. Zizek’s analysis ends with the support of laughter in the face of the holocaust. This inspiring idea comes from several movies that Zizek watched.
Chapter 3 is a longer inquiry into the Stalinist period, especially the 1930s. Zizek clearly opposes Stalinism and bureaucratism, but seems to only have an ethical response to it. Zizek tiptoes around Trotsky – endorsing Trotsky’s supposed view that the nomenklatura would be overthrown by the workers, or the bureaucracy would end up owning the means of production in a new phase of capitalism. The latter is what actually happened in those countries suffering counter-revolution. He really focuses on Bukharin’s groveling before Stalin during the show trials, assuredly for the psychological ‘frisson’ that generates.
As Zizek puts it, the Party ‘committed suicide’ in 1937. I would say it was murdered. As even he details, 79 of 82 District Party secretaries were shot ... not to mention the overwhelming majority of the Central Committee. On the theoretical level, Zizek endorses Lukac’s criticism of Stalinism, as a ‘stagist’, ‘objectivist’ deformation of revolutionary Marxism. (But not Trotsky’s analysis, which was similar. Again, can you hear the tip-toeing?) He also favorably compares Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia in this period. Zizek asserts this is because ‘everyone’ in Germany never became a suspect, unlike the situation in 1938 Russia. Even Yezhov, Stalin’s master butcher, was arrested, as were many other loyal Stalinists. A ‘war of all against all’ was initiated, because, according to Zizek, ‘rhetoric was insufficient’ for the Stalin clique to retain power. He also has an interesting section on Shostakovich, who was arrested and nearly shot, and the contradictory idea of a ‘closet dissident.’
Chapter 4 discusses melancholy. In which Zizek compares the Pope favorably to the Dalai Lama. In which Zizek opposes ‘post-secular’ thought, and makes a plea for a ‘materialist creationism.’ And in which melancholy is the true heartache of good capitalists everywhere. And one without melancholy is accused of being a totalitarian. Did you know that melancholy was even an issue? Now you do!
Chapter 5 is an ‘inside the philosophy department’ discussion of Cultural Studies, Social Democratic ‘Third Way’ politics, cognitivism, deconstructionist evolutionism, cognitivist Buddhism, religious scientism, etc. The most interesting aspect here (other than an introduction to some minor philosophic movements) is the focus on Cultural Studies, which is essentially a name for PC multi-culturalism. It has been accused of being ‘totalitarian’ by right-wingers. Zizek discusses both its reactionary aspects and its progressive side using a maddeningly ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ method, eventually coming out against it from a class point of view. He also clearly attacks Social Democracy as the logical twin of right-wing populism, as it is Social Democracy that has brought right-wing populism forward due to its failure to really represent working class interests. This is a word for word description of the politics of the neo-liberal Democratic Party.
Zizek is a Lacanian in this book, if you count his non-existent objections to any idea Lacan every had. However, Zizek makes objections to another way of thinking. Nearly every time he mentions some Marxist idea he adds some negative adjective to accompany it - ‘hoary’ or ‘old fashioned’ or ‘ancient.’ In one somewhat astonishing paragraph, he says:
“… reasserting the authentic spirit of the Marxist tradition means leaving behind its letter, (Marx’s particular analysis and proposed revolutionary measures, which are irreducibly tainted by the tradition of ontology) in order to save from the ashes the authentic Messianic promise of emancipatory liberation. The Marxian heritage('s) … essential core is redeemed through the very overcoming/renouncing its particular historical shape.” (page 153-154)
This, I think, could be seen as a plea for modernizing Marxism by a ‘kind’ reader, but a more accurate reading is that ‘Messianic promises of emancipatory liberation’ are not exclusive to Marxism. And that some ‘letters’ of Marx might still be relevant. This is perhaps why you never hear Zizek talk about the working class or economics in any concrete detail.
A book about how to turn the totalitarian logic inside out, about how the liberal totalitarians of today’s Capital are really the problem, i.e. the New Totalitarians? Not here. Someone else will have to write that book ... not Professor Zizek.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, April 2, 2012