In early June the Slovenian philosopher, self-proclaimed Stalinist and academic superstar Slavoj Žižek was roundly upbraided in the letters pages of the London Review of Books for the second time in a year. Last November, the provocation was his 1,700-word article declaiming the futility of nonviolent resistance and proclaiming the virtues of ruthless militarism. This time, it was a 1,200-word letter attacking Orientalist fantasies surrounding Tibet and defending the virtues of China’s civilizing mission there. Each occasion was a farce in three acts. In the first the audience was treated to a dive into unfamiliar waters. The second was dominated by Žižek suddenly finding himself out of his depth. And in the culminating third, we all took off our hats to the bathos of a man being carried away on his back, like a turtle with its legs waving in the air.
“I base my claim that Tibet before 1949 was an oppressive and corrupted feudal society,” Žižek would eventually say, “on by far the best and most extensive study of the Tibetan legal system, Rebecca Redwood French’s The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet (1995).” Yet “I am afraid that Professor Slavoj Žižek has misunderstood my book entirely,” Rebecca Redwood French would later tell me via e-mail. “I do not and have not ever represented Tibet pre-1949 as an oppressive and corrupted feudal society. On the contrary, I think that China’s current occupation of Tibet is colonial, oppressive and completely illegal under any national or international legal system.”
Žižek’s mounting eccentricities and difficulties go beyond Bloomsbury. Over the last twelve months, between an Argentinean dance club being launched with his name, and the International Journal of Žižek Studies selling doggie T-shirts embossed with its logo, Žižek has championed the Hollywood action film 300 (a comic-book adaptation of the Battle of Thermopylae) as a suitable model for left politics, advanced the almost LaRouchian view that “liberal communists” (Silicon Valley CEOs, plus George Soros and court philosophers like Thomas Friedman) “are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today” and appeared in the advert breaks of the British television station Channel 4 as a sort of human screen wipe, delivering pearls of gnomic wisdom in fifteen-second bursts. As a result of these incidents, many of Žižek’s former allies in his natural constituency of the para-academic blogosphere have begun to desert him. “The gruesome spectre of another Hitchens looms,” noted one former admirer in the wake of the 300 rave, while another, blogging under the pithy title “Žižek the Embarrassment,” suggested that “the dialectical ‘double movement’ that used to serve Žižek’s uncompromising intellect has become a contemptible tool for his egotism.”
In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, $34.95) is the first big work to roll-off Žižek’s production line since The Parallax View in 2006. Disappointingly, the book is not a memoir. The Parallax View was distinguished by the scrambled suggestion that “you can’t break a few eggs without making an omelette” and the puzzling proposal that the left should adopt the mantle of Herman Melville’s enigmatic clerk Bartelby the Scrivener and pursue a political strategy of systematically “preferring not to.” It was a strange nomination on balance, given that Melville’s own story ended with his protagonist being sent to prison for vagrancy and dying in misery. But In Defense of Lost Causes begins with a different challenge: “The era of grand explanations is over,” Žižek writes on the book jacket. “We should no longer aim at all-explaining systems and global emancipatory projects; the violent imposition of grand solutions should leave room for forms of specific resistance and intervention…. If the reader feels a minimum of sympathy with these lines, she should stop reading and cast aside this volume. This book is unashamedly committed to the ‘Messianic’ standpoint of the struggle for universal emancipation.” Do not be fooled by the sound and the fury: beneath the rhetorical bombast trembles a disarming timidity. Žižek is quite plainly stating here that he has written a book solely for people who already agree with him.