I don’t propose to talk about Adam Kirsch’s piece on Zizek in any detail - the major interpretative fail near the start when he’s discussing Zizek’s comments on torture pretty much disqualifies it from serious consideration - but it does raise a general point about “seriousness” which might be worth following up. It’s understood that there are certain things that no-one who isn’t a total barbarian can possibly say and mean; when people who aren’t total barbarians say those things, one accordingly assumes they don’t “really” mean them, and are instead aiming to produce one of a range of possible rhetorical effects. It isn’t so much a question of giving someone the benefit of the doubt, as of its being completely unbelievable that someone could sincerely avow an unavowable position. All of this is quite dependent on social context, of course: what’s avowable and what isn’t depends on who you’re hanging with.
There is a Facebook group dedicated to campaigning against the anonymity granted to the mother of a battered infant, in which calls for mob justice are apparently considered perfectly acceptable; and a second in which members of the first group, along with readers of the Daily Mail and members of would-be vigilante groups who are apparently unable to spell the word “paedophile” correctly, are wittily and sarcastically mocked. Obviously the second group is more my sort of crowd, but there is a sense of social unease within it which tilts towards class hatred at times. It is wholly intolerable to members of the second group to suppose that members of the first might not be joking when they say that “scum” who batter their children to death should themselves be tortured and killed. It is more comforting to suppose that they must be besides themselves with unreasoning fury, and that the proper response is to show them how ridiculous they are being. But what if they are not “being ridiculous”, but passionately hold the opinion that certain crimes - particularly those in which the victim is entirely helpless - deserve the death penalty and that the latter should be executed by vigilantes if it is not carried out by the state? What if the proper response were therefore to debate soberly with them about the ethical and emotional bases of this opinion, rather than treating them as deliriously stupid Morlocks?
The conventions which enable one to be taken as saying in jest things which it is unimaginable that one might mean sincerely also define who, for a particular group, counts as a “total barbarian”, someone who might really mean what they say when making such outrageous assertions. Utterances which weaken those conventions, by failing to identify themselves clearly as spoken in jest - I would suggest that Zizek’s endless “but what if”s and “no, no, I am quite serious”es serve precisely this purpose - also weaken the group’s power of identification with itself and against the barbarian outsiders. This I think is what Kirsch is complaining about when he describes those who indulge Zizek’s peculiar humours as flirting with moral squalor: they are failing to uphold the conventions that make possible a clear distinction between themselves and barbarians.
On the one hand, when it comes to torture, Zizek’s (quite clearly stated) position is that he would like advocacy of torture to be completely unavowable: one should always be able to know that he is joking when he talks about putting someone in a Gulag (something which is more reliably knowable about Zizek than it is about, say, Dick Cheney). Some conventions (like the Geneva convention) are worth strengthening. On the other hand, it’s arguable that some of Zizek’s most embarrassing “ha ha only serious” contrarian provocations do not only serve the banal function of “questioning” or “challenging” liberal nostrums, but are aimed at displacing, through the very uncertainty they produce about whether he is serious or not, the implicit norms that separate the discursive gated community of “leftist intellectuals” from a wider polis with which they ought (as they themselves continually complain) to be engaging. In other words, it may be precisely “Zizek the embarrassment” who, in provoking the anxieties that make Kirsch and others want to intervene to place him properly beyond the pale, is most effectively performing what Zizek the sober social theorist prescribes.