......• Play Fuckin' Loud: Zizek Versus the Left
..........Rex Butler and Scott Stephens

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Undoubtedly, one of the great cultural experiences of last year was Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, which chronicles Bob Dylan’s career from his arrival in New York in 1961 to his decision to abandon live music some 5 years later. Of course, the real subject of the film is the astonishing development of Dylan’s musical expression, from his early cover versions of other singers to his unique fusion of folk and rock. It is a trajectory he pursued in the face of an absolute resistance from the audience that had grown up listening to his early protest songs. One of the events the film depicts is Dylan’s now famous concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, during which he turns to his backing band after crises of “Judas!” from one of the aggrieved folk purists in the audience and says simply: “Play fuckin’ loud”. The offended fans are then shown denouncing Dylan while they leave during the show. And, in truth, it is excruciating to watch the attempts by various groups at the time to appropriate Dylan – from his ex-lover Joan Baez to the announcer at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival who exhorts the crowd with “Take him, he’s yours!” Instead, against the idea that he was a simple protest singer who sang about topical issues, Dylan has always insisted that all of his songs were protest songs. Against any identifiable genre of music, he argues for the moral necessity to keep on breaking with his audience in order to take them outside the usual expectations of what a “folk” song is, of what a “protest” song could be.

Is it too much to draw a connection with another documentary featuring a major cultural figure that was also released last year, Astra Taylor’s Zizek! The Movie? For, in a similar way to Dylan (and, of course, we are aware of the tendency of such comparisons to sound bathetic), Zizek can be found insisting there that my “greatest fear is not to be ignored, but to be accepted too well”. That is, following an injunction he says he finds in St Paul, and also in the example of Lacan, who late in life established an ever-new series of schools to represent his thought, Zizek in a kind of “striking against himself” sees it as almost an ethical duty to keep on dividing his audience. He wants to take us – and we mean all of us, ourselves included – through a series of apparent backflips and self-contradictions beyond any conventional conception of his work. He wants to separate his audience between those who truly understand him and those who merely pretend that they do. But who is this division between? What is it that he wants to distinguish himself from? We might say – and this will seem counter-intuitive, if not simply incorrect – it is a division between two factions of the Left. Or even that Zizek seeks to separate himself from the Left. More precisely, in Zizek’s work a distinction is made between the Hegelio-Marxism that he puts forward and what is commonly called the Left. But in this, indeed, he does no more than follow Hegel and Marx themselves, who when read closely can also be seen to be more “conservative”, to identify themselves more strongly with a form of conservatism, than anything we might currently think of as the Left. (See, for example, Engels’ well-known letter to Eduard Bernstein, in which Marx is quoted as saying “What is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”, in response to Jules Guesde and Paul Lafarque of the Parti Ouvrier’s rejection of reformist struggle.1)

What could we mean by this outrageous series of statements? Where is the evidence for this in Zizek’s work? Let us take a particular example of that Left with which we say Zizek’s work wants to break, that Left which says of Zizek, as Dylan’s audience did of him, “Take him he’s yours!” It is a theory blog, ‘I Cite’, by Jodi Dean, that addresses, amongst other things, Zizek’s response to last year’s riots in Paris and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In her post, ‘A Limit Experience: On Zizek’s Recent Remarks’, Dean begins by citing three passages from Zizek’s essay ‘Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on the Violence in France and Related Matters – Violence, Irrational and Rational (originally posted as an email on the net; now available in a longer version at Lacan.com). The first passage relates Picasso’s famous rejoinder to the German officers, who coming upon the chaos and confusion of his painting Guernica in occupied Paris during the Second World War asked: “You did this?” “No”, replied Picasso, “you did!” The second is where Zizek comments of the riots in Paris and their seeming lack of a political program: “Is the sad fact that the opposition to the system cannot articulate itself in the guise of a realistic alternative, or at least a meaningful utopian project, but only as a meaningless outburst, not the strongest indictment of our predicament?” And the third is where Zizek reflects on what his own proper response to events should be: “So what is a philosopher to do here? One should bear in mind that the philosopher’s task is not to propose solutions, but to reformulate the problem itself, to shift the ideological framework within which we hitherto perceived the problem”.

To the argument contained in these passages, Dean begins by admitting: “I doubt that anyone would mistake me for a critic of Zizek. More likely, I go too far in the other direction, excusing, trying to explain all sorts of ridiculous statements and repetitions. This time, though, I’ve had enough” – and who cannot recognise in this the wounded tone of one whose master has disappointed them, whose love has turned to hate? More specifically, do we not have here something of what drove Dylan’s erstwhile supporters to yell out “Judas!” at him? Dean then goes on to detail her objections to Zizek on the Paris riots. The first is: “Zizek resorts to whining and blame, to finger pointing. He fails completely to acknowledge Left failures [we suppose those of the previous Mitterand governments]. More importantly, he fails even to articulate anything positive. His position is completely politically disempowering, mired in the situation”. The second, in part, is: “Zizek stands by, again whining about the failure of the rioters to articulate a positive vision. But since when was that something anyone expected of rioters? The very suggestion is false and shallow, displacing any kind of responsibility for articulating the violence, politicising the violence, seeing it as a symptom, as a universal… The failure here is Zizek’s failure. Who if not Left intellectuals should at least attempt to provide meaning and vision? For all of Zizek’s adoration of Lenin, of a Lenin able to seize the moment, do the impossible, present a vision that everyone else rejected, Zizek remains, here at least, unable to take any sort of necessary conceptual risk”. The third, finally, is: “[Zizek] justifies this failure in terms of the duty of philosophy. Please. Zizek is clearly more than a philosopher. He presents himself as a radical public intellectual. His popular writing has the character of at least an attempt at intervention. Yet, he fails on this score, again not measuring up even to garden variety liberals, multiculturalists and supporters of the welfare state”.

Here, we might say, in a nutshell is everything Zizek writes against. And it is just at this point that the true distinctions – because they are the hardest, the most unpopular, the most difficult – need to be made. It is just at this moment that Zizek breaks with a “well-wishing” Left in the name of a proper Hegelio-Marxist critique. To begin with, Zizek absolutely takes a distance from the classical model of the philosopher giving meaning to events, providing a solution to problems – the philosopher as Big Other bringing about narrative and conceptual closure. (Ironically, in another post from her website, Dean even admits that one of the things at stake in Zizek’s work is the doing away with the Big Other like this.) Giving meaning, providing solutions, bringing about closure: this is what French politicians from the Centre-Left like Dominique de Villepin (who criticised the French State) to the Right like Nicolas Sarkozy (who blamed the rioters) rushed the do in the days immediately following the riots. It is what innumerable media critics and commentators, both in France and abroad, scrambled to do in order that there was no empty air time in which actually to think. How flimsy, how pathetic, how desperate they all sounded, when we know that, within the current configuration of the French State within capitalism, there can be no solution.2 (The same point might even be made of the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina: for all of the criticisms made of the Bush Government for acting too slowly in response to the crisis, this is again to assume that the problem was only natural, that everything could be made right by the timely intervention of the State, when in fact it is the State itself that is the problem.) In both cases, there is no “solution”, and therefore no meaning, no closure to events. And it is just this that Zizek is trying to think in his essay – admittedly, with great difficulty, against the “best wishes” of his supporters.

More than this, Zizek is accused in Dean’s essay not only of not providing the meaning of the French riots to us, but also to the rioters themselves. In the most traditional conception of philosophy, he is expected to speak for others, bears a responsibility for “articulating the violence”. But the real point here is that, if these riots are to constitute a real “event”, they must provide their own meaning. And it is the failure of the rioters to do this, to make of what happened an event, that Zizek indicates by the simple “mathemic” repetition of his previous work (mostly passages of Ticklish Subject) in response to them.3 The riots do not provide an occasion for new thought; they merely play out an existing impasse. But, again, it is just this – this lack of any wider meaning, the present inability of the rioters, of all of us, to formulate an authentic utopian moment, to make of what happened a “universal” – that Zizek attempts to think in his refusal to clutch at “solutions”, to suggest possible alternatives, to issue philosophical nostrums from some higher place, not “mired in the situation”. Perhaps the only true equivalent to Zizek’s authentic ethical stance here, his refusal to offer placebos, his taking of the time to think, strangely enough, was the response of French President Jacques Chirac, who several days after the riots – and he too was criticised for his delay – put forward an equally mathemic decree: “The French State will not concede to the rioters”. We sense behind his words here, as with Zizek, a frank admission that the riots did not constitute an authentic event, that the only true crisis (for Capital) will be that of Capital itself…

So what, then, is Zizek attempting to do in ‘Some Politically Incorrect Reflections’? What is the role for philosophy he proposes there? What does he mean by saying that the philosopher’s task is “not to propose solutions, but to reframe the problem itself”? If we can begin by answering these questions in a slightly programmatic way, the role of philosophy is to provide space for us and the protestors to think. It is to enable us to reflect upon the fact that the rioters are able to propose no solution, and to make of this problem the beginning of a solution itself. It is the rush to judgement, the proposing of solutions without seeing the prior problem, that Zizek is seeking to avoid.4 And it is this time of thinking that we call his “patience”, and that is variously theorised in his work as “separation”, “uncoupling” “aggressive passivity” and Bartleby’s “I prefer not to”. It is to stop before acting and to ask why all of the available alternatives are insufficient, merely different versions of the same thing. (In the full-length version of the essay, posted on Lacan.com, Zizek makes a crucial distinction between two different responses to capitalism and the separation it enforces between truth and meaning: on the one hand, there are “conservative [but we would also say pseudo-Leftist] reactions to re-enframe capital within some field of meaning”; and, on the other, there is the attempt to raise the question of the “real of capitalism with regard to its truth-beyond-meaning (what, basically, Marx did)”. It is absolutely this distinction that is at stake in Zizek’s attempt to tear the events of the French riots away from their various commentators, both Left and Right, in thinking their “truth-outside-meaning”.) And this is why, finally – we see it again in this misunderstanding between Zizek and his blogger – we can say that philosophical thinking as such is always political, is not to do nothing. This is why we can say that thinking, truly thinking – and here we are reminded of Dylan’s insistence that all of his songs are protest songs, even when they do not take up the topical issues of the day – is that rarest of events, and constitutes the only real resistance to what must be called the “complicity” of the well-meaning Left, which in its desire for immediate results is indistinguishable from its hated rival (the narcissism of small differences), neo-liberalism.

In fact, everything needs to be turned around in the accusations made of Zizek here. Against the accusation that Zizek does not “seize the moment, present a vision that everyone else rejected”, that he is “unable to take any sort of necessary conceptual risk”, we would say that Zizek does present a vision that “everyone else [at least, his self-styled followers] rejected”; that he does perform a “necessary conceptual risk” exactly in not immediately stepping in to offer a solution. Against the claim that he should be responsible for “articulating the violence, by working to see it as a symptom, as a universal”, we would say that Zizek does do this: for him, the riots are a symptom of a universal impasse in making clear the current impossibility of political action. As he writes: “Is the sad fact that the opposite to the system cannot articulate itself in the guise of a realistic alternative, but only as a meaningless outburst, not the strongest indictment of our predicament?” That is, in an elementary dialectical twist, it is the rioters’ very inability to turn their situation into a universal symptom that is today our universal symptom. And, again, it is just in this, in thinking the new situation as such, before providing it with any meaning, any solution, that Zizek brings about the “parallax view” he states is the philosopher’s duty: “One should bear in mind that the philosopher’s task is not to propose solutions, but to reformulate the problem itself, to shift the ideological framework within which we hitherto identified the problem”.5

To be more specific, Zizek’s strategy in ‘Some Politically Incorrect Reflections’ is different from a number of his other interventions into contemporary political events. In such essays as ‘Against the Double Blackmail’, ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real!’ and ‘Iraq – Where is the True Danger?’, he begins by outlining the various possible alternatives for action: NATO can decide to bomb or not to bomb Kosovo; the US can decide to strike back or not to strike back against the terrorists; the coalition forces can decide to invade or not to invade Iraq. It is then through an analysis of these alternatives that Zizek seeks to demonstrate the impasses they lead to, the fact that they come down to the same thing. In ‘Some Politically Incorrect Reflections’, however, Zizek begins by asserting the impasse we are currently in, and then goes on to elaborate why the existing political alternatives are inadequate. In other words, with regard to the French riots, Zizek’s actual point – and this is missed insofar as we place the responsibility for articulating them either on to Zizek or on to the rioters themselves – is that their inability to be articulated as a “universal symptom” is a failure of both Left and Right ideologies themselves in thinking through the existing situation of Capital. As Zizek writes, for conservatives, who “emphasise the clash of civilizations and, predictably, law and order… what the young immigrants need is not more social help but discipline and hard work”. While liberals, for their part, “stuck to their old mantras about neglected social programs and integration efforts which are depriving the younger generation of immigrants of any clear economic and social prospects”. But, again, the point is that, insofar as these riots remain “meaningless”, with the rioters unable to articulate their demands, or with them not even appearing to have any demands, neither of these social narratives has any purchase. It is these symbolic constructions that attempt to turn the riots into a symptom of something else, to view them as a “universal symptom” (which is not just a term of the Left, as some of Zizek’s commentators seem to think), but it is exactly from the failure of them to do so that Zizek begins.6

Zizek plays out this impasse between the Left and the Right in his article by comparing the riots in Paris with the hurricane in New Orleans, which occurred just a little while afterwards. For each of these events seems to cast a judgement on the other, bring out the limits of the prevailing ideological explanations within which they are understood. With regard to the French riots, what Zizek calls American “wild capitalism” operates as an implicit critique of the stifling nature of traditional French society. The riots broke out not only in response to the inability of the French State to integrate immigrants, unlike the American “melting pot”, but also in response to the lack of want or risk, again unlike the clear distinction between success and failure in the “American dream”. And yet, on the other hand, the chaos that broke out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the inability of the world’s richest country to look after its poorest citizens, is able to be seen, from the vantage point of France, as the failure of unchecked capitalism to produce a functional civic society. Like the supposed beat of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world that causes a storm on the other, the United States’ failure to govern in Iraq comes back as the collapse of public order in New Orleans. And, again, just as Zizek does not choose between Leftist and Rightist explanations of the riots, so he does not choose between French corporatism and American capitalism. It is rather the lack of choice between them, the fact that to choose one is already to choose the other, that he wants to think. Or, as he says – once more introducing the difficulty of narrating or making sense of our current situation – “It is meaningless to debate which reaction is worse: they are both worse”.

And there is perhaps one other way in which we might think the French riots and Hurricane Katrina as involved in a form of “infinite judgement” on each other, each providing what the other is lacking. In one way, as we have seen, it is easy to understand the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina as natural, outside of meaning, but Zizek insists that it is of course cultural, the effect of human rather than divine intervention. But, equally – and this is where it is inadequate to suggest that Zizek merely repeats his own prior formulae, does not attempt to think the specificity of the new situation – even though it is tempting to argue that underlying the French riots is a cultural difference between Muslims and others, and therefore a meaningful one, Zizek’s point is that this difference has become naturalised today, something that is seen to precede ideology and the constructedness of human identity. (This is Zizek’s idea in quoting the well-known passage from Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing in which Dogsberry reverses the usual conception of what is ours naturally and what we can acquire by choice and hard work.) But again here this impasse, this inability to distinguish between nature and culture, the way each keeps turning into the other, hints at something “deeper”, for Zizek’s argument, as throughout, is that what allows this exchange between nature and culture, what ensures that to choose one is to choose the other, is Capital itself. It is Capital that produces this structure of “forced choice”, in which we can choose only one of two alternatives, which are nevertheless both inadequate, not enough – and what Zizek is trying to do in posing this choice as such is to embody his insight that Capital today is our Real, that which, as with the “sexual relationship”, always brings about (at least) two failed responses as attempts to resolve it.7 In other words, as with the “sexual relationship” – and this confirms the ultimate consistency of those two approaches of Zizek we have examined here: either to begin with the antinomies produced by the meaningless Real of capitalism or with an assertion of this meaninglessness and then seeking to deduce its antinomies – Capital as Real both produces this structure of two opposed choices that are both inadequate and is only seen through (the failure of) these two choices.8

It is this, to conclude, that we meant in our recent ‘Introduction’ to a forthcoming volume of Zizek’s Selected Writings, The Universal Exception, when we quoted Hegel on the necessity of immersing “substance” into a representational “mediation”:

On the side of content, the defect of Spinoza's philosophy consists precisely in the fact that the form is not known to be immanent to that content, and for that reason it supervenes upon it only as an external, subjective form. Substance, as it is apprehended immediately by Spinoza without preceding dialectical mediation – being the universal might of negation – is only the dark, shapeless abyss, so to speak, in which all determinate content is swallowed up as radically null and void, and which produces nothing out of itself that has a positive subsistence of it own.9

Hegel’s exact point here is that it is not simply that we immerse a pre-existing or preconstituted “substance” into some representational medium in order to break it down into its constituted parts, like some alchemical analysis. (It is just this that he objects to in Spinoza in the section from which we have quoted.) It is also that we can only grasp this “substance” through the contradictory effects it generates within representation, its irreducibility to any non-dialectical form of logic. It is this Hegel makes clear in a passage that follows on almost immediately from the one above:

The originality of the cause is sublated in the effect, where it makes itself into a positedness. But this does not mean that the cause has vanished, so that only the effect would be actual. For this positedness is just as immediately sublated; it is rather the inward self-reflection of the cause, or its originality: it is only in the effect that the cause is actual, and is [truly] cause.10


1 See Letter of Engels to Eduard Bernstein, 2-3 November 1882, in Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 46, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992, p. 356.

2 It is notable that this refusal to supply a “meaning” also characterises Jean Baudrillard’s response to the first Gulf War, which is for him as well a certain “non-event”. As he writes: “This war liberates an exponential mass of stupidity, not the particular stupidity of war, which is considerable, but the professional and functional stupidity of those who pontificate in perpetual commentary on the event: all the Bouvards and Pécuchets for hire, the would-be raiders of the lost image, the CNN types and all the master singers of strategy and information” (The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Sydney: Power Publishing, 1995, p. 51).

3 It is perhaps more complicated than this, for Zizek must say something in order to produce the silence that allows reflection. This structure of the at once “too soon” and “too late” is something we spoke about in our ‘Introduction’ to Interrogating the Real in terms of the relationship between enunciation and enunciated. We cannot have one without the other: the pure mathemic enunciated can only be seen through (the failure of) enunciation, while the “empty speech” of pure enunciation is already only a mathemic enunciated. And this structure of the “too soon” and the “too late” is also close to that of the “event” (see on this the discussion of the “politics of prescription” in the section ‘Do We Still Have a World?’ of Zizek’s forthcoming The Parallax View).

4 Or to take this back a step, Zizek constantly remarks throughout ‘Politically Incorrect Reflections’ that the rioters want “recognition”, seek “visibility”, wish to “create a problem, to signal that they are a problem that cannot any longer be ignored”, but this is evident only to an attention that is able to re-mark this without seeking to turn it into something else. It is only someone who does not immediately attempt a solution who can truly comprehend what is at stake in the riots, the authentic question they raise (and thus the only answer that is possible).

5 That is, for all of the “mathemic” nature of Zizek’s response to the French riots – the way he sees them, as did Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire, as strictly the repetition of a “class struggle” that has occurred before – he is also surprisingly responsive to the specifics of events and the occasion they provide for thought. Amongst the particularities of the riots and the way they are not amenable to the usual Leftist bromides that would present them “in terms of a global argument against the police and policing, against the brutal response to the poor that is the necessary correlative of neoliberal economic struggle”: the protestors were not “living on the edge of starvation, reduced to survival level”; their protests did not indicate a rejection of the French State, but a desire to be “included” in it; insofar as they could be considered Islamic in inspiration (although one of the first buildings attacked was a mosque, which led religious authorities to condemn them), they were fuelled not by a sense of the inferiority of the West but by a sense of its superiority, which is why “our condescending politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and fuels their ressentiment”. And it is again for all of these reasons that Zizek does not “whine about the failure of the rioters to articulate a positive vision”, for the very “meaning” of the riots, what they have to tell us, is that they have no obvious meaning, do not fall into the usual political narratives or explanations.

6 Instead, we might say, the real distinction between Right and Left resides in how they differently treat this symptom: for the Right, its identification is a preliminary to getting rid of it, so that it can assume power; for the Left, its identification is preliminary to admitting that it can never be got rid of, so that it can never achieve power under the current circumstances.

7 This is the real point to Zizek’s humorous evocation of the “forced choice” in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? in terms of the selection between Republican or Democrat, Nutra-Sweet or High & Low, Leno or Letterman and Coke or Pepsi (pp. 240-1). Both options are inadequate, having to be “supplemented” by the other; both are attempted solutions to the impasse of Capital. It would be necessary, in other words, to read Zizek’s remarks on Coke in Totalitarianism? along with his earlier discussion of Coke as objet petit a in Fragile Absolute (pp. 21-4).

8 This is properly what is meant by the “parallax view”: not two views on to the same thing, as in Nietzschean perspectivism, but any view and that void for which it stands in, as in the “alternation” between Night and Day in Hegel (For They Know Not What They Do, p. 22).

9 G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic: Part 1 of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (with the Zusätze), Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991, p. 227.

10 Ibid, p. 228.


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