Life in the accelerated academy: how it’s possible for Žižek to publish 55 books in 14 years

I’ve long been a little bit fascinated by Žižek. I find him utterly hypnotic to watch and have consumed countless YouTube lectures by him. I genuinely enjoy his journalistic output and have read a lot of it via the Guardian, London Review of Books and the New Statesman. I find his short books immensely readable and his longer books rather tedious. I’ve never been able to work out how seriously I take him as a philosopher. I find myself simultaneously drawn to him and repelled by him. I find his politics brave yet vacuous. I find his ideas occasionally illuminating yet more frequently elusive. He’s a strange thinker who disrupts my evaluative habits, preventing me from fitting him into the categories I use with other writers and revealing the limitations of those (overly neat) categories in the process.

However the thing that intrigues me most about Žižek is his voluminous output. He is a publishing phenomenon – something attested to by the regurgitation of blurbs about him on each new book. He transcends his work, becoming a brand in a manner so knowing that his status resists easy condemnation. In an important way he is a product of the neoliberal academy: the superstar professor who uses his global brand to float free of the scholarly and collegial ties that otherwise bind. Partly this is a contradiction that can be observed in other left wing intellectual superstars – Chomsky is the most obvious example and this is why their ‘spat’ was so fascinating to many. But Žižek seems at least quantitatively different in the sheer scale of his output.

According to the Žižek bibliography on wikipedia, he has published 55 books since 2000. 55 books in less than 15 years. I was curious about whether this amounts to the sheer weight of writing that it would superficially appear to be. In assessing this I’ve excluded papers, letters, interviews, collections of his writing, things that are co-written, his joke book (!), edited collections and what is apparently a reprint of his doctoral thesis. I’ve also excluded anything that I’m unable to categorise reliably which excludes the books published in Slovenian that haven’t been translated yet (as far as I’m aware). In other words, this is an extremely conservative figure for Žižek’s output since 2000. Not least of all because it excludes his vast journalistic writing (though obviously we know that, in an important sense, it includes this).

For purposes of an exercise in procrastination, I was content to simply add up the total pages of each book (as listed on Amazon) in order to gain an overall figure of the quantity of his writing. Obviously I realise that neither publishing or writing really works this way – there’s also the open question of how much regurgitation there is between each of these books. Here’s the full list:

Absolute Recoil: 440 pages
Trouble in Paradise: 240 pages
Event: 224 pages
Year of Dreaming Dangerously: 144 pages
Less Than Nothing: 1046 pages
Living In The End Times: 520 pages
First As Tragedy, Then As Farce: 168 pages
Violence: 224 pages
In Defence of Lost Causes: 504 pages
How To Read Lacan: 128 pages
The Parallax View: 448 pages
Iraq: 224 pages
The Puppet and the Dwarf: 190 pages
Organs Without Bodies: 232 pages
Welcome to the Desert of the Real: 160 pages
On Belief: 176 pages
The Fright of Real Tears: 144 pages
Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism: 288 pages
The Fragile Absolute: 208 page
The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: 46 pages

There are those I’ve read and enjoyed (First As Tragedy, Year of Dreaming Dangerously), those I’ve started and given up on (Less Than Nothing, Living In The End Times) and those I’ve read but cannot remember a single thing about (How To Read Lacan, In Defence of Lost Causes). There are also many I’ve never heard of. They come to a grand total of 5754 pages. That’s actually rather less than I expected. In a very rough way this quantity of output could be seen to amount to 411 pages per year since 2000. To reiterate: I do realise that neither writing nor publishing actually work this way. However it could be argued that any overestimate inherent in how crudely I’ve measured this is likely offset by the vast array of material that I’ve excluded from the count.

I don’t find anything remotely inconceivable about the idea of writing 411 pages in a year. Where it becomes surprising is when considering how consistently it would be necessary to sustain this sort of rate – I assume there’s an editorial infrastructure around Žižek which takes much of the work out of the many additional publications (edited collections, interviews etc) and also that pitches books to him at least some of the time. In this sense his commercial success likely translates into institutional scaffolding that reduce the cognitive load of writing i.e. reduces the number of things he has to think about in order to move from one project to the next. It’s also hard not to wonder if some of the contents of these books are just transcriptions of the many public talks he does (not that I think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with this) and that these invitations in turn enhance the writing process by offering a constant stream of ideational prompts and regular opportunities to refine ideas.

Even so, he still writes a hell of a lot with a remarkable consistency. In spite of his self-presentation as dishevelled and chaotic, it seems rather unlikely that he’s a binge writer and that he instead has a very regular writing routine. The more I’ve thought about this, I’ve become really intrigued by the conditions of his working life and how they facilitate his prolific output. As part of the project me and Filip Vostal are discussing at the moment, looking at the acceleration of higher education and its implications for scholarship, I’m increasingly aware that I’d like to do a case study of Žižek as representing a mode of public intellectualism facilitated by the accelerated academy. I don’t begrudge him his success but I’d like to understand it more than I do – particularly the intersection between his commercial viability and his scholarly virtues or lack thereof. I think many trends that are reshaping academic life find their expression in the figure of Žižek and writing this post has left me with a greater degree of clarity about why I find him so intriguing.

8 Comments

  1. It would be interesting indeed to do a case study of Zizek, but he’s not strictly speaking an academic. Of course, he’s academically trained and you need to be academically literate to understand what he’s saying — and, for sure, he is a kind of parasite on the academy, insofar as his main client-base for both his speaking and writing is academic (and this earns him several visiting appointments). However, Zizek does not perform the social role of the academic — he is neither a teacher nor a researcher, let alone both. He is very much a public intellectual who earns the bulk of his income through writing, which helps to explain his prolific nature. This only seems remarkable if you’re also imagining someone who teaches courses, supervises students and gets research grants. But Zizek doesn’t do any of this. While it’s true that there are academics who trade on their strictly academic reputation as a brand (perhaps Chomsky fits the bill, since he actually has a discipline-based reputation independent of his public intellectual stuff), the ‘Zizek’ brand is one whose standing is almost entirely tied to his audience base. Zizek may have invented a niche role for a public intellectual who caters specifically to academics, which if true would show just how alienated academia is from public intellectual life!

    1. Yep I completely agree with you about Zizek’s odd status and this is what intrigues me about him – I think parasitic upon the academy is a very apt way of describing this (dependent upon it but not quite of it) and the possibility of this relatively novel relation invites sociological explanation. I guess this is my starting research question if I’m serious about this as a project.

      I wonder if you overestimate the extent to which he caters near exclusively to academics – I guess my next step is to locate sales figures and see if this sheds any light on these questions.

  2. True, I do think there is a large spillover of academics into the media and the arts more generally, and Zizek captures that audience too. In this respect, he probably benefits from the way neo-liberalism has squeezed out a lot of academically talented and interested people who dislike the academy’s current constitution.

  3. Thanks for this valuable post. I see Zizek as the successor in a long line of theorists whose principle social function was to ensure that the quantity of text on contemporary critical theory is to all intents and purposes infinite from the perspective of any individual. This ensuing attentional deficit (i.e. the gap between what is read and what might be read) is a significant hegemonic structure. Your quantification of Zizek’s output could serve as an important liberatory step, for which thanks.

    And yes, it would be nice to read a Paris Review style interview transcript about his working habits as a writer. I am also personally curious as to whether Zizek as ever put his psychoanalytic training to use in therapeutic practice. I would love to go for a pint with the man, though I don’t know when this would ever happen.

    Meanwhile, I idly wait for my subaltern curiosities to be satisfied by random internauts.

    1. That’s a really interesting point – Bourdieu suggests in a lecture once that the vast array of radical publishing initiatives need to combine for what I think was quite similar reasons… it’s really interesting & odd that it’s not more widely remarked upon (perhaps because the people who would do it are participating in the problem).

  4. Parasite or (if he plagiarises himself) a self-molesting vampire? Does he only use the same publisher?
    I am actually most intrigued that you find his short books much more interesting than his long ones. I wonder what that means.
    De Botton is an interesting case, he is actually a superb impromptu speaker live but my understanding is that academic philosophers generally avoid him. I don’t know if he finished his PhD or if he has a current post, my feeling is that without a PhD he won’t be considered a philosopher, I was taught by Robert Solomon who was an academic with a big public following but who despite being a Professor seemed to have the same issue with his colleagues.
    PS Academic philosophers really hate having their mug photographed don’t they!?
    http://www.theguardian.com/profile/slavojzizek

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