Monday, May 17, 2010

A question to philosophers, theologians, and other assorted vague prognosticators

I meant to write about this a week or two ago when I first saw it. I was in the bookstore, looking through the philosophy section, and a new book by Slavoj Zizek caught my eye. I know Evan is interested, if not always in agreement, with him so I picked it up. I flipped to the back cover and I read:

"There should no longer be any doubt: global capitalism is fast approaching its terminal crisis."

I have to ask - what do you people think when you read something like that? What goes through your head? Do you have any clue how vacuous that statement is?
I read what I consider to be pretty crazy assertions by certain schools of thought that will remain nameless a lot - maybe they just don't phase me because while I think they're equally crazy I at least have a sense of the lineage of the craziness. I can trace it back to its source - which is not quite so crazy. And maybe I just shouldn't worry so much about a guy making crazy remarks about something that he really doesn't have substantial insight into, because it's just a way of framing what he's going to say - which may very well be insightful. Or maybe I'm just giving Zizek more credit than I should because I've heard people speak well of him - maybe I really should dismiss him entirely for such a boorish, ill-conceived, and quite frankly inaccurate sentiment. At least hedge it. Take the Schumpeter route and suggest that capitalism is going through epic developmental changes. But I have a feeling that that's not what Zizek is really thinking about here. I have the sense that Zizek is taking the position that much of the left did during the Great Depression, namely that "this crisis will end it for good". It's not an evolution a la Schumpeter - it's Judgement Day.
How should I take this? If I didn't know who Zizek was I would have re-shelved the book and concluded that the author was worthless and confused. Since I do know Zizek, I have to ask myself these questions - and I also have to wonder whether I make unwarranted statements like this myself.

And while we're on the topic of bat-shit crazy intellectuals that actually have some really insightful things to say, but regularly manage to pair those insights with the most ridiculous garbage, I noticed this morning that the state of Israel denied Noam Chomsky entry. Chomsky probably isn't surprised, but I wonder if it's something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, cooler heads seem to be prevailing. The interior ministry recently said:

"We are trying to contact the military to clear things up and if they have no objection we see no reason why he should not be allowed in."

I've always liked this 1993 vs. 2007 comparison of Christopher Hitchens's evolving perspective on Noam Chomsky. Now that I think about it, Hitchens is another one that I like a lot, but who has also said really dumb things in his time - also often with respect to capitalism.

Capitalism is a real stumbling block for these guys.

Anyway - I'm seriously asking this question to people who might be kinder to Zizek, who like him, or who come from a background more similar to his: How should I receive a book like that? Am I wrong to instinctively conclude it must be mostly rubbish?


  1. What book is this? I'm not at all surprised by the statement. Considering his background and political views, I'd be surprised if Zizek said anything else.

    I've always found Zizek to be a fun guy to listen to, but I don't follow his work at all, and while I'm suspicious of the usefulness of it, I don't see the point in trashing him as completely unhelpful... especially because lots of people I respect find his work helpful. But he is an engaging thinker, and a joy to imbibe, and I'm happy to accept him on that level without feeling any sort of need to go any further. He also readily engages with theologians on certain questions, and I think this accounts for a lot of the interest in our discipline.

    His recent coauthored book with Markus Gabriel on German Idealism actually looks quite interesting, and a bit more removed from the provocative stuff that you draw attention to here. I'm actually quite interested to see how it is received over the next few years, given Zizek's more general reputation as a quite different sort of author.

  2. Never heard of him. He says here that he is a "fighting atheist" (maybe this is some sort of tongue in cheek remark) while also praising the universal appeal of Christianity:

    So does this mean that he is a "evangelical atheist?" If so, and I say this as an atheist, all I can say is no thanks.

  3. He's an atheist, certainly, but as you point out he attributes significant importance to Christianity. His recent work with Milbank might be worth looking at. You can probably also find a lecture of his on youtube title something like "Only an atheist can be a true Christian" or "Only a Christian can be a true atheist" or something like that... he's presented this thesis in a number of permutations and I imagine it's pretty readily at hand somewhere.

    So, yes, he's an atheist, but not in the sense of some of atheism's recent apologists like Hitchens or Dawkins or what have you.

  4. If it's a point about the developmental role of Christianity that he's making - Christianity as a stage of historical development that improved humanity quite efficaciously for a while - then Dawkins and Hitchens have certainly made such points in the past. Dennett perhaps even more strongly. I'm not sure if that's Zizek's point, though.

    More relevant for this post is of course that Zizek is Marxist.

  5. ...heck, he openly calls himself a Stalinist.

  6. Really????

    Wow - OK I just took a big step towards the "rubbish" understanding of Zizek.

    How in the world does he justify that? Is it for shock value?!?!?

  7. In discussing someone else I found this comment by Hamid Dabashi on Zizek interesting: "For people like Zizek, social upheavals in what they call the Third World are a matter of theoretical entertainment. It is an old tradition that goes back all the way to Sartre on Algeria and Cuba in the 1950s, down to Foucault on Iran in the 1970s. That does not bother me a bit. In fact, I find it quite entertaining -- watching grown up people make complete fools of themselves talking about something about which they have no blasted clue."

  8. I can't speak for Zizek or Sartre, but wasn't Foucault in Iran during the revolution? I also believe he was in North Africa during troubles there, and he grew up in Nazi-occupied Germany.

    I'm not sure everything he said was right (I'm not sure what he said), but I think he was probably invested enough in it to not be called a "complete fool" or that he has no clue about it. He probably understood these ideas more than most - and certainly more than the average ivory tower arm-chair pontificator. My guess is Dabashi simply didn't agree with Foucault and this was a convenient way of expressing his disagreement.

    It's also worth noting what Foucault was commenting on - the fall of the shah. For many people, that was a very good thing even if what followed was also terrible. Since Foucault couldn't forsee the future, we have to be careful about faulting him for celebrating Iran's escape from the frying pan, simply because he wasn't able to forsee the fire.

  9. Actually, I can speak for Zizek somewhat. He grew up in communist Eastern Europe. He also knows about these sorts of systems first hand. Again, it doesn't always make him right. In fact, growing up in that environment might make him quite wrong. But let's not act like he's some sort of ignorant ivory tower type.

  10. Nazi occupied France.

    Foucault was commenting on a future "Islamic government" as well actually; at best he was rather naive about his pronouncements.

    Nice discussion of the Anderson & Afary book "Foucault and the Iranian Revolution" (2005) here:

    From the article: "Foucault's Iranian adventure was a "tragic and farcical error" that fits into a long tradition of ill-informed French intellectuals spouting off about distant revolutions, says James Miller, whose 1993 biography "The Passion of Michel Foucault" contains one of the few previous English-language accounts of the episode. Indeed, Foucault's search for an alternative that was absolutely other to liberal democracy seems peculiarly reckless in light of political Islam's subsequent career, and makes for odd reading now as observers search for traditions in Islam that are compatible with liberal democracy. But at a time when religion is resurgent in politics and Western liberals are divided between interventionists and anti-imperialists, Foucault's peculiar blend of blindness and insight about the Islamists remains instructive."

    What Foucault reminds me of re: the Iranian Revolution are those rather foolish persons on the left who defended the Soviet "experiment" in the 1920s and 1930s.

  11. He looks like someone that dressed up as a "Sterotypical Liberal Intellectual" for Halloween.

    Everything! Beard, shoes, earth tones, slightly faded and worn, sloppiness. Faux-casualness. Those moccasin-type slippers.


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