I have not read very much by Slavoj Zizek because what I have read by him has struck me as lackluster or worse. One of these days I’ll get around to really reading him seriously, because I know people – people I take seriously – who take him seriously.
A friend sent me a thing that Zizek wrote, supposedly a review of Simon Critchley’s new book (though it seems to me that the piece fails as a book review strictly speaking; the piece merits reading largely for the letters sent in response). In it Zizek puns on Marx’s vampire metaphor to note that the capitalist vampire seems to keep rising up again after being killed.
What Zizek does not do is unpack what he means by “capitalism” (or by “the left”). His real interest in the piece seems to be in the state and in war. Of course it’s a book review so there’s only so much space, but Zizek would not have to look far at all to find marxist debate on the nature of the USSR and the PRC, some participants in which – the type that I find convincing – argue that these were never non-capitalist regimes but rather were state capitalist regimes as opposed to market capitalist regimes. Thus in those cases the vampire of capital wasn’t killed but changed form, from horde of rats to wolf. Communist society not having been achieved, capitalism has not been abolished yet, so the resurrection Zizek posits is overstated. I’m not favorably predisposed to Chavez – I’ve got a kneejerk antistate politics related to that which Zizek caricatures – though I can’t really speak to Venezuela as I’ve not followed it. Still, it seems to me that Zizek would have a stronger more nuanced argument about Chavez if he engaged with the issue of state capitalism. I don’t think nuance or stronger argument (in terms of logical rigor, not rhetoric – Zizek excels at the latter) is what Zizek is after. Nor does his seem to me to be a serious marxism. He invokes Marx for the sake of metaphor and for the rhetorical weight that name carries, but capitalism as it appears in his review is of the “you know, like, capitalism”, an everybody-knows-what-I-mean sort of common sense use of the term. That’s fine, but it sheds little light.
Also in the dark in Zizek’s articles are movements and organizations. Left academics loom larger – Critchley, Hardt and Negri, anonymous postmodernists and culture studies people – though they too are in the background. Zizek notes only the EZLN, mostly via Marcos, and antiwar demonstrations. There is no mention of antiglobalization, of piqueteros, of occupied factories, of parties, of unions, of collectives, of networks, of federations, of strikes, of riots, etc; despite Zizek’s criticism of the EZLN for failing to “directly attack” capital and the state (never mind that the EZLN began in armed uprising). Nor is there any mention that what he claims Critchley prescribes – unfulfillable demands – has a history or at least a precursor in the posing or attempt to pose economic demands which can not be realized, just as what Zizek prescribes does as well – precise, patient demands via involvement with the state, because apparently that is what a “direct attack” means.
None of this is surprising. Zizek is a pundit. His peers are fellow pundits and policy makers, and like those peers he is well paid. The acronym of one of the places that pays or has paid him makes the point – Birkbeck’s Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, CASH. http://www.bbk.ac.uk/cash/ CASH is Zizek’s first loyalty, so why should he critically consider the institutions and social relations which maintain it?