Žižek and his Borrowed Kettle

I thought we’d have some more Žižek – he’s always good for a laugh. This is from his book, iraq { the borrowed kettle; – I shall confine my analysis purely to the first two pages.

Žižek (a renowned philosopher, remember) makes an analogy between Freud’s “illustration of the logic of dream” via a borrowed kettle and the US government’s changing justifications for the invasion of Iraq.

This is Freud’s borrowed kettle dream-logic:

  1. I never borrowed a kettle from you
  2. I returned it to you unbroken
  3. The kettle was already broken when I got it from you

This is Žižek’s version of the US government’s changing justifications for invading Iraq:

  1. Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction which pose a “clear and present danger not only to his neighbours and Israel, but to all democratic Western states
  2. Even if Saddam does not have any WMDs, he was involved with al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attack, so he should be punished as part of the justified revenge for 9/11 and in order to prevent such attacks in the future
  3. Even if there is no proof of the link with al-Queda, Saddam’s regime is a ruthless dictatorial regime, a threat to its neightbours and a catastrophe to its own people, and this fact alone provides reason enough to topple it.

So, OK – do you think these two arguments are the same? Worth an analogy? Worth the title of the book? – Let’s have a look, eh?

Žižek asks, of the borrowed kettle example, “Did not the same inconsistency characterize the justification of the war on Iraq in early 2003?” – Fine, so the word to highlight here is “inconsistency”.

Now, the way to test for inconsistency in logical terms is to ask whether there are any conceivable circumstances under which each of the two sets of three statements could all be true.

In the first example, there don’t seem to be any such circumstances: if I claim I haven’t borrowed the kettle, then I can conceive no further circumstance in which I can consistently claim that I’ve returned it unbroken.

But in the second example, there clearly are circumstances in which these statements could be found to be consistent. Indeed, Žižek’s made it easy for us by putting in the conditional sentences. In fact, there is nothing remotely inconsistent about these arguments; they’re not even dependent on one another.

To be fair to Žižek, he does claim that the propositions in both 1) and 2) were disproved; but even if they were disproved, this would not affect the consistency of the arguments (though it might lead you to question their reasonableness). The arguments go along quite happily: if not 1, then 2; if not 2, then 3.

Žižek concludes, “What conferred a semblance of consistency on this multitude of reasons was, of course, ideology”. But, as we’ve seen, the “multitude of reasons” are consistent anyway, without having to bring in the notion of ideology. Indeed, I’m pretty sure, if I looked up what Mr Bush and Mr Blair claimed from the very beginning, I would find them putting forward all three arguments simultaneously.

So what’s my point with all this logic-chopping? – Well, it’s this. Žižek is trying to draw a parallel between a series of statements which are illogical and inconsistent, and a series of statements which aren’t, so that he can argue that the only way the second set of statements can be conceived as consistent is through ideology. That is, Žižek – a man who puts himself forward as a philosopher and intellectual – doesn’t seem to understand the first thing about philosophical logic (and this is, literally, the first thing); or if he does, then he is deviously forgetting it for the sake of his own ideological bias.

But to be fair, at least Žižek is here trying to put forward a coherent argument. In most of his work, I find he doesn’t usually bother.


9 thoughts on “Žižek and his Borrowed Kettle

  1. I think the parallel “inconsistency” Zizek is (or believes he is) illuminating between Freud’s kettle-dream ‘logic’ and the shifting Iraq-war rationalizations is prevaricative.

    In the kettle dream, 1. leads to 2. because 1. has been proven (or remembered, or otherwise admitted) to be false. Likewise, one couldn’t turn to claim 3. if one insisted on 2. (even a repair job militates against “unbroken” in 2.). The transitions from 1. to 2. and from 2. to 3. depend on having acknowledged the falsity of the (numerically and, here, chronologically) previous claim.

    In a similar way, the Iraq-war rationalizations shifted from WMD threat to al-Qaeda connections to threat to neighbors / disaster for Iraqis. The Rove administration came into office determined to re-fight the first Gulf war on some suitable pre-text, and the weapons-inspection obstructions were already at hand as an excuse when 9/11 hysteria provided the perfect (well, temporarily) added cover. As you suggest, the three arguments for attacking Saddam co-existed all through ’02, though I’m pretty sure the emphasis migrated in the order that Zizek recounts.

    Perhaps what Zizek is claiming – if not, he should be – is that the Rove administration (and Blair’s government) knew in the summer of ’01 (and were subsequently adequately ‘reminded’) that: 1. Saddam’s weapons were not dangerous to “Western democratic states” at that time; 2. Saddam’s Ba’ath government and bin Laden’s organization were mortal enemies at that time (and had always been); and 3. the “threat” and “catastrophe” to his neighbors and own people, respectively, that Saddam represented were somewhat the products of those Western democracies and their interests – and surely equalled by de-stabilizing threats and local catastrophes in Somalia, the Congo, Colombia, Pakistan, and so on.

    The point is that each of the latter three arguments (for the war) was, in 2002, already based on deception. Like in Freud’s kettle dream, the ‘logic’ that connects the three latter arguments is evasive:

    1.! Oh, ok. Then: 2.! Ah, I see. Well: 3.!

    I don’t know what Zizek means by “ideology”; I think, probably, an amorphous, slippery, all-encompassing bundle of ideas, like how ‘mentality’ used to be used, and how ‘culture’ has come to be used, as in “culture of international sport”, or “culture of Brixton” or “culture of the City”. He’s a pretty evasive idea-juggler himself – as you say, not exactly a stickler for coherence in his own writing.

    But his point in pressing this analogy – that arguments in support of the war were always and remain as fraudulent as those in the kettle dream (where I borrowed something, broke it while it was in my trust, and tried to sneak it back unaccountably) – seems to me reasonable.

  2. But they aren’t “as fradulent”. The borrowed kettle is logically inconsistent – each stage of the argument is inconsistent with the previous – the inconsistency is internal to what is being said; whereas the justification for war is not logically inconsistent: it is merely evasive, and each claim individually within it can only be found “inconsistent” with external facts.

    Here’s a little schematic version, since I too became troubled thinking about what was not drawn out sufficient in the borrowed kettle version:

    W – I didn’t borrow the kettle
    X – I returned the kettle unbroken
    Y – It was already broken when I borrowed it.
    Z – I didn’t break the kettle

    1.Since W, therefore Z.
    2.If not-W, X and not-W, therefore Z.
    3.If not-W and not-X, then Y and not-W and not-X, therefore Z.

    (That is to say, in 2, not-W is implied by X etc. – which isn’t the case below).

    W – Saddam has weapons of mass destruction
    X – Saddam is involved with al-Queda
    Y – Saddam is a bad man
    Z – We should invade Iraq

    1.Since W, therefore Z.
    2.If not-W, then X, therefore Z.
    3.If not-W and not-X, then Y, therefore Z.

    That is to say, each step in the argument doesn’t contradict the previous one.

    In A: X implies not W, and Z implies both not W and not X (indeed, more or less states them).
    In B: X and Y imply nothing about W or each other.

    Also, I don’t believe the governments involved at any point acknowledged the untruth of W and X (this is a claim they at the time denied, or ignored), so the whole argument can be simplified to:

    1.Since W or X or Y, therefore Z

    where W, X and Y are reasons which are in no way inter-dependent.

    But you don’t have to write out all this: – we feel naturally that the argument in Freud is absurd and contradictory; whereas we don’t feel the US government’s argument is absurd and contradictory, we merely suspect they are changing their minds as circumstances demand. (Just as, say, a Portsmouth supporter might change his allegiance to Southampton if he was tired of seeing his team lose all the time and most likely go into administration.)

  3. That last example you give could never happen. A Saints fan moving to Pompey is even less likely.

  4. But obooki, it’s the ‘inconsistency with external facts’, not a consistency of articulation with respect to the next or previous claim, that I’d hoped to disclose as a (possible) parallel in Zizek’s account.

    Not having read Zizek’s book on Iraq, I’ll just speak for myself: the jumping from lie to lie in your A series seems to me to be like the jumping from rationalization to rationalization in your B series.

    In A, what’s objectively true is that I did borrow the kettle and it did break while I was responsible for it. I reach for the nearest evasions to hand, assuming a bit more responsibility with each lie – my claims governed all along by the Z (master-)evasion: I didn’t break the kettle.

    Likewise (despite whatever differences), in B, ‘I’ argued for the war mainly on account of WMDs (all along, exploiting a general-public confusion of Saddam with bin Laden). When the WMD rap dissolved, I feinted towards that Ba’ath / al-Qaeda connection, which, when authoritatively scotched even in mass media ‘news’, morphed into the Saddam-is-Hitler / ‘bring democracy to western Asia / the Arabic world / the Muslim world’ argument (your Y in B).

    Your Z for B isn’t accurate: the master-evasion for rationalizing this war was that the war has been forced on us – by the fact of W and/or X and/or Y — like the kettle didn’t break in my care, either because W or X or Y is true.

    As you’ve emphasized and made quite clear (come on now, MeltonMowbray), the W, X, and Y in B might co-exist, as they can’t in A. But this dissimilarity doesn’t rule out the parallel I see: in both A and B, I move from W to X to Y (negating the previous or adding the following, respectively) in an effort to persuade ‘you’ of Z, in contradiction to the facts, namely, that “I am responsible for breaking the kettle” and “I had already decided to invade Iraq when I came into power for my unacknowledged reasons, regardless of my claims then to having rejected thoughts of ‘nation-building'”.

    That Zizek is as clear in envisioning a logical parallel as I’ve tried to be, I doubt – he’s a short-cutter, from the small amount of his writing I’ve read.

  5. As I recall, Freud’s order was

    1 – I returned the kettle in proper order.
    2 – There were holes in it when you gave it to me.
    3 – I never borrowed it in the first place.

    The point being that if even one of these excuses were accepted, then the man had to be acquitted of any wrongdoing. Given this, it seems a perfectly valid analogy for Zizek to make. If one can accept any one of the three reasons for the Iraq war as valid, then Bush/Blair were right to go to war. It doesn’t matter in the least that theyw are contradictory, just as this does not matter at all with the kettle. While your logic is impeccable, oboki, it’s simply the wrong tool for the job.

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