Defending Zizek’s Map

Reviewed by Neil Balan

Reviewed in this article

In Defense of Lost Causes
by Slavoj Zizek, Verso, 2008.

In UTA 6, the editorial collective called for “good maps” and “the ability to think historically…”1 Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes provides an answer to the call. His capacity for historical thinking – “to think from two points at once” - is at the core of his defense of what many hold to be thoroughly defeated causes: the messianic project of revolutionary emancipatory politics, radical egalitarianism and divine violence, and the belief that the state is still a relevant site for anti-capitalist political engagement. Zizek’s wager is clear: revolutionaries must provide the way out, there are no real favourable moments, there is no reconciliation or synthesis, and while nothing will be guaranteed almost anything is possible if we are willing to accept the risk of failure.

This is a long book packed with insights on a range of topics. Along with its conceptual density, its length will dissuade some readers. The book is not a guide for the imminent revolutionary safari, nor an instruction manual. The kernels for In Defense of Lost Causes can be found in Zizek’s recent contributions to the Revolutions series published by Verso. Across three books on Robespierre, Mao, and Trotsky, Zizek resurrects ideas effaced or elided by the liberal historicization of these radical figures.2 With In Defense of Lost Causes, he affirms the capacity of ruthless politics to open new horizons of materialist possibility.

Instead of accepting the death of grand political narratives, Zizek argues that this assessment is symptomatic of the widespread panic that actual political struggle now produces. It is part of the fear “haunting (whatever remains of the contemporary) Left: the fear of directly confronting state power” (339). Stating early on that what passes for political action is too often an exercise in self-indulgent “bullshitting,” Zizek takes careful aim at the postmodern politics of “resistance” and its purveyors. Along with the insulated cadres of Left academics and elite intellectuals, these purveyors include diffuse networks of self-congratulatory grassroots activists. According to Zizek, “resistance” is both insufficient and a false hope in the post-political moment of resurgent liberal humanism and footloose virtual capitalism.

Defending lost causes means reappraising those past events still pregnant with possibilities that need to be awakened. What is required is to anticipate the catastrophe in order to make a decisive intervention in the present. The materials required to transform a (bad) political situation are already available. However, the Left’s current fixation with “resistance” makes them unrealizable. Because of this, it is necessary to confront the limitations of the “ordinary historical notion of time” in which the realization of one possibility cancels out all others.

What is unthinkable within this horizon of linear historical evolution is the notion of a choice/act which retroactively opens up its own possibility; the idea that the emergence of something radically New retroactively changes the past (459).

Paradoxically, what Zizek calls for is an unthinkable and unrealizable politics, a politics that can only be actualized by breaking with linear historical time.3 No matter how bloody and terrible, great modern revolutionary causes retain their efficacy even when they are repressed in social and symbolic terms. They cannot be domesticated through linear-historical accounts. Because they have not yet been realized, “lost causes” have the capacity to revoke consequential thinking and enable epiphanic events.

According to Zizek, the current field of social coalitions and tactical collaborations share the same humanistic ideology of tolerance and openness characteristic of liberalism. Why should we refuse this humanist paradigm? Because humanism refuses the inhuman core antagonistically underlying the very concept of the “human.” In this way, Zizek makes the capacity for “inhuman” acts – acts that exceed the constraints we ordinarily place on ourselves – central to his conception of politics. We have to remove the confining blockage of “human” possibility to move toward the impossible:

The constellation is properly frustrating: although we (individual or collective agents) know that it all depends on us, we cannot ever predict the consequences of our acts – we are not impotent, but, quite the contrary, omnipotent, without being able to determine the scope of our powers. (453, emphasis in original)

When Zizek writes about divine violence and terror, we must read him in political and ontological terms. The ontological aspect rests in realizing our “inhuman” capacities; it means overcoming the constraints that prevent or preclude action, shirking off guarantees and accepting unknown consequences, and refusing fear in order to realize a capacity that can make us literally tremble in a “true act of courage” (152). In this ethics, the imperative or obligation is not at all clear: I cannot simply do my duty; I must figure out the substance of my duty, make a decision, and act. 

Critics tend to accuse Zizek of having a predilection for violence and a political program that cannot be viably implemented.4 Despite these charges, Zizek’s intellectual honesty remains both important and engaging. For Zizek, it is only by “getting stuck” in an intellectual endeavour that we can move toward engagement in a significant political act. Ontology and politics are incommensurable but complimentary; existential crisis and the material experience of precarity combine to generate decisive political action. And while his examples intially may appear to legitimate state authoritarian violence, Zizek clearly distinguishes between absolute divine violence (“the dictatorship of the proletariat,” the intervention by the part-of-no-part) and the mythic violence of the state (415).

According to Zizek, things are always already shot through with irresolvable contradictions, there is no perfect line to be maintained. The recourse to some idealized (or carefully derived) form of Marxism is a prime example; critics who claim that actual events and actors failed to maintain fidelity to some “pure” Marxism miss the point of politics entirely. Fidelity can motivate a betrayal of the motivating idea itself. Every “pure” idea is betrayed in its “practico-political application” (104) just as every idea is itself constituted through antagonisms.

Zizek argues against driving too heavy a wedge between the act of revolution and subsequent reforms. As it is typically invoked on the Left, the opposition between revolution and reform is a misnomer since, according to Zizek, “reform” is the practical enactment of the revolution following the initial event of revolt. “Reform” speaks to the labour of concrete social reformation required to sustain a revolutionary politics through and past the “hangover” or the “day after” the event. There is a certain irony here: radicals who indict reform (as not going far enough) while clinging to “resistance” actually misrecognize their own location on the “reform” side of the opposition in its facile form.

Because gradualism and consensus dull the necessary antagonism of politics, Zizek advocates the need for severe measures. His argument is defensible precisely because it responds to the inadequacy of radical democracy, democratic populism, and other strategies currently organized under the sign of “resistance” to challenge today’s capitalism and liberal humanist ideology. According to Zizek, although these modes of resistance idealize local struggles and push for polemical interventions, they all rely on the state to “service the goods” and administer life based on liberal humanist values augmented by the seemingly benign, amenable, and naturalized system of capitalism. Working from an extra-state position, activists who have made the exodus back to the margins and who self-organize in interstitial spaces and temporary autonomous zones infantilize their own efficacy. They “traverse the fantasy” of relevance knowing that their resistance is guaranteed by liberal democracy and capitalist political economy.

For Zizek, this is disavowal and self-delusion at its most violent.5 It marks the point where radicals express their awareness of the inadequacy of “resistance” to substantiate significant political transformation while, at the same time, choosing to serve as a kind of normative ethical consciousness for the state. Calls for change become enclosed within the horizon of the democratic-capitalist constellation: “more” democracy, “better” electoral scrutiny and transparency, a better representation of democracy’s internal antagonisms, “real functional democracy”; or reforms within capitalism, the redistribution of wealth, equal pay, better wages based on actual corporate profits.6 This begs the question: Are activists and (especially) self-described progressive intellectuals more concerned with valorizing their own radical labour than with substantially challenging their own privileged ontological and political identities?7

While Zizek finds points of agreement with some of his opponents – Ernesto Laclau and Toni Negri among them – he is entirely opposed to the program laid out by Simon Critchley in Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance.8 For Zizek, the “infinite demand” posed by Critchley is far too confined to the ideology of humanism and far too comfortable with respect to risk and political daring; it is akin to surrender. Paradoxically, the situation is (or is becoming) something like a bourgeois dictatorship (i.e., to dictate) of the politics of resistance. According to Zizek, today’s radicals invest in their own minimally differentiated sites so as to harvest self-sustaining symbolic importance. In this way, they create an accommodating kind of postmodern neoliberal (in the strict sense, i.e., new liberal) Protestantism.

The wish for “a revolution without a revolution” is ultimately a hope for liberty to remain free from the demands of undertaking change on a larger social, political, and economic scale. It is postmodern exactly because it refuses to legitimize itself in a larger context. This context, for Zizek, is the realization of an emancipatory political movement. The problem is not necessarily the “being” or “becoming” of particular and local forms of struggle; instead, it is that, in their own anarchic spaces of articulation, they remain defensive, consequential, and impotent when it comes to producing the conditions for a wider revolutionary event or opening. The endless and indefinite mobilizing – the calls for more action, the injunction to always be active – is not effective and only serves to express a momentary and reactionary presence. Contrary to those preaching more action, Zizek’s prescription highlights the need for finite planning and disciplined commitment to a concerted program.

Those insisting on taking “concrete things” from the book can consider Zizek’s short but striking re-appraisal of the material sites of political struggle. In Zizek’s estimation, labour power (cognitive or otherwise) can no longer be taken as the privileged or decisive materialist site for the staging of emancipatory political projects. Accordingly, he locates four other overlapping antagonisms grounded in contemporary capitalism that generate significant discontent: ecology (environmental disaster and catastrophe); the privatization of intellectual property (new digital industries and the monopolization of profit); the implications of new techno-scientific developments (biogenetics, biotechnology); and new forms of apartheid (the Included and Excluded, the creation of new enclosures). This last conflict is identified as the “zero-level antagonism” that colours “the entire terrain of struggle” (428).

While Zizek wonders if these antagonisms “are strong enough to prevent [global capitalism’s] infinite reproduction” (421), the matter is less a question than an instruction: in anticipating and seizing the openings produced by these antagonistic features, the Left can begin to redefine a revolutionary perspective. It is only by foregrounding Inclusion/Exclusion – and the imminent formation of apartheid enclosures – that one can move the predicament to a properly political level. Otherwise, concerns about ecological fall-out may become grounds for eco-capitalism and eco-imperialism, critics of biogenetic practices may enable conservative ethical (religious-humanist) ideologies, and concerns with the question of private property may be reduced to an exercise in legality and consumer rights (428).

Though rigorous, Zizek doesn’t escape without criticism himself. Arguably, small points of purchase and finite goals get things moving and enable larger-scale aims to be imagined, if not realized. They should not – nor cannot – be categorically dismissed. However, for Zizek’s wager to prove sound and feasible, one must subscribe to the idea of people being enchained to derision, doubt, and political inefficacy. What, then, of political agents who greet this assertion with the same indifference advised by Zizek, by those who have assumed his “good” fundamentalism and go about their work without anxiety or strife or feelings of self-imposed doubt? Do we simply suggest, as does Zizek, “Well, nice attempt but ultimately you know not what you do,” and revoke specific acts and interventions?9

If we do sever the relation to our overbearing superegos that pleads for us to remain politically and socially under the cover and guarantee of liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism, do we not free ourselves from the capacity to perceive the world in Zizek’s terms: that a repeat of the lost causes is necessary and exactly what is required? Dismissing as capitulation and surrender every struggle that doesn’t adhere to radical egalitarian justice seems analytically premature. Surely, there are many self-described “radical” agents seeking a slice of the rhetorical and symbolic pie. But there are just as surely groups attempting to break our current political deadlocks with a momentum that can create a new opening and usher in new possibilities, regardless of a derided politics of resistance.

Zizek invests throughout in his own capacity to go tell it on the mountain, to derive Correct Action, and to act as the ethical consciousness of the elite Left - that self-hating element of the Included who need a lesson in regenerating missed opportunities and the discipline and daring to confront state power. Granted, this is the point of his argument: argue, confront, and assert the current condition with a degree of honesty. But is he not then proposing the same kind of “enemy within” diagnosis that he argues to be the formal element of anti-Semitism, fascism, and democratic populism? Is he not asserting the presence of a virulent “them,” an intruding element that is paralyzing emancipatory politics and preventing “real revolution”?

Criticisms notwithstanding, there remains a certain unassailable feature to Zizek’s own system. Zizek’s articulation of an absolute emancipatory program is indeed a self-fulfilling endeavour; it works precisely because it relies on something that is, at this moment, impossible. However, it is in going down this road that Zizek nails you: it is impossible and unrealizable precisely because it is self-fulfilling; that is, it must come from the “omnipotent” capacities that are contained and effaced by existing political vocabularies and tactics. Refusing the role of regulating ideas: this is both the risk and (ultimately) the way forward. Certain battles will have to be suspended in order for others to be waged. It is a lesson in ongoing contradictions that Zizek takes from Mao. What one is left with is the injunction to begin enacting what will undoubtedly become a series of failures in the exercise of instigation. It is a form of action that only makes sense when approached with the hope that something previously impossible might break through. Zizek’s philosophy of freedom literally entails that we make a leap of faith in what, for all intents and purposes, is an ontological state of emergency for the very political constitution of the revolutionary Left.10 In order to make this leap, it is necessary to refuse the enemy the opportunity of defining the terms of the debate and the course of action. It means taking initiative, refusing the safety of cover, and - although it’s taboo - thinking and fighting to win.

Notes

1 From “In Praise of Good Maps”: “Seeing beyond the surface appearances of capitalism requires a particular form of intellectual engagement and a particular relationship to concepts, where concepts are mobilized not to explain the world but rather to describe those aspects of the world that aren’t immediately perceivable. It requires the ability to think from two points at once. In short, it requires the ability to think historically. Being able to think in this way is not simply of analytic benefit; historical thought also makes it possible to envision modes of intervention that do not simply respond to particular injustices or seek to valorize particular subjective experiences… Specifically, it allows us to imagine ourselves as historical actors in order that we may begin to act that way.” The Editorial Collective, “In Praise of Good Maps,” Upping the Anti #6, 25.

2 In the short passage, “The Spirit of Revival,” found in the “Intellectual Situation” section of n+ #6 (Winter 2008), 4-9, the editors - ahead of the curve - anticipate the release of the Revolutions series as an exercise in reconstituting and reconstructing relevant ideas deemed anathema or taboo in the circles of the elite Left intellectuals.

3 The editors of the journal Ephemera elucidate and refer several times to this actual/virtual proposal in Zizek’s “historical thinking”. I am thankful to Kelly Fritsch for pointing me toward this essay. See Stephanie Schreven, Sverre Spoelstra, and Peter Svensson, “Alternatively,” Ephemera 8(2), 129-136, http://www.ephemeraweb.org/journal/8-2/8-2editorial.pdf.

4 For a general sampler of the range of responses to Zizek’s work, see this thread on the theory/politics blog Long Sunday www.long-sunday.net/long_sunday/2007/11/finitely-demand.html. The piece in question,“Resistance is Surrender,” is a review of Simon Critchley’s book, Infinitely Demanding. I address Zizek and Critchley further below in the main text of the review.

5 Fetishistic disavowal is a recurring theme in Zizek’s work. It is the hinge for his theory of contemporary “post-symptomal” ideology. The symptom is an index of the unknown, whereas disavowal requires full knowledge and active denial through transference. Throughout his work, he links disavowal firmly with melancholia, with the inability to break with the traumatic event of failure by clinging to false hopes of efficacy. Notably, this dynamic is the implicit substance of the exchange between AK Thompson (“Making Friends with Failure,” UTA #3, 77-92) and Richard Day (“Walking Away From Failure,” UTA #4, 77-87).

6 The political economic horizon of this logic is identified by David Calnitsky in his review of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (“Of Capital and Compromise,” Upping the Anti #6, 169-174). Though he gives a positive assessment of the book’s analysis of integrated global capitalism and the economic ideology of the Chicago School, Calnitsky points to the way in which Klein’s aggressive push against the shock doctrine and market fundamentalism still remains firmly within capitalist logics. Though she opposes the paradigm of disaster capitalism, Klein’s solution is a compromise via her advocacy for a rejuvenated welfare-state inherent to the political economy of capitalism; that is, picking neo-Keynesianism over more refined forms of neoliberalism and primitive accumulation is not a substantive break.

7 While not undertaking the same kind absolute emancipatory wager as Zizek – though just as polemical – Tom Keefer’s essay, “Six Nations and the Politics of Solidarity,” (Upping the Anti #4, 107-123) gets at the same kind of problem in relation to potentially mobilizing on social and economic issues that are shared and which can unite different constituencies. As Keefer explicitly warns against mechanically extending his insights into other contexts (108), I tread lightly; however, the idea of “hitting the ceiling” in relation to one’s own experiential register (i.e., activist-tourism, radical safari, being here is just enough) is something he alludes to in his piece. His short analysis of Stokely Carmichael’s criticism of white allies who rallied around the civil rights movement while doing little to organize and remain active in their own hegemonic social communities is formally similar to the disavowal Zizek locates in radical circles that require ongoing social-symbolic cover and guarantees.

8 The ongoing Zizek-Critchley drama has made waves in certain circles. Zizek’s review of Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (Verso, 2007), “Resistance is Surrender,” was published in November 2007 in the London Review of Books (www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/ zize01_.html) and later republished in Harper’s in February 2008. Critchley responded to Harper’s with a long letter to the editor [“Resistance is Utile,” Letter to the Editor, Harper’s, (May 2008), 4-5.]. Having read Critchley’s response to Zizek (though not his book), I think Critchley misunderstands in large parts Zizek’s argument.

9 See Slavoj Zizek, (2002) For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor, London: Verso.

10 From Mark Grief, an editor for n +1: “Ecological catastrophe does inspire fantasies on the left of a state of emergency…[T]his may not be such a bad thing…[T]yrannical as it may sound, one has to say that there may be advantages for all of humanity, and fewer risks to human life, from a left emergency: from “our” emergency rather than theirs, from “our” security rather than theirs. This one-sided sense of right is easier to declare as a matter of principle, however, because it seems likely to have so few firm consequences.” See “Forum: War on Global Warming/War on Terror,” n+1 #6 (Winter 2008), 31.