If you had to put money on which academic would be the first to play Wembley Arena live, you’d have to go for Slavoj Zizek. Once dubbed the “Elvis of Cultural Theory”, Zizek is the prolific author of some 40 books ranging in subject from Hitchcock to Christianity, from the Iraq war to Lacanian psychoanalysis, books that are so full of erudition and eclectic thought that to write just one of them would have killed an ordinary man. As relaxed discussing Jennifer Anniston as Kant’s theory of the phenomenon, he’s almost too good to be true. Look at his background – born in 1949 in Slovenia, a country few of us know anything about, perfect for that outsider, slightly marginalised status every intellectual needs. It’s all very cool and post-Fall of the Wall, with the added bonus of an outrageous accent which, as anyone who’s seen him lecture on programmes such as The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema will vouch, simply adds to his undeniable charisma. Then there’s that fantastic Scrabble-winning triumph of a name (worth 43 points – never let it be said book reviewers don’t do their research). He’s just too perfect a creation. Surely he’s actually a bloke from Wolverhampton called Kevin who’s taking us all for a ride.
If that is the case, then Kevin’s doing a brilliant job. In Defense of Lost Causes is typical Zizek: exhilarating, inspiring, thought-provoking and sometimes very, very hard. Zizek is a Lacanian-Hegelian (who isn’t nowadays? It’s the new black), constantly drawing on Lacan’s reworking of Freud and his own reworking of Hegel’s 19th century idealist philosophy as he whips pin-ball style from subject to subject, from Kierkegaard to Borat, from Althusser to internet masturbatathons. Chapter headings like “The Crisis of Determinate Negation” and “Unbehagen in der Natur” (surely a mid-90s German rock band?) don’t exactly conjure up a relaxed deckchair read as the kids paddle in the paddling pool, but what makes the difficult bits worthwhile is the sheer verve and passion of Zizek’s argument. That, and the fact that he scatters so much original thought and mischievous wit as a by-product of his headlong big-brained narrative that you’re conversationally guaranteed – as a particularly competitive friend of mine would put it – to “win” any dinner party. I’m definitely looking forward to extra aubergine polenta for my Zizekian thesis that “Schindler’s List” is just “Jurassic Park” with the Nazis as the dinosaurs, or for my darkly humourous account of the paradox of contemporary China, where no-one can be sure when they’re violating a state secret because what constitutes a state secret is, well, a state secret.
In Defense of Lost Causes asks whether it’s still possible to believe in any Big Ideas (Marx, Freud, the rest of the gang) in this postmodern age where the concept of objective truth has been so thoroughly discredited. More specifically for Zizek, a committed thinker of the Left, does the Marxist Big Idea still have any relevance now that global capitalism seems to enjoy near total dominance? Zizek’s answer to both is an emphatic, post-postmodern (if you’ll forgive the term) yes. To prove his point he sets about defending what some of his detractors (the post-post-postmodernists?) would brand “lost causes”. And when he says “lost causes”, he means lost causes –Robespierre, Stalin, Mao, the philosopher Heidegger who passionately supported Hitler. This is certainly not History’s squeaky clean Boy Band. But that’s exactly what interests Zizek: OK, maybe it wasn’t so good of Heidegger to say that the Fuhrer-state is the perfect actualisation of the people or that the Holocaust is simply another example of the agricultural exploitation of nature (producing corpses rather than wheat). But he should be celebrated for taking the right step (a revolutionary one), albeit in the wrong direction.
What’s more, Zizek continues, the problem with Hitler was that he wasn’t violent or radical enough (probably best not to try and win a dinner party with this one). He misplaced his violence onto the Jews rather than destroying the capitalist system itself. In the end, when it came to real change, Hitler, like Mao and Stalin and Robespierre, bottled it.
Zizek’s keen to point out (understandably) that his aim is not to defend Hitler or Stalin but to step outside the dominant liberal-democratic interpretation of history so as to better understand the task that faces the Left today. The great revolutions may have failed but that shouldn’t discourage us. In Beckett’s words, we must “try again. Fail again. Fail better”. In this way the past can be redeemed. As Zhou Enlai said in 1953 when asked what he thought of the French Revolution (and this one is definitely suitable for dinner parties): “it is still too early to tell”.
Zizek is fantastically withering about the “postmodern” Left such as Simon Critchley, whom he lampoons for his self-professed status as a “critical, secular, well-dressed, metrosexual post-Kantian” (there’s a lot of them about). Zizek savages them for accepting the capitalist hegemony and confining themselves to sniping at the state from the margins, even counting amongst their heroes of resistance to the state – Lenin protect us – Princess Di. Zizek’s solution is far more radical. He mounts a rousing defence of the dictatorship of the proletariat (remember that one?), seeing in the massively swelling populations of the ghettos, shanty towns and slums a new worldwide proletariat-in-waiting. He calls on us to put aside our fears – of global warming, of biotechnology, of Islamic fundamentalism (which he sees as a symptom, an intrinsic part of its apparent opposite, liberal democracy). Instead we must act, reinventing what he terms “egalitarian terror” to combat the global challenges we face. Egalitarian in that all are treated equally (on global warming, for instance, every person in every country in the world would have exactly the same carbon allowance), but Terror in that those who transgress (polluters, for instance) would be ruthlessly punished for the greater good. He even supports the philosopher Alain Badiou’s championing of informers (were those who blew the whistle on Enron not rightly lauded in the press?).
It may seem like a challenge to terminal liberals like me who feel a revolutionary act is to occasionally put on the soundtrack from “Les Miz”. But there’s something very inspiring about his radical post-postmodern engagement and the passion and energy of his argument. At last! Someone who believes in something! To the barricades, citizens! Down with capitalism! At least until it’s time for “The Apprentice”.
This review first appeared in Prospect Magazine.