Friday, September 21, 2012

Obama's Foreign Policy Failures

Obama's foreign policy approach is looking deeply naive. Here's a deeply reported piece on his China policy in the NYT, which clearly relies on discussions with the White House. It claims he is shifting to a tougher line with China, after initial accommodation delivered poor results:

The shift emerged in fits and starts, after a first year in which critics, including the president’s aides, concluded that the United States had been too soft on China. In interviews, a dozen current and former administration officials described a White House that struggled to find the right tone with Beijing.

From his decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama in 2009 to his tightly constrained first trip to China, the president accommodated Chinese leaders in the hopes that the moves would translate into good will on issues like climate change or Iran’s nuclear program.

They did not. China spurned the United States on climate change standards, dragged its feet on efforts to pressure Iran and began bullying its neighbors over territorial claims in the South China Sea. That last development, in particular, persuaded the administration that the time for accommodation had come to an end.

The same story has played out with Iran.

To some extent, Mr. Obama’s learning curve on China parallels his early outreach to Iran: an initial hope that old adversaries could put aside their differences, followed by a jolting recognition of reality and the ultimate adoption of a realpolitik approach. The difference, officials argue, is that in this case the tougher line has led not to stalemate but to a constructive give-and-take with a country bound to rub up against the United States.

(My bold). Wishful thinking, in other words, was the basis of his foreign policy, and all the more so in his notorious Cairo speech. This is a deeply shocking account. A President is not there to have a "jolting recognition of reality" halfway through his term. That is shameful.

Charles Krauthammer is no friend to the Obama administration, of course. Still, his blistering attack in the Washington Post this morning makes sense. He says it is a foreign policy in "epic collapse."

It’s now three years since the Cairo speech. Look around. The Islamic world is convulsed with an explosion of anti-Americanism. From Tunisia to Lebanon, American schools, businesses and diplomatic facilities set ablaze. A U.S. ambassador and three others murdered in Benghazi. The black flag of Salafism, of which al-Qaeda is a prominent element, raised over our embassies in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Sudan.
The administration, staggered and confused, blames it all on a 14-minute trailer for a film no one has seen and may not even exist.

What else can it say? Admit that its doctrinal premises were supremely naive and its policies deeply corrosive to American influence?

In foreign policy terms, I'm not a complete "realist", as the doctrine goes. Not everything is pure power or narrowly defined national interest. Legitimacy and ideas count as well. But you do have to deal with reality as you find it.

Much liberal foreign (and domestic) policy has a Hogwarts quality about it. It imagines that saying the right words can work like a magic spell, if only they are spoken in the right way. Perhaps that is a very old conviction about ritual that dates back to the earliest religions. But unfortunately the world does not respond to magic.


Magnificent uselessness?

This is a magnificent achievement of old-style scholarship, detailed in the NYT.

Now, scholars at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago have completed almost 40 years of research and published online the final entries of a 2,000-page dictionary that more than doubles the thousands of known Demotic words.

Scholars have spent their entire careers on the dictionary of Demotic, the common speech of Egypt two thousand years ago. The elite spoke Greek, but the ordinary people still spoke a form of the ancient Egyptian language, written in its own script.

It comes on the back of the completion of another huge dictionary.

For the Oriental Institute, this is the culmination of a second long-running dictionary project in little more than a year. The final installment of the 21-volume dictionary of the language of ancient Mesopotamia and its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects was completed last year after 90 years of scholarly labor.
Imagine - ninety years of specialized work, on something which will only be used by a handful of Assyriologists.

On one level, it is supremely, magnificently un-useful. It isn't going to create internet billionaires or cure cancer.

But it advances the shores of knowledge. It is a contribution to civilization, and a stunning example of meticulous persistence and precision. It would be a terrible pity if there were not resources for this kind of work, this kind of patient application over long stretches of time and the devotion of people who work so far from popular taste.

There is something very admirable about it. It is exemplary virtue, and I tend to believe we need to shift towards rewarding virtue more than financial return.

After all, winning the 100 meters in the Olympics or winning an Oscar for a romcom isn't "useful" either. It isn't always clear in advance what will be useful and what will not. Very obscure areas of pure mathematics, like prime number theory, have turned out to be the basis of the security algorithms which underpin the Internet economy.

It is an enormous achievement of skill and persistence. If universities are going to be under more financial pressure in coming years, hopefully the obscure but real fields like this will be protected, rather than the armies of central bureaucrats.

Of course, there's a much bigger issue here - what is "useful" in general terms. Before, that was clear. It was whatever contributed to survival, whether for you or your family or village. It was food on the table and a guard at the gate to stop raiders.

Now, as abundance approaches, it is probably more activities which contribute to the richness of life. And I just like the genuine diversity of people devoting themselves to ancient Demotic or Babylonian.




Thursday, September 20, 2012

The rot in the Apricot Garden

There's a magnificent exhibition at the Met of Chinese paintings of gardens and landscapes, which shouldn't be missed.

Many of the paintings evoke the scholar/gentleman at a pavillion lost in the mountains, contemplating nature, like this one, Wang Xizhi watching Geese.

They are a depiction of the refined good life, devoted to cultural accomplishment, and taking pleasure in simplicity and beauty and nature. It is a compelling vision.

But such paintings also frequently reflect a desire to find seclusion or peace in a very troubled world. The painting dates to around 1295, during the Yuan Dynasty established by Mongol invaders. Kublai Khan had destroyed the Southern Song Dynasty in the 1270s, and whole generation of scholar-officials had to come to terms with the loss of their world. This is a continuing theme throughout Chinese history of officials - selected by examination on the Chinese literary classics - seeking retreat from the intrigues of court or the corrupting practicalities of administration.

Sometimes the opposite problem occurs. There is a room in the exhibition which is focused on literary gatherings, including a scene of high officials gathering to look at paintings.

This, Elegant Scene in the Apricot Garden, depicts an actual meeting in 1437. It is a peak of cultural elegance and refinement, and power. But, as the museum write-up explains, there was a drawback.

One of the primary social functions of a Chinese garden was to serve as the setting for literary gatherings where like-minded friends might celebrate the season, enjoy music, or view rare antiquities, afterward composing poems to commemorate the event. Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden, attributed to the court artist Xie Huan, documents a historical event that took place in Beijing in 1437. On that occasion, nine of the most powerful officials in the realm gathered to enjoy painting, poetry, and other refined pursuits. Rather than be portrayed wielding emblems of political or military power, these men chose to emphasize their standing as scholar-gentlemen, highlighting the fact that, in China, status derived from one's command of cultural accomplishments.

These same men were also responsible for calling a halt to Admiral Zheng He's voyages of exploration, thus underscoring their belief that inward-oriented self-examination was more important than outward-looking exploration. Surrounded by oceans and deserts, and countries whose cultures they regarded as inferior, they saw China as a great walled garden, sufficient unto itself.

Isolation and decline followed.

There is a deeper point here. I was talking yesterday about the difference between "classical" and "modern" views of the good life. The classical view, according to Suits, confined intrinsic value to activities that only an elite could reach, like discussing philosophy - or sitting elegantly in the apricot garden. The modern view is more "democratic", simply valuing the process of playing games rather than particular ends.

So here we have a depiction of the problem with elites - they become self-satisfied and static and inward-looking. Their values and virtues tend to become corrupt.

Here, the picture is elegant and refined, but ultimately closed and empty and contemptuous of others.

This is so often the problem with trying to aim for higher levels in society. Elevation often turns corrupt or inert. Aristocracies or merchant princes turn into rentiers. Any respect for achievement declines as the elite turns rancid.

But the "democratic" view has its problems too, of vulgarity and anomie and cruelty, as we also saw this week with the nasty celebrity gossip industry.

Egalitarianism is often incompatible with flourishing or development. By default, there is no recognition for anything except wealth and power and glamor, because any other distinctions are illegitimate or ignored.

I was thinking about what led us to live in New York back in January ( apart from being able to go see exhibitions like this at the Met).

Is it freedom from we want here in New York, or freedom to, in Isaiah Berlin's old phrase?

Maybe that's the phase transition. We've had a century where we have - slowly and painfully - evolved institutions which deal with freedom from - want, hunger, violence, scarcity. But we haven't really begin to get our heads around the next stage, freedom to.

New York represents a kaleidoscope of experience and stimulation - freedom to do new things. But as a society we haven't decided whether we want to use freedom to do new things, or what it means for us.

This is our current picture of the good life, perhaps.

We have the picture here of the scholar in nature, the philosopher kings drinking tea and writing poetry, and the paparazzi photos of the future queen of England brought down to earth. Three very different worlds.



Our algorithmic overlords

The WSJ reviews a new book about the prevalence of algorithmic decision-making. We shouldn't blame algorithms so much as the objectives their designers build into them, it says. We need to be transparent about that.

On the whole, though, Mr. Steiner believes that we need to accept our algorithmic overlords. Accept them we might—but first we should vigorously, and transparently, debate the rules they are imposing. Following several high-profile scandals involving algorithmic trading, regulators in Hong Kong have recently proposed that all such algorithms be audited and tested every year. Similar calls have been made with regard to independent audits of Google's search algorithms—if only to avoid the impression that the company might be favoring its own services in its search results.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Games and Purpose

We're talking about Bernard Suits' book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.

There is a major difficult issue for me, however. Suits emphasizes the process of games. It has had me thinking about the relationship between purpose and games.

I've argued often on this blog that we need more of a sense of purpose in society. I think neutral procedural rules leave people with a very thin basis for life. They mean we lose the substance of what we want as a society in favor of neutral rules. It is as if we have a referee, but no actual games.

But is that kind of purpose or end actually achievable in games? Is the goal, the purpose in games intrinsically valueless? That would be a problem for how I see things, because the whole point of games for me is to provide a purpose.

According to Thomas Hurka's introduction to the book,

Game-playing must have some external goal one aims at , but the specific features of this goal are irrelevant to the activity's value, which is entirely one of process rather than product, journey rather than destination. That's why playing in games gives the clearest expression of a modern as against a classical view of value - because the modern view centres on the value of process. (p17, my bold)
So on this argument, by focusing on games we would actually be entrenching the neutral procedural view of value. Aristotle believed that the value of the process must derive from the value of its goal, he says, and so ends mattered more than actions. For Hurka, however, the moderns are very different.

Marx and Nietzsche would never put it this way - their styles are far too earnest - but what each valued was in effect playing in games, in Marx's case the game of material production when there's no longer any instrumental need for it, in Nietzche's case the game of exercising power just for the sake of doing so.
Marx thought in the great communist future material work and production would still be the major objective, Hurka says:

.. Marx held that when scarcity is overcome and humans enter the realm of freedom;, they'll still have work as their 'prime want', so they'll engage in the process of production for its own sake without any interest in its goal as such. (p18)
(Ironically, some on the right who would see the future just as more and more specialized production of goods - more and more brands of coffee at the store - actually echo vulgar Marxism.)

Suits' modern approach is more democratic than the classical view, says Hurka.

More generally, the values found paradigmatically in playing in games can be found in any activity which is difficult and valued partly for its difficulty - in raising a family, running a community organization, renovating a house and so on. So these values can be found in many activiites and therefore achieved by many people. Classical views tended to confine intrinsically valuable activity to the small elite who can discuss philosophy, contemplate God, or engage in whatever their stipulated highest activity is. By contrast, the modern view that Suits defends extends the opportunity for a good life, democratically, to many people. p19-20.
I think there is something wrong with this view. First, even a mere temporary contingent purpose, within a game, is better for people than having no purpose at all. If the goal is nothing more than the Yankees winning the World Series, that at least will make some people happy. White Sox fans can continue to have the goal of pride in their brave loserdom.

A multiplicity of games can serve a multiplicity of purposes which can nonetheless serve a real good. In a way, Suits makes the same mistake he accuses Wittgenstein of making - confusing the surface multiplicity of goals with the underlying one of how they contribute to the good life. It is not simply process. It is exercising the virtues, showing excellence which is the goal. Putting the ball in the back of the net is the immediate goal, but the ultimate goal is stimulation and flow and excellence.

So there is no reason to see it largely as a matter of elevating process over ends. Indeed, the entire point of games is to find a contingent purpose which serves the larger purpose of enjoyment and pleasure and flourishing .. life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in fact. We could still believe in that in 1776, rather than just the process.

Maybe it is a matter of looking for and promoting the best games, the ones which are most effective at producing aspects of the good life. Suits' approach more or less implies that it does not matter what kind of games we play, or what the rules are, or what the prelusory goals are, so long as we play them. And that is not true.

Some games are better than others. Some games are like Angry Birds, and get played a million times a day. Thousands of others languish in the App Store. Some chance is involved, of course, but some games are designed better than others.

And the whole point of the "modern" approach, as Hurka puts it, is that we do not try to design games at all. The playing alone matters, and there is no real way to distinguish whether some play is "better" than others apart from its difficulty. The specific features of the external goal are relevant to an activity's value. The destination does matter.

And it does not have to be just aristocratic ends, or the notion that only being a philosopher is praiseworthy. We just need a broader definition of human flourishing than the aristocratic or martial ones of the past. The problem is what the destination should be, not whether we should have one.

I'll think more about direct versus indirect purpose, however, because as Hurka implies, this issue of process is embedded so deep in contemporary attitudes.


The net goes physical

Slate reviews a new book by Chris Anderson of Wired:

The PC spawned the ubiquitous Internet, which in turn inspired a social and economic revolution in digital media: the Web, Napster, blogging, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Still, digital media represents only a tiny sliver of the world economy. Now, Anderson argues, the maker movement is bringing the same technical advances that we saw in media—instant reproduction, endless customization, easy fabrication, and much more widely distributed means of production—to the much larger business of physical things. In the same way that the Web allowed amateurs to become journalists and photographers and filmmakers, these new technologies will let inventive doodlers turn their creations into real stuff. And not just stuff, but stuff that can be made on a large scale and sold to people around the world, competing with the mass-manufactured goods that now dominate our retail shelves. If things go well, we might even see the American economy benefitting from something many of us thought was in permanent decline—local manufacturing. “You think the last two decades were amazing?” Anderson asks. “Just wait.”

We've looked at some of this before, in terms of improved automation and algorithms.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Grasshopper: Games and Purpose

I've become steadily more interested in games , as prime ways in which we can entrance and stimulate people. They can provide motivation and purpose quite separate from the compulsion to make a living to survive.

If growing material abundance means our major challenge is finding purpose and the right rules to help people achieve the good life (or at least a better life),  then games must be a central part of the conversation.

G recommended I should read The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits, a Canadian philosopher. It was originally published in the 1970s, but it has enjoyed a new lease of life in the last decade among those people who think about games.  It is quite a lively and short book, mostly in the form of a dialogue between a grasshopper - in fact, Aesop's careless insect who dies after failing to make provision for the onset of winter -  and some friends.

Defining games and Wittgenstein

There are several issues here. First is Suits' definition of games.
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs (prelusory goal). using means only permitted by rules (lusory means), where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means (constitutive rules) and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity (lusory attitude). I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. (p55, my bold)

The prelusory goal  is an aim which can be described independently of the game, such as putting the ball in the hole in golf or reaching the summit of a mountain. The function of rules is to forbid the most efficient means to reach the goal (such as placing the golfball in the hole with your hand, or riding a helicopter to the summit of the mountain.) And the player has to be willing to accept the rules.

Finding a definition of a game actually relates to one of the most crucial issues in philosophy. Wittgenstein famously argued in Philosophical Investigations that no single definition of games is possible, because there is no single essence. Instead, there are many concepts with overlapping similarities, just "family resemblances". And so conceptual analysis, breaking things down into components, does not necessarily help solve problems.  In the words of Thomas Hurka in the Introduction to Suits' book, there are no "sharp edges" to concepts.

Wittgenstein advocated "look and see whether there is anything common to all" instances of a concept. "This is unexceptional advice", says Suits. "Unfortunately, Wittgenstein himself did not follow it." He looked too cursorily at games, Suits says, and so saw only surface differences rather than abstract, conceptual similarities.

I'm not convinced Suits' definition is sufficiently robust, however. "Ring a ring a rosie" is a particular problem in the book, as are other instances where drama and games overlap. Of course it is possible to come up with a definition, even a good definition - as Suits has done. But that does not mean a single essence is proven, except tautologically by means of the definition. Language and practices "in the field" may be wider.

And in any case, I think the essence of games is more to induce the right level of flow or stimulation, following Cziksentmihalyi. I would see them as relating to a purpose rather than particular conceptual features.

Utopia and games

Suits concludes the book by imagining a kind of utopia. Some utopian theorists take this quite seriously as a contribution to utopian theory. But I read it more simply as just a brief thought experiment, because it is very restrictive in its assumptions.

In his world, all instrumental aims that people may have - food, shelter, security, belonging - are taken care of. All interpersonal rivalry or tension or longing is gone. No moral excellence nor evil need exist any more, and the subjects of art are therefore all gone too. What would be left when we were completely free to do anything we wanted?
G: I believe that Utopia is intelligible, and I believe game playing is what makes utopia intelligible. What we have shown this far is that there does not appear to be anything to do in Utopia, precisely because all instrumental activities have been eliminated. There is nothing to strive for precisely because everything has already been achieved. What we need, therefore, is some activity in which what is instrumental  is inseparably combined with what is intrinsically valuable, and where the activity is not itself an instrument for some further end. Games meet this requirement perfectly. For in games we must have obstacles which we can strive to overcome just so that we can possess the activity as a whole, namely, playing the game. Game playing makes it possible to retain enough effort in Utopia to make life worth living. 
S: What you are saying is that in Utopia the only thing left to do would be to play games, so that game playing turns out to the whole of the ideal of existence?
 G: So it would appear, at least at this stage of our investigation. 
Utopia might not be sustainable, Grasshopper warns, as some utopian inhabitants might eventually conclude that if tasks were merely games instead of useful, life would not be worth living. Laboriously woven clothing might come to be seen as better than abundant machine-made clothing, for example. A certain amount of difficulty, in a way, is the supreme good in the form of games.

The grasshopper concludes that, unlike a laboring ant,

.. I am truly the grasshopper; that is an adumbration of the ideal of existence, just as the games we play in our non-utopian lives are intimations of things to come. For even now it is games which give us something to do when there is nothing to do. We thus call games 'pastimes', and regard them as trifling fillers of the interstices of our lives. But they are much more important than that. They are clues to the future. And their serious cultivation now is perhaps our only salvation. That, if you like, is the metaphysics of leisure time. (p159)

The idea is fascinating, and congruent with my interest in games. It is impossible to take all instrumentality away , of course. But nonetheless games would perhaps be most of what is left in conditions of abundance. The world would be much more like a game. The rules and institutions and goals of the games we play would matter much more than the old aims of survival and confronting nature.

Game-playing itself is not the good life. But it may be conducive to it.

I've got just a little more to say about the book in the next post.

"Breaking up the echo"

This is a very nice op-Ed in the NYT by Cass Sunstein about how people assimilate information contrary to their views. Mostly - they don't.

The news here is not encouraging. In the face of entrenched social divisions, there’s a risk that presentations that carefully explore both sides will be counterproductive. And when a group, responding to false information, becomes more strident, efforts to correct the record may make things worse.

Can anything be done? There is no simple term for the answer, so let’s make one up: surprising validators.

Such "validators" are people you would not expect to hold a contrary view, so you cannot immediately dismiss them. Small cues like appearance or food preferences or background can have a disproportionate effect in subverting expectations like this. The logic is "if someone like THAT says it, maybe I should rethink."


Monday, September 17, 2012

Blasphemy and trade-offs

Constitutional scholar Eugene Volokh, who heads up the Volokh Conspiracy blog, writes that attempting to clamp down on speech which Muslims find offensive is actually more dangerous than holding the line:

I think there are many reasons to resist such calls, but in this post I want to focus on one: I think such suppression would likely lead to more riots and more deaths, not less. Here’s why.

Behavior that gets rewarded, gets repeated. (Relatedly, “once you have paid him the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane.”) Say that the murders in Libya lead us to pass a law banning some kinds of speech that Muslims find offensive or blasphemous, or reinterpreting our First Amendment rules to make it possible to punish such speech under some existing law.

What then will extremist Muslims see? They killed several Americans (maybe itself a plus from their view). In exchange, they’ve gotten America to submit to their will. And on top of that, they’ve gotten back at blasphemers, and deter future blasphemy. A triple victory.


I've been thinking a little more about the riots. There is an instance here of a more general problem: often the right course of action requires more sacrifice or even makes things worse on some measures in the short term.

For example, saving money makes you less well off now in consumption terms, but better off in the long run. When FDR and Congress declared war on imperial Japan in the wake of Pearl Harbor, it made things much worse on a short-term perspective, as any Marine on the beach at Iwo Jima could testify.

People are often very bad at making trade-offs in time or discounting the future. Still, the right answer to this problem is not necessarily the one that calms frenzied Islamic mobs in the short term.

Yes, responsible leaders ought to try to damp down short-term emotions. But then they also need to think rationally about the situation, rather than engage in wishful thinking.

Much of the problem in the Middle East is inherent conflicts are avoided or kept simmering without resolution. Volokh cites Pew research which finds more than three-quarters of Egyptian Muslims support the death penalty for apostasy, I.e leaving the Muslim religion. The Arab Street is deeply hostile to and profoundly at odds with our way of life. It is possible to try to damp things down too much.

There is little upside to compromsing our own principles to try to buy favor with Islamic mobs. If it is not a stupid video today, it will be rioting for the return of Al-Andalus to Islam tomorrow.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


This is encouraging, in a way. John McPhee, staff writer for the New Yorker and one of the most successful and accomplished nonfiction writers ever, author of over thirty books, describes his writing process:

It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own—all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning—I just try to write.

I've read several of his books over the years, including Coming into the Country when I travelled around Alaska years ago, and Annals of the Former World about the geology of the North American continent. They are beautifully crafted, although very much about particular people as much as ideas. They are almost always very biographical, telling a story, which is no doubt what makes them more commercial, too.


Education: "The Machines are Taking Over."

Computers have been used as classroom tools for many years, but now they may actually be becoming useful. This NYT magazine article describes how or ex-teacher is trying to replicate expensive tutoring that usually only wealthy kids get.

Each time her students use the computerized tutor to do their homework, the program collects data on how well they’re doing: which problems they got wrong, how many times they used the hint button. The information is automatically collated into a report, which is available to Delaney on her own computer before the next morning’s class. (Reports on individual students can be accessed by their parents.) “With ASSISTments, I know none of my students are falling through the cracks,” Delaney told me.

After completing a few warm-up problems on their school’s iPod Touches, the students turned to the front of the room, where Thienpont projected a spreadsheet of the previous night’s homework. Like stock traders going over the day’s returns, the students scanned the data, comparing their own grades with the class average and picking out the problems that gave their classmates trouble. (“If you got a question wrong, but a lot of other people got it wrong, too, you don’t feel so bad,” Tyler explained.)

It may not replace the teacher but it potentially increases the effectiveness of teaching by allowing some automated one-to-one responsiveness.


Zizek: Genius or clown?

I've been looking at some contemporary leftist thinking recently, just out of a sense I should be familiar with their arguments. I think often they mistly speak just to the like-minded and don't get challenged enough.

Slavoj Zizek is one of the major figures, but it's difficult to know where to start with his huge output of books. So here's a starting point: John Gray writes about the famous leftist theorist in the NYRB:

There may be some who are tempted to condemn Žižek as a philosopher of irrationalism whose praise of violence is more reminiscent of the far right than the radical left. His writings are often offensive and at times (as when he writes of Hitler being present “in the Jew”) obscene. There is a mocking frivolity in Žižek’s paeans to terror that recalls the Italian Futurist and ultra-nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Fascist (and later Maoist) fellow traveler Curzio Malaparte more than any thinker in the Marxian tradition. But there is another reading of Žižek, which may be more plausible, in which he is no more an epigone of the right than he is a disciple of Marx or Lenin.

Whether or not Marx’s vision of communism is “the inherent capitalist fantasy,” Žižek’s vision—which apart from rejecting earlier conceptions lacks any definite content—is well adapted to an economy based on the continuous production of novel commodities and experiences, each supposed to be different from any that has gone before. With the prevailing capitalist order aware that it is in trouble but unable to conceive of practicable alternatives, Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility. That there should be this isomorphism between Žižek’s thinking and contemporary capitalism is not surprising. After all, it is only an economy of the kind that exists today that could produce a thinker such as Žižek. The role of global public intellectual Žižek performs has emerged along with a media apparatus and a culture of celebrity that are integral to the current model of capitalist expansion.

Here's a more sympathetic view in the LA review of books.

Žižek will frequently present what he views as a commonly accepted belief, then turn around and ask, “But is not the exact opposite the case?!” And then, as one continues reading, it often begins to seem as though the forcefully asserted opposite view is not quite Žižek’s own; it too gets called into question, with the surprising result that the first naïve view begins to look somehow less naïve.

The initial reversal can sometimes look alarmingly like a cheap, Christopher Hitchens-style contrarianism, particularly since Žižek’s political writings often start with a mainstream liberal view and then assert one that sounds much more right-wing. Yet the point is not simply to “provoke” liberals or to play devil’s advocate. Rather, these reversals are part of a strategy to keep the thought in motion. Instead of proposing a solution or finding a resting place, Žižek relentlessly seeks out further conflicts and contradictions, carrying out what Marx called “the ruthless criticism of everything existing.” The goal is not to arrive at a settled view, but to achieve greater clarity about what is really at issue, about what is really at stake in a given debate.

I'll read one of his books at some point, probably Less than Nothing.