Monday, June 9, 2014

Slavoj Zizek, the Symptom Comes Alive

If you have read far enough into my new book, The Last Psychoanalyst, you will know that I accord famed Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek an important role in the history of psychoanalysis. See also my previous posts on Zizek.

On the off chance that you believe I was exaggerating about him or that I was trafficking in caricature, I draw your attention to Rebecca Schuman’s portrait of the philosopher as a clown. In fact, I might have been slightly too generous in calling him a philosopher-clown.

Schuman describes Zizek:

Slovenian critical-theory superstar Slavoj Žižek is the “Elvis of cultural theory,” one of the most famous and eminent philosophers alive and working today—second only, perhaps, to his arch-nemesis Noam Chomsky, with whom he spent the better part of 2013 in a highly publicized feud. His work is all but worshipped by his adherents. He is feted at conferences convened for no other reason than to celebrate him.

If you remove the veil, Schuman explains, you arrive at the man himself. It’s not a pretty picture:

He is also a grade-A, number-one, world-class jerk, who brings to life the worst caricature of the humanities eminence: someone who loves subjecting other people to his talks, but who loathes contact with students—who, being “like other people,” are mostly “boring idiots.”

Why are Zizek’s students “boring idiots.” Could it be because they spend their time reading people like Slavoj Zizek? Or perhaps, their idolization of Zizek may be an irrefutable proof of their idiocy.

In any case, Zizek treats them with utter contempt. Perhaps they deserve it; perhaps not. Yet, if they allow themselves to be treated this way they are telling us that they think they deserve it.

In Schuman’s words:

“If you don’t give me any of your shitty papers,” Žižek told students at The New School in New York—who may have matriculated at that institution for the sole purpose of working with Slavoj Žižek—“you get an A. If you give me a paper, I may read it and not like it, and you can get a lower grade.”

Certainly, the great Slovenian has no interest in actually talking to students:

“Here in the United States, students tend to be so open that sooner or later, if you are kind to them, they even start to ask you personal questions, [share their] private problems; could you help them, and so on. And what should I tell them? I don’t care. Kill yourself. It’s not my problem.” The Žižekophant giving the interview laughs at this, hard.

The real problem with Žižek, in any case, isn’t that he feels this way or that he says these things aloud. It’s that he does so and people think it’s hilarious.

As a footnote: I did not include pictures in my book, but Slate magazine has chosen a photo of Zizek to accompany Schuman’s article:

At least, now you will understand why people think that Zizek is so funny.


Anonymous said...

While I was up at Cambridge some philosophy dons at my college invited Zizek to a conference and soon came to regret it. He was demanding, arrogant and rude to the undergraduates. Moreover, the paper he presented was uninteresting and pedestrian. He is really just an overrated hack with an incoherent leftist "philosophy" that dupes the naïve. He has a good scam going.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

It's good to hear that some people are finally seeing through the scam... but Heaven knows why it has taken them so long.

Sam L. said...

Never heard of him. Is he more of a jerk than Chomsky?

Unknown said...

Sam L. just pointed out the problem Zizek struggles to overcome:

'Never heard of him'.


vanderleun said...

Somebody needs to comb his hair with two quarts of gasoline and a match.

Anonymous said...

Cross Charles Manson with Andy Warhol, and you have Zigzag... or Lars von Trier.

Anonymous said...

Zigzag may be a lout but he's right about most students being boring idiots. They were raised to be docile PC drones from cradle.

Why else do we have issues like 'trigger warnings'?

Todd Roswell said...

I think it's fairly clear that Zizek is an asshole. He makes no attempts to hide it. He even admits to the director of the film "Zizek!" that he is a narcissist--and given how steeped he is in psychoanalysis, I don't think he means it casually. His books are confusing, digressive, and occasionally totally unintelligible. He criticizes virtually everyone else on the left but offers no way forward himself, and far from avoiding this accusation, holds it up with pride, because he believes it makes him a deep thinker and not just a mindless "activist." This is, at best, silly.

But I think he does have a lot of valuable things to say as a cultural critic--perhaps not nearly as many as his fans or he himself thinks. I think it comes out most clearly in his "Pervert's Guide" films and his lectures, on days when he's a little more "together" and less willing to digress. I think his best points are his observations his criticisms of the disingenuously "permissive" postmodern world, and its "demand to enjoy", with the related warnings against the Disney-fueled temptation to "make your dreams come true." His materialist interpretation of Christianity is also fascinating. He's really at his best when he's pointing out the ways in which we make superficial gestures toward environmentalism, health, poverty or whatever, that actually serve to perpetuate the very problems they appear to ameliorate. I admit these points are not unique to Zizek, and perhaps we really could do without his voice in public discourse without losing anything of value. Still I don't think it's fair to write him off as a completely cynical clown.

Most of your ire seems to be directed at his defenses of revolutionary violence and his backpedaling from said defenses, and I'd have to agree here--this is definitely his most problematic set of positions--the place where we should ignore him. Nonetheless even these loathsome points of view stem from his fundamental conviction that we live in an amoral Universe, and everything really is up to us. So if we say to ourselves, violence is never acceptable, that sounds very ethical, but what to we mean by "violence" anyway? There is no God to decide for us what is and is not truly violent. Zizek's questioning our idea of violence to purge it of hypocrisy and self-protection is, I think, a good exercise. His conclusions are another matter, and again, I agree with you that these conclusions are reprehensible and his attempt to backpedal from them even moreso. Calling Gandhi the truly violent one is very silly, even rhetorically.

I devoured the fascinating book you wrote about your former teacher, Jacques Lacan, and judging from the picture you present of him, I think he could be accused of many of the same unseemly traits you lay on Zizek--arrogance, willful obfuscation, the cultivation of a personality cult, shock tactics, etc. Many have also written Lacan off as a narcissist and/or clown, but in your book you called him a Zen master. Perhaps your opinions about Lacan have changed over the last 30 years, but if you still consider Lacan worth our time despite his difficulty and even cruelty, why won't you extend the same benefit of the doubt to Zizek, insofar as he does in fact deserve it?

I don't mean to equate the two men--I think Lacan was a much more serious person, intellectually and ethically, than Zizek. But still, it left me wondering.