Saturday, August 30, 2014

Some of the reasons I like Laibach, plus Slavoj Zizek

Well, first off I basically had the same philosophical background as them. I'm not sure how many of their fans really take it seriously, but the philosophical parts of what they do aren't trivial. Before getting into them I had been familiar with Marxist Humanism, and specifically the Yugoslav variant of it, for years. Wolfgang Leonhard's "Three Faces of Marxism", where Yugoslav Marxist-Humanism was one of the faces, was a favorite, as was his "Eurocommunism: a challenge for East and West", which had a substantial amount on both Yugoslav Communism and variants that were related to it. Mihailo Markovic, one of the founders of the "Praxis" school in Yugoslavia, was familiar through his book "From Affluence to Praxis". All of this was part of a greater interest in less authoritarian forms of Communism as it actually existed in the world.

Before that, the writers that informed these guys, such as Herbert Marcuse, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Erich Fromm, were also familiar to me, as were their later opponents. These would be Louis Althusser and his followers, whose "Structural Marxism", whose failings were pretty obvious from the start. Ye, I have been through the valley of Louis Althusser discussing the "Rational Kernal" in "Hegel Standing on His Head" in Marx, contained in the book of essays "For Marx", and have shown no fear.
And I have read many of the Post-Structuralists and Post-Modernists, two groups that Laibach identifies with in various ways.

The hidden dimension, or a hidden dimension, in Laibach and their critique of the Yugoslav state, is the role that New Left Marxist Humanism played as the foil against which their critique was aimed. Because of the relative freedom in Communist Yugoslavia, writers like Herbert Marcuse were well known, and given semi-official status by the state. Reportedly, the Slovenian army required all new recruits to read "One Dimensional Man" by Marcuse, and conscription was compulsory.

Many people, including the ones I just cited, Leonhard and others, saw Yugoslavia as having the potential to fulfill the promise of New Left ideology, with concepts such as self-management, the devolution of authority to Republics, and in general a more decentralized system. Part of what Laibach was about at the beginning was challenging this notion of Yugoslavia as a kind of already realized socialist paradise by pointing out some of the less seemly aspects of it, and rejecting the philosophical premises that were approved of by the State, the Marxist Humanism aspect, and instead confront it with a seemingly authoritarian counter-critique.

One of the lesser known aspects of the famous first interview with Laibach, where they had shaved heads and acted like ambiguous advocates of some form of totalitarian discipline is that the questioner, in asking them what they were about, also asked them about their opinion of certain things based on a kind of Marcusian ideology, which they shot down with more anonymous pseudo-totalitarian advocacy.

Call it similar to objecting to the notion that Hungary was the "Gayest barracks in the camp", that is in the Eastern Bloc.

Anyways, Laibach appears to have appropriated the more hardline ideas from folks like Althusser and his sympathizers, which were much more congenial to Stalinism and Maoism than Marcuse, and ironically turned it against the Yugoslav state, critiquing both the distance between the theory and the realization of classic New Left theory as well as that of Structuralist Marxism.

Althusser and his school were part of the turn of politicos in the late sixties and early '70s towards a more 'serious' form of politics that was perceived to be more rigorous than what came before, which involved a turn to political figures like Stalin and Mao that would previously have been off limits, as well as towards Communist states like Albania, almost universally considered to be hell on earth but in the view of these folks an exemplar to support. Their anti-Humanism was, quite frankly, anti-human.

They were superseded in turn by the Post-Structuralists, whose turn towards the post likely had more to do with the turn of the student movement after '68 that had embraced Structuralist Marxism  rather than serious philosophical objections to people like Claude Levi-Strauss, for example.

Laibach, in adopting a post-modern approach to things like authorship of works and the notion of individual creativity, employed the strategy of Structuralist Marxism against itself, taking it to the point where it became self destroying...while simultaneously making criticisms of the Yugoslav state's flawed adoption of Marxist Humanism. The Yugoslav State still put artists in jail, as well as intellectual dissidents, despite the freedom of speech that existed there.

Post-Structuralist and Post-Modernist, they'd be great exemplars of this but for the fact that the mass of theory that's grown up around these concepts is jargon filled, unclear, a philosophical dead end, and sometimes unable to come to grips with basic logic. The Alan Sokal Affair is a good example of this, where Sokal cut and pasted already existing papers together to produce a new one that tried to prove that gravity was a social construction, submitted it to the journal "Social Text", and had it accepted. Reportedly, there were even academics who praised the text as elucidating fundamental truths even though it was a fraud. Ultimately, I think the reason for the mire is that Post-Structuralism has never been able to shake the authoritarian streak that Structuralist Marxism gave it.

Which is where Slavoj Zizek comes in. I personally don't think much of his philosophy or his philosophizing, but I believe he's popular basically because through sloppily letting in types of philosophy from outside of the Post-Structuralist mire he breathes life into what is essentially a dead, inconsistent, paradigm. These non post-structuralist ideas often seem to come from the milleux of local philosophical ideas that were developed during the last years of the Yugoslav state, some of them coming from a radical re-reading of Heidegger, that are relatively unknown outside of afficionados of the thought of that part of the world.

He defends Laibach, with his usual vim and vigor, but I believe that Zizek is indicative of the system having to cannibalize itself in order to go forward.

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