Telling us how ‘the “pure” liberal attitude’ of finding Fascism and Communism ‘both bad’ is ‘a priori false’, he leaves, to those of us who think that they were indeed both bad, the task of fighting off the imputation that we are either impure liberals or that liberalism is impure in itself. He should be encouraged to put away his inverted commas until he can use them responsibly. In his very next sentence he even uses them against himself: ‘It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally “worse” than Communism.’ Unless ‘worse’ means worse, the sentence means nothing. If it means what it would mean without the inverted commas, then there is a simple answer: it isn’t necessary. Without the slightest bow to Ernst Nolte, you can take sides against both of the totalitarianisms put together. In fact you can’t be a liberal if you don’t.
There a bit more. You can read it.
Mark Kaplan's having none of it. Here's where he ends up:
For the Liberal both fascism and communism are equally distant from the only yardstick that matters, Liberal democracy. Because they are equally distant they must, logic goes, be the same, at least in the essentials. ‘Totalitarian’ is thus a way of giving name and consistency to this ‘sameness’. We are dealing with a kind of interpretive error in which the Identity between two things is merely a function of the device used for measuring them. Now since this is an error of method it is, indeed, a priori false, because any ‘empirical evidence’ will simply feed into and consolidate this error*.
But of course, none of this can be conceded. There is an insistence that Zizek should speak their language and make himself intelligible to them, but that they are under absolutely no obligation to extend any interpretive generosity to his language at all, but only question why, inexplicably, he has chosen that language.
[*I am neither agreeing nor disageeing here, merely trying to interpret, generously, Zizek's argument]
First, if Zizek is saying what Kaplan says he is saying, then Zizek's argument seems bad for exactly the reasons James adduces (plus others). This liberal is a straw man. Why should liberalism be committed to saying Fascism and Communism are equidistant from itself, or that nothing 'matters' except liberalism? The former seems an optionally stringent position. The latter seems distinctly illiberal.
Second, where are the liberals guilty of demanding Zizek translate himself into liberalese? James is saying that the passage in question is incoherent and, when you get past that, wrong. If I may insert myself in the mix, in my recent post, I was saying about the same. Whether that is right or not, it is not the same as saying Zizek is incoherent or wrong simply because he isn't, or doesn't talk like, a liberal.
I would be curious to hear why Kaplan thinks it is plausible to spot diagnose anti-Zizekianism as a symptom of liberal terminological/conceptual tyranny. Why is this (to use his term) interpretively generous?
Isn't it more plausible to assume liberals who disagree with Zizek just plain think they see something wrong with what he says? And isn't it fair to say that the method of criticism deployed by liberals against Zizek are pretty generically socratic. What do you mean by x? Aren't you using 'y' in a way that doesn't make sense? Isn't z a case of begging the question? You can, of course, argue that these attempt to play Socrates are incompetent. But that's not the same as saying these attempts are incompetent through undue insistence on liberal vocabulary. Where does the latter complaint find its ground in James' letter to the editor, or in my posts?
And speaking of me, I was surprised by how much psychological diagnosis my post attracted, from Kaplan and others. "My impression with some of the Zizek debate was of people feeling a ('liberal'?) duty to read Zizek, but - clearly aggrieved at this - looking to trip themselves up over the first (invented) obstacle." But surely the occasion that inspires this speculation is essentially onionesque in its unremarkableness: "Local man writes blog post, finds significant fault with piece of online opinion journalism." Happens all the time.
One final attempt to bridge the gap here. Kaplan thinks he sees illegitimate liberal insistence that Zizek engage with liberalism more than he seems inclined to:
It's now the case that ZIzek has an interested and sizeable audience - even among the readers of the LRB - who do not need a promising argument first re-routed through yet another critique of liberal democracy; they can get off the ground without this diversion. They begin from a place outside familiar Liberal assumptions and do not need to have terms like hegemony, 'ideological imaginary' etc explicated. This is no more or less scandalous than people whose default position is within such a Liberal framework. Indeed, to assume that such a framework is the normative and natural starting point that any argument must embark from is, to me, not only begging a very big question indeed, but a patently ideological move.
But surely if what you are arguing, as Zizek apparently is, is that liberal democracy needs to be replaced by something better, it is reasonable to look in his work for a critique of liberal democracy. Such a thing will not be a mere 'diversion'. That he does not have a critique of monarchism is more pardonable. Liberalism, ruling the roost as it does, has some legitimate claim to being addressed. More so than kings, who are out of fashion. But this really isn't arrogance. It doesn't come close to saying you have to argue FROM liberal principles. It amounts to saying you are really obliged to argue ABOUT liberalism. You need to make it the object of your critique, at the very least. That is not patently ideological, and I don't see that any more stringent demand is being put on Zizek by his critics. He seems oddly uninterested in liberalism, in my book. Just sayin'.
I guess Jodi Dean and others say it ain't so. Really Zizek has a lot to say about what's wrong with liberalism. I don't see it, but I'm not going to argue it tonight. Can we all agree at least that this is a crucial issue: whether Zizek has a sophisticated critique of liberalism, both as philosophy and as practice. If he doesn't have one, that's pretty bad. Agreed?
As to objections to 'hegemony'/'ideological imaginary' talk, let's stick to this: liberals who object to Zizek's terminology in fact do so not on the ground that this is not liberal talk, but on the grounds that it is (thought to be) empty jargon - nothing behind it. If you prick it with a socratic pin, it goes away. Not that this is necessarily right. But no one actually says 'you are not allowed to use funny words'. Really. No one says that. Some folks are skeptical of this stuff, are inclined to give it a vigorous shaking rather than just embracing it before really understanding it. But skepticism of that sort - looking before you leap - is quite a defensible philosophical stance in its way. Hegel said you had to read all of his Phenomenology, also his Logic, before you were allowed to critique him. But other philosophers had a good chuckle at that and started in. Anyway, I don't think Hegel ever said that about an op-ed. Also, that is quite a superior attitude to take. If Kaplan (and others) are regarding Zizek in this light (namely, liberals have some duty to be generous to him, but he has none to be generous them, because he is just plain better) ... well, that seems like a pretty strong assumption.
UPDATE: It occurs to me I may be thought perverse for ignoring the 'why communism is better than fascism' argument Kaplan reconstructs on Zizek's behalf. Let me just say: I don't really think that particular argument, which is alright in its way, is the issue regarding liberal objections to Zizek's op-ed, and Zizek's philosophy in general. Anyway, I have chosen to post about something else, and my post is quite long enough as it stands. Oh, and thanks to Adam Kotsko for pointing me to Kaplan's post and the James letter.