The New Statesman is a ‘British political and cultural magazine’ – it’s mostly a place for budding writers to attempt journalism, or sarcastic British public intellectuals to write editorials. It’s the kind of place where articles begin with a tid-bit of academic general knowledge, a theoretical curio, which is immediately dispensed with when the underequipped authors drop their crow-bars. Though if they’re ambitions enough, they’ll pick them back up for the conclusion, to give the piece the illusion that it’s a coherent whole.
However clichéd, such sandboxes are vital places for writers to practice in public, a journalistic busking to save our revered stages from accidental dissonance. It must then be very intimidating when attempting a review of Zizek to have him pop-up with a reply. And especially here when there is no alternative: every review of Zizek is an attempt. It would be a rather mean thing for an A-List singer to walk past a street performance of their song and set-up opposite to prove that the performer has it all wrong.
Nevertheless Zizek occasionally writes for the New Statesman, and we might read some calculation into a dismissive review of his books published there (‘perhaps if I sing terribly outside his house, he might come out!’).
I’m not going to be too critical of the reviewer however, he’s done nothing wrong in his misreading. Zizek knows very well how mischievous he is: with a deliberate relish (enjoyment, perhaps?) he produces statements designed to be misread.
Yes yes, we shouldn't be idiots. We should be good readers of the text and understand what he meant - the Zizek religion is of course Jewish: the text has to be interrogated, not quoted verbatim!
We, however, either need to incorporate some eye-rolling into our reading of his replies like this; or Zizek needs to be more honest. Like a theoretical Loki, he'll just keep on going: "oh Nazism Good? I never said that! I said it was GOoD!"; "Violence? Why never of course! Only vIolencE!"…
No doubt he sees himself as a Lacanian figure, kissing the cheek of culture at the right moment so as to disturb its psychical neuroses - each polemical world a calculated cure. From the other side however, it feels very much like an old man has spit all over our faces. And when we decide to avoid the next session, he’ll call us to remind us that this moist therapy is essential.
Well, Yes, OK, Zizek: I'll smack my son at his bar ziztka when he reads too much into Less than Nothing when you stop setting drool-ful traps for the teenage mind.
I get that he’s deliberately incendiary and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Sometimes it’s not mine either, though I do feel that Žižek receives an almost unreasonable amount of criticism. Alive, he’s criticized as frequently as long-dead giants in the canon of philosophy, psychoanalysis, etc. Given his status as a public figure, it would probably seem weird if he didn’t respond to those investigating his work. He broaches subjects that provide for audiences gateways into other thinkers; is this really someone who should have to spend their time responding to relentless criticism? If I’m reading this article correctly, he’s damned if he responds and damned if he doesn’t. All this because he doesn’t write like everyone else. Clarity, I know, is a cherished value in a written work. As is appearing “strong” in one’s statements (as, quite obviously, the author of this piece believes). But is a lack of clarity or an embrace of quizzical ambiguity really without merit when probing readers to do their own philosophy and develop their own kind of synthesis?
Michael Burgess says
It’s a much more ambigious criticism than that. I do say “teenage mind” at the end, and I do give him that we should not be “Zizekian Literalists”.
The point was only “to incorporate some eye-rolling”. Yes, it may all well be legitimate, but the audience has to sigh from time-to-time, *especially* if they know what’s going on.
Randall Miron says
Penultimate paragraph, line two: should “world” be “word” ?
Wayne Schroeder says
Michael–very entertaining. You have a remarkable respect of the New Statesman, Zizek and all things human (Ok, maybe not). I have my own beefs with Zizek, especially about the Hegelian negation thing, and his writing are not only abstract and a mixture of both Lacan and Hegel (a fairly novel position), but his Lacanian position also coincides with the Jungian archtype of the Joker (not coincidental with dishonesty as you imply). When Zizek came out initially with the Bartleby position which seemed like arguing for inactivity as revolution, he confused many in same manner as his statement about “Even Nazi-anti-Semitism, however ghastly it was, opened up a world,” and “Better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state.” I do not believe that these statements are dishonest, nor intending to confuse since the bigger picture consistently fits these paradoxical kinds of argument to avoid our temptation to falsely idealize, to passively accept, or otherwise misread reality.
Michael Burgess says
My polemical style is often the same as his, so as so often with “aserbics” (to coin a genre), it’s partly a self-criticism. I know very well what he’s doing, and I know very well that it has its justification, but nevertheless I sigh (from time-to-time).
a mixture of both Lacan and Hegel is not a fairly novel position
Lacan was aleady mixing Kojève”s interpretation of Hegel with Heidegger. And at that time (30’s) in Paris it was not a very original recipe ; many people used the Kojeve ingedient : e.g. Bataille, Sartre (with some Heidi added) but also Cavailles (no Heidi added).
By the way Lacan was a (not so) funny clown. This Zizek is just a boring copycat of a dead parrot.
“And especially here when there is no alternative: every review of Zizek is an attempt. It would be a rather mean thing for an A-List singer to walk past a street performance of their song and set-up opposite to prove that the performer has it all wrong.”
Yeah – I agree. Every review of Zizek is an attempt. But this is not because Zizek is so very, very brilliant that us mere mortals are unable to fully grasp his mind-blowing insights and are stuck writing sound-bitey reviews that barely scratch the surface. No – it’s because 70 percent of what Zizek writes is airy nonsense. At his best he achieves a patina of meaning. But most of the time it’s postmodern logic pretzels all the freaking way down.
I mean, just look at the way he defends himself:
“Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy. Of course, the moment one compares the positive content of the two, the Welfare State capitalist democracy is incomparably better.” So the least one can say is that, since I admit that a liberal-capitalist state is “incomparably better” to live in than Stalinism, I must mean something quite different from the simple claim that Stalinism is better than a liberal welfare state.”
Oh yeah, Zizek – that really clears things up.
Why did he even write that first sentence? He’s saying “X”, then immediately saying “Not X” in the following statement. And when he says “I must mean something quite different…” I get the sense that HE doesn’t even know what his own writing means. How bout you tell us what that “something” is, Zizek?
I know what people will say: I’m not supposed to take Zizek “literally.” He’s an ironic dude and you never know when he’s serious, etc., etc. Well, my reply is: if that’s his style, then he’s in the wrong business. He should write sitcoms or something, because when people read philosophy they usually take it literally. I mean, does he really expect to be taken seriously as a thinker if he’s constantly inserting little ambiguous jokes – many of which are insensitive – into his “theoretical” writing? This is especially true given that his actual serious claims are only slightly more intelligible than his jokes.
I strongly disagree with the suggestion that the distance between Zizek and the author of this NS review is as great as the distance between an “A-list” singers and some random street performer. I’d bet my life that Josh Cohen is infinitely more readable than Zizek – even when Z is writing at his best.
The New Statesmen review is well-done. The author articulates exactly how I feel about Zizek. I.e., Z’s work is a perfect example of the type of academic waffle George Orwell so rightfully criticized more than sixty years ago (although the NS author himself slips into meaningless verbiage a few times in that review). But it’s worse than that because – like the author says – Zizek just keeps on churning out the same crap over, and over, and over, and over. How long before his next book? How long before we’re discussing whether Z has anything to say once again?
I mean, Does Zizek really think he’s going to change the world by continually plopping out his tedious brand of critical-post-deconstructionist-lacanian-marxist-postmodern-whatever-the-fuck theory? It goes without saying that anyone who actually reads Zizek and takes him seriously is not a person in any kind of position to change the world. He probably doesn’t even change his sheets on a regular basis.
Wayne Schroeder says
#1: Noah, I was in the same position as you when Zizek pontificated on the Ferguson riots (http://www.theeuropean-magazine.com/slavoj-zizek/9774-slavoj-zizek-on-ferguson-and-violence). I was pissed and could not make sense of his sense. But after expressing my anger, a Zizekian explained every part of his response. Only then did I calm down, and realize that in my anger, I truly did not understand what he was saying (esp. regarding Benjamin).
#2: Zizek is truly not the truth about the world. But he is amazing in remarking about the untruth about the world, which I usually agree with because I have taken time to understand 1) his Lacanian position (which drives most philosophers mad) and 2) his Hegelian position, which pisses of most of the rest.
#3: We develop false ideologies, become passive followers like Lemings running off of cliffs.
#4: The solution is not that simple (whether to act or not to act for example, because either can feed the Big Other, and we must make existential decisions without Big Other comfort.
Noah Vale says
This Lacanian thing is brilliant! Publish whatever bigoted left wing Stalinist bile bubbles up out of the college dorm room of a personal life you lead and when people point out how ridiculous it is just agree with them and say “obviously I didn’t mean that” and leave it at that. Then get to righting the next article to appeal to your diehard fan base of people who still think Stalinism couldn’t have been that bad. Like this recent one:
Where he suggests that the Greek capitulation in the debt talks doesn’t have to be a Versailles but could be a Brest-Litovsk instead. That is the first Brest-Litovsk, where the Bolsheviks sold out there allies to the Germans in World War I , not the one Stalinists don’t like to talk about where they became allies with Hitler and divided up a good slice of Eastern Europe. You see, apparently, Zizek thinks this doesn’t have to end in the rise of Fascism in Greece. Ok, I am listening. If Syrza would just get about acting like Bolsheviks and purge the Greek state of all opposition or at least the police and judiciary, whatever, he is just an ideas man after all, as long as they are ready when the opportunity comes to spring their trap on the unwitting capitalist imperialist pig dogs. Until then just pretend to be acting in good faith.
Now, I could suggest that this argument of his implies that he thinks that Stalinism would be a good result worth whatever down side there is to his proposed ideological purge, but, of course, that would be ridiculous or at least embarrassing, so, we better not do that. He has been very clear that he thinks Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was a bad outcome after all! But, can’t we at least say that he does not think that Greece should engage with it’s EU partners honorably and openly and try to improve the situation? He has been very clear about that too hasn’t he? Doesn’t that tell us all we really need to know about Zizek?