Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
26Jan/150

Amor Mundi 1/25/15

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-up
What Should Remain Hidden in Private

childbirthDawn Herrera-Helphand draws Arendtian lessons about the meaningfulness of privacy from her experience of giving birth. Writing in The Point, Herrera-Helphand describes the emotional intensity of her natural birth, all of which connected her to pain she did know she could bear and power she did not know she might have. Giving birth was an ecstasy, a standing apart from herself, what she found to be "a liberating intimacy with the immanent force of life." Herrera-Helphand asks: "Could this necessary self-abandon have proceeded if I did not feel sheltered? The body has a sense of fear or safety, precognitive and wholly prior to our rationalizations. To feel vulnerable to the eyes of others, to their designs or interventions, is to want to maintain some semblance of control. The illusion of sovereignty that we cultivate in public is precious, not easily relinquished. The ambition to maintain it is antithetical to the necessary labor of childbirth. Apropos of nothing, my cousin, in her second trimester, told me her fantasy of hiding away to give birth 'like an animal.' It makes sense when you think about it: not wanting a hungry bear to eat the baby, not wanting to be seen so deep in suffering.... Giving birth afforded me a fresh perspective on Arendt's distinction between what should be hidden and what should be shown. This binary of private and public remains deeply problematic regarding questions of domestic work and caregiving. But from another angle, privacy is not so much a question of what is fit for appearance to public eyes as of what cannot fully transpire in view of others. The idea that privacy is proper to the realm of necessity need not be based on shame in the body. Privacy can also shield interests that are literally vital, so as to give them their full weight." It is precisely the power of privacy to give weight and depth to life that makes the loss of privacy in our times so terrifying. Privacy will be the theme of the Hannah Arendt Center's 8th annual conference this October 15-16th. Save the Date.

What Would Hannah Arendt Do?

arendt thoughtIn an exchange of letters with David Mikics, Mark Greif asks: "What would Arendt do? I've often thought I should make up a WWAD necklace. One certainly would like to know what she would have done, or said, in the face of the present day. But part of her charm is that she was surprising and unpredictable. Not unpredictable because she was inconsistent--rather, I think, because she did insist on thinking things through, in each new situation, all the way to the root. She was an intensely annoying figure to her contemporaries. Lately she has become another 'inspiring' figure and source of sanctimony. I wish there were more room to try to think things down to their roots, and see what itineraries you wind up following, right or wrong, usefully or--sometimes--as mere exploration. People in her circles in the 1940s and 1950s liked to point out, in the face of doctrinaire leftists, that this was the real meaning of radical--at least etymologically--to go 'down to the root.' And then to be prepared to tug up the roots--or defend them and nourish them--rather than keep plucking off leaves...." We at the Arendt Center resist the question of what Arendt would think precisely for the reason Greif offers: that her thought was at once deeply consistent and remarkably surprising. To think radically, down to the roots, means that one looks beyond conventional categories, looks at facts plainly and gathers them together informed by a unique and critical perspective, one informed by tradition and yet not a slave to the past. That is how Arendt thought and it is why she has become such an inspiring figure to many even as others insist on using her, wrongly, to advance their pet political positions. Greif's insistence in these letters is that we think well. The terrorists, he argue, thought poorly: "For the kosher supermarket mass murderer, I think the sequence went something like this: The Israeli state, or all Israelis, are in bloody conflict with nearby Palestinians. Israel is a Jewish state. Palestinians are Muslims. I am Muslim. I guess I too am in a bloody conflict with Israeli Jews. Wait--France has Jews. I ought to kill them. I eat Halal, but they eat Kosher. Therefore I know just where to find them. The universe shouldn't have room--I think Hannah Arendt would point out--for such a lethal mockery of thought, or thoughtlessness. Because it undoes all the distinctions that allow political thinking, political difference, ideas, and legitimate conflict, ever to occur." At the same time, Greif worries that too many responses to the attacks are also plagued by poor thinking: "But I think a corollary of this way of judging relative wrongs--here I'm doing my Arendtian ventriloquism, as I understand it--is that actually too wide, flowing, and unanalytic a sense of identification on 'our' side, lumping together of many different things rather than following out their distinctions and differences, is a bad idea, too. Because we won't think well. We won't be able to follow different effects to different causes; keep several incompatible ideas in mind at once, to judge among them; judge rightly. And one thing I do think Arendt would want us to try to keep straight about, is the question of proximity and distance. Time will tell--and near time, too--how much of a fluke the Charlie Hebdo and supermarket murders were. Should European Jews, and European writers, actually expect attacks--should they change their life on that basis?"

On The Right

national frontRosie Gray checks in on The National Front, France's newly popular far-right party, which is in the middle of reinvigorating itself and sanitizing its image: "the image of the National Front is starting to change. Marine Le Pen has largely avoided the kind of forthrightly intolerant comments her father is famous for, and she is a savvy public figure, the Rand Paul to Jean-Marie's Ron. The party has seen some of its positions leaking into the mainstream, and even into the left. For example, after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Socialist politician Jean-Marc Germain said that France must re-examine the Schengen zone--the policy of border-free travel within most of Europe, a position that the Front, which wants to remove France from the Schengen area of border-free travel entirely, has held for years. Le Pen has deftly kept herself in the center of the French political conversation during the crisis, announcing that she would not attend the massive unity rally in Paris after French President François Hollande did not invite her. On Sunday night, the New York Times published an op-ed by her, both in English and French, slamming the French government for what she perceives as its unwillingness to clearly name radical Islam as the reason for the attack. 'Now the French people, as if a single person, must put pressure on their leaders so that these days in January will not have been in vain,' Le Pen wrote. 'From France's tragedy must spring hope for real change.'"

Poe's Brain

poeMarilynne Robinson champions the thinking of Edgar Allan Poe: "Poe's mind was by no means commonplace. In the last year of his life he wrote a prose poem, Eureka, which would have established this fact beyond doubt--if it had not been so full of intuitive insight that neither his contemporaries nor subsequent generations, at least until the late twentieth century, could make any sense of it. Its very brilliance made it an object of ridicule, an instance of affectation and delusion, and so it is regarded to this day among readers and critics who are not at all abreast of contemporary physics. Eureka describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which 'radiated' the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe. This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and 'duration' are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series. All this is perfectly sound as observation, hypothesis, or speculation by the lights of science in the twenty-first century. And of course Poe had neither evidence nor authority for any of it. It was the product, he said, of a kind of aesthetic reasoning--therefore, he insisted, a poem. He was absolutely sincere about the truth of the account he had made of cosmic origins, and he was ridiculed for his sincerity. Eureka is important because it indicates the scale and the seriousness of Poe's thinking, and its remarkable integrity. It demonstrates his use of his aesthetic sense as a particularly rigorous method of inquiry."

amor_mundi_sign-up
Strange Persecutions

billie holidayJohann Hari has a powerful essay on the unrelenting persecution of Billie Holiday by Harry Anslinger and the FBI. "Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, relaxed, free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. 'It sounded,' his internal memos said, 'like the jungles in the dead of night.' Another memo warned that 'unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected' in this black man's music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, 'reek of filth.'" Driven by racial as well as musical hatred, Anslinger could not crack the intensely insular and loyal Jazz world, but he directed his obsession on one person: Holiday. "One night, in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage in New York City and sang a song that was unlike anything anyone had heard before. 'Strange Fruit' was a musical lament against lynching. It imagined black bodies hanging from trees as a dark fruit native to the South. Here was a black woman, before a mixed audience, grieving for the racist murders in the United States. Immediately after, Billie Holiday received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics."

My Algorithm, My Self

algorithmEvan Selinger is worried that autocomplete is going to turn us into 'personal cliches,' rendering us dead and unthinking: "by encouraging us not to think too deeply about our words, predictive technology may subtly change how we interact with one another. As communication becomes less of an intentional act, we give others more algorithm and less of ourselves. This is why I argued in Wired last year that automation can be bad for us; it can stop us thinking. When predictive technology learns how we communicate, finds patterns specific to what we're inclined to say, and drills down into the essence of our idiosyncrasies, the result is incessantly generated boilerplate. As the artist Salvador Dali famously quipped: 'The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.' Yet here, the repetition is of ourselves. When algorithms study our conscientious communication and subsequently repeat us back to ourselves, they don't identify the point at which recycling becomes degrading and one-dimensional. (And perversely, frequency of word use seems likely to be given positive weight when algorithms calculate relevance.)"

The Philosopher and the Man

gunther figalGünter Figal has resigned his position as the Head of the Martin Heidegger Society. The Daily Nous offers a translation of part of his statement: "As chairman of a society, which is named after a person, one is in certain way a representative of that person. After reading the Schwarze Hefte, especially the antisemitic passages, I do not wish to be such a representative any longer. These statements have not only shocked me, but have turned me around to such an extent that it has become difficult to be a co-representative of this." One can listen to a longer interview with Figal, in German, here. A few thoughts are in order. First, Figal seems to be surprised that Heidegger as a person was an antisemite. Really? How can this have been surprising to him? Second, he makes a series of demarcations. The early Heidegger up through and past Being and Time is clearly not implicated, but the middle Heidegger might very well be. We need to do more research. The late Heidegger may be, too. (It would be helpful to see the later editions of the Schwarze Hefte.) Third, he offers one example of the way Heidegger's philosophy may be racist. He says that Heidegger's account of Rechnung and calculation is developed in his published works out of Greek philosophy from Plato and others. But in the Black Notebooks, in a handful of passages over 8 years, Heidegger mentions that the Jews also fit into this history because of their reputation as money-oriented calculating sly foxes. This suggests to Figal that Heidegger may actually have developed his entire approach to Rechnung and the impact of calculation in our world out of antisemitism and sought to make it presentable by tying it to the Greeks, or that maybe, alternatively, it is founded subconsciously in Heidegger's antisemitsm. Finally, Figal says that as the chief of the Heidegger Society he has to represent not just the philosopher but the man. Here Figal has something right. As the Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, I do have some obligation to respond to irresponsible attacks on Arendt (of which there are many). And I do think it is important that in the end I respect the person of Hannah Arendt and not simply what she wrote. I do. On Heidegger, my opinions have always been different. I have seen, and still see, no evidence that his philosophy is in any way affected by his antisemitism. But on the question of Heidegger himself, I have long thought that he himself was a mean-spirited and resentful man--and a racist. I don't identify as a Heidegger scholar and am not interested in doing so, even though I read Heidegger regularly, teach him regularly, and find his work along with Arendt's some of the only work of the 20th century worth large percentages of my intellectual energy. In short, I am not opposed to Figal's decision to step down; I am only concerned that he was just now surprised to learn of Heidegger's racism and that by reacting so publicly he is fanning the flames of those who would tarnish the thinker with the sins of the man. For more, see my discussion with Peter Trawny, the editor of Heidegger's Black Notebooks, and my account of that discussion here.

The Grumbler's Age

grumblingJoshua Rothman has a few notes on grumbling: "It seems absurd to imagine that people grumble more than they used to: all the evidence points to the fact that people have grumbled throughout history. (That's why the Bible is full of anti-grumbling propaganda.) But it's entirely possible that we're grumbling better. The Internet has made our grumbles more audible; our taste in grumbles has improved. This may be making our grumbling more performative and self-aware--perhaps even more camp--than it has been in the past. And grumbling, as a form of communication, seems to resonate with the part of our contemporary outlook that's repelled by stridency and self-assertion. Even if we're not grumbling more, we could be in a golden age of grumbling."

amor_mundi_sign-up
Featured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #4

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

 

 


arendtNow Accepting Applications for Post-Doctoral Fellowships!

The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.

To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.

Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015


eyal press Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Eyal Press

The Courage To Refuse

Monday, February 9, 2015

Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm


Jeanne van Heeswijk Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Keith Haring Fellow in Art and Activism, Jeanne van Heeswijk

Monday, February 16, 2015

Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm

 


angela maioneLunchtime Talk with Angela Maione, our Klemens Von Klemperer Post-Doctoral Fellow

"Wollstonecraft and the Right to Political Community

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 - 7:00 pm


the decent oneScreening of The Decent One and Q&A with Director Vanessa Lapa and Sound Designer Tomer Eliav

The film is based on the newly discovered diaries of Heinrich Himmler. Read more about the film and watch a trailer here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 6:00 - 9:00 pm

 

 

 


charles snyderLunchtime Talk with Charles Snyder, a Hannah Arendt Center Post-Doctoral Fellow

"Natality and its Vicissitudes"

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:00 pm

 

 


uday mehtaCourage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Uday Mehta

Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge

Monday, March 30, 2015

Manor House Cafe, 6:00 pm

 


sa poverty Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?

A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape

Monday, April 6, 2015

Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm


privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Nicholas Tampio discusses the dangers of the Common Core program and appeals to Arendt's concept of natality as a way to help education once again teach students how to think for themselves in the Quote of the Week. Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We appreciate Arendt's copy of Paul Tillich's "The Shaking of the Foundations," which contains a special note, in our Library feature.  And we are pleased to share "Arendt and Ricoeur on Ideology and Authority," an article written by a former HAC fellow.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
4Dec/130

Arendt on Reproductive Technologies, Labor, and Action

ArendtBookreview1

“Hannah Arendt, Feminist Theorizing, and the Debate Over New Reproductive Technologies”

Kimberley F. Curtis, Polity, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 1995), pp. 159-187

Kimberley Curtis employs Arendt’s conceptual categories in The Human Condition to critically distinguish between scientific interventions that control fertility and those that endeavor to produce fertility. In doing so, she both offers an alternative to current feminist stances toward reproductive technology and contributes to our understanding of the relation between labor and action in the Arendt’s work.

Politically, Curtis responds to “liberal feminists” who tend to favor all new developments as instruments of choice, “socialist feminists” who also favor them in the broader context of their project of controlling nature through production, and “radical feminists” who oppose new reproductive technologies as instruments of patriarchal oppression. In contrast, Curtis proposes that:

[Arendt's] theorizing [...] powerfully embraces the need for control, which has been the cornerstone of feminist concern over reproductive technologies, while also offering some critical grounds for limiting the development and use of these technologies and practices.

Thus, Curtis adopts some of the enthusiasm of liberal feminists and some of the reservations of radical feminists. Socialist feminists, however, in her view make a serious mistake in their justification of their stance. She agrees with Arendt that nature must emphatically remain separate from human artifice. Arendt’s distinction between labor and work codifies this distinction. At the same time though, critics often over-emphasize the separation between the two realms. Curtis articulates her objection by eloquently linking labor and work to action:

To be fully human we must be, to some extent, subject to necessity's compulsion; we must feel its impact. Not to be so subject is to risk losing both the very capacity for action that makes us human and the hope for and renewal of the world it promises. There is multidimensionality to Arendt's conception of necessity that feminists (as well as most other students of Arendt) have largely ignored.

“Necessity” here corresponds to “labor” in Arendt’s schema. Rather than viewing the steps of labor, work, and action as a gradual progression toward freedom, Curtis proposes these terms as equally important “viewpoints.” The actor sees labor as an anchor and dead weight in light of his effort to start something new. Homo faber, the one who works to create a permanent world, sees the natural world of labor as raw material. Humans as laboring animals, Animal laborans, enjoy, at least to an extent, their immersion in natural life. Here, one might object that Arendt’s momentary praise of “the sheer bliss of being alive,” takes on an ironic tinge in light of her larger goal of defending action.

art

Curtis’s next defense of labor stands up better to scrutiny: she sees the darkness and obscurity that Arendt attributes to the realm of labor as a very important way of describing the “givenness” of existence. In protecting the private realm in this way, Arendt ensures a space between labor and work that allows the creation of different (at least potentially better) worlds in work free of deterministic forces.

Curtis then makes another argument that, in contrast to the previous one, emphasizes the continual pressure of the life of the body:

[O]ur very capacity for initiative is tied to this sense of compulsion and unfreedom. Without the impact of nature's compulsion bearing down upon us, we have no way of distinguishing between a state of freedom and one of enslavement.

Technology, in Curtis’s view, can ameliorate our sense of the compulsion of nature but must not go as far as to do away with it. With an apparent paradox, she ends with an appeal to a “conservative attitude” to protect the possibility of novelty:

[A] conservative attitude is appropriate here: one that protects the newness of the new from the impulses of those who come from an established world which to the new will always appear old- no matter how revolutionary no matter how much a part of creating conditions of new freedom those from that established world conceive their actions to be.

Returning, in conclusion, to feminist approaches to reproductive technologies, Curtis admits that this “conservative attitude” has been, and will likely continue to be, instrumentalized politically in favor of patriarchal and economic interests. In this light, she sees the need to reflect on these larger political forces with the goal of holding open the tension between freedom of reproductive control and the dangers inherent in technological worldviews that replace nature and the new.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
6Dec/120

Holes of Oblivion Open Up in China

One central feature of totalitarianism is the desire of those at the top of the movement to retain full—that is, total—control of their people. Total control requires, at times, the ability to lie, especially when facts on the ground fail to conform with past and present pronouncements. The strength of any totalitarian system can, in part, be measured by how successfully lies can be maintained and how effectively the movement can lie in spite of the facts.

A story out of China this week offers great insight into the totalitarian ambitions of some in China’s government, but also the fissures in that façade. As is now well known, Chinese President Hu Jintao is resigning, leaving office voluntarily when he had been expected to seek another term in power. Moreover, Hu is not maintaining any significant position of power in the new Chinese leadership, something quite unusual. And now the reasons have surfaced.

It seems that Hu was brought down by the emergence of a cover-up orchestrated by his most trusted deputy, Ling Jihua. The facts are such:

Mr. Ling’s son crashed his black Ferrari, killing himself and injuring two young women he was driving with. One of the women later died. Even though the crash and the son’s death were reported in the press, Mr. Ling set about erasing that news and denying it. He admitted the crash, but insisted his son was still alive, even creating false social media posts from his son to “prove” that he had survived. In addition, a major Chinese bank with connections to President Hu paid hush money to the families of the two women.

What is surprising is not so much the cover-up, but that it failed. As the New York Times reports,

Under normal circumstances, party insiders said, suppressing such news to protect the image of the party would be a routine matter. But Ling Jihua went further, they said, maneuvering to hide his son’s death even from the leadership.

Against Ling’s heavy-handed efforts, Chinese bureaucrats fought back. Intentionally or not, the police recorded the name of Ling’s son as Jia, a word that sounds like the word in Chinese for fake, and also a word similar to a retired party leader. That leader was furious about reports of his ignoble death. This and other accidents led to increasing pressure on Ling, and eventually the cover-up unraveled, leaving Hu embarrassed and eventually allowing him to be pushed out of power.

The fascinating story is yet another reminder of one of the most optimistic of Hannah Arendt’s repeated claims, that “The holes of oblivion do not exist.”  In other words, no totalitarian system is perfect and no matter how sophisticated the lie, if the lie is big and important enough, the truth will eventually come out. As Arendt writes:

Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.

It is always good to be reminded of this basic fact of the human world, that as artful as humans may be at lying, truth is stronger than the lie.

-RB

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
20Jul/120

Take Downs

If you are a political theorist or philosopher between 18 and 50, you probably had at least a passing flirtation with Slavoj Zizek. First of all, you can't avoid him. The man has written over 60 books in les than 30 years in addition to innumerable articles and interviews. Oh, and he has made two movies, including the humbly named Zizek!  If you want more, there is the International Journal of Žižek Studies.

What to make of the literary, philosophical, and marketing phenomenon that is Slavoj Zizek?

Slavoj Zizek

John Gray tries to answer that question in this week's NYRB in what is one of the most engaging take downs of an academic star you will get to read.

Zizek is a pugilist and there is much to fight against. He well sees the hypocrisies and injustices of liberal democratic society. He begins with the premise that modern day liberal capitalism not only has won, but it is indestructible. It is not reformable. He does not see socialism as a legitimate alternative. He derides anarchism as conceding the power to those in control. So what does Zizek want? He wants to be in control. His is an unapologetic call for violent takeover of the state for the benefit of the dispossessed. If the state is violence, he insists, why not it be "our" violence. This is the reason for his support of dictators and tyrants like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

It is striking that the course on which Hugo Chávez has embarked since 2006 is the exact opposite of the one chosen by the postmodern Left: far from resisting state power, he grabbed it (first by an attempted coup, then democratically), ruthlessly using the Venezuelan state apparatuses to promote his goals. Furthermore, he is militarising the barrios, and organising the training of armed units there. And, the ultimate scare: now that he is feeling the economic effects of capital’s ‘resistance’ to his rule (temporary shortages of some goods in the state-subsidised supermarkets), he has announced plans to consolidate the 24 parties that support him into a single party. Even some of his allies are sceptical about this move: will it come at the expense of the popular movements that have given the Venezuelan revolution its élan? However, this choice, though risky, should be fully endorsed: the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees). What should we say to someone like Chávez? ‘No, do not grab state power, just withdraw, leave the state and the current situation in place’? Chávez is often dismissed as a clown – but wouldn’t such a withdrawal just reduce him to a version of Subcomandante Marcos, whom many Mexican leftists now refer to as ‘Subcomediante Marcos’? Today, it is the great capitalists – Bill Gates, corporate polluters, fox hunters – who ‘resist’ the state.

Zizek's "full endorsement" of tyranny has won him many fans, including adoring youthful supporters. He played a bit part in Occupy Wall Street, largely as a internal critic of the anarchist tendencies of the movement. For Zizek, OWS was mistaken to refuse to make demands. As he writes:

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

Gray is reviewing Zizek's latest tomes, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, out this year, and Living in the End Times, from 2011. Less than Nothing is not a slim volume at 1,038 pages. End Times is a mere 504 pages.

Gray's review takes Zizek seriously as it should and quotes liberally from his works. Here is one example:

The underlying premise of the present book is a simple one: the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its “four riders of the apocalypse” are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.

To which Gray's response is:

With its sweeping claims and magniloquent rhetoric, this passage is typical of much in Žižek’s work. What he describes as the premise of the book is simple only because it passes over historical facts. Reading it, no one would suspect that, putting aside the killings of many millions for ideological reasons, some of the last century’s worst ecological disasters—the destruction of nature in the former Soviet Union and the devastation of the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, for example—occurred in centrally planned economies. Ecological devastation is not a result only of the economic system that exists in much of the world at the present time; while it may be true that the prevailing version of capitalism is unsustainable in environmental terms, there is nothing in the history of the past century that suggests the environment will be better protected if a socialist system is installed.

Gray offers this summation:

Whether or not Marx’s vision of communism is “the inherent capitalist fantasy,” Žižek’s vision—which apart from rejecting earlier conceptions lacks any definite content—is well adapted to an economy based on the continuous production of novel commodities and experiences, each supposed to be different from any that has gone before. With the prevailing capitalist order aware that it is in trouble but unable to conceive of practicable alternatives, Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility.

There is little effort in Gray to appreciate the intensity of the struggle Zizek engages in. It is the struggle of those on the left who have come to see that they have lost and that the injustices they experience and know to be wrong are either not seen as injustices or are accepted by the majority of the people. Zizek's turn to violence is born of frustration and passion, both of which need to be respected and understood, even if his tyrannical fantasies must be called out and rejected.

If you want to learn a bit about Zizek or see how to take someone down gracefully in the NYRB, read Gray's review. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".