Saturday, May 31, 2008

Zizek on Heidegger and Nazism, again

I presented a somewhat detailed response to this topic a while ago: since then, the essay Zizek wrote on "Why Heidegger Made the Right Step in 1933" has made its way into his newest book, In Defense of Lost Causes--the topic thus merits a reconsideration, but I'll be more brief and more blunt.
Zizek's effort in this book is valiant. One can take this recent and precise characterization of the book by Terry Eagleton (a rarity in Eagleton's corpus--and perhaps the only one in this shallow, resentful review), and affirm it against Eagleton's scorn:

The self-consciously outrageous case the book has to argue is that there is a “redemptive” moment to be plucked from such failed revolutionary ventures as Jacobinism, Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism. Žižek is by no means a champion of political terror: the Mao he offers us here, for example, is the mass murderer who mused that “half of China may have to die” in the Great Leap Forward, and who remarked that though a nuclear war might blow a hole in the planet, it would leave the cosmos largely untouched. His aim is not to justify such demented views, but to make things harder for the typical liberal middle-class dismissal of them (my italics).

Perhaps Eagleton phrases it in an asinine way, but I think that this "making things harder" of Zizek is precisely how we should read Zizek's effort. Phrased a little less cynically, we might put Eagleton's statement this way: Zizek restores weight to politics, philosophy, and culture--this is his mission and has been his mission consistently throughout this career. And rather than losing momentum over the years, he has only become more intense--his ambitions and his fire only have grown.
But Eagleton's idiocy locates the problem in this restoration--he makes the same mistake as Zizek, but falls only on the other side of its result. The problem is this: who is the subject to which Zizek addresses his discourse? Granted, unlike other big thinkers on the Left (I'm particularly thinking of certain Frenchmen, with their extraordinary academic and state apparatuses), Zizek's ideas is less institutionally supported in the sense of having a stable and somewhat more closed forum in which to speak--indeed, his best work is when he is among psychoanalysts. But his major works are always more global than that: he is probably the first thoroughly global (and this does not mean international) thinker. This means that his remarks are directed somewhat all over the place. And in the end, who reads them? Well, in the UK and in America, the typical middle-class Anglo-American thinker (I bypass the great and much more fruitful reception he has had elsewhere, and merely talk about our Zizek, the Zizek that we see and talk about here). I'm not saying the people are middle-class who read Zizek. It is that the particular middle-class that Eagleton has in mind is the one sympathized with and identified with by the Left intellectual: the subject needed to be mobilized and enlightened in order to do something substantial about capitalism. Zizek's great achievement is to try and restore some weight to Marxist notions and the Marxist spirit by showing Marxism isn't as old as we thought: it still has life in it yet, because it can link up in a creative way with Lacan--that is, an anti-humanistic (but not Althusserian) thinking. This must resolutely be called "making things harder" only in the sense that this means an ascesis, a training in thinking and in activity so as to be able to adjust thinking to the radically new problems posed by capitalism--those problems which escape the more rigid Marxism of most of the twentieth century. In short, it means thinking about action: Zizek is the thinker of individual and collective action against and within capitalism--if this means things must be harder, it means that we also are on the way to addressing their difficulty by becoming hard. Eagleton cannot know what this means: all he can do is seek out points where real thinkers are complicit in the capitalism they criticize.
Thus, where Eagleton would stupidly see some hypocrisy in the precise identity of the Anglo-American subject of Zizek's work (shouldn't Zizek mainly be talking to the rebels?), we can begin to see that the real problem in this identity is that it can only be marshaled into action by appeals to practicality--or at least this is what Zizek seems to assume (and with some grounds for doing so). The extremely impractical restorative weight that he gives to certain problems, then, ultimately has to turn on almost being able to be confused with the immediately practical: this is the one, sole aspect that constitutes the Zizekian flair in almost every sentence. There is a reversal on a conceptual level that he effects--for example, what Heidegger did in 1933 (join the Nazi party) was not evil, but actually a rare thinking-through of the commitment his philosophy was making politically and one that took place not within that philosophy itself (smuggled into texts) but in action--and this reversal almost of itself can seem to be absolutely pragmatic--it suggests that one should not philosophize politics as much as engage in political action. The force of this reversal is always an appeal to pragmatic action--and this because the audience Zizek writes his sentences for is one that needs not only conceptual shifts and reversals but clues to guide their practical activity. In short, the people Zizek writes for can't just think through a conceptual reversal--they need the force of this reversal to reflect some practical action they can engage in then and there.

While this might be right about these readers, I wonder whether Zizek doesn't need to rethink this aspect of his writings--for in a case like this with Heidegger we see that perhaps another way of arguing and appealing would be both more practical and intellectually interesting. For what is Zizek's treatment of Heidegger, after all? It doesn't say much besides its title: in short, postmodernist philosophers who sneak politics into their words are weak compared to even Heidegger, who had the smarts to join a party in the open, as an action--that is, be committed to what one says even more than theorizing it. Of course this was a monstrous choice--but in principle, with other parties, this is what the Left needs. So Zizek argues, but this is only to isolate what is most obvious about the case of Heidegger: that he made a political decision which was tied into his thinking. Beyond the shock, the appeal to mobilize in a similarly counterintuitive way (but with a totally different party)--precisely because (according to Zizek) Heidegger's case is a paradigmatic instance of the risks of political engagement for thinkers--this does not do much. And it risks making a sly appeal to the perverse in Heidegger's action as what we should feel if we are being political, if we are being active--it gives us something disturbing that we can be okay with so we can get off our asses and mobilize. In other words, this makes it seem as if the bar is lowered for all of us and that political action is just perverse since it always risks being an abomination. In short, it risks being pragmatic for the sake of being pragmatic--that is, just to mobilize. And it is willing to sacrifice the conclusions for this aim. This is Zizek's fault--and to say this is to be as far away from chastising him as a provocateur as possible.
In the end, if Zizek is advocating an action like Heidegger's but directed differently--if he is saying that most political action of thinkers has to risk becoming Heidegger--well I can't see how this isn't a refusal to think what is so vile in Heidegger: the privileging of presence, of activity, of manliness, of the poetic; and the denigrating of the calculating, the prosaic, the everyday--all this, so prevalent in his writings, being made into a Nazism, committed to very specific ideals that are unspeakably disgusting. Many thinkers have had these privileges before: they are not Nazis. And if Zizek is saying that they are precisely not politically engaged because of this--well, he is waging a war not just pragmatically in the now against capitalism, but with a lot of human history. It all comes down to this: is Zizek's discussion of Heidegger an example for a revolutionary mind? Or is it something more impractical? If it is the latter, well, I don't know how we would read Zizek.


Paul Ennis. said...

Nice post as always

Anuj D said...

I find this deeply problematic when you say stating your understanding Zizek’s point, “that one should not philosophize politics as much as engage in political action”.

PS. So did u read my reply-comments to yur last post?

Mike Johnduff said...

Thank you Paul--you've been a great interlocutor. I didn't know you had a blog! I added a link to it here, and will feature it in a little mini-post on good new blogs for people to look at.

As to Anuj, of course this is a crude characterization of Zizek--check out my previous post on him and Heidegger (that I link to in the first sentence here) for a better account. But how would you characterize it? The real point to me seems that Heidegger is more engaged in his philosophizing, for Zizek, than these postmodernists Zizek sees all around him claiming their discourse is "political." This is only one of the many points Zizek's reading (which isn't a bad one--it is a pretty thorough treatment of Heidegger and all that has been said on the Nazi stuff too), also.

Tristan said...

"well I can't see how this isn't a refusal to think what is so vile in Heidegger: the privileging of presence, of activity, of manliness, of the poetic; and the denigrating of the calculating, the prosaic, the everyday--all this, so prevalent in his writings"

Are you kidding? Where exactly does Heidegger "privilege" presence? What does privilege mean in this context anyway? Where does Heidegger "privilege" a gender over another? Where is the denigration of everyday life?

If we can use the language of privilege, and I don't think this kind of normativity is useful in the question of the first and the other beginning, or the question of the overcoming of metaphysics, or its consummation, or the forgotteness of being, or the fourfold, we'd have to say that Heidegger over and over demands that we think where we are, that we recognize our historical situation. That we think where we are as consummation, such that we might be able to think another commencement.

But, perhaps its more neutral to simply accept the end of history, and then cover this acceptance over with myriad attacks on Fukayama (Zizek, incidentally, is being a good Heideggerian by continuing to point out the contradiction in this).

As far as political situations are concerned, it might turn out that Heidegger was right not to prefer democracy over fascism - it might just be that capitalist democracy and capitalist fascism are too sides of the same coin, circulate in and out of each other.

Certainly the turn in 1st world politics away from issues towards the "production of consent", or we could as easily call it the politics of distraction guarentees that we always hold open the possibility that race could be produced as distraction. We already see this in media concentration on "illegal aliens" as somehow the cause of problems. Or, the Fema camps - not necessarily as a sign of some coming genocide, but as a sign that free states always prefer the contingency of totalitarianism over falling into anarchy.

Mike Johnduff said...

The whole point is that "privelige" here is not anything normative but is coextensive with a conception of being itself. One can use Heidegger's own arguments to justify this--and in fact Heidegger occasionally does, in a mode of self-critique or self-destruction/deconstruction.

I don't really follow the rest of whatever you're saying here, but the fact is that "privelige" only sounds normative if you read it wrong, and precisely in a non-Heideggerian way. Which is typical of people who unquestioningly adopt Heideggerian vocabularies and raise what is a way of thinking into dogma.

Douglas Lain said...

I may not understand what you mean when you say that you're using the word privilege to mean "coextensive with a conception of being itself," but if what you mean is that Heidegger is ontologizing presence or the immediate, that seems to me to be simply saying that he's a phenomenologist.

So, okay. Is that the problem with Heidegger? Or, to put it a different way, is the problem with Heidegger some kind of failure to truly escape metaphysics? Or is his problem something else? It seems to me that it's worth remembering that Zizek starts his essay with a long explanation of a GK Chesterton mystery, and Chesterton explains many times how the problem isn't having religion, but having the wrong religion.