Continuing its proud tradition of accepting literally every panel proposal submitted to it, no matter how poorly written or conceived, this year’s Left Forum at Pace University brings you “Žižek delenda est” [Latin for “Žižek must be destroyed”]. I’m not kidding. Here’s the panel description, with solecisms left in for dramatic effect:
Is Slavoj Zizek a US propaganda psyop? I want to ask my comrades on the left to consider the possibility. After years of research, I have come to the conclusion that Zizek is a charlatan posing as a “Stalinist” to both discredit communists by performing a caricature Bolshevik and simultaneously, to smuggle fascist ideas including old fashioned Aryan supremacism and 19th century race theory, back into public discourse disguised as radical left critique of liberalism. I will focus on how he exploits his radical left image to spread imperialist propaganda and disinformation. I’ll trace the origins of the Zizek Industry to his first anointing by the New Left Review, then edited by Quentin Hoare and Branka Magas, Croatian Nationalists and Tudjman supporters and founders of the Bosnian Institute, as the Balkan Leftist who would initiate, in 1990, the dominant strain of imperialist propaganda about Yugoslavia, and yet further back to his career as an antiMarxist, antiCommunist “dissident” and Slovene ethnic nationalist. I will discuss the way he has influenced a generation to the point where now right wing and reactionary ideas as well as pure white house disinformation and propaganda are routinely packaged as hip “lefty” and “radical” thought.
My god, pure idiocy.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if this lunacy tarnishes the Left Forum’s good name, if only for the fact that there’s no good name to tarnish. The annual gathering already has the character of a circus — a “Renaissance fair of the Left,” as a comrade once put it — so this is really just one more scene in its extended slapstick routine. All the old corpses come out for this fin de semana de los muertos: aging hippies, dinosaur sects barely clinging to life, the Friends of the People of the Soviet Union. So in a way, panels like “Žižek delenda est” are strangely refreshing. It’s a fresh flavor of paranoid fantasy, our generation’s version of the show trials. Finally, a new term of reproach to replace those great epithets of old. Used to be “Trotskyist wreckers” or “British imperialist agents,” then later COINTELPRO. Now it’s Slavoj Žižek, deep cover CIA operative.
So who’s on this panel, anyway?
Well, for starters, there’s Molly Klein — known on the internet as RedKahina, MrHermsprong, Qlipoth, and Alphonse van Worden, her masculine noms de plume. Unfortunately she’s no George Sand, so she’s not doing this venerable gender-bending practice any favors. Most of the time, Klein spends her evenings online denouncing anyone who dares to challenge the happy “pluralism” of the contemporary scene. Offenders are almost invariably denounced as “fascist.” You name it, it’s fascist: Žižek, the US government, Michelle Golberg, etc. Her one and only credited article, “The Spectre of ‘Multiculturalism’,” was published by MRZine, the web wing of Monthly Review, a little over a year ago. There she passingly refers to Žižek as a “celebrity fascoid intellectual”; this attests well enough to her compulsive verbal tic. A few months ago, during the whole “Vampire Castle” debacle — i.e., the flurry of polemics that followed the publication of Mark Fisher’s piece, “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — Klein began to tirelessly troll a fine article written by Michael Rectenwald, someone who I greatly respect. Her posts in the comment thread attached to his article were replete with accusations of “racism,” “chauvinism,” and “white cis male privilege.” Klein is, of course, a withered goblin who has nothing better to do with her time than check other people’s privilege — despite the fact that she’s a wealthy white heiress to the fortune of a former NBC exec and founder of PlayboyTV, her dad.
Next up on the list of esteemed esteemed speakers is John Steppling, a minor playwright and filmmaker whose main claim to public fame is having produced “Elmore Leonard’s favorite adaptation.” Yes, that’s actually listed in his bio. He’s written for Dissident Voice and a couple of other publications, and maintains a fairly elegant blog. Steppling’s vituperations against the Žiž are much like Klein’s, unsurprising considering that they’re pretty much BFF. (Klein has interviewed Steppling on a number of occasions). A couple typical asides lifted from his blog: “Žižek’s openly racist clown show,” “crypto-fascists like Laurie Penny, most of Jacobin, and Žižek,” or the splendid reasoning that “when Žižek makes jokes about race, he is joking from the position of a privileged white class…about Roma, or Africans, or Asians; when Dieudonné makes anti semitic jokes, it is the voice of the racaille.” (Of course, the apologetics for Dieudonné are nothing new on the Left. Richard Seymour recently cross-posted a translation that took a similar view of the French comedian). Still, it goes to show how simplistic all this shit is. It’s rote underdog-ism, sticking up for “the little guy” no matter how reactionary. Just the latest rewriting of Christian morality, assured that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Little wonder they’d hate Nietzsche.
Hannah Wolfe of the International Socialist Organization was supposed to be the third interlocutor at this event. For reasons that remain unknown, she seems to have backed out at the last minute. My guess is that she was mortified at the very thought of being associated with these numbskulls, and quit out of sheer embarrassment. Either that or fellow International Socialist Sebastian Budgen, impresario of the Verso-NLR–HM publishing empire, scolded her for having assented in the first place. Budgen may well resent how reliant his company — er, his “counterhegemonic apparatus” — is on Žižek, but for now the Slovenian Wunderkind is still his cash cow. Can’t have fellow ISTers running around accusing your biggest seller of being a CIA operative.
Jacob Levich rounds out this rogue’s gallery of dilettantes and pseuds. An occasional contributor to Monthly Review and Counterpunch, Levich also has a book to his name. Sure, it was over ten years ago and even then he was only a contributing editor — but hey, it’s something! Levich was almost certainly the author of the abstract cited above. As one correspondent on the Marxmail listserve noted, “[the panel description] smacks of the conspiracist mindset that has infected the left for decades now, skullduggery reminiscent of Mad Magazine‘s ‘Spy versus Spy’ cartoons.” Want proof of Levich’s “conspiracist mindset”? Check out “Yes, Tony, there is a Conspiracy,” published (big surprise) by Counterpunch. Or check out his cute little exposé, “The Real Agenda of the Gates Foundation.” Bravo, Jacob, you’ve discovered that big philanthropy is largely a bourgeois undertaking. What a revelation.
Regarding Žižek: For the record, I’m not really even a fan of his oeuvre. I admire his lucidity and sense of humor, despite the repetitiveness of some of his jokes. (Hey, when you get as much exposure as the Žiž, it’s difficult to come up with new material for every occasion). Anyway, once you get past the clowning and the jokes he’s capable of some surprisingly sophisticated insights into, say, German Idealism, the history of liberalism, the ideological character of postmodernism and its pop cultural correlate, multiculturalism. But he’s far too structuralist for my tastes. Even though his reading of Althusser and Lacan comes by way of Hegel, thus challenging the anti-Hegelian posture of the former, the inverse is also true: his reading of Hegel is deeply informed by his encounter with Althusser and Lacan. And on the question of subjectivity, with the “ontological gap” that he describes, with its vanishing mediator (i.e., disappearing causal nexus), he ends up being more of a Schellingean than a Hegelian. He doesn’t think consciousness or subjectivity are really that important to the Marxist project. Needless to say, I disagree with him quite emphatically on this score. There’s his weird support for SYRIZA, as well, something I frankly don’t understand. I’m also sometimes annoyed when I come across the same recycled passage in more than one of his books.
Still, I’m not about to accuse him of being some kind of covert agent, a Yugoslavian nationalist who’s infiltrated the post-mortem Left. And I’m not going to moralize about Žižek’s caustic one-liners about his students, American universities, or whatever else either. Many were scandalized to read his disdainful remark about students in the classes he’s taught, to whom he reportedly said: “If you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A.” Good for Žižek, though, I say. Most celebrity profs will pretend to take their teaching gigs seriously and say they’ll read students’ papers. But you know they never will. It’s to Žižek’s credit that he’s at least open about the contempt in which he holds his students, readers, and most of humanity. “Humanity is OK,” he conceded a couple years ago, “but 99% of people are boring idiots.” Does anyone seriously disagree with that? Note: More pertinently, does no one reading this have a sense of humor? Žižek is clearly being ironic here; there’s a performative contradiction from one statement to the next. I don’t think it should be taken seriously as part of his theory, not when it comes to “class consciousness” or anything else.
This doesn’t even take into account one of his most glorious rejoinders, written in response to critics of his decision to write a back-to-school catalogue for Abercrombie & Fitch in 2003:
If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!
Can you really blame him? I can’t.