Radical media, politics and culture.

Carlos Pessoa, "Did Somebody Say Slavoj?"

"Did Somebody Say Slavoj?"

Carlos Pessoa

Reviewing Slavoj Zizek, Did somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)use of a Notion. London: Verso, 2002.

Slavoj Zizek has become known for writing on the 'postmodern condition' and its implication for a radical political project. Although Zizek's Lacanian analysis (with a Hegelian impulse) can intimidate certain readers, his comical and entertaining writing enables a reading of key contemporary political issues. Although taking a critical stand to postmodern thought, I would argue there are postmodern aspects in Zizek's work that in the end make it postmodern radical chic.In Did Somebody say Totalitarianism? Zizek argues that our contemporary notion of totalitarianism has been constructed as an ideological 'stopgap' that limits the possibility for a radical project and guarantees liberal-democratic hegemony. For Zizek, if one accepts the notion 'totalitarianism', one is 'firmly located within the liberal-democratic horizon' (p. 3). One of the examples discussed is how liberal-democratic discourse treats Communism and Fascism as equally totalitarian. Zizek goes on to differentiate between Stalinism and Nazism. He points to Bukharin' s show trial in 1937, where Bukharin followed the theatrical formalism purely for the sake of party. Here, Zizek indicates, one finds a space that allows a 'participatory role' given to the accused that was negated in Nazism.

In rather nostalgic style, Zizek goes on to argue that since capitalism is what 'defines and structures the totality of human civilisation', and despite the horrors and failures of communism, 'actually existing Socialism' posed 'an effective threat to the global rule of capitalism'. It was a 'liberated territory' that had opened up 'a space of utopian expectations' through its '…attempt to escape the logic of Capital' (pp.130-131). It was a 'perverted' but 'authentic revolution'; and one finds that 'something precious was lost with its collapse' (p.133) .

There is not much doubt that Zizek shows successfully how the notion of totalitarianism has functioned as an ideological buffer for liberal-democratic discourse. This is the most important message that one gets from the book. Deeply sunk into his brilliant psychoanalytical intellect, however, Zizek makes some minor historical and theoretical mistakes. First, there is no reason to grant to Stalinism instead of Nazism the sole attempt to escape the logic of Capital. Nazism is commonly known as having asserted a 'third way' between Marxism and Liberalism. Second, if totalitarianism acts as an ' ideological anti-oxidant' for liberal-democratic discourse, that says nothing about capitalism in itself. Throughout his argument, Zizek makes the common mistake of intrinsically linking these two discourses together. Nevertheless, these mistakes are minor and do not affect the overall aim of the book, which is to reveal the contemporary and political phobia sustaining liberal-democratic discourse.

A clear issue of concern for Zizek is, of course, the possibility for a radical political project. For instance, he points to the contemporary depoliticization of the Holocaust, where one finds the Holocaust being conceived as an Absolute Evil beyond analytical and explanatory possibilities. Zizek correctly points to the very hidden political nature in this 'depoliticized' act. For Zizek, this act of analytical consecration is simply a way to conceal the possibility of 'every radical political project' (pp. 67-68). Another example is the Pope's enmity with the Dalai Lama. He sides with Pope for adopting a 'proper ethical attitude' by not granting a raped nun the right to have an abortion (pp.180-2). For Zizek, the no-compromise attitude reveals a radicalness that contrasts with our postmodern permissive times.

One issue that can be drawn from Zizek's inquietude towards radical possibility, however, is that the content of a political project seems completely absorbed in the radicalness of its form. Here one finds Zizek on the exact opposite pole of Third Way politics. While in the latter, the ontological level is absorbed by ontical components (using Heideggerian terms) where ideologies lose any importance in relation to practical and concrete issues, in Zizek the opposite becomes the case. There is a prominence given to an ontological quality of the political project (its radicalness), without much regard to its ontic components. It is no coincidence that one finds Zizek in 'proper ethical' agreement with characters from the Left as much as from the Right of the political spectrum.

Although he claims otherwise, there is a trace of postmodernism in Zizek's work. For Zizek, if one does not radically question the dimension of liberal-capitalist discourse, one is in full engagement with it. This is clear in his repetitive discussion of Cultural Studies and social movements which Zizek sees as guilty for allowing liberal-capitalist discourse to permeate and replicate its dimensions. For Zizek, one is either fanatically fighting the Liberal-Capitalist order or one is completely supporting it. Here we find Zizek's thought commonly inundating the social field -- although in different way from other postmodern strains -- with the political act where omitting or emitting the dominant discourse is equally political. The consequence of this postmodern reasoning is the evacuation from the social field of non-political spaces and, ultimately, the evacuation of the meaning of being political.

Finally, it is tempting to bring against Zizek his own line of indictment. In a space of ten years he has created a wide readership that brings together post-structuralist readers as much as lost leftist souls. Does not his rather repetitive (with the exception of The Sublime Object of Ideology and Ticklish Subject) and anecdotal body of work, too, allow the liberal-capitalist system to permeate and replicate its 'true' democratic boundaries?!

My recommendations? For the book: read it! To attempt escape the 'circuit of Capital': Don't buy it, get it from the library!