In many respects it can be said that Žižek is a consummate ironist with all of the problems attendant to irony as a rhetorical strategy. In this respect, his rhetorical strategy is not unlike that of Socrates’, where he rhetorically strives to always turn the question back to the questioner, getting them to question their own assumptions behind the question, shifting the frame of the question (and therefore the possibilities following from the question) itself. Through this rhetorical maneuver Žižek strives to effect a sort of transcendence of reigning conditions and ideology, introducing new alternatives into the social system. In this respect, Žižek’s texts can be thought as not unlike Plato’s famous allegory of the cave (which Žižek often references), where the participants, the interlocutors, cease playing the ideological game (trying to name what image will appear on the wall next), and instead leap into an entirely different game. It was this that I tried to argue in my article “Symptomal Knots and Evental Ruptures” (warning pdf), where I attempted to argue that where Badiou’s political strategy consists in the affirmation of an undemonstrable event and the truth-procedures that follow from that declaration, Žižek’s political strategy consists in trying to force the event, to produce the event, or in opening a void space within the hegemony of the ideological structure where new alternatives become available.

As an ironist, just when you think you’ve pinned down his position, he reverses everything and articulates yet another position contradicting the first. Hence the sense that he never gets anywhere. The paradox is that the more Žižek tries to disavow and undermine this position of being the subject-supposed-to-know, the more he tends to provoke transference in his audience, convincing them that he must contain some secret (just as Socrates’ interlocutors invariably thought that he knew and was just withholding the answer).


I do think that while I do not agree with the notion of revolution as the only aim of politics (advocating a more classically Marxist position pertaining to tendencies populating the social field and their possibilities), and while I find Žižek’s references (and often celebration of) figures like Robespierre, Stalin, Mao, etc., as well as violence distasteful, this talk of revolution does serve a rhetorically important function within debates over political theory. In other words, in the absence of the belief that society can be fundamentally transformed and that we should commit ourselves to the project of transforming society– i.e., a desire for the real or impossible –we descend into a pacifying neo-pragmatism not unlike that of Critchly or Rorty, where we become apologists for liberal democracy and all of its attendant problems. Under this neo-pragmatic liberal democratism, any form of engagement envisioning an alternative form of society is excluded a priori as necessarily doomed to produce disaster and simultaneously as impossible. There is thus a closure of political possibility and the best we can hope for is a pacifying “communicative action” that dare not work for something else.

One of Žižek’s points is that liberal democracy is every bit as obscene and brutal as these other political systems so often denounced within western democracies as being “the worst”. The problem is that Žižek doesn’t do the necessary legwork in order to demonstrate this. Yes he shows the ideological mechanisms creating the straight-jacket of capitalism and liberal democracy as the only alternative, but he doesn’t do a very good job demonstrating just what is so obscene about liberal democracy and capitalism. To see this you need to read someone like Naomi Klein or other empirically oriented writers who document the actual effects of this system. It is disappointing that many of the theorists working in the post-Althusserian tradition of structuralist Marxism (and ultimately in the Gramscian tradition of Marxist thought where everything eventually came to be reduced to the cultural or semiotic register) look down on this sort of hard empirical and historical work practiced by people like David Harvey or Naomi Klein.

I do not think, however, that Žižek genuinely advocates the violence he often glorifies, or the totalitarianism he so often celebrates. What I think he’s doing is trying to make alternative possibilities available within political discourse. Proof of this, I think, can be seen in his recent article on Obama (here and here). A standard radical leftist stance, premised, as it so often is on a sense of cynicism and distrust of any establishment power, might be that we should reject Obama or should not have voted for him as he will simply be a continuation of the same. Badiou goes so far as to argue that we shouldn’t vote at all as this confuses the domain of the political with the state. A radical leftwing Žižekian political activist might argue that support for Obama amounts to giving way on one’s revolutionary desire, betraying that desire, and therefore betraying the cause (objet a). Yet surprisingly in his writings on Obama we find Žižek defending support for Obama as one avenue through which the coordinates of the symbolic can be changed even if, at the level of policy, these policies continue to support standard liberal democratic and capitalist platforms. This defense alone should give us significant pause in our interpretation of just what Žižek is up to.

Of course, the problem is, as Nathan asks, what happens when irony is not understood as irony?

UpdateBryan, over at Velvet Howler, presents an excellent response to my post on Žižek’s political strategy.

As Dr. Sinthome goes on to explain, Žižek’s key rhetorical tactic used to subvert conformist liberal democratic discourse is irony. This involves something peculiarly Žižekian, something that is palpable in every book he has written and every article he has published. The first move involves a rejection of the (typically hegemonic) liberal response to a given issue. One might think that, given Žižek’s political commitments, the next move would be to assert the far Left/Marxist view to counter the liberal position. Instead, Žižek often takes a stance that is uncomfortably close to the right-wing position, but then argues that the right-wing position simply makes a much stronger case for the far Left position.

Read the rest here. The piece is very rich and contains far more than this brief passage.

Update 2:Mikhail of Perverse Egalitarianism adds his own scathing rejoinder in a style only Mikhail can pull off.