Žižek is not a postmodernist at all. In fact, he is virulently hostile to that whole current of thought, as this latest book illustrates. If he steals some of the postmodernists’ clothes, he has little but contempt for their multiculturalism, anti-universalism, theoretical dandyism and modish obsession with culture. In Defense of Lost Causes is out to challenge the conventional wisdom that ideologies are at an end; that grand narratives have slithered to a halt; that the era of big explanations is over, and that the idea of global emancipation is as dead in the water as the former proprietor of the Daily Mirror.
Žižek is deadly serious about all this, though there is a typical element of contrariness about it as well. He began his publishing career as some kind of post-Marxist, and has now backed his way from there into Marxism. It is a cussedness which marks his sensibility as a whole, as idées reçues are mischievously upended. Paradox for Žižek is the stylistic equivalent of dialectical thought. And nothing could be more paradoxical than scrambling on board the revolutionary vessel at just the moment when it has been holed below the waterline. As he himself has grown more fashionable, his political case has become less so. He has only to scent an orthodoxy to feel the itch to put his foot through it; so that now Marxism is out of fashion, there is a certain twisted logic in the fact that he should return to it so assertively. In this book, as in several of its predecessors, he presses what one might call postmodern techniques (irony, paradox, lateral thinking, multiplicity, even at times a certain barefaced disingenuousness) into the service of thoroughly traditional positions.
The self-consciously outrageous case the book has to argue is that there is a “redemptive” moment to be plucked from such failed revolutionary ventures as Jacobinism, Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism. Žižek is by no means a champion of political terror: the Mao he offers us here, for example, is the mass murderer who mused that “half of China may have to die” in the Great Leap Forward, and who remarked that though a nuclear war might blow a hole in the planet, it would leave the cosmos largely untouched. His aim is not to justify such demented views, but to make things harder for the typical liberal middle-class dismissal of them. In pursuing this goal, the book offers us a wealth of political and philosophical insight; but it is not at all clear that it validates its central thesis...
French radical thought has often turned on a contrast between some privileged moment of truth and the bovine inauthenticity of everyday life, and Badiou is no exception in this respect. There is a spiritual elitism about such ethics, which is hard to square with this book’s suggestive reflections on the idea of democracy.
The keynote of the ethical life for Žižek, Badiou and Lacan is refusing to back off, staying obdurately true to one’s desire. Only by pushing one’s desire all the way through, in the manner of the classical tragic protagonist, can one flourish. Lacan’s great icon is thus Antigone, who refuses to settle for half. There is something perilous as well as attractive about such an ethics; but in this book, it is a view that allows Žižek to defend the idea of revolution while rejecting revolutionary terror. For the point about Robespierre and Stalin, so he argues, is not that they were too extreme, but that they were not revolutionary enough – and that had they been so, political terror would not have been necessary. The Jacobin terror, for example, is seen somewhat implausibly as bearing witness to the group’s inability to carry out an economic as well as a political transformation. Something similar is asserted of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
It is not the nave of its central thesis which makes this book so compelling, but its side chapels. Slavoj Žižek, as usual, seems gratifyingly unable to remember what case he has just been pursuing, and there are some splendid digressions, including an account of the changing role of the scherzo in Shostakovich, a disquisition on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, and reflections on Eisenstein’s lost masterpieces. In Defense of Lost Causes is a frenetic, eclectic parody of intellectual scholarship, by one so assured in his grasp of the finer points of Kafka or John le Carré that he can afford to ham it up a little.
Slavoj Žižek IN DEFENSE OF LOST CAUSES 208pp. Verso. £16.99. 978 1 84467 108 3
Terry Eagleton is Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester. His recent books include Holy Terror, 2005, The Meaning of Life, 2007, and How To Read a Poem, 2007