My penance

Over at Crooked Timber, I think it’s reasonable to say that I violated my rule against debating with Holbo about Zizek, though most of the debate was in fact about the past debate, etc. It’s embarrassing, but I thought I might as well do a follow-up post in which I make things up to the world by saying something substantive.

First, I am glad to find that Zizek was misquoted in an interview in which he is supposed to have said some really incomprehensible stuff about Gandhi. If you read that interview and were puzzled, there you have it — and apparently the paper in which it appeared is not well-reputed.

Second, I think that the whole long-running debate touches on an old comment thread where we discussed Jameson’s claim that interpretations should be judged by how “interesting” they are. Holbo has read Zizek in such a way that he’s basically saying things (often quite stupid things) at random. I will concede that such a reading can sadly have a certain plausibility, especially in particular books, and that once you’ve accepted that hermeneutical lens, even his better books can become fodder for that.

Once you’re in that framework, it’s hard to be convinced otherwise — perhaps even impossible. I complain that he dismissed my attempts to persuade him, but that dismissal was probably inevitable given that his reaction to Zizek was apparently a combination of frustration and morbid fascination. So I would venture to say that at the end of the day, the biggest point in favor of my reading of Zizek, both on the specific point we were debating and in general, is that it’s interesting and it makes Zizek more interesting.

A reading of Zizek that makes him uninteresting could itself be interesting in terms of broader trends in academia that have allowed such a charlatan to gain such fame, etc., but I stand by my conviction that it’s more interesting to assume Zizek is interesting and then find interesting things in Zizek’s text — including interesting patterns underlying his seemingly random organization. That such a reading is possible is demonstrated by the very fact that I have done it, and in fact I have an article coming out soon where I try to show that my reading is robust enough that Zizek’s more recent work can be read in light of it in ways that continue to be interesting.

Overall, then, perhaps my long-standing emphasis on the necessity of a charitable first reading was misplaced, especially since it led to all kinds of blind alleys about how supposedly I was saying people have to “agree” with Zizek. I don’t “agree” with Zizek on a lot of points — in fact, a lot of his work is on topics that are so far from my core concerns that it doesn’t even make sense to talk in terms of “agreement.” I do find him interesting on most points, though, and I think a discussion that presupposes he’s interesting is bound to be more interesting than one that presupposes he doesn’t. I think that Holbo and I have certainly worked very hard to demonstrate the converse, at least, namely that a conversation starting from the premise that Zizek is uninteresting is very, very uninteresting.

18 thoughts on “My penance

  1. This is very nicely put. Especially in a conversation hinging, occasionally, on the idea of utilitarianism, I was struck by how quickly the part of my brain that’s tired from having been writing all morning curled up in self-defense and refused to even begin to try to understand what was happening in the death-match of Heidegger/Lenin/Zizek/Kotsko/Holbo that was playing out, which is to say how quickly it realized that almost nothing that was happening in that conversation was going to be of any real use. Oh, philosophy…

  2. Living halfway between Berkeley & San Francisco, I can say without hesitation that there is very little that is less interesting than self-congratulatory, back-slapping moralism, which seems the upshot of Holbo et al’s reading.

  3. After all these years, what still pisses me off is that he insists that I never told him what my objection to his article was. But I did! It’s his right to be unconvinced by the objection I offered, but Jesus H. Christ! By his logic, I could claim that he never even wrote an article on Zizek!

  4. I think, if you ever get tempted to converse with Holbo on this subject again, you should definitely take that approach.

    I do think at least one useful thing came out of that whole disagreement, because it clarified for me the existence (and tenacity) of a kind of bizarro-world principle of charity; what you identify as Holbo’s illegitimate method, which is not all that uncommon, particularly in analytic philosophy circles. The idea seems to be that a charitable interpretation is one that attributes to an author the maximum number of true statements, even if that renders their position incoherent. Obviously, this is a problematic method to employ if you and the author you’re interpreting disagree about what is true.

    Also, looking at your compilation of your responses to Holbo, I wonder, did anyone ever take issue specifically with his reading of the Brecht poem? Because claiming that that poem is utilitarian is so tone deaf as to almost count as illiteracy.

  5. In the current Crooked Timber post, someone is indeed bringing up that very point about the Brecht. “So tone deaf as to almost count as illiteracy” is a very useful phrase for these kinds of conversations.

  6. Thanks Adam for posting this link which suggests a possible misquotation. When I read that interview I instantly remembered how at the recent Postmodernism Culture and Religion 3 event in Syracuse Zizek said the exact opposite, that Hitler was weak and that Gandhi was violent (and should be celebrated as violent, not, as the interview suggests that he was critical of his ‘violence’ or that his violence was helping British imperialism). And it had occurred to me that this wasn’t one of those frequent cases where we could chalk up what seemed like an inconsistency on our first reading to a more interesting tension or movement in his thought.

  7. Given that Zizek has (on multiple occasions) said and written the precise opposite of that quote, I’m unsure as to how that Holbo fellow can have any credibility, given the way that he handles it. I mean, I’m no Zizek expert (I’ve only read half a dozen of his books, skipped a lot of his earlier writings, and haven’t formally studied him at all), but even I could immediately tell what was wrong.

    I also tried to make it through some of the comment threads of the past discussions… and failed.

    Why bother with ding-dongs like that? But, then again, that’s a question I’m constantly asking myself when I converse with Christians about the need to move into more genuine forms of economic mutuality and solidarity with poor people (if, at least, one wishes to claim some sort of solidarity or union with Christ). I’ve tried every angle — I’ve done the serious biblical and theological work, I’ve appealed to their emotional side, I’ve provoked them, making them feel sad, angry, guilty, inspired, intellectually stimulated, and so on — but none of it really makes a difference.

  8. “I complain that he dismissed my attempts to persuade him, but that dismissal was probably inevitable given that his reaction to Zizek was apparently a combination of frustration and morbid fascination.”

    Well, if I may seek to set the record straight from my perspective – which I realize may be a most unwelcome thing – I never dismissed you, Adam. So it wearies me slightly that you keep saying I did. (I know, we’ve been through this before. And then again. And then again.)

    You proposed a reading. I said it was less outrageous than what I’d seen in the text, which was something; but it didn’t seem terribly philosophically compelling or supported by the text. If it had seemed compelling to me, I could have waived the textual support requirement. But without it, we really need textual evidence. You said it would be too much bother to provide that. I should take your word for it. I said that’s fine, but I’m not willing to accept a view that looks wrong, to me, without evidence. So we will have to agree to disagree. You got angry about this ‘dismissal’.

    But what was I supposed to say, under the circumstances? You can’t seriously be proposing that I should accept a reading that looks wrong to me, about a text I know rather well, on the basis of no evidence.

    And you can’t seriously be expecting that I will regard this sort of thing as an objection to my own views. I say: here’s my argument. You say: but I think something else. Well, that’s fine. But that’s not an objection, just a statement of your opinion. What could be less surprising than me being unmoved by it? Yet you act as though me not immediately accepting your say-so is evidence of some deep pathology. I must be assuming that Zizek is nonsense from the start! No. I’m just NOT assuming that he is NOT nonsense.

    Of course you and I are aggravated by each other by this point, and that feeds things. But that’s something to be gotten past, not clung to. We used to be quite friendly, after all. For the record: I didn’t post about Zizek to bait you out of retirement. I just thought it was a crazy-looking stretch of interview. And now we know it was probably badly mistranscribed. So I performed, in an inadvertent and roundabout way, a minor public service to Zizek studies by drawing attention. All for the best, then!

  9. Sorry, Anthony, you are confused about the form of the argument: I’m not asking you – or anyone – to accept me as an authority on the text. (Heaven forfend!) I’m merely asking you to believe that I am not consciously lying when I say I think I have read the text. (You may, of course, say that you don’t have to believe me. And indeed you don’t. But why shouldn’t you believe me? What would be my motivation for saying I’ve read the text if I don’t actually believe I have?)

    Adam, as to you not bothering to tell me what is supposed to be wrong with my article … Yes, I quite vividly understand what you think is the main problem with it: namely, it is wrong, wrong, wrong. This would follow from your reading of Zizek being superior, if it is. I am willing to grant, for the sake of argument, that if you are right, then I am wrong. If that alone gets us anywhere you want to go.

    You made some other objections some time ago but my distinct impression was that you retracted them when it turned out that you had sort of misread Kierkegaard’s F&T re: the incarnation.

    If there is some other objection out there, still holding out – like a Japanese soldier, after all these years, still thinking the war is on – then I am very sorry for inconvenience caused. I am sincerely unaware of the existence of such an individual.

    Alternatively, we could just cut it out all around! What do you say?

  10. “What would be my motivation for saying I’ve read the text if I don’t actually believe I have?”

    Passive aggressive dickishness? Though, to be fair, I wouldn’t say you haven’t read the text, just that you haven’t read the text all that well. Still, my only dog in this fight is that you go away. Not because you are the great Socrates of Singapore who comes amongst us lowly unrigorous types, but because you’re kind of a passive-aggressive jerk.

  11. I never retracted anything, particularly not with regard to Kierkegaard’s understanding of the incarnation. My objection is that you shoehorn your own understanding of Lenin in place of Zizek’s, then claim that the resulting monstrosity is incoherent, and in particular claim that your shoehorning of your understanding of Lenin into Zizek must mean he’s getting Kierkegaard wrong.

    I’m unwilling to do any further textual exegesis to support the reading of Lenin that I propose, so I guess to that extent it’s an argument from (my own) authority — though really it amounts to an argument from frustration. But I don’t recall any exegesis supporting the fact that Zizek thinks Lenin is a utilitarian, other than the fact that it would be “charitable” to say that he thinks that, since you believe that is in fact the case. So it’s hard for me to see how, on this point, there is anything but competing authority going on, and it’s also hard for me to see how anyone could think you are a greater authority on this matter. Should you bow down before me as a result? Probably not. But you should take note that the claims you think are “obvious” about both Brecht and Lenin do not seem obvious to anyone else, and that my reading of Zizek’s work on Lenin has gotten a much more positive reception in comments than your reading of either Lenin or Zizek on Lenin — bringing me back to my claim that my reading is indeed more interesting and remains so no matter what argumentative steps you think I’ve missed.

  12. But, in the interests of continuing to dig in my feet on our ongoing fight: your article isn’t the “good article” that I’m taking out back and shooting in Brechtian manner. There is some content to my objection other than the fact that you dare defy my authority — namely that your procedure in the article makes no fucking sense. Not that you don’t understand Zizek generally, not that you’ve got some kind of evil anti-Zizek bias, but that your article is incoherent. You’re not satisfied that I’ve demonstrated my reading of Zizek on Lenin is more accurate than yours — that’s your right. What’s not your right is to claim that my objection therefore has no content aside from sheer assertion of will, except in the sense that we all have a right to be an asshole.

  13. “But I don’t recall any exegesis supporting the fact that Zizek thinks Lenin is a utilitarian, other than the fact that it would be “charitable” to say that he thinks that”

    Ah, that’s because I don’t think Zizek thinks Lenin is a utilitarian. So of course I don’t assume that in the article.

    Here’s the argument in a nutshell. 1) Lenin really cannot be made sense of except as a utilitarian. 2) Zizek doesn’t think Lenin is a utilitarian. In fact, he thinks he’s a kind of Kierkegaardian. But 1). Therefore C) Z. isn’t making sense.

    This is why I shift to Stalin in the piece (another point that you have been inexplicably resistant to, now that I think of it). I can’t use the historical Lenin to be the Lenin Zizek wants, because the historical Lenin wasn’t, so I have to invent a Lenin that would fit Zizek’s bill. I can’t use anything even very like the historical Lenin. So I shift to Stalin, not to tar him with Stalinist associations, but because we need a case of someone engaging in extremely violent activity that looks, to everyone but the actor himself, to be morally unjustifiable. And Stalin certainly allows us to do that. We just imagine a Kierkegaardian inner story to go with. And the problem is that it would have to look horrible: that’s the point of the Stalin example. That’s the argument. Now of course the result is that Zizek IS tarred with Stalinist associations, which is the last thing he wants (obviously). But that’s the objection, and it’s not a premise. It’s a conclusion. In order to get what he wants, he would have to go crazy Stalinist. He’s not a Stalinist. So he can’t want this, or can’t be serious in asking for it. Probably the latter. Or he’s serious, but seriously confused about what he’s asking for.

    I’ll leave it at that. Have you been reading me as making a totally different argument than that? It seems so, because you think I should be arguing that Zizek thinks Lenin is a utilitarian, which I shouldn’t be; and you have also put your foot down several times to the effect that the shift to Stalin is gratuitous. Which it most definitely isn’t. Quite possibly we have been talking past each other for several years? Ah well.

    If you want to respond to the point that I’m not assuming the thing you’ve been assuming I’ve been assuming – fine. If you’ve had enough – fine. But I will abstain from further engagement if it has to be angry and uncivil. Not worth the agg, even to pass-agg old me.

    Best of luck to you and rather sorry that this all came up again, actually. I can say it’s all a big Kierkegaardian joke to me – and it is. But it’s also rather tiresome, as big Kierkegaardian jokes tend to get. So that excuse is wearing thin. If you want to argue about Zizek per above. Fine. If not. Fine.

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