Slavoj Zizek was in Istanbul last week. Zizek uses a mixture of cultural commentary, philosophy, psychoanalysis and Marxism with great success. he is an international star as was reflected in his Istanbul reception. Bilgi University hosted his visited and he gave two seminars on saparate campuses. On both occasions entry was restricted to a limited who had registered in advance. An audio-video was set up to compensate the disappointed.
I was present on both occasions and the Bilgi organisers very kindly invited me to a dinner after the first seminar. Both the talks and the dinner conversations were triumphs of wide ranging intellectual, political and cultural references delivered with compelling humour and force. I can’t say I agreed with much of it, but there’s no doubt that what he does he does with enormous talent, and as far as I can make out he is a nice person in an hyperactive kind of way. I certainly admire his complete contempt for Political Correctness
Political Correctness brings up an oddity of the occasion. Many of the audience would in most contexts be considered painfully politically correct. That might mean an extreme embarressment with regard to the possibility of saying the wrong thing. At the less pleasant end, that can mean attacking and insulting people who supposedly said the wrong thing. This can be through put down or through more direct aggression. Zizek is completely free of all this and got the audience roaring with laughter at jokes they would never tell themselves and in many cases would try to make anyone who said anything similar pretty bad.
That leads to a great theme of Zizek’s talk. Prohibition in two senses: direct prohibition and prohibition of mentioning the prohibition. The second prohibition enforces conformity through a language of freedom which conceals the reality of the first prohibition. This structure can be found in totalitarian and democratic societies.
What was prohibited in Zizek’s talk in the second sense, was the convergence between Zizek’s ‘Marxism and ‘left’ or ‘communitarian’ liberalism. This is extremely obvious but is not something Zizek can talk about himself. Conversations around the seminars confirmed that his fans take him as a symbol of non-liberal leftism to the degree that raising the relation with liberalism met with silence. Zizek criticises totalitarianism and prohibition in terms of the limitation of the state, avoiding self-censorship, individual rights. His criticism of capitalism refers to the very abstract account of commodity fetishism in Capital volume One. Zizek was concerned with referring to as concrete, but the reality is that ‘commodity fetishism’ rests on a belief in a natural, even metaphysical, real value inherent in produced objects. This is just a poor basis for criticising capitalism, many many Marxist economists have found it necessary to put concepts like ‘commodity fetishism’ and ‘surplus value’ and ‘labour power theory of value’ on a pedestal where they can be ignored. Marx’s discussion certainly has ethical and cultural interest, but no non-Marxist economist would find them threatening. Zizek bases his critique of Capitalism and Totalitarianism on Enlightnment. The usual claim is made that Enlightnment values can only be satisfied by Marxism. Again this has never strict non-Marxists as a threatening argument. Enlightenment writers covers a wide and complex range, but a reasonable ideal type would emphasise: law, representative government, individual rights, private property, limitation of the state, division of state powers, commerce/market economics. Exceptions can be found but no one can deny that this is a reasonable over all summary. This just does not lead to Marxism except through some truly brutal readings of Kant. Fichte’s transformation of Kant starts to lead in a statist anti-liberal direction but who believes that is a guide to what Kant says. Anyway, Fichte is an embarrassing example because of his nationalism and authoritarians, at the time he took an anti-liberal direction. Zixek himself comments on the lack of an alternative to capitalism. At the same time he gestures towards Lenin, with no thought about how Leninism is the first version of Stalinism. Beyond the gestures what is there: an interests in individual rights and pluralism in the context of community values and the social goals of the state. This is leading towards Sandell and McIntyre, not Lenin. Occasionally Zizek can sound like a Paleocon or a Swiftian Tory (absolute defence of local communities as bearers of tradition and value).
The second seminar was late to start. I was chatting in my admittedly loud voice with an ex-thesis student. Someone, I don’t know who turned round and told me my conversation was disturbing, ‘Please this is philosophy’! I was talking in a rather ironic way about the fever round Zizek and about problems with a very disturbed person who chairs a philosophy department in Turkey. I guess this person thinks that when a star comes, church/mosque like reverence is becoming and necessary, and anyone who doesn’t behave accordingly is not a philosopher. I’ve been teaching philosophy, writing about it and studying it for over 20 years ago. I recently published a book on Derrida. I was at dinner with Zizek the evening before! His conversation at dinner and his talks show his attitude is the opposite of my tormenter. My conversations can be loud and unsubtle, but Zizek is much more radical in that direction, though he is also a very sympathetic and sensitive person. Sadly that’s what happens with academic stars, they attract bizarre people with bizarre projections onto their hero. I seemed to be in the corner for those kind of people, judging by questions or self-obsessed ramblings posing as questions which emerged from that vicinity.