First a confession, I haven't read any of Zizek's books. I have criticised people for unfairly dismissing others. I don't think I'm being unfair in this case, despite not having read his books.
As I show, there are some good reasons for not reading his books:
- He is notorious for contradicting himself, sometimes in one conversation, and, as even a supporter admits, from one book to another.
- He himself has described whole sections of at least one book as "bluff" and "bullshit" and, from his general record of changes of opinion, hoaxes, lies, etc. there's no reason to suppose that this is an isolated example.
I have read several articles by Zizek and watched him in a long interview on TV, that was enough. One doesn't have to wade through "bullshit" to be able to detect it. I have also read a range of critiques of Zizek by people whose work I respect, e.g. David Bordwell, who writes about films and film theory and reveals Zizek's carelessness with evidence (we'll see that he is a habitual liar).
Some Zizek fans will insist that you can't have a valid opinion about him unless you've read not just one, but a whole series of his many books, and in the right order in order to understand his "trajectory":
Part of the problem, it seems to me, has been your approach - from what I can tell, you are not reading Zizek in a systematic way. If and when you get around to reading things in more or less chronological order, I think they will make a lot more sense.
Zizek has a trajectory, his project develops over time - Sublime Object and Parallax View are fundamentally different and even contradictory works.
But then there's not a lot of point in actually reading the earlier books if they're contradicted by later ones, unless one just wants to be an expert on his "trajectory". Thus, even with assiduous reading of his oeuvre, it would be hard to know what Zizek's views really are, as with conversations with him:
For ZIZEK, a conversation - whatever the topic- is an exercise in self-contradiction. When he thinks you are beginning to get a handle on his motives or desires, he pulls an about-face, insists he doesn't mean anything he has just said, that his own views are the exact opposite.
James Miller, of the New School, says of Zizek's lectures: "You would sit through these torrents of verbiage, and you had this post-structuralist and relativist aura on the one hand, and then he would be defending something like democratic socialism. The first time I talked with him, I said, 'But Slavoj, this is inconsistent' He listened to my criticism and ignored it. When he talks, he has such a good time that he just keeps going."
In fact he says that he keeps going in public talks in order to avoid the "boring" (a word he uses often) business of dealing with questions:
I hate these civilised debates followed by the questions from the audience," he tells me the next morning. "So I keep going to subvert this boring ritual ...
You could say, in a vulgar Freudian way, that I am the unhappy child who escapes into books. Even as a child, I was most happy being alone. This has not changed.
Another major reason for not reading his books is that apart from some books contradicting others, he himself has admitted that whole sections of at least one of his major books are "bluff" and "bullshit". But I doubt if many of his fans have made such clear identifications of the relevant sections.
I ask him if he is surprised at his popularity, particularly among the young.
"My God, I am the last person to know the answer to these questions," he says, looking genuinely dismayed. "But, really, I am now thinking there is so much pressure on me to perform. I am getting really bored with it. I am a thinker, but people all the time want this kind of shitty political interventions: the books, the talks, the discussions and so forth." He sighs and closes his eyes and seems to deflate before my eyes. "I will tell you my problem openly and for this my publisher will hate me. All the talk and the writing about politics, this is not where my heart is. No. I have been sidetracked. I really mean this."
He opens a copy of Living in the End Times, and finds the contents page. "I will tell you the truth now," he says, pointing to the first chapter, then the second. "Bullshit. Some more bullshit. Blah, blah, blah." He flicks furiously through the pages. "Chapter 3, where I try to read Marx anew, is maybe OK. I like this part where I analyse Kafka's last story and here where I use the community of outcasts in the TV series Heroes as a model for the communist collective. But, this section, the Architectural Parallax, this is pure bluff. Also the part where I analyse Avatar, the movie, that is also pure bluff. When I wrote it, I had not even seen the film, but I am a good Hegelian. If you have a good theory, forget about the reality."
So Zizek would, presumably, have some sympathy for this view:
Today I was wondering whether it was worth buying Slavoj Zizek's new book, "The Parallax View" and reading it, even in a spirit of ironic detachment or what have you. Reasons to Buy: 1. Some smart people I know like him. Selected Reason Not to Buy: 1. Life's too short to deal with bullshit, even if it's high-quality, triple-sifted, quintessence of ironic Lacanian crunchy-frog bullshit ...
Apart from confessing that whole sections of at least one of his books are "bullshit", he also admits that, despite his reputation as a political radical, in fact it's merely a "boring" chore: "this kind of shitty political interventions". He also makes clear (as a number of critics have pointed out), that he is less interested in reality than theory: "If you have a good theory, forget about the reality."
Cf. (with another admission of how he lies/contradicts himself:
"For me, life exists only insofar as I can theorize it," he confesses. "I can be bored to death by a movie, but if you give me a good theory, I will gladly erase the past in an Orwellian fashion and claim that I have always enjoyed it!"
His lack of interest in reality (matching his boredom with politics) explains why he touches on so many things lightly - they're just examples of Theory, and explains why he often gets things wrong - revealed when people who know something about a particular example look at what he says.
You couldn't make it up
But he learnt early on, in his native Slovenia, that people will swallow almost any old junk - so why bother with serious, time-consuming study and fact-checking ?
Zizek once wrote a pseudonymous review attacking one of his own books on Lacan. On another occasion, (the Slovenian magazine) Problemi published a fictional roundtable discussion of feminism in which Zizek played the boorish interlocutor, posing provocative questions to nonexistent participants. (Later, in "Enjoy Your Symptom!", Zizek continued to engage in literary hoaxes with an essay on the films of Roberto Rossellini - none of which he had seen.)
Despite basing much of his work on the ideas of Lacan, he had no compunction about lying even to his Lacanian analyst in Paris, the son-in-law of Lacan, and, more importantly, in charge of a publishing company which Zizek hoped might publish his own dissertation on Lacan. He lied because he feared analysis might "cure" him of his "theoretical desire" and turn him into "a common person." As we shall see he has an obvious craving for attention, hence the "obscene jokes" and wilfully adopting views to shock liberals and attacking other leftist academics because, for example, they do not really understand Lacan:
"It was my strict rule, my sole ethical principle, to lie consistently (to his Lacanian analyst, TW): to invent all symptoms, fabricate all dreams," he reports of his treatment. "It was obsessional neurosis in its absolute purest form. Because you never knew how long it would last, I was always prepared for at least two sessions. I have this incredible fear of what I might discover if I really went into analysis. What if I lost my frenetic theoretical desire? What if I turned into a common person?"
He avoids not only becoming "a common person", but also being taken for a liberal, or even ordinary leftist, so he defends what he claims is Lenin's ruthlessness (exaggerated for effect):
The latest New Left Review has an article by the Lacanian theorist Slavoj iek that returns to one of his favorite topics, Lenin.
... It incorporates his by now familiar embrace of Lenin's supposed ruthlessness, a stance that is calculated to annoy liberals in the academy rather than appeal to auto workers angry over getting screwed by the Obama administration. They call it épater le bourgeois, or shock the bourgeoisie.
In Zizek's case, of course, since he clearly has no intent of acting towards Leninist revolution, nor do his fans, it becomes part of the buy-in technique. Anyone who once took him seriously, who is considering not doing so, now has to confront the fact that they somehow thought that Leninist revolution preached to humanities academics was not risible.
Zizek has declared his latest work, The Parallax View, (review from 2006) to be his "magnum opus" and his most philosophically ambitious work to date. As always with Zizek, it is a dizzying mixture of highbrow philosophy and lowbrow cultural analysis, all peppered with psychoanalytic insights, idiosyncratic asides and the odd dirty joke.
Whether Zizek succeeds in reinventing dialectical materialism is open to question. For my money his approach is a little too overidentified with Stalinism, one gets the impression that the primary reason for Zizek choosing this terminology is to shock the liberal academy. His contrarian audacity in this regard is always charming, but it often acts to paper over his own complicity with the capitalist ideology he so ruthlessly criticises.
Yet for all this verbiage about Lenin and Stalin, he has expressed cynicism about politics and says: "I just play at this subversive stuff". What he REALLY wanted to do, he said, was to write a major theoretical treatise on Lacan:
"Do not forget that with me everything is the opposite of what it seems," he says. "Deep down I am very conservative; I just play at this subversive stuff. My most secret dream is to write an old-fashioned, multivolume theological tract on Lacanian theory in the style of Aquinas. I would examine each of Lacan's theories in a completely dogmatic way, considering the arguments for and against each statement and then offering a commentary. I would be happiest if I could be a monk in my cell, with nothing to do but write my Summa Lacaniana."
But later he admits that even Lacan is just a tool, and all his fulminations about politics are a playful diversion from his desire to devote himself to Hegel and Theory:
Why, then, given that he does not like most of his books and does not have any enthusiasm for the lecture circuit, does he not call a stop to the iek show? "I am doing that right now!" he shouts. "I am writing a mega-book about Hegel with regard to Plato, Kant and maybe Heidegger. Already, this Hegel book is 700 pages. It is a true work of love. This is my true life's work. Even Lacan is just a tool for me to read Hegel. For me, always it is Hegel, Hegel, Hegel," he says, sighing again. "But people just want the shitty politics."
The politics of confusion
Despite his dismissal of "shitty" politics, he does continue to write about it, but it's not clear what Zizek's political views are, as even someone who defends him says:
The fact of the matter is that he does not currently have a positive, overarching political program. He does not seem to think that overthrowing capitalism is possible right now. He is not,pace Rich, calling for Leninist revolution. He rejected liberalism pretty violently in the wake of the wars in the Balkans, but he does not yet have anything to put in its place - and he's certainly not turning to anything ready-made like Soviet communism.
But then he's just "playing at this subversive stuff".
Another defender tries to make sense of Zizek's political views and suggests that, despite all the stuff on Lenin and scorn for liberals, Zizek is proposing some quite modest "Acts":
In such ideas, one finds a bridge between his inescapable moral imperative to break with a destructive fantasy-world through a decisive Act, and his recognition that the conditions for action, for the shaping of the site événementiel must be created through a long history of much less dramatic but no less decisive Acts. In a sense, this is a shift from revolutionary gesture to revolutionary gestation. It is possible that a social order does not finally perish until not only the material conditions for new relations but, to a certain degree, those new relations themselves have grown up within the womb of the old society.
So where does that leave us?
"we are each faced with the imperative to make our own judgment. And to act." Ibid.
We have to read a whole set of his big books, in the correct order, to arrive at insights like this ? !
Bluffing himself - or a " 'deep cover' Zokal" ?
It's not surprising that Zizek sometimes expresses contempt for those who pay attention to him and is "really sad" that his bluffs are taken seriously. But, as this example makes clear, he sometimes seems to be taken in by his own "bluff", or maybe it provides a hint that his work is all a Sokal-type hoax:
(Zizek) Some months before writing this, at an art round table, I was asked to comment on a painting I had seen there for the first time. I did not have any idea about it, so I engaged in a total bluff, which went something like this: the frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible, frame, implied by the structure of the painting, which frames our perception of the painting, and these two frames do not overlap -there is an invisible gap separating the two. The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dislocation of the two frames, in the gap that separates them. Are we, today, in our post-modern madness, still able to discern the traces of this gap? Perhaps more than the reading of a painting hinges on it; perhaps the decisive dimension of humanity will be lost when we lose the capacity to discern this gap...
To my surprise, this brief intervention was a huge success, and many following participants referred to the dimension in-between-the-two-frames, elevating it into a term. This very success made me sad, really sad. What I encountered here was not only the efficiency of a bluff, but a much more radical apathy at the very heart of today's cultural studies (pg. 5-6).
The misfiring (or, one could say, depressingly ironic success) of Zizek's joking bluff underscores a problem notoriously brought to light by Alan Sokal's Social Text hoax (Zizek himself mentions Sokal in the introduction) ...
One might think, well, at least he's honest about this and he's right that it's "really sad" that there is this "radical apathy at the very heart of today's cultural studies." But then, hasn't this bluffer and purveyor of "bullshit" been central to such a development ? In fact the article goes on to show that later in the book Zizek uses this very "bluff" in an apparently serious way!:
And yet, much later in The Fright of Real Tears, something disturbing occurs.
After tipping the reader off to the essentially "fake" nature of this notion of "the dimension in-between-the-two-frames," this very same material reappears later in the text, ostensibly being offered as part of a "serious" theoretical discussion. Is he parodying himself?
the much more entertaining paranoid fantasy, is to venture speculating that Zizek is really a "deep cover" version of Alan Sokal.
Maybe, many years ago, Zizek made a bet with some of his Slovenian colleagues about how much post-modern sounding gibberish he could get contemporary academics to swallow - keep in mind that, recently, he's been trying to persuade people to embrace as unproblematic the juxtaposition of Stalinist dialectical materialism and Christian theology.
The fright of real errors
But the review by Johnston doesn't even mention a main role of the book, it's an attack on "post-theory" in film studies, which was a return to jargon-free clarity after the theoretical excesses of Screen Magazine. David Bordwell is a representative of this "post-theory" and, because he knows the field, he is able to quickly deflate Zizek's gas-filled attack, which involves allegations of a supposed "will to obliterate the trauma of the failed leftist involvement in Theory", and even "a form of fetishistic disavowal reminiscent of a reluctance to look at feminine genitals":
iek begins his book (The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory) by saying that the Post-Theory trend is "often sustained by a stance of profound political resignation, by a will to obliterate the traces and disappointments of political engagement".
The one piece of evidence he supplies for this is startlingly shaky. iek takes the scholar Ben Brewster as "emblematic of the present-day state of cinema theory". Why? Because Brewster shifted from being a proponent of "Screen" theory (which applied ideas from Marx, Freud, Althusser, etc. to the study of film, TW) to becoming a film historian displaying an "exclusive preoccupation with pre-1917 cinema".
Why does this matter? Because Brewster focuses on a period "prior to the October Revolution, as if to emphasise the will to obliterate the trauma of the failed leftist involvement in Theory". About iek's diagnosis that Brewster's research constitutes a form of fetishistic disavowal reminiscent of a reluctance to look at feminine genitals, I shall say nothing. I just want to point out that Brewster has NOT restricted his research to cinema before 1917, not even in the book iek mentions in a footnote, so the tenuous thread of association fails even as a literary conceit. On its first page, FRT presents a strained reach for cleverness at the expense of nuance and accuracy. We'll encounter this strategy again.
Others also find his scholarship lacking, hardly surprising given the vast range of topics and examples he serves up, without clarifying their function in relation to his general arguments; instead the authority of Lacan is constantly invoked, as Bordwell's colleague, O'Neill points out:
In the absence of any detectable method, a dizzying array of wildly entertaining and often quite maddening rhetorical strategies are deployed in order to beguile, browbeat, dumbfound, dazzle, confuse, mislead, overwhelm, and generally subdue the reader into acceptance. Example after example is supplied, but the principle that makes them examples is not itself given. Appeals are implicitly made to Lacan's authority but the source of that authority is never mentioned.
Like ONeill, Jarvis criticises this superficial approach of using many examples without clarifying why they are examples. Jarvis also notes the authoritarian use of Lacan and again, where the critic knows something about the example, in this case Hegel, he is able to point out where Zizek gets it wrong:
The cultural examples, whether mass-cultural, literary, art-filmic, or (even) musical, are expendable. iek moves in, Hegel-Lacanises them in a flash of admittedly often brilliant illumination, and then moves on to another one. The examples never disturb the conceptual framework, they just exemplify it. And, in turn, this means that the concepts cannot fully illuminate the examples, because they are not interested enough in what the examples are like. Paragraph after paragraph will begin with the imperative "Take...". At one point, iek quotes Kafka's `Odradek'. Even a hardened reader will be taken aback at the rapidity with which he then moves straight into his Lacanian patter about it. There isn't even a pause for breath, and so the impression given is that it is a matter of indifference to iek whether he is considering Kafka or Krazy Kat.
iek's usual mode of address to rival schools is to point out that they just don't get some Lacanian twist or other which he himself has understood. His praise, conversely, takes the form of indicating that the admired thinker is Lacanian without knowing it. For iek, a great deal, in the end (or "again and again", as he tellingly puts it in the prose for the series Short Circuits, of which this book is a part) hangs on having the right opinions, whereas for Hegel nothing at all depends on this. And this means that nothing can be less Hegelian than continually to give a "Hegelian" reading of everything.
What I find really despicable is his dishonest and contemptuous attitude towards students and his incredible arrogance in telling the interviewer about his various deceptions:
"When people ask me why I don't teach permanently in the United States, I tell them that it is because American universities have this very strange, eccentric idea that you must work for your salary," Zizek says. "I prefer to do the opposite and not work for my salary!"
Zizek has developed an elaborate set of psychological tricks to manipulate his American students and enable him to have as little contact with them as possible.
... "And I get away with this because they attribute it to my `European eccentricity.'"
Zizek reserves what he calls "the nasty strategy" for large lecture classes in which the students often don't know one another. "I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear," he explains.
But then one compensation is that at least they're not forced to sit through his monologues and aren't misled by his opinions:
The problem with Zizek is not just that he's careless in interviews. It's that on every issue, whenever someone who actually knows something about what he's talking about looks at, he's making some elementary mistake. It's certainly true for all of his bogus physics references.
The tide turns ?
Even former fans see through him when they know about the topic he's currently using to attack liberals and thus draw attention to his own supposed radicalism:
Perhaps it's transference, but I used to think that Zizek had all the answers. Even when he was wrong, I assumed he knew it and was being contrarian, using the cunning of reason to provoke thought and all that rubbish. Even now when he's writing absolute pig shit like this, (apparently a re-mix of this and this), I feel the urge to say "well, he didn't mean that". But he did, and does. To clarify, practically everything in Zizek's latest is a regurgitation of increasingly common Eurocentric - well, actually, Christian supremacist - platitudes about Islam and secularism.
Zizek scampers on, whingeing about the liberal "propensity to self-blaming", a mytheme directly lifted from the lexicon of the hard right and the racists, and now a favourite weapon of liberals against other liberals (mainly liberals who support imperialism against liberals who oppose it).
it is not a particular problem for me that Zizek flatters his audiences, manipulates their desire in order to achieve acquiescence and what have you. The problem is to what end he puts his courtiers' skills: if it is in order to repoliticise cultural studies, to break with a certain kind of facile "postmodernism", to get people to read Lenin, to oppose US imperialism and so on, wonderful; if it is to indulge in narcissistic liberal preening (which is actually so narcissistic as to revel in its own capacity for limited self-critique), reflate Eurocentrism and slip ugly, lazy, racist nonsense past the bullshit-detectors of his readers, then it is nothing short of pernicious.
So we have a hoaxer, self-contradictory liar, who cheats students and admits to writing "bluffs" and "bullshit" and, while part of his reputation depends on his supposed political radicalism, he says he finds politics "shitty" and "boring" and that he only "plays at being subversive" in ways that a former fan now finds "pernicious". Would YOU read a book by this man ?