Zizek and Nietzsche

 Two of my favourite activities, recently, are watching Slavoj Zizek rant on Youtube and reading Nietzsche rant on the page. I have history with both: I discovered Zizek a few years ago. His presentation is largely spectacle: the pudgy body, mad beard, sunken eyes, post-Soviet brogue. Part of the reason he’s an icon is that he’s eccentric enough to easily iconize. Nietzsche I ran into at Evergreen College, in a class which was presented in a way that largely obscured the Mad German’s thought.

As I’ve reappraised both, I’ve found them to be way, way more clear and accessible. Which presumably means I’ve changed. Somehow, I’m more capable of hearing what they’re saying. And so when Zizek says that capitalism is unsustainable, or Nietzsche says that presuming that truth is what is best is an act of faith (The Gay Science #344), these claims now seem not only not-crazy but, indeed, statements of the obvious.

One of Nietzsche’s recurring themes is criticizing assumptions which seem necessarily true, but are really caused by other assumptions. Take this Note from 1887 (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 455):

There is thinking; consequently there is that which thinks–that is what Descartes’ argument comes to. Yet this means positing our faith in the concept of substance as “a priori true.” When there is thinking, something must be that which thinks—that is merely a formulation of our grammatical habit, which posits a doer for what is done.”

Nietzsche’s referring, of course, to Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am” argument from Meditations on First Philosophy: Descartes claims that it is incoherent for me to deny that I exist, because when I deny it, am doing the denying. Nietzsche’s rejoinder is that it is a consequence of grammatical convention, not logic, which tells us that thinking must be done by a thinker. There’s nothing illogical about a world where thoughts are real and thinkers are illusory. But because we live in a world where (it seems that) a thinker is the cause of every thought, our language presupposes that thoughts depend on thinkers.

Nietzsche’s point goes beyond Descartes. Because it shows how to attack seeming tautologies as being really just conventions, it also hints at a rejoinder against the creationist claim that because (1) there are complexly-designed organisms in the world, then (2) there must be a designer, i.e. God. Just as Nietzsche says that thoughts don’t imply thinkers, the evolutionist says that design doesn’t imply a designer. Here’s a link to a paper which examines Nietzsche’s relationship to Darwin(insts), which is more complicated than might first appear (as when reading e.g. Will to Power #685: “The error of the Darwinian school became a problem to me: how can one be so blind as to make this mistake?”).

Zizek is similarly bombastic. He’s a Marxist/Communist, in the sense that he claims that capitalism (understood as a type of dynamic, self-propelled system of economy and power based on private property; emphatically not understood to be synonymous with “markets” or “entrepreneurialism”) is unsustainable and will eventually undermine itself. In this speech to Occupy Wall Street (transcript here), he compares the crash of capitalism to a cartoon character walking off a cliff without noticing that there’s no ground beneath them.

We are not the dreamers. We are awakening from a dream which is turning into a nightmare…We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself…We are telling the guys there on Wall Street, ‘Hey, look down.’”

You can also go here see his explanation of how charity is selfishly about assuaging guilt rather than confronting a bad system.

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