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October 10, 2004


bob mcmanus

"They are not seriously interested in seeking to shrink government, let alone drown it in the tub."

I am nowhere as certain of this as you are, and tend toward uying Krugman's theorey that they are revolutionaries, seeking to destroy the system while having an absurd faith that they can control what rises from the ashes. They are constrained by politics and a need for pork, but would they have passed even larger tax cuts if possible?

Bush as Abraham was brutal, and even farther than I would go.

Russell Arben Fox

Damn, this was brilliant. Zizek and Levy and Walzer and Trilling and Bush all in one post, with just the right note of personal reflection dropped in at the end. You are really good at this John.

I'm sure there are some nits I could pick here and there. For instance, one might argue that the Republican party has been intellectually and/or electorally paralyzed into a negative, angry confrontation with liberalism at least partially by the class and cultural divide between the truly affirmative vision of anti-modern social conservatism which it has helped cultivate, and its concurrent commitment to a merely individualistic (and usually rather elite, economically speaking) strain of government distrust which is as old as America itself. And the (somewhat lamented, almost entirely dead) "national greatness" movement in 1990s-era neoconservatism complicates your analysis further, because there again you had a purposeful, civic vision of the U.S. sitting uncomfortably amidst a bunch of professional activists who otherwise didn't have a communitarian bone in their bodies. (I talk about that some more here.) But anyway, to develop those nits fully would take more time than I have right now. Again, great post--one of your very best, I think.


"Zizek styles himself a 'Kierkegaardian-Leninist'."

Did he write that himself? I guess I could see the Lenin influence but not really Kierkegaard. I mean there's obviously some of Kierkegaard's thinking present in Zizek but that's mainly through his Heidegger interpretations. I always saw him as a Heideggerian and above all a true Lacan devotee (eg texts like these)

Great post again though.


The term is his. It is possible, of course, that he doesn't really mean it. But he does talk about how the true revolutionary needs to teleologically suspend the ethical, as per Fear and Trembling. (I don't think Zizek actually knows what Kierkegaard means by that term, though. At any rate, he gets it wrong.)

Ray Davis

Great stuff, but I'm afraid you're overly optimistic about the Republican party being essentially oppositional and thus unstable. The party is essentially *plutocratic*, deploying church-and-gladiators to distract the unwealthy. Its pork is ideologically based, not an unfortunate side-effect: government, like everything else, is viewed as a way to centralize wealth.

What's stopped plutocratic rule in the past hasn't been incoherency but catastrophe. The only difference now is the extent of the catastrophe we face, largely because the achievements of progressivism and the New Deal have given us so much more to lose.

Anthony Smith

Part of being Kierkegaardian-Leninist means understanding the "stages on life's way" where, in the religious stage we have a certain repetition of the aesthetic stage. Communism is a repetition of the bourgeoisie revolution - one that has no object but in a qualitatively different way. I think that's where the misunderstanding is coming from (though I would certainly be grouped among the "toxic philosophers"). Then again, it is marginal, so who cares?


Kudos once again. An excellent post, and something I will continue to think about for quite a while.

I still have a copy of your earlier post on David Frum saved to my hard drive, and read it every few months (believe it or not), chuckling and shaking my head every time. Obviously this is along the same lines. Really good stuff. (I hope keeping it on my hard drive is OK with you, btw.)

Anyway, I think I just might agree with the earlier commenter that many Republicans really do want a form of plutocratic rule. But they cannot TELL themselves that this is what they want, and they certainly cannot justify wanting this, or admit wanting it, even to themselves. Thus their incoherence when they try to explain themselves, or even understand themselves.

Their incoherence is therefore worth noting, thinking about, and pointing out as often as possible.

One other point. In my mind, I link this most recent post of yours with something I've been thinking about re: Chris Hitchens. It seems to me that Hitch abandoned the left at precisely the wrong moment. Yes, you probably used to be able to find Stalin-apologizers on the left, and yes, that is a good reason to think long and hard about whether you want to throw your lot in with such people. But just about the time Hitch realizes this and switches to the right, the number and the importance of Stalin apologizers has headed way down, and we're seeing a massive increase in the number and importance of right-wing apologizers for torture, Abu Ghraib, war crimes, and overall foreign (and domestic) policy incompetence / lying / evil.

In general, it is a foolish thing to decide to learn right (or left) politically, just because you disagree with specific people on the left (or right). There are idiots on both sides. Playing "my friends are nicer than your friends" is not a good way to establish a set of political views.

(Do I have it right, by the way? Was it Hitchens who gave this as part of his reason for abandoning the left? Or am I misunderstanding/misremembering what I read a while back?)

Dave M

I am actually something of a Zizek fan. As a liberal, I treat him with the same distance I treat Schmitt, as a not well-meaning critic that is nonetheless capable of illuminating some of the tensions and contradictions underlying our own ideological positions.

His "Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism" helped me come to terms with the strategic motivations of the constant conservative invocation of Communism and socialism when talking about the American left, for instance.


A nice post and review. On Belief is definitely not Zizek's best work, though it was the first of his I read -- perhaps his most frustating when it comes to the copy & paste phenomenon that he tries to defend in his recent book of interviews with Glyn Davis. Indeed, I had a very similar reaction as yours. I'm happy you expressed far better than I when I was describing it to a friend. He is far too cavalier here, I think, with the differences between political and religious/mythical belief, as you well note. As a friend of mine noted, it's often difficult to tell whether his empathetic reading of Lenin is a joke or academic exercise. I can empathise with your frustration, and really don't think it should be taken too seriously.

I am glad, however, that it wasn't the final book of his I gave a try. I've found considerable theological inspiration in his readings of Friedrich Schelling; and his Tarrying With the Negative and parts of the Sublime Subject of Ideology easily carry the burden of their collective hype.


One of the folks you quote sez that the right couldn't have appropriated postmodern textual strategy because they don't sit around all day cribbing talking points from academic fashionable nonsense.

Don't kid yourself.

If you think the far right is not intimately familiar with the numerous concepts subsumed under deconstruction and postmodernism, you are naive.

First, these are people who have built a career railing against "cultural relativism." They most certainly study the stuff.

Second, even while they condemn it loudly, the far right routinely (and quite deliberately) deploys "relativist" rhetorical techniques in their arguments with others, while simultaneously insisting that their ideas are absolutes, beyond dispute (religion comes in handy for this part).

Thus, Bush describes the conclusion of a National Intelligence Estimate as "just a guess." A report showing that there were no WMD's in Iraq actually proves the case for invasion. And a war hero is really a coward and a weakling, while a deserter is a manly man.

For heaven's sake, don't continue to underestimate these people. They are far more deteremined than you imagine. Of course they're conversant with postmodernism; Bush has never read Derrida but someone around him sure as hell understands exactly how to use pomo to confuse and demoralize the rest of us.

ben wolfson

Employing relativist argumentative techniques is hardly the same thing as having studied philosophical relativists, and it's eminently possible to attack positions you haven't studied closely or at all.

Children do the things you've described; most of them haven't read about postmodernism.

Adam Kotsko

I think it can be very helpful to remember that the "Thinking in Action" series is little more than a cynical marketting ploy ("Philosophy -- for people who feel guilty that they don't care about philosophy!") and to ponder whether Zizek gave it precisely the amount of respect it deserves.


Ben, you are quite right about small children being 'postmodernist' in their epistemology, if the term is being used in a sort of generic way to denote illogic and evidential slovenliness. (Not a healthy usage, since it simply begs the question against the stuff having any merits. But I more or less invited that usage. Fair enough.) What I really had in mind is that calling Bush a postmodernist has an inherent implausibility because many features strongly associated with a certain sort of humanistic writing - compulsive ironizing, textual compexity, intellectual pastiche, a love of noisy, busy verbiage (for good or ill) are most definitely not associated with tongue-tied Texans. Plain-taking 'America knows what's in my heart' Bush just isn't much like Lyotard. Above all, Bush isn't French. So the statement that Bush is a postmodernist looks like an insulting paradox, waiting to be refuted. But there really is something serious to be said in this area. The Zizek comparison seems to me better, then, because the intellectual dynamics genuinely are identical. Zizek is repulsed by liberalism, and it induces in him a sort of schizophrenia - with religious fundamentalism as one of the poles. Bush, and conservatives, are repulsed by liberalism (admittedly I am punning a bit here), and this induces in them a sort of schizophrenia - with religious fundamentalism as one of the poles.

Adam, I do believe you about Zizek having better stuff on offer. Do you have a post or brief introduction to what you think is really good about the man. (I'm not just baiting you, and I promise not to be snarky. Having righteously snarked and gotten it out of my system, and am prepared to say 'Zizek has good thoughts A, B and C.')

For example, after writing the article I saw some brief quotes from Zizek in which he actually says that it is very annoying for Western leftists in liberal democratic society to get all misty-eyed about what life under communism was like. That is, he says that a certain sort of unserious assault on liberalism is one of the most annoying things there is. But so far as I can tell he does this thing himself. Unless it's all - as Kierkegaard might say - just an experiment in thought and I missed the joke. What do you take Zizek's actual political attitude to be? Is he seriously a Kierkegaardian-Leninist, or was that just a fun paradox to play with?


Oh, and Brad - or anyone else who happens to know - what does Zizek say in defense of his cut-and-paste method? (I am refering to the reference, above, to some book of conversations with Zizek.) I thought about commenting a bit more extensively about this myself, above and beyond my Matrix joke. There isn't really anything wrong, in my opinion, with more or less cutting and pasting something you wrote in one essay or piece into another piece entirely. Better to tailor and tweak it at least a little for form's sake, but if it's a functional component, it works. If it works it works. I've done it myself. Sometimes I write something particularly nice - usually it's a joke - and realize it would actually be funnier in another place. So I retell my own jokes. I think I have not done so in print, and will attempt not to do so. But a couple jokes I told in my (unpublished, except on the web) dissertation made it into my long (soon to be published, I hope) mock-Platonic dialgoue. Because they worked better there. But I really can't imagine what Zizek thinks his excuse for cutting and pasting within a single chapter could be. It just proves that he didn't reread his own work after writing it. Which means it's a rush job.


Convincing explanation for the mutually contradictory factions within the Republican party. Seems obvious now that you've spelled it out. They have no positive common ground. That's the whole point.

Matt Guthrie

I would like to say three things (all sotto voce, as they mark my entrance into this discussion.)
First of all, regarding Zizek's cut-and-pasteing: Has anybody else noticed that in one of the stories in "Oblivion" David Foster Wallace cuts Zizek's discussion of the relationship between toilets and national character and pastes it into the mouths of interns at a fashion magazine?
Secondly: Can't the Kierkegaardian strain of Zizek's thought be summarized as both men looking hard at Christianity as a last resort - when other ways of giving meaning to the world have failed?
Lastly, but to my mind, most importantly: Post-modern Republicanism. I understand neither post-modernism nor Republicanism, but is not the common ground between the two nothing more than the idea that there are always multiple interpretrations of events and/or texts, and that it is possible by various means (volume, repitition, impugning the "other") to create a discourse that enters the general consciousness. Thus "Iraq is going wonderfully" vs. "Iraq is a cock-up of truly biblical proprtions" isn't a matter to be resolved by observation, but rather by making sure that the preferred interpretation/discouse/meme/truth wins out. This leads inexorably to a further similarity, which is distrust of "science" not just in the obvious (global warming) sense but also in the bigger sense of the term - that observation and empirical experimentation are valuable ways of determining "truth".
By the way, what is this place, and who are you folks? I got here completely by accident, but might stay a while, if you highfalutin' intellectual types can deal with the simplistic views of a Phoenix High School teacher.


The truth is that most right-wingers were not committed to having a coherent view about things like that; they were committed to supporting the war, and they were prepared to support it without regard to its causes or character and without any visible concern about preventing future terrorist attacks.

So conservatism ends up being a sort of free-floating, objectless revolutionism. Hence the epistemological irresponsibility of many conservatives. You have no strategy, and your only real tactic is pretending to have a strategy. The looniness of the long-distance sprinter, you might say.

Allow me to suggest that the relevant movie cite here is not The Matrix: it's Memento.

ben wolfson

Just to clarify, John, the "you" in my comment was tristero.

Russell Arben Fox

"Bush, and conservatives, are repulsed by liberalism (admittedly I am punning a bit here), and this induces in them a sort of schizophrenia - with religious fundamentalism as one of the poles."

What needs to be understood, however, is why the repulsion results in schizophrenia--that is, dividedness--instead of a true antiliberalism. John says that what it comes down to is a visceral antipathy to the mere vague idea of "liberalism," and hence a random grabbing of ideas which have nothing more between them than a "shared incompatibility." But why would the grabbing of ideas be random? How can we account for the fact that making the best intellectual sense of modern Republican party ideology one can requires a turn to the Zizekian absurd? They didn't have to embrace "mutually contradictory impulses"; they didn't have to hypothesize some sort of "authoritarian-libertarian theocratic minarchy"--and even if that's what they ended up with, many people (like John!) have pointed out the confusion to them by now.

I see a few possible alternatives. 1) The Republican party really is a devious fascist movement, which intends nothing more than to create a plutocracy. Their deploy of contradictory arguments is simply an indication that it's all bread and circuses, distracting us until they have sufficient power to jail or execute their enemies. 2) The Republican party really is just fundamentally sick, psychopathic, incapable of coherent thought. All those intelligent Republicans voters you know? Mad, every single last one of them. (Note that both of these alternatives require us to assume that the religious impulse is either fake or merely another passion indistinguishable from all others, and hence presumably just as capable of being domesticated to the liberal order as, say, golf.) 3) The more respectful alternative: maybe what we have here is an attempt to find a place for the communal and the transcendent in the midst of a world which no longer embraces pragmatic liberalism merely as a political strategy but as a cultural baseline. In which case, addressing the problem of conservatism (and it is a problem; I'm surely not defending it) requires more than a wonderment at its apparent absurdity, and certainly more than Thomas Frank-style rants about how the poor, benighted believers of middle America have been abused by malicious capitalists. Maybe what we need is further thought about how secularism emerged, and whether a truly secular society is even possible.


Matt Guthrie asks, "Who are you folks?"

I think we're just a bunch of people who stumbled here, too, and like what we found. I have Examined Life linked from my own little web page, so I remember to check back regularly.

Ben A

Here I go again. Look, John, you are too quick, way too quick, to dismiss “the right” and “republicans” without engaging their ideas seriously. The accusation that Republicans lack a positive focus in domestic policy is perplexing. I would have thought the GOP is reliably for the following: school choice, restricting affirmative action, the death penalty, fewer church/state barriers, shifting social security to a individual account rather than pay-as-you-go-structure, making welfare contingent on work, Scalia-style judges, and as much support of the pro-life position as they can get away with. These are manifestly consequential and contentious policy issues. On certain topics – health care and gay rights, for example -- the GOP does largely play defense. But we shouldn’t confuse this for a lack of a larger positive program. Whether that positive program, or any subset thereof, qualifies as the position of a “decent right” seems another question.

Foreign policy. Well, what’s the use, really? You either believe that there can be a reasoned defense of Blair/Bush policy, or you don’t.

Adam Kotsko


I promise I will write something more substantial. Tonight, I would probably die if I tried to do so, but perhaps tomorrow afternoon. In any case, you shall be educated on the philosophical worth of Zizek -- that I can guarantee.


Ben A, I only have time for a short reply, although of course your comment reasonably requires a long one. (Oh, and by the by, the link in your comment is broken so I'm not really sure where you were pointing me.)

The efficient cause of my annoyance with Republican legislators this week is the Boston Globe series that has been linked all over the place. So you've probably seen it (and if not: worth a read.) No especial philosophical explanation of greed and venality in human life is ever needed. But I do think that Republicans bad behavior at present is philosophically amplified by an unhelpful attitude that behaving well - in government - is logically impossible. That is, the Norquistian rhetoric of 'I never saw a government program I couldn't cut' gets transmuted into a perverse excuse for any government program whatseover, however porky and indulgent of special interests. Because it's no worse than anything else anyone is doing. Tacitus had a very good post about this months ago, which I couldn't possibly track now: how 'lower tax' rhetoric works fine as a sledgehammer until the time comes at which you have to decide when to stop lowering taxes. And if you can't then put aside the sledgehammer and say 'that's a bad tax but this is a good one' then you've grown useless, even if you once had a job to do - as a gadfly, more or less. That was what I had in mind with my gadfly remark.

In the case of Bush himself, it isn't so much the lack of a justification for the war that bothers me. I do agree with you - we've had this go-round before - that there were reasons to go to war. (Whether they were sufficient or not is debatable, but given the direness of the decaying sanctions regime ... no good options, etc. Fair enough.) It's more the late revelation that the Bushies do not themselves seem to have been actuated by reasonable calculations even if those calculations in principle existed. Analogy: everyone thinks Isaac's got WMD's, so they sort of think Abraham's plan to drag him up to Moria is OK. Then, it turns out he didn't have them. Also, that Abraham was never dragging him up the mountain because of that anyway. OK. Bad joke. But it really seems like a case of a potentially reasonable (but maybe not in hindsight) course of action that wasn't being pursued for reasonable reasons at the time (never mind that maybe it turned out to be wrong in hindsight). And the big ticket item is the total failure to plan in a minimally competent way for the reconstruction. And the failure to consider mistakes made, and correct them - rather than shooting the messengers again and again. That's the real Kierkegaard analogy there: cooking the omelet of Iraq on the strength of the absurd.

I realize this doesn't really address your point. I'll try to find the time to do a longer post that is more sober and detailed on the policy side. If I find the time. I do appreciate that these sorts of charges should be backed up very thoroughly. It's not enough to wave my arms angrily.

Matt, that's rather interesting about David Foster Wallace cribbing Zizek. How odd. As to your point about these two thinkers - Kierkegaard and Zizek - turning to Christianity as a last resorts, the trouble is that Zizek gives no evidence that the first resorts have been exhausted, or that he has even bothered with them. He talks about Kierkegaardian striving after Canadian-style health-care in the US. Surely that is something we ought to seek in the old-fashioned, non-absurd fashion first. Kierkegaard seems serious to me (despite being such a joker). Zizek seems to me like a frivolous person who doesn't tell funny jokes. Not much use. (I realize you were not exactly leaping to his defense, but I think the defense doesn't fly.)

ben A

That seemed like a fairly long/serious reply to me!

Two points:

1. I think you're right that a general belief in the failure of government makes useful engagement in governing difficult. This, by the way, was one point made by the original neoconservatives aganist old-line Buckley conservatives in the 70s and 80s: the New Deal/strong central government is here to stay, the question is how to shape policies to have desireable (from a conservative perspective) results. The much maligned Irving Kristol is not a bad guy to look at on this topic.

2. Let me suggest a (perhaps) simpler hypothesis to explain the house GOP spending binge. Fiscal responsibility is a virtue of parties not in power. Look, I know the story know is "under Clinton, we democrats believed in balanced budgets," but I think that's a manifestly self-serving history. When in the majority, House democrats were wanton free-spenders. And the idea that a more robust theory of govenrment helped them be more discerning about spending policy seems to me unsupported. There have been decent GOPer and decent Dems trying to get good policy passed, and then there have been the vast majority who have pursued pork. I have not seen evidence suggesting the propensity for pork barreling differs substantially based on party affiliation.

Marcus Stanley

Not true. Clinton & the Congressional dems chose to reject the "stimulus" bill right after his election in 92, a bill that was full of pork. Instead they passed a budget that significantly cut the deficit. Look at Robert Rubin's book on this (and also Robert Reich's, which criticizes the decision). This was a period when Congress was controlled by Democrats.

Of course, one can argue that liberals have *never* controlled Congress, even when there was a Democratic majority, because the Dems in those days always had Southern conservatives (who nowadays are Republicans). This may be the first time that Congress has been controlled not just by one party, but by one ideology.

In a broader sense I think this was a brilliant post. The Republican party appears to be controlled by the inner logic of its own propaganda. The logic of propaganda is not the logic of governance. There are some deep questions being raised about whether policy can defeat really sophisticated propaganda in a political contest in an open democracy.

Donald Johnson

I'm one of those people who initially opposed the bombing of Afghanistan on the grounds that it could have caused a famine. I changed my mind about the war for the reasons Walzer mentioned--the obvious joy of the residents of Kabul over their liberation. Hard to argue with that.

But Walzer is intellectually dishonest. There was a very real danger of famine from the bombing campaign, not just from the Taliban. The Taliban military collapsed, the bombing levels dropped, and aid reached remote areas before the winter snows and so the famine death toll didn't reach stratospheric levels, but even so it probably was in the high thousands or low tens of thousands. (See the May 20, 2002 Guardian article by Jonathan Steele.)

It's fair to criticize people like me who were too kneejerk in our opposition to American military power (though with good historical reasons, I might add, and Bush's record in both Afghanistan and Iraq will probably make me skeptical in the future). I've realized post-Afghanistan that American military intervention, even by someone like Bush, can sometimes be the lesser of two evils. But I think the Walzer piece was only in part a serious criticism of the far left. It reads more like a cheap political shot, an attempt to settle scores with his enemies. His claim that the danger of famine was entirely the fault of the Taliban is an evasion of responsibility and not an example of decent leftism. If we are going to use force, we should be honest about the risks we are running--or to be blunt, the risks we are making innocent people run. The same criticism in different form can be leveled at people like me, when our chosen alternative policy might have left the Taliban in power.

I realize this blog entry was a criticism of the right, not the left, but I didn't think the Walzer passage should have been left unchallenged.

Doug M

I'd like to register my envy of John's standng in the field of Zizek-debunking. Assuming that a general conservation-of-fame law holds in the nutty academic left, Derrida's demise may well be Zizek's gain, opening up a career niche for a designated debunker. I'd vie for it if I thought I could digest Zizek's writings quickly. If only I'd started sooner, with tolerably small portions ...


Your comparisons of Zizek to conservatives is really only metaphorical, doing nothing more than point out a similar trajectory in their arguments. Your point about conservatives is well-taken but really I think that your use of Zizek here amounts to little more than a decoration of the essay. Your big mistake is that you don't understand that for Zizek the primary category to think about is not Kierkegaard or Lenin or even Lacan but rather the unimaginable succession of capitalism by some truly collective form of being. That's what Zizek 'believes' in and that's what _On Belief_ is about. All of his churning through various philosophers and discourses and designs of toilet seats and whatever else is simply a way to approach obliquely a thought that could disclose the possibility of such a "miraculous" warp in time. For Zizek, liberal hegemony would seem by all accounts to preclude or foreclose the thought of such revolutionary praxis. And indeed it does. Few people are likely to agree with Zizek. But in arraying himself in the various philosophical positions he takes up (Lacanian, Jamesonian, Leninist), Zizek is not posing _against_ liberalism, but rather _beyond_ it. He is making the argument that we need to calibrate our thought from the perspective of a utopian moment _after_ capitalism, a moment unimaginable in liberalism but which he hopes to produce by using the Lacanian analytical armature to find moments of the Real within the lifeworld of liberal-capitalist hegemony. Zizek;s thought is not "against Mill," its within Mill, yet (he hopes) anchored in a Real that revolutionary praxis will one day walk through, beyond Mill.
His thought is thus tenaciously anti-capitalist, and any assessment of his work that doesn't start from this is erroneous. If you want to argue about whether Zizek is a 'serious' philosopher, you have to address your argument to his anti-capitalism and his attempts to think a revolutionary praxis. Conflating him with a bunch of gung-ho free market utopians has no meaning, and really hardly scratches the surface of what either of them are up to. Wolfowitz et al are thinkers of the end of history in free-market capitalism. Zizek is a militant thinker of an unimaginable rupture in history.

By the way, all of this is something that no postmodern thinker would ever agree to, and the way you vaguely conflate Zizek with 'other postmodern thinkers you were reading at the time' is not only an irritable mental gesture of your own, but by now such a cliche that it would seem to be almost a generic feature of the critical review of a radical thinker. They're all 'postmodernists' or 'all relativists' or 'all nihilists' or whatever. Use a straw man argument if you want, but if you name names, you gotta come to terms with the people you cite rather than just throwing them around like so many slogans.


haceks - those diacritical hats Slovenian names like to wear...

Hacek is Czech. In Slovene it's called a stresica or a klukca (slang).


enter text? test, sorry



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