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Monday, December 01, 2008

Zizek is a believer in the Revolution at a time when almost nobody, not even on the left, thinks that such a cataclysm is any longer possible or even desirable. This is his big problem, and also his big opportunity. While "socialism" remains a favorite hate-word for the Republican right, the prospect of communism overthrowing capitalism is now so remote, so fantastic, that nobody feels strongly moved to oppose it, as conservatives and liberal anticommunists opposed it in the 1930s, the 1950s, and even the 1980s. When Zizek turns up speaking the classical language of Marxism-Leninism, he profits from the assumption that the return of ideas that were once the cause of tragedy can now occur only in the form of farce. In the visual arts, the denaturing of what were once passionate and dangerous icons has become commonplace, so that emblems of evil are transformed into perverse fun, harmless but very profitable statements of post-ideological camp; and there is a kind of intellectual equivalent of this development in Zizek's work. The cover of his book The Parallax View reproduces a Socialist Realist portrait of "Lenin at the Smolny Institute," in the ironically unironic fashion made familiar by the pseudo-iconoclastic work of Komar and Melamid, Cai Guo-Jiang, and other post-Soviet, post-Mao artists. He, too, expects you to be in on the joke. But there is a difference between Zizek and the other jokesters. It is that he is not really joking.
Adam Kirsch in The New Republic takes Žižek seriously "just once" and concludes he is a fascist.
There is a name for the politics that glorifies risk, decision, and will; that yearns for the hero, the master, and the leader; that prefers death and the infinite to democracy and the pragmatic; that finds the only true freedom in the terror of violence. Its name is not communism. Its name is fascism, and in his most recent work Zizek has inarguably revealed himself as some sort of fascist. He admits as much in Violence, where he quotes the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk on the "re-emerging Left-Fascist whispering at the borders of academia"--"where, I guess, I belong." There is no need to guess.

Zizek endorses one after another of the practices and the values of fascism, but he obstinately denies the label. Is "mass choreography displaying disciplined movements of thousands of bodies," of the kind Leni Riefenstahl loved to photograph, fascist? No, Zizek insists, "it was Nazism that stole" such displays "from the workers' movement, their original creator." (He is willfully blind to the old and obvious conclusion that totalitarian form accepts content from the left and the right.) Is there something fascist about what Adorno long ago called the jargon of authenticity--"the notions of decision, repetition, assuming one's destiny ... mass discipline, sacrifice of the individual for the collective, and so forth"? No, again: "there is nothing 'inherently fascist'" in all that. Is the cult of martyrdom that surrounds Che Guevara a holdover from the death worship of reactionary Latin American Catholicism, as Paul Berman has argued? Perhaps, Zizek grants, "but--so what?" "To be clear and brutal to the end," he sums up, "there is a lesson to be learned from Hermann Goering's reply, in the early 1940s, to a fanatical Nazi who asked him why he protected a well-known Jew from deportation: 'In this city, I decide who is a Jew!'... In this city, it is we who decide what is left, so we should simply ignore liberal accusations of inconsistency."