Does Žižek take himself as seriously as other people do? Idolatry, activism and the academic left

So as most people reading this will probably realise, Žižek bashing and boosting has been somewhat in vogue within certain sections of the academic blogosphere in recent months. The Sociological Imagination was an enthusiastic part of this recently, through an ever-so-slightly polemic blog post penned by Steve Fuller,

Slavoj Zizek may be great at beating up on grand old men of the anti-establishment such as Chomsky, but he is a total waste of space for a self-described ‘Left’ that wants to remain politically relevant in the 21st century. Whenever I read him, I think to myself: This guy either just wants us to feel good about ourselves after performing some self-contained Occupy-ish rituals or he is calling for outright violence in a prophylactic bloodbath. Zizek can’t seem to imagine any other political alternatives, which may suit his vast legions of followers, who are ‘politically inert’ by most conventional understandings of the phrase. This was really made clear to me in his latest piece for the Guardian, which celebrates the importance of cyberspace whistleblowers, who if ultimately regarded as ‘progressive’, will be for reasons that we have not quite yet figured out. At the moment, they look like fleas on the arse of history.

This prompted a spate of obnoxious comments which I saw no point in posting. Previous articles I’d posted myself, which were far from dismissive of Žižek, had prompted people to post abuse at the @soc_imagination – it was initially amusing to be told I was a reactionary and have my scientism denounced before  it eventually just got tedious. But then I’ve always been mildly contemptuous of academic cultural politics in a way that I tend to keep to myself, lest I wander round the academy inadvertently insulting people. My intention in writing isn’t to be vituperative, in fact I’m trying very hard to avoid this, but simply to observe that the ratio of rhetoric to action among the academic left can often be distressingly low.  As a biographically orientated sociologist I have a pretty clear understanding of the reasons why this is so and, as someone whose activism has often been squeezed out while grappling with a far from ideal work/life balance over the last five years, this understanding is informed by self-reflection as much as social observation. However I nonetheless think this is a problem and, oddly enough, some of Žižek’s ideas have been important in elaborating my understanding of how this is so.

Particularly his account of cynicism, which at least as I understand it*, argues that post-ideological culture tends towards an over-estimation of subjective belief: people congratulate themselves on not being ‘taken in’ by ideology while nonetheless construing their circumstances in a way which engenders objective complicity. My political problem with Žižek is the peculiarly post-ideological form of idolatry his work seems to engender – what difference does Žižek make? What’s the point of Žižek? I’ve never heard an answer to this question which isn’t irredeemably subjective, construing him as a diagnostician of late capitalism in a way which implicitly invokes some objective and proactive correlate, the specification of which is indefinitely deferred. Or in slightly plainer language:  Žižek fans always talk about him as if his work is deeply practical in its implications and yet never seem to say what these are exactly. My accusation is that his work often engenders a subjective sense of one’s political outlook as being intellectually sophisticated while contributing nothing, in fact often detracting from, objective action. This is what prompted me to write this post, which I’ll finish soon lest it become overly rambling, which I cite to illustrate my point in a way which will hopefully be conducive to friendly debate:

Subsequently, this is also why I argue that Zizek provides us with the only space for the left. Any other leftist project (“social scientifically literate” or otherwise) is by definition fundamentally apolitical if they only remain within the possible, but Zizek allows us to revive the ‘politics proper’ which is central to some of the most radical sociologists and social theorists (including, I would argue, C. Wright-Mills whose criticism of abstract empiricism in describing the sociological imagination embodied the Marxian dictum that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it”). Zizek shows us a way to break from contemporary ‘social sciences’ which spends its time and resources describing society in an age where it is needed more than ever to change society for the better.

On the contrary I think Žižek provides us with an intoxicating rhetoric to describe this aim but offers little to nothing which helps do it and in fact muddies the waters and makes ‘resistance’ seem much more theoretically complicated than it often is. I write in the paragraph above the quote that his work ‘seems’ to engender this tendency because I’m completely open to changing my mind about this. Plus it’s probably useful to reiterate the point that I read a lot of Žižek and, more so, I don’t do it in a ‘know thine enemy’ kind of way. I read him because I enjoy his work. I have more of a problem with how his work is taken up and deployed than I do with the man himself. Žižek clearly likes reading, writing and speaking. He lives the pampered life of the international academic superstar. He is a brand. He is also idolised. I’m not dismissing him on this basis – in fact I’m not dismissing him at all – not least of all because Chomsky, one of my  life long heroes, is just as much of a brand and is equally idolised. In fact it was this meeting of the two most high profile brands on the academic left which meant their public spat, contrived in large part by academic web editors such as myself, attracted the attention which it did. Nonetheless I do think the Žižek and Chomsky brands tend to dominate the intellectual attention space of the left, simply taking up room that would be occupied by other scholars and activists – thought this bothers me much more in the case of the latter than the former.

*And I hasten to add that if I haven’t understood his meaning correctly then I couldn’t care less. I read Žižek because I find him enjoyable and often thought-provoking, approaching him in an exegetical way is like reading the Daily Mail. I understand why people might do it, I’m sure I’m intellectually capable of it but left to my own devices it’s the last thing in the world I’m ever going to choose to do.

3 thoughts on “Does Žižek take himself as seriously as other people do? Idolatry, activism and the academic left

  1. I think the thing that’s important to notice is that Zizek doesn’t ever exactly claim to *have* the answers to the current political situation. When he talks about what he’s actually trying to do, he says that he thinks that the role of philosophy isn’t to provide answers, it’s to help people ask the right questions. He specifically voices frustration at the way people come to him and ask him what they should *do* – that’s not his role. And he’s also pretty explicit insofar as he thinks that *we don’t know* what to do. He says (and this is something you could perhaps question) that the left is essentially stuck, it doesn’t have any genuinely transformative ideas or structures, and so philosophy is all the more important because if what you need is better answers then the first task is to think of some better questions.

  2. Yep that’s what I was trying to get at (put much better than I managed) when I said my problem is with his reception more than with the man himself. I think he compounds this ‘stuckness’ (partly through massively overstating it) by virtue of his position within the academic field. I don’t think philosophy is likely to provide ‘genuinely transformative ideas’ – I think something like the Real Utopias project is a much more potent source of political ideas and it frustrates me how innovative social science can be squeezed out by the way in which superstars like Zizek are received – which I truly don’t blame him for.

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