Slav to the Rhythm

A blog comment that grew into a blog post. Aethelread writes about Slavoj Zizek here, and this is my response.

Ah, you've chosen to write about one of my favourite entertainers. I've seen him speak live several times, and watched several dozen of his presentations on youtube.

And yes, read a bit too - the writing is much more dense and properly philosophical. His latest "big fat book" (his words), Less than Nothing is an attempt to re-present (as opposed to update) Hegel for the modern world.

Some parts, such as his attempt to read the Hegelian Aufheben into the equations of the Higgs Boson, are actually quite embarrassing in their ineptness. But the 'two kinds of idiot' in the introduction - the person who doesn't grasp that some rules are unwritten, versus the one who thinks the folkways of his tribe are the laws of nature - is I think true and helpful.

I was recently a consultant for an upcoming 'intro to marxist philosophy' book, and asked to summarise Zizek's idea. My eventual conclusion was:
"Zizek doesn't have a system. He has a big bag of mostly valid and useful insights into western culture and the left, ranging from major points to intriguing byways to common platitudes.

The trouble is, they're all presented on the same level, as though all were equally important. More than that, they're all phrased as pseudoparadoxes and/or jokes, when they could all be phrased quite clearly and directly.

For instance, he says 'Julius Ceasar had to die to become immortal'. The is fairly trivially true if you interpret it to mean 'The name Caesar could only become a title if its original bearer were dead'.

Zizek is the modern representative of Hegel, in style as well as substance. The genuine insights, the dressed-up platitudes, and the pseudoprofundity of the pseudoparadoxical formulations are all there.

And, having now read some Hegel, I think Hegel also shares the lack of an overarching insight or core. The closest Hegel had to a method (so far as I've been able to read) was the view he retained from medieval christianity of paradox as condition of truth, but I don't think Zizek has retained that. Engels did, Marx didn't, and Lenin vacillated - Zizek is a Hegelian through the prism of Marx.
The 'rational core' of Hegel which Marx claimed to have extracted but somehow never got around to explaining - I'm pretty certain it didn't exist. The geist...was a ghost."
This doesn't mean Zizek is a complete fraud. It means he's like Freud - bursting full of ideas, and the worst thing we can do is treat them as all useful, true, or even meaningful. There's some good stuff in there, but you have to sort through it.

And like Freud, he doesn't intend for us to accept his work uncritically. Freudians and Zizekians of course are a different matter.
steps such as publishing in English rather than their native language – a clear attempt to appeal to a broader audience.
Zizek is fluent in Slovenian, French, German and English. He writes and gives presentations in all these languages. And I'm not sure what's wrong with trying to have broad appeal, especially if one's trying to have a political effect.
an example of an interviewee trolling a journalist
Considering what hacks journalists tend to be, I have absolutely no problems with trying to unsettle them. Or indeed doing a Chris Morris and telling them a pack of lies escalating in absurdity, just to see if they ever catch on.

Remember when Michael Gambon was interviewed by someone worried that he'd once 'played a homosexual'? Gambon said "It wasn't a problem, because I used to be a homosexual. But my doctor made me stop - it was making my eyes water."
[Zizek says] "99% are boring idiots."

for people on the left, support for people...is...the reason we’re leftwingers in the first place.

Having sympathy for downtrodden people isn't the same thing as having respect for their idiotic opinions, even if their idiocy is a result of their downtroddenness.

There's a difference between respecting someone's right to make a choice, and respecting the choice.

leftwing politics is not the exclusive playground of the intelligentsia.

Zizek has never said it is. What he says is that theory is something everyone on the left needs.

On most of anarchist left, there's a deliberate refusal to theorise, on anything. Theory is seen as bourgeois, and a straitjacket. If you've read the publications of the minority of anarchist groups who do go in for theory, it tends to be both micromanaging and highly abstract. Also almost unreadable.

On most of the socialist left - and broadly that means trotskyists, which most of the time means leninists - there's a long standing habit of having a few comrades whose full time job is to produce theory...so that none of the other members need to worry their delicate little heads about it. The ordinary members just need to keep current with the party line, and protest and campaign when head office tells them. Yes, this is the authoritarian left you wrote of.

Zizek is against both of these. For him, (to quote Lenin) "action without theory is blind". The more theory you have, and the more people do it, and the deeper it gets, the less blind you are.

As to whether he's right, that's a good question, but whatever else he is, he's not an intellectual elitest. If you want to criticise Zizek's ideas...criticise Zizek's ideas, or if you think he doesn't have any, critisise that.



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