Politics and Culture asks Michael Bérubé to rate Žižek
GNB: You (justly, many would say) criticize Slavoj Zizek for his Stalinoid politics, at the start of your book, making him into a poster-child for a Manichean Left that’s all total critique and no pragmatic vision. Is that your whole view of him, though, or do you find anything valid, of use, or of genuine interest in his method of interpreting culture and human behavior? For example, his notion of jouissance as a political factor, maybe? Can we understand politics (or anything else) without taking into account the unconscious ways people “enjoy” their own “symptoms”? Moreover, doesn’t such consideration in fact allow Zizek to present a sophisticated “ideology” model that is really very sophisticated (i.e., not a matter of false consciousness but of fantasy), as well as very far from Chomskian rationalism?
MB: Zizek has this part right, I think, so my answer to the final question here is simply yes. Less simply: no, it’s not just a matter of evidence. People believe what they believe for all kinds of reasons, including reasons that are not properly “reasons” at all. That’s why I’m not willing to throw out the enjoy-your-symptom baby with the Stalinoid bathwater, so to speak, and why I am willing to insist that Zizek can be a thrilling, illuminating, useful writer despite the whole totalitarianism thing.
I feel the same way about Foucault and Heidegger: the fact that they had terrible political judgment does not invalidate Foucault’s work on the history of madness or of sexuality, or Heidegger’s readings of Plato, Sophocles, or Holderlin. “I’m not going to take Foucault seriously on anything, because he was so foolish as to support Islamists in Iran during the revolution” is just a more sophisticated form of lizard-brain activity. Surely it’s possible to acknowledge that someone is an interesting thinker even if s/he has poor political judgment.