What Happened to Our Smart Jewish Kids? A Note On Cynicism in Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”


When Swede, the main character of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, finally makes contact with his daughter Merry – who, as I have pointed out in other blog entries, became a domestic terrorist – he has a few moments of reflection on what “happened to our smart Jewish kids?” Swede’s reflections are worth recounting since they show how, to his mind, cynicism directed at the middle class, assimilated Jewish life is at the core of Merry and Rita Cohen’s radicalism. This cynicism is in dire contrast to the optimism of the two previous generations of American Jews; namely, Swede and his father Lou Levov. Their optimism was based on their successes in the leather industry, sports, and American life.   All of this is trashed by Merry and the third generation of American Jews because they find the source of this optimism – and the optimism itself – to be corrupted by capitalism and inequality. The process of Swede’s coming to this realization shows us what, in part, is at stake for Jews in America.

Swede is astonished when he first sees his daughter because – after engaging in several terrorists acts, killing four people, and also being taken advantage of by people she had encountered in her flight from society – she had become a Jain. As a Jain, she wears a veil and walks barefoot in fear that she may kill an insect. Swede reads her conversion into a Jain as a sign of powerlessness and it eats him up. Thinking to himself, we learn that Swede sees her powerlessness, emblematized in her veil, as destroying the power and optimism of the entire Levov family. It is a rejection and as such has its own power which angers and weakens Swede:

Your powerlessness is power over me, goddamn it! Over your mother, over your grandmother, over everyone who loves you – wearing this veil is bullshit, Merry, complete and utter bullshit! You are the most powerful person in the world! (254)

Zuckerman, the narrator, notes that this rage against his daughter wasn’t going to make him “any less miserable.” Nonetheless, Zuckerman can’t help to spell out the audacity of her gesture: “The viciousness. The audacity. The unshatterable nerves. God alone knew where such kids came from”(254). Reflecting on this, Zuckerman goes into the paradox of Jewish American children become radicals; he can’t believe that this is possible:

They were raised by parents like him. And so many were girls, girls whose political identity was total, who were no less aggressive and militant, no less drawn to “armed action” than the boys. There is something terrifyingly pure about their violence and the thirst for self-transformation. They renounce their roots to take as their models the revolutionaries whose conviction is enacted ruthlessly…They are willing to do anything they can imagine to make history change. (254)

Swede’s father, Lou, after “foolishly watching a TV news special about the police hunt for Underground Weatherman” also chimes in. Astonished, he asks the key question: “What happened to our smart Jewish kids?” What follows his question is a series of observations about how Jewish American kids cling to oppression and seem to flee away from what his generation fled to.

What happened? What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids? If, God forbid, their parents are no longer oppressed for a while, they run where they think they can find oppression. Can’t live without it. Once Jews ran away from oppression; now they run from no-oppression. Once they ran away from being poor; now they run away from being rich. It’s crazy.   They have parents they can’t hate anymore because their parents are so good to them. (255)

Reflecting on this, Zuckerman wants to get at what “drives them crazy” and he concludes that it is cynicism: “Distrust is the madness to which they have been called”(255).   Distrust led Merry to rebel so as to “bring the world into subjection” but in the end this cynicism led to the opposite. Now, as a Jain, she is “subject to the world.”

Regardless, Swede realizes that she is no longer in his power and perhaps never was (256). And, thinking this, he also becomes cynical:

She is in the power of something that does not give a shit. Something demented. We all are. The elders are not responsible for this. They are themselves not responsible for this. Something else is. (256)

The cynicism spreads to Zuckerman who reflects on how “the bodies of mutilated children and their mutilated parents everywhere” indicate that we are “all in the power of something demented. It’s just a matter of time, honky! We all are!” And, according to Zuckerman, this all comes how to Swede by way of the laughing terrorists:

He heard them laughing, the Weatherman, the Panthers, the angry ragtag army of violent Uncorrupted who called him a criminal and hated his guts because he was one of those who own and have…They were delirious with joy, delighted having destroyed his once-pampered daughter and ruined his privileged life, shepherding him at long last to t heir truth….Welcome aboard, capitalist dog! Welcome to the fucked-over-by-America human race! (257)

This laughter is a kind of satanic laughter. Perhaps it is a variant of the laughter that Charles Baudelaire discusses in his famous essay, “The Essence of Laughter.” I wonder if Slajov Zizek would call this the laughter of cynicism or the laughter of what he calls, following Peter Sloterdijk, kynicism. After all, the laughter of kynicism is a destructive – daemonic (in a Baudelairian sense) – kind of laughter. Regardless, Zuckerman is right to note that this laughter emerges, in some way, out of cynicism. To be sure, this kynical laughter is the other side of cynicism.

In the above-mentioned fictional scenario, Roth shows us the power of cynicism.  It touches everything in this novel: Swede, Merry, and the narrator. It is something that comes not from one’s ancestors, as Swede notes above, so much as from history. This novel has much relevance today. As I have noted elsewhere, cynicism seems to be making a comeback. And the laughter we are hearing is by and large destructive. This would be a good time for the schlemiel who teaches us what Ruth Wisse would call “balanced irony.” This irony maintains a tension between hope and cynicism. However, in American Pastoral, this irony is absent. And that is truly tragic.



Ernst Bloch’s Reflections on Tradition – Take One


In the last blog entry, I contrasted Slavoj Zizek to Walter Benjamin with regard to the tension between tradition and the liquidation of tradition. Zizek follows one strain of Benjamin; namely, the liquidationist strain.  Zizek prefers Benjamin’s “Destructive Character” and Benjamin’s notion of “Divine Violence” to Benjamin’s interest in preserving the tension between tradition and its liquidation.

At the end of my last blog entry, I stated why I was interested in such a tension; namely, because Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and Don Quixote is based on preserving this tension.  And, as I have been arguing, this tension has everything to do with the tradition of the fool and the schlemiel.   To further understand what Benjamin sought to find in this tension, I would like to turn to an essay by Ernst Bloch entitled “Art and Society” (from The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, trans. and edited by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg).

Walter Benjamin was influenced by and influenced Ernst Bloch. They had a productive relationship.  They were interested in this tension as it pertained to the future – to utopia.

For Bloch and Benjamin all works that emerge from the tradition are mortified.   They are fragmented and are in need of future redemption.  However, these works are not the works of the “victors” of history.  Rather, they are the incompleted works of those who lost.  These are the works of failures.   And, for Bloch, they are ‘our’ heritage.

In his essay “Art and Society,” Bloch cites Benjamin to illustrate some of the “spiritual” things we should take from this heritage:

They (the spiritual things) are alive as confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude, and they have a retroactive effect as time moves along.  They call into question each victory of the ruling class time and time again. (46)

However, Bloch adds on to what Benjamin says and gives it shape. He does this by calling attention to the next generation; namely, to the heirs of tradition:

In addition, cultural heritage only becomes what it is when the heir does not die along with its benefactor, when he stands on the side of the future in the past, when he stands with what is indelible in the cultural heritage and not with the takeover of parasitical rulers (46).

Bloch calls for a “productive cultural heritage” and contrasts it to a “refined completion” of “the great work of culture.”  For Bloch, a “productive cultural heritage” operates “as the successive continuation of the implications in the contellations of the past gathered around us as non-past.”  In other words, we continue a tradition whose implications are present (non-past).

Bloch notes that, as Benjamin would say, the past gives one agency.  The past, in a sense, elects one and empowers one to act.  It “anticipates” him:

The genuine agent of cultural heritage reaches into the past, and in this very same act the past itself anticipates him, involves and needs him. (46)

Bloch calls heritage a chariot which “carries only that which has an order to be sealed.” To take this heritage on, Bloch says one must be strong.  One may be overwhelmed by it.  To be sure, the person is strong because s/he takes heritage and besides having the strength to continue it s/he invents (47).

Bloch contrasts himself to Martin Heidegger who, in his opinion, created a “pseudo-philology and a pseudo-interpretation” of Holderlin, Anaximander, Parmenides, Plato, and Kant.  According to Bloch, Heidegger’s relation to history was to “caricature” it.  In contrast, Bloch argues that “genuine heritage is and remains precise and progressive transformation, and to be sure, a transformation of that immanent material in the material of heritage intended for completion without ideology, with implication”(48).

Bloch imagined a “rectification of heritage” and not a “reification of heritage.”  He imagined a rectification that would not serve this or that ideology.  This could happen in a world with a “cultural surplus beyond any ideology.”  This, Bloch says, comes out of the “utopian function.”

The utopian function, however, is not based on envisioning, quite simply, the liquidation of history or heritage.  To be sure, Bloch like Benjamin wanted to create a “cultural surplus beyond any ideology.”  And the best way to accomplish this is to dig into cultural heritage.  Namely, the heritage that many people might find insignificant or trivial.

It is these failed elements that carry the charge and call for transformation.  The interesting thing to keep in mind is that Bloch and Benjamin didn’t randomly choose this or that aspect of tradition.  They were both interested in storytelling, fairytales, folk legends, and fools.

Their heritage was plural. For this reason, Walter Benjamin and Bloch often drew on many different folk traditions in their work.  I am especially interested in Benjamin’s reading of Kafka insofar as he starts his essay not with a meditation on Jewish folklore but on Russian folklore.  And he ends the essay with a meditation on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Nonetheless, Benjamin doesn’t shy away from citing Jewish folklore as well.  To be sure, he too was trying to create a cultural surplus and believed, like Bloch, in the “rectification of heritage.”  And this is more than evident in his Kafka essay where, I would argue, the schlemiel and the heritage of the schlemiel emerges.

(Please note that I will touch on this heritage in this blog.  But I will delve more deeply into it in my book. After all, I can’t reveal all my secrets.)

Like Bloch, Benjamin wasn’t interested in liquidating tradition so much as in rectifying it.  As I have already shown, Benjamin was aware of what is at stake with tradition.  The question, however, is how we are to read the cultural surplus (vis-à-vis the fool) that Benjamin left for us and what we should do with it.

Now that Benjamin’s criticism has nearly exhausted itself in terms of the obsessive reading of his work in terms of crisis and destruction, its time to dig up what has been passed over as irrelevant (the detritus of Benjamin criticism is to be found in the tension between heritage and its liquidation; it is to be found in the greatest comic failure of all and the tradition that gave birth to it: the schlemiel).

In the next few blogs, I will sketch out more of Bloch’s project vis-à-vis tradition and utopia.  The point of this exercise is to help us to understand Benjamin’s interest in Kafka, the schlemiel, and tradition.

Apocalypse Now – When Crisis Comes, Whither Humor?


Imagine everything coming to a grinding halt.  Imagine a moment in which all would be still.  Given our ever-increasingly hurried lives, this full stop is hard for us to imagine.  But it doesn’t keep us, by any means, from trying.  To be sure, countless films and science-fiction novels imagine this moment in endless variations.  But the cessation of time is not simply the matter of fiction and fantasy.  To be sure, real life crises interrupt everything.  Surprises are also at the core of religion.  Radicals, revolutionaries, and religious devotees all know that bringing the world to a grinding halt testifies to some kind of truth that goes beyond what we habitually perceive and practice.

On the one hand, death, murder, natural disaster, and terrorism stop everything.  On the other hand, miracles and unexpected occurrences stop everything.

In the Jewish tradition, Revelation usually stops everything. To be sure, Revelation interrupts.  We see this in simple passages when God comes out of nowhere to call on Abraham or Moses.  Moreover, many commandments are constructed, specifically, to interrupt this or that form of work or common practice.  The greatest interruption of work being the weekly Sabbath where all forms of work are forbidden.  The interruption of work reaches its climax in the Jubilee year – which falls on the fiftieth year, at the end of seven seven-year cycles – when all work is forbidden.

In terms of Revelation, the Midrash tells us that the revelation on Mt. Sinai made everyone pause.   In that moment of cessation, everyone shared a moment of prophesy. The Midrash goes so far as to say that every child in the womb partook in the vision of God.  Of greater interest is the characterization of the Messianic Era, which is, on the one hand, likened to a cessation of war.  On the other hand, it is likened to a series of miracles which will fundamentally change reality.  On the one hand, there is a type of cessation that is reasonable; on the other hand we have a cessation that is not.   The Rabbis prefer the peaceful manifestations of the Messianic; however, there are also manifestations which are riddled with crisis and disaster.  These are what Gershom Scholem would call Apocalyptic or Utopian manifestations of the “Messianic Idea.”

Regarding the most unexpected interruption, the Midrash tells us that the Messiah will come in the blink of an eye (k’heref ayin).   He will come when he is least expected.

To be sure, these interruptions are so important that nearly every Jewish holiday commemorates them.   Moreover, they many Jewish holidays anticipate interruption.  But, by and large, the interruption doesn’t destroy the law, it doesn’t “fulfill” it; rather, it keeps the law in tact. And this ‘fact’ distinguishes a Jewish interruption of the world from other disruptions whose Apocalyptic manifestations are much more severe.

Drawing on a similar mystical structure of cessation, Walter Benjamin and Slovoj Zizek have imagined a messianic moment of cessation.  Benjamin called it “dialectics at a standstill” and Neuezeit (now time).   But it can also be thought of, negatively, as a state of exception or crisis.  In this state, progress ceases and power predominates.  Zizek opts for the more Apocalyptic version and demands that we do to.   And although Zizek employs humor and ridicule in his work, there is nothing funny about this at all.  To be sure, Zizek uses ridicule to prepare us for the big thing: the Apocalyptic moment of cessation which has everything to do with making a decision that is riddled with crisis and even self-destruction.

At the end of his book First as Tragedy, then as Farce Zizek meditates on this moment of cessation.  To be sure, this is his dream.  When time comes to a standstill, there will be a revelation, that is, a profane illumination.  For Zizek, the revelation, at the time of crisis, is that we do not need a leader; “we” don’t need the Other.  Rather: We are all redeemers.

Zizek uses these terms, and many others like them, to describe who we are in the aftermath of the destruction of liberal democracy and capitalism.  They are Apocalyptic. To be sure, Zizek sounds a lot like what Gershom Scholem, in his book On Kabbalah and its Symbolism, calls a nihilistic mystic.

The nihilistic mystic descends into the abyss in which the freedom of living things is born; he passes through all the embodiments and forms that come his way, committing himself to none; and not content with rejecting and abrogating all values and laws, he tramples them underfoot and desecrates them, in order to attain the elixir of life.

One can no longer just “let being be.”  Zizek, like the nihilistic mystic, wants to bring the end on.  He wants us to act and hasten its coming.  He forgoes the Talmudic dictum that one must not hasten the end.

Scholem’s words on the Apocalyptic – in his essay “Towards an Understanding of the Messianic Idea” –  can be applied to Zizek’s final words in his book:

The apocalyptists have always cherished the pessimistic view of the world. Their optimism, their hope, is not directed to what history will bring forth, but to that which will arise in its ruin, free at last and undisguised.

The one who wishes for the end will, necessarily, destroy both progress and tradition.

Both the liberal and the conservative are one and the same for the nihilistic mystic.  In On Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Scholem says that the nihilistic mystic, in effect, destroys the language of the tradition because his mystical experience cannot use words or words from the tradition to speak.  The regular mystic, on the other hand, transforms the existing language and modifies the tradition.  In other words, language, the tradition, remain.  And with it what language transmits.  As Walter Benjamin notes, tradition is primarily about transmission and not about content.  Nonetheless, it does transmit something to the student of tradition.  With the nihilistic mystic, that is lost.  The difference between one and the other is the difference between liquidating tradition and language and preserving it.

According to John McCole in his book Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition, Benjamin has two modes: one mode is the modality of liquidation (this errs on the side of modernity and destroys tradtion) the other mode is conservative (not in the regular sense of the word; rather, it looks to conserve memory, tradition, transmission. Both matter to Benjamin.  According to McCole, this is one of the most fruitful and unexplored aspects of his work.  To be sure, Benjamin, paradoxically, wanted nothing more than to preserve the tension between conservation and liquidation of tradition.

The most essential thing to transfer is the teaching of tradition which is on the very edge of liquidation.  And as I have argued in another blog entry, the tradition of the schlemiel keeps us on the fine line between Apocalyptic liquidation and conservation.  Zizek, however, doesn’t take up this line of thinking.  He seems to be more interested in liquidation.

Zizek, strangely enough, cites Benjamin a lot in his Apocalyptic section.  To be sure, Apocalypse is all about liquidation; namely, of the law.  The law, for Zizek (and at least one strain of Benjamin; namely his piece of “Critique of Violence,” which McCole sees as only one of two aspects, as I mentioned above), is connected to the Other.  Law, for Judaism, is inseparable from tradition.  Without law, there can be no tradition.  For Zizek, this isn’t even an issue. The Benjamin Zizek is drawn to is Benjamin-the-liquidationist.  Which we find in the “Critique of Violence” and in “The Destructive Character.”  Taking a look at these, one forgets about Benjamin’s profound interest in tradition.

I will end this blog entry with an illustration of Zizek’s tendency toward liquidation. In the spirit of a nihilistic mystic, Zizek tells us that this liquidation is based on our decision. It is a “proper political act”:

This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement so as to interrupt the present predominant movement.  An act of “divine violence” would then mean pulling the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress.  In other words, one has to learn fully to accept that there is no big Other. (149)

Zizek, a Messianic activist of sorts, cites Benjamin’s phrase in quotes (“divine violence”).  This appeal  is reminiscent of at least one strain of Benjamin’s work.  Rewriting one of  Walter Benjamin’s “Philosophical Theses,” Zizek says that he wants to “pull the emergency cord of the train of Historical progress.”  But when one does this, one must have another notion of time to substitute for progress.   Knowing this, Zizek cites Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s claim that:

If we are to confront adequately the threat of (social or environmental) catastrophe, we need to break out of the “historical” notion of temporality: we have to introduce a new notion of time.  Dupuy calls this time the “time of a project,” of a closed circuit between the past and the future: the future is causally produced by our acts in the past, wheile the way we act is determined by our anticipation of the future and our reaction to this anticipation. (150)

The anticipation of the end is, in other words, measured by our act to bring it about.  Our act of liquidation is the time of the project.  And this helps us, says Zizek, to confront the disaster:

This, then, is how Dupuy proposes to confront the disaster: we should first perceive it as our fate, as unavoidable, and then, projecting ourselves into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities….upon which we then act today.  We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, that it is our destiny – and then, against the background of this acceptance, mobilize our selves to perform the act which will change our destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past. (151)

Everything will be destroyed.  Everything will be liquidated.  Zizek insists that we must accept this fact.   And once we have accepted our doom, we can decide; we can “perform the act which will change our destiny and thereby insert a new possibility into the past.”  In the most Sartrean or even Nietzschean sense, everything is in the act (or deed).

To “perform the act that will change our destiny” is to embrace at least one sort of mysticism; a mysticism without tradition.  This transmits nothing except our decision to accept total disaster of everything as the source of revelation.  The act posits a new past, but I would suggest that this has nothing to do with tradition so much as it does with a new initiation of history.  In other words, the decision to liquidate history is the beginning of a new tradition.

In contrast to the scene Benjamin proposes with Don Quixote, Zizek’s Apocalyptic scene has no humor whatsoever.  In the end, it seems the other way around: First as Farce, then as Tragedy.  Since, in the beginning Zizek ridicules ideology, liberalism, and deconstruction, but here ridicule passes away and one is faced with ones utter annihilation.  The only thing that matters, in this scene, is that act.  Even though, Zizek praises the act that initiates a new tradition, the fact of the matter is that the accent is on the act of liquidation not tradition.  Nothing is transmitted accept the act of destruction.  History ceases to exist; it stops. But so does tradition.

In this moment, Zizek’s approach to comedy takes a nosedive.  To be sure, ridicule, in Zizek’s sense, leads us to desire the moment of liquidation in which all time will stop.  It leads us to anticipate – and embrace – a time of crisis.  In contrast, for Benjamin, the tradition of comedy, the tradition on Don Quixote and the Schlemiel was worth saving.  Unfortunately, more people see Benjamin’s “Philosophical Theses” and his words on history, there, as his final word. They overlook his desire to preserve the comic tradition which we find in his Kafka essay.  Instead of picking liquidation over conservation, we need to find a way of balancing out the antinomy between tradition and its liquidation.  And I think that the best way to do this is by way of making a close reading of Benjamin’s reading of comedy.

What we need to ask, however, is how cessation relates to the comic relation between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  This is a question which has not yet been asked.  Lest we not forget, Kafka notes that Don Quixote was constantly surprising Sancho Panza.  And on his journey, following Quixote wherever he went, Panza was, so to speak, out of work.  His eyes were not on history and neither were they on catastrophe, they were on Don Quixote.  His “act” was to follow Don Quixote.  His act was not an act of liquidation; it was an act of reverence and respect for the comic figure not the tragic one.  His act was not an act of a nihilistic mystic; it was the act of a student of tradition.

And as Benjamin says, Kafka taught us that only a fool can help.

I’ll leave it at that.

On the Apocalyptic Tone of Comedy – Take 2


Slovoj Zizek and Milan Kundera come from the same part of Europe, both experienced communism, and both have a penchant for comedy.  But they differ on two things: their readings of comedy and their identification with Communism.

As I pointed out in my last blog entry, what makes Milan Kundera’s view of the comic so interesting is that he feigns an Apocalyptic tone, brings us to the brink of cynicism, and then confesses his commitment to the tradition of the fool.  He, like Walter Benjamin (and perhaps Franz Kafka), plays the Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.  He, like Benjamin, believes that the “fool can help.”  But what we might forget is that, given this tradition, he becomes Don Quixote and we become Sancho Panza.   His message parallels Benjamin’s; namely, in a world where man is dwarfed by the mass media, technology, speed, and politics, it is through the tradition of the fool that we can be free.

But to come to this conclusion, Kundera realized that Don Quixote was nearly killed by Totalitarianism. And by this he means Communism, which he experienced first hand and has written on in nearly half of his novels.  In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera contrasts the circle of Communism and its joy to the solitude that comes with his suspicion of this circle.  To be sure, his accounts of Communist joy are tainted.  And, reading them, one can certainly hear an Apocalyptic tone. To be sure, in the midst of all this joy, he finds something duplicitous and deadly.  The “lightness” of the Communist circle which dances above the ground has something frightening about it.  And he knows what this is; he lived through it.  And it seems he never wants to go back to it again.

Rather, Kundera opts for movement of a lonestar, Don Quixote.  But his decision to follow him is in the wake of the Apocalyptic.   As I noted, it begins with the passing of God and then with it returns with the purges of Communism.  But on both occasions, disaster is displaced by the arrival of Don Quixote.  To be sure, Kundera concludes that one can always count on the arrival of Don Quixote. He is like the gift that doesn’t stop giving.   In the end, Kundera says that, despite it all, his commitment to the fool is “ridiculous” and “sincere.” Don Quixote rides away from the disaster; he doesn’t ride into it.

In contrast, Slavoj Zizek maintains an Apocalyptic Tone of comedy from the beginning to the very end of his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.   The reason for this has a lot to do with the fact that, even though he takes on the legacy of comedy, it is really the legacy of a comedy that is associated with Marx’s bearing witness to the demise of capitalism and liberal democracy.  To be sure, this comic element which is associated with witnessing the demise of liberal democracy and capitalism is gleeful.

But, as Zizek notes, this is not by any means a passive affair.  Comedy is not, by any means, an end-in-itself.  It should encourage “us” to act.  But this isn’t any ordinary kind of action.  No. It is an act which doesn’t simply go against history; it looks to bring it to a grinding stop.  And, for Zizek, this act of cessation (this “pure act”) is the partisan act of committing oneself to Communism.  And, since it is partisan it leaves Quixote’s form of comedy for the political tones of ridicule and mockery that takes not just the ruling power into account but the left that has affirmed liberal democracy.  In his partisan affirmation of Communism, he accuses them of “blackmailing” the left.  At that point, Zizek leaves the legacy of Cervantes behind for the legacy of radical Communism.  There is nothing funny about this at all.

I would like to touch on a few of these elements in this blog entry and return to them in the near future.

Zizek introduces his book by citing a passage from Karl Marx’s “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right.”   What Zizek cites has to do with coming to an awareness that history doesn’t simply repeat itself.  It first occurs as a tragedy, and then it returns, in yet another manifestation, as a farce.  Marx teaches us the lesson:

It is instructive for [the modern nations] to see the ancien regime, which in the countries has experienced its tragedy, play its comic role as a German phantom.  Its history was tragic as long as it was the pre-existing power in the world and freedom a personal whim – in a word, as long as it believed, and had to believe, in its own privileges.

What happens, in effect, is that there is a difference between one belief and another.  The first crisis in belief is real, it is tragic because the ancien regime really was a “pre-existing power in the world” and “it believed, and had to believe in its own privileges.”  But what happens to Germany in the 19th century – at the moment of Marx’s writing this passage – is a failure of such belief since, as Marx argued, it had no historical reason to believe.  Rather, it made-believe that it was like an ancien regime.  In other words, it acted “as if” it was based on a long history and believed in its principles. And this is the farce:

The present German regime, on the other hand – an anachronism, a flagrant contradiction of universally accepted axioms, the futility of the ancien regime displayed for all the world to see – only imagines that it still believes in itself and asks the world to share in its fantasy.

What one may not notice is that Marx is, in effect, mocking the regime and accusing it of “imagining” itself to “still believe in itself.”  Marx sees this delusion; they do not.  He, so to speak, laughs at it.  And this is the legacy which, I would argue, Zizek must address.  Will he, like Marx, laugh at the delusion of the ruling power?  Does Zizek’s laughter take on an Apocalyptic tone when it mocks liberal democracy and capitalism?

Commenting on this fantasy of belief, Zizek speculates that “during the same period, Kierkegaard deployed the idea that we humans cannot ever be sure that we believe: ultimately, we only ‘believe that we believe’. The formula of a regime which only ‘imagines that it believes in itself’ nicely captures the cancellation of the performative power…of the ruling ideology: it no longer effectively functions as the fundamental structure of the social bond.”

In other words, for Zizek there is a crisis in belief.  He notices this in terms of the economic and social crisis that has been ensuing over the last decade.  But he inverts his reading of this crisis.  Instead of reading it like Marx, he shows that today differs from the 19th century because we know we don’t believe and yet we act as if we do anyway.  This is the same formula Zizek used back in 1989 (in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology) to describe cynicism.  In a blog from earlier in the week, I described Zizek’s challenge to Marx by way of his description of cynicism (gleaned from Peter Sloterdijk).  Here it is in yet another form:

It would be more appropriate to describe contemporary cynicism as representing an exact inversion of Marx’s formula: today, we only imagine that we don’t “really believe” in our ideology – in spite of this imaginary distance, we continue to practice it.

In other words, we know we don’t believe in liberal democracy, yet we believe in it anyway.   And this, for Zizek, is ridiculous. What Zizek looks to do is to show how capitalism has created a world in which wealthy people praise liberal ideals while, at the same time, have noting in common with poor people.  The fact that we know this and yet “go on believing” (or act “as if” we still believe in a system which is corrupt) is, for Zizek, the new farce.

Although the new farce that Zizek notes differs from the old one that Marx describes, the situation is parallel: both Marx and Zizek are watching the farce from a partisan vantage point.  For Marx, they have no idea about their delusion; while for Zizek they do but they sill go on believing.  For both, it’s a comedy that is ultimately tragic and Apocalyptic.

But this is not simply about watching and laughing at the liberal world as it destroys itself.  No.  Zizek, as I pointed out in an earlier blog entry, is kynical.  He not only watches the destruction, he gleefully engages in it by refusing to play the games of the Enlightenment.  As I pointed out earlier, he notes, explicitly, that he takes the road of the ad hominem.  In other words, Zizek, in being kynical, insists on being a partial and partisan.  He spells it out in the introduction to his book:

What the book offers is not a neutral analysis but an engaged and extremely “partial” one – for truth is partial, accessible only when one takes sides, and is no less universal for this reason.  The side taken here is, of course, communism.

As a partisan, Zizek takes sides with Communism against the liberal left.  He mocks deconstruction and liberal ideals because they didn’t go far enough:

Among the contemporary names for ever-so-slightly smearing those in power, we could list ‘deconstruction’, or the ‘protection of individual freedoms’.

He sees both names as indications of failure.  He mocks both by way of a dirty joke told by dissidents in which a peasant’s wife is raped by a “Mongol Warrior.” As a part of the raping, the Mongol Warrior asks the peasant to lift his testicles from the ground while he rapes the peasant’s wife. Since the ground is dusty, the Mongol Warrior doesn’t want to get his testicles dirty while he rapes the peasant.  Strangely enough, the peasant leaps in joy after the Mogol Warrior leaves the rape scene because, in his deluded mind, he has one a victory: “But I got him! His balls are covered with dust!”

The lesson is obvious.  The left, for Zizek, merely criticizes and leaves dust on the testicles of the ruling power that “rapes” the people.  Zizek argues that the “real point is to castrate them.”  Nothing short of totally depriving those in power of power is Zizek’s goal.  This is certainly not a joke.

Zizek teaches us that the first step in doing this is to divide oneself from liberals by openly declaring that which is not permitted. In the wake of Stalin, Mao, the fall of the Berlin wall, and millions of people who were murdered by Stalin, Mao, and others he affirms communism.

Today, our message should be the same: it is permitted to know and to fully engage in communism, to again act in full fidelity to the communist Idea.

Knowing full well that someone could read this and say that Zizek just wants to be obscene and “get off” on being a rebel, Zizek comments that “the very fascination with the obscenity we are allowed to observe prevents us from knowing what it is that we see.”  In other words, he asks us to look past the obscenity to something deeper.  And that something is Zizek’s commitment to Communism is unrepentant. It is proud and demands the other side, that is, the liberals to repent: “our side no longer has to go on apologizing; while the other side had better start soon.”

As a part of his public conversion, Zizek turns on those he had, for years, aligned himself with and literally accuses them of “blackmailing” him.  He demands their apology for taking him hostage to their false belief that they were really challenging the powers-that-be.  How dare they expect him to believe that he was doing something by, so to speak, lightly dusting the testicles of the ruling-elite-rapist!?

To be sure, this is not funny. Zizek is angry and he is engaging in ridicule.   Zizek is, so to speak, manning up in the name of Communism.  He is calling for a fight and insisting that he must castrate power and ridicule “liberal-democratic-moralists.”

Unlike Milan Kundera who aligns himself sincerely and in a ridiculous manner with Don Quixote, Zizek moves from self-ridicule to ridicule. Kundera’s apprehension with regard to Communism must be dismissed and, by way of implication, we would have to say that Zizek would accuse Kundera of blackmailing him.  Kundera is not simply a dupe he is a hostage taker.   The legacy of Don Quixote is not of interest to Zizek; the legacy of Marx and radical communism is.  Humor has one use only: to ridicule those who don’t stand on the side of Communism.

And this is where the Apocoplytic tone can be heard.  Zizek, in effect, is sounding the death knoll by demanding an apology.  He is saying that “we” are taking over.  Let me paraphrase a bit (and please note that I don’t include myself in this ‘we’; I’m just describing it): We are not cynical like you liberal democrats because we know that progress and history are a sham while Communism is the truth (of a variety that is not based on history but goes against history, as I will show in the next blog). We are not cynical; we are kynical.

As I will show in the next blog, the kynical communist is one who rages against history and insists that it stops.  It looks to make an Apocalyptic cessation.  And the first step in that direction is to become a partisan who rejects the farce and embraces what he will call “pure action.”

Here, the Apocalyptic tone of comedy is exchanged for the Apocalyptic tone of the partisan.  The way of kynicsm is the way of the insult and the demand.  As the title of the first chapter of his book rudely exclaims: “Its Ideology, Stupid!”

Here, the tradition is resumed, a tradition which failed.  But this is not by any means the tradition of the fool; it is the tradition of communist partisanship.  And, as such, it is a tradition which is based on ridicule not humility.  It is a tradition that Kundera does not want to uphold.  Kunera’s legacy is that of Don Quixote while Zizek’s legacy is that of Karl Marx.   The difference between them, I would argue, concerns the meaning and tone of comedy.  For Zizek, comedy must serve Communism not vice versa.  To have us believe – or rather go-along-with – that comedy simply challenges power, as deconstruction claims, is to lightly dust the testicle of a rapist.  This belief in comedy is, from the partisan perspective of Communism, a farce.

Hence, for Zizek, Kundera or anyone who believes in the power of comedy to go against the grain, is truly a fool. Zizek, on the contrary is not a fool, comedy, for him, shouldn’t challenge power; rather, it should separate believers in Communism from non-believers and should destroy power not challenge it.

For Zizek, if comedy is to be meaningful in a communist sense, it must take on an Apocalyptic tone.  It must herald the end in which believers will be separated from non-believers.


President Obama and Slavoj Zizek: The Kynical Comic versus the Simpleton


Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about trust, cynicism, and the schlemiel.

Does the schlemiel provide solace? Does the schlemiel restore trust?  There isn’t an easy answer to this question.  I started my thread of blog entries thinking about how President Obama, in his comic routine at the Correspondents’ Dinner, appealed to the self-deprecating simpleton.  He did this in order to end cynicism and gain trust.

The fact of the matter is that at least one variety of the schlemiel – the traditional, Eastern European one – works to endear the viewer, listener, or reader. The key ingredient to comically win over the audience is naivite.   The schlemiel may make mistakes and may try hard to win, but he often fails. 

The President played the schelemiel the other night. The President’s charm, at least in this routine, is to be found in his failure to make his dreams a reality.  And this is an appropriate topic for comedy given the President’s emphasis on hope and change.  The President, so to speak, is a dreamer.  He lives on dreams.  And perhaps many of us entrust him with power because we also like to dream (about a better future).  In effect, perhaps we identify with a schlemiel because we are schlemiels, too.  And this is the message: we can trust a naïve dreamer as only a dreamer can dispose of our cynicism. And The President seems to have been playing that comic role the other night.

But there is more on the table. The appeal of the schlemiel is not simply his or her inclination to dream big. To be sure. The dreamer who wants to make his or her dreams come true is socially awkward. As Adam Kotsko claims in his book entitled Awkwardness, many comedians play on the awkwardness of trying to succeed in a social situation.  We saw this throughout the President’s routine.  And to see this awkwardness in him is to see the everyman.  Perhaps the President’s awkwardness brings us relief; namely, to know that, like us, the President is also trying to be socially accepted and trusted while, at the same time, dreaming of making things better.

Whether or not the President’s routine ends your cynicism, however, is another question.  Perhaps we would all feel better if we believed that the President was a schlemiel like us.  But, as I pointed out yesterday with respect to Zizek, Karl (not Groucho) Marx believed that all ideology is naïve and that it has no idea that it is really doing anything wrong.  Ideology, for Marx, naively thinks it is right.  It can’t understand itself.  It can’t see itself.

In other words, Marx would read ideology as a fellow German of the 19th century would read the schlemiel. To be sure, the German reading of the schlemiel has a similar structure to Marx’s reading of ideology.  The German schlemiel is absent-minded and naïve; he has a blind spot and can’t see it.   We can.  As Sander Gilman points out in his reading of the German schlemiel in the 19th century, the point of the schlemiel in German theater was to show what NOT to be.  We can see what the schlemiel cannot.  And, as a result, we can reject the behaviors that the schlemiel naively repeats ad infinitum.  This is what Marx, analogously, thought with respect to ideology. His job, as a critic, is to “unmask” the naïve aspect of ideology and show what it is blind to; namely, the exploitation that private property and the class system is based on.   This “consciousness” could be used to correct the system and transfer all private property from the exploiters to the exploited.  In effect, consciousness is maturity and its first task is to negate naivite (which, analogously, would equate with the negation of the schlemiel).

Zizek doesn’t buy this.  He says that the notion that ideology is naive no longer holds. Today, Zizek argues ideology is not naïve.  It wears the mask of ideology while knowing full well that it is lying.  Zizek’s perspective, to be sure, is highly suspicious of anyone who purports to believe in this or that ideal.  To do so, especially with a smiling face, is tantamount to being a trick of the ruling power.  Zizek would say that anyone who upholds a principle or Enlightenment ideal is the real cynic as such a person does not truly believe in what he or she is saying but does so anyhow.

To think that the political is naïve, for Zizek, would be a mistake.  For Zizek, everyone acts “as if” they believe in this or that ideology when in fact they don’t.  One could also argue that the simpleton belongs to an ideology.  Using Zizek’s logic, one could say that acting as if one is a naïve simpleton is a ruse since no one can really be naïve today.  For him, this would be equivalent to nostalgia.

But, as I said above, the naïve schlemiel has a different meaning for Americans than it does (or rather, did) for Germans.  To be sure, the self-deprecating naïve schlemiel has more in common with the Eastern European, Yiddish schlemiel than it does with the German one.  In truth, Eastern European Jews (both secular Yiddishists and Hasidim) were charmed by the simpleton.  The foolish innocence of this character is something that they held onto.  It was the last bit of goodness in a world that, for them, was very bleak, dishonest, and violent.  In contrast to their German-Jewish brethren, they were not interested in exposing this naivite in the name of this or that consciousness.

Zizek’s dropping of the naïve in the name of the cynical and the kynical works in two ways.  On the one hand, it casts suspicion on any ideology that purports naivite; on the other hand, it leaves the possibility of goodness behind.

Zizek’s affirmation of kynicism, which he draws from Peter Sloterdijk, has nothing innocent or naïve about it.  In fact, the whole point of kynicism is, as he says, to mock and destroy the cynic who, for Zizek, dishonestly affirms freedom, truth, justice, etc.  As opposed to Marx, Zizek doesn’t believe that consciousness is the answer.  And the kynic doesn’t look to posit an argument.  Rather, the kynic is more interested in the power of mockery to displace those in power.  He could care less about the ideas that are affirmed by neo-liberals.  And this includes the appeal to innocence and simplicity.  For Zizek, these ways of being should not be corrected so much as left behind.

Here’s the question: if you get rid of the naïve, if you disregard Obama’s entire comic routine which makes endless appeals to simpllicity, do you also dispense with trust?

Reading Zizek, I’d have to say that the answer is yes.  Zizek is not interested in that which, for The Enlightenment, forms the basis of society.  To be sure, the notion that trust is the bond of society –as the basis of the social contract – is not simply an Enlightenment ideal.  As David Novak argues in The Jewish Social Contract, the social contract itself, and the trust it embodies, is based on something prior “historically” and “ontologically” to the social contract; namely, the covenant.  The trust in God to, so to speak, do his side of the bargain, is the basis for believing in the promises of any leader or government.

But you dont have to be a philosopher or a poltical scientist to know that if cynicism reigns, this trust and society itself will go down the tubes.  In the Torah, the prophet of all prophets, the law giver, is Moses.  One of his most salient character traits, which he no doubt won the people over with was his humility.

But there is more to the story.  Moses’s humility is inseparable from his faith.  Moses is humble because he knows that, no matter how hard he tries, it’s not all in his hands. He’s not sure if he will succeed. At the very least, he trusts that he is doing the right thing. And this faith, this belief, to be sure, is naïve.  It makes Moses, at times, socially awkward.  (To be sure, there are many occasions when, in speaking to the Jewish people, he feels very awkward and worries to no end.)  A rationalist like Karl Marx would see this belief as naïve since man, not God, is the master of the world.  Man, not God, can create and preserve justice by simply getting rid of such naivite and becoming mature and self-conscious. Putting trust in God or a covenant would, for Marx, be naive. Zizek, on the other hand,  would see this belief in a naïve leader and even the presentation of oneself as a naïve leader to be cynical.  Indeed, he would see this as a form of deliberate self-deception.

Humility and naivite, in other words, are, in Zizek’s view, impossible.  No one, today, can believe that the President is really humble or naïve.  Acting “as if” one is naïve, for Zizek, is an act that is used to legitimate a ruling ideology.

Strangely enough, the mockery of the self-effacing, self-deprecating, and naïve comic character, otherwise known as the schlemiel, would be a kynical answer to cynicism.  In other words, for Zizek, one kind of humor – the one that ridicules – is better than the other (which preserves trust, humility, and goodness).

So, the choice is yours.   Do you want the kynical comic or the naïve schlemiel? Which of the two would be better for society?  Has this question, as Zizek purports, already been decided?  Have we grown up and realized that preserving the naïve is really an act of cynicism or have we, on the contrary, decided to affirm the schlemiel because, without it, hope and trust will never be on the table? Or is this question, quite simply, ridiculous? Does it really matter to us if the President’s comic routine, in which he plays a simpleton, has an element of truth and does, in fact, foster trust while effacing cynicism? If it does, then we will have to admit that the relationship of aesthetics to politics matters to us and deserves greater attention.

(Spoiler Alert: In the next blog, we will look into another type of American schlemiel – the cynical yet naïve kind.)

Zizek’s Comic Dilemma: Kynicism or Cynicism?


I ended yesterday’s blog with a reflection on President Obama’s last words on trust and cynicism. Here are the President’s last words:

And so, these men and women should inspire all of us in this room to live up to those same standards; to be worthy of their trust; to do our jobs with the same fidelity, and the same integrity, and the same sense of purpose, and the same love of country.  Because if we’re only focused on profits or ratings or polls, then we’re contributing to the cynicism that so many people feel right now.

How, I wondered, was the President’s comic routine related to this crisis in trust and the “cynicism that so many people feel right now?”  In yesterday’s blog, I argued that the schlemiel was used, in effect, to regain trust.  But let’s be clear here.  The humor used by the self-deprecating schlemiel has nothing to do with satire or sarcasm.  To be sure, much of what the President was doing was self-deprecating.   This kind of humor doesn’t cause cynicism.  On the contrary, it does its best to challenge cynicism and to recover some kind of hope (however bleak it may be).  The schlemiel evokes a belief in goodness, innocence, and simplicity while, at the same time, juxtaposing it against dishonesty, deception, and violence.  Because the Schlemiel (at least in its traditional variety) evokes some kind of hope (however little it may be) in the midst of depravity, it makes sense why the President and his writers would turn to the schlemiel.   The schlemiel preserves a kind of naivite.

In contrast to the humor of the schlemiel, however, there are other forms of humor which, to be sure, look to exacerbate cynicism.  Slovoj Zizek, who, in academia and beyond it, is thought of as an ‘academic rock star’ of sorts, is well known for his delight in humor.  He is less known, however, for his explorations of humor and cynicism.

In his book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slovoj Zizek pits cynicism against what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls kynicism. Zizek’s reading of cynicism is much different from President Obama’s.  And his privileging of kynicism over cynicism brings this out.  Hope is not an option; kynicism is.

Writing on Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Zizek notes that “what is really disturbing” is the “underlying belief in the liberating, anti-totalitarian force of laughter, of ironic distance.”  In other words, the emancipatory aspect of sarcasm, for Zizek, is disturbing because “in contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, that cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game.  The ruling ideology is not to be taken seriously or literally”(28).   On the other hand, taking ideology literally, and not laughing, is “tragic.”  In this scenario, Zizek seems to be in a double bind as laughter and sarcasm are too ideological for him.  Yet, on the other hand, he prefers laughter to taking ideology seriously.

But there is a problem, since even laughter and sarcasm are ensnared by ideology, they are guilty of being naive.  Zizek cites Marx who says that “the very concept of ideology implies a kind of basic, constitutive naivite: the misrecognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, a distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representations, our false consciousness of it”(28).

But, contrary to Marx, Zizek claims that the point is not to unmask ideology – so as to see reality “as it really is.”  Rather, “the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce itself without this so-called ideological mystification.  The mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence”(28).

Following this insight, Zizek asks: “Does the concept of ideology as naïve consciousness still apply to today’s world?”

His answer, of course, is no.  Ideology is no longer to be thought of as naïve. Zizek argues that it knows it is lying.  It is deceptive.  But, more importantly, “ideological distortion” is not separate from reality; it is “written into its very essence.”

Citing Peter Sloterdijk, Zizek argues that “ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical, which renders impossible…the classic critical-ideological procedure.  The cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less insists on the mask.”

In other words, things have, literally, changed.  Ideology is no longer innocent or naïve.  It is deliberate. And it cannot be unmasked since it is “written into the very essence” of reality.  Paraphrasing Sloterdijk, Zizek says that “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.”  In other words, if everything is ideology, everyone is lying.  No one believes in ideology, yet they act as if they do while knowing full well they don’t.

Taking into consideration what Zizek is saying, we would have to say that our assessment of cynicism is wrong.  Cynicism is not based on distrust of the government.  No.  For Zizek, cynicism is knowing that you are lying while acting “as if” you are telling the truth.  This masking operation, for Zizek, discloses a near universal dishonesty that touches everything that advances freedom, justice, equality, etc.  According to his logic, we act as if these ideals, principles, etc are real when, in fact, we know they are not.

In a surprising turn Zizek excludes himself from the all-encompassing cynicism that touches all reality by aligning himself with what Sloterdijk calls kynicism: “Kynicism represents popular, plebian rejection of the official culture by means of irony and sarcasm: the classical kynical procedure is to confront the pathetic phrases of the ruling official ideology – its solemn, grave tonality – with everyday banality and to hold them up to ridicule, thus exposing behind the subtle noblesse of ideological phrases the egotistical interests, the violence, the brutal claims to power”(29).

Zizek notes that the kynical procedure does not play according to the rules of logic.  It is “more pragmatic than argumentative: it subverts the official proposition by confronting it with the situation of its enunciation; It proceeds ad hominem”(29).

Zizek notes that what we have today is a battle between cynicism and kynicism: “Cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to this kynical subversion: it recognizes, it takes into account, the particular interest behind the ideological universality, the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reasons to retain the mask”(29).

Given this “logic,” Zizek would say that upholding “individuality,” “freedom,” “justice,” and even “rights” by the “ruling culture” is cynical.  It is a mask.  Zizek would say that they all don’t really believe in these things but act “as if” they do.  And for his reason, they are all cynical: “the model of cynical wisdom is to conceive probity, integrity, as a superior form of dishonesty, and morals a supreme form of profligacy, and truth as the most effective form of a lie”(30).

The kynical person, in contrast, discards the “mask.” Moroever, the kynical person laughs.  But, somehow, this laughter is pure of ideology. This is odd, since, at the beginning of this section (as we note above) Zizek says that emancipatory laughter and sarcasm (which sounds a lot like kynic laughter) are wholly ideological.  Here, somehow, sarcasm (as kynicism) is not.

On the one hand, laughter, satire, and sarcasm are a “part of the game.” On the other hand, they are the epitome of popular revolt.  Can we say that neither cynicsm nor kynicism are naïve?  Wouldn’t it be naïve, according to Zizek’s standards, to think one can simply throw off the ideological mask and escape cynicism?  Isn’t it the case that they both know that what they are doing is a lie but do it anyway?  To be sure, isn’t Zizek saying that all ideology today is dishonest and nothing escapes it?  Wouldn’t that also include kynicism?  Or is kynicism beyond ideology and dishonesty?

If kynicism goes by way of the ad hominem and not by way of argument, is it beyond ideology?

To be sure, Zizek explicitly notes kynicism’s dishonesty when he says that kynicism deliberately uses ad hominem arguments to mock the ‘ruling culture’ (which includes the culture of the Enlightenment).  Kynicism doesn’t argue.  It attacks and it knowingly tells lies.  But, and here is the question, does it do so while holding up a mask?  Do the kynics sarcastically mock the ruling ideology while acting “as if” they are “right,” “true,” and “just”?  If they do, then they are also wearing a mask and they too are cynical.

So, what is the meaning of all this dishonesty?  And, given what the President said the other night at the Correspondents’ Dinner, is there any way to end cynicism if both sides are engaged in some sort of deception – knowing that they don’t believe in justice, rights, truth, etc but act ‘as if’ they do?

To be sure, given his love for sarcasm, it seems as if Zizek prefers kynicism over cynicism.  But isn’t Zizek caught in the lie of ideology, too?  Didn’t he say that sarcasm plays the same game?  Zizek certainly celebrates mockery in his work and encourages satire, but a close reading of The Sublime Object of Ideology shows us that he also recognizes the sarcasm may not be free of ideology.

This recognition is fundamental to understanding what is at stake.  The truth of the matter is that Zizek’s appeal to kynicism is an attempt to leave the Enlightenment and its rhetoric of emancipation behind.   To do this, he looks for a kind of sarcasm that is free of emancipation or any enlightenment ideal.  How is this possible?  Is the sarcasm he affirms simply a violent force that denies all truth and no longer acts ‘as if’ it is anything?  A “naked” kind of sarcasm free of any Enlightenment ideal?

In the introduction to his book Philosophy and Law, Leo Strauss argues that the Enlightenment’s main weapon against orthodoxy is humor. And in many ways, Strauss agrees with Zizek:

As Lessing, who was in a position to know, put it, they attempted by means of mockery to ‘laugh’ orthodoxy out of a position from which it could not be dislodged by any proofs supplied by Scripture or even by reason.  Thus the Enlightenment’s mockery of the teachings of the tradition is not the successor of a prior refutation of these teachings; it does not bring to expression the amazement of unprejudiced men at the power of manifestly absurd premises; but it is the refutation: it is in mockery that the liberation from ‘prejudices’ that had supposedly been cast off is first accomplished; at the very least, the mockery is the admittedly supplementary but still decisive legitimation of liberty acquired by whatever means (30).

Were the Enlighteners kynical, did they really (cynically) believe in freedom and rights, or did they naively believe in freedom and rights?  After all, Strauss claims that they knew they had no real argument with Orthodoxy but preferred, instead, to mock it.  Strauss’s reading implies that the Enlightenment doesn’t really have a full grasp of its principles but acts “as if” it does for purely pragmatic reasons.  Like the kynics that Zizek writes of, Strauss’s Enlighteners also use ad hominem arguments and sarcasm to challenge the “ruling ideology.”  But there is one difference: they do so in the name of “liberty.”

In effect, Zizek is telling us that all forms of political humor battle cynicism with kynicism.  Kynicsm is not interested in self-deprecating humor, which looks to re-instill trust.  And if we take Zizek’s words on ideology seriously, we would have to say that, in the end, it’s the same result.  Cynicism and kynicism are both caught up in ideology, but an ideology that is not simply naïve but rather dishonest.

For Zizek, no one really believes in the truth anymore.  We only act “as if” we do.  Zizek suggests that “the people” are all kynical.  He suggests that their sarcastic rebellion against the ruling culture, which acts “as if” truth, justice, freedom, etc exist (and defend it), is somehow pure.  But, wait, doesn’t this rebellion act as if it is just?  Aren’t many latter day rebels naïve?  Or are they just acting “as if” they believe in justice?  Perhaps we’re all being duped?

By not looking into it deeply, Zizek implies that all popular sarcasm directed against any group in power is just.  But isn’t the act of speaking truth to power an act that is based on Enlightenment ideals?  And how can one justify activism that is supported by kynicism?  Is that activism…random?

Is the difference between kynicism and cynicism the fact that cynicism acts “as if” truth, justice, etc are real while kynicism doesn’t waste its time with such self-deceptions?

What I find most interesting is Zizek’s brief moment of reflection on subversive laughter and its possible destructiveness.  His hesitation is ultimately left behind for the revolution.  His laughter is a laugh that is, seemingly, not based on any truth.  Nonetheless, the appeals for justice and truth made my many kynics disclose some form of ideology.  So, what is it?  Is kynicism deceiving itself or not?  Is its only purpose to sarcastically destroy any ruling ideology in the name of noting save…destruction.  Or does it act “as if” it challenges the ruling ideology in the name of progress, justice, etc?  Zizek’s laugh, it seems, is unsure of whether or not it is based on truth or deception.  It originates in a humor that is not seeking to end cynicism so much as exacerbate it.  For if ideology is inescapable, so is the impulse to act “as if” justice, truth, and freedom exist when one “knows” that they don’t.  If we take Zizek to the end of his thought on sarcasm, this is the conclusion.

And with this, I return to my original concern regarding the use of comedy in the political sphere to battle cynicism.  Will the political use of comedy produce trust or dissolve it?    For Zizek, sarcasm, not self-deprecation, is the choicest of all comic weapons.  His strategy is completely different from President Obama’s insofar as the President played the schlemiel while Zizek plays the kynical comic.