Why Zizek doesn’t have a political program

From Less Than Nothing, pp. 1007-1009 (yes, I’ve finished the thing):

Faced with the demands of the protestors, intellectuals are definitely not in the position of the subjects supposed to know: they cannot operationalize these demands, or translate them into proposals for precise and realistic measures. With the fall of twentieth-century communism, they forever forfeited the role of the vanguard which knows the laws of history and can guide the innocents along its path. The people, however, also do not have access to the requisite knowledge–the “people” as a new figure of the subject supposed to know is a myth of the Party which claims to act on its behalf…

There is no Subject who knows, and neither intellectuals nor ordinary people are that subject. Is this a deadlock then: a blind man leading the blind, or, more precisely, each of them assuming that the other is not blind? No, because their respective ignoance is not symmetrical: it is the people who have the answers, they just do not know the questions to which they have (or, rather, are) the answer…. Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that the prohibition of incest is not a question, an enigma, but an answer to a question that we do not know. We should treat the demands of the Wall Street protests in a similar way: intellectuals should not primarily take them as demands, questions, for which they should produce clear answers, programs about what to do. They are answers, and intellectuals should propose the questions to which they are answers. The situation is like that in psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but does not know what they are the answers to, and the analyst has to formulate the questions. Only through such patient work will a program emerge.

I am reminded here of my post on Lacan’s pedagogy.

12 thoughts on “Why Zizek doesn’t have a political program

  1. I don’t see how the fall of 20th century communism would force intellectuals to “forever forfeited the role of the vanguard which knows the laws of history and can guide the innocents along its path.” Granted, that role has been socially discredited in the eyes of many. But just because a bunch of predictions turned out to be wrong does not logically entail that all other predictions will also turn out to be wrong. That would be a non sequitur.

  2. That’s just a great quote, thanks! Put some fresh wind in my sails, too, I’ve had that bastard sitting half-read on my table for a long while now.

  3. I have been reading Simon Critchley, Michael Eldred, Marc C Taylor, Marcel Gauchet, Negri, as well as others since Derrida struggling to offer a political philosophy for our time. While they all give us a good read of relevant points of view, they leave me unsatisfied. So Zizek is not alone in the absence of a political program. Santiago Zabala has an article in the December 25 issue of Al Jazeera, titled “Slavoj Zizek and the role of the philosopher,” that I found to be a worth-it read. The absence of critical theory in the U.S. outside the academy makes me feel like the proverbial country mouse.

    The pragmatic accommodation of the Eastern block to capitalism and democracy has been dramatic. The pressures on every major world power are enormous. We live in “an interesting age.” Dunno if I shall live long enough to see the next stage, but I envy those who will, even while it could be a helluva mess. Heidegger quotes Holderlin, “But where danger is, grows/ The saving power also.” Let us hope so.

  4. In American Beyond Capitalism (I haven’t read it), Gar Alperovitz seems to be calling for replacing private ownership with worker-owned cooperatives in markets heavily regulated by a European-style welfare state. That actually looks like a feasible vision with historical precedents of actually working and an America that I would rather live in.

  5. From what I’ve seen, I think Alperovitz’s vision is less radical than what many of the hard-core Occupiers would want, given their anarchist or Marxist sympathies. I also think we Occupiers are, quite frankly, exhausted by the slow and very difficult process of forging consensus among so many people, each of whom have an equal say. The process gets bogged down and everybody just gets really irritated. We need a new hashtag and new institutional framework – I’m not opposed to having leadership and bureaucracy.

  6. Adam… I don’t mean to be facetious, but in just 7 short comment-steps beyond the original blog-post quoting Zizek, did two of you not just move directly from dismissing the immovable mute formlessness of the speaking masses of history, to yet another intellectual solution that requires a disciplined vanguardist grouping ventroliquising their true needs and a necessary bureaucracy for the new order? …Precisely the position [at least the first part] that Z was suggesting should now be forfeited forever. [Perhaps I missed the perfomative irony implied in your comments? Maybe ye were expressing how little ye agreed with Z’s terminal diagnosis?]

    Doesn’t the problem lie in Z’s vague shifting of the goalposts from answers to questions? Just as all of us would complain everytime we turn on the television, the problem is not that we do not have enough people asking questions… it’s that their questions already specifically imply the answers they’ve already presumed. Thereby mainstream interviewers get precisely the answers they presumed in advance and are being paid to produce while radical interviewers get exactly the obstructionism that both they and the viewer presumed in advance …but which convinces no-one because no-one enters TV-land in an pre-political innocent manner. We all now, more than ever, choose what we turn on to hear. To suggest that intellectuals should provide new questions instead of new answers – while its something I have a lot of sympathy for in one abstract sense – is therefore also a bit tautological in any practical sense. No?

    Tis a bit like a strategy of reverse psychology… kinda like the Monty Python Holy Grail skit where the peasant mob desperately want to burn the witch [who they’ve physically stuck a carrot nose on] but are being constantly delayed by the ‘scientific’ knight who wishes them to be reasonable before they act. Here the intellectual slowly patronises the crowd with Socratic questions that he pretends are open but which he has already determined the right answers to. But ultimately the knight acts only in the sense of ‘acting’. He acts out, or performs, the role of the holder of the right questions in order to conceal the fact that he is as ignorant as the masses are as to what needs to be done. He therefore acts only to reaffirm his privileged place… to reaffirm the social order… or as Zizek might say: he acts precisely in order not to act. His acting in no sense deflects or influences the actual impulses of the masses to act [and burn the witch] irrationally or otherwise… in fact he merely fans their original lust for a violent communal ‘acting out’ by giving it a new powerful de-subjectivised ‘legal-scientific’ justification.

  7. To respond to the more substantive part of your post, that’s the challenge — how to avoid “leading questions.” It’s the great temptation, and much of Lacan’s early career is devoted to showing how mainstream psychoanalysis gave into that temptation and adopted an authoritarian pseudo-questioning with a predetermined agenda. Lacan thought analysis could be something else, and Zizek thinks that “something else” could be carried over into the political arena as well. (I think Ranciere’s Ignorant Schoolmaster is probably relevant here, too.) I’ve been in classrooms (and I believe I’ve even led classes) that corresponded to that “something else,” where my role really was to keep the students on-task to figure out what they on some level already knew (insofar as they had read the text). I don’t think we’re doomed to bad-faith “leading questions.” It takes a lot of work to figure out how not to fall into that trap, but it can be done. Whether and how it can be done at the macro level of politics as opposed to the micro level of psychoanalysis or pedagogy is the big question here.

    Basically, I think Zizek shares and anticipates many of your concerns.

  8. Got it.

    …Awkward. now I fear I was ‘acting out’ in mine. But unfortunately not ironically enough. : )

    cheers from ireland,

  9. Thanks for that Adam. Much to think about there as regards the ‘something else’. Has cheered me up a bit for today. I’m a [failed] historian myself and have always struggled with the ‘authority’ of teaching and of the history ‘discipline’ in particular. When lecturing or tutoring it has always felt like acting… that is why I brought it up. But to touch upon Ranciere again… I suppose tis somewhere in the act of copying or of acting that that ‘something else’ can manifest itself.

    [Btw, my last reply, as you can guess, was in response to your first reply… slow typer I’m afraid!]

    All the best,

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