Does Žižek take himself as seriously as other people do? Idolatry, activism and the academic left

So as most people reading this will probably realise, Žižek bashing and boosting has been somewhat in vogue within certain sections of the academic blogosphere in recent months. The Sociological Imagination was an enthusiastic part of this recently, through an ever-so-slightly polemic blog post penned by Steve Fuller,

Slavoj Zizek may be great at beating up on grand old men of the anti-establishment such as Chomsky, but he is a total waste of space for a self-described ‘Left’ that wants to remain politically relevant in the 21st century. Whenever I read him, I think to myself: This guy either just wants us to feel good about ourselves after performing some self-contained Occupy-ish rituals or he is calling for outright violence in a prophylactic bloodbath. Zizek can’t seem to imagine any other political alternatives, which may suit his vast legions of followers, who are ‘politically inert’ by most conventional understandings of the phrase. This was really made clear to me in his latest piece for the Guardian, which celebrates the importance of cyberspace whistleblowers, who if ultimately regarded as ‘progressive’, will be for reasons that we have not quite yet figured out. At the moment, they look like fleas on the arse of history.

This prompted a spate of obnoxious comments which I saw no point in posting. Previous articles I’d posted myself, which were far from dismissive of Žižek, had prompted people to post abuse at the @soc_imagination – it was initially amusing to be told I was a reactionary and have my scientism denounced before  it eventually just got tedious. But then I’ve always been mildly contemptuous of academic cultural politics in a way that I tend to keep to myself, lest I wander round the academy inadvertently insulting people. My intention in writing isn’t to be vituperative, in fact I’m trying very hard to avoid this, but simply to observe that the ratio of rhetoric to action among the academic left can often be distressingly low.  As a biographically orientated sociologist I have a pretty clear understanding of the reasons why this is so and, as someone whose activism has often been squeezed out while grappling with a far from ideal work/life balance over the last five years, this understanding is informed by self-reflection as much as social observation. However I nonetheless think this is a problem and, oddly enough, some of Žižek’s ideas have been important in elaborating my understanding of how this is so.

Particularly his account of cynicism, which at least as I understand it*, argues that post-ideological culture tends towards an over-estimation of subjective belief: people congratulate themselves on not being ‘taken in’ by ideology while nonetheless construing their circumstances in a way which engenders objective complicity. My political problem with Žižek is the peculiarly post-ideological form of idolatry his work seems to engender – what difference does Žižek make? What’s the point of Žižek? I’ve never heard an answer to this question which isn’t irredeemably subjective, construing him as a diagnostician of late capitalism in a way which implicitly invokes some objective and proactive correlate, the specification of which is indefinitely deferred. Or in slightly plainer language:  Žižek fans always talk about him as if his work is deeply practical in its implications and yet never seem to say what these are exactly. My accusation is that his work often engenders a subjective sense of one’s political outlook as being intellectually sophisticated while contributing nothing, in fact often detracting from, objective action. This is what prompted me to write this post, which I’ll finish soon lest it become overly rambling, which I cite to illustrate my point in a way which will hopefully be conducive to friendly debate:

Subsequently, this is also why I argue that Zizek provides us with the only space for the left. Any other leftist project (“social scientifically literate” or otherwise) is by definition fundamentally apolitical if they only remain within the possible, but Zizek allows us to revive the ‘politics proper’ which is central to some of the most radical sociologists and social theorists (including, I would argue, C. Wright-Mills whose criticism of abstract empiricism in describing the sociological imagination embodied the Marxian dictum that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it”). Zizek shows us a way to break from contemporary ‘social sciences’ which spends its time and resources describing society in an age where it is needed more than ever to change society for the better.

On the contrary I think Žižek provides us with an intoxicating rhetoric to describe this aim but offers little to nothing which helps do it and in fact muddies the waters and makes ‘resistance’ seem much more theoretically complicated than it often is. I write in the paragraph above the quote that his work ‘seems’ to engender this tendency because I’m completely open to changing my mind about this. Plus it’s probably useful to reiterate the point that I read a lot of Žižek and, more so, I don’t do it in a ‘know thine enemy’ kind of way. I read him because I enjoy his work. I have more of a problem with how his work is taken up and deployed than I do with the man himself. Žižek clearly likes reading, writing and speaking. He lives the pampered life of the international academic superstar. He is a brand. He is also idolised. I’m not dismissing him on this basis – in fact I’m not dismissing him at all – not least of all because Chomsky, one of my  life long heroes, is just as much of a brand and is equally idolised. In fact it was this meeting of the two most high profile brands on the academic left which meant their public spat, contrived in large part by academic web editors such as myself, attracted the attention which it did. Nonetheless I do think the Žižek and Chomsky brands tend to dominate the intellectual attention space of the left, simply taking up room that would be occupied by other scholars and activists – thought this bothers me much more in the case of the latter than the former.

*And I hasten to add that if I haven’t understood his meaning correctly then I couldn’t care less. I read Žižek because I find him enjoyable and often thought-provoking, approaching him in an exegetical way is like reading the Daily Mail. I understand why people might do it, I’m sure I’m intellectually capable of it but left to my own devices it’s the last thing in the world I’m ever going to choose to do.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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3 replies »

  1. Žižek is a jester in the pay of capital to promote harmless subversions. Those who really would like think about transformation of capitalism (revolution really is an obsolete idea) should read The Gramscian Moment by Peter D. Thomas

  2. ‘Does Zizek take himself as seriously as other people do’ => i unequivocally think not.

    Part of the problem, I think, with the fanaticism of some Zizek fans is that that a lot of his fanbase are undergrads who don’t really have the theoretical rigour to properly understand what he’s on about – an encounter with Zizek because of his fun anecdotes, without some understanding of the theory that informs his work, can be very confusing. But the problem as I’ve experienced it is that because (in my experience at Warwick, at least), there’s not really any academic staff I’ve encountered at undergrad level who seem interested in discussing Zizek, or in critiquing him – he’s simply ignored. So there’s no-one to help clarify things. And within the social sciences Hegel and Lacan aren’t really taught. For me at least, I discovered them (and read them) because of Zizek, which I think is great. And for those bored with the orthodox paradigms it is easy to become uncritically enamoured with Zizek’s radical brand of critical theory. But I agree in that I enjoy Zizek’s work because it really makes me think. As with all theory, its utility in practice is questionable. But that is an issue which goes well beyond Zizek in particular.

    • very thought provoking comment! shame it seems like that at warwick – perhaps the theory centre should open up the reading groups to undergraduates next year?

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