Zizek on Foucault

I don’t have many firm views but Foucault’s description of power  relations in Volume 1 of ‘A History of Sexuality’ certainly informs most of them.  It emphasises the two-way nature of these relations and points to the ways in which power may be resisted. I was so impressed by this that I wrote it down in its entirety (this is very unusual for me, the only other instance being a section of Derrida’s ‘Difference’ essay.

Foucault’s analysis has stood me in good stead both during my career as a secondary instrument of class oppression and in my personal dealings with mental health services. I’ve also used it to intervene in the world of commerce. What was particularly useful for me was the ability to identify those points, Foucault calls them ‘knots’,  where resistance and change are possible.

Imagine my consternation then to discover that in 1999 Zizek pronounced on this analysis and found it wanting. I downloaded said tome from aaaarg.org .  Zizek has made a name for himself in recent years as the ‘bad boy’ of political thought and is very popular with young people. He’s a Hegelian and a committed advocate of Lacan and I’m trying not to hold either of these against him.

Zizek attempts to show how a dialectical analysis of power is more accurate and effective. To do this he uses the example of the struggle for independence on the Indian sub-continent, pointing outthat it was organise by “English liberals and Indian intellectuals who were studying at Oxford”. This is simplistic to say the least and belies a limited knowledge of Indian society under British rule. For me the best book on India is C A Bayly’s ‘Empire nd Information’ which, although it relates to an earlier period does support the Foucault thesis.

Zizek also contrasts Foucault with Hegel and points out that Foucault does not take into account the fact that oppessors can become eroticised by the things that they are repressing. I don’t see how this is relevant to the central thrust of Fouault’s analysis- it certainly isn’t a serious engagement with the idea of power relations as being dynamic rather than ‘top-down.

So, I’m greatly relieved that Zizek hasn’t dented my faith but I’m also disappointed that his citique consists of pithy one- liners rather than a considered argument. I’m also saddened by the sneering tone, what is it about these Hegelians that convinces them that they are the only ones on the planet with a right to a view?

5 responses to “Zizek on Foucault

  1. You’d understand Zizek’s “pithy one-liners” if you’ve ever met him or heard him speak. Also, check out Said’s _Oritentalism_.

    You’re misinformed about Zizek, I fear.

  2. I live on the Isle of Wight which considerably reduces my chances of either meeting him or hearing him speak but I’ll try and find stuff on the web.
    I’ve read all of Said and admire the work that he did enormously and should have mentioned that Chris Bayly takes the Said perspective forward whilst not getting caught up in some of the more ‘radical’ posturing of some of his acolytes.
    My central point was that Zizek might have provided a more considered critique of Foucauldian notions of power but chose to indulge in mud-slinging instead which is disappointing.

  3. Late and short, but here’s another answer: you are right w Zizek. His most initial fail is that he tries to read Foucault w Hegel and therefore must understand power not as a relational concept without top or buttom (or just producing them) but as a structure of repression. Even if Zizek tries to undermine the strong subjective supposition (f.e. in the “Logic”: the only thing we cannot negate is thinking itself…) with a sometimes very free read Lacan, he is working w a dialectical view. It is exactly this view which Foucault tries to overcome in his analytics of power

    • Thanks for this timely reminder. I think Zizek’s failure to understand the Foucault position is deliberate simply because he knows that he can;t take it on. The Foucault position can be argued with but not in the way Zizek chooses.

  4. To believe that Foucault hasn’t studied Hegel enough, especially in respect of the implications of the readings of Kojève and Hyppolite is just uninformed and stupid. Just as stupid as to think that the assumption that someone simply has to understand Zizek right is an argument. In contrary it is the proof of dogmatism.

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