How to read Žižek

Adam Kotsko writes: Slavoj Žižek, a philosopher and psychoanalyst from Slovenia, is one of the few academics to have achieved a degree of genuine popularity among general readers. He regularly lectures to overflow crowds, is the subject of a documentary film (called simply Žižek!), and surely counts as one of the world’s most visible advocates of left-wing ideas. When Žižek first broke into the English-speaking academic scene, however, few would likely have predicted such success. For one thing, his research focused on an unpromising topic: the long-neglected field of “ideology critique,” a staple of Marxist cultural criticism that had fallen into eclipse as Marxism became less central to Western intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century.

“Ideology” is one of those philosophical terms that has entered into everyday speech with an impoverished meaning. Much as “deconstruction” means little more than “detailed analysis” in popular usage, so “ideology” tends to refer to a body of beliefs, most often with overtones of inflexibility or fanaticism. But as Žižek argued in his 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology, ideology is not to be found in our conscious opinions or convictions but, as Marx suggested, in our everyday practices. Explicit opinions are important, but they serve as symptoms to be interpreted rather than statements to be taken at face value.

Racism, for example. Žižek recommends that we look for symptomatic contradictions, as when the anti-Semite claims that the Jews are both arch-capitalist exploiters and Bolshevik subversives, that they are both excessively tied to their overly particular tradition and deracinated cosmopolitans undercutting national traditions. In the Jim Crow South, blacks were presented simultaneously as childlike innocents needing the guidance of whites and as brutal sexual predators. In contemporary America, Mexican immigrants are viewed at once as lay-abouts burdening our social welfare system and as relentless workaholics who are stealing all our jobs.

These contradictions don’t show that ideology is “irrational” — the problem is exactly the opposite, that there are too many reasons supporting their views. Žižek argues that these piled-up rationalizations demonstrate that something else is going on.

A similar sense that something else is going on always strikes me when I read a review of Žižek’s work in the mainstream media. (A recent example is John Gray’s review of two of Žižek’s books in the New York Review of Books, to which Žižek has responded.) Now academics are always ill-used in the mainstream press, particularly if they deal in abstract concepts and refer to a lot of European philosophers. Yet there’s something special about the treatment of Žižek. In what has become a kind of ritual, the reader of a review of Žižek’s work always learns that Žižek is simultaneously hugely politically dangerous and a clown with no political program whatsoever, that he is an apologist for the worst excesses of twentieth-century Communism and a total right-wing reactionary, both a world-famous left-wing intellectual and an anti-Semite to rival Hitler himself.

The goal is not so much to give an account of Žižek’s arguments and weigh their merits as to inoculate readers against Žižek’s ideas so they feel comfortable dismissing them. To find left-wing thinkers and movements simultaneously laughable and dangerous, disorganized and totalitarian, overly idealistic and driven by a lust for power is to suggest: there is no alternative. Rather than simply knocking around a poor, misunderstood academic in the public square, it is an attempt to shut down debate on the basic structure of our society. The rolling disaster of contemporary capitalism — war, crisis, hyper-exploitation of workers, looming environmental catastrophe — demands that we think boldly and creatively to develop some kind of livable alternative. Žižek can help.

The biggest obstacle facing the reader of Žižek’s work is not the academic trappings — the technical terms, the references to other thinkers — but a writing style that defies convention. Broadly speaking, the general expectation of argumentative writing is that it will lay out a more or less straightforward chain of reasons supporting a clear central claim. Even though we acknowledge that this format is almost never encountered in its pure form, it still remains a kind of ideal. In Žižek’s writing, though, it’s difficult to pick out anything like a “thesis statement,” and the argument most often proceeds via intuitive leaps rather than tight chains of reasoning. This is true even of pieces that are more or less totally non-academic, and it is doubtless one of the reasons his work is so often misunderstood. One thing I hope to show here, though, is that his method fits with his goals and with the kinds of phenomena he is trying to get at. Although Žižek’s work can be difficult to get into at first, he is one of the most engaging and thought-provoking writers working in philosophy today, with a unique ability to get people excited about philosophy and critical theory. He is, in short, a gateway drug, and I’m the pusher. [Continue reading…]

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