In Defense of Lost Causes

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

After my conversation with the organisers of the July 2009 Urumqi protests, I’ve been thinking a lot about protest, in all its forms. Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes is a book that aims to convince the reader that the ills of the world will not be solved peacefully. What is needed, he argues, is revolutionary terror. The book is a sustained attack on the idea that tolerance and democratic debate are going to effect meaningful change (which for Zizek means the end of capitalism). It’s a complicated book whose argument wanders at times, and occasionally gets lost in score-settling, or Hegelian nitpicking, but it is always readable, provocative and entertaining, not least because for Zizek everything- whether it be Shakespeare or a Jennifer Anniston film -can be illustrative.  As a Pynchon scholar I was particularly interested in how he deals with alternative communities, whether or not these are genuinely subversive, or just a form of escape which does nothing to threaten that which they are fleeing from. If I rely heavily on Zizek’s quotes to summarise some of the book’s main arguments, it’s because it seems a safer way to avoid any ‘violence’ to his ideas.

The book’s aim “is not to defend Stalinist terror, and so on, as such, but to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative… the misfortunes of the fate of revolutionary terror confront us with the need- not to reject terror in toto, but- to reinvent it” (6-7).

In terms of the accepted ideas about which to put a human face to capitalism, he argues that “When one confronts a world which presents itself as tolerant and pluralist, disseminated, with no center, one has to attack the underlying structuring principle which sustains this atonality- say, the secret qualifications of “tolerance” which excludes as “intolerant” certain critical questions, or the secret qualifications which exclude as a “threat to freedom” questions about the limits of the existing freedoms. (30)

He goes on to critique the idea of opting out of the system:

“Postmodernity” as the “end of grand narratives” is one of the names for this predicament in which the multitude of local fictions thrives against the background of scientific discourse as the only remaining universality deprived of sense. Which is why the politics advocated by many a leftist today, that of countering the devastating world-dissolving effect of capitalism modernization by inventing new fictions, imagining “new worlds”… is inadequate or, at least, profoundly ambiguous: it all depends on how these fictions relate to the underlying Real of capitalism- do they just supplement it with the imaginary multitude, as the postmodern local narratives do, or do they disturb its functioning? (33)

Zizek is withering about the way in which many of our ‘ethical’ choices involve choosing how we consume:

True freedom is not a freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between a strawberry cake and a chocolate cake; true freedom overlaps with necessity, one makes a truly free choice when one’s chouice puts at stake one’s very existence- one does it because one simply “cannot do otherwise.” When one’s country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, the reason given is not “you are free to choose,” but: “Can’t you see this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?” (70-71)

At times the worldview he presents veers towards a form of Gnosticism (much like Pynchon’s):

The fact that God created the world does not display His omnipotence and excess of goodness, but rather his debilitating limitations. (153)

Many of the book’s best lines belong to Robespierre. This is his riposte to the moderates who deplored the excesses.

Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution that has come to revise, so to speak, the one that broke our chains? But what sure judgement can one make of the effects that follow these great commotions? Who can mark, after the event, the exact point at which the waves of popular insurrection should break? (163)

Robespierre addressing those who complained about the innocent victims of revolutionary terror: “Stop shaking the tyrant’s bloody robe in my face, or I will believe that you wish to put Rome in chains”. (471)

On the anti-globalisation movement:

This movement also succumbs to the temptation to transform a critique of capitalism itself (centred on economic mechanisms, forms of work organization, and profit extraction) into a critique of “imperialism”… with the (tacit) idea of mobilizing capitalist mechanisms within another, more “progressive” framework. (181)

On the power of ‘failed’ revolutionary Events:

The ultimate factual result of the [Chinese] Cultural Revolution, its catastrophic failure and reversal into the recent capitalistic transformation, does not exhaust the real of the Cultural Revolution: the eternal Idea of the Cultural Revolution survives its defeat in socio-historical reality, it continues to lead an underground spectral life of the ghosts of the failed utopias which haunt the future generations, patiently awaiting their next resurrection. (207)

With reference to Pynchon and the failed Utopias that appear in his work (such as Lemuria in Inherent Vice), it makes me think that though it can be a form of escape, to posit some form of Utopia is always an essentially hopeful act.

For Zizek, the real problem is what happens after a revolutionary Event, how one keeps revolutionary momentum.

The problem is thus: how to regulate/institutionalize the very violent egalitarian democratic impulse, how to prevent it being drowned in democracy in the second sense of the term (regulated procedure)? If there is no way to do it, then “authentic democracy” remains a momentary utopian outburst which, on the proverbial morning after, has to be normalized. The harsh consequence to be accepted here is that this excess of egalitarian democracy over the democratic procedure can only “instituinalize” itself in the guise of its opposite, as revolutinary democratic terror. (266)

One of Zizek’s main strengths is overturning conventional wisdom about what rhetorical positions we should occupy:

The influx of immigrant workers from the post-Communist countries is not the consequence of multiculturalist tolerance- it is indeed part of the strategy of capital to hold in check workers’ demands… the lesson the Left should learn from it is that one should not…  merely oppose populist anti-immigration racism with multiculturalist openness, obliterating its displaced class content (267)

Given how much of Pynchon’s work deals with delusion and escape, I was interested in what Zizek has to say about fetishes:

They can be our inner spiritual experiences (which tell us that our social reality is mere appearance which does not really matter), our children (for whose good we do all the humiliating things in our jobs) and so on and so forth (298)

Fetishists are not dreamers lost in their private worlds, they are thoroughly “realist”, able to accept the ways things effectively are- since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to canel the fall impact of reality. (296)

Zizek on how democracy has its own constraints:

When Rosa Luxembourg wrote that “dictatorship consists in the way in which democracy is used and not in its abolition” her point was not that democracy is an empty framework which can be used by different political agents (Hitler also came to power through- more or less -free democratic elections), but that there is a “class bias” inscribed into this. (379)

Zizek then goes on to offer what looks like an argument in favour of some kind of revolutionary faith, without which one cannot see the potential for change.

Liberals claim that capitalism is today so global and all encompassing they they cannot “see” any serious alternative to it… The repy to this is that, in so far as this is true, they do not see tout court: the task is not to see the outside, but to see in the first place (to grasp the nature of contemporary capitalism)- the Marxist wager is that, when we “see” this, we see enough, including how to go beyond it. (393)

The following seems to be a fairly clear endorsement of ‘violence’ (though what that means is not yet clear, i.e. is it literal violence or symbolic?)

One should not renounce violence ; one should rather reconceptualise it as defensive violence, a defense of the autonomous space created by subtraction (408)

Zizek also offers a way of evaluating subtraction (e.g. the alternative communities that occur throughout Pynchon, especially in Vineland).

Is it a subtraction/withdrawl which leaves the field from which it withdraws intact (or even functions as its inherent supplement , like the “subtraction” from social reality to one’s true Self proposed by New Age meditation); or does it violently shake up the field from which it withdraws? (412)

It’s only in the afterword that Zizek starts to signal what he might mean by ‘violence’. Unfortunately, this seems to shift, initially from a kind of eye-of-the-beholder definition of violence (that differentiates between “radical emancipatory violence against the ex-oppressors and the violence which serves the continuation and/or establishment of hierarchical relations of exploitation and domination” (471)) to talk of violence that is really non-violence. He calls for

a passive revolution which, rather than directly confronting power , gradually undermines it in the manner of the subterranean digging of a mole, through abstaining from particiapation in the everyday rituals and practices that sustain it. (474)

However, Zizek concludes by arguing that the distinction between literal violence and non-violence is less important than whether the “violence” is “divine violence”.

What is and what is not divine violence?… it can appear in many forms: from “non-violent” protests (strikes, civil disobedience) through individual killings to organized or spontaneous violent rebellions and war proper. (483)

As for evaluating such acts, these are said to be

located ‘beyond good and evil’, in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what, to an ordinary moral consciousness, cannot but appear as “immoral” acts of killing, one has no right to condemn them, since they are the reply to years, centuries even, of systematic state violence and economic exploitation. (478)… If a class is systematically deprived of their rights, of their very dignity as persons, they are eo ipso also released from their duties toward the social order, since this order is no longer their ethical substance. (479)

This is about as unambiguous as it gets:

Sometimes one has to kill in order to keep one’s hands clean; not as a heroic compromise of dirtying one’s hands for a higher goal. (484)

However, in the final pages, Zizek again muddies the waters by suggesting that no one is able to pass judgement on whether an act of violence is ‘divine’ or not, which if he means it, to some extent undermines many of the judgements he passes on the value of various failed revolutions.

There are no “objective” criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as divine: the same act, that to an external observer, appears merely as an irrational outburst of violence, can be divine for those engaged in it. (485)

The subtleties of this may be lost on me. But to me this seems dangerously close to denying us the right to condemn the killings by a lynch mob, the suicide bomber in a school, or acts of ethnic cleansing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading In Defense of Lost Causes at Nick Holdstock.


%d bloggers like this: