Jacob Levy emails to ask. "Is this Zizek passage a pure case of question-begging?
It is here that one has to make a choice. The 'pure' liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist 'totalitarianism' - that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc - is a priori false. It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally worse than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion explicit or implicit that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat. When, in September 2003, Silvio Berlusconi provoked a violent outcry with his observation that Mussolini, unlike Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, never killed anyone, the true scandal was that, far from being an expression of Berlusconis idiosyncrasy, his statement was part of an ongoing project to change the terms of a postwar European identity hitherto based on anti-Fascist unity. That is the proper context in which to understand the European conservatives call for the prohibition of Communist symbols.
Yes, Jacob, yes it is.
If it had more Lacan in it, the LRB piece would encapsulate everything I find so wrong with Zizek's whole intellectual style.
"It is here that one has to make a choice." No, one could first make an argument.
Zizek simply. Does. Not. Argue. He asserts. He stands on his assertions, spinning Tholian webs around helpless, a priori false liberalism. He perennially bemoans ... well, here I'll quote a little bit from The Ticklish Subject. He bemoans that various forms of 'totalitarianism' - did someone say 'the 20th century'?' - have made us lamentably skittish about totalitarianism. "For this reason, the only solution is to accept that we live in a new era deprived of metaphysical certainies, in an era of contingency and conjectures, in a 'risk' society in which politics is a matter of phonesis, of strategic judgement and dialogue, not of applying fundamental cognitive insights" (p. 132).
Zizek recoils from this solution, which sounds pretty good to me. Because first, if it's risk that bothers you, a revolution to usher in some form of totalitarianism with a human face seems counter-indicated. But mostly it just seems silly to say, in however high-flown a fashion: 'why are all these people bothering with doubts and uncertainties and half-measures? Why are scientists making hypotheses? Why are policy makers tinkering? Why is dialogue being tolerated? When everyone could just just accept [my] brilliant insights?'
Not to turn the tables of a priori falsehood too neatly, but do the inadequacies of this dogmatic stance need rehearsal? (Can Zizek be read as asserting anything more moderate or sophisticated than: you need to accept what I am saying as right because I am right?)
I just reread an exchange Zizek had in Critical Inquiry with
Geoffrey Harpham. The latter raises - in what I would say was really an excessively unchallenging
way - the potential cognitive downside with doing nothing but
presupposing your own conclusions, over and over and over: "Zizek's
work … seems to be formed almost entirely of endgames in which the
sense of conclusion, with its payoffs and rewards, is always present. A
sharply diminished experience of orderly progress is compensated for by
the continual feeling of arrival and by the constant surprises afforded
by an exceptionally rich and quirky use of examples … The effect is
that of a stream of nonconsecutive units arranged in arbitrary
sequences,that solicit a sporadic and discontinuous attention. Zizek
does not seem to believe that books should be about something." And:
"The front-loading of the argument reflects a distinctive understanding
of the means and ends of thinking. The standard format supports and is
supported by liberal democracy." Zizek's does not.
Zizek's response to this hint at a wee problem is to quote G. K. Chesterton: "At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view." I hardly know what to make of it. How can a philosopher seriously maintain it is absurd to assume a self-critical stance? How can fallibilism be a fallacy? How can it be epistemologically inappropriate to examine one's beliefs for flaws or inadequacies? How can a modern person think it is absurd to suppose that there might be a plurality of views, besides one's own, deserving of bare political toleration? Are NONE of the standard arguments for tolerance, ranging from the purely prudential to the loftily idealistic, even worth considering? (What did Chesterton mean, come to think of it? Was he just talking about religion? Saying it is absurd to be a sort of many-paths-up-the-mountain wishy-washy unitarian-type? I guess I can see that. But it doesn't work in politics.)
Of course we aren't Descartes at the start of the "First Meditation" every minute of our practical lives. But Zizek seems to be taking the moments when we are not doing philosophy - just dogmatically bulling through life - as the paradigm of philosophy. Why write long books if the fundamental cognitive insights are so unproblematic as all that? And if they are not unproblematic - if there is space for doubt and dialogue - how can this be right?
Getting back to the LRB piece. We first note that the concluding
paragraph, quoted above, actually contains a glaring counter-example to
the only argument on offer. An assymetry alleged to amount to
a moral distinction: "We do not find in Nazism any equivalent to the
dissident Communists who risked their lives fighting what they
perceived as the ‘bureaucratic deformation’ of socialism in the USSR
and its empire: there was no one in Nazi Germany who advocated ‘Nazism
with a human face’." But fascism with a human face is a good phrase for
the rehabilitation that Berlusconi is attempting. If all we need to prove equivalence are folks to stand up and say there could have been a better version, he's your man. There's the good
'trains run on time' stuff. And the bad stuff.
"The 'pure' liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist 'totalitarianism' - that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc - is a priori false."
But surely when liberals make a list of the crimes of Hitler and Stalin, 'intolerance of difference' looks a bit understated to merit top billing. (Like that New Yorker cartoon "Cain violating Abel's civil rights.") We don't think Hitler and Stalin were bad because they weren't model Rawlsians, for pity's sake. And is Zizek seriously asserting it is a priori false that 'Hitler and Stalin were bad'? There is no sense in which this proposition could possibly be true? (If that isn't what he is saying, what is he saying?)
We can't think communism and Fascism were equally bad, because if we thought that, we would think communism was actually worse. (Why?) If we admit that it is possible to make a rational assessment of their relative ethical demerits, we are driven (why?) to the conclusion that communism was worse. Ergo, a rational assessment is forbidden. (Why?) Because we can't think communism and Fascism were equally bad. Wash, rinse, repeat. The trouble with Berlusconi's statement was that it "was part of an ongoing project to change the terms of a postwar European identity hitherto based on anti-Fascist unity." It is wrong to try to change attitudes towards Fascism because that would change attitudes towards Fascism, which would be wrong.
Adam? Jodi? I'm just not seeing it. And please note that this post is not an attempt to take a principled stand on the 'which was worse?' question. (Which, to be honest, puzzles me a bit, although I'm definitely willing to take a stand on 'both bad'.)
I am making a point about a fundamentally unsatisfactory mode of intellectual presentation. Just begging the question from beginning to end. Introducing your own rightness as a first premise. Your opponent's wrongness as a second premise, just to get it locked down extra tight. This bothers liberals like myself. I don't see how this can be intellectually valuable. You've got to be a bit more open to argument and counter-argument - to considering alternative points of view - or else there's just no point to doing philosophy.