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.
Unusual as this declaration seems at first sight, by the end of this book I found myself wondering whether it was not perhaps insisted upon by the lawyers, as a kind of indemnity clause. In Defense of Lost Causes is mostly concerned with a critical diagnosis of the current progressive political climate. According to Žižek, the contemporary left is in a bad way, weakened by an enervating cocktail of Western Buddhism, jogging, bodybuilding, “hedonist permissivity” and multicultural orgies. But this immoral and decadent situation is temporary. “The time is coming,” he says, “for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently ‘fascist’ about these values.” Not even pausing to invent a marching song, Žižek goes on to propose that the left take over the Catholic cult of martyrdom and canonize Che Guevara–as if the millions of Che posters and postcards plastered all over university student dorm rooms (I myself used to own one, before moving on to a shelf full of Žižek books) haven’t already secured him pop sainthood enough. Žižek’s search for redemptive change also leads him to the Nazi party for inspiration. “There is a lesson,” he writes, “to be learned from Hermann Goering’s reply, in the early 1940s, to a fanatical Nazi who asked him why he protected a well-known Jew from deportation: ‘In this city, I decide who is a Jew!’… In this city, it is we who decide what is left.” The term ‘counter-intuitive’ is often pinned to Žižek’s chest like a medal. In this case I propose either a Grand Cross of the Iron Cross, or else a Purple Heart.
In Defense of Lost Causes is dedicated to the French philosopher Alain Badiou, the man who has been to the radical Anglophone academy this decade what Gilles Deleuze was to the nineties, and Jacques Derrida was to the decade before: the contemporary philosophical authority of choice for the theoretically inclined. A trenchant and intriguing figure, Badiou’s career stretches back decades, but his current fame as a philosopher of revelation is partly due to Žižek himself, who has spent much of the last ten years vigorously promoting him, both in his books (in which he is often found clutching the older man’s concepts like a child clutching a comfort blanket) as well as in the pages of European feuilletons, where he regularly serves as Badiou’s unofficial apologist. Interestingly, though, for all Žižek’s voluble loyalty to him, Badiou is strangely silent on Žižek. At least to my knowledge, over the last ten years of their effective alliance, he has referenced Žižek’s name only once in print, in response to a direct question asked during the course of an interview. On that occasion, Badiou first identified Žižek as the inventor of “a strange and completely new composition,” before proceeding to say, “This is the first time that anyone has proposed to psychoanalyze our whole world.” “Žižek can interpret anything in the world,” Badiou acknowledged. “You can ask him, ‘What do you think about this horrible movie?’ And he will have a brilliant interpretation that is much better than the actual movie.”
This description seems to me both to go some way toward explaining Žižek’s enduring popular success, and to posing what at this point must surely be the essential question. In this global psychoanalysis of his own devising, is Žižek really the doctor? Or–given that “the world” is not presently free-associating on a sofa somewhere–is he not perhaps the delusional patient? Throughout In Defense of Lost Causes, Žižek speaks recurrently, and in a sometimes disturbingly extravagant tone, of the “messianic” imperative of performing “a Leap of Faith” over the ravine of common sense in pursuit of “lost Causes, Causes that, from the space of sceptical wisdom, cannot but appear as crazy.” During such moments, it’s hard not to suspect that Žižek has finally gone mad.