Zizek and Badiou on HARDTALK: Unapologetic strangers

Badiou  HERE and ZIZEK   HERE

When I saw that Badiou and Zizek had been on HARDtalk, I was excited and apprehensive. To have two contemporary philosophical giants given prime TV time to answer questions on topics that are completely neglected by the mainstream media, feels like a progressive move, but also has a kind of ‘lambs to the slaughter’ feel about it, too, as philosophy and philosophers seem to be banished from television. Except for a few programs on existentialism that were made many years ago, I don’t think Heidegger, who seems to be the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, has probably ever been mentioned. For Badiou and Zizek to gain some prime TV time seems like times are changing. However, I do feel that appearances on these programs for both Zizek and Badiou were mixed blessings and also, partially wasted opportunities. I would have though that for a program whose title picture, which is begging to be etched with a hammer and sickle, wouldn’t look out of place in a Soviet style steel mill, may have been a little nicer to these two.

The recent Zizek interview was the more disappointing of the two. This is only because Zizek is the more fluently spoken in English and thus his sparing skills should be more than a match for Stephen Sackur’s antagonistic blunt style. The program is set up to ask the ‘hard’ and tough questions, to harass and force the interlocutor to slip up and generally be exposed as a feeble minded simpleton, who can’t articulate themselves and generally gets a bit flustered when their safety net gets taken away. Both Zizek and Badiou walked straight into the antagonistic form of the program. As philosophers, one would think they would try to undermine the structure of the program to bring a reflexive focus to the polemics at hand. This did not happen, they both tried to answer the questions as normal, falling into trap after boisterously set trap.

Zizek is characterized in the introduction as someone he sees the good in Stalin and thinks Communism is the answer to the ills of the twenty-first century. The antagonisms are set from the start, here is the enemy, now we can expose his nonsense or perversity’ as the interviewer repeats again and again. Zizek, who writes many big and deliberately flummoxing books (his Lacanian postponing the end point of clarity works at the level of form to force the reader to ‘traverse the fantasy’ of the ‘subject supposed to know’, i.e. that Zizek knows and that by reading his work they too will come to know). It seems like an exercise in condensation, but it is more one of intuition. The answers are not cut off because he isn’t given the time to respond properly, or because the program must end at a certain point. No, it is because the form is given credibility to provide a type of truth defined by the program (i.e. watch the interviewee squirm when confronted by their own words and actions), rather then forcing the phantasmatic stance of the program and its viewers out of their comfort zone.

For instance, Sackur exposes Zizek’s hypocrisy by quoting from him that Stalinism is favourable to any liberal democracy, after Zizek announces on the program that Communism was probably the biggest disaster of the 20th century, even more so than Nazism (as under Nazism, there was always a distinct set of persons demonized for a particular reason, while under Stalinism, it could be anybody for any arbitrary reason). Zizek explains that it is because of the possibility of a different social regime, other than liberal capitalism, is opened up by communism, whereas liberal capitalism promotes itself as an ontological realism (I’m paraphrasing here).

Sackur then asks him why is he a communist even after Zizek admits it was a ‘total failure’. Clearly, Sackur completely misses the answer Zizek gave previously or he wouldn’t have asked the same question again. Sackur was probably too busy listening to instruction on his ear piece or thinking about his set questions to give an intelligent answer to Zizek’s comment. Although it could be said that the repetition and incredulous tone of the interviewer is part of the format of the program, and thus a provocative tactic rather than an intellectually sincere one. Zizek stresses the importance of recognising the change in horizon between, what used to be ‘socialism with a human face’ to the now ubiquitous ‘capitalism with a human face’: capitalism, even with a human face, will not be able to solve the antagonisms we confront today at they remain external to the horizon of capitalism.

After being accused of Eurocentricism and ignoring the successes of India and China in raising people out of poverty through bolstering the middle classes, Zizek responds that these are not successes as they have resulted in segregation of public space, through favellas and immigration ‘problems’: in sum, those who are excluded and politically isolated. Unfortunately he then makes a statement about these places being concentrations camps, and then withdraws the comment after being challenged by Sackur. He does make the point that it its because of their isolation that makes it seem like they are in concentration camps, but he should not have conceded as there is a clear linearity between camp and favella that would have been more useful to expand upon. However, to expand upon this would probably not have suited the programs spitting contest style, so would no doubt have been cut.

The interviewer is keen to emphasise his reading of Zizek’s critics, who condemn Zizek’s claim that Islamic fundamentalism is a product of liberal capitalism. Zizek responds with the example of Afghanistan pre-soviet invasion, as an example of secular Islam that becomes fundamentalism through engagement with the international community. This again misinterpreted by Sackur who says that Zizek blames capitalism for all the world evils. Zizek responds with that quip that perhaps his readers (and interviewers) should read him correctly, so as not to confuse his critical examination of capitalism with a complete rejection of it: for Zizek, we cannot go back to a fantasy world untouched by capitalism, but apply our critique from within capitalism, which demonstrates that we cannot reject in its entirety that which founds our very mode of engagement with the world.

Sackur is concerned that as there is no clear example or even an abstract thinker who represents an ideal for communism: this, he insists, surely must be a bad sign. Zizek concludes that he isn’t after revolution in the standard sense. He makes it clear that “we need to form a new form of collectivity that will be neither market or state bureaucracy”, but he is a pessimist: democracy won’t deliver us from our problems: it may not be light at the end of the tunnel but a train coming towards us.

If we take out Zizek’s main points, those who have never read or seem Zizek before may be a little put off by the cerebral rants, excessive hand movements and conversational tangents, but I think he recognises the need to cut the crap and say as clearly as possible his position, because Sackur is determined to misrepresent him at every turn. Zizek does deal well with the questioning and he does seem to come off quite well and at times, unusually, focused on the main points.

Sackur applies the same style, albeit slightly slowed down, no doubt recognising the limited English skills of his guest. Although Badiou’s answers clearly weren’t suited to the medium, Zizek seems to have met his challenges with forceful and better presented summaries. It is still discouraging, that while any TV exposure for philosophers is always music to my ears, it is a shame that it is performed not through a careful and sincere dialogue, but through a sensationalist interview that is aimed not at ‘hardtalk’ but discouse that legitimises intellectual confrontation based upon misinformation, misreadings and misdirection of aggression. Sackur doesn’t present ‘hardtalk’ but a fake attempt at provocative discourse that can never agree with or arrive at any conversational synthesises or progression. It plays upon a fantasy of straight talking, ‘cut the crap’ style journalism that is not exposing anything but the farcical format of the show itself. The interviewer doesn’t want to understand Badiou and Zizek, but to attribute to what ever response they deliver to one of a ‘perverse’ nature or purely some form of ‘continental’ intellectual entertainment, suitable for a limited audience of pseudo radicals.

Even if Sackur’s position could be described as playing devils advocate with his guests, one gets the feeling that some of the time it is quite personal: such as this quote towards Badiou, that people at home are thinking “here is a man who is stuck in the romance of 1968, a time of course when you were on the barricade and you want to recreate the romantic idea that the working class can take to the streets and re-order society and you sit there, frankly, with your metaphorical Gauloises in your mouth spouting this French radical ideology but no one really buys it any more”. Partially, I think Badiou may not have heard him properly, as there was little sign of being flustered by this Francophobic question. It isn’t a helpful question and an ironic use of the word ‘buy’ as well. It may well be that people at home are struck in reductive caricatures of cigarette smoking Parisian coffee shop French intellectuals, but the programme, ultimately was giving the same message. What is clear from these interviews is not an open dialogue between communist philosophers and the BBC, but the desire to discredit ‘romantic’ emancipatory philosophies.

As a mobilization of unit operations (see Ian Bogost’s book, Unit Operation), the program advocates a hostile incredulity to the idea of communism which involves the operations of cutting into sentences, swapping and changing topics, not allowing for follow up responses and presenting the interviewee with quotes taken out of context which would require more time than the program can allocate for its examination. The two central unit operation of HARDtalk are reductive positional generalization (to provoke aggression in the interviewee) and incredulous rebuttal (to mock the interviewee’s perspective). In general, I find any reliance on cultural theorists or academics on television tends to end is grotesque simplifications. For example, the pop psychologist analyst on Big Brother. These sound-bite simplifications may swing well into the next dazzling video clip, but offer little extended and more fruitful analysis. For self proclaimed philosophers to be guests on this TV program and to engage the show on its own terms is not only a little disappointing, but it forgets the elementary philosophical lesson of Plato’s Apology. If you remember, this is where Socrates asks the court to consider him a “stranger” to his new trial environment. It isn’t that Badiou and Zizek are “strangers” to television, but they are to the distinctly uncharitable style of the show. A reflexive response and recognition of the problematic televisual medium itself may have been a philosophically more thought provoking response to what were, at times, ignorant and antagonistic questions.

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