Friday, July 9, 2010

Zizek Biography

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (born 1949) is an academic star, the "Elvis of Cultural Studies," according to one often-quoted journalistic formulation. His lectures, dealing in ideas that are often dense to the point of impenetrability, draw crowds numbering in the hundreds, with their mix of philosophical theory and topical political ideas, both often illustrated by examples drawn from American popular culture.

Zizek talks as fast as he thinks, and writes nearly as fast as he can talk (he has published as many as three books in the course of a single year), often making things even more difficult for the reader with a style of argument in which he often seems to contradict himself. James Harkin, writing in the London Guardian , called him "a one-man heavy industry of cultural criticism." Yet Zizek's fame rests on more than sheer mental agility. Consistent with his origins in Communist-era Yugoslavia, Zizek has espoused Marxist-Leninist ideas, which have remained current in academic circles even as they have lost ground in the wider political sphere. Zizek has reinvigorated Marxist-Leninist thought with an approach that brings together philosophy, psychology, film studies, humor, and engaging prose. His writing encompasses both political philosopher Karl Marx and film comedian Groucho Marx. Documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor, who made a film about Zizek, told Reyhan Harmaci of the San Francisco Chronicle that Zizek seems "to make intellectualism exciting and fun and vital in a climate of anti-intellectualism." In Zizek's own biography on the website of the European Graduate School, where he is a faculty member, he indicated that he "uses popular culture to explain the theory of [French philosopher] Jacques Lacan and the theory of Jacques Lacan to explain politics and popular culture."

Grew Up Under Communism

A native and lifelong resident of Ljubljana, Slovenia, Slavoj Zizek (SLAH-voy ZHEE-zhek) was born on March 21, 1949, when the small Alpine capital was part of Communist Yugoslavia. An only child, he grew up in the household of professional parents. Like many other young people in the former satellite states of the Soviet Union, he consumed Western popular culture avidly in preference to officially approved domestic television, books, and films. Much of his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood cinema was acquired during his teenage years, when he spent long hours at an auditorium that specialized in showing foreign films. The "Prague spring" reform movement of 1968 in Czechoslovakia during which Czechs agitated for greater freedom but were repressed by the Soviet Union, had an important effect on Zizek, even though he was not one of the demonstrators agitating in favor of greater freedom.

Zizek was in the Czech capital when Soviet troops invaded, and he observed the collision of totalitarian power with the aspirations of ordinary people. "I found there, on the central square, a café that miraculously worked through this emergency," he told Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker . "I remember they had wonderful strawberry cakes, and I was sitting there eating strawberry cakes and watching Russian tanks against demonstrators. It was perfect."

Not that Zizek was a supporter of Communist orthodoxy. As an undergraduate at the University of Ljubljana he read widely, not sticking to approved course lists. He spoke six languages, and immersed himself in the works of Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and other philosophers, mostly French, whose writings had found little favor in socialist circles. In the case of Lacan, that philosopher's work relied on psychology—a suspect science from a collectivist point of view because of its preoccupation with the self and the individual mind. Zizek would, in time, set out to reconcile that seeming dichotomy.

Zizek earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and sociology in 1971, and then pursued a master's degree, also at the University of Ljubljana, writing his master's thesis on the French philosophers whose ideas he had been studying. The brilliance of his thesis stirred up interest among the university's philosophy faculty, but its ideologically suspect qualities were more troublesome. Finally, after being forced to add an appendix in which he outlined the divergences of his ideas from approved Marxist theory, Zizek was awarded a master's degree in philosophy in 1975. The taint on his reputation kept him from finding a teaching position. For several years Zizek depended on his work as a translator to pay his bills, but in 1977 he gave in to pressure and joined the Communist Party. This opened up government speechwriting jobs, as well as the chance to take a job as a researcher at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana in 1979. He retained that position for the next several decades, even after gaining international renown.

Worked as Speechwriter

In 1981 Zizek headed to Paris, where he studied with Lacan's son-in-law and was psychoanalyzed by him. He finished a dissertation and received his doctoral degree from the university that year. By that time Zizek had emerged as something of an expert on Lacan, and as the leader of a group of so-called Ljubljana Lacanians, contributing to a level of familiarity with Lacan in Slovenia that perhaps exceeded even that in France itself.

Zizek's playful side began to emerge during this period, when he wrote, under a pen name, a negative review of one of his own books. Sometimes during his career Zizek would seem to adopt one position and then switch to the exact opposite, but this tendency had roots in the dialectical tradition of philosophy in which his thought was rooted—the conviction that truth is ultimately obtained through the resolution of a series of opposites or conflicts. Zizek's first book published in the West was The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), which focused on the greatest of all the dialectical philosophers, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), through the prism of Lacan's thought. It was a daring combination; Zizek drew new links between philosophy and psychology by considering how these thinkers treated the idea of the Other—anything that is not part of the Self.

Zizek also cultivated his more public persona during the 1980s, a period during which Yugoslavia's Communist central government gradually began to lose control over the country's cultural life. He penned a popular newspaper column, and in 1990, when Slovenia was on the brink of independence from Yugoslavia (achieving it after a ten-day war in 1991), he entered the race to become part of the group of four leaders who would hold the country's joint presidency. Of the five candidates, he finished fifth, and was thus not elected. It was at this time that the impressive spurt in Zizek's productivity began. He was living alone; a marriage from the early 1970s, which produced a son, had ended, and his second and third marriages (the second produced another son) were still in the future. Zizek had few responsibilities other than to think and write. His post was that of researcher, and he rarely if ever taught classes.

Partly this kind of financial freedom for an academic was a holdover from the Communist system, in which intellectuals were considered an important part of the theoretical underpinning of the state, and were thus financially supported if they were seen to be making useful contributions. Zizek cherished this freedom. As his fame grew, he was frequently offered teaching positions in the United States, where he garnered a strong following in university cultural studies departments. He turned them all down, although he cheerfully accepted visiting scholar appointments and often spent much of the year traveling from one academic center to another. "When people ask me why I don't teach permanently in the United States," Zizek was quoted as saying in the Philadelphia Inquirer , "I tell them that it is because American universities have this very strange, eccentric idea that you must work for your salary. I prefer to do the opposite and not work for my salary."

Used Film to Illustrate Ideas

In any event, Zizek repaid his university's investment by bringing international intellectual attention to tiny Slovenia. He turned out books quickly, and they were translated into some 20 languages; in the United States many were published by Verso in New York, which profited from its association with Zizek, for the books sold well. Zizek communicated and expanded upon Lacan's difficult ideas about perception, desire, and aggression by illustrating them with examples drawn from decades of popular films that students and general readers knew well. Zizek's own books, such as Looking Awry; An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (1991) and Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (1992), were joined on bookstore shelves by collections of articles he edited, including Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) (1992).

Zizek's international fame grew after a 1997 essay written by the influential British literary critic Terry Eagleton was published in the London Review of Books . The essay reviewed several of Zizek's books and concluded, as quoted inContemporary Authors , that they "have an enviable knack of making [Continental philosophers] Kant or Kierkegaard sound riotously exciting; his writing bristles with difficulties but never serves up a turgid sentence." It was around this time that Zizek's lectures began to attract large crowds of young intellectuals. Police had to be called to a Zizek appearance at a Lower Manhattan art gallery after the shutout portion of an overflow crowd began banging on the building's windows, demanding admission. Nor was his fame confined to America and Europe; a documentary film, Zizek! , followed the philosopher to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where similar crowds awaited him.

Zizek's popularity was due partly to the dizzying virtuosity of his speeches, which were free form traversals of the history of philosophy, mixed with observations on anything from the Matrix film series to surfing, to world events, to theology (although an atheist, Zizek was fascinated by the figure of Saint Paul, seeing in him an analogue to early Soviet Communist leader Vladimir Lenin in terms of building an organization motivated by ideas). One audience member at a Zizek talk told Scott McLemee, author of the "Zizek Watch," a column published in the Chronicle of Higher Education , "I have no idea where we just went, but that was one wild trip." Another explanation of Zizek's success came from McLemee, who noted the theorist's continuing enthusiasm for American films. "One source of Slavoj Zizek's lasting appeal as a cultural theorist is that he provides a really good excuse to go to the video store," McLemee wrote.

Zizek also showed a knack for keeping himself in the headlines, at least those of intellectual journals. He broadened the focus of his writing to include current events, and he even contributed an essay to the staid U.S. journal Foreign Policy that examined the psychological motivations behind the failed U.S. search for weapons of mass destruction during the Iraq war. The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's Lost Highway (2000) was one of several Zizek tomes on contemporary entertainment. With Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on 11 September and Related Dates , Zizek showed an uncharacteristic tendency to edit himself, recalling the book several times for revisions as it went through subsequent printings. Zizek's Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (2004) critiqued not only the rationale for war but also explored psychological factors involved in the restrictions placed on American civil liberties after the September 11 attacks.

Academic fashions come and go, but as of the mid-2000s the bearded Zizek had spent nearly a decade as what Carlin Romano of the Philadelphia Inquirer called "the ultimate hottie in recent years on the global intellectual circuit." In April of 2005 he married a 27-year-old Argentine model. He joined the faculty of the European Graduate School, an international institute of communications theory with locations in several countries, and he worked for an unusually long time on The Parallax View , a lengthy philosophical tract that attempted to redefine the dialectical idea itself, leaving room, as ever, for discussions of films, the war on terror, and hot topics such as neuroscience. By the time it was published, Zizek had moved on to a new book, In Defense of Lost Causes , in which he discussed the Christian legacy, class struggle, and problems in the world of theory itself. The book was slated for publication in the summer of 2007.

US Soldier Charged for Disclosing War Crimes

Charged for revealing the truth

Alan Maass reports on the persecution of an Army private who has been accused of leaking video of a U.S. massacre of civilians in Iraq and other "classified information."

July 9, 2010

THE U.S. military is pressing criminal charges against a whistleblower for allegedly leaking information to the watchdog Web site, including the video of an Apache helicopter strike in Baghdad [1] that killed at least 12 civilians and caused a scandal for the Pentagon.

Pfc. Bradley Manning faces eight charges, including espionage, and could go to jail for more than half a century if found guilty.

All for the "crime" of exposing the unacknowledged crimes of the American military.

Manning has also been accused of turning over at least 150,000 diplomatic cables from the State Department to WikiLeaks--as well as encrypted video of another air strike, this one in Granai, Afghanistan, which killed 140 civilians. WikiLeaks has so far published only one such embarrassing cable, and it has not released the Granai video.

The 22-year-old Manning, who was stationed at a U.S. base east of Baghdad, was arrested by military authorities in May and has been in detention in Kuwait since. He was fingered to the military by a computer hacker named Adrian Lamo. Lamo claims that Manning started communicating with him online, and admitted to being the source of the WikiLeaks exposé.

But there's reason to doubt Lamo's story--not least because he was convicted of hacking into news and corporate Web sites and served a sentence of house arrest and probation that could leave him vulnerable to pressure by authorities.

The attempts to convict Manning in the press are bound up with the military's ongoing campaign against WikiLinks, a Web site founded three years ago to expose government and corporate wrongdoing by publishing information from whistleblowers. In addition to the explosive video of the Baghdad massacre, the site has published documents about toxic waste dumping in Africa and the military's practices at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp.

As's Glenn Greenwald pointed out in a Democracy Now! interview [2], the U.S. Army's counterintelligence division prepared a report in 2008 identifying WikiLinks as a "threat to national security" and detailing possible ways to silence the Web site.

The main thrust was that if WikiLeaks' sources were exposed--and the perception created that it was dangerous to associate with the site--whistleblowers could be intimidated from turning over information. As Greenwald said:

That's exactly what has happened here. Suddenly, a 22-year-old private, who supposedly has access to vast amounts of classified information, contacts someone who's a complete stranger and over the Internet...[and] confesses to crimes that could send him to prison for the rest of his life...It's exactly what the U.S. military described it wanted to do in order to destroy WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange drew similar conclusions about the Pentagon campaign in an April interview on Democracy Now! [3]. Assange pointed out that the 2008 report specifically uses the term "whistleblowers"--that is, people who leak classified information to expose an injustice--in identifying targets to investigate and prosecute. The aim, according to Assange, is to "destabilize us and destroy what [the Pentagon report] calls our 'center of gravity'--the trust that the public and sources have in us."

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AMID the speculation about Manning since his arrest and indictment--not to mention what he did and didn't say to hacker Adrian Lamo via Internet chat--the video of the massacre itself [4] has tended to fade into the background of mainstream news reports.

It shouldn't. The footage is a chilling--and undeniable--indictment of the brutality of the U.S. military machine and its occupation of Iraq. As Eric Ruder described it in a report for [5]:

The video shows U.S. troops circling in a helicopter and focusing on a group of about 10 men, certain that the cameras slung over the reporters' shoulders are AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. "Fucking prick," one soldier says of the men with the camera.

After obtaining permission from commanding officers, one of the soldiers exclaims, "Light 'em all up," and the men are cut to pieces with a burst from the helicopter's 30mm machine gun. On the video, they disappear in a cloud of dust and smoke. "Look at those dead bastards," one pilot says. "Nice," responds another.

The helicopter continues to circle, watching as a van arrives, and a man jumps out to help the safety. One soldier remarks that the man from the van looks to be "picking up the wounded." But a few moments later, the troops again request--and receive--permission to open fire.

This is clearly a war crime--a violation of international law that forbids firing on people aiding the wounded.

After obliterating the van, ground troops are called in and quickly discover the camera belonging to the journalist, as well as two wounded children in the van. Their father, the van's driver, had just been killed by the soldiers in the Apache.

When they hear the report of children in the van, one of the soldiers renders a quick verdict: "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle." Another replies, "That's right."

The July 12, 2007, attack wasn't the massacre committed by U.S. forces in Iraq. But it stayed in the spotlight at least in part because two Reuters reporters were killed in the attack, and the news agency spent several years trying to obtain the footage from the helicopter gunship. The military claimed it had "lost" its copy--and then "Collateral Murder" appeared via WikiLeaks.

Pentagon officials continue to claim that the video misrepresents what happened--and that U.S. forces were justified in responding to hostile forces. But the leaked video shows no combat at all.

In fact, when WikiLeaks published the video, two members of the company that was involved in the assault--one of them the man who rescued two wounded children from the vehicle that the gunship was attack--came forward and said that massacres like these were a regular occurrence of the Iraq occupation.

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GEORGE W. BUSH and his administration were notorious for their efforts to stop leaks of embarrassing information and silence whistleblowers--for example, the smear campaign, personally directed by Vice President Dick Cheney, against CIA agent Valerie Plame.

But the Obama administration has proven to be at least as aggressive against whistleblowers, if not more so.

In May, Shamai Leibowitz, a former linguist for the FBI, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for giving classified documents to an unidentified blogger--the longest sentence for any convicted leaker in U.S. history, according to the Politico Web site. One month earlier, Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency whistleblower, was charged by the Obama Justice Department with disclosing classified information that exposed details of a domestic spy program carried out by the Bush administration.

As Democracy Now! pointed out, the Obama White House has also targeted journalists who get classified information--for example, subpoenaing New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal the sources for parts of his book State of War.

Millions of people voted for Barack Obama because they hoped a Democrat in the White House would restore respect for civil liberties and curb the runaway powers of the federal government's executive branch. Those hopes have been disappointed. As Glenn Greenwald summarized the double standards for

-- If you torture people or eavesdrop on Americans without the warrants required by the criminal law, you receive "look-forward imperial immunity."

-- If you shoot and kill unarmed rescuers of the wounded while occupying their country and severely wound their unarmed children sitting in a van--or if you authorize that conduct--your actions are commended.

-- If you help wreck the world economy with fraud and cause hundreds of millions of people untold suffering, you collect tens of millions of dollars in bonuses.

-- If you disclose to the world evidence of war crimes, government lawbreaking or serious corruption, or otherwise embarrass the U.S., you will be swiftly prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and face decades in prison.

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Marxism 2010

Alex Callinicos, Thursday 1 July 2010 14.36 BST

The death of Ken Coates last weekend silenced yet another strong and distinguished voice on the radical left. The past year or so has taken from us some of the most outstanding Marxist intellectuals of the 1968 generation – Giovanni Arrighi, Jerry Cohen, Peter Gowan, and, particularly painful for me, Chris Harman and Daniel Bensaïd. In the supposedly ideology-free world of the Con-Lib coalition, it would be tempting to conclude that these individual disappearances are representative of a much broader decline of Marxism as an intellectual and political tradition.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Even the constitutionally myopic financial markets are beginning to wake up to the fact that capitalism is very badly broken. The Keynesian economist Paul Krugman wrote a few days ago: "We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression," following those of the late 19th century and of the 1930s. Marx described his own intellectual project as the critique of political economy: Marxism therefore lives or dies by its ability to make sense of the dynamics of capitalism and to offer a way out of it.

And Marxist political economists have indeed been, in the forefront, analysing the causes and tracing the trajectory of the global crisis. Just over the past year Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism, David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital, and my own Bonfire of Illusions have presented overviews. Costas Lapavitsas and the Research on Money and Finance group of young scholars based at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London have led the way in explaining the eurozone crisis and offering radical alternative policies for countries such as Greece.

This research activity has been accompanied by a renewal of interest in Marxism among the young that is now very visible in the English-speaking academy. When David Harvey visited London in April to launch his new book, he spoke to half a dozen meetings packed with audiences in their hundreds. One of them was at my own university, King's College London, hardly a traditional centre of revolution. The meeting was co-sponsored by the thriving King's group reading Marx's Capital, which also helped to organise last November a debate on the future of capitalism between Martin Wolf of the Financial Times and myself.

The journal Historical Materialism, set up by a group of young scholars in the mid-1990s, has been one of the main drivers of the academic revival of Marxism. Its annual conference in London every November now attracts more than 500 participants and has spun off North American counterparts in Toronto and New York.

But Marxism has, of course, always been about the effort not simply to develop better theories but to relate them to emancipatory political practice, as the lives of engaged intellectuals such as Coates, Harman, and Bensaïd bear witness. London, as it happens, provides an important venue for this effort. The five-day Marxism 2010 festival takes place in central London, starting today.

Organised by the Socialist Workers party, this forum for socialist ideas has been held every year since 1977 and expects to have more than 4,000 participants this year. There should be plenty of intellectual fireworks – Tariq Ali on Islamophobia, Slavoj Žižek, John Holloway and me on the idea of communism, Hester Eisenstein, Judith Orr, and Nina Power on the new sexism, along with a gallery of leftwing talent – Tony Benn, Eamonn McCann, Gareth Peirce, Steven Rose, Michael Rosen, Sheila Rowbotham, and the Guardian's Gary Younge.

But running through the sessions will be a more practical intent as well. As austerity sweeps through Europe, the Con-Lib coalition now seems intent on reinventing the sado-monetarism of the 1980s on a scale undreamt of even by Margaret Thatcher. The Marxist left is thriving intellectually. The real test it faces is political: can it help to develop effective resistance to the coalition's plans to devastate the public sector and the poor? Events in Greece show how neoliberal shock therapy can provoke social rebellion. The real future of Marxism depends on the scale on which these revolts develop and on the political direction they take.