Why Žižek Matters

24Apr08

Coolness by negation is an ideological move that is instantly recognizable in the relation of sub cultures to their perceived dominate (or popular culture) – once something becomes too popular or acceptable according to mainstream standards it is no longer cool and more obscure objects must be found. The bearers of this negative/cool, which move locust-like onto new ‘unfound interests,’ appear in myriad forms – most popular in the hipster and the postmodernist (and these forms often overlap). Once again I am repeating myself – but here I am talking specifically in regards to the strange non-reception of Žižek as a philosopher.

Žižek has recently broken through an even more popular layer of the pseudo-left (maybe the official left, the ghost of radical politics) – he had an interview this month on Democracy Now! and the first disc of his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, is included in the most recent issue of The Believer. And, not surprisingly, it is still ‘cool to hate’ Zizek in the circles of postmodernity and its kneeling-to-the-Other followers (often part of the multicultural cult of Levinas).

In the center of this hatred lies a assertion that there is a so called cult of Žižek and, as of yet, I have never seen any evidence of this – again a strange resistance. A similarly unfriendly response has been witnessed in regards to Badiou, who falls in a similar vein as Žižek in that both are seen as somewhere opposed to postmodernity and, often derisively, as modern throwbacks. Adrian Johnston, in the preface to Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity, points out that there are several Žižek’s, and that one of them is a ‘cultural studies’ Žižek – where too much or all attention is paid to his examples of junk culture and almost nothing to the conclusions he is making.

Most often it seems that the dislike for Žižek is that: 1 – He is running against fashionable post modernity which, in proper Žižekian parlance, is dead but does not know it and 2 – Žižek’s philosophical program is inherently nagging because it undermines agreed upon readings of past philosophers and takes contemporary philosophy and cognitive science and other developments into account.

On both these points Žižek (as well as other Slovenian Lacanian/Hegelians) can be placed along side another group that is striking out against Heideggerian and Derridean legacies – who critique the assertion that philosophy is indefinately and irreparably chained to language and that our sense of politics and philosophical praxis is locked in the bog of being-there regardless of how it is codified in sociological or cultural terms – Speculative Realists. There is not, of course, a pure homogeneity between Žižek’s Transcendental Materialism and these thinkers which include Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman. In addition there is Badiou and his fellow travelers such as Jacques Ranciere, who are opposed to the same, if not a strikingly similar, enemy.

In addition to being ‘my enemy’s enemy’, these groups have positive shared characteristics:

1 – All are post-Lacanian in that they see Lacan as offering a challenge to philosophy which must be engaged

2 – All believe in overturning Kant’s so called Copernican revolution in thought – in usurping the centrality of the experiencing subject and the pre-set forms of the world

3 – As a result, all seek to conceptualize a world that escapes the bounds of phenomenology and language as limiting or eliminating discussion of ontology and metaphysics

This is not to say that Žižek and those mentioned above, are opting for a direct return to classical metaphysics but instead wish to take Kant’s criticisms to heart while still refusing to acknowledge a premature death of metaphysics.  Žižek’s metaphysics is a non-metaphysics in that his would not support a total system to describe the universe since the universe, as a natural entity, is fundamentally barred, it is not-all.  Events emerge from the cracks and fissures in ontology itself allowing, as Johnston explains it, flecks of eternity to rupture the normal flow of time.

Transcendental material designates the process by which a dialectical process creates an errancy which can not be smoothly reabsorbed into the dialectic, into the chaos which birthed it.  A transcendentally materialist ontogenesis of the subject would claim that we emerge from a chaotic nebula to take functional shape and that this emergence is not simply a delusion of the chaos, an epiphenomenon, since the consequences of its emergence change and are simultaneously changed by the material base.

What makes Žižek important is the simple fact that he approaches the topic of subjectivity and freedom (among other issues) by using psychoanalysis as a lense to examine German Idealism, and that this analysis allows for, and even encourages, a theory of the subject that takes into account but manages to narrowly escape, the scientifically fueled determinism of our age.

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4 Responses to “Why Žižek Matters”

  1. 1 Ryan

    In regard to the two reasons for the assumed “dislike” of Zizek, I think you provide two valid reasons, but not an exhaustive list obviously. I assume you weren’t trying to provide such, but I think you left out a crucial element of dislike found mostly among academics, but certainly not limited to them. Namely, Zizek’s inability to present a tight and concise argument. Often times it seems that Zizek has even confused himself when he switches quickly from asserting theoretical claims (without arguing for them is the standard critique) to, in the very next paragraph, providing an example, the connection or meaning of which is left up to the reader to conjure. I’m thinking of the opening to Parallax View as his latest example: An existentialist, even Heideggarian element lurks in the first paragraph after which he switches to a brief (though nicely articulated) definition of “parallax object”, then to ramblings on objet petit a, then to F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc. The impatient reader will immediately dismiss Zizek as a loon whose unsubstantiated remarks are the stuff of a stand-up comedian, as is evidenced from his lectures wherein he repeats the same jokes, yet continues to find them comical. I disagree with the impatient reader inasmuch as connections can be made between his transitions, but not without a certain leeway on the part of the reader. So, I’d add to the standard dislike of Zizek his method of presentation, which, it is assumed, and quite rightly in many instances, he simply makes assertions, not arguments, and therefore cannot be taken seriously as a philosopher. Because he’s not tied to a specific University where he keeps regular office hours and advises students, does this have any effect? Many view Zizek, as they do Terry Eagleton, as an academic opportunist, applying Lacan to anything from which he can make a buck.

    From your title, Why Zizek Matters, I was looking for something that would tell me why he matters….why should I keep reading Zizek? Will he offer anything new outside of some admittedly brilliant Lacanian readings of film, literature, etc. Is that what matters? He reminds me a bit of the band Mars Volta…they are undeniably brilliant, and weave some amazing theoretical tools through their work, but it remains unfocused. if they could only channel their creative energy something profound would emerge. I feel the same about Zizek….does he hate writing so much they he can’t maintain attention for longer than a paragraph? And if he can manage to do so, I think we’ll see something great. Sublime Object, Tarrying With the Negative, Ticklish Subject, and Parallax View are, doubtless, his most sustained and reasoned works, and at this point, I’m willing to stick with them as foundational texts for Zizek’s thought. But, again, why DOES Zizek matter? This post seems Zizekan in this sense that it doesn’t offer anything positive….it doesn’t tell us anything about Why. Did you prefer not to tell us? If so, why?

    “What makes Žižek important is the simple fact that he approaches the topic of subjectivity and freedom (among other issues) by using psychoanalysis as a lense to examine German Idealism, and that this analysis allows for, and even encourages, a theory of the subject that takes into account but manages to narrowly escape, the scientifically fueled determinism of our age.”

    Why is this so important? I understand why the latter claim is important because without freedom (of some kind) Zizek’s entire “system” would lose everything…his tentative construction of a radical politics wouldn’t be too radical without freedom.

    Just some initial reactions to your post to which I hope you’ll engage in a response.

  2. 2 naughtthought

    Zizek’s repetition has to do with this reaction to standard theoretical sytle – particularly that of Lacan. He openly deplores Lacan’s style and his seemingly unrigorous and quickly moving prose is a way to try and explain complex ideas to himself and others. Zizek writes as fast, and sometimes, faster than he thinks – you can see him changing his mind over time. I think Zizek matters because he is doing a long apologia/illustration of transcendental materialism – which I think is important because it takes the past several decades of critique into account, salvages some of modernism and gels with current developments in science.

    In this sense he is making more of an arguement than cultural theorists (a cateogy he is clumsily thrown into) in that, if nothing else, he is stating that one should embrace a stance that is more than simply oppositional – such as when he refers to himself as a dogmatic Lacanian. The best evidence for why Zizek matters is the work of those who jump forward with his ideas – Adrian Johnston is a standout here.

  3. 3 battleofthegiants

    I think reference to the introduction of _Parallax_ is pretty cheap – it’s an introduction. Do you expect him to make a 400 page book comprehensible in the 20 he opens up with? It looks like he’s jumping from idea to idea there because he is – he’s talking about the different ideas that appear in the next 6 chapters.

    Along the same lines, it’s of note that the intros to his books are very short. I don’t think it’s out of place here to point to the lack of introduction to Lacan’s Seminars – he more or less just launches into it. And it’s because of how Zizek (and I think Lacan) see the relation between theory and practice. He can’t just tell you the theory, because it’s abstract. It has to birth itself through existing literature and events (or for Lacan Math and literature – he generally doesn’t talk about his case studies because ‘you had to be there’ – i.e. there’s a difference between transmittable knowledge and ‘know-how’).

    This might sound ‘idealist’, or simply empty talk, but take a look at what Lukacs says about Lenin and Luxemberg: They’re called Marxist _literature_ because they take into account what people are talking about and what’s going on in the world, not just coming up with a theory out of the blue… Marx, of course, did the same thing.

    And that’s another reason ‘Zizek is important’. People generally leave out the fact that he’s declared 2001 the advent of his ‘Leninist turn’. He’s not just talking philosophy, he’s attempting to revitalize some standard Marxist categories which can then be turned into political praxis…
    and refined.

    Which of course opens the door to the ‘Why isn’t he politically active now?’. The answer he gives is that current thought has left out the destruction of Capitalism as a viable option, and these ‘presuppositions’ are what enable people to act in the first place. Attacking these foundations (he hopes) will open some doors for action.

    Which is, of course, part of the reason he doesn’t have a political program. He’s in a position to attack thought, but has no idea what the exact conditions in my neck of the woods are. It’s for people to take up thought and make something of it…

    A sustained reading of Zizek shows that the examples and thoughts are not just random, that they do form an argument. For example the first section of parallax approaches freedom through the question of how capitalism functions (Chapter 1) and what the structure of democracy is (Chapter 2), culminating in what ‘freed choice’ looks like (Interlude 1). The problem, as everyone knows, is that you tend to remember the examples more than the argument. (I could go on about how exmaples work for Zizek, but this is too long as it is). The trick is to read it more than once so that examples attract less attention and the ideas become clearer.

    Criticizing him by saying he doesn’t have a linear argument is like attacking Marx because the first chapter is too abstract. Marx repeats his procedure over and over, getting more concrete as he goes along. It’s only the whole picture (the whole book…plus the others!) that makes a coherent argument. Same goes for Zizek. If you only read the Intro to Parallax you won’t get it. If you read the whole book (a few times…) you’ll begin to see why the art on the book is such that it is: Party as Analyst. (Lenin in Lacan’s seat)…


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