Towards a prolegomena of a blog post about Slavoj Žižek

I went (with E) to a lecture by Slavoj Žižek last night – one of his popular, “intellectual showmanship as the new rock ‘n’ roll” lectures rather than one of his weighty, academic lectures on critical theory or Hegel or whatever. The lecture was based loosely on his most recent book, Living in the End Times, and focused on the role of ideology.

If you’ve never seen Žižek in action, it’s well worth doing so – I’ll post a link to the video of last night’s lecture once it’s available. If you have seen him on screen or in person, or if you’ve read any of his books, you’ll know what it was like: an hour-long whirlwind of pop-cultural references, Marxist analysis and outright contrarianism (“The King’s Speech is a deeply ideological movie”).

As such, an orderly, linear blog post summarising his argument is impossible – at one point one of my scribbled notes just read “fetishistic” – so here are just a few snippets from his lecture (and/or thoughts triggered by it).

The King’s Speech and The Black Swan

Žižek opened with a couple of references to recent films as examples of how ideology operates in today’s society.

First, The King’s Speech, which he characterised as a film about an intelligent man (who is intelligent enough to realise how preposterous it is for him, or anyone else, to be a king) who is able to become stupid enough to take up the role of authority bestowed upon him – the critical scene (spoiler alert) being the one in which Logan sits on the throne and George shouts that Logan has no right to do so, but that he does “because I am king by divine right!”

Žižek argued that the film’s ideological purpose is to show how men, who today often feel uncomfortable simply taking upon themselves traditional “authority” roles (husband, father and so on), must make themselves stupid enough to be able to do so.

While The King’s Speech is about how men can enjoy both a private/family life and a public one provided they make themselves stupid enough to do so, The Black Swan (which I haven’t seen, so please forgive any plot-mangling or inadvertent spoilering) is about how women have to choose between the two – and if they should choose to forego the path of romance and family life in favour of pursuing their public career, then they will die. (*laughter in audience*)

Coffee without cream?

One of Žižek’s key points was how, in order to identify and understand ideology at work, we need to look not only at what is said, but at what is not said. He illustrated this with an exchange from an Ernst Lubitsch film in which the protagonist asks for a “coffee without cream”. The waiter replies, “I’m afraid we don’t have any cream. Would you like a coffee without milk?”

As a practical illustration of this, Žižek cited Brazilian carnivals, which are seen as a setting aside of all sexual, racial and class differences in a common celebration. However, there is a big difference between a poor worker deciding to set aside his daily struggles in order to celebrate the carnival and a rich banker who sets aside his privilege in order to feel part of the common mass of humanity. The worker is having coffee without milk, while the banker is having coffee without cream…

Žižek developed this “what is not said” idea further with a scene in Brassed Off in which Tara Fitzgerald asks Ewan McGregor in for a coffee at the end of a date. “I don’t drink coffee,” he says. “I haven’t got any,” she replies. The result of this double-negation, of course, is not a failure of communication but “pure erotic invitation”.

Catastrophic, but not serious

A similar paradox is at work in the story of the telegram exchange between the German and Austrian armies during the First World War, in which the Germans communicated that their position was “serious, but not catastrophic” – and the Austrians replied that their position, by contrast, was “catastrophic, but not serious”.

Žižek argued that this phrase describes our current position as we face economic and ecological catastrophe: we know the position is catastrophic, but we are unable to take it seriously. Ideology is not about what we know or don’t know, but has a deeper, underlying position: so that we know, but act as if we don’t know it.

Look for the hamster

Žižek has little time for those who affect a cynical detachment from the world and call it “realism”. He sees this as “fetishistic”: not necessarily in the sense of a sexual fetish, but in the sense that what one really feels is dissociated from its true object and transferred onto another.

He gave a heartbreaking example of this: a friend of his whose wife had died, suddenly and very young, from breast cancer. Žižek and his friends were shocked at how, from immediately after his wife’s death, the man was able to speak openly and without emotion about the terrible suffering she had undergone in the final two months of her life.

Then they realised that, whenever he did so, the man was holding and stroking his wife’s pet hamster. On some subconscious level the man had “fetishised” the hamster so that it now represented his dead wife – and so he could feel that she hadn’t really gone. Six months later, though, the hamster died: and the man underwent a complete emotional and mental breakdown that resulted in his hospitalisation.

So Žižek claimed that when we encounter someone who claims to be totally detached and cynical, to see the world as it is, a meaningless void, then we should not engage with them on the level of rational argument (“The world has so much beauty and meaning!”). Rather, we need (as it were) to “look for their hamster”, the object or concept that enables them to distance themselves from what they truly feel.

As he put it: “We believe much more than we think we believe”.

Totality

Another function of ideology, Žižek asserted, is to make us understand a phenomenon (such as capitalism) only in terms of its positive features, and to see its negative features, its exploitations, horrors and contradictions, as merely “distortions” or “corruptions”.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, is a “totally non-functioning state”, racked by civil war, divided into the fiefdoms of competing warlords – each of whom is supported by contracts with western mining corporations for metals and minerals which are essential for our electronic equipment. It is tempting to present the DRC as an aberration or distortion, an example of a “primitive” nation that hasn’t yet fully developed into “civilised” capitalism. However, Žižek argued, instead we should see it as part of the totality of today’s capitalism.

Whatever you think of that particular example (and I don’t know enough about the DRC to judge), that idea of engaging with the an idea in its totality, rather than just dismissing the negative aspects as “aberrations”, is one I will carry away from the lecture. It’s a particularly important one for Christians, who often try to dissociate themselves from the horrific aspects of church history (and of current situations within the church) in this way.

Factories for producing experts

The area where Žižek’s lecture intersected most clearly with current practical politics was the change in the nature of universities that is currently underway. Žižek argued that what is happening in the UK, with the introduction of tuition fees and the consequent privatisation of university education, is part of an international trend in which “the university is no longer to be a space of freedom but a socially-useful factory for producing experts”.

As for how we oppose this, Žižek suggested that we should throw back at conservatives their own professed concerns about “European values” or “the Judeo-Christian legacy”, pointing out that the greatest threat to the “Judeo-Christian legacy” (in particular the positive legacy of freedom of thought) comes, not from Muslims or immigrants, but from the very measures which conservatives now propose, such as the marketisation of universities. “Do not concede to the enemy too much”, and in particular do not concede to conservatives the mantel of “protecting European values”.

Ideology today

Žižek argued that the old capitalist framework of ideology was based on education and law. However, today these are being superseded by the market. The logic of market competition is the hegemonic ideology of today.

So in education, the bourgeois conception of education as a pure space which exists above and outside the market is being replaced by education as a privatised product. And in politics, democracy is now a market exercise in which what is on offer is not competing ideologies but a decision as to “the best party to do the job”.

Why isn’t Bond attempting re-entry any more?

Why is there no sex at the end of the most recent Bond film, Quantum of Solace? Žižek suggests that it is for the same reason that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code contains no sex between Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, and the film version of The Lost Symbol actually removed a sex scene that Brown had included in the novel: any form of passionate attachment is seen as a threat in our narcissistic, solipsistic and individualistic culture. (It occurred to me that this might also be relevant to the so-called “hook-up culture”.)

Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism, Žižek asserted, is “an ideology, not an economic reality”. No country in the world actually practising neoliberalism as an economic system – least of all the United States, as evidenced by the bank bailouts.

Rather, neoliberalism is an ideology used to justify economising at home (cuts to education or health) or to put pressure on third-world nations.

What Žižek is most afraid of…

…is summarised by a manifesto issued by recent Spanish protests against government austerity measures. Žižek described this as “totally apolitical”, going out of its way to emphasise that the protestors “were neither of the right nor of the left”, but were rejecting the entire political class.

What Žižek found depressing about this leaflet was that, while it stated the protestors’ intention to dismantle the entire political class, it still did not say “We the people will do this”, but was still a call for “someone” to do it.

And the problem when people call for “someone” to do something is that “the place of this ‘someone’ may be taken by who knows who”.

There is no alternative

The biggest weakness for the left is that “we do not have, even in the barest outline, an alternative to propose”. Žižek described friends of his who express great excitement about what might happen in Greece, but who then have no answer when he asks “What happens next, after the collapse? A bit of Keynesianism? Nationalising the major industries? What?”

During the Q&A, Žižek expanded on this point, observing that much of the radical left (such as the Socialist Workers Party) is “still a little bit in love with the twentieth century. But the twentieth century is over”. This includes the dreams of the twentieth century, not least the dreams of the various forms of twentieth-century socialism – all of which were ultimately a failure.

A divergence is arising in terms of what is seen as possible and what as impossible. In the sphere of private life, technology is seen as having the potential to make practically anything possible: artificial organs to prolong life, and so on. However, in the economic and political sphere, almost everything is impossible: we can’t spend more on health, we can’t change the economic system, and so on. This is the work of ideology.

In mid-April, the Chinese government prohibited all works of fiction (TV, movies, novels) that depict time-travel or alternative realities. Even the fictional depiction of an alternative to Communist Party rule is intolerable. But as Žižek pointed out, we should not be too quick to laugh at China over this: at least the Chinese still need to prohibit alternative realities. In the west, ideology makes it impossible for us even to think of alternatives.

The role of the critical intellectual

Žižek argued that the role of “critical intellectuals” such as himself is “not to provide solutions, but to open up space in which alternatives can be thought about”.

I’m sure that’s one reason why his freewheeling, scattergun approach is so effective. The point is not whether one agrees with everything Žižek says. I strongly doubt that Žižek agrees with everything Žižek says. However, what he does is to spin your head round a few times so that you are jolted into thinking about things you normally take for granted. This is surely a healthy thing to do: if not quite cleansing the doors of perception, then at least opening them a little wider.

Note: the title to this post was inspired by a comment Žižek made as he ran out of time in the Q&A. He referred to the 1980s fashion for Marxist intellectuals to preface their book titles with phrases like “Towards a…” or “Notes in preparation for a…” – in contrast to the 1990s postmodern preference for a “poetic title with explanatory subtitle” (“He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss: The Collusion of the Feminine in Male Violence” or whatever) – and said that he had at least provided “Notes on a prolegomena of an answer to your question”. Anyone who was present at the lecture, and who heard the first “question”, will also appreciate the significance of a supposedly brief post ending up as a 2,200 word behemoth…

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12 Responses to Towards a prolegomena of a blog post about Slavoj Žižek

  1. J Random Hermeneut says:

    On “Factories for producing experts,” that is, the neoliberalisation of universities, Žižek ischannelling George Parkin Grant to the letter. Spot on.

  2. OFelixCulpa says:

    “The point is not whether one agrees with everything Žižek says. I strongly doubt that Žižek agrees with everything Žižek says. However, what he does is to spin your head round a few times so that you are jolted into thinking about things you normally take for granted.”

    Interesting. But if it is true, how would you know if your head is being spun by a thoughtful genius or a delusional idiot? Would it not look and feel the same either way?

  3. John H says:

    OFelixCulpa: I suppose that would depend on whether you’re capable of assessing what you’re hearing or reading and forming your own judgment on it.

  4. Rick Ritchie says:

    So if Žižek is considered the “Elvis of cultural theory,” is that fact a part of the totality of today’s capitalism, but not a part of the totality of today’s Marxism?

  5. OFelixCulpa says:

    If you are capable of that, then your head hasn’t really been spun, has it?

  6. D.S.Ketelby says:

    1980s fashion… 1990s postmodern preference

    In 1985, we all wanted to be Karl Marx. By 1995, we’d all read the Modern Review.

  7. John H says:

    Rick:

    So if Žižek is considered the “Elvis of cultural theory,” is that fact a part of the totality of today’s capitalism, but not a part of the totality of today’s Marxism?

    I’m sure Žižek is very well aware that his role as “superstar radical philosopher” is one that is very much generated by and within capitalism. Partly because it is orthodox Marxism to say that the seeds of the new order are already existent within the old order, and partly because one of Žižek’s regular themes is the ease with which capitalism is able to appropriate and domesticate threats to its dominance. See, for example, the co-option of the counterculture of the late 1960s (which became the basis for modern, individualistic consumer capitalism, in contrast to the corporate capitalism of the post-war era), or of the green movement (so that, in an illustration which Žižek repeated last night, to buy a Starbucks coffee or organic apple is presented as in itself an ecologically-beneficial an act).

    The question is whether, besides all that and taking all that into account, he is still able to make people think and act in ways that represent a genuine challenge to the hegemony of market ideology. I think he is, and I assume he would find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning unless he thought he is, too.

  8. John H says:

    DSK:

    In 1985, we all wanted to be Karl Marx. By 1995, we’d all read the Modern Review.

    Yes, Toby Young has a lot to answer for, hasn’t he…?

  9. OFelixCulpa says:

    John,

    I was thinking about it, and I wonder if I was too subtle in my point about it “looking and feeling the same.” The problem is no one ever thinks they have been swept off of their feet by a delusional idiot–they always think their ‘sweeper’ is a genius. But, some of those people really are carried away by idiots or worse.

    My–admittedly subtle–point is that when people admire a person’s ‘genius’ not because he makes so much sense but rather because he makes so little sense, they open themselves up to being taken in by a delusional idiot or a madman. For that reason, I am rather suspicious of Žižek.

    Thanks for your post, by the way. I know it couldn’t have been easy to compose a summary of so much stuff.

  10. John H says:

    OFelixCulpa: you’re right that people can be swept along by a delusional idiot whom they think is a genius, and that this can be a particular danger when “admire a person’s ‘genius’ not because he makes so much sense but rather because he makes so little sense”.

    However, I don’t think this applies to Zizek, for a few reasons:

    1. I don’t think I’m swept off my feet by an uncritical regard for his “genius”. I find him a stimulating thinker not because I find myself falling into line with him, but because he prompts me to think things through afresh for myself.

    2. I don’t think it’s the case that Zizek “makes little sense” or that his appeal resides in this. It’s true that he can be difficult and obscure, sometimes (not always) deliberate/mischievously so. But it’s still what I understand that I find stimulating, not what I don’t understand (and which I tend to skip over while reading!).

    3. The danger you describe is most likely to arise where people read or listen to one person to the exclusion of all others. I can’t imagine there are many people who read Zizek and no-one else.

    4. The danger is also increased where a person is propounding a simple and holistic view of the world, an easily-digested “theory of everything”. Zizek is simply too scattergun for anyone to formulate a simplistic “theory of everything” from him.

    In a word, Zizek is not, and never will be, Ayn Rand. 😉

  11. Matt J. says:

    John, thanks for the concise and interesting summary. Zizek has been buried in my to-read pile for a while. It’s nice to get a little bit more of an idea what his shtick is without much effort. 🙂

  12. Luigi Novi says:

    “…the film version of The Lost Symbol actually removed a sex scene that Brown had included in the novel…”
    There is no sex scene in the novel.

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