Bear with me as I try to get throughout this whole issue.
I’ll try to report back soon What I’ve come up with below are summaries rather than reviews. Perhaps when I’ve finished all of them I’ll offer some thoughts on how my thinking has changed or not. The exercise will be be a useful one, I hope… A quick note after reading the first three pieces in order: I don’t know why the articles in this issue are presented in the order they are. The Kang piece is a response to Žižek’s “From Robspierre to Mao.” One ought to read that article first. And another note: much of Žižek’s contribution here is verbatim reproductions of previously written material, mainly, it would seem from In Defense of Lost Causes (2008) (and others). Indeed, some phrases are repeated in both of the “original” articles in this issue of the journal. Actually, copy and paste any given phrase from these articles into google and you will find them reproduced in any number of publications of various kinds by Žižek. Strangely, the journal doesn’t mention this, and I’m not sure what to think , but it doesn’t really matter. The focus here ought to be on the responses of Chinese scholars and their clarifications on Žižek’s place in the Chinese academy at present.
This fellow is none too pleased with Žižek’s view on Maoism, revolution, and contemporary China. In short, Žižek fails to know China both historically and in its present reality. To be sure, he knows the Western view of China well, but these views also fail to recognize China’s complexity. Other Western Leftists have done a better if not flawless job of this. Allan Badiou, for one. Perry Anderson, for another, in his New Left Review essay, “Two Revolutions” (Anderson, 2010a). I’ll allow the author himself to summarize the critique of Žižek:
China is complex, not only because of its internal diversity, but because it is integrating now into global capitalism, with all its inherent inequalities. Reducing it to an imagined, abstract “structural homology” hardly does China justice, not even poetic justice. Politics is no poetics. Žižek’s misreading of Mao and China is largely an abstract theorization, divorced from specificity and historicity. His pessimism, camouflaged by radical hubris and theatricality, can neither further our understanding of China’s struggles with modernity, particularly Mao’s endeavors for alternatives, nor inspire a renewed search for social change. Žižek’s poeticized version of the Chinese Revolution is thus a theatrical parody- travesty of the true revolution, an imaginary rhapsody of “revolution without a revolution.” (pp. 648-649)
Next: Žižek’s response
Žižek is also none too pleased that the previous author has spent so much time commenting on his style and status, as opposed to his theory. I’m not sure how to summarize the rebuttal portion of this piece as Žižek basically holds that Kang has literally misread him numerous times. Against Kang’s mistaken impressions of his positions, Žižek holds that what he is interested in is the renewal of the communist project, not as a revival of socialism, and certainly not as social democratic capitulation to the inevitable supremacy of capitalism. Rather, one must “begin from the beginning again, enacting a clear break from the 20th century communist experience” (p. 657). The problem of the postsocialist condition is that of “evil dancing on the ruins of evil” (c.f., Badiou), so the answer clearly does not lie in the example of present-day China, which is unlikely to provide a model of modernity, to employ Anderson’s (2010b) clever turn of phrase, to rival that presented by Tocqueville in Democracy in America. More generally, there is a lot of s**t going down in the world today, especially a new “enclosure of the commons” (p. 668), that is the motivating force behind the need for a revival of a true communism configured thus: 1) “strict egalitarian justice“; 2) “terror” to be committed against those who violate conditions suggested in 1) above; 3) “voluntarism” against objective barriers realized through “large-scale collective decisions”; and 4) “trust in the people” (p. 669).
There is too much detail and not enough time for me to give a proper summary. These notes will work for me. I’d suggest that you have a look yourself!
This piece picks up with a recapitulation of Badiou’s elaboration of the “politics of revolutionary justice” in four movements: “egalitarian justice,” “voluntarism,” “terror,” and “trust in the people” (p. 671). In the process of self-critique the radical left should take ownership or embrace its “terrorist past” (pp. 672-673). The alternative, “neither Virtue nor Terror” (p. 673 c.f. San-Just) is corruption. It is, in Robespierre’s estimation “revolution without revolution” (p. 674). So, the question for the radical left is the assessment of terror. Given its horrors, should it disavow terror? Must it disavow Maoism because of the violent excesses of its actual practice in China? If not, how to reconcile violence and righteousness?
From here on, Žižek’s argument is tough to follow. Not surprising as the author himself holds that the position/practice is hard to sustain. My task is to figure out what Žižek is talking about. Presumably it will have something to do with “beginning from the beginning again.” I’ll try to make a list of points without trying to assess Zizek’s position on each. Hopefully his position will become clear as I move along:
- The innocent need not fear public scrutiny. But not knowing if they themselves might be targeted, how can they not fear?
- Mao’s (I’m paraphrasing) “we do not want war, but we ought not to fear it” is surely the “only correct attitude apropos of war” (p. 678).
- The rejection of habit (here I take this to refer to collective habits of mind) is crucial to revolution. Connected to this, the reinvention of “emancipatory terror” is the task at hand. The target is not murderous terror, but, rather, cultural revolutionary terror best embodied in revolutions of the mundane practices of everyday life. How to have a funeral without religion? How to marry? In the Chinese case, how to sit around a table to eat? Who to toast first? The problem of revolution is precisely the problem of institutionalizing the core of revolution, i.e., terror. For to institutionalize in the conventional sense is to commit a counter-revolutionary act. In this sense, terror in the sense just described is a necessary condition and practice of revolution.
The three notes are these:
- “Theory and Ideology in Ancient China” (see Žižek’s Living in the End Times)
Deals with the historical conflict between Confucian and legalist schools. For Confucius, everyone had his place; disorder resulted from people forgetting these places, ignoring tradition. The legalists held that the problem was not with the following of tradition, but with tradition itself which was inadequate to the needs of the present. Žižek wishes not so much to rehabilitate the legalists as to rescue something form them, to “[extricate] a radical emancipatory kernel from their image as ‘proto-totalitarians’” (p. 710). So, what is this radical emancipatory kernel? In fa, the rule of law. In shu, the concealment of the ruler’s will, leaving only the law intact as a guide to action. In shi, the position of ruler rather than the ruler himself is the source of legitimacy.
- “The Politics of Reincarnation” (also in Living in the End Times)
An interesting discussion of the Chinese government’s moves to assert sovereignty over religious practice in Tibet. The Chinese government is not afraid of religion, excepting that which will not submit to its control. Put differently, it does not oppose religiosity or spirituality so much as it seeks to separate these from any hint of emancipatory potential. The present official Chinese position on Tibet is clever: it positions itself as defender of tradition. Those who focus on the totalitarian oppression of Tibet tend to overlook the autocratic structure of the Tibetan buddhist tradition. They also miss the more significant threat to Tibet: “media images of brutal Chinese soldiers terrorizing Buddhist monks conceal a much more effective U.S.- style socioeconomic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of Native Americans in the United States. It seems that Chinese communists finally learned a lesson, for what is the oppressive power of secret police and Red Guards who destroy ancient monuments compared to that of unbridled capitalism, to undermine traditional social relations?” (p. 714).
- The notion that Chinese capitalism is something new is misguided. We would be better to develop a historical-comparative perspective and recognize in the Chinese present a Euro-American past. The notion that capitalism and democracy rose in tandem is false. Democratic reforms were always just that: reforms of capitalist excesses were the result of radical demands against its destructive nature and exploitative and/or exclusionary social relations. Still, there may be something to the “success” of the Chinese model. What if what we are seeing is not a reliving of the western experience with capitalism? What if, instead, we are seeing the ideal marriage of capitalism to its true authoritarian love?
Žižek is very big in Chinese critical theory circles, but it is hard to figure out precisely what he has to offer on China. China is not the focus of his attention, yet his interventions have been taken up and are, therefore, important. Žižek and China have much in common. Both have emerged from a socialist past, both emerged as global superstars in the 1990s, both are a focal point the present. Like goods stamped “made in China,” he is ubiquitous and endlessly self-referential and repetitious. There is much more to the analysis here, but the closing paragraph is quite nicely done:
Žižek and China are actually quite close; we are as close as can be. Žižek and China bear an unexpected similarity; my interest lies in the hidden con- nection between “made by Žižek” and “made in China.” And to a certain extent, Žižek is the China of theory for the age of global capitalism, while China is the real Žižek for the age of global capitalism. (p. 737)
I’m feeling lazy:
Contemporary China is no longer a communist state. But neither can the nation fully depend on traditional values of sanitization in order to rebuild social order and create national unity. Marxism in China is like a residue that refuses to go away. What remains is an inherent self-negation in the sense that there is no longer a simple return to socialism but its deep entanglement with the new political, social, and cultural problems created by China’s capitalization. It does not mean that by doing away with communism in its nation-building program, China is now really on the rugged road to becoming a socialist state. A more sensible scenario would be this: being so successfully incorporated in global capitalism and thus generating so many antagonistic problems, including increasing exploitation and oppression, China more than ever needs communism to confront all these crises. A question for Žižek is whether China is just one of his many theoretical examples (though example is already a radical medium for the externalization of the destitute subject), or if he will accept that China is the radical externalization of his theory and not merely the subject of intellectual acrobatics for its own sake. (pp. 757-758)