Thursday, July 14, 2011

Attacking Žižek (5 Dec 2008)

Anyone at all familiar with Žižek's work would be able to see through Adam Kirsch's hit piece in the New Republic, which basically seeks to argue that Žižek is a totalitarian anti-Semite who uses jokes as a cloak to mask his hateful agenda. Kirsch employs the usual hit-piece tactics, selectively quoting and failing to fill in the necessary context in order to interpret what is quoted, remaining willfully tone-deaf to irony (and claiming that one must do so to understand the "real" message of the work), and using tautological ad hominem attacks to bolster the argumentative claims when necessary. In all likelihood, Žižek would probably welcome this kind of attack, as it tends to reinforce his claims about leftism and liberalism while raising his profile even further. His intent is to make readers uncomfortable; Kirsch's piece makes it clear that he has somehow managed to get under Marty Peretz's skin.

Josh Strawn posts a useful correction to the piece here, (via Larval Subjects) though his eagerness to gesture toward Lacanian exceptionalism is troubling.
When I picked up 'Welcome to the Desert of the Real' so many years ago, I gave up on reading it because I was quite certain that anyone that wanted to understand what Žižek was talking about probably needed to understand something about Lacan. What I subsequently discovered was that one does not cursorily educate oneself on Lacan, nor is it possible to do so (even after six years of immersion, it's quite hard to feel like you 'get' Lacan). This is by Lacan's design. He famously said that the way in should be difficult. It is willful obfuscation, not plain-spokenness in the vein of Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language.' Then again, Lacan wasn't teaching politics. He was the most bizarre pedagogue. One learned from him not by way of traditional study, but through experiencing him. The teacher was not to be the disseminator of knowledge so much as the figure who provoked the unquenchable desire for knowledge.
This attitude -- performative discourse as opposed to expository discourse -- is something that lay readers invariably doubt, if not resent -- that social theorists like Lacan must use a method that justifies opacity, inscrutability, and poor expression to convey otherwise inexpressible truths. It requires a leap of faith to immerse yourself in this tortuous material in order to derive the insights, but by the time you start to understand you've committed so much effort and time to understanding that you're biased toward believing. You can no longer evaluate the insights objectively. (But then the possibility of an objective perspective on such insights is often what is being called into question by the theories.) Often the end result is the true believers become a cult that's more comfortable with dismissing those who fail to climb the mountain and make the total commitment than with spreading the important ideas the cult leader is supposed to have discovered in a persuasive way. The jargon becomes insular and convoluted; the stakes in discussing the theory begin to revolve around which disciple has the true gospel rather than whatever the substance of the gospel was originally. Nothing in the "real world" is affected, because no one in a position to effect change has any idea what the cultists are talking about.

It seems to me that by telling jokes and referencing popular culture and fashioning himself as a theoretical rock star, Žižek is trying to bring Lacanian ideas to a broader audience outside the cult and restore their relevance. His books are nonetheless difficult to understand, but they try to bait lay readers into making the effort with accessible examples and comedic hyperbole. Strawn's point, that Žižek "can't shut it off" -- can't stop theorizing and derailing himself and interrupting interlocutors -- makes it seem as though he should have a blog, where a heterogeneous, inconsistent approach to events as they unfold are generally tolerated and excusable.

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