Saturday, January 20, 2018

352. Žižek: What does he want?

Žižek lambasts and lampoons much of what he comes across but rarely offers alternatives. That is not the task of philosophy, he claims. This is vintage Hegel: philosophy can and should only try to understand and clarify what happens, and can do this only when it has already passed, after the sun has set. That is the meaning of the famous dictum that ‘Minerva’s owl spreads its wings only at dusk’.

To me, this is a cop-out. At the basis of present problems lie philosophical issues, and philosophy should learn from this not only to clarify but also to contribute to ideas for improvement. Such as the crisis of capitalism, discussed in preceding items in this blog. It is a matter of elementary intellectual decency, in my view, that when you criticize something you must give some indication of at least the direction for an alternative.

In fact, Žižek does make suggestions. In a debate with Will Self, the latter gave up on solving problems and advocated a withdrawal into the comfort of one’s private bubble, closing the curtains. During and after the debate, Žižek quite rightly burst out in indignation at this. An example of his suggestions is how one should deal with the refugee problem.

For Žižek, true faith is not based on logical or empirical reason, but is a commitment regardless of that, going back to the old motto ‘I believe because it is absurd’, in a leap of faith. Here, he admits to being a fan of Kierkegaard. He also remains a revolutionary, and does not exclude violence. Peaceful attempts to change the existing order by argument are lost in advance, in concession to the established symbolic order of ‘reasonable discourse’. It is a weakness of leftists to say that yes, radical change is needed, but the time is not ripe. The time is never ripe.

On the other hand, Žižek calls for patience, for not rushing in, for having trust, and taking time, and being self-critical. Perhaps one can have both: belief as an unreasonable leap, action in prudence and patience. But how can that still be revolutionary? 

Žižek picked up Kant’s distinction between the private and the public use of intellect. The first is aimed at answering practical questions raised by private concerns. The second stays away from that, to maintain intellectual independence. Žižek claims, and I agree, that in recent years there has been an increasing pressure on academia to develop useful knowledge. In the Netherlands the motto for that is ‘valorization’.

I agree that this has adverse effects, of two kinds. First, it indeed jeopardizes the independence and intellectual integrity of science. Second, it is myopic: independent, fundamental research uninformed by practical interests has proven to be the most productive.

How far the perversity of private reason can go is illustrated in the following case in my own experience. When working at a semi-public institute for research I produced a report that did not sit well with established policy, and I was asked, or rather muscled, to align the report more with it. I was told that next to scientific rationality there was something called ‘policy-oriented’ rationality (’beleidsmatige rationaliteit’ in Dutch). That should take into account the costs sunk in the political decision process, and corresponding political commitments crafted with much effort. Many similar cases of pressure have been reported. It is disastrous for trust in science.   

However, on the other hand the essence of science is testing, and application is a form of testing. At some places, Žižek himself admits that for ideas the proof of the pudding lies in its eating. I can even put this in the Hegelian parlance that Žižek covets: the real is the rational and vice versa. The rational gets embodied in the real, and the real reflects the rational.

My argument is that of pragmatist philosophy: one develops new ideas by using and rejecting them. That also is vintage Hegel. It is connected to the issue of the universal in relation to its particulars, which I will discuss in a later item in this blog: practical use of reason is attention to particulars that will shift or topple the universal. And how, in the manifestation of absolute spirit through the working of individual spirits, can this be if those spirits only reflect and do not contribute to action?  

So, how to proceed? One can engage in practical reason while not being diverted by private reason. The difference is that one does not adopt the problem as formulated by private interest, but as formulated by oneself after thorough familiarization with the practice and one’s analysis of it, preserving one’s intellectual autonomy. This ethic should be defended in academic teaching and research.

The risk is, of course, that when defending such integrity one no longer gets the commissions for research that bring in the money one is expected to chase. The answer to that is to become one’s own principal, taking the initiative of initiating and applying one’s research according to one’s independent formulation of the problem. Again from my own experience: when I did that in a project for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, I became a persona non grata there. The money then should come from state institutions such as science foundations. The problem there is that they also begin to give in to the demands of ‘valorization’.