Beyond the reality principle

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Slavoj Žižek interviewed by Cahiers du Cinéma, as described in the LRB blog:

Following up on a piece he wrote about Avatar, reprinted in the March issue of Cahiers, he confesses to his interviewers that he hasn’t seen the film; as a good Lacanian, the idea is enough, and we must trust theory. Žižek promises that he will see the film and then write a Stalinist ‘self-criticism’.

The good Lacanian goes on to inform the Cahiers editors that he wrote about The Talented Mr Ripley before seeing it, and that although he has seen Psycho and Vertigo (the interviewers sound quite jittery by this point), there’s a long chapter on Rossellini in Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out and, no, he hadn’t seen the films when he wrote it. Out of respect for Lacan? Not this time: ‘As a good Hegelian, between the idea and the reality, I choose the idea.’

No doubt many onlookers, accustomed to such ‘revelations’ but somehow not yet bored by them, will find this quite funny.

Compare Lyotard’s own cheerful admission to an interviewer: ‘I made up stories, I referred to a quantity of books I’d never read, apparently it impressed people, it’s all a bit of a parody… It’s simply the worst of my books, they’re almost all bad, but that one’s the worst.’

Earnest indignation leaves such characters untouched; censorious judgements are similarly unavailing, allowing the seer and his followers to pose as irreverent pranksters, scandalizing the pious, thickheaded, credulous and tradition-bound.

For Žižek’s adherents and others, there is compensation to be found, and the appearance of worldliness to be conveyed, in post facto professions that one was in on the joke with him ex ante.

Such sources of solace merely consent to the inevitable: the guru would, of course, do it anyway.

So I struggled to decide whether this is worthy of comment: Žižek has been playing the same stale game of épater for 20 years, a heliotropic pursuit of media and publishing market that has succeeded quite nicely. ‘Scandals’ of this sort merely add to his undeserved reputation for transgression; it’s probably best just to ignore him now.

But surely it’s a kind of dark minatory sign when this kind of figure, and others like him, can find success in a wing of the humanities.

For some high-status subset of society to proclaim its open disdain for reality, evidence and truth  well, that’s bound to catch on, with unpleasant consequences.

Thus the best antidote to Žižek is not mere excoriation. However richly deserved it may be, it is  like approval  just an impotent, futile bid to console oneself.

His absence of intellectual probity is, after all, merely one individual’s response to incentives not of his own devising. There are few penalties and plenty of rewards to be won: facing such a payoff structure, and unconstrained by scruple, he behaves predictably.

Moralism is misapplied to what is not an individual aberration, but a symptom of our times. Žižek is the merest spray flung off by a vast swell of intellectual regression that has rolled in during recent decades.

Better for all to consider: who or what summoned Žižek to the stage? What historical developments led us to this grim impasse? How might we escape from it?

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9 Responses to “Beyond the reality principle”

  1. Dan Says:

    When I read about this, I have to say that I found it really funny more than anything else. Knowing Žižek, I imagine he sees the funny side of it too. However, I do wonder if he and Bhabha are actually just Sokal plants that will be revealed after their deaths.

  2. Nick Says:

    I imagine he sees the funny side of it too.

    Sure. “I don’t take myself too seriously” is the most cynical of get-out clauses. It means you’re not accountable for anything you say.

    “Who can make fun of Žižek? He’s already a knowing self-parody.”

  3. Dan Says:

    Rubbish. Being funny and being correct are far from the same thing, and I’m pretty sure most people can tell the difference. Being a knowing parody makes you more likeable, not your argument.

    You also lose credibility by playing this card, if it is indeed a card; I find the whole thing funny, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to give weight to anything Žižek said about Avatar before he sees it.

  4. Nick Says:

    You misunderstand what I said. The suggestion was not that Žižek’s argument is judged more convincing because he’s funny; the point was that he’s judged less harshly for his countless woolly arguments because he’s funny. Which is to say – as you did – he’s more likeable than if he po-facedly tried to convince us all of his various theoretical positions. Because he’s so droll, he gets away with it.

    In saying this, which I thought was reasonably uncontroversial, I was criticising Žižek and nobody else. Sorry if it didn’t seem like it.

  5. Nick Says:

    I could probably be clearer: by maintaining an ironic distance from what he says – which Žižek does through clownishness – a speaker can prevent the audience from holding him to account. That’s not a negative comment on the audience.

  6. Dan Says:

    Right. Sorry if my reply was blunt, I’m just used to debating fairly flatly on the internet – I certainly didn’t think you were criticising anyone but Žižek. :p

    I understand your point, but I still am not sure if I buy it. A speaker might think they deflect their audience’s desire to hold them to account through buffoonery, but it’s clearly not the case. I guess this is partially what I meant by my second point above: if it is a card to play, it’s a poor one.

  7. Nick Says:

    Well, since I don’t believe in agreeing to disagree

    We already know that Žižek gets away with it. The success and longevity of his publishing career attest to that. Behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated from other scholars (e.g. reviewing stuff he hasn’t seen, self-plagiarising whole sections of his previous published work) hasn’t impeded him. Maybe some people feel contemptuous, or don’t take him seriously as a scholar, so it’s not costless behaviour from his perspective. But papers and magazines still commission his articles, and each year he releases at least one book, which gets distributed worldwide through reputable publishers. Once that’s recognised, we need to account for why he gets away with it.

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