Monday, December 13, 2010

Zizek is Not Okay

I was once among a group of people having a conversation about Zizek in a car speeding from Southampton to London. In his support, someone observed that “Zizek is not okay”—that his writings and his presence convey psychic unease, so that no one reading him could imagine that the world that had produced the writings was one in which things were going according to plan. No, it’s a world that’s tilted at a sickening angle, and the perspective of the prose is on the ground, looking up with one eye while clutching its stomach. One of the main strategies of the prose, given this awful situation, or perhaps it is something more serious and less voluntary than a strategy, is to become, as Zizek has said on one occasion, “a machine for theory.” The machinic quality makes and emanates from a staccato pattern of rigidified mannerism and grimacing comedy. He is attacked for repeating himself, yet most critical writers would trade their CVs to have arrived at the signature that repetition-with-variation—the paradox of originality—alone can bring. Such repetition takes persistence and it takes pills. I think every reader would agree that Zizek has expanded the range of characteristics and references that critical theory can have, and in ways that offer up its living and suffering connections to the capitalized mass media world. The ganglia of Zizek’s theory are plugged into Time Warner Cable. With your ear to the page you can hear the crackling of plastic wrappers and the shuffling of socks on wall-to-wall hotel carpet. Yet the prose is also aspirational. Rightly viewing undeadness as a threat, it is not entirely undead, but keeps reaching up from—or perhaps down into—the “utter dismemberment” of its favorite passage in Hegel, finding a way to depict what it is doing as something that needs to be done. It goes on; but it also does not go on. Indeed things within Zizek’s philosophy are far from completely automatic and systematized—if they were, he would be completely unreadable, he would be Badiou—but partly overly so and partly contradictory and fragmented.

I’m looking at the pages on “Thinking Backwards” in his new book, Living in the End Times (New York: Verso, 2010), pages I was very interested to read because I am working on the same issue, the production of retroactive illusion by teleological history and the implications of “commitment to alternative histories” (Living 87). But it is generally impossible to read Zizek the way you read something else, i.e., hoping to find oneself in dialogue with ideas. Once the interesting topic is framed, we are given some strong negative examples: we do not want to think like Malebranche; like the conservative historian of Rome, Bryan Ward-Perkins; or incidentally like Walter Benjamin, who is said to have advocated that “we simply go back in time to the moment of decision and, this time, make the right choice” (88). They are all wrong in different ways, and the first two are dealt with in a few paragraphs each while Benjamin is dealt with in two (unconnected) sentences that say two different things. Anyway, “the only way to truly avoid” the “perversion” of Malebranche, “not just to obfuscate it, is to fully accept the Fall as the starting point which creates the conditions of Salvation” (93), a Fall which is preceded by nothing and whose “justification is always and a priori retroactive” (94). Right choices can only be made after wrong choices have occurred; wrong choices are necessary, but not because they are part of a pre-existing divine plan for right. For example, “it was the Christian Dark Ages which created the conditions for the specific rationality of modern science as opposed to the science of the Ancients” (92). Because Descartes claimed to derive the authority of facts from God, the condition of the autonomy of modern rationality is “the Fall into the early ‘dark’ Middle Ages” (92). “Only in this way [by realizing this] can we truly avoid the perverse consequences of religious fundamentalism,” for example as embodied by the postwar career of Radovan Karadzic (94).

Oh, the experience of reading Zizek. Especially now, when we need so much. The futility of formulating any response logically, historically, philologically, or empirically. The impossibility of acting as though that is what it’s about. Or, more precisely, my paraphrase already organizes the pages logically, historically, etc., by underlining things in it, and has already managed implicitly to respond by doing so--one can do that, that gets done--but that doesn't touch what's mainly happening. The text will never respond back to my various incredulities, because it is unconcerned with them, and concerned with hurtling along a dark channel in which frightening figures pop up on either side, and where the “only way” not to be captured by them is to accept the grace of a metaphorical Jesus, who is only a symbol, of course, don’t get agitated, we're all concretely universal here, although when it is put that way reasons now come to mind why this line of thought was not so appealing to Benjamin, but never mind. As I said in the car that day, when other people attack him, I defend him. Some of the articles actually stick with a line of thought. I am not nostalgic about the record of philology or any of those other methodologies. It’s not as though they generally work; go to the library and read the “normal science” of the last fifty years, the dismal shelves of ordinary scholarship bound in dark green volumes, and ask yourself where it got to. Just like most of it, Zizek’s theory is filled with prejudicial references to places and contexts he doesn’t pretend to know anything about and defenses of authority in the guise of transcendental structural necessities; unlike it, it is also filled with defenses of religion in the names of revolution and atheism, and a desire for economic justice, as well as detours through Brian de Palma, insistence that G.K. Chesterton was talking about something, many exclamation marks, and frankly metonymic transitions ("Let us begin, quite arbitrarily, with Michael Apted's Enigma" [54]). It is wringing wet with the residue of sentimental Catholicism, which is not to its credit, and dusty with crumbs of Dramamine, which is, given the main alternative of horrifyingly clean professionalism. But is that all there is? I agree with my friend from London: what is okay about Zizek is that Zizek is not okay.

Image: from Brian de Palma, Redacted (2007)


Jan Mieszkowski said...

While I'm largely in agreement with what you say here, I'm not sure that it's fair to celebrate Zizek for constituting a simple alternative to "philology or any of those other methodologies." The precarious, even chaotic qualities of his writing are not just surface-deep, but they partly function to dissimulate his fundamental commitment to traditional notions of philosophical rigor. At every stage, Zizek proceeds on the assumption that his observations and insights are legitimated by the solid foundation that is his supposed mastery of Hegel and psychoanalysis--indeed, the subtext of many of his claims is, ‘I can demonstrate this because I know x about desire and y about determination.’ His canon is conventional, and much of what he says about novels or films is presented as standard philology, i.e., he finds a particular motif or tension and then chronicles its iterations across an oeuvre. [insert Zizekian transition] If Nietzsche wrote about the untimely, Zizek is the timely.

R said...

I like your point about dissimulation but think it is two-way, and also that the elements are overlapping rather than in a clean surface and depth model. The post touches this issue very briefly when I mention that his work is "partly overly" systematized; there is a systematized part and a nonsystematized part. I agree with the dissimulation idea, that is, these very different elements can both be appealed to at any moment, and often one seems to arrive to distract us from what's going on in the other. I also think though that where the self-consistent and the deliberately inconsistent overlap what you have may no longer be rigor.

A broader issue may be that there's a tension in the idea of "rigor," which in the genre of speculative philosophy usually means self-consistency rather than consistency with other work around you. It means that I use my own terms (and my interpretations of other philosophers) evenly, that they support one another to the point where the work is hard to disassemble, and that the work spreads over a large enough territory that it's difficult to ignore. The speculative genre develops these things in a centripetal way so that its effective relations with other possible systems are collateral and brutal. In these terms you can have "rigor" and yet fit with almost nothing that is suggested about the world according to other logics. This is a kind of weakness that gets taken conventionally as a strength and that functions as a way of not answering questions (ending a challenge to whether your point is true or desirable by, e.g., referencing compatibility with Schelling--ignoring whether the point in Schelling is itself true or desirable, etc.). I'm not all that willing to see rigor in this sense as rigorous; not just by virtue of its SELF consistency and ability to index its own favorite authors. But I don't think that the community-based standards of normal science have a grip on it either. So I have a problem with this model per se even if we could agree that Z is performing it (I object to it in Nancy for example and Deleuze), and more specifically I don't think his doing of it has more reality in his work than the other things he's doing.

Jan Mieszkowski said...

Great point about rigor. I might argue that Zizek's investments in this regard aren't those of speculative philosophy (for which any opposition between the system and what's ostensibly external to it should perpetually be collapsing), and have more to do with an Enlightenment paradigm in which calculability is the ultimate standard of mastery ('what is known is what one can manipulate'). A more charitable position would be that Zizek is ironizing the Enlightenment impulse to privilege method at all costs, that is, he pushes the pretension to rigor to its limit in order to see what monstrosities will emerge.

In college, we used to imagine a symposium held under the rubric, "At what price rigor?" The key doctrinal reference for this fantasy was the oft-cited passage in "Hypogram and Inscription": "Technically correct rhetorical readings may be boring, monotonous, predictable and unpleasant, but they are irrefutable. They are also totalizing (and potentially totalitarian)...." Zizek isn't what a de Manian would understand as a rhetorical reader, but he's certainly attuned to "consistently defective models of language's impossibility to be a model language."