Celebrity Communists and the Implacable Other

John Paul Ennis steps in on the question of what function Zizek and Badiou play given their new prevalence on various BBC shows, etc., which John Gray had written about a few days ago. (See his post for the links.)

I want to push back hard against all of this, despite how much I may approve of some of the points Ennis makes. There is certainly a bit of daylight between Badiou, Zizek, and me. But the fact that they have become known is proof of nothing. First, it’s considered “hypocrisy.” (Engaging the system they critique or something.) Or it’s considered that by the very fact that they appear on these shows that somehow they must be “safe” for the dominant ideology. Thus we have Gray’s assertion that they are a “distraction.”

This treats ideology (or whatever your favorite deus ex machina is) as all powerful, as an Evil Genius à la Descartes, who knows all, sees all, and acts out perfectly what it wants. One sees this a bit, I think, in the concluding sections of Adrian Johnston’s book on Political Transformation, though it’s interesting that in the first half of the book, he’s right that we should not treat ideology as a “One-all.” In this view, if Badiou is on a TV show relatively few people watch, ideology must want him there. If Zizek speaks to Google execs, ideology must have put him there to show how imbricated his view of subjectivity is to the “google” model of capitalism. Perhaps it’s easier in a sense to admit defeat when we envision an implacable enemy of the left: it says why bother since nothing will come of it anyway. But the problem, I think, with some of Zizek’s writings on ideology and Badiou’s writings on “statist” thinking (it’s a giveaway, by the way, that he still utilizes such a model for power in society, to the exclusion of others) is that they often (not always) depict ideology as the One All in given set or world. But this is where Johnston’s iteration of Derrida’s “autoimmunity” in the first half of Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations is exactly right and bears repeating time and again. This shouldn’t lead to false hope (is there another kind?), but it shouldn’t lead to the weirdly repetitious (and tedious) renditions of “Communists are having fun” critiques. Johnston writes:

…Badiou and Zizek are justified in their shared conviction that the statist big Other [here, I hesitate with each rendition of power as “statist,” though I know how it is not merely the “state,” but it’s still too homogeneous a form of power] is, despite masquerading as a monolithic apparatus of entrenched and integrated forces and factors, fundamentally delicate and vulnerable. Its own sprawling complexity—in Badiouian terms, the overdetermined intertwining of a teeming multitude of situations or worlds composing the components of a state’s domain escapes the coding and controlling powers of any state system—makes it inevitable [I would say “possible,” given the inevitable problems of such a teleology] that internally generated bugs, conflicts, loopholes, and short circuits will be immanently generated [everything in Johnston’s sprawling work comes down to the import of these last two words] within and between the very components of the statist Other (this being an aspect of what Derrida has in mind as regards the notion of “autoimmunity” disorders). … [This] lends political interventions a margin of incalculability. (p. 53)


  1. At least personally I find it fascinating that they are on TV at all. I don’t think there is some Big Other responsible. It just means that they are good at what they do and people have picked up on it and realized that’d make for a good interview.

    On the other hand I like what Gray has to say about how Zizek and Badiou have formed a kind of media around themselves: for intellectuals. I find it interesting as a non-Marxist how strangely capitalist this can seem (Zizek seems to be on some kind of rock star world-tour sometimes). I don’t think this demeans either their work or their message but it’s an interesting phenomena nonetheless.

    Certainly one excellent function that Zizek had on that show was to reveal how strongly the BBC were willing to push a cozy image of democratic-capitalism (including healthy doses of freedom etc.).

    1. I’m happy I see anything but the usual morons and pseudo-intellectuals on my TV screen (is Sunday morning TV in the US really the best we can do? Charlie Rose?), so Gray’s article struck me at times as pinning them down for a larger problem. Zizek has commented often on how he knows he is literally framed (by the screen, but also as screened through a certain filter) in his media appearances. My favorite part of the Zizek! movie has to be, bar none, the interview he does with a local (Nashville?) affiliate on some news-interview show. Johnston defends this in his recent book (I’m writing on it, so I keep going back to it on the blog today) as some sort of political praxis, where Zizek doesn’t give the answers, but is the analyst-cum-subject supposed to know upon who the analysands (the political public) can have renewed hopes that they fill in for a better future. I think that’s too circuitous a route and Zizek only after the fact indicates that it could be anything like this. But as for the BBC, I have this love-hate relationship with it. When I’m driving to work, it’s the only international news I can get, and often it’s really good. There’s a real schizophrenia to it, though, as there is with any large organization. At some points (and I’m talking about BBC radio) it is the most turgid, reactionary stuff of the sort you mention. (I remember specifically the day when the Italian CIA agents were convicted a few weeks ago.) But other times, other voices do indeed get through, and frankly in the US it’s often one of the few places (save the internet) where I can hear them. But yeah, the BBC=cozy democratic capitalism almost all of the time. My point, by the way, in my post was to touch not on your post specifically, but on a form of argument I’ve noted several times on the blog, but which I find tiresome and defeatist: anyone “successful” (publishing, getting their work out, etc.) is somehow automatically coopted, with the upshot that I guess lack of success is a victory itself. In this way, one can say that Engels enjoyed wine and thus was a bad Communist or that Zizek appears on a TV show and thus provides a helpful distraction from What Really Matters. It’s probably some form of this argument that I would implicitly accept at certain points in my early graduate career (he just bought a house and he’s lecturing me on the working classes!?!) and since, looking around me, I think there is a certain discipline (to borrow Badiou’s term) that is required to not be coopted (I’m speaking literally in terms of my living arrangements and how I conduct my life), which I think should not be diminished where it is to be found.

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