Not Less Than Nothing, But Simply Nothing
If I am repelled by John Gray’s review of my two last books ('The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek', New York Review of Books, July 12 2012), it is not because the review is highly critical of my work, but because its arguments are based on such a crude misreading of my position that, if I were to answer it in detail, I would have to spend way too much time just answering insinuations and setting straight the misunderstandings of my position, not to mention direct false statements – which is, for an author, one of the most boring exercises imaginable. So I will limit myself to one paradigmatic example which mixes theoretical dismissal with moral indignation; it concerns anti-Semitism and is worth quoting in detail:
Žižek says little regarding the nature of the form of life that might have come into being had Germany been governed by a regime less reactive and powerless than he judges Hitler’s to have been. He does make plain that there would be no room in this new life for one particular form of human identity:
"The fantasmatic status of anti-Semitism is clearly revealed by a statement attributed to Hitler: “We have to kill the Jew within us.” … Hitler’s statement says more than it wants to say: against his intentions, it confirms that the Gentiles need the anti-Semitic figure of the “Jew” in order to maintain their identity. It is thus not only that "the Jew is within us"—what Hitler fatefully forgot to add is that he, the anti-Semite, is also in the Jew. What does this paradoxical entwinement mean for the destiny of anti-Semitism?"
Žižek is explicit in censuring "certain elements of the radical Left" for "their uneasiness when it comes to unambiguously condemning anti-Semitism." But it is difficult to understand the claim that the identities of anti-Semites and Jewish people are in some way mutually reinforcing—which is repeated, word for word, in Less Than Nothing—except as suggesting that the only world in which anti-Semitism can cease to exist is one in which there are no longer any Jews.
What is going on here? The above-quoted passage from Less Than Nothing immediately continues with:
Here we can again locate the difference between Kantian transcendentalism and Hegel: what they both see is, of course, that the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew is not to be reified (to put it naïvely, it does not fit “‘real Jews”), but is an ideological fantasy (“projection”), it is “in my eye.” What Hegel adds is that the subject who fantasizes the Jew is itself “in the picture,” that its very existence hinges on the fantasy of the Jew as the “little bit of the Real” which sustains the consistency of its identity: take away the anti-Semitic fantasy, and the subject whose fantasy it is itself disintegrates. What matters is not the location of the Self in objective reality, the impossible-real of “what I am objectively,” but how I am located in my own fantasy, how my own fantasy sustains my being as subject.
Are these lines not perfectly clear? The mutual implication is not between the Nazis and the Jews, but between the Nazis and their own anti-Semitic fantasy: "you take away the anti-Semitic fantasy, and the subject whose fantasy it is itself disintegrates." The point is not that Jews and anti-Semites are somehow co-dependent, so that the only way to get rid of the Nazis is to get rid of the Jews, but that the identity of a Nazi depends on his anti-Semitic fantasy: the Nazi is "in the Jew" in the sense that his own identity is grounded in his fantasy of the Jew. Gray’s insinuation that I somehow imply the need for the annihilation of the Jews is thus a ridiculously-monstrous obscenity which only serves the base motifs of discrediting the opponent by ascribing him some kind of sympathy for the most terrifying crime of the XXth century.
So when Gray writes that "Žižek says little regarding the nature of the form of life that might have come into being had Germany been governed by a regime less reactive and powerless than he judges Hitler’s to have been," he is simply not telling the truth: what I point out is that such a "form of life" would precisely not have the need to look for a scapegoat like the Jews. Instead of killing millions of Jews, a regime "less reactive and powerless than he judges Hitler’s to have been" would, for example, transform social relations of production so that they would lose their antagonistic character. This is the "violence" I am preaching, the violence in which no blood has to be shed. It is the utterly destructive violence of Hitler, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge, which is for me "reactive and powerless." It is in this simple sense that I consider Gandhi more violent that Hitler:
Instead of directly attacking the colonial state, Gandhi organized movements of civil disobedience, of boycotting British products, of creating social space outside the scope of the colonial state. One should then say that, crazy as it may sound, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler. The characterization of Hitler which would have him as a bad guy, responsible for the death of millions, but nonetheless a man with balls who pursued his ends with an iron will is not only ethically repulsive, it is also simply wrong: no, Hitler did not “have the balls” really to change things. All his actions were fundamentally reactions: he acted so that nothing would really change; he acted to prevent the Communist threat of a real change. His targeting of the Jews was ultimately an act of displacement in which he avoided the real enemy - the core of capitalist social relations themselves. Hitler staged a spectacle of Revolution so that the capitalist order could survive – in contrast to Gandhi whose movement effectively endeavored to interrupt the basic functioning of the British colonial state.
Instead of boring the reader with dozens of similar examples of Gray’s misreadings, let me just mention that Gray concludes his review with a remark on the alleged "isomorphism" between contemporary capitalism and my thinking which
reproduces the compulsive, purposeless dynamism that he perceives in the operations of capitalism. Achieving a deceptive substance by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision, Žižek’s work—nicely illustrating the principles of paraconsistent logic—amounts in the end to less than nothing.
Anything whatsoever can be proven with such superficial pseudo-Marxist homologies—these homologies, together with Gray’s numerous tendentious distortions, are sad indications of the level of intellectual debate in today’s media. It is Gray’s work which fits perfectly our ideological late-capitalist universe: you ignore totally what the book you are reviewing is about, you renounce any attempt to somehow reconstruct its line of argumentation; instead, you throw together vague text-book generalities, crude distortions of the author’s position, vague analogies, etc.—and, in order to demonstrate your personal engagement, you add to such bric-a-brac of pseudo-deep provocative one-liners the spice of moral indignation (imagine, the author seems to advocate a new holocaust!). Truth doesn’t matter here—what matters is the effect. This is what today’s fast-food intellectual consumers crave for: simple catchy formulas mixed with moral indignation. It amuses you and makes you feel morally good. Gray’s review is not even less than nothing, it is simply a worthless nothing.
N.B. In a recent review of Less Than Nothing (Guardian, Saturday 30 June), Jonathan Rée reaches a new depth in moralistic insinuations:
[Žižek] never discusses poverty, inequality, war, finance, childcare, intolerance, crime, education, famine, nationalism, medicine, climate change, or the production of goods and services, yet he takes himself to be grappling with the most pressing social issues of our time. He is happy to leave the world to burn while he plays his games of philosophical toy soldiers.
How can someone write this about an author who recently produced a whole series of books dedicated to precisely these topics is beyond my comprehension—even in Less Than Nothing, a book on Hegel, there is an extensive discussion of socio-political problems in the books conclusion.Visit the New York Review of Books to read John Gray's review in full. Visit the Guardian to read Jonathan Rée's review in full.