Žižek as a player of paradoxes

Thanks to Colin Wight for pointing out this great analysis of the formulaic tendencies in Žižek’s writing style: 

Žižek arranges his book like a piece of music with different movements, with chapter subheadings such as “allegro moderato”. This is fitting, because Žižek is something of a virtuoso, but as a player of paradoxes. His great riffs take one of a finite number of forms. There is the simple psychoanalytic trope of claiming that however something seems, its true nature is the precise opposite. Then you have the repeated claim that a certain position entails its opposite, but that both sides of the paradox are equally real. Then again, there is the reversal of common sense, in which, whatever the received wisdom is, Zizek postulates the opposite.

And that really is it: Žižek simply repeats these intellectual manoeuvres again and again, albeit brilliantly, supplementing them with Lacanian embellishments such as the objet petit, the Other and the Real.

If you think I’m exaggerating, try doing what I’m about to do now: open any page at random and you’ll almost certainly find the play of paradoxes in some form. The book falls open at page 40 and I read: “One thing that never ceases to surprise the native ethical consciousness is how the very same people who commit terrible acts of violence towards their enemies can display warm humanity and gentle care for the members of their own group.” On page 166, we only have to read until line two to find mention of Lacan’s interest in the “paradoxical reversal”. Try page 87: “In the much celebrated free-circulation opened up by global capitalism, it is ‘things’ (commodities) which freely circulate, while the circulation of ‘persons’ is more and more controlled.” Four lines into page 122, we find “the paradox of universal singularity”.

This game of seeming contradictions is not at all pointless: very often it leads Žižek to turn up real gems. His analysis of the suspect motivations of what he calls “liberal communists” – the educated, liberal middle classes – is a wonderful piece of satire: “Liberal communists also love the student protests which shattered France in May 1968: what an explosion of youthful energy and creativity!” He’s also good on tolerance: “My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that I should not get too close him, intrude on his space. In other words, I should respect his intolerance of my over-proximity.”


My own views on Žižek have hardened recently after I stupidly purchased his 800 page Hegel book with the intention of clarifying once and for all how seriously I’m inclined to take him as a philosopher. After 50 pages, it returned to my shelf, to be surreptitiously deposited in the Warwick Philosophy common room at some point, or some other venue where I suspect it will be likely to find a new owner able to identify charm amidst what I could see only as tediousness. I also realised quite how much he publishes (see this list, which I know to be missing at least one recent entry) and quite how frequently he self-plagiarises. I discussed the one example I was able to place from memory here but I’d long suspected it was a continual feature of his books that becomes obvious if you read both his essays and his books. It seems his proclivity for this is much more pronounced than I’d realised myself:

In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, theGuardian, the London Review of Books, the Australian Broadcast Corporation’s Religion & Ethics site, and The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Žižek’s words run around in circles, endlessly quoting himself without attribution, adaptation, or citation. And these instances stand in stark contrast to the ones in which Žižek’s re-appropriations were noted correctly, as in his April 24, 2012 article for theGuardian, which noted at the end: “This article is based on remarks Slavoj Žižek will be making at an event at the New York Public Library on 25 April, ahead of publication of The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (2012).”

Self-plagiarism is something of an ambiguous crime, but it is a far different matter when committed across separate publishers who, presumably, assumed they were receiving original pieces of writing. I could have cited even more examples of Žižek’s self-plagiarism from various works (for example, that was not the only London Review of Books essay he would later re-appropriate), but I think the general picture is already quite clear. And given Žižek’s extensive bibliography, it is quite possible that the extent of the recycling is far greater than I have so far discovered.


I have nothing against Žižek personally and the little I know about his motivations suggests that he hates teaching, likes travelling and has discovered that churning out four books or more a year allows him to avoid teaching and travel lots, presumably while making rather a lot of money and enjoying a jet-setting lifestyle that sits uneasily with his avowed communism. On this level, I think he’s merely inconsistent at worst – almost all of us are and those who aren’t tend to be incredibly irritating. But I also increasingly see him as emblematic of everything that is wrong with modern academia: the superstar professor able to float free of any limiting norms of collegiality or professionalism, the cult of personality which dominates an intellectual space and erodes it vitality and the tendency towards an obscurely theoretical radicalism accessible only to those versed in contemporary continental philosophy. The final paragraph in the post quoted above expresses my own view very effectively:

Slavoj Žižek’s sin is not in reformulating long-held ideas into new books, something many authors do. It is in copying (nearly without modification) large sections of other works of his without attribution, and while simultaneously presenting each work as an original piece of writing. The extraordinary pressure on today’s writers, ranging from promising young journalists such as Jonah Lehrer to world-renowned philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek, to maintain prolificacy in the age of shortened attention spans is surely to blame for the graying hairs of many an aspiring writer. But it is no excuse for repackaging something old as something brand-new.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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1 reply »

  1. I agree with Mark Carrigan in several aspects and hope to discuss this topic further with another text. There are a couple of questions to be asked on Zizek and after that he can be located much more properly to his place in intellectual history.

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