Did somebody say Slavoj Žižek (again)?
Updated: Jan 15, 2022
I received my copy of Slavoj Žižek’s Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? from Boris Johnson; he handed it to me in the school chapel in summer 2001. I had won the class prize in politics; and Johnson, as our consistency MP, was there to hand out the awards for the various subjects—in many ways, of course, I am still winning first prize for politics. We picked our own prizes, so Johnson did not select Žižek as a particularly appropriate reward for seventeen-year-olds who studied politics; indeed, he was more interested in the fact that, as the school’s resident Marxist, I had penned a brief screed in the school newspaper against the then-current Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. “Is that the boy who wrote the article?” Johnson said to the headmaster, just after he handed me the Žižek book and shook my hand—a slightly accusatory tone from Boris, slightly scoffing. “Bit of a rum fellow, what? An ideas man, eh?” In fairness, he was probably right to be suspicious.
So Johnson’s government—his general approach to life—is not secretly guided by a Žižekian sensibility. The book selection was all down to me. Then again, you have to admit that both Žižek and Johnson do share a certain flair; they both exude energy—they boil over, they effervesce—and both are a bit scruffy and unconventional; both are somewhat cuddly and avuncular, somewhat teddy-bearish and loveable—powerful, yet somehow bumbling and clueless. As with some disguised Zen master, both appear to be like the village idiot—yet this belies considerable intelligence. Rhetorically, both like to ramble semi-incoherently and never seem to arrive at an actual point. Johnson: “Well, you see, gosh, it’s quite quite marvellous to see—now, where was I?—yes, marvellous to see here in this—did you build this all yourself? How clever—here in…now, where are we again? Would you like to hear some Homer? Ho on te…” Žižek: “This ish ish, from a Lacanian pershpective—yes—how you say, a a—rupture—for ish ish not the Dalai Lama really—here I mean, naturally, the Lacanian Real—the real Stalin, the real Diet Coke?”
Why do you like Slavoj Žižek? You do like him, I know you do. The answer has already been partly given: he is avuncular. Žižek is your favourite uncle—the one who works in Dubai, drops by occasionally to shower people with gifts, and takes you to slightly beaten down bars and regales you with risqué stories that would make you cringe if your dad told them but are somehow okay with your uncle. He exudes a certain seedy charm. There was a wife—perhaps a few wives. Now there is a nice Vietnamese girl called “Susan”. There is a suggestion his tax affairs are not in order. He has duty-free cigarettes and whiskey in a lockup garage that his mate, Simon, “looks after”. He has never done anything really wrong “except in my wild student days”; for a time he studied physics, but he dropped out (rumblings about pot and some girl from Newcastle). You are fairly sure he has never murdered anyone; however, he has probably met someone who has. Your mother does not approve of him, yet everyone likes him—and he can get round her easily enough. Your father ventures the view: “You know, that’s just Paul being Paul.”
Avuncularity is also, strange to report, authoritarian: Uncle Joe, Uncle Adolf, Uncle Ted (Kaczynski). For some reason, the great dictators—the would-be mass-murderers in Uncle Ted’s case—are avuncular. Perhaps it is just humorous to juxtapose the great dictator with your “naughty” uncle, except that in their case “having a laugh” means invading Poland or systematically bombing airlines and computer scientists. On the other hand, there does seem to genuinely be something of the jolly uncle about Hitler, Stalin and, another uncle, Uncle Ho (Chi Minh)—(he is worried about his niece Susan, will she get visa for Ukay? Paul say he get her visa, yes?) The great dictators tend not be fathers to the nation; rather, they are uncles—you can confide in them, trust them. They have a benevolent yet disinterested view as to your welfare. “Pop up on Uncle Adolf’s knee and tell him your troubles, my little lieben.” Often, as with a favourite uncle, the great dictator is sterile—or appears sterile, or appears with a succession of attractive women (“When will Paul settle down?” your mum asks. “Oh, you know what he’s like,” says dad, rustling the papers). He is not exactly a “family man”, yet the whole world—or the nation, in the dictator’s case—is his family.
So you like Žižek because he is your favourite uncle. He has these naughty jokes about Stalin—and some naughty jokes about the holocaust. Indeed, in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Žižek says that the real way to honour the victims of the holocaust is to crack jokes about the holocaust. He bases this on the old psychoanalytic insight that some events are so terrible they must be laughed at—and the insight is true, there are definitely moments, particularly at funerals or in church services, where the gravity of the event provokes the opposite to the appropriate response: you want to laugh but desperately have to control it. Unfortunately, this psychoanalytic insight has become a commonplace, so that people often laugh deliberately because they think it is “inappropriately appropriate”; or so they can showoff and say, “Well, actually psychologists say laughter is an appropriate response at funerals—you have to laugh at the most terrible things.”
Anyway, Žižek’s contention that “the best way to honour holocaust victims is to laugh at them” is a typical Žižekism and partly accounts for his success. What Žižek does is to make a statement that will shock people, “you must laugh at holocaust victims”, and then walk it back through Lacanian psychoanalysis so it turns out that what he really meant was, say, that there is laughter of a particular type—not at, say, the skeletal “Muslims” who lay down to die in the camps due to despondency—that offers catharsis and a type of solidarity with the concentration camp inmate. This favourite Žižekism is repeated again and again; say, for example, with Stalin. Žižek will say, “The only problem with Stalin is that he didn’t go far enough,” and then explicate the “inner greatness of Stalinism”. This is, of course, a great way to become a celebrity, because it means Žižek constantly says shocking things that get him attention; however, there is always a certain disappointment because it was never sincere— Žižek always “walks it back” through a very careful explication, usually Lacanian, that really ends up with the entirely conventional view confirmed.
“Have you seen what this nutter Žižek has said now?” “No.” “He says the only way to respect victims of the holocaust is to laugh at them!” “What the actual fuck? I thought he was a leftist. I thought he was a nice guy!” When the two students go to the show or read the book they realise: “Oh yeah, he means there are some events so terrible that the only appropriate reaction is to laugh and that it’s actually po-faced politically-correct moralists who can’t grasp the real horror of the holocaust. Standard psychoanalytical insight.”
So Žižek is rather like Mr. Whippy ice cream, this ice cream is characterised by its very light and fluffy texture; and this is because it has been pumped up with air. Sold mostly from vans—under various names in various countries—it always feels somewhat like a scam: you pay more for a Whippy than an ordinary ice cream and yet there is somehow less to it—you take a few bites and you only bite air. It seems sweet and delicious and yet when you try to consume it there is nothing to it—and Žižek is very like Mr. Whippy ice cream, there is less to him than appears. Appropriately, legend has it that Mr. Whippy was developed by Margaret Thatcher in her time as a food chemist—so there is an irony to my association with Whippy and the Marxian Žižek.
The notion that Žižek is the sweet thing you can never eat—a tease—fits with his own psychoanalytic outlook, with his concern over the ersatz and the real (Diet Coke or Coke?); for in many ways Žižek is very unreal. Žižek is a novelty—an act, a luxury item. He gives you the impression that you have had contact with philosophy or, perhaps, “theory” and yet when it comes down to it you have just had a cheap thrill from the ice cream truck—and yet you always want more next summer, perhaps with a 99 Flake this time too. In other words, you will be back—for the next Žižek book or lecture—in the hope you will finally get “it”.
Just like your favourite uncle, Žižek is the bad boy who knows how to ride the line. “After all, was Hitler wrong about everything? He did give us the VW Beetle!” “Uncle, Paul! No!” “I’m just saying the autobahn was a good idea; nothing wrong with that, is there? Ho. Ho. Ho.” “Oh my God. What will he say next?” So Žižek will say to an audience, “And, really, I schould have yoush all schent to the Gulag! Yesh! All thesh people, in the front row, I would have schot! But, really…” And the audience will squeal with delight, squeal at the idea they might be escorted from the auditorium by some reconstituted NKVD and machine-gunned in the parking lot or thrown on trucks to some neo-Siberia to slave away all night beneath a giant arc-lighted portrait of “Uncle Slavoj”.
Žižek would say, of course, that the fact everyone laughs when he says these terrible things merely demonstrates how cut off they are from reality—and what they really desire: Big Br(o)ther, someone to see them. I received my copy of Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? a few months before 9/11 changed everything, before people stopped pretending to care about theatrics over Anti-Ballistic Missile treaties. Žižek would say—has said—that 9/11 was an irruption of the Real: “the Real” with a capital “R” is a Lacanian concept that is basically “God” for Lacanians; it is some irreducible ineffable thing that can penetrate the symbolic world we live in—in the case of 9/11, mass death intruded upon the decidedly Diet Coke 1990s and early 2000s; it offered an irrational and non-negotiable event that interrupted the symbolic order, turned mass transport into mass death—there is little more irreducible and non-negotiable than death.
So when I was an eager little Marxist-Leninist, I picked Žižek as my prize precisely because I expected to find a refutation of that “bourgeois liberal” concept “totalitarianism”—after all, the book has a portrait of Stalin on the front; a very cosy one—and perhaps a dissident one, because it is not really a Socialist Realist painting; it is our Uncle Joe seen in a slightly warm and hazy way, the painting is insufficiently sentimental to be an “official” Stalin portrait. Anyway, I opened Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? in full expectation that I would receive a straightforward account as to why “totalitarianism” is bourgeois ideology and Stalin was okay really—as a humourless seventeen-year-old Marxist-Leninist this was serious, world-historical stuff. After a few pages, my heart sank as Žižek rapidly descended into a discussion of Oedipal relations in Hamlet. “What does this have to do with politics?” I thought. What indeed.
There is a definite Žižek act; and, aside from being avuncular, part of the act is for Žižek to deploy ellipsis to great effect—perhaps this is what they call, in the theory biz, being discursive. So Žižek will say: “This recalls Irigaray’s infamous intervention at the 1976 Turin Seminar XVI, and this reminds us that the inter-subjective is the crucial moment (in the Hegelian sense) that we must grasp if we are to understand totalitarianism in essence.” You then wait—read on—for Žižek to elaborate on what Irigaray said and why it is crucial and how it will explicate what totalitarianism is as a concept in essence. The moment (in the non-Hegelian sense) will never come, and this is crucial to the Žižek act; it is why people like him so much. Žižek brings you in, takes you in confidence, and makes you feel that of course you know what Irigaray said at Seminar XVI in 1976 and how it pertains to totalitarianism.
We are all of us together in this jolly little conspiracy and we all feel rather clever and proud of ourselves. In this sense, Žižek plays on your intellectual narcissism; and this is why he is “the pop star of theory”—he makes people feel clever without any actual work, a great way to sell books and lectures. Yet, once again, we are back with Mr. Whippy; the ice cream has melted in about two seconds—there was a sweet moment, a moment when we felt we had something substantial, and now we seem to have in fact wasted our money on nothing.
Žižek extensively lambasts Arendt in the opening pages of Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, and yet Arendt did actually manage to elaborate a coherent theory of “totalitarianism” in plain ordinary language, not (lang)uage. You can fairly easily say what Arendt thought about totalitarianism and what she thought it was—even if you think she was altogether wrong. This is more than Žižek can manage in the entire book—or any book. Instead, he drifts, very much like a cocaine addict amid his pyramids of Columbian marching powder (*sniff* *sniff*), from topic to topic—ellipsis to ellipsis. We never arrive at a definite conclusion or what he really thinks. Again, this is his very appeal: Žižek is like cocaine, he writes in a fluid way although what he say is quite jargon-heavy and so you get the impression that he has delivered an insight—you get a high, a narcissistic high as you read him. And in the end you are left “chasing the high”; surely, at any moment, he will say what he really thinks? What you get is another ellipsis. “In a real sensh, ish not OnlyFans the true Khmer Roushge of our time? The real shecret conshpiracy? The real Pol Pot ish in your phone.” Ends lecture. Refuses to elaborate. Leaves stage. Žižek is a true big-brained gigachad of our times. “But, but…is OnlyFans really the true Khmer Rouge of our time?” (Buy the next book to find out—you little addict).
“But is not the true meaning…” This is another favourite Žižekism, “…the true meaning”. He describes, for example, how a Serbian and an Albanian nationalist on a Western TV show shared a glance of solidarity over an Austrian pacifist who called for them to be “brothers and not harm each other”; rather than accept the obvious reading, the solidarity between the two old enemies was because the pacifist was stupid and deluded and not a real man, Žižek insists that “the true” meaning was that the two men knew that their inter-ethnic rivalry was just a cynical act— Žižek’s “…is not the true meaning?” is almost always a false imposition and misreading designed to make you feel clever (yes, people from the Balkans genuinely hate each other on ethnic lines; and Žižek knows that really). Of course, when an Englishman and a Scotsman tease each other on ethnic lines there is, to an extent, a self-conscious act at play; and doubtless the same happens in the Balkans—and yet that does not mean the ethnic rivalry does not exist, just that it is elaborated in a particular way.
Žižek, as a leftist, cannot cope with the reality that there are racial and ethnic conflicts, so he seeks to reinterpret the solidarity between two ethnic rivals—“Who is this Austrian faggot?”—as two men who know their ethno-nationalist act is bullshit really. Yet we, as the reader, are meant to feel clever—we have got the true meaning; yet the commonsensical explanation is the true meaning—no wonder Žižek says he dislikes “wisdom”, he is a very unwise man who wants to “interpret” the world for you. “The clever professor says…” “Nah, mate. They hate each other and they hate the pacifist. Simple as.” Perhaps, additionally, Žižek, as a Slovene, the “least Balkan Balkan country”, just never “got” the Yugoslav Civil War; the Slovenes hardly participated at all, and are, arguably, more Western European or Middle European than “Balkan”—in this respect, Žižek is like a neurotic SJW: “What a lovely diverse area,” they say as they walk through a Muslim ghetto, the inhabitants glowering at the white intruder.
The whole Žižek schtick does, I think, provoke genuine envy—particularly from his staid and prudish academic peers—because it is very effective and funny and people enjoy it, unlike most things produced by academics. The Žižek act essentially has four components: 1. Ellipsis, particularly so as to make you feel “in on the joke” and give you an intellectual narcissistic thrill; 2. Outrageous statements (“Laugh at Auschwitz survivors!”) which are then walked back through Lacanian psychoanalysis to actually be entirely conventional and respectable points (“This is how we truly care for an Auschwitz survivor, not in a politically-correct phoney way); 3. Hegelian dialectics played for shock value: “The problem with Stalin is that he was not Stalinist enough! We await the leader who recognises the inner greatness of Stalinism and pushes it to the limits!”—again, these are walked back because it turns out that if Stalinism were “pushed to the limits”, in Žižek’s estimation, it would be entirely benign and reveal its “true emancipatory kernel”; 4. “…is not the true meaning?”—the reframe that is not the “true meaning” at all and merely confounds common sense.
These four points are the entire “Žižek act”; he simply swaps the material round a bit—perhaps ventures a little Pol Pot, or throws in a reference to Putin to spice up the material. As with all Hegelian dialectics—upon which Žižek leans heavily—it all looks very impressive until you summarise it and ask: “Yes, but what do you actually mean? What, substantially, are you saying? Do you think Stalinism was a better form of government or not? Should we forget about “totalitarianism” because it’s really a liberal-democratic control mechanism, or do we need to worry about *real* totalitarianism? Are you really going to shoot us, Uncle Žižek—or are you just dicking with us?”
(“Well, he is Slovenian—so probably not; it’s not like he’s some Albanian thug who’ll shoot you in the knee, steal your BMW, and rape your sister on the back seat.”)
There is, however, a slightly deeper point to “the Slavoj Žižek show”. Above all, Žižek is a Lacanian and not a Marxist; his real love is Lacan and Hitchcock—and it is entirely possible that his entire “leftist” or “Marxist” persona was formed in socialist Yugoslavia because it was only possible to write about Lacan and Hitchcock if these were mixed with Marxism; perhaps Žižek never really shed the habit, as woke academics today pay obeisance to “the disprivileged”, of threading his work together with Marxism so it would “pass” the censor thanks to its minimal Marxist content. It would explain the way he never really seems to actually take Marxism seriously; then again, perhaps he—as with anyone over twenty—knows Marxism is bullshit but has committed to the act and so found a quasi-Hegelian way to fence round the reality that, when dealt with coldly, Marxism does not stand up to scrutiny. Whatever the real motivation, the Lacanian strand in the Žižek act is basically this: Lacan has this concept, the objet petit a, that is equivalent to what is known as “a MacGuffin” in the film world—particularly Hitchcock-world. Žižek appeals to people because all his works exploit this concept in one way or another.
Imagine a Hitchcock film that was never made called, say, Compass Point (1954). Cary Grant is on a business trip to Lebanon with his fiancée, Tippi Hedren—although he is an older man, Grant has been a confirmed bachelor; periodically, throughout the film, his elderly mother will ring him to nag him to finally marry that “nice young girl”. While he takes mint tea on the corniche, Grant is accosted by a somewhat oily-yet-charming Frenchman, Remi—a former Vichyite in exile, who tries to interest Grant in a trip to see some Roman ruins. Grant humours the man and they talk about the nightlife in the Beirut casinos. Unseen by Grant, under the tablecloth, Remi trips a waiter who spills champagne all over Grant’s trousers. In the hubbub, Remi slips a small sealed container into Grant’s jacket pocket. Grant tidies himself and then—slightly miffed with Remi—excuses himself to go back to his hotel to change. Moments after the two men leave the café, a Citroen DS spins past, a machine-gun appears from the window and Remi is shot to death.
When he returns to his hotel, Grant finds that Hedren has disappeared and there is a note with the concierge that he must “deliver the goods” to Abdul Hassan by four o’clock. Immediately, several Lebanese policemen burst in, led by a European, and identify Grant as “Remi Goncourt”. “Look, I’m not Remi Goncourt. I met the man once in my life,” insists Grant, “I demand that you call the American Embassy at once! My fiancée has disappeared!”.
What follows is a prolonged chase across Turkey, Switzerland, and France; eventually it ends in London, with Grant suspended from the big hand of Big Ben. His pursuer, now revealed to be the head of an international spy ring, perhaps connected to Moscow, has him cornered. Grant gives them the the slip as he hangs from Big Ben; we see a vertiginous shot where the pursuer falls to his death, slips off the clock hand to the London street below. Grant looks down and quips, “Looks like he ran out of time.” Hedren, accompanied by detectives from Scotland Yard, appears in the tower and embraces Grant—who assures her they will finally get married when they return to New York. “Now, let’s see what all the fuss was about,” says Grant and goes to open the sealed container, the container that has caused several deaths and turned Grant’s life upside down; he opens the container, the camera telescopes upwards to show us what is inside and…fade to black.
The sealed container, the object that drives the entire adventure, is the MacGuffin. “What was in there?” you think as you leave the cinema. “Microfilm? Secret diagrams for a new atom bomb, written on dissolvable rice paper? Diamonds? A wedding ring? A uranium shard?”. The MacGuffin exists to tickle you, so that when you drink your milkshake in the diner after the show you still put forward ideas to your companions: “Microfilm. Got to be microfilm. It’s the only thing that makes sense.” “Nah, it’s more clever than that, it’s a ring—it’s about the fact Grant is afraid to get married, you have to read it symbolically.” “It’s just diamonds. Goncourt escaped from France because he bribed the Free French guards in the POW camp with diamonds. You didn’t pay attention to the dialogue.” Of course, there is no *right* answer—if there were, it would not be a MacGuffin; and it would not really be much fun.
The MacGuffin is also the Lacanian objet petit a; it is the empty cataract in the storm’s centre that drives the hurricane—yet it is nothing in itself, even though it drives all the action. Shades of Kabbalah again. In Žižek’s books, the topic—say, for example, “totalitarianism”—that is putatively under discussion is the MacGuffin (objet petit a). The topic—in most cases political—is a pretext to start the adventure, to play the Žižek riff; yet, as with Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, the actual topic is never explicated in the work—the work exists as a pretext for Žižek to do Žižek, just as a Hitchcock MacGuffin exists as a necessary pretext to make a Hitchcock film; a pretext for all the chases, vertiginous camera shots, abductions, suspense, and mistaken identities—yet in itself the MacGuffin has no significance. This is why it is a mistake to read Žižek and look for “content” in the way Arendt produces “content” about totalitarianism; the subject itself is a pretext to experience Žižek—to hang out with your naughty uncle.
There are three types of people who like Lacan: the first type is women who notice that Lacan speaks about “desire” a lot and so think this pertains to them as women particularly and so he must be very important; the second type is Slavoj Žižek; and the third type is the Argentines. As with all psychoanalysis, certainly Freudian-inflected psychoanalysis, Lacanian psychoanalysis aims to make you aware that you do not desire particular people or things—rather, you desire desire.
So, for example, there is a scene in Henri Barbusse’s novel L’Enfer (1908) where the narrator notices the breeze lift a girl’s skirt and he feels desire for her; and yet this desire, since he is on a bus in a crowded street, soon expands to include desire for all the women on the street—he wants, in fact, all the women in the world; and yet, he must concede, he knows this is impossible and so it is not exactly a woman he wants—it is all women he wants, albeit in an abstract way. The psychoanalyst would say, “What the protagonist reaches for here is the understanding—the understanding that can be gained through analysis—that he does not want a woman or even all women; rather, he desires desire—and all you really desire when you desire a person or even people in general is desire; and when you realise that you will feel less neurotic and more complete, because you will understand that you do not really search for ‘a person” or ‘all things’.”
When you read a Žižek book you get this psychoanalytic process demonstrated to you. When you pick the book up, as I did as an earnest teenage Marxist, you think you want to know about “totalitarianism” or “Marxism” or “politics”—you think you desire that. Yet for Žižek that is just the MacGuffin; it is a pretext to take you on a Hitchcockian adventure—complete with mistaken identities and blind alleys and perilous drops—into your own desire. This is why his work is like Mr. Whippy ice cream; it feels like it melts away because it is meant to—desire is a lot like that, no? The thing you want so much, the Macguffin (the girl, the money, the politics), sends you on this crazy adventure and yet at the end you never find out what it was you were really chasing after. How frustrating! WHERE IS THE ORGASM, MR. ŽIŽEK?
Žižek has another book called The Ticklish Subject; leave aside what “the subject” is in that title for a moment and consider this “ticklishness”. I think the word “ticklish” sums up Žižek all over—he actually looks like a person who would tickle you and who would collapse in laughter if you tickled him. Again, quite avuncular. What Žižek does with his books and lectures is basically tickle your fancy—and that is why you like him so much. In a sense, he seduces you. The lesson is really that, whatever reason you putatively buy his book for and go through “the Žižek experience”, the conscious reason is irrelevant; and, in the end, you are meant to awaken to the fact that what you want from the book is not an explication of Hitchcock or totalitarianism or Lacan but to experience your own desire for desire—as represented in “a Žižek book”; similarly, you do not really mind that there is no explanation as to the Macguffin in a Hitchcock film—you came for the Hitchcock experience, part of which is to speculate as to what all that chasing about was for afterwards. Hence everyone chases after Žižek again and again. “Please, Uncle Žižek, tickle us again! Do it again! Do the one about Stalin! Do the one about Auschwitz! Again! Again! Pretend you’re going eat us up again!”
The above notwithstanding, there is some—very thin—substance to what Žižek says; it is not all MacGuffin, even the worst ice cream has a little milk and cream in it. Žižek’s basic political message in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is this: the liberal-democratic West, particularly academia, lives under a soft-censorship regime that uses concepts like “totalitarianism” to shut down alternative potentials—particularly from the left; if anyone suggests social change from the left the cry “Gulag!” or “totalitarianism!” goes up. Hence, says Žižek, we need to overcome this reticence and thought code—itself, ironically, a kind of soft totalitarianism—so as to explore “emancipatory politics” again. This is why in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? he takes particular aim at Arendt and the hold her ideas exercise—exercised even twenty years ago—on Western thought and scholarship.
Žižek is commonly identified, particularly on the right, as a “postmodernist” who spouts nonsense—the kind of man who does, admittedly, write (m)other unironically. Yet Žižek is actually totally opposed to postmodernism, and he takes particular aim at the type who “historicise” everything—e.g. “We cannot speak of ‘women’ as such, we must speak about the experience of 19th-century women living in the antebellum South.” In other words, Žižek is opposed to precisely those people—characterised as “the woke” today—who would say, “As a black bisexual from an indigenous community I feel my perspective would be valuable on this…” Ironically, Žižek once adversarially debated Jordan Peterson and yet the men are closer to each other in many respects than they are to “the woke”—certainly in their opposition to postmodernism. Žižek thinks that it is acceptable to speak of “woman as such”—and if you do so you will eventually include biology, although Žižek would probably back away from that. Anyway, like a true male chauvinist pig, Žižek is prepared to generalise (“Put the kettle on, love.”)
Žižek’s general line on what was then called “political correctness” is a fairly unremarkable one and actually replicates the approach taken by the right. So Žižek, famously, will reminisce about his time as a conscript in the Yugoslav Army and describe how all was well when the various ethnic groups cracked jokes about stereotypical behaviours (I do not know the stereotypes, but, say, jokes about Serbians being stingy or Croatians being short). However, says Žižek, people knew that the Yugoslav Civil War approached when it became impossible to crack ethnic jokes. This is a fairly commonly stated right-wing position: men show affection and build trust between each other through “obscene” humour and jokes—often of a racial or sexual nature; and yet, as with a fight in a bar, where you know there will be a fight precisely because everyone has gone silent and nobody is joking, political correctness creates the conditions whereby ethnic and religious tensions are exacerbated because there is no obscene “release valve”.
Žižek, deploying standard psychoanalytic insight, has a particular interest in these “obscene” rituals and basically thinks, correctly, “better out than in”—the true oppression is not to make the ethnic joke, since the catharsis it allows helps a multiethnic state like Yugoslavia to exist; hence “politically correct” leftists are *objectively*, to use Leninist jargon, on the right because they facilitate ethnic tensions through a prohibition on the obscene bonding required for genuine inter-racial and inter-ethnic solidarity; e.g. real internationalists make racist jokes, real feminists make sexist jokes.
This almost makes Žižek on the right because, though he condemns “wisdom”, all he has done is repeat, in a sanitised psychoanalytic and therefore “rational” way, the wisdom of the Tao—and other obscurantist right-wing ideas. However, Žižek never follows the logic in his argument all the way through, because to do so would put him on the right. It is the right that says, “The only true *solidarity* is being *racist*.” And they say that because they do not think there is such a thing as “racism”. Žižek always takes this insight up to the line, but he has to walk it back—otherwise he would be outside the left. So he will always says, “Crack ethnic jokes, we musht do dat. But alwaysh in an emanshipatory spirit…” All he has done is interpolate another form of political correctness, Marxian political correctness, as a substitute for liberal progressive speech codes—Žižek has his own “obscene”, it is just his leftist brand is not dominant at the moment.
As a leftist, the connection that Žižek cannot draw—though maybe he has done so privately—is that the policing of this “obscene male bonding” has come about due to a feminised society that prohibits “rough talk” in public (and private) to prevent “racial tension” and “sexism”, although, paradoxically, the prohibition leads to the opposite effect.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Žižek is really on the right because he happens to chafe against progressive liberalism and, in particular, Anglo-American speech codes. In many places Žižek is very reminiscent of Lenin, a man whom he professes to admire—and he is particularly reminiscent of Lenin’s contributions on philosophy. Lenin’s philosophical work is permeated with savage attacks on the physicist Ernst Mach; and this is because Lenin was terrified that Mach had discovered that physics supported idealism and not materialism—and if this were so it opened the possibility that there might be, if not God, then some other non-material dimension to life. For Žižek, the great concern is not “Machism” but the way Buddhist ideas and Zen notions seem to gel with the latest physics—and with what was called, in the 1980s and 1990s, the “New Age”. Žižek, like Lenin, is part of a cult—the Freudo-Marxist cult—and the cult is rigid, it gets very frightened when physics seems to contradict its simplistic materialism; and this is because, at root, as with men like Dawkins, these people fear the divine, the sacred, and the possibility that there might be something more important than Mr. Slavoj Žižek.
Hence Žižek, like Lenin with Mach, does not really provide arguments against the convergence between physics, mysticism, and Buddhism so much as sneer. His hero Lacan urged, back to Freud; and what he meant by this was really back to the inflexible, dogmatic, and dictatorial cult leader that Freud was—and Lacan led his movement in the same way, with intolerant dogmatism. So for Žižek religion is definitely an illusion to be overcome, to be replaced by “rational discussion” in the “workers’ collective”. Hence Žižek praises the way in the GDR everyone had to discuss their divorces in public with their fellow workers in the collective, “rationally”— Žižek, married four times, has, perhaps, had collective meetings with his colleagues to sort out his marital issues (or perhaps that only happens when we have, as they say, “full Communism”).
Žižek is a tricky one though, he is somewhat similar to Peterson again in that he likes to make overtures to Christianity although he really detests Christianity and wants to use it for his purposes. So, for example, Žižek will praise the way John Paul II was strict as regards nuns who were raped in the Yugoslav Civil War—no abortions allowed, they had to give birth. He contrasts this to the supposedly “overly flexible” attitudes evident in the Dalai Lama. Yet if Žižek actually looked into Buddhism instead of working from his prejudice about Richard Gere’s “Hollywood Zen” he would find that Buddhism has strict codes—including prohibitions on abortion—just like John Paul II.
Sure, Western adherents may not always practice it properly and many sects have been infiltrated by leftists, but the idea that Buddhism does not have strong prohibitions because you think Richard Gere is a bit relaxed about it is like adducing the same about Catholicism from Joe Biden’s behaviour. Really, Žižek fears above all some spiritual revival; and, in the late 1990s, he saw the main threat as coming from the New Age and “the Tao of physics”, so he tactically endorsed Catholicism to cut this approach off—he is very like those Marxist-Leninists in the 1970s who were all for “liberation theology”; of course, John Paul II purged them. Similarly, Žižek has no time for Jung, who is dismissed as “a deviationist” (in Communist speak, I can tell you, as a former Communist, that means “needs to be shot”); and Gnosticism is just straight out for Žižek (because he knows deep down that it would lead to a genuine spiritual revival, and he fears that above all)—Žižek likes to keep things on the superficial level, on the level of “reason”, where he can play dialectical games and tie us in Lacanian knots; he avoids consciousness at all costs.
So you have to be careful with Žižek. He likes to endorse hardline Catholicism in a tactical way, because he thinks “the main threat” to materialist Lacano-Marxism comes from Buddhists and Gnostics; so old-fashioned Catholicism is a good tactical instrument to knock those down—especially as it is mostly dead and can easily be remoulded for purpose. As with Peterson—who is really a feminist and thinks it is time to dissolve the old Christianity— Žižek has an interest in and is a “friend to” Christianity for his purposes. Thus he praises Pauline Christianity because the intolerance in the Church can be likened to the Leninist Party; indeed, in many ways Žižek perfectly demonstrates, in the way he links Pauline Christianity to Leninism, that Nietzsche’s observation that Christianity leads to communism is true.
Žižek preaches about the “revolutionary break” engendered by Christianity, the day when “all debts are forgiven” and we can “wipe the slate clean”—very anti-capitalist, supposedly. Žižek says: time to immanentise the escathon. This attitude is contrasted to those Buddhist-pagans who worship the Void and refuse to wipe the slate clean, i.e. actually hold people responsible for their debts and actions. Indeed, in Did Somebody?, way back in 2001, Žižek brings up our old friend Trump in this regard: Trump who, complains Žižek, has an account balance of “0” or even a negative balance and yet has value on the basis that future profits are expected—truly he is Trumpanga, the Master of the Void!
You can tell what Žižek’s real attitude is when he talks about toothpaste tubes that feature the inscription “This 30% free!” in the last 1/3 of the paste; he returns to this example several times in Did Somebody Say? and uses similar examples in other books. “Fine, just give me the 30% free!” says Žižek. This gets down to brass tacks. Žižek’s bottomline, like all leftists, is really: “Why can’t I have something for nothing? Why can’t I just not work but still have a middle-class life? Why can’t I have the ‘30% free’?”
Of course, everyone knows the “30% free” is not free free, just like sales are not sales—yet this does not, childishly, mean, as Žižek thinks deep down, that you cannot “have it for free” because at the moment “mean capitalists” refuse to let you have it for free. Of course, you can refuse work or do minimal work—it just means you will live in a modest way. Yet this is not what leftists mean. What leftists mean, really, is: “I want to do no work and have a middle-class standard of living.” This is the leftist aspiration, the closest you can get to it in real life is to be an academic—as indeed many leftists are. It is total nonsense, and it is why—Lacanian cleverness aside—Žižek temporises and refuses to be clear: what he wants, if explained clearly, is childish and impossible—and he knows that really, so he covers it up with lashings of dialectics and “clever” jokes.
Ironically, it is not the case that “human potential” is constrained because it is impossible to elaborate an “emancipatory discourse” from the left without being called a totalitarian. Žižek claims that anyone who praises socialism is immediately shouted down and marginalised with cries of “Gulag!”; really, it is anyone who mentions race or sex differences who is shouted down with “Hitler!”. Žižek has maintained a prominent intellectual career, various posts, and media engagements while producing statements about “the inner greatness of Stalinism” and praising Lenin to the heavens. No repercussions. Really, Žižek projects; it is impossible to imagine someone who spoke about “the inner greatness of Hitlerism” or said “the only trouble with Hitler is that he didn’t go far enough”, even ironically, who would enjoy a similar career and acclaim to Žižek—not that people should, but this is the real hypocrisy.
In fact, as Žižek knows really people never say “Stalin didn’t go far enough”, they say “Hitler didn’t go far enough”; yet, due to his particularities, he cannot admit this. The reason we do not, in the genuine sense, progress is not because there is some prohibition on people praising Stalin, Lenin, and the USSR—Žižek has proved this is all permitted, along with a stellar career. What is prohibited is to observe that race and sex are real—along with links to IQ and behaviour; if we admitted that very openly and acted accordingly, we would see genuine progress and not the supposed “lost emancipatory potential” in Stalinism.
Indeed, Žižek makes apologies for Stalinism that would be unthinkable—and certainly not rewarded—if said about Hitler. For Žižek, the fact that everyone was persecuted under Stalin merely demonstrates that the USSR was on the right track. The Hitlerites, Žižek concedes, would, if you were not in a “target group”, undertake a real investigation into your political crimes if you dissented from the regime—there would be real evidence and a real trial. Under Stalin, by contrast, anyone was a target—it was not just discrete groups, such as Jews and gypsies. Perversely, Žižek turns this into a “good thing” because it shows the USSR was truly egalitarian—they would persecute anyone, shoot anyone! Thank God! The USSR was so democratic and emancipatory it would persecute anyone—even higher cadres, very democratically—and manufacture evidence to fit.
Meanwhile, the Hitlerites continued to discriminate in their extermination and would even indulge in “bourgeois niceties” such as the collection of evidence in some cases. This merely demonstrates that in all the ideological wars over the struggle between National Socialism and Communism that the reason why Hitler’s Germany is “bad” and the Soviet Union is “good” is not about whether or not they killed or tortured more people or less than each other—it is merely about the general direction in which those regimes inclined. Hence, for Žižek, Stalin was very democratic in his projects—hardly discriminated at all—and this shows that he was roughly on the “right track”; perhaps proof-positive that leftists want to maximise suffering and misery as far as possible—very democratic, anyone is a target.
Similarly, Žižek recounts a story from Lukács, the Marxist-Leninist theoretician, who read One Day in the Life in Ivan Denisovich and noted that, at the end, the prisoner carries on building a wall even though the guards have called an end to the day’s labour. Lukács interpreted this to mean that “socialism was working” because it demonstrated that, even if the system was distorted, the basic socialist thrust, the emancipation of labour, had taken place; the prisoner was not alienated from his work and did it for its own sake—the novel was Socialist Realist, whatever “reactionary residues” lived on in Solzhenitsyn.
Žižek quotes this with approval as evidence—as with Stalin’s “democratic” persecutions—that socialism worked really, albeit in a perverse way. Actually, the prisoner did the work on his own time; he carried on working in his own time to express his individual dignity and ownership outside the system—in the USSR, “real work” was criminal; everything of value was black market, even building a wall in a Soviet concentration camp. To work “off the clock”, for yourself and not the state, was an individualistic act of rebellion; not as Žižek and Lukács insist, asininely, evidence that labour was no longer alienated in the USSR. The prisoner who worked off the clock finally did something for himself—not for the dumb collective, and that was why he worked to defy the guards.
This is why you have to be cautious with Žižek, there is a lot at work in him and his humorous exterior belies what he actually says. I think, at heart, Žižek would like to be a cult leader like Lacan, Freud, or Lenin; a dogmatic leader who expels people and works purely in his own idiom, specifically designed to render other people unable to resist him—and hateful towards “splitters”, as Freud abominated Jung. Yet a man cannot change who he is. No matter how much I shave my head, beggars still know I am a soft touch and approach me on the street. Similarly, Žižek is not a Freud, a Lenin, or a Lacan—he is not original enough, for a start; he has a style and a following but he has not developed an autonomous thought-system for a genuine cult. So he is stuck as a high-brow entertainer—a sort of Woody Allen but-a-bit-more-serious-than-that.
Nonetheless, despite his avuncular persona and apparent lovability, there is a really sinister and destructive undertone to Žižek. The way he jokes around with ideas about Stalinism in ambiguous ways do serve to rehabilitate that regime type; and, indeed, when I read Did Somebody? at seventeen I did come away with a jokey attitude, ha-ha show trials were just funny really: “The inner greatness of Stalinism, right? If you just dig down far enough, you will see that when people self-incriminated during the Great Purge that showed that they really did love the Party—see, that is real love (insert convoluted Lacanian explanation).”
Žižek has pulled similar tricks with Christianity, Leninism, and Lacanianism where all are drawn together so that the Party is the true expression of Christ’s love: “They do the most difficult things, not for some delusional ‘duty to the state’, as with the fascists, but from love—the real love that only can be expressed in the iron discipline of the Party, the radical break; the revolution is forgiveness of debts, it is a new day—immanentise the escathon!” As with everything Žižek says it all sounds like a joke, except it is not; and he cynically aligns himself with Pauline Christianity, partly because it is genuinely communistic and partly because he sees it as the best weapon to beat down “the illusion”—the notion that there is more than matter.
Žižek is against the progressives, the politically correct, and what we call “the woke”; and he likes to twist their nipples by praising Roman Catholicism, cracking ethnic jokes, and ridiculing their fears of totalitarianism. In part, he is effective because he correctly identified, over twenty years ago, that the whole ultra-serious self-conscious “mournful” approach to Hiterlism and Stalinism—Arendt’s take on totalitarianism, the caution not to “immanentise the escathon”—has become po-faced and up its own arse; it was ripe to be mocked. For obviously these people who “wept for Auschwitz” or “expressed concern about rising nationalism in Eastern Europe” were often what we today call “virtue-signallers”; people who liked to express a bland generalised concern about “totalitarianism” or “the holocaust” or “ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia” or “refugees” (then called)—and yet really just liked to feel good about themselves.
Žižek charged in—protected by his avowed Marxism, a comically exaggerated quasi-ironic Stalinism—and said: “Holocaust jokes are truly honouring the victims!” “Stalin didn’t go far enough!” “Immanentise the escathon!” “Christianity, particularly Catholic Christianity, is like real Leninism—I admire it!”. Everything Žižek said and says is designed to take a gigantic Slovenian shit on the pieties—often false pieties—spouted by middle-class Western progressives (aka “the woke”). So Žižek disdains the Arendt cult, praises John Paul II and his stance on abortion (“That’s, like, fascism, man,” says the Harvard student), and mocks the New Age feel-good ideas that go along with these popular nostrums.
However, these antics—attractively interlarded with Lacan, Hitchcock, and pop culture references—should not distract from the fact that what “Uncle Žižek” would like to be, if only he were that type of man, really is “Uncle Stalin”. It so happens that he is really more like a large gorilla in Ljubljana Zoo, gently chewing on bamboo and mating with his harem—occasionally, a small child falls in the enclosure; but the gorilla-Žižek, despite wild howls in the dead of night, will not harm the babe.
However, note well, that Žižek is tolerated because progressives see him—just as they saw Stalin—as a muddled but well-intentioned uncle; he is too exuberant and not quite following the line, but he is in the right general direction. In other words, Žižek might be a bit dissentient but it is all safely to the left and permissible; if the heat gets too high, he will backtrack through Lacanian algebra and Hegelian dialectics to show that, if he did crack an ethnic joke, real egalitarianism is an ethnic joke—just like “real” Christians are hardline Leninists who crack a priest’s skull with a rifle butt (“It’s dialectics, comrade; please keep up.”) Beneath it all is the usual irresponsibility, laziness, sloppiness (Žižek literally looks sloppy), unwillingness to face reality (ethnic conflict in the Balkans is real), and a real hatred for wisdom and the divine—a desire to end “the illusion”, per Freud, with “reason”.
Ultimately, Žižek ends Did Somebody? with a banal demand for Internet companies to be nationalised (a cry still heard today), because this will protect the private realm from excessive intrusions. Sure, total state ownership of what Žižek admits to be the most sophisticated surveillance apparatus ever constructed will protect the private realm—thought nobody ever. As with all Marxists, the only answer Žižek has to the world’s problems is “nationalise it” (and then give me a middle-class living while I do nothing). There is nothing else—and most people, those who do not make a living from bullshit, stopped thinking like that at about seventeen.