My Thoughts on Slavoj Zizek’s Notion of Withdrawal from Immediate Engagement

Today’s hegemonic ideology is this kind of state of emergency ideology. What we need is to withdraw — don’t be afraid to withdraw and think. You know, Marx thesis eleven: philosophers have only interpreted the world; the time is, we have now to change it. Maybe, as good Marxists, we should turn it around. Maybe we are trying to change it too much. It’s time to redraw and to interpret it again, because do we really know what is going on today? ….Don’t be — don’t feel guilty for withdrawing from immediate engagement and for trying to understand what’s going on.

This is about Slavoj Zizek’s statement in an interview in Democracy Now about his thoughts in the War On Iraq, War on Terror, among others. See link below

One of the most glaring points in Zizek’s interview is his call for a ‘strategic withdrawal from immediate engagement.’

Zizek’s statement is rather straightforward. I fully understand that Zizek is coming from a traumatized position, particularly from the rather disappointing experience of what he calls the ‘Really Existing Socialism’, or those of the USSR and the Soviet bloc, among others. Stalinism was a total catastrophe for him, and he viewed the events that lead from the emancipatory explosion of the Russian October Revolution to the catastrophe that is Stalinism as a complex phenomenon. To make this phenomenon more palatable, we can say that Stalinism can be considered to be a pragmatistic (and hence irrational) mode of socialist system that failed to be.

Zizek claims that ‘maybe we are tryng to change the world too much.’ In this he warns us against blindingly acting out our Marxisms which may eventually lead to reenacting the horrors of Really Existing Socialism.

And all of these seems right. ‘We must stop and think first’, ‘interpret the world again,’ ‘withdraw from acting and try to figure out what is happening in world first’, etc. This reversal of Marx’s ‘thesis eleven’, however, seems to be more pragmatist than Marxist.

Zizek is obviously romanticizing the role of the intellectual in his point; the intellectual must be trailblazer who will figure out the terrain first before the whole group will proceed. Yes, this is true, but must be intellectual necessarily be impotent, isolated from immediate engagement, thinking for hours in his thinking chair until he finally figures out the puzzle?

Maybe Zizek needs to read go back to his Marx. The intellectual is not an isolated subject, class-less and free, unengaged in the daily workings of capital. Despite the singularities of his individuality and his role as an intellectual, he is still part and parcel of the larger systems of capital and politics. From this point alone, withdrawal from immediate is in fact impossible. Selling books and finding the best spot to give a lecture on are all actions that swim inside the current mechanisms of the system. As all actions are political (as Zizek himself may easily point out as part of his toilet humor), one does not need to join rallies or bear arm to make himself politically relevant. Indeed, the ‘withdrawal’ from immediate engagement itself is a political choice that seeks to depoliticize the act of philosophical excursion and ‘figuring out what the fuck is really happening.’

More importantly, one must place Zizek’s statement in the conjunction with dialectics of theory and practice. Tracing the parameters and describing the picture of today’s capitalism will never be achieved potently with just researching on the internet or discussing with your fellow Marxists. First and foremost, an epistemology of capitalism will only be extracted in its fullest by delving in it. Experiencing capitalism and engaging it head-on (practice) is one of the most important ways to create a new, working and dynamic conceptual framework of contemporary capitalism. Hence, withdrawing from immediate engagement will definitely not do the work. This act is only an act of compliance to the logic of the system, playing capitalism’s own game. The thing is: once we disengage ourselves from the immediate emergencies, yes, we may finally come up to a working framework. But then, capitalism will again transform and again we will construct another framework, repeating the cycle endlessly and wasting our intellectual efforts.

And finally, the most important truth is, do we really have the assurance that we can create a perfect framework and resolve the dilemmas of capitalism once and for all if we stop from ‘changing the world’ now’ and give our efforts to figuring it? The sad fact is, as the dialectic of theory and practice is dynamic and arduous, what we really need to do is keep on changing the world while we learn our lessons until the system is exhausted as hell.


2 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Slavoj Zizek’s Notion of Withdrawal from Immediate Engagement”

  1. precisely the promblem of much western “marxism” –inverting Marx’s injunction to move from mere interpretation to the actual act of changing the world –returning to the realm of a philosophy after Marx consigned it to the dustbin of history in favor of studied practice

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