Don Camillo and Peppone Reloaded: Father Brown and Comrade Slavoj [text]


Update (August 2017) – one text I have overlooked is the very good philosophical reflection on Žižek’s use of Chesterton’s allegorical story by George Fried ‘Where’s the Point: Zizek and the Broken Sword’. I agree with most of what he has to say and would probably have produced a much shorter piece which would have focused more on Father Brown’s methodology.


This post is not meant to be primarily a critique of Žižek, even though he occupies most of the space in it, but to use him as a contrast to bring out what is worth salvaging from Gilbert K. Chesterton’s form of thinking (though not much of its content). The work of deconstructing Žižek’s political rhetoric has already been done successfully by better writers. “Successfully”, that is, in terms of intellectual coherence and conclusiveness – less so in that Žižek still enjoys huge popularity among the academic Left. My favourite is Adam Kirsch’s 2008 ‘The Deadly Jester’ in The New Republic, despite some unjustified claims about the philosophical traditions Žižek draws on.
Further it should be noted that the parallel implied to the two heroes of Giovannino Guareschi’s Mondo Picolo finds its limit in the fact that both the Catholic priest and the Communist mayor are united in their unequivocal antifascism – which can be said of neither Chesterton (who was tempted by Mussolini) and nor Žižek (who congratulates Heidegger on joining the Nazi Party)

The BBC’s favourite “Marxist philosopher” Slavoj Žižek makes ample use of Father-Brown creator Gilbert K. Chesterton’s witticisms and stories in his grand project, the rehabilitation of the Western politico-metaphysical tradition from the Catholic Church to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[1] The title of his magnus opus in political theology In Defence of Lost Causes is taken from a chapter in Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World?  where Chesterton suggests that the ‘lost causes are exactly those which might have saved the world’Žižek draws heavily on Chesterton in his reading of Christianity, but the most important thing he gets out of Chesterton is the rhetorical tactic of contradicting obvious truths by way of paradoxical statement. But, while the paradoxes of Chesterton lend themselves to frivolously totalitarian abuse, I will argue that the contrast between the two could not be much greater.

Both writers engage in mysticism (as only for the mystic paradoxes lead to Truth), and both mystify historical reality to promote their pet lost causes: Leninism and Thomism. In both cases the result are factually incorrect and politically obscene.[2] In Žižek’s it is a Leninist/Blanquist glorification of violence and authority (also s. Johnson 2011), in Chesterton’s a nationalist Catholicism saturated with antisemitic/racist prejudice. The difference not so much in political couleur (in fact the visions of Communism and Catholicism are quite compatible), but in the mood of argument.  Chesterton calls for mysticism to limit the insanity of unchecked logical monomania and fanaticism in any theory and this attitude, rooted in Romanticism, works to limit the insanity of his own political ideas. It is this appreciation of the limit that Žižek, as Karlsen lays out in the house journal, finds objectionable in Chesterton – just that one little thing, but unlike other very small differences Žižek builds up as decisive, this one actually does make all the difference. Žižek’s mystifications are designed to be delimiting. They frivolously invite the reader to imagine themself in a Tarantinoesque scenario of revolutionary violence.  He permits a disinhibition of the left-liberal scruples inspired by such trifles as the grandes terreurs from 1794 to 1953. Like in Tarantino movies history is construed in such way that gratuitous violence is not only rendered pleasurable but ethical. Žižek is attractive to those who are frustrated by the use of the failure of Marxism-Leninism as evidence that “there is no alternative” to Capitalism and Liberalism. The violent delimitation feels like a welcome antidote to the inevitability of the established order. However the very delimitation that does not shy away from justifying the Gulag only calls in a new, even more stable order: the ‘carnival of mass protest in which the system is brought to a halt’ is to be channelled by a ‘new form of organization, a discipline’ that deserves the title ‘Spartan’ (Žižek 2012: 82, invoking Trotsky). What, if anything, shall come after Sparta is not specified[3] as that, again, would constitute a limit. The alternative is the organised massacre itself – or as Kirsch asks:

But what if it is not the utopia that appeals to Žižek, but the blood and the sacrifice?’

Ironically, it is not the “revolutionary” but the reactionary of the two writers who created a framework in which it becomes possible not only to fantasise about battles but to imagine alternative worlds  in concrete (since limited) form.

The second concern is the difference between mystifying history (which both authors do in their respective causes’ hagiographies and ecclesiographies) and mystical empiricism – the method applied by Father Brown in the investigation of crime. The former is to be discarded, of course. But the latter should be salvaged in the service of social scientific investigation.

To the Last Consequence?

The immunity that protects Chesterton from following (as he nearly ended up doing) Mussolini, the antidote that filled him with disgust about Hitler is not to be found in the content of his political ideology, i.e not in his Catholicism[4] and also not in his English nationalism. It lies in form or  mood  of his theorising: his Romantic commitment to non-commitment: the occasionalism of Novalis which Chesterton’s contemporary and fellow Catholic nationalist Carl Schmitt found so objectionable. Žižek, nominally at least, subscribes to more progressive ideals (humanism, equality, democracy and so on and so on), but sides with Schmitt[5] on being consequential, on brutally carrying through whatever initial ideological choices to the bitter end. Žižek’s notion of history is, thus, positively heroic and (by admission) prone to martyr cult. Like his metaphysician of choice Martin Heidegger, and despite his psychoanalytic lingo and paradoxist style he is highly averse to ambiguity – an aversion that has been linked to the preference of totalitarian systems (Frenkel-Brunswik 1949):

‘The same ambiguity affects the very basis of a “permissive” and “tolerant” society: “we see from day to day how this tolerance is nothing else than a fanaticism, since it tolerates only its own vacuity.” And, effectively, every decision, every determinate engagement, is potentially “intolerant” towards all others’ (Žižek 2008: 30)

Heidegger, whose decision to fully endorse Nazism in 1933 Žižek defends, expresses his disgust for ambiguity (Zweideutigkeit) as part of the mood that informs his existentialist philosophy in Sein und Zeit. This revulsion is shared by many. Diametrically opposed theorists like Georg Lukács on the Left and Carl Schmitt on the Right seek to solve the “problem of form” (Eßbach 1995: 148ff.), the nagging (romantic) contingency of the capitalist world, the amorphia of social life. Lukács finds clarity in the absolute subject as which he interprets the self-conscious working class in revolution; Schmitt finds it in and the absolute homogeneity which for him is achieved in the nation at war. To achieve such clarity a decisive κρίσις is needed which makes for an either/or situation. The 20th century kindly supplied such crises. In the emerging bipolar worlds Lukács finds himself in the following first of Lenin, then of Stalin, while Schmitt assumes the position of chief lawyer  in Hitler’s Germany. Žižek shares the sentiment, even though the historical moment has not yet supplied this philosopher with his king to follow and advise. He is waiting  for the right contraction in the upholstery of history to occur:

‘In his Logique des mondes, Badiou develops the notion of “atonal” worlds (monde atonal), worlds lacking a “point,” in Lacanese: the “quilting point” (point de capiton), the intervention of a Master-Signifier that imposes a principle of “ordering” into the world, the point of a simple decision (“yes or no”) in which the confused multiplicity is violently reduced to a “minimal difference.” None other than John F. Kennedy | provided a concise description of this point: “The essence of ultimate decisions remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself.” This gesture which can never be fully grounded in reasons, is that of a Master – or, as G. K. Chesterton put it in his inimitable manner: “The purpose of an open mind, like having an open mouth, is to close it upon something solid.” [sic] [6] ‘ (Žižek 2008: 30f.)

As we will see, summoning Chesterton here is unjustified since (a) the solidity he was after here is that of fact, not that of political order (i.e. this is a statement of the principle of mystical empiricism, not of political decisionism) and (b) Chesterton advocated the very opposite: a heroism of ambiguity.

Žižek’s understanding and even admiration for Heidegger’s decision to join the Nazis in 1933 follows from his decisionism. Heidegger sensed an historical moment and instead of retreating into the ivory tower he chose action. That he chose wrongly is, to Žižek, preferable to not choosing at all or becoming a liberal. The Nazis, in Žižek’s version of history, were not simply the wrong side fullstop – they were so  only because they were not sufficiently decisive:

‘… the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not “essential” enough. Nazism was not radical enough, it did not dare to disturb the basic structure of the modern capitalist social space (which is why it had to focus on destroying an invented external enemy, Jews).’ and ‘he acted so that nothing would really change, he staged a great spectacle of Revolution so that the capitalist order could survive.’ (Žižek 2008: 151)

In this verdict Žižek’s anti-liberalism comes to a head. As always with ideological statements there is some truth in the false which lends credibility to the outrageous. Of course the radical anti-liberalism of the Nazis was deceptive insofar as it did not address the economic structure that underpinned political Liberalism. Herbert Marcuse laid that out already in 1934. But this does not mean that Nazism was on a trajectory towards class war and then was diverted so as to mislead the masses and the existentialist philosophers in order to preserve the capitalist system. What Žižek suggests amounts to an historically ill-informed speculation reproducing the naïve attempt of Karl Radek to reclaim the Nazi terrorist in esse as Communist partisan in posse, misguided by the Hitlerite propaganda into believing he was fighting for the German workers while he was actually fighting for the interests of the German bosses.

The “not far enough” logic is then swiftly also applied to Stalin’s forced collectivisation as this (and the Terror as as well) was a pragmatic act to retain power rather than a principled one to get closer to the realisation of communism. Another displacement, but  (as we will see) thanks to the continuation of truly Communist rhetoric not one that derailed the world historical project in its entirety.

What Žižek suppresses is that the anti-liberalism of the Fascists (and that of Bolshevism after it had been fascisised into Stalinism) does not gain its attractiveness from an anticapitalist potential at all. As Marcuse has shown – and as after the Lego Movie every child knows – anti-liberalism is the adequate ideology of monopoly capitalism. Going further would not mean overcoming the exploitative relations of production but a frozen militarised totalisation of production (again, Žižek likes Trotsky’s idea of militarisation of industry). The “liberalism” that the totalitarians are fighting is not the expression of capitalism as such, but a cultural form that is supported by certain traits in the capitalist economy which are under pressure from the excesses of capitalism itself. It is that liberalism that Marx saw as unfulfilled promise to be fully realised in communism. The reaction against such liberalism is antimodern to the core – not oriented towards a better future in which it is realised dialectically by overcoming the economic basis (apologies for lazy terminology!) which produced it as a particularistic culture and stands in the way of its generalisation. Anti-liberalism (just as its most extreme expression in the amalgamation with antisemitic racism) is not, as Žižek implies, a socialism of fools.[7] Had the Nazis arrived at the insight that what really is their misfortune is not the Jews after all but capitalism itself (i.e. if they had dropped the central characteristic of their world view!), then they might have indeed nationalised industry instead of committing genocide. That does not mean they would have replaced capitalism with communism; they would have implemented an authoritarian corporatism in agriculture and a militarisation of industrial production. And of course, given the organic unity of nationalism, antisemitism and antiliberalism in the German ideology this is a purely hypothetical issue anyway.

For Chesterton, literal radicalism – going to the roots and from their all the way – is anathema.

Cutting off a man’s head is not better than curing his headache (Chesterton 2000: 45)

So his nationalism, racism and antisemitism remain at the level of personal tastes and distastes; they do not lead into serious activism beyond the supremely irrelevant and ineffectual “distributionist” movement. In contrast, literal radicalism leads Žižek to use the altogether emancipatory spirit of 1789, 1848 and 1917  to conjure up and justify cutting off large numbers of heads.

In Chesterton the lost causes (which in his case are an even greater hotch potch than in Žižek’s) do not converge to one master cause that needs urgent realisation or else … (while Žižek presents Communism as our only hope). They come as a plurality with a suggestion that indeed Thomas Becket’s Catholicism and Jean Marat’s egalitarianism are both pursuits worth taking up again – without having to integrate them as does Žižek (2010) when he tries to enlist Christian love for the Communist project.

As outlined in an earlier post, in The Sheriff of Notting Hill Chesterton has caricatured how Žižek-style salvaging might end, albeit in the case of one of Chesterton’s own lost causes: the communal and religiously observant idea of Medieval Europe with its Gothic spires (the “Church Militant”), guilds and craftsmanship, knights and knightly ideals conjured up to counteract a truly atonal, grey world of rational bureaucracy and dull routine. Carrying it through to the bitter results in pointless and repeated bloodshed. But as a Romantic, Chesterton has a different, more liberal way of dealing with the “atonality” of modern life. And that is not to implement one alternative, but many. This of course is only possible by taking the Romantic path deplored by Carl Schmitt: Eschewing realisation and playing out a multitude of colourful and exciting realities in the imagination. The core problem is “atonality” which is an purely aesthetic problem. Addressing it politically, aiming for an aesthetisation of the political is, as Benjamin pointed out, a key element of Fascism. The appropriate field of struggle against boredom is not (in contrast to the truly existential issues of inequality, exploitation and domination) the ethno-geographical or global polity but cultural production and consumption. In fact, consumerism has as good as solved it by enabling virtual experience of parallel realities as Chesterton dreamt them up:

‘What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad with all the humane security of coming home again What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales.

How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort ad honour of being our own town?’ (Chesterton, 2001: 2)

With the problem of atonality being taken care of by consumer capitalism a refocusing on pressing problems such as global injustice and looming environmental disaster should be possible without the baggage of cultural discontent…. And indeed the escapism proposed by Chesterton is not half as fantastic as Žižek’s invitation to totalitarian daydreaming. As I have argued elsewhere, the apparent retreat into the imagination has serious political implications for individual liberties (proper one’s, not Žižek’s allegedly Leninist freedoms) and, following from that, also for economic and political equality. This is why Chesterton, even where he seeks for conservative solutions to the dullness of his present times is drawn to conservative approximations of socialism and anarchism – the latter via an attempt to merge the idea of the Family with the longing for statelessness (which in What’s Wrong with the World is the chief example of a lost cause).

Chesterton’s political programme to go with this was not the reactionary mirror image of authoritarian Leninism/Blanquism (as promoted by Žižek), but rather that of the libertarian municipialism of Murray Bookchin. Had he been on the nostalgic Left rather than a hopeless Catholic Romantic he would have sought to salvage the experience not of Moscow 1936 but of Barcelona 1936. Given that the objections to capitalism are similar in Chesterton and Žižek (both concern inequality and cultural shallowness), the difference that the revolutionary mood makes is striking.

The Romantic suffers from the same modern alienation, ambiguity and exposure to nihilism as the Schmittian Conservative Revolutionary, but he accepts and sees this troublesome open-endedness as an opportunity, as empty spaces to fill with an infinity of dreams. But, to the Conservative Revolutionary’s dismay Romantics from Novalis to Chesterton refrain from full realisation in order not to close the infinite horizon of possibilities. The Romantic solution is self-limitation to preserve infinity. The Conservative Revolutionary’s unhappiness is precisely with this unreality of possibilities, so he seeks determinacy and clarity through realisation so as to transform the offer of infinity into a fixed eternity of ontological security.[8] Communist intellectuals from the early 20th century until today are torn between the two moods which Paolo Virno associates with Walter Benjamin’s and Martin Heidegger’s diametrically opposed attitudes towards the diversion (Zerstreuung ) offered by modern culture – a tension that can be felt in the uneasy coexistence of emotional commitment to diversity and to authenticity.

For both Heidegger and Benjamin, those who are curious are forever distracted. They watch, learn, try out everything, but without paying attention. […] The judgment of the two authors diverges. For Heidegger, distraction, which is the correlate of curiosity, is the evident proof of a total uprooting and of a total unauthenticity [sic]. The distracted are those who pursue possibilities which are always different, but equal and interchangeable (opportunists in the prior meaning of the word, if you like). On the contrary, Benjamin clearly praises distraction itself, distinguishing in it the most effective means for taking in an artificial experience, technically constructed. (Virno, 2004: 93)

While Virno himself dithers, Chesterton would have to side with Benjamin while, naturally, Žižek is fully on Heidegger’s side – and generally on that of the Konservative Revolution, Schmitt, Jünger and all. With his praise (carefully framed into a frivolously suggestive “what if…?”) for Heidegger’s ‘ontic’ move into the existential politics of Nazism 1933 Žižek subscribes to the Fascist turn in existential anthropology that ex-existentialist Marcuse analysed in 1934 from exile:

‘Die existenzielle Anthropologie glaubt, dass das Wissen um das Wofür der Entscheidung, um das Wozu des Einsatzes, durch das alles menschliche Handeln erst seinen Sinn und Wert bekommt, sekundär ist. Wesentlich ist nur, dass eine Richtung eingeschlagen, dass Partei genommen wird.‘ (Marcuse 1934: 187f.)

‚Existential anthropology believes that knowledge of the what-for of the decision, of the in-order-to-what of the stake, by which only all human action receives its meaning and value, is secondary. The only essential thing is that a path has been taken, that a side has been chosen.’

And this mood explains (or maybe it is to be explained by?) the testicular valuation of action that Žižek prefers for the historical actors: Did they have balls? And the worst thing he can say about Hitler is that he had one less than the Daily Mail thinks he had. Sure – he does see that the exterminationist racial antisemitism of the Nazi was absolute evil and does say so. But that antisemitism in Žižek’s view was only the result of chickening-out of the real, manly confrontation with the Powers of Capitalism (hence he can dismiss the genealogy of antisemitism in nationalism, Christendom, and also capitalism as irrelevant). As to Heidegger: he only chides him a little because after the disappointment of the hope for an ontological opening in Nazism he did not have another go and consider the Radical Left as an option. But he applauds him for not doing as his dearest bogeywoman, Hannah Arendt, did and turn all liberal and against totalitarianism. Then again, Arendt by definition could not live up to Žižek’s standard measure of political valour.

Žižek reaffirms his standards with respect to Stalinism in that he subscribes to Stalin’s statement of Nietzschean immoral ethics which he casually had jotted down in or after 1939 (i.e. around the time when he joined forces with Hitler)

‘On the back flyleaf of a 1939 edition of Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriociriticism Stalin made the following note in red pencil:

1) Weakness

2) Idleness

3) Stupidity

These are the only things than [sic!] can be called vices. Everything else, in teh absence of the aforementioned, is undoubtedly virtue.

NB! If a man is 1) strong (spiritually), 2) active, 3) clever (or capable), then he is good, regardless of any other “vices”.

1) plus 3) make 2).

This is as concise as ever a formulation of immoral ethics; in contrast to it, a weakling who obeys moral rules and worries about his guilt, stands for unethical morality, the target of Nietzsche’s critique of ressentiment.’ (Žižek 2008: 223f.)

His only objection to this mini manifesto of decisionism is that Stalin in practice remained too much of a moralist as he still sought justification in a higher good, in the communism to come, in a Big Other that Lacan, so Žižek, strongly advises us to ditch. What would be left then, however, is the existential ethos of Fascist totalitarianism as exposed by Marcuse. Marcuse was worried about the fate of the workers movement in which the legacy of philosophy was aufgehoben (i.e. at once overcome and preserved) in the critique of political economy and ‘scientific theory of society’ (i.e. Marxism). He was right to be worried.

In comparison to this even Brecht’s search for Einverständnis, binding consent, as it is played out to the death in Die Maßnahme (and before that in Die Jasager) looks weak and moralistic. As Žižek points out: the measure taken was a mere tactical expediency which needs justification in the Big Other of the successful Communist Revolution and the liberation of the working classes. What a purer Stalin recommends (and does not live up to) is the decisionism of Carl Schmitt.

Brecht, with all his catastrophic delusions about the nature of the Communist Party and the requirements of the historical situation, is closer to Father Brown than to Carl Schmitt (who is ridiculed by enlisting him for a cameo in Die Maßnahme: one of the Soviet agitators sent to China is “Karl  Schmitt aus Berlin”). Wrong as it is on nearly all counts[9] Die Maßnahme incorporates responsibility and the possibility of a withdrawal of consent (Einverständnis) at every turn of events. In the specific circumstances and given the specific commitments entered by the protagonists the “measure” (the murder of the young comrade) is justified[10], but those circumstances are a tragic culmination that left them no alternative.[11] Going through with things, sticking to a once-made either/or distinction, a friend/enemy definition is not the idea that Brecht proposes (also see Müller-Schöll 2004). And so Žižek finds him, whom he otherwise admires, lacking. Brecht’s idea of acting well resembles more that of Father Brown: Brown asks the criminals to repent, to change their ways, to save their soul. He is a moralist who is deeply concerned with the consequences that actions have on the chances for happiness of the acting person and those affected by the actions. In the Neinsager Brecht emphatically states that where the circumstances allow it, where saving one does not mean sacrificing others, you can leave the chosen path. Wer a sagt muß nicht b sagen. Not only the ultimate, but the immediate criterion for loyalty in political action is the possibility of dignity – a criterion that political existentialism abandons:

‚Die politische Identifizierung von Freiheit und Bindung ist nur dann mehr als eine Phrase, wenn das Gemeinwesen, an das der freie Mensch apriori gebunden wird, die Möglichkeit menschenwürdiger Erfüllung des Daseins gewährleisten kann. Die Identität von Freiheit und politischer Bindung (die als solche durchaus anzuerkennen ist) enthebt nicht, sondern zwingt erst recht zu der kritisch-rationalen Frage : wie sieht dieses Gemeinwesen aus, an das ich mich binden soll ? kann bei ihm das, was das Glück und die Würde des Menschen ausmacht, aufbewahrt sein ?‘ (Marcuse 1934: 192)

The political identification of freedom and commitment can only be more than empty talk if the commonwealth to which the free human is, a priori, being committed can guarantee the possibility of a humane fulfilment of existence. The identity of freedom and political commitment (which as such is to be recognised) does not absolve us but compels us to ask the critical-rational question: what does this commonwealth to which I am to commit look like? Can it contain that which constitutes human happiness and dignity?

Brecht has all the wrong answers to those questions. But at least he is asking them and the whole point of his pedagogical theatre is to force the audience and the performers to ask those question at every opportunity. Father Brown in his old-fashioned ways asks similar questions about possible courses of action and their consequences for the individual soul and the relations between individuals. Needless to say that he, too, provides some very wrong answers from time to time. But at least he asks the question. Žižek sneers at Brecht’s consideration for expediency – the verdict would come out similarly on Father Brown. Both send people off to make moral judgements … and not even in relation to a Big Other, but to very small ones. Father Brown is much concerned with human happiness in the small worlds of private lives and neighbourly relations, the Kingdom of Heaven hardly ever features in his stories. And for Brecht Communism is only worth a sacrifice if it is within reach. This is why they so frequently break the chains of commitment to a cause and recommend mundane pragmatism.

Where decisionism erases the limit of commitment and with it the line between person and movement in the search of an absolute communion, the imagination that is limited by the space it needs to give alternative considerations, incongruent imaginings, employs the capacity for the limitless (the mysticism of the human mind) in the service of the limited (the real – small-r “real” that is).[12]  Chesterton appreciated the limit as a pragmatic opening:

God is that which can make something out of nothing. Man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything. In other words, while the joy of God be unlimited creation, the special joy of man is limited creation, the combination of creation with limits. Man’s pleasure, therefore, is to possess conditions, but also to be partly possessed by them; to be half-controlled by the flute he plays or by the field he digs. The excitement is to get the utmost out of given conditions; the conditions will stretch, but not indefinitely. A man can write an immortal sonnet on an old envelope, or hack a hero out of a lump of rock. But hacking a sonnet out of a rock would be a laborious business, and making a hero out of an envelope is almost out of the sphere of practical politics.

Hannah Arendt[13] identified one of the hallmarks of totalitarian politics the lack of limits in positive aims. The totalitarian, whose ethos indeed is a combination of cleverness and ruthlessness that enables him to be the man of action who accelerates an already decided history, does lack imagination because he lacks imagination. He is a dreamer of the absolute, but the absolute (the old Platonic-Christian Eternity, Being) to the dismay of the Hegelians can never become concrete in reality. The job therefore is never finished as the goal is never defined in positive terms. This is a question of mood – and it is linked to a notion of infinity that is inherent to capitalist practice[14] – which can turn just any idea (no matter whether it is good or evil from the outset) into a fatal fanaticism. Chesterton rejected fanaticism, which does not make his nationalism, obscurantism and racism less objectionable but, crucially, less dangerous and accessible to reconsideration. Unlike the dreamers of the absolute who had taken over the Communist Party, the fictitious Communist Party embodied by the Kontrollchor in Brecht’s Die Maßnahme also still is committed to the limits of reality:

Nur belehrt von der Wirklichkeit, können wir

Die Wirklichkeit ändern. (Brecht 1955: 307)

Only if instructed by reality can we

change reality.

Chesterton puts a similar limit to his romantic histories. On the one hand the task of history is indeed to inspire the dreaming youth – it is a history for boys

‘The highest and noblest thing that history can be is a good story. Then it appeals to the heroic heart of all generations, the eternal infancy of mankind. Such a story as that of William Tell could literally be told of any epoch; no barbarian implements could be too rude, no scientific instruments could be too elaborate for the pride and terror of the tale. It might be told of the first flint-headed arrow or the last model machine gun; the point of it is the same: it is as eternal as tyranny and fatherhood.’ (Chesterton 1939: 229)

Such histories have their functions – and especially if there is a plurality of alternative histories available: Dr Who style histories in which moral-political possibilities are projected into imaginative fields of realisation. But as they are inspiring they have a potential to get out of hand (as the story about the Glory of Notting Hill Oberon Quin tells a young Adam Wayne in The Sheriff of Notting Hill). Father Brown’s decision to leave in place the Imperialist myth of St Clare marks the loss of his Innocence as he allows fiction to acquire the status of fact. The freedom of the imagination is only of any use if there is a commitment not to let it turn into a dream of the absolute – it needs to be checked by realistic (utilitarian in a broad sense) evaluation – Žižek’s denigrated question of expediency:

‘Now the mere tales of the heroes are a part of religious education; they are meant to teach us that we have souls. But the inquiries of the historians into the eccentricities of every epoch are merely a part of political education; they are meant to teach us to avoid certain perils or solve certain problems in the complexity of practical affairs. It is the first duty of a boy to admire the glory of Trafalgar. It is the first duty of a grown man to question its utility.’ (Chesterton 1939: 230)

The limitation is an important one: children don’t have the means to inflict serious damage (which mitigates there not yet fully developed ability to foresee damage). In The Sheriff of Notting Hill Chesterton has laid out what would happen if a thus inspired boy when growing up to be a man without ceasing to be a boy found himself in charge: bloodshed and destruction. And the unchecked boyish doctrine of Adam Wayne informed by the kind of history Chesterton proposes for the use of infants produces horrible enough results – of course far less .

Chesterton’s alter ego Quin honestly despairs about what he has triggered and does accept responsibility for the unintended consequences of his philosophies – and especially that Adam Wayne does what Žižek also proposes: to go to the last consequence, descending into the fanaticism that the Romantic Chesterton (like the old Romantics) abhorred. This contrasts with Žižek’s outright assertion that the intellectual traditions (let alone socio-economic, cultural and political developments) leading up to Nazism are not to be considered.[15] In contrast, while key aspects of his explanation of Fascism are outright scandalous, Chesterton did have a sense that one root of the fanaticism of Fascism is the fact that it has a largely aesthetic concept of history of which sets it on a runaway train unchecked by reality:

‘That is the meaning of Hitler and the whole hysteria of to-day. Mythology has returned; the clouds are rolling over the landscape, shutting out the broad daylight of fact; and Germans are wandering about saying they will dethrone Christ and set up Odin and Thor. But we cannot understand it by looking only at the last ten years of peace, or even at the original five years of war.’ (Chesterton 1939: 378)

Advertising Stalinism

How do you sell Stalin’s immoral ethics to an academic left-leaning democratic audience with a vague affection for Marx? By appealing to their “Big Others”, even if you yourself have rejected them in the ruthless ethics of 1) plus 3) is 2). Humanism. The possibility of a better, humane future. Liberation. So Žižek tries to convince us that even in its magnificent failure, Stalinism (in contrast to Nazism) still did what Marcuse has noted it might not do: preserve the philosophical legacy aufgehoben in Marxism. This is the message to unorthodox Marxists in the New Left Review article of 1999, ‘When the Party Commits Suicide’. The humanist vision preserved by Stalinism allegedly not only sustained the sheer possibility of democratic socialist resistance to capitalist exploitation in the West; but in the end also the democratic resistance against the ossified remnants of Stalinism itself, against the Brezhnevist bureaucracies of the Eastern Bloc, so that

when dissidents like Havel denounced the existing Communist regime on behalf of authentic human solidarity, they (unknowingly, for the most part of it) spoke from the place opened up by Communism itself

Thus sustaining the Communist myth, if only in cynical mode, becomes central for any revolutionary project. ‘Cynical’ in the sense that, as an earlier Žižek (1989: 33) pointed out, one does see what is wrong with the world but happily acts as if one did not. In the meantime he has adopted this cynicism for his own ideological production, making sure that he keeps pointing out just how horrible and mean Stalinism was (at one point he actually does say it was worse than Nazism), only to affirm its myths as indispensable for current political praxis. We are presented with the moral core of the perverse system as containing an unparalleled liberating power:

The difficult task is thus to confront the radical ambiguity of the Stalinist ideology which, even at its most “totalitarian,” still exudes an emancipatory potential. From my youth, I remember the memorable scene from a Soviet film about the civil war in 1919, in which Bolsheviks organize the public trial of a mother with a young diseased son, who is discovered to be the spy for the counter-revolutionary White forces. At the very beginning of the trial, an old Bolshevik strokes his long white moustache and says: “The sentence must be severe, but just!” The revolutionary court (the collective of the Bolshevik fighters) establishes that the cause of her enemy activity was her difficult social circumstances; the sentence is therefore that she be fully integrated into the socialist collective, taught to write and read and to acquire a proper education, while her son is to be given proper medical care. While the surprised mother bursts out crying, unable to understand the court’s benevolence, the old Bolshevik again strokes his moustaches and nods in consent: “Yes, this is a severe, but just sentence!”

The punishment is re-education. Žižek is right in saying that this is not ‘simply the ideological legitimization of the most brutal terror’. But he is utterly wrong when claiming

‘instead of pleading for generous tolerance against severe justice, the old Bolshevik redefines the meaning of “severe justice” itself in terms of excessive forgiveness and generosity’

The “justice” is “severe” in that, while the condemned are spared their lives and even avoid imprisonment, they are stripped of their personhood. The implication of the verdict – pedagogy – is that they are defined as incapable of responsibility. They cannot answer (respond to) the charges since they are but sorry products of their social circumstances. Unlike those already educated by the Party they are in no position whatsoever to act meaningfully under those circumstances. The integration and education is imbued with the effect of preventing further crime (and further dissent –the crime was a political one: allegiance to the wrong side) – it has the power of the Ludovico technique. Presented as ultra-Christian mercy that by far exceeds any Liberal notions of justice as resocialisation/rehabilitation based on a humanist morality, this is nothing but the resocialisation into a total institution writ large based on an immoral ethics. Compare this to Brecht – for whom the educating role of the Party is just as central – : Although Brecht’s Lehrstuck (educational play) idealises a pedagogy that was catastrophic in practice, at least he does not reduce the responsibility of the actors. As they need need to come to some sort of agreement (Einverständnis) and therefore always are credited with the ability to reason, i.e. are not stripped of that Socratic human capacity which, as Ernst Cassirer reminds his contemporaries in 1944, is foundational to civilisation – the ‘faculty of giving a response to himself and to others, that man becomes a “responsible” being, a moral subject.’ (Cassirer 1944: 21)

The story is immorally ethical in the Stalinist-Žižekist sense outlined above. The revolutionaries have an ethos, they are strong (1) and clever (3) and therefore act (2). They are not interested in the moral significance of the woman’s actions but are clever enough to see that she and her son can be of use for the collective and strong enough to bear the risk of appearing weak (while taking the precaution of asserting their strength rhetorically by labelling the whole thing “severe”). There is no humanity in their judgement and no mercy – and it is emphasised that this is so, just to make sure that you don’t get any ideas.

The implications for anyone not fully integrated and not reflecting the current standard of education (which with every adjustment of the Party Line changes) are clear: The best of intention will not help you if you are a heretic. The story does indeed not, as Žižek says, ideologically obscure the reality of the “justice” in the Soviet Union but exposes it ex negativo.

All in all this is brilliant advertising, activating layers upon layers of myth (see Wernick 1983 for a succinct analysis), nicely combining the expropriated symbols of justice from the Biblical episode where Jesus saves the adulterer by asking those who are without sin to cast the first stone and Thomas Aquinas notion that sinners can be spared if they do not constitute an acute danger to the community (while serious and serial offenders, and especially heretics must be killed) into a new myth of Communist justice whose logical conclusion is not generosity at all but the utmost severity against everyone who appears to be in the way of the movement led by the Great Strong and Clever One.

The way Bukharin was dealt with (the interpretation of which makes for the main part of the 1999 article) is indeed not the reality that this story is conceived to cover up (Žižek is right that it is not ideological in such a trivial sense) – it is the realisation of what the story actually gestures at.

Totalitarian humour

In Žižek’s writings Bukharin, standing in as ideal type for the victim of the Stalinist purges in general, cuts a ridiculous figure. In anticommunist (as well as in some apologetic) discourses he exemplifies the way that the soldiers of the Communist Party were loyal to the cause to such an extent that they readily sacrificed both their life and their political integrity in insane confessions of counterrevolutionary guilt so as to further the power of Party and the Soviet Union. This would be mad enough, but at least make Bukharin a tragic figure. But Žižek’s Bukharin is not man enough to be tragic. He is soft. He is attached to a bourgeois moral sense of self, indulging in the delusion he could sway Stalin and the comrades to acknowledge that he, the Golden Boy of the Party according to Lenin, may have sinned and erred in practice – but all in good faith. He is loyal to the cause and will, in public, confess to the worst of crimes, but hopes that in private Stalin & Co. realise that the very fact that he cooperates in his own destruction is evidence enough that he has been always true to the cause. Žižek does some Lacanian conceptual magic on Stalin and Bukharin in which the former comes out as a pervert and the latter as a neurotic[16] – but the ethical story is rather plain. Bukharin neither has the guts to stand up to Stalin in public nor the strength to perform the ultimate sacrifice and give up the illusion of personal identity. He cannot accept that behind the mask of the party official and professional revolutionary there is not an actual person who has characteristics such as good will, integrity etc. In fact he falls under the verdict of unethical morality which, as seen, Žižek (2008: 244) contrasts with Stalin’s statement of immoral ethics: ‘a weakling who obeys moral rules and worries about guilt’.

Had he accepted that may not have saved his life, but at least redeemed his manhood in the eyes of History (i.e. history as told by Comrade Žižek), albeit at the price of his humanity. But he did not. Which means his case is not tragic but comic. When Žižek reports the Kafkaesque laughter of the comrades, and he more or less invites the reader to join in. Žižek does note that there has been a nasty turn in Soviet humour under Stalin – while it was rough already under Lenin it was, claims Žižek, still a liberating laughter. But under Stalin it became ‘victors’ laughter’ (Žižek 2008: 233). This is the laughter Horkheimer and Adorno identified in the reactions to cultural-industrial production:

„Gelacht wird darüber, daß es nichts zu lachen gibt. Allemal begleitet Lachen, das versöhnte wie das schreckliche, den Augenblick, da eine Furcht vergeht. Es zeigt Befreiung an, sei es aus leiblicher Gefahr, sei es aus den Fängen der Logik. Das versöhnte Lachen ertönt als Echo des Entronnenseins aus der Macht, das schlechte bewältigt die Furcht, indem es zu den Instanzen überläuft, die zu fürchten sind. Es ist das Echo der Macht als unentrinnbar. Fun ist ein Stahlbad.“ (Horkheimer/Adorno 1969: 148f.)

The object of laughter is the very fact that there is nothing to laugh about. Laughter, the reconciled as the terrible, always accompanies the moment when fear abates. It indicates liberation – be it from physical danger or be it from the claws of logic. Reconciled laughter rings out as echo of escape from power, bad laughter copes with fear by defecting to those powers which are to be feared. It is the echo of inescapable. Fun is a chalybeate bath.

Again adopting the standpoint of the cynic, Žižek notes the shift, but joins in the denigration of Bukharin anyway. Bukharin has nothing to laugh about as his attempts to somehow stay on the side of power fail miserably. And there is no escape either. But the others (and with them Žižek) who are hoping to survive the Purge by documenting their identification with the Leader can laugh, must laugh, as they have successfully defeated logic and can take their dip into the fortifying pool to come out steeled.

Žižek is often complimented on his sense of humour – but his humour consistently is a Stalinist one.[17] This becomes clear if we look at his popular “dusty balls” metaphor. Here Žižek delights in a Russian joke in which insult is added to injury-and-insult-and violation: A Mongolian warrior rapes a peasant and forces her husband to hold his testicles during the crime – the peasant later reveals that he took revenge by dirtying the Mongol’s testicles with dust. Lesson: don’t “dust the balls” of capitalism, cut them off! Žižek’s audiences find that hilarious. Victorious laughter that identifies with the rapist in the first instance and then with an imagined male saviour who would castrate his rival. The suggested world-historical solution, revolution as castration, structurally parallels the typical hyper-masculine reaction to rape in which the wronged appears not to be the victim herself but the man/men she belongs to – so the thus wronged man takes revenge by depriving the perpetrator of his manhood. This is a rhetorical device out of the toolbox of nationalist propaganda (imagining the nation as a raped women to be avenged) and it is also a common projection with brutal consequences in racists contexts (Jordan 1974: 80ff.). The fate of the most oppressed themselves (in the joke: the peasant woman) does not really matter here – this is between those in power and the leaders of the revolution either of whom either has or has not balls.

How does this compare to Father Brown’s laughter? It cannot be said that Chesterton does not employ humour in attempts to escape logic – he does so quite explicitly. But it never is a laughter that sides with the victor. To the contrary – in cases where strength and cleverness lead to decisive action, but immoral outcomes that go unchecked the evoked emotion in the otherwise light hearted stories is horror. There is one instance of first-as-a-farce-than-as-a-tragedy in the Innocence of Father Brown: In the story ‘The Flying Stars’ the (then still) master criminal Flambeau manages to escape by misleading one of the detectives chasing him into arresting the other detective – laughter of escape from harm. But in ‘The Sins of Prince Saradine’ (in the same collection) the trick is reversed and Father Brown and the (now reformed) private investigator Flambeau are witness to a double murder orchestrated by a strong (and heartless) and deceitful (clever) aristocrat who manages to get away with it by the trick he learned from Flambeau. The only one laughing here is the criminal.

“Laughing, God help us!” said Flambeau with a strong shudder.

The story of Prince Paul Saradine has an interesting twist which hints at the consequences of amorality not so much when it comes to appraising actions or character, but quite pragmatically analysing the course of events. The case in question is that Saradine has long ago had an affair with an Italian married woman which resulted in the suicide of her husband. Her son Antonelli, is now pursuing him to take revenge for his father while Saradine’s brother Stephen, on the other hand, has been blackmailing him out of nearly all his fortune. Saradine resolves the situation in that he, in exchange for food and shelter and a position of butler, hands over his identity and property completely to Stephen. Now all he has to do is to wait for Antonelli to find the fake Prince Saradine, i.e. Stephen, and murder him for what the real Prince has done. But the plan nearly fails:

“There was one hitch, and it is to the honour of human nature. Evil spirits like Saradine often blunder by never expecting the virtues of mankind. He took it for granted that the Italian’s blow, when it came, would be dark, violent and nameless, like the blow it avenged; that the victim would be knifed at night, or shot from behind a hedge, and so die without speech. It was a bad minute for Prince Paul when Antonelli’s chivalry proposed a formal duel, with all its possible explanations. It was then that I found him putting off in his boat with wild eyes. He was fleeing, bareheaded, in an open boat before Antonelli should learn who he was.

“But, however agitated, he was not hopeless. He knew the adventurer and he knew the fanatic. It was quite probable that Stephen, the adventurer, would hold his tongue, through his mere histrionic pleasure in playing a part, his lust for clinging to his new cosy quarters, his rascal’s trust in luck, and his fine fencing. It was certain that Antonelli, the fanatic, would hold his tongue, and be hanged without telling tales of his family. Paul hung about on the river till he knew the fight was over. Then he roused the town, brought the police, saw his two vanquished enemies taken away forever, and sat down smiling to his dinner.”

Like Saradine Žižek underestimates the importance of virtue (and plain decency). It is one thing with Nietzsche to deny the political value of morality and denounce it as ‘unethical morality’ of the weakling, as  ressentiment. It is another thing not to take it seriously when analysing the action of humans who understand themselves as moral agents (a mistake Nietzsche never made). This is one reason why Žižek does not get Bukharin. The fact that Bukharin was honestly concerned for two things that lay beyond his immediate ego preservation does not cross Žižek’s mind: the fate of his family (threatened by Stalin) and the fate of Communism (threatened by Stalin and by the rise of Fascism). He also does not realise that in fact, through these motivations and by daring and intelligent tactics in the court room he actually managed to preserve that which the victor’s laughter aimed at destroying: his dignity as human being in general and as a communist in particular. He tried to, in one stroke, save the face of Communism at the historical moment of antifascist struggle, save his wife and children and save his honour in the eyes of history. The success was limited – but in terms of ‘realism of character’ (Currie 1998) this motivation makes a little more sense than the suggestion of a neuroticism and weakness. Already at the time the more observant of his contemporaries clearly understood that by the very pedantry of his stringent confession to the most impossible crimes against the Soviet Union he was in fact incriminating not himself but those who scripted the plot of the alleged crimes. In addition Bukharin trips up the persecutors by taking it upon him to correct the script,[18] which was inconsistent, thereby showing up the confessions as works of badly written fiction from A to Z (and that even here he, Bukharin, is the superior writer).

Another illustration of the lack of moral imagination leading to analytical weakness is Žižek’s use of the ambiguities in the plot of Casablanca – which for reasons unfathomed tell him something about Stalinism. Here is Žižek’s account:

‘After Rick refuses to hand them over, she pulls a gun and threatens him. fie tells her, “Go ahead and shoot, you’ll be doing me a favor.” She breaks down and tearfully starts to tell him the story of why she left him in Paris. By the time she says, “If you knew how much I loved you, how much I still love you,” they are embracing in a close-up. The movie dissolves into a three-and-a-half-second shot of the airport tower at night, its searchlight circling, and then dissolves back to a shot from outside the window of Rick’s room, where he is standing, looking out and smoking a cigarette. He turns round and says, “And then?” She resumes her story . . . The question that immediately pops up here, of course, is: what happened in between, during the three-and-a-half-second shot of the airport —did they do it or not? Maltby is right to emphasize that, as to this point, the film is not simply ambiguous; it rather generates two very clear, although mutually exclusive meanings —they did it, and they did not do it, that is, the film gives unambiguous signals that they did it, and simultaneously unambiguous signals that they cannot have done it. On the one hand, a series of codified features signal that they did do it, namely that the three-and-a-half-second shot stands for a longer period of time (the dissolve of the couple passionately embracing usually signals the act after the fade-out; the cigarette is also the standard sign of postcoital relaxation; up to the vulgar phallic connotation of the tower); on the other hand, a parallel series of features signals that they did not do it, namely that the three-and-a-half-second shot of the airport tower corresponds to the real diegetic time (the bed in the background is undisturbed; the same conversation seems to go on without a break; and so on).’ (Žižek 2008: 241f.)

Žižek is confused as to how to read those ‘signals’. If we take the movie on its own terms there is not much confusion: they could have ‘done it’, but did not. That’s what Father Brown and Sherlock Holmes would have concluded – on factual evidence the however unlikely but still possible story is the one that is true. Here the physical evidence (undisturbed bed) beats the suggestive symbolic evidence (cigarettes and airport towers). The story of the film is that Rick does the right thing for the right reason. And he indicates this, in Ilsa’s presence, to Victor Laszlo, saying that ‘She tried everything to get them [the documents] and nothing worked. She did her best to convince me that she was still in love with me. That was all over long ago. For your sake she pretended it wasn’t and I let her pretend.’ To which Victor replies ‘I understand.’ To which Žižek replies:

Well, I certainly do not understand – is Rick saying to Victor that he made love to his wife or not? Maltby’s solution is to insist that this scene provided an exemplary case of how Casablanca “deliberately constructs itself in such a way as to offer distinct and alternative sources of pleasure to two people sitting next to each other in the same cinema,” that is, that it “could play to both ‘innocent’ and ‘sophisticated’ audiences alike. While, at the level of its surface narrative line, the film can be constructed by the spectator as obeying the strictest moral codes, it simultaneously offers to the “sophisticated” enough clues to construct an alternative, sexually much more daring narrative line. This strategy is more complex than it may appear: precisely because you knew that you are as it were “covered” or “absolved from guilty impulses”‘ by the official story line, you are allowed to indulge in dirty fantasies — you know that these fantasies are not “serious,” that they do not count in the eyes of the big Other … So our only correction to Maltby would be that we do not need two spectators sitting next to each other: one and the Mme spectator, split in two, is sufficient.

To put it in Lacanian terms: during the infamous three and a half seconds, Ilsa and Rick did not do it for the big Other, the order of public appearance, but they did do it for our dirty fantasmatic imagination —this is the structure of inherent transgression at its purest, that is, Hollywood needs both levels in order to function.’ (Žižek 2008: 241f.)

So far, so Lacan. But what would Father Brown conclude?  First of all he would, as Aristotelian, put the actual above the potential. And the not actualised possibility remains there as such. Temptation resisted. Of course the rejected remains represented. But it is there for all to see and you don’t even need to be sophisticated in inverted commas to see it. So there is nothing to understand in what Rick tells Laszlo: it is clear that instead of selling the documents for sex he gave them up as he realised that this constitutes acting in character. He needs to talk to Victor so to make that clear (as had he done differently he would better not show his face, unless – completely against the logic of the plot – he was to humiliate Victor who to accompany he urges Ilsa against her own desires). Both the higher cause and what Father Brown would see as concern for the soul or Bukharin for concern for personal integrity conspire against the petty criminality which may well be taken as a symbol for capitalism. Capitalism that bred fascism. And against fascism self-respecting criminals, honest police officers and political activists are bound to a code of honour (hence the Chinese translation of the closing lines “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” indeed is not so far off the mark  ‘The two of us will now constitute a new cell of anti-fascist struggle’ (Žižek 2008: 9)).

Žižek can only apply the testicular logic of identification with the man who does it. So the Lacanian interpretation may apply to himself as viewer. The movie affords indulging in fantasies about Ilsa/Bergmann (but, Žižek fails to notice for obvious reasons, more so about Rick/Bogart, since the cinema audience at the time was primarily female). However: what for? Why the antifascist justification. There was no need for such excuses in, say, the 1939 movie Intermezzo. Žižek sees sexual innuendo and the possibility of arousal and like a caricature of a Freudian thinks he has the culprit. It is a bit like the Wisdom of the Machine (i.e. the lie detector), which Father Brown dismisses:

“The method,” remarked the other, “has been guaranteed by some of the greatest American men of science.”

“What sentimentalists men of science are!” exclaimed Father Brown, “and how much more sentimental must American men of science be! Who but a Yankee would think of proving anything from heart-throbs? Why, they must be as sentimental as a man who thinks a woman is in love with him if she blushes. That’s a test from the circulation of the blood, discovered by the immortal Harvey; and a jolly rotten test, too.”

“But surely,” insisted Flambeau, “it might point pretty straight at something or other.”

“There’s a disadvantage in a stick pointing straight,” answered the other. “What is it? Why, the other end of the stick always points the opposite way. It depends whether you get hold of the stick by the right end. I saw the thing done once and I’ve never believed in it since.”

The wrong end of the stick indeed. The romantic side is the obvious, straightforward plot that the audience can follow easily since it has been, over decades, accustomed to it. Casablanca is, at its surface, pure romance.[19] What happens is the reverse of what Žižek proposes: the viewer is confronted with a straightforward romantic plot and can arrive, with some sophistication, at a moral alternative about the possibility of a dignified existence beyond monetary and sexual predation. It is precisely this decency which film celebrates that justifies its inclusion in the “Why we fight” series. It links up true love with political duty. In a comment on Che Guevara and his attitude to romance Žižek, genially, comes up with an interpretation that does not contribute a thing to our understanding of Che – but says everything about Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca.

‘But the hard lesson to be learned is that, precisely as such, love (the amorous relationship) should not be the direct goal of one’s life – when one confronts the choice between love and duty, duty should prevail., True love is modest, like a couple in a Marguerite Duras novel: while the two lovers hold hands, they do not look into each other’s eyes; the look together outwards, to some third point, their common Cause.’ (Žižek 2010: 109)

That is precisely what is going on between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca. But as it doesn’t fit the agenda the possibility is dismissed outright and some “dirty” fantasies are invented. And it is precisely the grounds of political action that Bukharin rightfully invokes under the laughter of his comrades: emotional commitment to concrete others are the starting point and foundation of commitment to the species being. And that commitment to humanity is at certain historical moments the very condition of possibility of love and life itself. Which is why at those moments (and never anytime else), duty tops love.

Rick: Don’t you sometimes wonder if it’s worth all this? I mean what you’re fighting for.

Victor Laszlo: You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.

R: Well, what of it? It’ll be out of its misery.

VL: You know how you sound, Mr. Blaine? Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.

Urging Rick to act according to this heart, Victor Laszlo has invoked the man that Ilsa can love – and because that love was reinstated they have to break up. That sort of human tragedy does not fit into a rehabilitation of totalitarianism and contradicts the immoral ethics advocated in its support. It is more like something Hannah Arendt would invoke… or, in fact, Father Brown.

Unlike the story about Bolshevik severe justice Casablanca is indeed about the redefinition of moral categories. And in its transformation of individualism as self-centred profit-seeking to an individualism of human decency, which includes obligation to humanity as much as obligation to the immediate other it is by far more sublime than that little story.

Mystical empiricism versus mystification

In the justification of Stalinism as carrier of a myth Žižek engages in mystification. Mystification in the service of true liberation (at least nominally), but mystification nonetheless. As I have mentioned, he can draw on Chesterton for templates of such mystification, as Father Brown, in one instance at least, allows the heroic but untrue version of a story stand in the service of the inspiring history for boys whose inspirational value would suffer from the corroding effects of grown-up history.

It from the above-mentioned cynical vantage point that Žižek misunderstands the decision of Father Brown to leave in place the heroic myth around General St Clare in “the Broken Sword” as support for a principle according to which myth is preferable to truth where a greater good is at stake (as Žižek sees the humanist ideals of original Marxism sustained in its perversion in Stalinism, so Chesterton might see the humane ideals of the Christian nation sustained by its perversion in Imperialism). He compares the story to the plot of a classical western movie:

‘The story ends in the spirit of John Ford’s westerns which prefer heroic legend to truth (recall John Wayne’s final speech to the journalists about the ruthless general played by Henry Fonda, from Ford Apache): “Millions who never knew him shall love him like a father – this man whom the last few that knew him dealt with like dung. He shall be a saint; and the truth shall never be told of him, because I have made up my mind at last.”’ (Žižek 2008: 96)

The parallel is wrong, though. John Wayne speaks for the officers who secretly court-martialed and executed St Clare and then decided to present the world with a false myth. Father Brown just tolerates their decision – and he does so under the proviso that no (reputational or worse) harm is done to anyone who has not deserved it. As I have argued in the previous post: this assumption is conceited – unless we were to deny the aggravating role of ideology in the later crimes of Empire. By keeping silent Father Brown infantilises the recipients of historical accounts which remain a history for boys (as in the quote at the beginning of this post) who need inspiration to build their characters (as muscular Christians, as future English gentlemen) and deprives them of the postulated duty of the adult to question the utility of the historical event. The kind of history for boys, think of Henrietta Marshall’s Our Island Story, contributed to the fact that there were many St Clares to come, for instance in Kenya in the 1950s. But unlike Žižek with respect to Stalinism, Chesterton does not suggest that Imperialism somehow saved the ideals that it perverted. (again: this is the difference between mystical empiricism and mystification, even where, as in the case of the Broken Sword, the empirics are at their weakest)

And Father Brown was also wrong for the very reason Žižek appears to think he is right. Žižek suggests the possible denunciation of the myth as fabrication would lead to a denunciation of what Father Brown presents as the true culprit: Christianity, specifically Protestantism:

Chesterton’s theological finesse is discernible in the way he allocates the responsibility for the general’s gradual downfall: it is not the general’s betrayal of the Christian faith through his moral corruption due to the predominance of base materialist motives. Chesterton is wise enough to depict the cause of the general’s moral downfall as inherent to Christianity: the general “was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him.” It was the particular – in this case, Protestant – reading that is held responsible. (Žižek 2008: 96)

But that is a blatant misreading. Father Brown does not, convenient as it would be for the Catholic priest, blame Protestantism but the fact that St Clare read his bible under an “Oriental sun” and as a consequence with particular attention to the violence and greed in the Old (Jewish) Testament – betraying his author’s racist and antisemitic sentiments. But the point Žižek is trying to make is that it would be wrong to refer to a metaphysical tradition when explaining historical catastrophes (and he cleverly chides not only Adorno but also Heidegger for such attempts, thereby supporting his project to exempt Heidegger’s philosophy and its disastrous yearning for authenticity and realisation from historical judgement).

Again, Chesterton is not at all innocent of historical mystifications and his hagiography of Thomas Aquinas is just one example of his tendency to mystify historical truths (with the preferred objects of mystification being his main causes: the Catholic Church and the English Nation). But Father Brown tends to be more honest and earthbound than his author. He follows the idealisation that Chesterton drew of Aquinas who puts his trust in the assumption that if Earth is Creation, the terrestrial facts cannot contradict theology – and therefore if facts seem to contradict theology, then theology was not proper theology and needs to be rewritten.

For instance, in the matter of the inspiration of Scripture, he fixed first on the obvious fact, which was forgotten by four furious centuries of sectarian battle, that the meaning of Scripture is very far from self-evident and that we must often interpret it in the light of other truths. If a literal interpretation is really and flatly contradicted by an obvious fact, why then we can only say that the literal interpretation must be a false interpretation. But the fact must really be an obvious fact. And unfortunately, nineteenth century scientists were just as ready to jump to the conclusion that any guess about nature was an obvious fact, as were seventeenth-century sectarians to jump to the conclusion that any guess about Scripture was the obvious explanation.

The implication is clear: the only reason why empirical science and Catholic theology cannot contradict each other is because both yield, when done correctly, the truth. Therefore a theological dogma that is in contradiction to observed empirical reality must be the result of incorrect readings and interpretations. In Žižek it is the other way round: the truth that is the possession of the political avant-garde is not an empirical reality but an insight that awaits realisation. It is a revolutionary truth that has to be imposed on a resistant reality by an elite – by an authoritarian leader. The appropriation of the Chestertonian wisdom that it is with an open mind as with an open mouth – one has to close it on something hard – is twisted to mean that one has to create something that is solid, introduce hardness into a soft world. In Chesterton, and especially for Father Brown the hard thing the open mind has to close in on is empirical fact – even if the facts seem to contradict each other or cannot be accommodated by a coherent theory about reality. It is the tolerance of ambiguity which is necessary to live with the world as it is that Chesterton calls “mysticism” – the exact opposite of Žižek’s vociferous ambiguity intolerance.

“Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery, you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees | two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also.” (Chesterton 1908: 48)

This is a commonsensical conservative attitude that contrasts with Žižek’s (Chesterton would call it “fanatical”) event-revolutionism. But the transformative potential of this attitude should not be underestimated since the coexistence of fact and fiction that such “mysticism” allows for does open an imaginative utopian horizon that in the end is richer and more tempting than the fantasies of revenge and retribution that Žižek’s Blanquism de facto amounts to.

But first of all, such mystical empiricism is a heuristic tool as it comes to skilful application in the abductive conclusions of Father Brown. Thomas Seboek and Jean Umiker-Seboek (1988) have shown that rather than solely or even mainly relying on deduction, as he pronounces in his manifesto in A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes relies much on the imagination and keeps venturing series of guesses – Peircean abductive conclusions.

“See the value of imagination,” said Holmes. “It is the one quality which Gregory lacks. We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified. Let us proceed.”

The ideal-typical Popperian scientist starts with a theory from which she deduces a hypothesis by means of deduction (which must be true if the premise is true). She then exposes those deductions to empirical testing in which (not strictly speaking, but sort of) inductions are made from reality which either coincide with the theoretical deductions (in which case the theory can be upheld as not yet refuted) or not (in which case we need a new theory). The big question is: where does the theory come from? Theories are stories that account in a coherent way for all the relevant facts – and there is no rational methodology to arrive at a new one. This is where it becomes mystical (but only in the sense that we do not really understand how it works, not in the sense that there needs to be a spiritual source). After Father Brown, in The Queer Feet has given a conclusive theory of the elaborate and skilful theft of the silverware from the gentlemen’s club, their president is impressed – but still puzzled:

“And the interesting story begins,” muttered Pound. “I think I understand his professional trick. But I don’t seem to have got hold of yours.”

“I must be going,” said Father Brown.

He must be going not because like an illusionist he does not want to reveal his tricks – he must be going because he simply cannot reveal it. He is not aware of what is at the heart of his “mystical” ability to come up with true stories. Although in a way he does know, as he begins his narrative by saying:

“You see, colonel,” he said, “I was shut up in that small room there doing some writing, …”

pointing out is insulation from practical involvement, while, as he continues, highlighting his close familiarity with the criminal milieu. A paradoxical combination of proximity and separation, knowledge and ignorance – of being at once a citizen and a stranger – that frames the mystical capacity. This mysticism thus flows from the position that the priest shares with the police detective, the doctor,[20] the shaman,[21] and (hopefully) the skilled social scientist. It consists in the ability of inventing plausible stories that account for given realities (and not to mystify those realities as, really, symptoms of the opposite of what they actually are) –by inferring both premises and rules from the results. This mysticism is strictly confined to its function as heuristic tool and it has to constantly prove itself in accounting for observed facts (i.e. the abduction must lead to deductions that have be consistent with inductions). Socially and politically prescriptive non-empirical philosophy as produced by the likes of Heidegger and Žižek excel in mystically conjuring up suggestive inferences (mostly using word magic) – but they are so impressed with their own imagination that they do not seem to see any need to defend their insights against an empirical reality that contradicts them. Against Heideggerian intrusions into the social sciences Brian Morris insists that, while the imagination is a crucial ingredient in the scientific process, the last test, compatibility with observed empirical reality, cannot be replaced with the felt authenticity of the theorists deep thought:

‘Knowledge as truth, and as the representation of some given object of study – such as hunting in Malawi, or local cultural schemas – entails of course, re-presentation, the making present of what is actually absent. This involves a unique gift of the human mind – imagination. The notion, that scientific thought does not involve the imagination is one of the popular misconceptions of science – but science also involves the critical testing of evidence for a particular theory, which thus makes it distinct from poetry.’ (Morris 1997: 322)

Heidegger’s “realism” is explicitly pre-scientific in that it puts truth before observation (Morris 1997: 323) and thereby, in the last consequence, egomaniacally breaks the link to the only reassurance that we can have regarding the adequacy of our world views: intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity can and often does perpetuate prejudice and ideology – and the antisocial impulse in Heideggerian thinking with its search for self-contained authenticity draws on such social deception as a justification for its retreat from the evil das Man. But who really looks for truth lives in between the extremes of immersion into gossip (Heidegger’s abhorred Gerede) and retreat into existential contemplation – and that is the professional position that serious seekers and finders of truths (as opposed to the Truth) have always occupied. They have always sought (or have been confined to) positions that both involve them in what they investigate and distance them from it. A Catholic priest working in poorer districts, Father Brown may be, through celibacy and obligation to godly life, removed from the everyday life of his parishioners he hears innumerable confessions about it. He has intimate knowledge of desires, motivations, reasonings etc. – but he is relieved from the pressure of immediate everyday praxis and thus gains the privilege of idle reflection on that praxis. But the reflection, the imagination takes off from that praxis and comes down to it again. While the thought process is shrouded in mystique of the roaming open mind, the starting and end points are hard facts on which that mind has to close itself. Never ever is the cleric tempted to call in the divine or the spiritual to explain what happened – the stories always turn out to be very profane. There is always the proverbial “natural explanation for this.”

The relation between unchecked fantasy and the controlled imagination is nicely exposed in The Honour of Israel Gow in which the investigators (police inspector Craven, Father Brown and his friend, former criminal and now private detective Flambeau) are confronted with a strange collection of things in the castle of the deceased Earl of Glengyle:

“I will read the inventory,” began Craven gravely, picking up one of the papers, “the inventory of what we found loose and unexplained in the castle. You are to understand that the place generally was dismantled and neglected; but one or two rooms had plainly been inhabited in a simple but not squalid style by somebody; somebody who was not the servant Gow. The list is as follows:

“First item. A very considerable hoard of precious stones, nearly all diamonds, and all of them loose, without any setting whatever. Of course, it is natural that the Ogilvies should have family jewels; but those are exactly the jewels that are almost always set in particular articles of ornament. The Ogilvies would seem to have kept theirs loose in their pockets, like coppers.

“Second item. Heaps and heaps of loose snuff, not kept in a horn, or even a pouch, but lying in heaps on the mantelpieces, on the sideboard, on the piano, anywhere. It looks as if the old gentleman would not take the trouble to look in a pocket or lift a lid.

“Third item. Here and there about the house curious little heaps of minute pieces of metal, some like steel springs and some in the form of microscopic wheels. As if they had gutted some mechanical toy.

“Fourth item. The wax candles, which have to be stuck in bottle necks because there is nothing else to stick them in. Now I wish you to note how very much queerer all this is than anything we anticipated. For the central riddle we are prepared; we have all seen at a glance that there was something wrong about the last earl. We have come here to find out whether he really lived here, whether he really died here, whether that red-haired scarecrow who did his burying had anything to do with his dying. But suppose the worst in all this, the most lurid or melodramatic solution you like. Suppose the servant really killed the master, or suppose the master isn’t really dead, or suppose the master is dressed up as the servant, or suppose the servant is buried for the master; invent what Wilkie Collins’ tragedy you like, and you still have not explained a candle without a candlestick, or why an elderly gentleman of good family should habitually spill snuff on the piano. The core of the tale we could imagine; it is the fringes that are mysterious. By no stretch of fancy can the human mind connect together snuff and diamonds and wax and loose clockwork.”

“I think I see the connection,” said the priest. “This Glengyle was mad against the French Revolution. He was an enthusiast for the ancien regime, and was trying to re-enact literally the family life of the last Bourbons. He had snuff because it was the eighteenth century luxury; wax candles, because they were the eighteenth century lighting; the mechanical bits of iron represent the locksmith hobby of Louis XVI; the diamonds are for the Diamond Necklace of Marie Antoinette.”

Both the other men were staring at him with round eyes. “What a perfectly extraordinary notion!” cried Flambeau. “Do you really think that is the truth?”

“I am perfectly sure it isn’t,” answered Father Brown, “only you said that nobody could connect snuff and diamonds and clockwork and candles. I give you that connection off-hand. The real truth, I am very sure, lies deeper.”

He paused a moment and listened to the wailing of the wind in the turrets. Then he said, “The late Earl of Glengyle was a thief. He lived a second and darker life as a desperate housebreaker. He did not have any candlesticks because he only used these candles cut short in the little lantern he carried. The snuff he employed as the fiercest French criminals have used pepper: to fling it suddenly in dense masses in the face of a captor or pursuer. But the final proof is in the curious coincidence of the diamonds and the small steel wheels. Surely that makes everything plain to you? Diamonds and small steel wheels are the only two instruments with which you can cut out a pane of glass.”

The bough of a broken pine tree lashed heavily in the blast against the windowpane behind them, as if in parody of a burglar, but they did not turn round. Their eyes were fastened on Father Brown.

“Diamonds and small wheels,” repeated Craven ruminating. “Is that all that makes you think it the true explanation?”

“I don’t think it the true explanation,” replied the priest placidly; “but you said that nobody could connect the four things. The true tale, of course, is something much more humdrum. Glengyle had found, or thought he had found, precious stones on his estate. Somebody had bamboozled him with those loose brilliants, saying they were found in the castle caverns. The little wheels are some diamond-cutting affair. He had to do the thing very roughly and in a small way, with the help of a few shepherds or rude fellows on these hills. Snuff is the one great luxury of such Scotch shepherds; it’s the one thing with which you can bribe them. They didn’t have candlesticks because they didn’t want them; they held the candles in their hands when they explored the caves.”

“Is that all?” asked Flambeau after a long pause. “Have we got to the dull truth at last?”

“Oh, no,” said Father Brown.

As the wind died in the most distant pine woods with a long hoot as of mockery Father Brown, with an utterly impassive face, went on:

“I only suggested that because you said one could not plausibly connect snuff with clockwork or candles with bright stones. Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle. But we want the real explanation of the castle and the universe. But are there no other exhibits?”

Father Brown has an extraordinary talent for making up stories, for making things sound like true accounts even if they are completely made up. The point here is that it is important to have at hand as many as possible of such stories – and then keep exposing them to the factual evidence until only one last can stand up to it. Even that might not be true – so Father Brown looks for further confirmation. Ideally that would be a confession of the perpetrator when confronted with the evidence (i.e. departing from the more traditional Catholic methods which Father Brown dismisses alongside their secularised modern version, the lie detector)[22] In the case of Israel Gow no crime has been committed: the odd assembly of items (and the absence of the Earl’s skull!) simply resulted from Gow’s honest, but very literal, reading of his master’s last will, which entitled him to all the gold, but nothing else (so he removed the jewels from the golden rings, the candles from the golden candle sticks, steel springs from the golden watches etc etc – and removed the skull to break out the gold teeth). Without a crime a confession is out of the question. So like a good Popperian scientist Father Brown develops a hypothesis from his theory, makes a prediction and waits for results:

“…He has stripped the house of gold, and taken not a grain that was not gold; not so much as a grain of snuff. He lifted the gold leaf off an old illumination, fully satisfied that he left the rest unspoilt. All that I understood; but I could not understand this skull business. I was really uneasy about that human head buried among the potatoes. It distressed me—till Flambeau said the word.

“It will be all right. He will put the skull back in the grave, when he has taken the gold out of the tooth.”

And, indeed, when Flambeau crossed the hill that morning, he saw that strange being, the just miser, digging at the desecrated grave, the plaid round his throat thrashing out in the mountain wind; the sober top hat on his head.

For the mystical empiricist a case is only made if there is factual evidence to support it. By implication: if the facts contradict it, we need to think anew. Žižek’s plea for Lost Causes is made on the contrasting premise that if an idea has not stood the test of application then we have to keep trying no matter what and reinterpret the history of failure to “salvage” the pure idea’s innocence. And by “reinterpretation” I here mean: denying the facts their obvious significance.

We can pit Chesterton’s invented priest and Žižek’s action-man philosopher Heidegger against each other. Heidegger is famed for his reintroduction of (rural) lived experience into ontology. But it is, as has been noted by some, a very theoretical lived experience that is drawn upon. Heidegger does precisely what Chesterton accuses 19th century scientists of: he mistakes his guesses for obvious facts. In one of the few cases where Heidegger stoops down to do the dirty work of artefact analysis – interpreting a painting by Vincent Van Gogh (and the pair of shoes it depicts) – he fails miserably. Not that he does not come up with an imaginative story explaining not just those shoes, but shoeness as such. However, the Marxist art critic Mayer Shapiro has famously savaged Heidegger’s text, showing that what Heidegger thinks to be an old peasants’ shoes (despite himself noting that they do not show any traces of earth), are in fact the artist’s own shoes.

I can’t stand the ideology of neither Žižek nor Chesterton – but when it comes to methodology it is clearly Chesterton’s Father Brown who still can teach us a thing or two.


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[1] The Entgleisungen of his recent comments on refugees demonstrate the main thrust of this project: a celebration of European progressive heritage.

[2] Žižek’s and right wing populists’ use of the notion of “political correctness” and statement of the “politically incorrect” in most cases are just an obfuscation. They are implying that the obscenities they are voicing are factually correct but unfortunately politically undesirable and hence suppressed, while in most cases they are just politically motivated, but factually incorrect.

[3] not, that is, beyond a vague allusion to a transition from an exchange of goods to an exchange of services – a strange reverberation of the notion of a post-industrial economy that is driven by the service sector… but then he has a penchant for Margaret Thatcher.

[4] Catholics are kidding themselves if they think that the Church was a bulwark against Fascism. It was an obstacle to Fascism as it was a competing institution which impeded the totalisation of State and Party. But it delivered much of the ideological material, especially the virulent anti-Judaism which nationalists (many with a Catholic background) transformed into modern antisemitism.

[5] He disagrees with him on some detail regarding Hegel, but that is as far as it goes.

[6] The correct quote from Chesterton’s autobiography reads: ‘[…]the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.’

[7] The uncomfortable truth about ultra-nationalism and antisemitism is that they are just more popular than socialism and communism – especially when what is addressed is not the misery of inequality and exploitation, but discomfort with “atonal” bourgeois culture. Žižek suggests that the reason why really existing socialism of the GDR needed much greater secret police apparatuses than Nazi Germany was that paradoxically the values that legitimated the GDR were much more dangerous to those in power than those of the Nazis. This is true to an extent – but only to an extent. And Žižek conveniently leaves out important historical conditions. Nazi Germany had more consent from the population because nationalism and antisemitism simply were more popular and (for those who qualified according to the racial laws of Nuremberg) more inclusive than communism. It was also less demanding: as Žižek himself observes it was not a deep-going social revolution so outside the public rituals that punctuated everyday life, ordinary routines could continue. Further, Hitler’s leadership in the Nazi Party was largely uncontested, while Stalin hijacked the CPSU from an established elite of first-generation Bolsheviks who had the blessings of Lenin – particularly Bukharin whose trial Žižek has a few things to say about – and the means to gain power was via the apparatus of the secret police. And finally, the GDR was neighbour to the FRG where life was better not only for the bourgeois but visibly so also for the majority of the industrial workers. The FRG also had media that happened to be in the language of the GDR and the capitalist propaganda that is advertising (Žižek should know something about that) flooded all but a small corner of the GDR. Given all those factors (and also given that while the repression in the GDR was more tightly knit it was also in many ways less brutal than that of the Nazis) – shall we really go with Žižek’s story that the propaganda of the GDR ideologically perpetuated a Truth whose realisation the elites of the GDR and their masters in Moscow denied? And above all it needs to be remembered that millions of Germans had their political socialisation in working class organisations – Social Democrats, Communists and Radical Socialists – in which Marxism was a quasi-religious belief: did they suddenly stop resisting because the official state doctrine did not perpetuate the teachings of the classics (as Brecht called writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin)? And the Soviet Union was still there as the Big Other (and for those in the KPD also as the Big Brother), inspiring hope for liberation. Only it did not really as the Truth-preserving USSR of the Great Terror abandoned the Communists abroad – they were, until they were surprised by Operation Barbarossa, quite sympathetic and even agreed on a deal that made it easier for Hitler to kick off the next world war without having to worry about an Eastern front…

[8] A security which is only possible by means of eradication of all alternative projects – which explains why in its culmination in Fascism this kind of project combines the two extreme expressions of necrophilia (Fromm 1974): total and frozen order as the end state of the Fascist System and total decay and devastation as spectacular fate of its Other.

[9] The Party was wrong to send agitators to China and not to trust local communists. The disaster that was Maoism and the final result that is dictatorial capitalism means that, no, the Revolution was not successful. The idea that it is better to tolerate suppression until a fully fledged Leninist party structure is in place to lead the masses into revolution and until the party leaders have divined that, yes, now is a revolutionary moment, is not only bad propaganda in that it discredits the Communist Party that looks on while workers’ revolts are put down but normally also strategically wrong because party leaders have been notoriously deluded about the dynamics of revolutionary situations (Lenin himself being one of the very few exceptions). Tragically, only a few years after Die Maßnahme was written the KPD proved incapable or realising that Spring 1933 was a time where militant action on a mass basis was urgently required, paradigmatically disproving the insight that “the thousand eyes” of the Party could gather. Finally, the proposed attitude of opportunism promoted by the play in the long run just leads to a corrosion of character which means that workers must realise sooner or later that they better don’t trust a Party official…

[10] “Justified” in the sense that it is given a justification – not in the sense that it was the right thing to do.

[11] In fact – they did. But Brecht in his delusions about the wisdom of the Party could not see them.

[12] The human cultural capacity of play that is liberated from practical constraint and insulated from everyday practice – yet by that very insulation and irreality can become a source for the transformation of real praxis – has been classically analysed by Johan Huizinga in his Homo ludens later taken up by Heidegger’s unacknowledged Gegenspieler Helmuth Plessner who in his Grenzen der Gemeinschaft (Limits of Community) of 1924 foresaw the kind of things the author of the 1927 Sein and Zeit  and his academic and literary brothers in arms were heading to.

[13] Žižek calls her, with some justification, a “liberal Heideggerian”, with the problem identified not in the very problematic Heideggerian premises which undermine her analyses by introducing some conservative prejudice, but in the liberalism.

[14] The suggestive infinity  of capital accumulation that is due to the total abstraction of the commodity as pure exchange value both symbolised and materialised in money. Marx, Simmel… Deutschmann, The promise of wealth

[15] His great project here is the exculpation of the theorist/ideologue. Unlike Chesterton’s Oberon Quin in The Sheriff of Notting Hill the greats of European Geistesgeschichte are not to blame for the implications of their intellectual production. Žižek sneers at those who, like Theodor W. Adorno or Susan Sontag, trace the roots of Fascism not just to the ideological productions of its key figures but to the political, philosophical and aesthetical elements from which they assembled their worlds. In this, his arguments very much resembles the normalisation discourses pervasive in West Germany that tried to narrow down denazification by insisting you could not reject everything that has happened between 1933 and 1945 on the grounds that it was a murderous regime, citing innocent instances like the construction of motorways (innocent, that is, in a pre-ecological age…). Žižek insists that things like Riefenstahl-style representations of mass events cannot be dismissed as proto-fascist because they are in themselves a socialist form of activism which the Fascists stole from the workers’ movments. Notoriously, Žižek gets the historical facts wrong: the staging of synchronised masses are not an invention of the labour movement but of nationalism – its ‘political liturgy’ as George L. Mosse (1974) has called it. It is probably true that Fascism indeed copied much from socialism here, but socialism itself copied and further accentuated them from 19th century nationalism, borrowing mythical elements of the . And it turns out those liturgies really were better suited to the Fascist project than to the Socialist one. Žižek argues the complete innocence of anyone but the Fascist leaders themselves.

‘None of the “proto-fascist” elements is per se fascist, what makes them “fascist” is only their specific articulation – or, to put it in Stephen Jay Gould’s terms, all these elements are “ex-apted” by fascism. In other words, there is no “fascism avant la lettre,” because it is the letter itself (the nomination) which makes out of the bundle of elements fascism proper.’ (Žižek 2008: 138)

Žižek borrows Stephen Jay Gould’s term of “exaptation” (better known as “spandrels”) to account for those protofascist elements –  and of course they are not teleologically linked to Fascism as an integration of all those elements into a violent political movement and then a murderous system of domination. But the dismissal is interesting especially given the implication of the concept from evolutionary biology: Exaptations or spandrels, as Gould (1997) (and already Gould and Lewontin 1979) make clear are indeed a way of explaining non-adaptive changes out of an inherent developmental logic without relapsing into teleology (i.e. not by bringing back the “sky-hooks” but by supplying another “crane”). They are still elements of explanation. So elements identified as exaptations reconcilable with Darwinian natural selection (instead of conscious, i.e. non-Darwinian, adaptions) only become irrelevant if we are looking for guilt and revenge rather than causes. Or if we live in a psychoanalytical universe in which the everyday logic of causation-as-retribution (Kelsen 1941) is reintroduced into social theory. In trying to taint the search for the roots of 20th Century totalitarianisms, a search at the heart of Critical Theory, as some kind of philosophical police work Žižek reveals that his own project is a moralistic one in which the honour of a lineage of politico-philosophical saints is to be defended. And of course the term of “exaptation” is ill-applied anyway. An exaptation is a side-effect of an adapative mutation that survives not because of its own adaptive value but because it is genetically linked to another mutation (with whose adaptive nature it does not interfere). The political liturgy of nationalism as it was developed in the French Revolution and then went into nearly all political movements of the 19th and 20th Centuries was a very conscious adaptation, a new way of gaining and maintaining political power which was continuously improved to reach its horrible perfection in the staging of mass rituals under Hitler and Stalin. Žižek of course knows this, placing himself firmly into a Jacobin tradition both in respect to the idea of the nation and its metaphysical will and in respect to the legitimacy of terror that flows from it.

[16] NB that generally, in Žižek’s world, a pervert has revolutionary energy and potential while, in the antisemite’s world “neurotic” is a “Jewish” characteristic. Given that the Purges were infused with antisemitic rhetoric (and a tendency to go for Jewish victims), even though Bukharin was not Jewish himself, the depiction of a victim of the Purge as “neurotic” attached to a bourgeois sense of self can be read as a sleight of hand designed to vindicate that suggestive rhetoric of what would find its culmination in the alleged Doctors’ Plot – the successive degeneration of the critique of the political economy into a loose assemblage of set pieces lifted from antisemitic ideology.

[17] A good example is the “Lacanian” joke “I never break the rules since it is I who makes the rules”. At first sight this is indeed funny as it seems to ridicule the autocrat – but then we find that Žižek is prone to display exactly that attitude to discursive practice:

‘In short, one should not allow the enemy to define the terrain of the battle and its stakes, so that we end up abstractly opposing him, supporting a negative copy of what he wants. To be clear and brutal to teh end, there is a lesson to be learned from Hermann Goering’s reply in the early 1940s, to a fanatical Nazi who asked him why he protected a well-known Jew from deportation: “In this city, I decide who is a Jew!” (an answer, incidentally, attributed already to many other German figures who protected their privileged Jews, from Bismarck to Karl Lüger). In this city, it is we who decide what is left, so we should simply ignore liberal accusation of “inconsistency.”’  (2008: 136)

NB how he overlooks the idiotic implication of what he says – which would not happened to anybody with basic comedy skills – namely that in effect he designates Goering as a moderate Nazi! NB too the rhetorical twist. He claims to assert the authority vis-à-vis “the enemy” to define terms and territory, but in his example the authority is exerted vis-à-vis lower ranking friends. He then goes on to dismiss, in the name of authority of the Left in their own city, typical leftist criticism against the adoption of protofascist tropes in political discourses. Naturally, not everyone is impressed with Žižek’s use of jokes (most of which it has to be said are second-hand anyway). Personally I doubt he would survive in a British topical panel show…

[18] E.g.

‘VYSHINSKY: You deny Khodjayev’s testimony? I invited Khodjayev just now to testify against you because I consider it important to illustrate the fact that your “bloc of Rights and Trotskytes” gave instructions from case to case, as you put it, depending upon circumstances, for the organization of an insurrectionary, diversionist and wrecking movement. Do you agree with that? 

Bukharin: I agree with that. Only I must clarify it, so as to avoid confusion. The uprisings you are referring to took place in 1930, whereas the “bloc of Rights and Trotskyites” was organized, as you are aware, Citizen Procurator, in 1933.’

[19] Which is why it was so easily mutilated in the cutting and dubbing for the post-war West German release: the romance remained unaffected, and the antifascism disappeared completely.

[20] It is not by accident that Sherlock Holmes’ real life template was a medical doctor, Dr Stephen Bell!

[21] Michele Stephen and Luh Ketut Suryani (2000) have some very interesting observations how in Balinese shamans, balians, the involved-insulated positionality leads to Sherlock-Holmes-like abilities to identify the problem they are consulted about before they are told by their clients


“I’ve been reading,” said Flambeau, “of this new psychometric method they talk about so much, especially in America. You know what I mean; they put a pulsometer on a man’s wrist and judge by how his heart goes at the pronunciation of certain words. What do you think of it?”

“I think it very interesting,” replied Father Brown; “it reminds me of that interesting idea in the Dark Ages that blood would flow from a corpse if the murderer touched it.”

“Do you really mean,” demanded his friend, “that you think the two methods equally valuable?”

“I think them equally valueless,” replied Brown. “Blood flows, fast or slow, in dead folk or living, for so many more million reasons than we can ever know. Blood will have to flow very funnily; blood will have to flow up the Matterhorn, before I will take it as a sign that I am to shed it.”

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  1. a quick note on Chesterton (Father Brown) and Zizek (Heidegger, Stalin) [#withoutwords] | metax‎‎ý

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