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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Friday, October 07, 2005

His Wallpaper Reveries - or - Larrying With The Negative

Posted by John Holbo on 10/07/05 at 09:01 AM

This is a follow-up to this moderately successful attempt to seed Zizek discussion, by means of my P&L paper. Adam leaves a comment that conveniently, makes my first point: "many, including me, consider On Belief to be Zizek's shittiest book, and arguably, given the series it is in, it is directed toward a 'popular audience.'"

True and true. I replied to Adam, explaining why I think 'tarrying with the negative' here, rather than - say - accentuating the positive, makes a great deal of sense. Zizek's book as symptom. Read my comment for the short version. The long version I'll get to. Oh, alright, here's a different short version: popularization of Theory tends to be bad, but the peculiar institutional position of Theory demands it. So we must face the enemy. (This looks like what I call the Morrissey fallacy: 'take the best of their days, against the worst of your days - you won't win.' But it needn't be.)

So here's the plan. Kick Zizek around the block one more time. I've made most of the points I'm about to make before, in various posts and places (so pardon the repetition, but I'm trying to get it right.) It so happens that, on the strength of my P&L paper, I'm on an MLA panel on Zizek. That's right, I'll see you in the funny papers, kids and germs. I'm talking about Zizek's 'compositional difficulties'. I'm also trying to write a book on Theory that basically starts with my Zizek points (but by no means will end there.) Starting here makes sense because Zizek's problems are a good kick-off point in the direction of something I've lately been pressed to provide: a clearer account of what I mean by 'Theory'. I think of Zizek as a paradigm of sorts. This may seem strange, on the face, because Theory is indigenous to American literary studies. Zizek is a Slovenian Lacanian. Well, I intend to make the charge stick. But maybe you don't really care about 'Zizek and Theory', so I'll snip off this post after I'm done with the first conjunct. I'll make the Theory points a separate part II. Many of you, familiar with things I have written before, may want to wait for part II, which will contain a higher proportion of new thoughts. If both halfs of the conjunction sound too boring for words, may I recommend my latest project, Robin and the Boomtube of Apokolips. Or this pretty funny thing over at CT?

Part II will have to have at least two elements: 1) a reformist assessment of how things stand right now, including a not-too-unrealistic sketch of how things might be different and better; 2) an historicist account of how things got where they are, and what they have been like at various points, so the reformism is sufficiently sympathetic and nuanced to be credible.

And now: let us enjoy his symptom!

One of the things that was surprising to me were Zizek's elementary misreadings of Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling isn't THAT hard to grasp, at least in broad outline. On the other hand, it is hard to credit the misrepresentations as creative rewrite. It is, frankly, DULL to read Kierkegaard as if he were a sort of weak-headed Jeremy Bentham. I have since read more of Zizek's major works, where he gets Kierkegaard less wrong; that is, the strictly creative/phantasmagoric element of the exegesis is less pronounced, or more legible as literary inspiration, if you wish to give him the benefit of the doubt about whether he is intentionally banana peel pratfalling for applause. All this fits with Adam's general picture of On Belief as a hasty thing, scribbled and sent off to be Routledge's problem.

The smoking gun proof of this proposition was not known to me at the time I wrote my article. Adam Kotsko provided it himself (you see, I'm not just saying Zizek defenders don't see these reasons to be troubled.) See this post. One long passage appears on p. 26, then again on p. 52. It begins: "No wonder that Leibniz is one of the predominant philosophical references of the cyberspace theorists ..." and continues about 180 words worth. It recurrs verbatim and is not a printer's error. (Think, dear reader, what it would take for you to write about Leibniz and cyberspace sufficiently absent-mindedly that you would not notice yourself pasting a bit of prefab patterning in two places. Remember that Simpson's episode, in the Korean animation sweatshop?)

My paper contains a line that I thought was a bit sharp even by my highly acute standards. "To crucify one’s intellect to ward off existential despair may be an error, but it is not a spiritually frivolous gesture. By contrast, Zizek "on belief" seems an author determined to wallpaper off his intellect from himself ... This is spiritually inauspicious." That's me starting to wind the stem of my Trillingesque peroration about Zizek's neglect of his 'duty to be intelligent'. (Obviously he could be, if he put his mind to it.) Per above, On Belief really is composed in part as wallpaper - repeating patterns designed to sooth the eye without threatening to tickle the subject. If you like that sort of thing.

I said above that I think Zizek suffers 'compositional difficulties'. Repeating passages is a symptom. But what do I mean beyond that? Zizek is, per the terms of this post, a kitsch Theorist. A composer of what I take to be a kind of decadent late-Romantic philosophical music. The Dahlhaus I've quoted before:

Kitsch in music has hybrid ambitions which far outreach the capabilities of its actual structures and sounds, and are manifested in effects without cause, empty attitudinizing, and titles and instructions for performance which are not justified by the musical results. Instead of being content with modest achievements within its reach, musical kitsch has pretensions to big emotions, to "significance," and these are rooted in what are still recognizably romantic preconceptions, however depraved.

My Zizek paper can be read as an attempt to establish the aptness of the 'kitsch' charge, in this case, although I don't use that term in the paper. (The fact that it is not his best work can, if you like, be taken as a cautionary lesson about the risks inherent in Zizek's style of thinking. It is reasonable to warn about how things are likely to fail, while being prepared to admit for the sake of argument that they may succeed.)

The charge is more precise than it might seem (if it seems like just an abusive broadside): it indexes genealogy - German Romanticism. (In philosophy, the counter-Enlightenment. I know some people don't approve of that Berlinian term, but I think it's OK. German idealism as it intersects with German Romanticism, is where I think Zizek was truly born.) 'Kitsch' highlights characteristic formal difficulties, which are intimately tied to an unhealthily pyrotechnic fixation on achieving tremendous effects, thereby disdaining modest successes (such as figuring out Kierkegaard isn't a Benthamite.) Last but not least, there is a crucial focus on compositional issues - that nexus of genealogy and form. The cutting&pasting fits in here. Dahlhaus:

Another thing which has always led to works being branded as kitsch is the sense that they are somehow mechanical, calculated, 'manufactured.' ... The decisive point aesthetically is not, as the adherents of a sentimental, popular, aesthetic theory believe, the sincerity or insincerity of the emotions expressed in the music. For one thing, sincerity is a questionable aesthetic category, and for another, no one has the moral right to impugn the sincerity of the emotions that give rise to kitsch. What is decisive is the sheer inadequacy of the machinery, its rudimentary schematics, its spurious invention.

This I take to be Zizek, at least at his worst. I do grant his quite conscious clowning is a calculated mask for serious seriousness, which should not be missed. The problem is that this is not enough.

Now at this point I should fully disclose: I've flogged this poor weary donkey of my Dahlhaus musicology quotes around so many different posts by now, trying to settle where and how I like them framed, that I'm a fine one to talk about the hazards of cut&paste. Point taken. And here's another thing I've quoted before (sorrysorry to repeat myself but it's all part of a long-term project of self-improvement. No one is making you watch.)

Consider Geoffrey Harpham on Zizek, in Critical Inquiry (2003, vol. 29, no 3), "Doing the Impossible: Slavoj Zizek and the Limits of Knowledge". There is a rather indignant response by Zizek in the same issue, so you could read that too if you are interested. I'll quote a bit from the response below. But first, Harpham:

The standard format of argumentation is so deeply ingrained in academic culture that it generally goes unremarked. An argument begins with a hypothesis, a testable characterization of the data in a limited field. It proceeds by such means as adducing evidence, drawing inferences, proposing counterarguments, probing provisional conclusions in a spirit of skeptical inquiry, and eliminating contradictions, all of which lead towards a conclusion, a summative statement whose various elements have passed through the fires of rigorous and disinterested testing. This process functions as the form of fairness, an agreement to display the means by which a conclusion is achieved in order to prevent the mere reiteration of prejudice or the interference of desire. While this process cannot, of course, altogether eliminate flaws of observation, description, or reasoning, it does at least invite the scholarly conversation to continue because conclusions arrived at in this way can either be challenged on the grounds of procedural flaws or can serve as the starting point for further investigation.

Harpham's point is that this is not Zizek. But before we get to our man, there are a couple interesting points to be made already. Harpham wildly exaggerates the degree to which - at least in areas of the humanities likely to be touched by the likes of Zizek - papers look anything like this 'standard form of argumentation'. Literary and cultural critics and continental philosophers & etc. (I'm generalizing wildly but we haven't got all day) are not Popperian. This is not obviously a failing on the part of the humanists. It just isn't the case that you delve into subterranean hermeneutic depths of texts, culture (gild the process with your favorite metaphors if you don't like mine) by means of disconfirmable hypotheses. It isn't even true that analytic philosophy is like this, because it's largely conceptual puzzlework, which isn't the same as inductive, empirical disconfirmation. [Jodi Dean twits unphilosophical commenters, explaining in comments she has little old us in mind. At the risk of constituting incidental confirmation, can anyone point to an example of someone doing what Jodi implies is common? Who resists the possibility of conceptual argument by insisting on the relevance of empirical considerations at every juncture? Or am I missing the point?]

Getting back to Harpham, there is an odd reflex of discipline envy on his part, talking about the humanities and their penumbra of cultural/critical sub-domains as if they were Popperian. Harpham is pining for shinier machines than we've got, or can reasonably hope for. Beyond that, it seems notable that, after decades of clashes between canny and uncanny critics (to condense a complicated chemical process), bare consensus about what counts as an argument, as a reason, as a warrantable mode of inquiry, is threadbare at best. Does an argument need to make sense to be good? Is making sense a sign of weakness, a neglect of one's performative duty to transcendent the limits of sense? Tenured professors do not agree.

Perhaps Harpham is not really pining for Popper but just trying to set Zizek's philosophical character off, vividly, against a contrastive background, so we can see him better. (Insert appropriate quotes from Henry IV, part 2, if you dare.) If so, the effect is falsifying, because it produces the impression that Zizek is more out of the critical mainstream than he really is. (This is an important point I will be developing, by way of aligning Zizek with Theory generally.)

This brings us to Harpham on Zizek:   

So unsettled is Zizek's work in this regard that the very idea of a discipline - an orderly inquiry producing falsifiable results in a limited field - is placed under considerable pressure. It is difficult to know exactly what he is, what field he occupies, because he is so heavily invested in a number of discourses, all of which seem to be immediately available to him. His work in film studies alone would qualify him as a leading film scholar and theorist. His references to popular culture evidence a prolonged and ecstatic immersion. And yet he is capable of an exceptionally astringent and sustained metaphysical rigor; by comparison with Zizek in full Hegelian gust, Richard Rorty, Robert Nozick, Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, Stanley Cavell, Bernard Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Thomas Nagel seem to be pop psychologists disseminating edifying ideas in the Great Books tradition.

I made a bit of fun of this in something I was gonna write - and did I? - bits and scraps? (Now where? From an old version of my dialogue? Couldn't say.) I'll recreate.

The terms of praise are strangely Tractatus Oenologico-Philosophicus, if you see what I mean. Perhaps like a cross between a faculty wine-tasting party and The Matrix. Keanu Reeves plays Neoo - the Oeno - who frees everyone by serving up headier stuff than the thin, unintoxicatingly clear draughts the analytics are tossing back. (Insert quote from Hegel's Phenomenology, on the Dionysian quality of a proper symposium.)

But who is to say whether a glass of Zizek is more astringent than a bashful yet leggy sip of Nozick? At any rate, the problem with Harpham is that he is too quick to award substance points for what is - for all Harpham seems able to extract - stylistic distinction. De Hegelian gustibus non est disputandum, the Church fathers and pagan philosophers may agree. But keep the accent on the gust.

As Harpham writes: "Indeed, if Zizek were taken as a model for normal academic practice, the old notion that the purpose of a liberal education is to provide one with conversational artillery for the proverbial cocktail party would acquire a fantastic new validation."

There's a serious problem with Harpham's suggestion that the lot he doesn't like - Nozick, Williams, Cavell, et. al. - 'seem to be pop psychologists'. It drains our confidence in his judgment, frankly. (So if someone wishes to argue against me that he is getting Zizek entirely wrong, they can point to this.) I can imagine them seeming to have problems, to stand in need of criticism; you could think they are all very inadequate, just the wrong sort; but 'pop psychologists' is lazy reaching for a derisive term and not minding getting completely the wrong one, so it seems to me. (As someone who always counts on the cavalry deriding in at the last minute to save me, I am very concerned it should stay on the horse.)

Here are a few more quotes from Harpham on the form of Zizek's philosophy:

[Zizek's writings] do not reveal a personality as such; their pace and density, their way of rocketing from one improbable example to another, one discourse or discipline to another, fills the air with astonishment and leaves the reader gasping. Zizek's arguments issue from an impersonal source that seeks not self-expression, much less dialogue, but a hammering form of persuasion. A bristling, dazzling surface with no tantalizing intimations of hidden depths or partially concealed subjectivity, Zizek's work gives the impression of a mind wholly saturated with the task of argument, a mind that actively refuses mediation and rejects intimacy.

To be fair, this doesn't fit with the reading of Zizek as a Romantic, so I am going to have to work a bit to dress him as a decadent Romantic. Romanticism is generally not a matter of effacement of a sense of hidden depths of personality. But this seems fair: Zizek's argument is 'a hammering form of persuasion'; it functions via production of a sense of 'mind saturated with argument'. That is, it does its work by producing a sense of what work it does. I think this next bit by Harpham is especially apt. Zizek has, we might say, an excessive sense of an ending, resulting in an unhealthy need for speed:

Perhaps the most immediately apparent quality of Zizek's discourse is its breathtaking rapidity. He seems to bound over the tops of peaks others have laboriously scaled one at a time, seizing complex arguments in a masterly and synthetic manner that diagnoses others' hard-won conclusions as symptoms of a common failure to grasp the truth, a failure he immediately rectifies. His texts blast through the discursive version of the sound barrier, passing the point at which they might be considered simply accelerated versions of ordinary discourse and becoming something else altogether.


If we took Zizek as a guide to the real character of conventional academic methods and practices, we would be forced to revise - actually, to discard - all our assumptions about academic work and indeed about rational thought as such. For if Zizek's practice were to be universalized, the result would be the destruction of the very idea of a field, a specialized professional discourse that arrives at a true account of a limited domain by progressive and rational means. It would mean the end of life as we know it.

I am left genuinely puzzled as to why Harpham is so deeply impressed with this. (He seems impressed, but he is ticking off features that sound bad to me. De gustibus and all. Still.) But let us not worry about that too much. Zizek himself seems to appreciate that it will be a BAD thing if this characterization of his character turns out to be accurate. Here is his direct response to the very last bit quoted above:

Is Harpham aware of what he is claiming in this - literally - the craziest exercise of binary logic known to me? First, he conspicuously identifies "rational thought" with "the ordinary canons of argument" and "the society that sustains them"; then, with incredible hyperbole, he proclaims that the ultimate consequence of questioning these canons is not only the end of rational thought but "the end of life as we know it"! Is the underlying logic of this argumentation not homologous to that of the recent "war on terror"? First, democracy is identified with the present American political establishment; then, every questioning of the democratic canon is denounced as supportive of terrorism.

This is flagrantly invalid counterargument by analogy. Any fool knows that the Bushian 'you're either with us or against us' is rhetoric, coating a false dilemma. You can drive most of the world through the gap between supporting the Bush administation's foreign policy and supporting the terrorists. But it simply isn't clear how Zizek proposes to show that the either/or is false in his case. (He seems to be hoping that pointing out 'there are some false dilemmas' will suffice. Obviously not.) 

Where is the third way between, on the one hand, a minimal but robust, rationalist insistence that contributions to discussion should consist - to a significant degree - of evidence, arguments and reason; and, on the other, anything that significantly resembles Zizek's intellectual style? Zizek suggests this dilemma is false because, somehow, Harpham is making false equations. But how? To identify 'ordinary canons of argument' - presumably this means logic, induction, hypothesis formation and testing, informal reasoning basics - with 'rational thought as such' is not unreasonable. (Loose? yes. Unreasonable? no.) Certainly the identification is not absurd, as it would be to identify democracy with the Bush administration (Zizek's proposed object of comparison). As to Harpham's alleged, eschatonic hyperbole: the scope of his 'end of life as we know it' is academic. But it seems perfectly reasonable to say that, if every academic were like Zizek, there would be no sense pretending there are fields, limited domains and such, in which rationally, progressively, brick is put upon scholarly brick. Isn't it rather obvious that Harpham is right about that much at least?

In his reply, Zizek brushes aside allegations that he is dogmatic by quoting G.K. Chesterton: "At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view." Zizek's point is this, in effect: I merely deny this frantic blasphemy. I believe my beliefs (unlike those tangled Derrideans, say, who never put their foot down.) What is wrong with that? Only some liberal relativist could possibly object to this bracing breeze of conviction blowing.

But this is worse than no help. There may well be an academic/relativist vice of always questioning and never taking a stand. But there have to be academic virtues, at least potentially. What could they be, on Zizek's view? As Aristotle says, 'what a man believes, he thinks he knows.' He hereby preemptively grants the Chestertonian descriptive chestnut about psychology. But the Philosopher does not draw the same prohibitive normative conclusion about inquiry. The raison d'etre of philosophy, and academia, is - obviously - refusal of Chesterton's catholic [in both senses]-dogmatic stand-pattism. The need to struggle against the heavy, default cognitive stolidity of our species explains why the life of the mind is valuable. If you do not think there is any point to considering that you may be wrong, you cannot be interested in philosophy (unless it is just a matter of wanting impressive rhetorical devices to enforce your will on others; if you are enjoining your symptom, as it were.) I assume Chesterton is talking, specifically, about religious belief. He would regard the acid gaze of philosophy as unwelcome corrosion in that quarter. So this is not a position Zizek can maintain about philosophy, while maintaining it makes sense for him to do philosophy. Harpham is right and Zizek is wrong. We have two options - rational argument; Zizek - and no obvious way to square the circle. The dilemma looks real. (There is a complicated factor here, alluded to already: namely, the humanities at present are not dominated by 'the ordinary canons of rational argument'. Irrationalist, uncanny affinities - elective or otherwise - have taken deep root. Nor is it obviously a bad thing to be influenced by post-Romantic German thinkers. You won't catch me saying so, anyway. But I do say it's a ticklish subject. At any rate, Zizek looks opposed to rational argument; but also not far out of the scholarly mainstream.)

Another angle: how does Zizek's philosophy function?

We retreat to the thought - the only one we've got - that Zizek's philosophy functions, to the extent it does, by providing a very vivid, aesthetic sense of how it seems to function - leaping from peak to peak, laughing, doing what no one else can, staying up and up on gust after gust without visible means of support. It runs on pure metaphysical pathos, to use A.O. Lovejoy's term for it.

Now at this point the road that runs from peak to peak branches, and one line of peaks runs somewhere rather ridiculous. The other leads somewhere a little less so.

The completely ridiculous branch runs as follows. (We will back out, but it is important to explore it because, frankly, there is something a touch ridiculous about Zizek in this vein.)

When Harpham marvels at the seemingly effortless superiority of Zizek over Nozick and Williams and Cavell and the rest of those slackers, he is reading Zizek's works as a kind of Mary Sue metaphysical fanfic, if you will. (Here's a post where I discuss this important genre, making the not unrelated joke that Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit can be read as Mary Sue fiction, with the author self-inserting in the role of Absolute Spirit; irritatingly perfect, triumphing over every obstacle.)

Teresa Nielsen Hayden crafts a very nice definition in this classic post:

MARY SUE (n.): 1. A variety of story, first identified in the fan fiction community, but quickly recognized as occurring elsewhere, in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies, often involving heroic or romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular entertainment. 2. A distinctive type of character appearing in these stories who represents an idealized version of the author. 3. A cluster of tendencies and characteristics commonly found in Mary Sue-type stories. 4. A body of literary theory, originally generated by the fanfic community, which has since spread to other fields (f.i., professional SF publishing) because it’s so darn useful. The act of committing Mary Sue-ism is sometimes referred to as “self-insertion.”

Teresa's evocation of the genre is very ... evocative: "A Mary Sue story is the literary equivalent of opening a package that you thought would be the new jacket you ordered on eBay, only it turns out to contain a poorly-constructed fairy princess costume made of some lurid and sleazy material ..." Cf. many passages from Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript. And we shall return to this eBay imaginary gone wrong.

Getting back to Zizek: over-insistence on a kind of impossible tremendousness produces something that cannot be read as argument, only as story (with story values subordinated). You might say the impersonal quality of the writing, per Harpham, saves it. But really the effect is more that of a narrative animation of the field of concepts of Western philosophy, with the author self-inserting as the gustiest. I also think Zizek's figure of the Kierkegaardian-Leninist revolutionary knight of faith is ... well, it reminds me of Kierkegaard's explanation of how a young girl who is rather sentimental and naive about the facts of life, due to overconsumption of certain sorts of books, does not automatically qualify as a Knight of Faith.

Zizek's revolutionary knight of faith seems to me, well, like a Larry Stu (that's the masculine version), although I realize he is supposed to be a brilliantly synthetic creature, miraculously pulled together from the most disparate philosophical sources by Zizek's flying fingers of philosophical virtuosity.

"Larry Stu was the youngest revolutionary hero ever to pull into Finland Station. He breathed the crisp air. It hadn't been easy, getting this far. In fact it had been impossible ... but that hadn't stopped Larry. In that Protestant monastery, storm-tossed off the Danish coast, he had shown the monks he understood the teachings of Paul far better than they. And he didn't even believe in God! And he even insisted on watching Larry King in his cell, over the head monk's objections. In university, he had mastered the writings of Hegel to such a degree that all his philosophy professors resigned and took up work as pop psychologists, even though this meant a big pay cut. His 'broken egg, hidden omelet' fighting-style was matchless. Larry felt the snow crunch beneath his feet. It would be a long walk. Suddenly, he got a pony. This wouldn't be so hard after all. No, not at all ..."

At this point a Zizek defender must point out this is extremely scurrilous. (It makes Harpham's 'pop psychology' crack sound positively respectful, to see it incorporated this way.) My reply: no, the Mary Sue point is just orthodox Kierkegaardianism, which seems fair because Zizek himself positioned that specific petard for revolutionary explosion, then went to sleep on it. (Can I be faulted for lighting the fuse? I'm not made of stone, you know.)

Let me make the point a different way. Adam will object that, in the midst of all my jokes, I am losing track of the fact that Zizek himself is a joker. He has to be credited with awareness of the oddity of what he is doing. By means of it, he is trying to jar some leftists out of their complacency by brandishing this ludicrous flaming sword. The problem is that this strategy is so manifestly unsound that I don't honestly think it makes sense to attribute it. It depends on the assumption that what Zizek thinks irresponsible leftists lack is the bare capacity to daydream. A precondition for practical revolution is becoming Daydream Nation. Rather than attribute this thought, we should simply say: Zizek is a joker with strong political impulses. And these two sides of his character have trouble getting through the door together, neither one wishing to give way.

Adam will also point out that my reading, as a whole, is not really consistent with Zizek's stern warnings against nostalgism for Lenin, or for the Soviet Union. Here I can't really do more than note that such are not really proofs of sobriety, when counter-indications are also present. I quote chief Satinpenny from West's A Cool Million: "Don't mistake me, Indians. I'm no Rousseauistic philosopher. I know that you can't put the clock back. But there is one thing you can do. You can stop that clock. You can smash that clock ... The gates of pandemonium are open and through the land stalk the gods Mapeoo and Suraniou. The day of vengeance is here. The star of the paleface is sinking and he knows it. Spengler has said so; Valery has said so ..." Not that Zizek is Satinpenny. But I'm not really convinced he isn't, either. The argument should be conducted on other grounds than Zizek's anti-nostalgic declarations. Or at least those statements should not be allowed to stand in isolation.

Also, the point should not be missed that the claim that marysueology is a growing branch of literary theory is only half a joke. Somewhat narcissistic identification with fictional characters is hardly a phenomenon peculiar to fanfic. Mary Sue is the pure element, of interest like all purity. The alloys are all around us, in good art as well as bad. They are all around us for very deep, important spiritual reasons. For what it is worth, the first critical exposition of the essential characteristics of Mary Sue (to my knowledge) is found in Dostoyevsky. The Underground Man describes his daydreams:

There was faith, and hope, and love. The fact is that at that time I blindly believed that by some miracle, through some outside influence, all this would suddenly be drawn aside like a curtain, and a wide horizon would open out before me, a field of suitable activity, philanthropic and noble and able all ready-made (I never knew exactly what, but the great point is that it was all ready for me.) ...

But how much love, oh lord, how much love I used to experience in those dreams of mine, those escapes into 'all that is best and highest', although it was mere fantasy, that love, not applied in reality to any actual human object; but there was so much abundance of it that later I never really felt the need of any object to project it on to: that would have been a superfluous luxury. Everything always ended happily, however, with a lazy and entrancing transition to art; that is, to beautiful ready-made images of life, forcibly wrenched from poets and novelists and adapted to every possible kind of service and requirement. For example, I triumphed over everybody; everybody else was routed and compelled to recognize my supremacy voluntarily, and I forgave them all. I, a famous poet and a courtier, fell in love; I received countless millions, and immediately bestowed them on the whole human race, at the same time confessing all my shameful deeds to all the world, deeds which of course were not simply shameful but had in them an extremely large admixture of the 'best and highest', a touch of Manfred. Everybody wept and embraced me (how unfeeling they would have shown themselves otherwise), and I went out, barefooted and hungry, to preach new ideas and rout the forces of reaction at Austerlitz. Then a march was played, there was an amnesty, the Pope agreed to leave Rome and go to Brazil, then there was a great ball for all Italy at the Villa Borghese, which is on Lake Como, but Lake Como had been transferred to Rome on purpose for the occasion; then a theatrical performance in the open air, and so on and so forth ...

This looks to me suspiciously like Zizek's Kierkegaardian-Leninist hero mash-up of hyper-religiosity and revolutionary triumph. And now, if you see what I see, we see how Zizek's Kierkegaard fell so far off the wagon. The first paragraph, above, could almost be mistaken for an entryway into Fear and Trembling. (Kierkegaard would say so. This is one reason it is called 'fear and trembling'. If you are killing your son, you had better be sure you aren't just overly susceptible to narcissistic daydreams.) Also, the miraculous drawing back of the curtain, the impossible opening of a horizon of freedom, recalls Badiou's Truth-Event, per Zizek's discussion in The Ticklish Subject.

The second paragraph is not Kierkegaard, however. It is an undisciplined  ... well, you see what it is. (You have them yourself. But perhaps Routledge has never published yours as 'thinking in action'.) I note that the characteristic Harpham singles out as so stylistically distinctive of Zizek's prose - immediate arrival at conclusions - is a standard daydream element. Everything must be ready-made.

The Underground Man defends himself, a little, by assuring us it isn't always staged so badly as a mobile Lake Como suggests. This is true (again, you can verify this frm your own experience.) And a good thing, too, because little whisps and whispers of our inner fantasy life show up everywhere in life. If it poisoned everything in life, we would all be dead. In philosophy, for example, there is much idealism and perfectionism that would like to stand on its rigorist privileges but which is also, at least somewhat, infantile power fantasy. At least this seems plausible to me. Nietzsche:

Or consider the hocus-pocus of mathematical form with which Spinoza clad his philosophy - really "the love of his wisdom," to render that word fairly and squarely - in mail and mask, to strike terror at the very outset into the heart of any assailant who should dare to glance at that invicible maiden and Pallas Athena. (Beyond Good and Evil, §5)

The world must bow down before The Ethics voluntarily. Does it follow that Spinoza is laughable? Not exactly. (Nor does Nietzsche think so.) So what's the point? Well, for example, when we read even a quite decent introduction to Spinoza's thought - say, Spinoza, by Stuart Hampshire - we may encounter encomia like the following: "The only instrument which [Spinoza] allowed himself, or thought necessary to his purpose, was his own power of logical reasoning; at no point does he appeal to authority or revelation or common consent; nor does he anywhere rely on literary artifice or try to reinforce rational argument by indirect appeals to emotion." We ought not to take such naive stuff at face value. Applying this point to Zizek, he - and other Theorists - will be defended against charges leveled by the likes of me - an analytic philosopher - on the grounds that we fail to appreciate the literary quality. We have narrow notions of what should count as philosophy. Let us grant that sometimes we are a bit narrow-minded. But perhaps it is just that we have read our Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, hence aren't exactly bleating lambkins when it comes to wangling out the psychic roots of the impulse to philosophy. Maybe we just plain think we know bad fanfic when we see it. On Belief does not seem to have any serious defenders, it is true. Let me repeat this point: Zizek's defenders seem happy to let this bit of the target get shot off clear. But the book is not, stylistically, a complete departure for our author. Zizek seems to me often guilty of a kind of daydream narcissism which is clearly on display in On Belief. Readers like Harpham are, to some degree, indulging in narcissism by proxy. They enjoy imagining this sort of philosophical tremendousness to be real.

This isn't so awful, in small doses. But it isn't exactly nutritional.

To what degree is all this true? Judge for yourselves! (as Kierkegaard would say.) I can't exactly prove it.

But it is certainly true, to repeat, that sometimes this sort of stuff isn't staged half badly. And often there is more going on. (In Spinoza's case, for example, there are some quite interesting arguments, among other things.)

Now let me provide a more sympathetic sketch of how Zizek's philosophy functions.

Let me present to you a pair of passages I have discussed before. The first is by Iris Murdoch, on 'Plato's quarrel with the poets'. (Murdoch does not agree with him. She's passing this stuff along for your consideration.)

Take the case of the painter painting the bed. God creates the original Form of Idea of bed. (This is a picturesque argument: Plato nowhere else suggests that God makes the Forms, which are eternal.) The carpenter makes the bed we sleep upon. The painter copies this bed from one point of view. He is thus at three removes from reality. He does not understand the bed, he does not measure it, he could not make it. He evades the conflict between the apparent and the real which stirs the mind toward philosophy. Art naively or wilfully accepts appearances instead of questioning them. Similiarly a writer who portrays a doctor does not possess a doctor's skill but simply 'imitates doctors' talk'. Nevetheless, because of the charm of their work such people are wrongly taken for authorities, and simple folk believe them. Surely any serious man would rather produce real things, such as beds or political activity, than unreal things which are mere reflections of reality. (p. 5-6) The Fire and the Sun

Here's a bit of an interview with William Gibson, in which he pretty much grants that stuff about 'imitating the talk'.

I'm looking for images that supply a certain atmosphere. Right now science and technology seem to be very useful sources. But I'm more interested in the language of, say, computers, than I am in the technicalities. On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory: I'm interested in the hows and whys of memory, the way it defines who and what we are, in how easily memory is subject to revision. When I was writing Neuromancer, it was wonderful to be able to tie a lot of these interests into the computer metaphor. It wasn't until I could finally afford a computer of my own that I found out there's a drive mechanism inside - this little thing that spins around. I'd been expecting an exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something, and what I got was a little piece of a Victorian engine that made noises like a scratchy old record player. That noise took away some of the mystique for me; it made computers less sexy. My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them.
- quoted in Across the Wounded Galaxies (p. 136-7)

You see where I'm going with this?

Zizek is to philosophy as Gibson is to the inside of a computer.

And that's the explanation for how Zizek manages to paste in 200 words on Leibniz and cyberspace twice, in his haste to get this damn 'thinking in action' series thing off his hands. He is imitating philosophers' talk with an eye for atmosphere. This also explains why Harpham is more impressed with Zizek than he is with Williams, Cavell, et. al. (After all, who wouldn't be more impressed with an exotic crystalline thing than any boring actual thing?)

And note: all this isn't nearly as insulting as it might seem. Why not? To begin with, we can drop the implication that Zizek is ignorant of philosophy. The point isn't that you need to be ignorant of computers or any other science to write decent SF. You just need to be romantic enough (and ignorance may be your handmaiden.) Ignorance, or lack thereof, doesn't enter the equation essentially. Gibson is making a bit of a joke, you see; I trust I don't need to explain jokes to you. In Zizek's case, he may understand Kierkegaard or he may not. Knowing whether he really does is not something you can decide by reading his exegeses of Kierkegaard, nor will knowing be relevant for assessing the value of these works. The works function as aesthetically/metaphorically potent 'philosophers' talk' or not at all. That is, they function by seeming to the reader to be like what incredibly potent philosophers' talk would be like, were one to hear it.

And so we come to the repeating passage from On Belief:

No wonder that Leibniz is one of the predominant philosophical references of the cyberspace theorists: what reverberates today is not only his dream of a universal computing machine, but the uncanny resemblance between his ontological vision of monadology and today's emerging cyberspace community in which global harmony and solipsism strangely coexist. That is to say, does our immersion into cyberspace not go hand in hand with our reduction to a Leibnizean monad which, although "without windows" that would directly open up to external reality, mirrors in itself the entire universe? Are we not more and more monads with no direct windows onto reality, interacting alone with the PC screen, encountering only the virtual simulacra, and yet immersed more than ever in the global network, synchronously communicating with the entire globe? The impasse which Leibniz tried to solve by way of introducing the notion of the "preestablished harmony" between the monads, guaranteed by God Himself, the supreme, all-encompassing monad, repeats itself today, in the guise of the problem of communication: how does each of us know that he or she is in touch with the "real other" behind the screen, not only with spectral simulacra?

There is considerable irony in the fact that this twice-occuring passage is about cyberspace paranoia. In my original post about it, I quote the following (pardon the deja vu, if you've already read it):

Neo: Whoa, deja vu.

Trinity: What did you just say?

Neo: Nothing, I just had a little deja vu.

Trinity: What did you see?

Cypher: What happened?

Neo: A black cat went past us, and then another that looked just like it.

Trinity: How much like it, was it the same cat?

Neo: Might have been, I'm not sure.

Morpheus: Switch, Apoc.

Neo: What is it?

Trinity: A deja vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix. It happens when they change something.

[Back on the Nebuchadnezzar]
Tank: Oh, my God.

[Back on the hotel]
Morpheus: Let's go.

Tank: They cut the hard line, it's a trap. Get out.

I will not go so far as to say that Zizek's book is, as Morpheus would say, built as a prison for our minds. True, Zizek has cut the cognitive hardlines, leading to Leibniz, Kierkegaard, et. al. The reader, if she believes On Belief, has been beguiled by spectral simulacra. If she wants to reestablish contact with philosophy, she will have to fight Larry Stu ,who is - according to the rules of the Matrix - so fast and strong no one can stand against his squared-up Hegelian punches. Still, what keeps Zizek's book from being like the Matrix is that it is, frankly, like The Matrix. That is, it is SF; or PF - philosophy fiction; an attempt to mimic technical (philosophy) talk by way of crafting some metaphors.

On p. 26  the above passage from Zizek continues into Rorty. "From the standpoint of Lacan's last paradigm, it could be argued Rorty emerges as THE philosopher of our epoch." But, as the Architect would world-wearily point out, this 'the One' may not be the last. There have been others, and may be again. And, sure enough, on p. 52 the passage receives a different continuation.

Therein resides one of the key unanswered enigmas of the Wachowski brothers' film The Matrix: why does the Matrix construct a shared virtual reality in which all humans interact? It would have been much more economic to have each human being interacting ONLY with the Matrix, so that all humans he or she were to meet would have been only digital creatures? Why? The interaction of "real" individuals through the Matrix creates its own big Other, the space of implicit meanings, surmises, etc., which can no longer be controlled by the Matrix - the Matrix is thus reduced to a mere instrument/medium, to the network that only serves as a material support for the "big Other" beyond its control.

Aren't you glad I'm not going to suggest that, likewise, Zizek's books function as textual supports for him as Hegelian "big Other" to his readers? (That really would be a britch too far in making him too big for his britches.)

Zizek is sensitive enough to the metaphoric grounds for the (rather illogical) story-logic of The Matrix. Likewise, he is sensitive to how monad talk can be harnessed to potent literary effect. So he talks Leibniz talk. (But more on the literary value of mimicking monad talk, in particular, in the sequel to this post.)

How much can it be worth, to write PF, philosophy fiction? Because, I take it, that's Zizek's genre. It is on this ground that he will stand or fall.

Dear reader, you assume I am toying with my prey. I am calling him a bullshit artist but don't want it to be over too quick? (We all have our needs for dominance.)

Well, you are probably right. But, even so, there is a real issue here: do we think Plato or Gibson is more right about fiction and art? We agree with Gibson. I think I speak for all of us here, unless someone wishes to speak up on behalf of that crank, to whom we are so many footnotes. We distrust Plato. So, really, is it so bad, necessarily, if Zizek writes philosophy the way Gibson writes fiction?

I could add as well that Gibson is something of a Theory darling. Consider this recent praise from Frederic Jameson. He argues that Pattern Recognition represents a sort of stylistic perfection of what Gibson has been doing for years (I entirely agree): "I will define it as a kind of hyped-up name-dropping, and the description of the clothes selected by the protagonist (Cayce Pollard) for her first day in London is a reliable indicator." Here is Gibson describing his heroine:

A fresh Fruit T-Shirt, her black Buzz Rickson’s ma-1, anonymous black skirt from a Tulsa thrift, the black leggings she’d worn for Pilates, black Harajuku schoolgirl shoes.  Her purse-analog is an envelope of black East German laminate, purchased on eBay—if not actual Stasi-issue then well in the  ballpark.

Jameson writes of this 'eBay imaginary', as he calls it: "I have no idea whether all these items actually exist but eBay is certainly the right word for our current collective unconscious, and it is clear that the references ‘work’, whether or not you know that the product is real or has been made up by Gibson." Similar, it seems possible for Zizek's Leibniz and Kierkegaard talk to 'work' for you, even if you know nothing about Leibniz or Kierkegaard (perhaps especially if not). How so? Because the poetry, the metaphoric function, may tap into our collective unconscious - or you tell me what you think is being tapped. Yet it remains very much a dance of surfaces, a kind of hyped-up namedropping, as it is for Gibson. If it is profound, it is through superficiality.

Note how, with Cayce Pollard, we return to Teresa's Nielsen Hayden's fear of being sent a tattered fairy costume in the mail. Cayce is the uncurdled version of Teresa's eBay imaginary. Cayce dresses well. Moreover, Cayce is a philosopher. That is, she is a brilliant 'pattern recognizer', and what is a philosopher if not one who is most sensitive to the most significant patterns? Cayce is Magister Ludi of the glass beads of late Capitalist detritus. She hears the music of the spheres, of logos, when the trademarks sing softly their love to each other.

And with great power comes really attractive surfaces - cool bomber jackets.

Part of the appeal of the novel is that we wish we were Cayce. And, let me make clear, I don't believe in pattern recognitional virtuosity like Cayce Pollard's. Like Zizek's revolutionary knight of faith, she's a kind of philosophy superhero. Neo is a philosopher, too, triumphing through knowledge. The philosopher-as-superhero is a sort of SF sub-genre - childhood's end; grokking; shockwave rider; singularity is an anxious anti-worry that the superhero who can understand it all will not appear. But I am not saying all of this, let alone Pattern Recognition, is therefore suspect as Mary Sueism. I think Pattern Recognition is Gibson's finest novel, and that is saying a lot. I doubt I'll ever write anything half so good. The question is: what preserves these fantasy elements from degenerating? Specifically, what is the function of imagining what a superhumanly good philosopher would be like? What good use is made of this trope, or what good work is done in spite of its narcissistic temptations? This has to be the question for Zizek, too. (Perhaps we will say he has books, not On Belief, in which the fantasy elements do not drag down the artistic product overall.)

A couple weeks ago I quoted Adolph Loos offering a scathing indictment of any such art-as-beguiling-name-drop method of composing satisfying surfaces:

I am preaching to the aristocrats. I tolerate ornaments on my own body if they afford my fellow-men pleasure. Then they are a pleasure to me, too ... We have art, which has replaced ornament. We go to Beethoven or Tristan after the cares of the day ... But whoever goes to the Ninth Symphony and then sits down to design a wallpaper pattern is either a rogue or a degenerate.

Obviously Zizek could be faulted on these grounds. If you sit down to read Leibniz and Kierkegaard - great thinkers - you shouldn't just use them to wallpaper off your mind from yourself.

But what is the difference between wallpaper pastiche and a fine Cornell Box, you might ask (in a Gibsonesque spirit)? What is the difference between late Romanticism degenerated into mannerism, and mannerism as exquisite attunement to culture? Profundity through superficiality?

A bizarre but potential stylistic designation: Blade Runner as Biedermeyer-noir: a jumble of objects from different periods, incongruously juxtaposted and bizarrely encrusted. 40 years in the future + 40 years in the past. Gibson's trademark surfaces (in both senses) might be denounced on Loosian grounds. Which just goes to show (in case you have ever wondered): Loos isn't right about everything.

Anyway, I'm not going to answer these large questions, I'm going to generalize them into an entry into the subject of Theory generally. Not that I'm winding up to argue that Theory is just wallpaper, according to me. It would be closer to the truth to say: Theory is either wallpaper or William Gibson. The question is: what makes the difference, and how often does it get made?

I have begged two enormous questions, which I must unbeg in what follows: first, Theory does not function, to a significant degree, according to ordinary canons of reason, evidence, argument, so forth. (Not that there need to be NO arguments, but they are secondary. I am indeed claiming this.) Second, it makes sense to take Zizek's bad book, On Belief - or even Zizek's better books, like The Ticklish Subject - as emblematic of, or any kind of index of, mainstream humanities intellectual culture.



Zizek is not a “Theorist.” He is a philosopher.  His real areas of expertise are German Idealism, shading into German Romanticism, as you note, and Lacanian psychoanalysis.  He is not pointlessly eclectic—the core of his philosophical project is his rehabilitative reading of Hegel through Lacan (who he takes to be the contemporary inheritor of the German Idealist project), and he spends several books arguing that this is a workable and productive reading.  That becomes his orthodoxy.

I don’t see what the point is in basing your argument on a characterization of Zizek that Zizek himself strenuously objects to.  You’ve read a ton of other Zizek by this point, right?  It is time, and past time, that you start dealing with his stronger arguments rather than harping on _On Belief_.  His reading of Kierkegaard in there totally sucks ass.  I grant you that entirely.  LET’S MOVE ON.  If your complaint is that Zizek isn’t sufficiently rigorous—well, what is one to make of your kind of stream-of-consciousness, using-whatever-example-comes-to-mind argument against him? 

What is one to make of your way-too-convenient conflation of Zizek (who doesn’t self-identify with the “Theory” people and who is not a product of comp lit)’s _On Belief_ with what you’ve decided is the mainstream of humanities intellectual culture?  Who else is writing books like that?  Do Cavell and Rorty not count as the mainstream of the humanities?  Is Stanley Fish writing books like _On Belief_?  Judith Butler?  Frederic Jameson?  Samuel Weber?  Peggy Kamuf?  Hent deVries?  Who else?  Who is shitting out these books?  You should be able to produce dozens of examples, according to your characterization.  (No fair citing some hacks no one has heard of—the “big names” are the mainstream, they’re the people everyone has to read.) Aside from reading PMLA, you don’t really mention keeping up with new publications in “Theory.”

Zizek is in a position right now where he became big because he made a very real philosophical contribution (viz. rehabilitative reading of Hegel) and in so doing also revived the topic of ideology by injecting it with a dose of _jouissance_, and now he’s just riding the wave of fame.  It’s made him lazy.  That’s a shame.  But I don’t think he’s representative of _anyone else._ In fact, I would argue that Zizek is really alienating himself through this torrent of really shitty work, and I would argue that people are not at all eager to jump on his bandwagon of reappropriating theological language.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/07/05 at 10:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I probably should have written my follow up and posted the two together, rather than writing this first and letting it stand by itself. I thought about ending this post with: and Adam is going to be royally offended, but I’ll try to make it up to him.

In my follow-up I intend to discuss Cavell on DeMan and Nussbaum on Butler (bouncing off McGowan’s post on that, over at Berube a couple weeks back.) Then I’m going to write a history of Theory that, I expect, you won’t seriously object to.

By the by, I thought the piece you linked in the comment thread to the last post - your Villanova paper - was very clear and good. I mean to start my follow-up by saying something about it.

Sorry I wrote a post iterating complaints about the guy you like, which I’ve already made. But I really am going somewhere with this.

By John Holbo on 10/07/05 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, do you not worry that your anti-theory crusade may prove counter-productive—if not for you & what you get to add to your CV, but to that which you regard as true?  By way of an analogy, I’m thinking about atheists I remember seeing in my Christian days debating Christian philosophers re: the validity of various religious claims.  Normally, both claimed victory—but it was the well-funded Christians who got to frame the victory as their own, as it was typically conducted in a primarily Christian venue, & typically ended up publishing triumphant transcripts & video links.  In short, the debates became something of an evangelistic tool, and probably counterproductive to the atheist’s intent, no matter the validity of his or her argument.  I dare say more Christians buy copies of various atheist manifestos than avowed atheists—the latter mostly not caring about the debate as such. 

Now, obviously there are differences here.  And I’m not wanting to make an enormous leap from one to the other.  Just in general curious if you’re strategically mindful of how you’re fighting your fight, whether you care if some might regard it as career opportunism?  Or whether you think that the debate, no matter the strategic implications or perceptions, is inherently worth it?  Or, rather, do you regard this kind of thing simply as the natural ebb & flow of disciplinary discourse?

By on 10/07/05 at 11:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, I see. So it’s fiction you don’t like…

That is, it is SF; or PF - philosophy fiction; an attempt to mimic technical (philosophy) talk by way of crafting some metaphors.

I’m going to wait tilll you get the second bit out… But this is something new that you’re working wth here: the fiction / reason binary.

The sense that Zizek do the police in different voices. That he writes a sort of style indirect libre philosophy…

(Of course - Madame Bovary is ultimate, world stopping Mary Sue. Romance about romance reader written by a not-so-reluctant as he seems romancier. In fact, isn’t “Mary Sue” just another word for Bovarisme? The book that inaugurates modernity...)

As you might expect, I think you’re 100% right and utterly, totally wrong at the same time.

But I’ll wait for the next post…

By CR on 10/07/05 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek gave an open lecture at my university a couple of years ago; booked for an hour he talked for two about many things, and inter alia</i<> about whether the pissed-off kid who describes his/her over-disciplinary father ‘a fascist’ has any justification in so doing.  It was interesting, although a bit freeform.  Afterwards, when Zizek went off to have supper with the college bigwigs, I was walking away from the lecture hall with a friend, and I asked him what he’d thought of the talk.  He said: ‘I thought he sounded like Sylvester the Cat from the tweetie-pie cartoons.’

Was this a non-sequitur?  Can there be such a thing as a non-sequitur in a Freudian/Lacanian idiom? (And Zizek speaking English does have a sort of Sylvester vibe to him; maybe he sounds different in Slovenian).

Nobody is obliged, of course, to believe that something like ‘rational discourse’ has a subconscious; or even that Freud’s categories have any validity at all.  De gustibus, as you say.  But can you have a meaningful discussion with the god-fearing man if you refuse to even consider the premises of his belief; or the physisist if you deny gravity and insists earth sucks?

“His work in film studies alone would qualify him as a leading film scholar and theorist” ... in <i>Plague of Fantasies Zizek discusses Stephen Spielberg’s film Star Wars.  Does it matter that he can get that sort of detail wrong?  Does it prevent him from being “a leading film scholar and theorist”?

Let’s say that we don’t go to Zizek for ‘rightness’ or ‘rationality’.  To be happy with that, it seems to me, we need to think there’s at least some merit in the Deleuzian notion that philosophy, and Theory, is ‘inventing cool notions’ (I quote from memory and not precisely) rather than, oh I don’t know, searching after truth, loving wisdom, or any of that jazz.  Is Zizek cool?  I’d say, yes.  Writing a book of philosophy in such a bombed state that you can not notice that you’ve repeated a great chunk of it:  that’s rock-and-roll, baby.

<<Theory does not function, to a significant degree, according to ordinary canons of reason, evidence, argument, so forth.>>

Really?  Which theory do you have in mind.  Counter-examples seem to proliferate in my mind.

Maybe there are many different roads up the mountain.  But the paths themselves are presumably objets petits a, whereas the mountaintop itself is the grand a itself.  We can no-more plant our flag in it than Sylvester can ever catch and eat tweetie-pie.

By Adam Roberts on 10/07/05 at 03:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

oooo kay.  I’ve obviously omitted an </i> after inter alia, which will teach me not to quote Latin in these things.  The system has also refused to accept the cutting-and-pasting of text between the zigzaggy brackets.  The line that fell out, just before “Really?  Which theory do you have in mind...?” was: “Theory does not function, to a significant degree, according to ordinary canons of reason, evidence, argument, so forth”

By Adam Roberts on 10/07/05 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John: “Larry Stu was the youngest revolutionary hero ever to pull into Finland Station. He breathed the crisp air. It hadn’t been easy, getting this far. In fact it had been impossible ... but that hadn’t stopped Larry. In that Protestant monastery, storm-tossed off the Danish coast, he had shown the monks he understood the teachings of Paul far better than they. And he didn’t even believe in God!”

So, so funny.  But you forgot one aspect of the fantasy: Larry is a tough guy, tough enough to think clearly about what it takes to really seize and hold power.  He isn’t afraid of the hard choices, whether that means running the secret police, or executing a good man who just has to be put down.  But this iron man isn’t some gloomy Stalinist—no, he also has a great sense of humor, which lets him escape any rational roadblock Dukes of Hazzard style.  Why, the academic leftist squares are so amazed by his Coyote-like tricksterdom that they’re scared straight into action!

Difficult to write in that style.  But to quote myself from the end of the last thread:

“All that you’re really left with is that Zizek appears with a theme song warbling something about secret police and revolutionary executions somewhere in the background.”

Self-insertion philosophical fiction makes for really bad politics, whatever its other qualities.

By on 10/07/05 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So that’s two posts I’ve managed to mess up format-wise.  The God of Blog is trying to tell me something; presumably ‘stop now.’ Which I will.

By Adam Roberts on 10/07/05 at 03:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam Roberts, if it’s any consolation, it’s not your fault. There is something about our software that is making some comments go librarian poo. One of the risk factors is trying to cut&paste in what seems a harmless fashion; honestly, it seems to strike semi-randomly. (Perhaps ‘librarian poo’ is just the term I use for The God of Blog trying to tell you something. I’ll go in and try to mend your comments.)

By John Holbo on 10/07/05 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, when I say “Theory does not function ...” I don’t mean scientific theories. I mean ‘Theory’ as a designation for an academic intellectual style that is, characteristically, a mash-up of rationalist and irrationalist manners. (My follow-up will try to explain.)

The Sylvester analogy is rather amusing. I think Tweety as Big Other is rather beguiling. “I’m only a bird in a dilded tage, Tweety’s my name but I don’t know my age.” In effect Sylvester is a prisoner in the dilded tage by proxy.

By John Holbo on 10/07/05 at 11:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John: “Let me make the point a different way. Adam will object that, in the midst of all my jokes, I am losing track of the fact that Zizek himself is a joker. He has to be credited with awareness of the oddity of what he is doing. By means of it, he is trying to jar some leftists out of their complacency by brandishing this ludicrous flaming sword. The problem is that this strategy is so manifestly unsound that I don’t honestly think it makes sense to attribute it.”

Probably the only time ever in which I’ve written something that you have later ... but you’re not really even quite to the final stages of manifest unsoundness yet.

John: “It depends on the assumption that what Zizek thinks irresponsible leftists lack is the bare capacity to daydream. A precondition for practical revolution is becoming Daydream Nation.”

Here’s where I think that you’ve misread Adam.  Adam did not write that “practical revolution” is Zizek’s provocatory goal.  It is not that, shocked by Zizek, irresponsible leftists are supposed to sit down and begin to soberly prepare for the overthrow of the government.  It’s supposed to be that they sit down to support Clintonian health care.  The daydream becomes a wonkish nightmare.  It’s like Walter Mitty dreaming about becoming Walter Mitty.

Putting aside manifest unsoundness for a moment, if true, wouldn’t this really be pathetic?  Are most readers of Zizek really satisfied to stop with their desire so compromised?

By on 10/08/05 at 12:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Come to think of it, Granny with her umbrella may be more Big Other. Tweety’s inextinguishable jouissance may be more, as it interfaces with the cat, “la féroce ignorance de Yahvé”, as Lacan might say. Or, in English , ‘I tawt I taw a puddy tat.” Auf Deutsch: “Im Anfang war die Tat.” Thereby drawing Sylvester himself ineluctably back to the primordial origins of this bird that doesn’t know it’s age. [Puddy tat, putty Tat. Badiou’s Truth-Event is, obviously, a deed-like-putty, on account of the plasticity we enjoy within our new horizon of action.]

More seriously, I would be quite happy to drop discussion of the inadequacies of Zizek’s politics. I am somewhat ashamed of having made the same points over and over again. What I am really interested is more the style of philosophical composition. The question is just this: how do you write philosophy while disdaining, as Harpham puts it, standard modes of argument, etc? I grant that it is possible. It has been done: I wouldn’t admire Nietzsche and Kierkegaard if I didn’t think there were philosophical techniques for - to put it as neutrally as possible - enacting one’s respect for the authority of the irrational. (Respect may be veneration or just a sense that you may get your hand bitten off if you poke and prod overconfidently.) But what ARE these techniques? One way, favored by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, is a sort of constant shrewd psychologism. Not exactly deflationary, more violently equivocal in its implications about the ground of phlosophy in the oddity of the species. Philosophy is knowing yourself, and you are a creature of contradictions, so authenticity entails self-contradiction. I think there’s something very important about that strategy. Then there’s PF, philosophy fiction, as I call it in the post. I probably make it sound bad but I honestly don’t think it is, not necessarily. It’s just that it isn’t automatically good. Picking again and again the scab of this one bad book by Zizek is, in a sense, unjust and therefore painful to the man’s partisans - like my friend Adam (I hope he is still my friend), who has written careful things about Zizek, I know. He sees something valuable in an intersection of Lacan and Hegel that leaves me cold, but the things he write do help me see the intersection. Well, I’m just saying again: I hope Adam won’t mind my follow-up nearly as much as he minded this post. (To repeat: I have written so much on this not because I think it deserves to be shouted from every rooftop, but because I wanted to hammer my complaints into a proper form, so that I can put other stuff on top. I do realize that hearing the same complaints, over and over, without any apparent effort on my part to go find something GOOD to read, is tedious.)

By John Holbo on 10/08/05 at 01:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: “More seriously, I would be quite happy to drop discussion of the inadequacies of Zizek’s politics.”

Politics are interesting to some people.  But there is an additional reason why they’ve been covered here so heavily.  Adam writes “He is a philosopher.  His real areas of expertise are German Idealism, shading into German Romanticism, as you note, and Lacanian psychoanalysis.” OK, but so far there has been no actual *philosophical* disagreement with any characterization of Zizek’s thought that I’ve seen.  Adam agrees with your bit about Kierkegaard.  The reason that he said that your essay was wrong was that he said you had misunderstood the nature of Zizek’s provocation—a political concept.  Similarly, with Sean everyone agreed that Zizek did not have a philosophical theory that motivated his statements about revolution—they were political statements.  Yet on the strength of Sean’s assertion that Zizek’s politics were absurd, he was blamed for not reading more extensively, as if an additional grasp of Zizek’s German Idealism and Lacanian psychoanalysis would have mattered.

By on 10/08/05 at 07:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I can but assume that my comment above was regarded as too banal to given mock.  I’ll do better next time.

By on 10/08/05 at 09:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sorry, Brad. I’ll mock you.

You write:

“Just in general curious if you’re strategically mindful of how you’re fighting your fight, whether you care if some might regard it as career opportunism?  Or whether you think that the debate, no matter the strategic implications or perceptions, is inherently worth it?  Or, rather, do you regard this kind of thing simply as the natural ebb & flow of disciplinary discourse?”

First, I don’t think anyone familiar with the institutional situation is going to mistake me for an opportunist. (I don’t recall anyone accusing me of that either.) Careerist opportunism needs, in the first place, career opportunities. In my case, my interest in literary and literary theory is low status in my home discipline - philosophy departments. (Not despised, just not considered to be the sexy stuff. Not where the job openings are.) And if institutional literary studies walked up and planted a wet, interdisciplinary kiss on me, why you could bowl me over with a feather. I’m not going to get a job in an English department. Not that I’m complaining. I’ve got a job I like and consider myself lucky to have one in such a bad market. But if I’m an opportunist, I’m one of the most incompetent ones I’ve ever met, working on what I do and writing the stuff I do.

As to the strategic implications of the debate: the sheer volume of verbiage I generate probably produces the impression that I think I am playing the Great Game for the future of the humanities. In fact, it’s just MY project - worrying about Theory. I like to think it’s of more general interest, has more bearing on the state of the discipline and institutions and so forth than certain other (eminently worthy) projects I could mention. But some part of me is aware it is my hobbyhorse, and I ride it.

Natural ebb and flow of disciplinary discourse? I think so, but maybe at the extreme edges - a super-high tide in certain respects. I am interested in things that I think have gone mighty strange in the humanities. Then again, things are always mighty strange in the humanities.

That is all the mock I have in me for you, Brad.

By John Holbo on 10/08/05 at 09:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I once called you an Analytic philosopher and Ben Wolfson kind of go pissed and said “Only someone very committed to that divide would call John that.” I feel vindicated.  Meaning to say that when I see you argue for a certain kind of clarity and respect for “the rational” and against eccentrics.  You group those into the category of PF, saying that they write philosophical fiction in a Holbo post (meaning it’s a bit long for the internet, I’d have to print this out to read it and then I’m not sure it would be worth reading the same sort of repeitition found in Zizek).  It’s quite smug to suggest that writing in PF, as a European and a Communist, is charateristic of the main-stream of humanities programs.  I just graduated from a philosophy department that did all Contiental work and I can tell you this, though some courses may have considered movies and aesthetics, they are not this hobgoblin you describe as Theory.  Further, I object to the way you catagorize all non-Anglo alligned philosophers as “Theorists”.  They are philosophers everywhere except in Anglo-American departments.  And the mainstream is Leiter and his smugness, not Zizek. 

Quite closing notes, I’m not sure you understand what tarrying with the negative means, the Big Other means, and your assumption that ‘we’ distrust Plato needs sociological evidence (if we’re going to be really rigourous and if I’m going to the “other sides” Rich and constantly berate you for not making a better arguement).

By on 10/08/05 at 10:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it’s true that I’m a very unusual analytic philosopher. But I’m used to being called that and - per the post - I try to lean over backwards in favor of admitting that my upbringing in a certain tribe may have made me narrow in certain ways. I grant that I am an analytic philosopher whenever it is not to my advantage to do so, as in the present case. I don’t say that continental philosophy = Theory = PF. I explicitly deny both stages of the equation. I deny the latter explicitly in the post; I clearly imply the falsehood of the former on any number of occasions when I state Theory was born in 1965 or so and is mostly indigenous to English departments. Zizek is unusually Theory-like in his philosophical disposition, but it is a case of parallel evolution, I think.

I do know that ‘tarrying with the negative’ doesn’t mean the opposite of ‘accentuating the positive’, although sometimes I do lose track of its peculiar valences. My comparison of Granny and her umbrella to the Big Other was somewhat tongue in cheek. (Do you admit she is a sounder candidate for the role than Tweety? Really I didn’t mean any of the Loony Tunes stuff to be parsed too finely.) I think that distrust Plato when it comes to that specific thesis about art is fairly widespread. I certainly distrust him.

By John Holbo on 10/08/05 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I think that “let’s not talk about Zizek’s politics anymore” was John’s way of saying he would like to move the conversation toward something new, which seems wise to me.  I’ve already said that I’m not interested in discussing Zizek’s politics anymore, so any continued discussion (which I’m sure would be delightfully peppered with your obsessive references to secret police) would be rather one-sided. 

This is John’s site, John’s post, John’s conversation.  If he doesn’t want to defend his characterization of Zizek’s politics to the death, then that’s fine.  I’ve given my objections to his characterization; John has given his defense; I’m content to let matters stand. 

So let’s just sit back and wait for the next post.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/08/05 at 11:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, John.  That makes sense. 

It was more of a biographical kind of question.  A feeler, if you will.  I’ve commented here a few times, but by and large know very little about you or your perspective of the Humanities.  This helps a bit put things in perspective.

Hopefully it goes w/out saying that I wasn’t accusing you of opportunism.  However ... I do think it is a threat when focusing one’s attention A-list theorists / philosophers, and thus become a part of the cottage industry of ‘Derrida scholars’ or ‘Zizek scholars’, etc. —even those against perspectives can be part of these industries. 

You point out, though, that the point of your critique is ultimately to offer an alternative ... or, at the very least, isolate this as a hobby. I look forward to that.

By on 10/08/05 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: “Also, when I say “Theory does not function ...” I don’t mean scientific theories.” I didn’t think you did.

“I mean ‘Theory’ as a designation for an academic intellectual style that is, characteristically, a mash-up of rationalist and irrationalist manners. (My follow-up will try to explain.)”

I’ll look forward to the follow-up; but I wonder whether there’s a kind of slippage in ‘Theory’ for you as an item of terminology.  Sometimes it’s what English departments (like mine) do when they want to pretend to be ‘philosophers’, what they do tout court I mean.  Sometimes it’s ‘Continental Theory’ as a whole; or perhaps a particular and rather narrow canon of C20th Continental thinkers.  I really don’t see how the whole of the former category deserves to get tarred with the “mash-up of rationalism and irrationalism” brush.  Bits of it, of course, yes: but are you really arguing that all the Formalists, Structuralists and Reader-Responsers mash irrationalism into their paste?  Historians of book production and textual scholars and careful semiologists? Do Genette and Ricoeur, Bakhtin and Jameson really serve us up irrationalism? (Maybe the last named, but surely only sometimes).  Or, if you exclude the non-irrationalist bods then isn’t there a danger that you’re arguing in a circular direction, ‘theorists who mash up rational and irrational discourses, like Lacan and Derrida, tend to mash up rational and irrational discourses.’

By Adam Roberts on 10/08/05 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure I got pissed, Anthony.

By ben wolfson on 10/08/05 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “any continued discussion (which I’m sure would be delightfully peppered with your obsessive references to secret police) would be rather one-sided.”

Hey, it’s in the nature of a theme song to keep fading in and out, especially in a cheesy cop show.

But sure, no more politics until you reintroduce it.  I will comment that there have been several rather puzzling references to rigor:

Adam: “If your complaint is that Zizek isn’t sufficiently rigorous—well, what is one to make of your kind of stream-of-consciousness, using-whatever-example-comes-to-mind argument against him?”

Anthony: “I’m not sure it would be worth reading the same sort of repeitition found in Zizek). [...] I’m not sure you understand what tarrying with the negative means, the Big Other means, and your assumption that ‘we’ distrust Plato needs sociological evidence (if we’re going to be really rigourous and if I’m going to the “other sides” Rich and constantly berate you for not making a better arguement).”

Presumably Anthony means “if [he’s] going to be the ‘other side’s’ Rich” above.  And Jodi, as John notes in his original, did a post on her blog about Kant being pestered by commenters with demands for more rigor but very short attention spans.

I think that people don’t seem to really have a full appreciation of the range of possibility involved when they consider what kind of argument is rigorous.  That means they appear to lose the ability to distinguish between gradations and differences in it.  They appear to lose the ability (at least rhetorically) to distinguish between John’s degree of rigor and Zizek’s, or between requests for plausibility in theorized causation and requests for sociological evidence.

If you read John’s old stuff, there’s a bit about how literary theorists use a back-and-forth scientist-artist dodge.  If they’re criticizing old-fashioned appreciation of literary works, then they depict themselves in scientific terms, as people with methods and a body of organized theory, studying deep truths of narrative and so on.  But if anyone turns to them and replies that their supposed methods are not rigorous, they suddenly become artists: the person criticizing just is too literal, can’t see their aesthetic triumphs for what they are, is demanding that they lose track of literary values.

But really they are neither scientists nor artists.  There may be deep argument over how philosophical some of them are, as opposed to how “literary” (in the critical sense, not the productive sense) but in terms of rigor this argument is not really one that traverses a large part of the available range.

So I continue to see references to rigor as being mostly bad faith ones.  I once (from my viewpoint as ex-physicist) called on John to make a simple, well-organized sort of tree-outline setting out what he thought about individual thinkers in brief, as a starting point so that when John talked about “Theory”, people would know just who and what he was attacking.  John made the mistake of writing back something about how he really should do that.  Since then, I’ve seen it recalled to life by others as a sort of “you said you were going to do this rigorous thing, now where is it?” demand.  But this Frankenstein’s monster has been brought back for no good purpose.  Matt, in particular, made it clear that as soon as any brief outline appeared, this would be ipso facto evidence that John had not really engaged with the thinkers under consideration, as if brevity of expression implied brevity of thought.  Easily apparent rigor, in this context, has only negative use as a club against its possessor.  I think that John’s use of Holbonic length is a good defense; the rigorous points are still rigorous when embedded in a lengthy discoursive stew, but the very size of the dish forbids the kind of easy dismissal of iconoclasm that is so eagerly and obviously sought.

By on 10/08/05 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment


That was the last time we spoke.  I figured it was that or the lack of grammatical rightness (ha!).


Just so you know, I’ve actually always respected your position as an analytic philosopher who, at the very least, recognizes that other ways of doing philosophy exist and may, possibly, have some validity to someone, somewhere.  It’s not exactly everything I’ve hoped for, but until I give a flying shit about philosophy of mind, proofs of God’s existence, Russel, Quine or Analytic readings of Nietzsche it’s all I can expect, in good faith, from those on the other side of the internal culture war that is philosophy departments.  What can I say, I just find phenomenology to be better philosophy than confining our search to logic and I can only assume that others disagree.  It’s a belief, no doubt.

That said, I think the idea of PF is conceptually very weak.  I mean, sure, it’s got the polemically flourish that’s so hip among the kids (which is something you perhaps share with the lisping Slovenian with the hot wife), but the example you give is just a bad reading of a philosopher that leads into a bad conceptual reading of a movie due to the bad reading of the philosopher.  However, in books like Tarrying with the Negative he gives good readings of Hegel and Lacan and good conceptual readings of film (that serve to illuminate not the film but the philosophy) using those original good readings of Hegel and Lacan.  Showing, I think, that he’s a human being with too many publishing contracts.  He’s over-extended, not participating in PF.

Further, you leave it our varied minds to understand what non-PF would be (PN-F?).  So Rich is going to think “Oh yes, that would be the rigorous and reasonable Rawls” and Matt will think, “What a fucker, he’s implying that all the philosophers I like by implication are writing fictions.” Further, if Zizek is writing PF and using characters from Kierkegaard don’t you have to suggest that Kierkegaard’s work is PF.  Also, you have failed to make the case that PF is bad (isn’t that the fact/value distinction that PF writers don’t care about?  I honestly don’t know, I’ve read nary an analytic journal nor debate.), leaving it to our minds to assume.  That is to say, this is one long mother fucking post, but it fails to really do what I think you are hoping it does.

By on 10/09/05 at 01:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony: “Further, you leave it our varied minds to understand what non-PF would be (PN-F?).  So Rich is going to think “Oh yes, that would be the rigorous and reasonable Rawls” and Matt will think, “What a fucker, he’s implying that all the philosophers I like by implication are writing fictions.””

I understand that you’re trying to use “Rich” as a symbol for a certain type of reader, but that actually mischaracterizes what I would think.  If you read what John has said that he wants to do, he wants to use Zizek as an example of a certain tendency that exists in common with other thinkers.  Which ones?  Well, probably not Rawls, but that doesn’t say much.  It makes no sense to imagine the universe divided by a binary division between PF and non-PF, any more than you would say that some writers write sword-and-sorcery-fantasy, and all other writers write non-sword-and-sorcery-fantasy.

And to me at least it’s not very clear where John thinks that this tendency extends.  I think that my idea is clearer than that of John’s detractors, because I’m willing to read charitably, but it’s still not quite there.  For instance, John wrote that Derrida did not write kitsch, but is the cause of kitsch in others.  That suggests a boundary somewhere between Derrida and (some? most?) followers of Derrida.

But as soon as John firms up where he thinks this line is, it becomes another reason to attack him.  The people attacking him now aren’t doing so because they’re worried that he may be attacking someone they like.  They *know* that he’s attacking someone they like.  So line-drawing, while useful in an attempt to communicate, would result in a bout of the Theorist’s reflexive disdain for all line-drawing.

By on 10/09/05 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not attacking him; read more charitably.  I said his concept was weak.  I’m not a theorist; read more charitably.  I said his artifical and weak creation of PF leads to bad distinctions and allows the readers to “make shit up”.  As far as your reading chartiably, well, that’s a very good joke.  You should take this act on the road!  I mean, sure, charity for those you already agree with.

By on 10/09/05 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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