Follow-up to last night's post. I have said one thing that is peculiar about Zizek is how little he engages with liberalism, either as philosophical theory or (one might say) as actually existing liberalism. And when he does engage with liberalism, the things he says often seem to me straightforwardly mistaken (i.e. so wrong that they probably aren't even seriously intended. Just rhetorical flourishes.) Jodi Dean says no, he has serious things to say about liberalism. Here she links to a couple of her papers. But she has a post up that seems to me to show she isn't sufficiently familiar with philosophical debates about liberalism to be a good judge. She went to a talk and took this away as an argument against it:
The nutshell version is an is to ought problem: you can't get from the is of conflicting values to the ought of a duty to recognize and accomodate the conflict.
I can imagine how this point - commonly deployed in arguments about relativism - can move you in various potentially interesting directions. Admittedly, I wasn't at the talk. But Dean says that "even this crude version is compelling." Against liberalism? How so?
On the liberal's own terms (of neutrality vis a vis competing conceptions of the good and/or a principled approach to value difference). So, unless a liberal is willing to concede a higher order value, violence, or cultural specificity (all of which conflict with the basic premise of neutrality toward competing conceptions of the good) liberalism comes up against its fundamental antagonism (ok, this is not liberal language but I couldn't resist a Zizekian jab). So, here is an argument raised in the language of liberalism: liberalism can't defend itself here.
But liberalism need not be neutral vis a vis competing conceptions of the good. (I don't know what 'a principled approach to value difference' means. Could mean any number of things, none of them obviously distinguishing marks of liberalism. So I pass.) And of course liberalism not just concedes but takes its stand on a higher order value: liberty. (Does liberalism 'concede violence'? Again, unclear. 'Cultural specificity?' Does liberalism fail to notice it is 'culturally specific' in at least some ways. I find it hard to see how it could miss such an obvious fact. Is there any reason to suppose it does?) And again we are back to neutral vis a vis conceptions of the good. But why say liberalism must be that? Of course letting people pick their own goods is a stock liberal position, but the accent tends to fall more on the 'letting people pick' than neutrality about goods. Liberals frequently think people ought to be free to pick what the liberals themselves think are really worse goods. The harm of paternalism taken to outweigh the benefits of intervention in these cases. Then the bizarrely strong hint (to my ears) that somehow 'liberalism can't defend itself here'? Even if you thought there were a major school of liberal philosophy committed to denying the ought-is thing - I doubt there is - you should be aware that there are at least some versions of liberal philosophy that don't rest on anything of the sort.
Consider this relatively short, quite clear Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry about liberalism. I don't think it's utterly authoritative, but I mostly agree. Value pluralism is considered, as one prominent liberal view of value. And it is one, no question. And the requisite point is made about it:
But in themselves, such notions of the good do not constitute a full-fledged liberal ethic, for an additional argument is required linking liberal value with norms of equal liberty. [This is Dean's point, I take it.] To be sure, Berlin seems to believe this is a very quick argument: the inherent plurality of ends points to the political preeminence of liberty (Kocis: 1980). Guaranteeing each a measure of negative liberty is, Berlin argues, the most humane ideal, as it recognises that ‘human goals are many,’ and no one can make a choice that is right for all people (1969: 171). But the move from diversity to equal liberty and individual rights seems a complicated one; it is here that both subjectivists and pluralists often rely on versions of moral contractualism. Those who insist that liberalism is ultimately a nihilistic theory can be interpreted as arguing that this transition cannot be made successfully: liberals, on their view, are stuck with a subjectivistic or pluralistic theory of value, and no account of the right emerges from it.
OK, there's your argument right there. John Gray stuff. Maybe that's what Dean heard at the talk. But the important thing to see here, I think, is that the simple version, 'value pluralism does not entail a duty of tolerance,' is uncompelling as an argument against even a few forms of liberalism. Isaiah Berlin is a foxy fellow and nothing so crude will work against him. But he is really your best target. And getting every liberal pinned with this crude thing? You need some heavy duty argumentation. You need to get up to your elbows in varieties of liberalism. (Check out a couple John Gray books for starters, maybe.) Precisely what Zizek seems uninterested in doing.
If I may hazard a diagnosis of what has gone wrong here: the 'liberalism' Dean is thinking of is not really a philosophical theory at all but a sort of mushy multiculturalist reflex; that is, a form of incoherent relativism, vulnerable to very simple, standard lines against relativism. (Zizek gripes about such mushy multiculturalism, I know. Hence I hypothesize Dean's adoption of these gripes.) There is nothing wrong with targeting relativist mush, but labeling it 'liberalism' is pretty confused.
And on that note I expect I'll shut up about Zizek and move over the The Valve to post some book reviews. Unless some really interesting debate develops here ...