I am confident that another post about Slavoj Žižek is not what the world needs, but here it is anyway. As usual, I’m not going to discuss the content of his arguments, but rather to consider the way he does philosophy. I have pointed out elsewhere that a significant part of the structure of his theoretical edifice is predicated on the total uniqueness that he arrogates for himself. This is the persona of Žižek, which we all know and question and joke about. Do we not do this, however, precisely because he expressly forbids us to get too close to him, and thus to get too close to his arguments. It is not that his hyperbolical elitism and contempt for “stupidity” is incidental, but rather that this may be a large part of his project. He is, in Berlin’s essay of the hedgehog and the fox, the hedgehog of the one defining idea. It is the expression of the idea, the formal structure which he erects that leads to confusion about whether he may in fact be a fox. His idea is the kernel of all that follows, but it is the method and approach that define the term Žižekian. Indeed it is that which we most often allude to in describing him as a Lacanian-Hegelian-Marxist-and-so-on. This need to define a compound identity is a sign of how masterfully (intentional Lacanian nod) he has expressed his ideas. It is this form of expression I wish to engage with. [Disclaimer: You can take your pick among the fallacies I have committed here, but this is not a proof one way or the other of Žižek’s theories, but rather a handful of analogies and metaphors I wish to suggest might allow us to read him with somewhat less hysteria that usually attends such discussions.]
We are all prey to various informal fallacies. I have no doubt committed any number of them so far, but I do not consider them to be damning (tu quoque save me!). What I want to suggest rather that, like the old “ruling passion” theory of the melancholic or the splenetic personalities, we might suggest that one can have a ruling fallacy. In a spasm of narcissism, I have taken to calling mine Gibson’s Fallacy (I’m guilty of it, so I get to name it). Žižek’s, I would propose, is the proof by verbosity, or the proof by intimidation.
We can point to this in the way that though factually wrong in his references , this can be dismissed as a minor point for the very reason that he writes so much. It is as if to say that his quantity allows us to discount the quality. One example that recently caught my eye is on p. 83 of Violence where he attributes the notion of 400 virgins waiting in heaven for the 9/11 “fundamentalists”. Here, he confuses the 400 virgins of Judges 21:12 with the popular notion of the 72 virgins (in itself a perversion of the hadith, as this link explains). This elision might be dismissed as pedantry, since it is not the primary thrust of what he has to say. I would question this, and say that factual accuracy is what we must always aim for, and that Žižek ruling fallacy lets him down by glossing over this issue.
In a conversation with a good friend of mine a while back, we ended up talking about Žižek, and whether there was any point in reading him any more. We know that part of his method is that of the philosophical pervert, and while that can be thrilling to read for a time, after a while it gets stale. It is like seeking to understand somebody else’s fetish; the attempt of understanding is exactly what a fetish repudiates. It cannot be engaged with. It cannot be reasoned with. It is particular, and not universal. This is Žižek as the flasher in the stained Mackintosh, lurking in the grimy shadows of the German idealism shelves in the library.
Indeed, this “librarian” point is how I next attempted to then pin down the “value” of Žižek as a philosopher. He often alludes to how unemployable he was in Yugoslavia, and how this ensured that he was given a non-teaching position as a researcher at the Institute of Sociology in the University of Ljubljana. This is painted as though he was isolated, and free to pursue his own studies. While undoubtedly it gave him a certain amount of freedom, he was not quite so alienated, and this familiarity with currents of thought in Yugoslavia and abroad meant that he was in fact in a special place to become actually useful, after a manner.
He has become the grand high librarian of philosophy and theory, reigning over the stacks, saying what we can and can not take out, access, draw upon, reference. By not teaching, by not having the banal grind of administration and assessment, this research sinecure allowed him to actually undertake an engagement with philosophy and theory in a way that most of us can only dream about. I think that what actually happens in a lot of discussion of Žižek among philosopher friends is performative. We act out our resentment, our wish just to do our own thing, and for superstardom will follow.
This resentment is understandable. Žižek is not a god. He is not greater than every other thinker active today. He must ascribe as much of his success to fortune as we do to bloody hard work, but genius or innate brilliance I consider to have a negligible role to play. We would seldom talk about “genius” today, and yet it is a cornerstone of our tacit, internal ranking systems. I think we should do away with it, and return to consider Žižek as fundamentally a very hard worker. His output, while acclaimed as “prodigious”, is not inexplicable, if we consider him to be somebody who worked ferociously hard at the start of his career (his subsequent belittling of The Sublime Object of Ideology is a luxury that is afforded to him having written it, and moved on). I consider these early works to be like learning the grammar and declensions of a language before one begins original composition. The development of such a thought-structure is what makes the responses and occasional essays to appear as though a deluge is upon us. The uncanny productivity of Žižek does not imply that he has made a compromise, or that he is compromised. It is a result of his background.
I think this is the most intelligent and reasoned way of engaging with him and his arguments. My own emerging view is that he has placed this advantage like a lamp, such that the shadow is projected ahead of him to give the terrifying spectacle of a giant approaching that will crush us all. Which is to say I consider it to be mainly good lighting that flatters him, rather than smoke and mirrors used to obscure our vision in the philosophical equivalent of the fog of war.
The truth is probably that by having fewer concerns at the start of his career as a researcher, Žižek set out to master as much of his field as possible, and so he has a familiarity with it that most of us can only dream of. The question that arises then is whether he abuses this advantage. For example, Georges Bataille actually was a librarian, and he used his own daily work to help define his theories, making them more than intellectual jackdawery (which is almost impossible to say aloud). On the other hand there is Mao Zedong, who is arguably the worst of all librarians ever, illustrating how poisonous an autodidact with influence can be. So, where is Žižek in this scheme? Is he a Bataille or a Mao? Beyond this, is it possible to come to appraise his contribution as a thinker, beyond all the attendant bullshit of his being a superstar for those who read Verso books?