It is said to be a token of the immense respect for the Slovenian philosopher in Western upper-middle-brow media that that pair of distinctive carats in his surname are consistently retained in printed versions of it, no matter what the language of the revue, and no matter what its editorial policy concerning the more obscure diacritical marks that adapt the Latin script to languages for which it was never intended. I note, to begin, that I accord exactly the same respect, and no more, to Radovan Karadžić. In an era when we are all free to pilfer even the obscurest diacritics from Wikipedia profiles of Balkan villains, getting their names right should hardly be taken as a sign of any subtextual esteem.
A parallel that goes far beyond accent marks was brought home to me, again, when I was reading the latest iteration of Žižek's new vision for the future in this month's Le monde diplomatique (which for its part has the absurdly hypercorrect editorial policy of referring to 'William Clinton' and 'James Carter'), in which he expresses more unambiguously than ever, to my knowledge, his belief in the neeed for a Robespierrean redux in order to set history on the right course. Žižek believes that the economic crisis that began in 2008 has brought bourgeois institutions to a critical juncture, and has precipitated a now-or-never moment that will separate the true radicals --the agents of revolutionary change-- from the pseudo-radicals who stand by and call impotently for reform. The intellectual radicals "wanted a real change," he writes, "now they can have it." This change will happen, he goes on to say, when the oppressed classes (among whom he seems to include 'radical intellectuals') take recourse to 'legitimate violence', "legitimate because their very status results from violence."
I've been trying --mostly in posts in this space, as I find these days I'm not even sure I've had a coherent thought at all until I've attempted to write it out and dared to parade it around in public-- to think through a different way of conceptualizing the 'revolutionary potential' of disadvantaged groups (which I do not want to call 'oppressed', for reasons I'll get to). I've been confessing recently that I am drawn to a variety of anarchist pacifism, rather than to the sort of old-fashioned class struggle that Žižek has been campaigning to revive. To be a pacifist, I take it, means above all that we should stop looking for vanguards, and start looking for exemplars. To this end, there is no particular reason to stop at the working class, when in fact there are layers much more disadvantaged still, whose members do not even participate in the system of labor. They cannot be said to be oppressed, because would-be oppressors haven't figured out a way to get anything out of them at all.
Indigenous people might be a minority in today's world, population-wise, but they represent one possible form of human life, and as long as it survives we will have a living model of society that has not been subsumed into any of the available world systems, neither the monotonous transnational capitalist order of airport gift shops and so on, nor the order that Žižek imagines is about to rise up and seize control. As exemplars rather than vanguards, they won't have to seize anything or kill anyone in order for the lesson to get across; what matters is that this truly different way of being be there, and visible, that 'radical intellectuals' be prepared to notice it and to seize on its tremendous power to shame those who are pursuing their narrow class (or national) interests. Exemplarity of this sort is, I take it, very much what Gandhi had in mind in his elaboration of the doctrine of ahimsa or nonviolence, in which aggressors are shamed rather than fought against with their own weapons, and goodness is preserved in the world by those who refuse to adopt the methods of the exploiters. More and more, I believe that there is no greater weapon than shame. It is a weapon, moreover, to which oppressors can have no recourse.
Can indigenous exemplars really bring the oppressive order down? Probably not, but neither will Žižek's proletarian vanguard, and if we follow the first at least when it's all over we won't have blood on our hands. (I'll try to explain what it might mean for pacifism to 'work', given that we are in the end a bunch of bloodthirsty apes, in another post.)
Žižek's shtick works for a number of reasons among readers who are not ordinarily receptive to calls to the barricades. One is that he is a clown, that he cuts his Leninism with enough sweet stuff about Jennifer Lopez and whatever other trash passes across his hotel TV screens that readers can easily assume to be a put-on every bit that they are not inclined to accept. Another reason, obviously, is the way he plays on his foreignness. He's been through it, Western readers will tell themselves, and has surely earned the right to hold forth on these matters. But anyone who would joke that the only position he would accept in the Slovenian government is that of chief of secret police evidently has not been through it quite enough. Slovenia was the freest republic of the freest federal state in the socialist bloc: the Switzerland of Yugoslavia, as Slobodan Milošević once scoffed. This does not mean it was always easy to be a Lacanian intellectual in Ljubljana during the Tito era, but the sort of inconvenience Žižek faced is categorically different than, say, the Stalinist show trials in the Soviet Union of the 1930s (made possible, of course, by the secret police).
Žižek, I mean, is not speaking from any particular position of experience when he suggests that there is something to be salvaged from the legacy of the Bolshevik revolution. When he suggests that what is to be salvaged is the very most brutal part of that legacy, moreover, he is just being flippant, and Western readers should not let him get away with it simply on the grounds that he has funny accent marks in his last name.
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