Slavoj Zizek – The Dark Conscience of the 21st Century?
Originally published on Countercurrents
A conversation with a particularly perceptive liberal friend a few days back turned to the subject of ‘offensive’ jokes and whether the proponents of free speech should really grant the freedom to offend. Ever the politically incorrect, I defended it, citing Zizek. She quickly responded that everyone tolerated Zizek because they knew that he was crazy. After a pause, I asked her “What if Zizek understands the way everyone, the world, functions and that drove him crazy?”
(I had in mind the Joker from Alan Moore’s critically acclaimed graphic novel The Killing Joke who proclaims to the Batman “When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot!”)
Now this is certainly not the first time someone has commented on the Slovenian’s sanity. Intellectual pop star, celebrity, left-fascist, Stalinist, ‘Elvis Presley of Marxism’ are some of the terms used to describe him. Those familiar with his preface to the selected works of Robespierre in Virtue and Terror, his In Defense of Lost Causes, and even better, or worse if you prefer it, his monumental work on Hegel Less than Nothing, will have an idea why he is called the “most dangerous philosopher in the world”.
The last philosopher to earn such accolades, criticism, praise and invectives would be Jean-Paul Sartre. Now, Sartre was a man, to use a clichéd phrase, that all loved to despise. The Catholic Church passed an order in 1948 prohibiting the reading of any of his works. Around the same period, a church of a different kind, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union also banned Sartre’s works, irked over his play Dirty Hands that was critical of the functioning style of the Communists. French nationalists, liberals, structuralists, the initial post-modernists, and many others loathed him. Sartre’s biographer John Gerassi called him “the hated conscience of his century”.
If there is one thing that the several Sartre scholars agree upon it is that his philosophy was a “philosophy of action”. Doesn’t the very idea of conscience presuppose an imperative to act ethically? But then, the temptation to act is precisely what Zizek has been campaigning against. He calls on us to do nothing, step back, and think. Such an opinion would have been anathema to Sartre, who threw his weight behind every cause of the oppressed – and everyone claiming to fight on behalf of the oppressed – that came to his notice.
Yet, towards the end of his eventful life, Sartre admits in an interview to Benny Levy, that while he still believed in the possibility of hope, “I hold to the idea that a man’s life manifests itself as a failure: he doesn’t succeed in what he tries to do. He doesn’t even succeed in thinking what he wants to think, or in feeling what he wants to feel.” But what if the failure of man’s life is that he does what he tries to do, feels what he wants to feel, and thinks what he wants to think BUT refuses to think in any other way for fear of wanting to take responsibility for thinking that way? Isn’t this precisely the problem that Zizek has been systematically hammering at, this willingness to feel and act without contemplation? You think that you think poverty is bad, you choose to buy a coffee from some brand that will send some pennies to a starving kid in Africa, and you feel a sense of elation over having played Good Samaritan. As Peter Verkhovensky, a fascinating nihilist character in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed observes, there is always something fundamentally depraved about charity.
With Zizek, there is no happy grand solution. No confirmation that a utopia of some sort will be possible. No comforting words for the marginalized and the suffering. No feel-good concepts on which the politically correct can fall back on. Heck, in Zizek-speak, the antonym of love is not hate, but tolerance! He is that dark, unforgiving voice that speaks to us on the left, that laughs at our desire to prescribe solutions to problems that we have no clue about, our inability to see the big picture, and our trivial happiness over disorganized outbursts of popular sentiments. Why else would he crack the rape joke about the Mongol warrior and the Russian couple? Only the best comedians awaken us to reality as it really is. Usually, it is black comedy.
To take one from The Dark Knight, Sartre was the hated conscience the 20 th Century needed. Zizek is the dark conscience that the 21 st century deserves. But radicals in the later part of this century will require visiting both personalities once the academic posturing of the politically correct and the banal optimisms of the ‘activist left’ come crashing down eventually.