Laid to rest

As many readers may know, John Holbo and I have had a long-running dispute about the correctness and value of his article entitled “Zizek and Trilling”, taking a positive and a negative view, respectively. Last night, I decided to “reboot” the conversation by rereading the article with fresh eyes and saying what I thought was wrong with it. Here is what I wrote:

Okay, you say that the Brecht poem is an example of utilitarianism. Nowhere in the poem does it say anything about utility or future generations, etc.—it just says the good man is the speaker’s enemy, i.e., the enemy of the revolutionary cause. Similarly, you say that Lenin is a utilitarian. Maybe you could argue that he was, but it’s clear that that’s not what Zizek thinks of him. If Kierkegaard isn’t a utilitarian—and clearly he isn’t, then I would assume that Zizek putting together Lenin and Kierkegaard means that Zizek doesn’t think Lenin is a utilitarian.

That’s a key difference between us: you are assuming that Zizek is getting Kierkegaard wrong (based, incidentally, on a lot of stuff that you are importing into the text), whereas I’m assuming he’s getting Kierkegaard right (in a way that, broadly speaking, we would both agree is “right”), and interpreting his stuff on Lenin in that light. Lenin is suspending the ethical from two points of view—he’s violating liberal democracy, obviously, but he’s also violating the supposed “natural” course of events dictated by Marxist theory. He has no guarantees, either of liberal proceduralism nor Marxist progressivism. That is the aspect of Lenin Zizek finds most appealing, not some bullshit about broken eggs automatically leading to omelettes. The whole point is that Lenin has no guarantee, so why would you say that Zizek thinks the results are guaranteed?

He’s talking about being willing to take a risk, being willing to take steps that within your present “normal” frame of reference may even seem despicable. Now there’s the Jack Bauer version of that, being willing to torture, etc., to save the system (the same might be said of Bush, or indeed of Stalin)—Zizek’s clear that that’s not what he’s after. He’s talking about taking a risk in service of revolutionary change. You’re fond of pointing out what liberals already know—well, Zizek already knows that the results of revolution aren’t guaranteed and can be quite ugly. He was born and raised in a communist society, for example. So the whole Gulag Archipelago thing was pretty pointless, especially given that Zizek’s opposition to Stalinism has been a constant.

More broadly, he’s not advocating reviving Leninism whole-hog. He’s investigating Leninism as an example of the formal structure of revolution. Why might we need a revolution, you understandably ask? Well, that example of Clinton’s health care initiative that you take to indicate how very confused Zizek is—isn’t it sad that, given how all the evidence is in favor of single-payer healthcare, it seems absolutely impossible to conceive of our good liberal elites delivering it to us? If procedural liberalism isn’t enough to give us a humane outcome on a question like health care when essentially all the evidence is on one side, then what good is it? I think it actually reinforces Zizek’s argument that such an obvious move can seem like an attempt at revolution in our context.

Overall, though, the central question is the whole point about utilitarianism: you are completely importing that into Zizek’s argument. If you remove the utilitarianism piece, then suddenly it becomes clear that Zizek—as we would expect from an educated and well-read person—can actually understand Kierkegaard! And the parallel with Lenin is much clearer as well, since he’s not portraying Lenin (or Brecht’s speaker!) as a utilitarian. Insofar as you are importing utilitarianism into Zizek’s argument, therefore, you are misreading Zizek and are therefore wrong.

Further down, I clarify:

Let’s assume Lenin really is, in real life, a utilitarian. (And maybe he is!) Let’s further assume that Zizek thinks that he is something other than a utilitarian, something more analogous to the knight of faith—at least at some point in his career. (Zizek does, after all, have this whole anthology of Lenin’s writings from a crucial moment, accompanied by a lengthy intro and conclusion, where he lays this all out.) If both of these things are true, then the furthest you can get is, “Zizek’s argument is based on a false premise—Lenin is obviously a utilitarian and there’s just no way around that.” He would then be guilty of misreading not Kierkegaard, but Lenin—i.e., misreading Lenin in a Kierkegaardian way. So you could reasonably point out the ways in which his Kierkegaard stuff makes him misunderstand Lenin. What you couldn’t reasonably do is to import a view of Lenin that Zizek does not hold and then say how it makes it obvious that Zizek’s reading Kierkegaard wrong.

It seems to me that the only evidence you have in favor of construing Zizek as a brutal misreader of Kierkegaard is the fact that Lenin, in real life, is a utilitarian. Yet in Zizek’s reading, he’s not! He’s something analogous to a knight of faith! And Zizek really does appear to understand the basic outline of a knight of faith! So again, if you reject the possibility that Lenin is a non-utilitarian, then you just can’t get that much further into his argument—certainly not far enough to accuse him of misreading Kierkegaard.

In my most recent comment, I clarify further:

Zizek admits that he’s isolating a certain moment in Lenin—again, he has an anthology of relevant writings of Lenin accompanied by lengthy attempts to justify that move. I’m not trying to decide the question of whether Lenin is a utilitarian. I’m just saying, on the procedural level, that if you are convinced that Lenin is always and only a utilitarian (i.e., that Zizek’s attempt to isolate some glimmer of something else in Lenin is doomed to failure), then you just have to reject his argument tout court. You don’t get to go into his text, plug in things about Lenin that Zizek isn’t talking about, and then show how incoherent it makes it. That’s just a fundamentally flawed procedure. I’m not saying at all that you have to agree with Zizek’s reading of Lenin, nor am I attempting to defend it. I’m saying that your article goes beyond what it can reasonably do, given that you reject such a core premise.

There are a lot of things you could do after rejecting this core premise. You could say, “Oh, isn’t it sad that the revolutionary left is reduced to such mystical gestures?” (That seems to be what Rich is aiming at.) You could make broader reference to the attempts of other leftists to reclaim some elements of Christianity and what a negative sign that is, etc. There are a million directions you could reasonably go. Where you cannot reasonably go is where you in fact did go—substituting your understanding of Lenin for Zizek’s and then showing how, when you import presuppositions that Zizek clearly does not share, his argument doesn’t work.

Again, I emphasize that this is a procedural point. Your argument is flawed on the methodological level. It’s not that you’re not allowed to disagree with Zizek or that I’m just annoyed that you’re criticizing my hero or whatever. It’s that your procedure fundamentally does not make sense.

Holbo will undoubtedly continue to argue against me, and masochist that I am, I will continue to respond. Yet I believe those three comments get at the heart of what is wrong with his article, such that I can simply refer back to this same point from here on out — which is, indeed, my motivation for posting this.