Consider the following passage:
What would be my—how should I call it—spontaneous attitude towards the universe? It’s a very dark one. The first one—the first thesis would have been—a kind of total vanity. There is nothing, basically. I mean it quite literally. Like, ultimately—ultimately—there are just some fragments, some vanishing things, if you look at the universe it’s one big void. But then, how do things emerge? Here, I feel a kind of spontaneous affinity with quantum physics, where, you know, the idea there is that the universe is a void, but a kind of a positively charged void, and then particular things appear when the balance of the void is disturbed. And I like this idea spontaneously very much, the fact that it’s not just nothing, things are out there. It means something went terribly wrong, that what we call creation is a kind of a cosmic imbalance, a cosmic catastrophe, that things exist by mistake. And I’m even ready to go to the end and claim that the only way to counteract this is to assume the mistake and go to the end. And we have a name for this, it’s called “love.” Isn’t love precisely this kind of a cosmic imbalance? I was always disgusted with this notion of “I love the world, universal love.” I don’t like the world. I’m basically someone in between I hate the world or I’m indifferent towards it. But the of whole of reality, it’s just it, it’s stupid. It is out there. I don’t care about it. Love for me is an extremely violent act. Love is not “I love you all.” Love means, I pick out something, and you know, again it’s this structure of imbalance, even if this something is just a small detail, a fragile individual person, I say “I love you more than anything else.” In this quite formal sense love is evil.
Having conducted an informal poll among friends and family members, my strong suspicion is that your reaction to this passage—which, as you can see, ranges over such seemingly disparate topics as the meaning of the universe, quantum physics and the emergence of matter, and the nature of love—will fall into one of three categories: (i) You believe that it expresses something profoundly insightful; (ii) You believe that it expresses insane gibberish; (iii) You are utterly unsure what to make of it: perhaps it is saying something insightful about the universe, creation, emergence, quantum physics or love; or maybe, in fact, it’s just unbridled lunacy posing as philosophical profundity.
If you fall into the first category, you most likely are—or would be—a Slavoj Žižek fan: the above passage is a verbatim transcript of the start of the popular 2005 documentary film about the 70-year-old Slovenian philosopher, entitled (somewhat unimaginatively) Žižek!. And you’re in good company. Described on his book covers and lecture tours as a “Hegelian philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalyst, and political activist”, Žižek—a self-described “radical leftist”—is one of the only intellectuals alive today who has an entire journal exclusively dedicated to discussing his ideas. Prestigious newspapers and magazines have labelled Žižek a “celebrity philosopher” with “rockstar popularity” who has a “fanatical global following,” the “Elvis of cultural theory,” and, perhaps most (in)famously, as the “most dangerous philosopher in the West.” Millions of people have watched his lectures and videos on YouTube; thousands of students, academics, and laypeople have bought his books; and many thousands more have attended his lectures: 3,000 people recently packed out the Sony Centre in Toronto, where Žižek held a debate with the Canadian clinical psychologist and fellow public intellectual Jordan Peterson. Tickets were sold for as much as $1,500.
If, however, you fall into the second category of people, you’re not in bad company either. In a much-read analysis of Žižek’s work in The New York Review of Books, the distinguished British political philosopher John Gray claimed that Žižek’s work merely “[a]chiev[es] a deceptive substance”, before eventually concluding that “Žižek’s work … amounts to less than nothing”. Harvard evolutionary psychologist and popular public intellectual Steven Pinker openly described Žižek on Twitter as a “charlatan” (as well as a “student-detesting … plagiarist”); and Noam Chomsky, perhaps the world’s foremost public intellectual, recently accused Žižek of engaging in “theoretical posturing” by “using fancy words,” but that Žižek’s work ultimately contains “no content … beyond the level of something which you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old.”
Finally, if you fall into the third category of people, you’re also likely in good company too—though you’ll rarely, if ever, find such agnosticism publicly expressed by other academics and public intellectuals (or even, for that matter, by individuals online). Discussions of Žižek’s work—as is the case in much of public discourse these days—tends to be heavily polarized: people either love him or hate him. Those who are unsure what to think mostly remain silent.
I should lay my cards on the table at the outset: I am not at all unsure what I think of Žižek—I fall squarely within the second category of people listed above. More specifically, I, too, think that Žižek is, at his best, a posturing charlatan. However, I also think that, at his worst, he is significantly worse than that: he is also a repetitive, reactionary, and at times even racist individual whose continued acceptance and, in some sectors, even quasi-veneration by the left is, I think, deeply harmful to the global progressive cause.
I realize that these are serious allegations, and that they require a significant amount of substantiation. Let me, then, prove the charges one by one.
Let us begin by examining claims for which Žižek has garnered a significant amount of criticism over the last couple of years—namely, those related to Islam and the European refugee crisis, as spelled out in his 2016 book Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours (“ADB”).
Much of what Žižek writes in ADB very much conforms to what a self-proclaimed leftist would say on these issues. For instance, he writes that the “ultimate causes” of the refugee crisis are a combination of both “the dynamics of global capitalism” as well as “Western military intervention” in Libya and Iraq. Moreover, he writes that Western Europeans are “preventing” Africans from “changing their societies” through “devastating” forms of “economic neocolonialism,” often mediated by international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank (69-72). Žižek also argues that “our goal” as global progressives should be to “reconstruct global society” such that the “desperate refugees” are no longer forced to flee their country of origin (18-19)—which thus (presumably) entails ending such Western military interventions and economic neocolonialist policies throughout Africa and the wider Middle-East. Later in the book, Žižek also explicitly states that “the principal threat to Europe does not come in the shape of Muslim immigrants but in its anti-immigrant populist defenders” (107), and that “Europe will have to reassert its full commitment to providing means for the dignified survival of refugees” (155). (Furthermore, in a television interview with Mehdi Hasan on Al Jazeera’s UpFront, Žižek was also similarly explicit that he wants “even more refugees” to be allowed to seek asylum in Europe.)
In summary, Žižek believes that: (i) the West bears significant responsibility for causing the refugee crisis; (ii) Europe should (therefore) do the morally acceptable thing and open its doors to the refugees; and (iii) to deal with the root cause of the crisis, Europe should ultimately cease its destructive economic policies and military ventures in Africa and the Middle-East.
To repeat: all of these points are, of course, very standard things for a leftist to say. (And I agree with all of them.) However, throughout the book Žižek is also keen to establish a fourth, core thesis in his book, one that leftists would not standardly subscribe to—namely, that Europe should open its doors to the refugees in spite of the cultural incompatibility of refugees and Western citizens. More specifically, in the book Žižek openly defends Samuel Huntington’s (in)famous thesis of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the Western world. As he writes: “We are definitely in the midst of the clash of civilizations (the Christian West versus radicalized Islam)…” (11).
Lest one think that such a remark was some kind of a bizarre anomaly, Žižek, in fact, makes virtually identical remarks at two different points later in the book. Thus, he writes that:
“…the refugees want to have their cake and eat it. They basically expect to get the best of the Western welfare state while retaining their specific way of life, which is in some of its key features incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare state.” (88)
Perhaps most explicitly, near the end of the book he unambiguously states that “it is a simple fact that most of the refugees come from a culture that is incompatible with Western European notions of human rights” (149).
Exhuming the rotting corpse of Huntington’s repeatedly debunked thesis is, obviously, a rather strange—not to mention highly inflammatory—thing for a self-proclaimed “radical leftist” to do. Hence, the obvious question is: What reasons does Žižek provide for thinking that there is such a “clash”? More specifically: What are these “Western notions of human rights”, and why is Islam ostensibly incompatible with them?
Žižek is not entirely explicit on these points. However, from what he writes, it appears that he believes that “Western” and “Islamic” culture are irreconcilable for at least two different reasons. The first, he writes, is because “Muslims find it impossible to bear blasphemous images and reckless humor,” which is apparently incompatible with “Western notions” of free speech. And the second is that “the subordination of women” is “part of the Muslim life-world”, which conflicts with “Western values” relating to women’s equality (149).
To talk this way about the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims—and, moreover, to do so while providing virtually no substantiating evidence—is incredibly provocative, to say the least. Moreover—as Žižek is surely well aware—to talk of “Western notions of free of speech” is itself an exceedingly gross simplification: for one thing, there are significant differences between European and American free speech laws and attitudes; for another, even within Europe there are enormous differences in interpretation of the notion of “free speech”. (Thus, for instance—to use Žižek’s phraseology—the German government actually “finds it impossible to bear” the denial of the Holocaust.) Moreover, by claiming that Islam inherently conflicts with the (“Western”) concept of free speech, Žižek ignores the enormous differences in the interpretation and implementation of free speech laws in the world’s fifty majority Muslim countries, as well as the fact that, when asked, most Muslims around the world in fact express support for “Western values,” including (but not limited to) freedom of speech. Last but not least, leveling such an accusation against Islam is also deeply hypocritical, given that Žižek himself has openly advocated criminalizing certain forms of speech. As he writes in his (2018) book Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: “The only thing we can do […] is to mobilize the broadest international public in order to directly criminalize any talk of the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction” (390).
What about the claim that the “subordination of women” is “part of the Muslim life-world”? This will undoubtedly come as a surprise to, for instance, many of the women living in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. This is a country which has previously elected a female president (unlike, say, the U.S. and many other European countries); where more than 40 percent of senior management positions are occupied by women (a percentage twice as high as in Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.); and which has a higher proportion of elected women government officials than many countries in Europe (and exactly same the proportion as the U.S.).
What evidence does Žižek himself adduce in support of his claim regarding Islam’s attitude towards women? Apparently—and, indeed, almost absurdly—the only piece of evidence he cites in his book is the infamous 2015-16 New Year’s Eve Cologne attacks, when several hundred men—many of whom were apparently of North Africa descent—were alleged to have sexually assaulted hundreds of women near the city’s central train station. According to Žižek, the attack was:
[A] public spectacle of instilling fear and humiliation, of exposing the privileged Germans to painful helplessness […] [N]aive attempts to enlighten immigrants (explaining to them that our sexual mores are different, that a woman who walks in public in a miniskirt and smiles does not thereby signal sexual invitation, and so on) are examples of breathtaking stupidity. Immigrants know all this perfectly well – and that’s why they are doing it. They are well aware that what they are doing is foreign to our predominant culture, and they are doing it precisely to wound our sensitivities. (143-4)
In an interview on Al Jazeera’s UpFront television program, presenter Mehdi Hasan confronted Žižek over this passage:
HASAN: How is this not a statement that couldn’t come out of the mouth of Marine Le Pen, of the Golden Dawn, of all sorts of horrible groups? … Immigrants as a whole are trying to wound European sensitivities?
ŽIŽEK: Not immigrants, those who did [what happened] there [in Cologne]… And I spoke with people from there…
HASAN: So you took an attack, and generalized, to make a generalized point about European culture? How is that not bigotry? How is that not what the far right does?
ŽIŽEK: Wait a minute. It was absolutely not a sexual attack in the sense of rapes and so on. It was a kind of a—if I may use your term—sort of a provocation, if I may use the word that you used…
HASAN: The attackers were provoking who? European culture? Seriously? A bunch of drunk thugs?
ŽIŽEK: My Arab friends told me that what happened in Cologne was also happening on Tahrir Square in Egypt…
HASAN: And what do you extrapolate from that? What’s your conclusion?
HASAN: Nothing?! But it happens in Germany at the Oktoberfest in Munich, it happens at Mardi Gras…
ŽIŽEK: It’s not the same…
HASAN: Why is it not the same? Women get attacked in public places all over the world. Why are you racializing it? Why are you culturalizing it?
ŽIŽEK: No, I think you are here absolutely simplifying things….
HASAN: You are! Sorry Slavoj, you just said to me that it happens in Tahrir Square and it happens in Cologne. What happens? What is the lesson from Cologne and Tahrir Square that you are making? That you think is worth making?
ŽIŽEK: The lesson is that we should learn to talk openly about all these problems and not try to whitewash them and so on.
Žižek’s alleged “lesson,” however, naturally only raises the further question: What, exactly, are “these problems,” if they’re not equivalent to the fact that “the subordination of women” is “part of the Muslim life-world”—an alleged problem for which he has (still) not provided any serious evidence?
Žižek’s issues with Islam, however, do not end with its (alleged) violations of “Western values” of free speech and women’s equality. In two particularly outrageous passages, he suggests that: (1) any form of political Islam—even of the “moderate” variety—is tantamount to fascism; and (2) that a pedophilia scandal in the UK city of Rotherham perpetrated by men of predominantly Pakistani descent suggests that young Pakistanis are inherently predisposed toward pedophilia:
- The political choices provided by Islam can be clearly identified: they reach from Fascist nihilism, which parasitizes on capitalism, up to what Saudi Arabia stands for […] The most Islam can offer (in its ‘moderate’ version) is yet another ‘alternative modernity,’ a vision of capitalism without its antagonisms, which cannot but resemble Fascism. (37-8)
- One can well imagine a non-pedophilic [Catholic] priest who, after years of service, gets involved in pedophilia because the very logic of the institution seduces him into it. Such an ‘institutional unconscious’ designates the obscene disavowed underside that sustains the public institution […]. In other words, it is not simply that, for conformist reasons, the Church tries to hush up its pedophilic scandals; rather, in defending itself, the Church is defending its innermost obscene secret. What this means is that identifying oneself with this secret side is a key constituent of the very identity of a Catholic priest. If a priest seriously—not just rhetorically—denounces these scandals, he thereby excludes himself from the ecclesiastic community, he is no longer ‘one of us’. […] We should approach the Rotherham events in exactly the same way. Here, we are dealing with the ‘political unconscious’ of the Pakistani Muslim Youth. (52-3)
Regarding the first claim: this would appear to have the absurd consequence that the only forms of political Islam that exist are extremist versions of Sunni Wahhabi-Salafism, and (hence) that, for instance, the Ennahdha Party in Tunisia is either a fascist party or isn’t truly Islamic. Regarding the second claim: putting aside the (outrageous) claim that pedophilia is “a key constituent of the very identity of a Catholic priest,” I find it impossible not to read this passage as suggesting that pedophilia features as a “key constituent of the very identity” of “Pakistani Muslim Youth”—which, I think, can only plausibly be read as a textbook instance of racism of the most debased variety.
In short, Žižek’s views on (Muslim) immigrants and refugees can be roughly summarized as follows: despite the fact that the majority of immigrants are inherently predisposed towards fascism, pedophilia, the subordination of women and the hatred of free speech, Europe should, nevertheless, open its doors to them and guarantee their “dignified survival”. It’s a position that, to my knowledge, has not been defended in the literature before, possibly because it’s so patently absurd: after all, if someone really believed that the refugees were pedophilic women-subordinating freedom-hating fascists, why on Earth would he or she want Europe to allow them in? Indeed, one suspects that, by attempting to carve a niche for himself by finding a “third way” between the “left-wing” view that Europe should “open its doors widely” to the refugees and the “right-wing” view Europe should “pull up the drawbridge” (16), Žižek has ended up endorsing a position—one might even call it a form of racist humanitarianism—that leaves him not only wide open to criticism, but also outright ridicule, on both fronts.
But it is not merely on the topic of refugees that Žižek has expressed views that many—and not only those on the progressive left—would find deeply troubling. To list just a few of them: he openly supported Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (a position he has since proudly defended); he recommended that French voters abstain in the second round of the 2017 French presidential election, his reason being that the choice between the pro-EU, pro-NATO, neoliberal Emmanuel Macron and the anti-EU, anti-NATO, neofascist Marine Le Pen—who has compared Muslim immigrants in France to Nazis—represented a “false choice”; he has recommended that Europe should consider enacting the “global militarization of society,” including (e.g.) the introduction of universal conscription, as one potential means of responding to the refugee crisis (ADB, 147); he has suggested that the West might need to engage in terrorism in order to defeat ISIS (“In order to bring about this destruction [of ISIS] … we must avoid … engaging in the usual Left-liberal litany of ‘One cannot fight terror with terror, violence only breeds more violence’” [ADB, 9]); he has suggested that certain forms of political engagement may permit one to carry out moral atrocities (“We should absolutely reject … the idea that we should be ready to constrain our political or (religious-political) engagement when it leads us to violate elementary moral norms, when it makes us commit mass killings and cause other forms of suffering” [TP, 378]); he has repeatedly shown contempt for ordinary people (calling 99% of them “boring idiots”), and has even gone as far as to claim that he “does not believe there is anything really authentic in ordinary people’s actual worries”; and, most preposterously—and worryingly—he has explicitly expressed his preference for “the worst of Stalinism [over] the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state” (TP, 269).
Plainly, many of these claims are simply indefensible; and, indeed, even Žižek himself often evinces little interest in trying to defend them. Moreover, to the extent that any kind of argument can be discerned behind these claims, they are often—as I will now attempt to show—extraordinarily weak.
Take, for instance, Žižek’s support for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Although Žižek claims to be “horrified” by the (prospect of the) Trump presidency, his support for Trump in the U.S. election was based on the presumption that his victory would “trigger a process of radicalization in the Democratic Party—and this process is our only hope”; or, as he told Channel 4’s Cathy Newman in a U.K. television interview: “I want right-wing chaos so that the New Left will save us from it.”
Now, put aside the inherent danger in voting in as U.S. president a climate change-denying clown who has pushed the country to the brink of a potentially catastrophic war with Iran and a species-ending war with Russia; for there are, at least, two other serious problems with Žižek’s claim here.
The first is its apparent inconsistency with some of Žižek’s other professed beliefs, in particular his claim that Trump “is really a centrist liberal … he is really a pretty ordinary, centrist politician,” as well as his previous assertion that “we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation” [ADB, p. 66]. After all, if Trump really is just a centrist liberal, how will he provide the “right-wing chaos” that Žižek desires? Moreover, if there is “nothing emancipatory in extreme experiences”—and, surely, Trump’s election would count as just such an example—then why does Žižek express faith in the claim that the left will be invigorated by Trump’s victory? Furthermore, if Žižek really wants right-wing chaos, why didn’t he simply recommend voting outright for Marine Le Pen?
The second, less ad hominem problem with Žižek’s claim, on the other hand, is the complete and utter lack of evidence that he provides for it. Why, exactly, is right-wing chaos a necessary precursor for radical change? Why does he think that Trump (or Le Pen’s) victory might (re)invigorate the left, rather than destroy it? Why does he think it is impossible for leftists to vote for the lesser immediate evil now in (e.g.) Clinton and Macron, whilst simultaneously organizing in order to enact more progressive political change in the future? And why on earth (at least in Trump’s case) does he think it’d be a good idea to actually vote for the “disaster” that Žižek—as well as nearly every other sane individual on planet Earth—is so keen to avoid? To use Žižek’s own phraseology once again: if voting for Clinton or Macron was like “offering us as a cure the very thing that caused the illness” (LTDB, 166), this surely only raises the obvious question: Why in God’s name vote for the symptom of an illness?
Žižek, in fairness, has in fact responded to (some of) these objections:
A classic liberal argument for voting for Clinton or Macron against Trump or Le Pen is that while it is true that what Clinton and Macron stand for is the very predicament that gave birth to Trump or Le Pen, not voting for Clinton or Macron is like voting for an actual disaster in order to prevent a possible future disaster. This argument sounds convincing, on condition that we ignore temporality. If Le Pen had been elected President in 2017, it could have triggered strong anti-fascist mobilization, rendering her re-election unthinkable, plus it could have given a strong push to the Leftist alternative. So the two disasters (Le Pen President now or the threat of Le Pen as President in five years) are not the same: the disaster after five years of Macron’s reign, if it turns out to be a failure, will be much more serious than the one which did not happen in 2017. (LTBD, 164)
But this argument is patently absurd. For one thing, if it is true that Le Pen’s election “could have triggered strong anti-fascist mobilization”, then it also naturally follows that she might not have triggered such mobilization; and, similarly, if it is true that she could have “given a strong push to the Leftist alternative,” then it also naturally follows that she might not have given the French Left such a strong push.
Secondly, even if it is true that a Le Pen victory in 2017 would have mobilized anti-fascist resistance and/or given a strong push to a leftist political alternative (for instance, a movement led by the respected French leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon), this does not necessarily entail that Macron’s actual reign will “end in failure”—as Žižek himself appears to admit (“if it turns out to be a failure”).
Thirdly, even if it is true that Macron’s presidency does “end in failure”, this simply does not entail that it would have been better to have (in a sense) “gotten Le Pen over with” by voting for her in 2017—for the simple and entirely obvious reason that Le Pen is not required to win in 2022.
And finally, even if it is true that Le Pen wins in 2022, this does not mean that her election then will be “much more serious” than her (hypothetical) election in 2017. Why, for instance, couldn’t her election in 2022 cause “strong anti-fascist mobilization” and give a “strong push to the [French] Leftist alternative”? Why, in other words, couldn’t her election in 2022 be just as serious as—or perhaps even less serious than—her (again, hypothetical) election in 2017?
In summary: Žižek holds deeply reactionary views on a number of important political issues, including (but not limited to) those relating to recent Western presidential elections. Many of his more outrageous claims (e.g, expressing support for state-sponsored Western terrorism) are, to my knowledge, never substantiated in any of his works. Moreover, those views that he does attempt to substantiate are done so by evidence or argumentation of the flimsiest variety—and sometimes even straightforwardly contradict some of his other professed beliefs.
REPETITION AND ACADEMIC MALPRACTICE
One of the first things one notices upon beginning to study Žižek’s work is just how monumental a task studying him is: to put it bluntly, the man has published an absolute shit ton. Since he began writing in English in 1989, Žižek has published an incredible 48 books in the English language alone, an average of well over a book every year. Moreover, during this period he has also written or appeared in numerous documentary films, given hundreds of public lectures and television and newspaper interviews, written numerous newspaper articles, and, to top it all, written a further 16 books in Slovenian.
How has Žižek been able to achieve such astounding levels of output—and what is more, achieve them while (to quote the blurb of his 2015 book, Trouble in Paradise) “rang[ing] over everything from music videos to Marx” in virtually all of his works?
As it turns out, there is no unique answer to this question—rather, there are (at least) three.
One obvious reason is Žižek’s proclivity for citing the same core group of authors, and discussing virtually the exact same collection of (admittedly wide-ranging) topics, in nearly all of his books. Thus, in addition to Hegel and Lacan, a typical Žižekian book will include bountiful references to Alain Badiou, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx; it will usually include relatively detailed discussions of or references to Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Vladimir Lenin; and, finally, it will contain various treatments of, or scattered allusions to, current “hot” political or cultural issues, including (but not limited to) the failures of capitalism, communism, Christianity, China, anti-Semitism, immigrants, Islam, and—perhaps most frequently—sex. A lot of sex.
The table below attempts to illustrate this point using an admittedly rather crude quantitative method, namely the number of references Žižek makes (according to iBooks) to each topic or theorist or historical figure in five of his most recently published books. (In the table I have tried to exclude references made in the books’ indexes and footnotes; moreover, I have—somewhat arbitrarily—included, e.g., words such as ‘Freudian’ as references to Freud.) The first three books—Like a Thief in Broad Daylight (“LTBD,” 2018), The Courage of Hopelessness (“TCH,” 2017), and Trouble in Paradise (“TP,” 2015)—were written for a popular audience: in total, they average out to approximately 200 pages a piece, or around 500 pages on iBooks. (Unless otherwise stated, all future page references refer to the iBook version of the relevant book.) The last two books—Absolute Recoil (“AR,” 2015), and Less Than Nothing (“LTN,” 2013)—are marketed as more serious, “academic” works: the former is approximately twice the length of the other three books; the latter is more than five times as long.
|Person or Topic||Like a Thief in Broad Daylight (2018)||The Courage of Hopelessness (2017)||Trouble in Paradise (2015)||Absolute Recoil (2015)||Less Than Nothing (2013)|
What this table shows is that although in Žižek’s more serious works the number of references to capitalism, communism, immigrants, Islam, China, etc., (proportionally) tends to decrease, it never quite goes to zero. Furthermore, such a decline in references is invariably more than compensated for by a proportional increase—and sometimes even enormous increase—in the number of references to Badiou, Lacan, Hegel and Freud. In other words: in Žižek’s more serious books, he merely refers to the same core group of philosophers more frequently than he does in his popular books, while the (admittedly wide) range of topics remains more-or-less the same. (Interestingly, and rather weirdly, the number of references to sex remains (roughly) proportionately constant, regardless of whether or not the book is pitched for a popular audience.)
A second reason for Žižek’s prolific publication record is—to put it charitably—his rather lax personal standards for what constitutes acceptable academic practice. In particular, Žižek has previously: written about films before he’d seen them; cited extended descriptions of operas and films from Wikipedia (e.g., LTBD, 47-8, 99-102); cited blurbs of books rather than the books themselves (e.g., TP, 37-8); written about topics (e.g., the philosophy of quantum mechanics; LST, Ch 14) with which he has little, if any, genuine familiarity and/or with minimal engagement with the contemporary literature (more on this later); and, in one particularly bizarre episode, plagiarized (ostensibly by accident) from a white supremacist magazine.
The third and most important reason for Žižek’s prodigious output, however, is also, on reflection, perhaps the most obvious one: he self-plagiarizes—or, to put it in less litigious terms, he recycles material—a lot. And I mean a lot.
Such an accusation against Žižek is hardly new: in 2014 he was accused of, and subsequently admitted to, recycling material from one of his books for a New York Times op-ed. (In his defense, Žižek claimed that he was unaware that this contravened the newspaper’s official policy.) However, what is far less appreciated is the extent to which Žižek self-plagiarizes even from among his own books. Take, for instance, the following passage, which appears in virtually identical form in (at least) six of his recently published books:
So while, in a market economy, I remain de facto dependent, this dependency is nonetheless ‘civilized’, enacted in the form of a ‘free’ market exchange between me and other persons instead of direct servitude or even physical coercion. It is easy to ridicule Ayn Rand, but there is a grain of truth in the famous ‘hymn to money’ from her Atlas Shrugged: ‘Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other.’ Did Marx not say something similar in his well-known formula of how, in the universe of commodities, ‘relations between people assume the guise of relations among things’? In the market economy, relations between people can appear as ones of mutually recognized freedom and equality; domination is no longer directly enacted and visible as such.
(LTBD, 58-9; compare to Living in the End Times (‘LET’), 565-6; TCH, 111-2; LTN, 1538-9; First as Tragedy, then as Farce (‘TTF’), 183-4; TP, 217-8)
Several other examples of such inter-textual, paragraph-length self-plagiarism could also be cited: (1) Against the Double Blackmail (‘ADB’), 12-13; TP, 118-9; TCH, 36-7; (2) LTBD, 300-2; TP, 145-6; LET, 622-3; (3) ADB, 36; TCH, 292-3; TP, 164-5; (4) ADB, 296-7; LTBD, 201-2; TP, 296-7; TCH, 555-6; (5) TP 312-3; AR, 304-5; LTBD 371-2. (Note: these are just the passages I could find which appear in at least three books.)
To many of you, such inter-textual recycling might seem innocuous. Don’t academics recycle their work all the time? Of course, it is true that many of them do. However, what sets Žižek apart from other academics is arguably not the mere fact that he is happy to re-use portions of his work—though the fact that the re-used portions are often verbatim copies of one another is, perhaps, somewhat unusual. Nor is his unique feature merely the scale of his self-plagiarism—though the scale is, indeed, great compared to the majority of other academics. Rather, I think, what distinguishes him is the fact that he is the only prominent academic I am aware of who engages in intra-textual self-plagiarism; who, in other words, recycles passages in one and the same book.
Take, for example, the following passage, drawn from his book Trouble in Paradise:
What all this implies is that today’s conservatives are not really conservative. While fully endorsing capitalism’s continuous self-revolutionizing, they just want to make it more efficient by supplementing it with some traditional institutions (religion, for instance) to constrain its destructive consequences for social life and to maintain social cohesion. Today, a true conservative is the one who fully admits the antagonisms and deadlocks of global capitalisms, the one who rejects simple progressivism, and who is attentive to the dark obverse of progress. In this sense, only a radical Leftist can be today a true conservative. (TP, 40-1)
Now compare it to the this one, drawn from later on in the same book:
Today’s mainstream self-declared political and cultural conservatives are not really conservatives: fully endorsing capitalist continuous self-revolutionizing, they just want to make it more efficient by supplementing it with some traditional institutions (such as religion) to contain its destructive consequences for social life and maintain social cohesion. A true conservative today is the one who fully admits the antagonisms and deadlocks of global capitalism, the one who rejects simple progressivism, and is attentive to the dark obverse of progress. In this sense, only a radical Leftist can be today a true conservative. (TP, 325-6)
This is hardly an isolated example. Here, for instance, is another passage, drawn once again from Trouble in Paradise:
One of the weird consequences of the 2008 financial meltdown and the measures taken to counteract it (enormous sums of money to help banks) was the revival in the work of Ayn Rand, the fullest ideological expression of radical ‘greed is good’ capitalism: the sales of her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged exploded. According to some, there are already signs that the scenario described in Atlas Shrugged—the ‘creative capitalists’ themselves going on strike—is now being enacted. Yet this reaction almost totally misreads the situation: most of the gigantic sums of bail-out money went precisely to those deregulated Randian ‘titans’ who failed in their ‘creative’ schemes and in doing so brought about the meltdown. It is not the great creative geniuses who are now helping lazy ordinary people; rather, it is the ordinary taxpayers who are helping the failed ‘creative geniuses’. (TP, 67)
And compare it to this one, again drawn from the same book:
As we have already pointed out, one of the weird consequences of the financial meltdown and the measures taken to counteract it (enormous sums of money to help banks) was a revival in the works of Ayn Rand, the closest that one can come to an ideologist of radical ‘greed is good’ capitalism—the sales of her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged exploded again. According to some reports, there are already signs that the scenario described in Atlas Shrugged – the creative capitalists themselves going on strike—has been enacted.… The absurdity of this reaction is that it totally misreads the situation: most of the gigantic sums of bailout money went precisely to the deregulated Randian ‘titans’ who failed in their ‘creative’ schemes and thereby brought about the meltdown. It is not the great creative geniuses who are now helping lazy ordinary people but the ordinary taxpayers who are helping the failed ‘creative geniuses’. (TP, 334-5)
Indeed—amazingly—in the Penguin paperback version of Trouble in Paradise I was able to find at least three further examples of such intra-textual, paragraph-length self-plagiarism. (Compare pages 35 & 231; 59 & 232; and 45 & 235 [physical copy].)
In summary, the secret of Žižek’s prodigious output is not really that much of a secret at all: he sticks to the same authors and topics; he often engages in shoddy (some might even call it half-assed) scholarship; and, perhaps most crucially—and, strangely, as he himself has even openly admitted (“I am always writing the same book”)—he just writes the exact same things, repeatedly, over and over again. And, when that’s not enough, he simply repeats himself in one and the same book. Literally.
Thus far, we have discussed Žižek’s repetitiveness, his bigotry, and the often remarkably poor amount of evidence or level of argumentation that he often adduces in support of some of his more controversial positions.
What we have not discussed so far, however, is another major feature—perhaps the major feature—of Žižek’s work, namely, his (remarkable) discursiveness.
Take, for instance, his most recent book, Like a Thief in Broad Daylight, published by Penguin’s Allen Lane, a publishing house which on its website claims to be “the leading publisher in the UK of bestselling serious non-fiction…. Our books are renowned for their quality and their originality of thought”. The book features a glowing endorsement from Greek economist and renowned leftist public intellectual Yanis Varoufakis on its back cover, who writes that “Žižek’s excellent new book serves humanity a way that only authentic philosophy can.”
What is the book about? Its jacket cover informs us that:
In recent years, techno-scientific progress has started to transform our world – changing it almost beyond recognition. Here renowned philosopher Slavoj Žižek turns his gaze on the brave new world of Big Tech, revealing how, with each new wave of innovation, we find ourselves moving closer and closer to a bizarrely literal realisation of Marx’s prediction that ‘all that is solid melts into air’. […] Like a Thief in Broad Daylight illuminates the new dangers as well as the radical possibilities thrown up by today’s technological and scientific advances, and their electrifying implications for us all.
Thus, the book is ostensibly about science and technology, and in particular its impact on future (and present) human society and politics. This belief is further reinforced by the book’s subtitle: “Power in the Era of Post-Humanity,” as well as by the fact that Žižek himself mentions in the book’s second paragraph “the shattering impact [on humans] of modern sciences, especially brain sciences and biogenetics,” and how “the progress of today’s sciences destroys the basic presuppositions of our everyday notion of reality.” (7-8)
As one quickly progresses through the book, however, one soon recalls the old adage about not judging a book by its cover—or, apparently, by its introduction or (sub)title. The book is not about technology. It is not about science. It is not about “power in the era of post-humanity.” It is not, in truth, about anything at all. In fact – if anything – it is largely about sex.
Here is a selection of excerpts from the book—which, to repeat, is supposedly about the impact of science and technology on human affairs:
- … I doubt that the American comedian Louis CK’s acts, deplorable and lewd as they are, could be put on the same level as direct sexual violence. (9)
- [W]here does Lenin stand [on the issue of] mak[ing] a risky radical gesture without being able to foresee all its possible consequences? (132)
- In what sense can the self-critical admission of one’s responsibility for serious mistakes be compared to the need to shit and fart? (176)
- [W]e should never forget that the LGBT+ struggle can also be co-opted by mainstream liberalism against ‘class essentialism’ of the Left. (188)
- A Europe where Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders are in power is no longer Europe. (204) [Aside: this arguably only makes Žižek’s recommendation of abstention in the 2017 French presidential election more bizarre, given that Le Pen’s election would apparently destroy Europe.]
- [Robert E. Lee] may well have been a gentleman with nice manners and personal honesty, but he nonetheless dealt brutally with slaves…(248)
- Some perceptive observers have already noticed how the only form of sexual relation that fully meets politically correct criteria would be a contract drawn up between sado-masochistic partners. (310)
- Although I am not a fan of Sex and the City, an interesting point is made in one of the episodes where Miranda gets involved with a guy who likes to talk dirty during sex, and since she prefers to keep silent, he asks her also to voice whatever dirty things pop up in her mind, with no restraint. … In the middle of her babble she mentions that she has noticed how he enjoys it when, while he makes love to her, he pushes her finger into his ass…. The lesson of this incident is important: even the universality of talking freely is based on some exceptions other than extreme brutality. (302-3)
- [T]he paradigmatic hardcore sexual position (and shot) is that of the woman lying on her back with her legs spread wide backwards and her knees above her shoulders; the camera is in front, showing the man’s penis penetrating her vagina (the man’s face is as a rule invisible; he is reduced to an instrument), but what we see in the background between her thighs is her face in the thrall of orgasmic bliss…. This elementary hardcore scene perfectly renders the minimal reflexivity that cuts from within every immediate orgasmic One. (334-5)
- There are many good things to say about [the 1935 film] Top Hat, beginning with the role of tap-dancing as a disturbing intrusion into the daily routine… (352)
- The first and obvious Lacanian reading of La La Land would see its plot as yet another variation on the theme of ‘there is no sexual relationship’… (354)
- What can we learn from Hegel about Donald Trump and his liberal critics? (376) [Aside: this is the first sentence of the book’s concluding chapter.]
- Was …Stalin not the big jokester of the twentieth century? (379)
- The question is, how does an emancipatory-revolutionary collective which embodies the ‘general will’ affect intense erotic passion? (361)
- [W]ho, then, really deserves [the Nobel Peace Prize]?(395)
- Let’s compare the sexual lives of two US presidents, Kennedy and Trump. (429)
In between all of these profound reflections on farting, porn, Robert E. Lee, Lenin, La La Land, and the sexual lives of US presidents, there are—as far as I could tell—only three places in the book which have even a minimal bearing on the issue of technology and its impact on humans.
The first (92-5) is when Žižek briefly discusses the philosophical impact of newly-developed “mind control techniques,” in particular an experiment (for which Žižek does not provide a reference) conducted at New York University in 2002, in which a rat’s brain was “control[led]” by an “external machine.”“Will I remain totally unaware that my movements are being steered, or will I realize that something is wrong, that an external power is determining them?” (95) Žižek asks—before immediately ignoring the question and moving on to discuss the Greek eurozone crisis. (The alleged link between the two subjects is that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is, according to Žižek, an example of a “steered human being in our political reality”.)
The second (405-6) time Žižek discusses technology’s impact on humans is when he briefly considers the philosophical consequences of a potential new law in Egypt which would (Žižek claims) make it “illegal for people to believe in God, even if they don’t talk about it.” This leads Žižek to ask the question: “[H]ow will authorities establish if someone is an atheist if he doesn’t even talk about it?… [W]ill they scan the suspect’s brain with the devices used by neuro-theologists trying to determine if there are traces of religious experiences in his neurons?” Having asked this question, Žižek again immediately ignores it. Further down the same page, we find him discussing “the wave of pedophilia” among American Catholic priests. (I’m not joking.)
The third (99-119) and final time when Žižek discusses the stated themes of the book is when he offers a 20-page (99-119) analysis of the film Blade Runner 2049—a large portion of which is drawn directly from Wikipedia.
In brief, Žižek’s book isn’t about technology at all. Indeed, it’s a book which is about virtually anything but technology. It’s about identity politics; it’s about LGBT+ rights; it’s about Macron and Le Pen; it’s about Clinton and Trump; it’s about Europe and the European Union; it’s about immigrants and refugees; it’s about Islam, Christianity, Judaism and atheism; it’s about Islamophobia and anti-Semitism; it’s about sex; it’s about porn; it’s about movies and TV shows; it’s about the Russian Revolution; it’s about Lenin; it’s about Stalin; it’s about Hegel; it’s about Hitler; it’s about Lacan; it’s about Badiou… In short, it’s about everything—and, in an important and obvious sense, nothing.
Curiously, Žižek himself would very likely agree with this assessment: as he himself says, “a lot of what I write is blah, blah, bullshit, a diversion from the 700-page book on Hegel I should be writing.” Fair enough – so let’s turn to that (actually 1000-page; and on iBooks, almost 3000-page) book, namely his (2013) work Less Than Nothing: a book which Amazon describes as “the pinnacle publication of a distinguished career,” and which Žižek himself has described as “my true life’s work.”
As it turns out, there is a crucial distinction between this kind of work by Žižek, and his other “less serious,” more popular books. In particular, although it is true that (e.g.) Like a Thief in Broad Daylight doesn’t have a single particular topic or subject matter, nevertheless (nearly) all of the particular paragraphs that one can find in it do, and, what is more, they make sense. In other words, we understand (pretty much) what Žižek is saying when he’s talking about episodes of Sex in the City, or Robert E. Lee, or hardcore pornography—even if we don’t understand why he is saying it.
Not so for Žižek’s “more serious” tomes. Here, for instance, is Žižek’s summary of the central thesis of Less Than Nothing:
Less Than Nothing endeavors to draw all the ontological consequences from this eppur si muove [a phrase alleged to have been uttered by Galileo when forced by the Inquisition to recant his claim that the Earth moves around the sun]. Here is the formula [of Less Than Nothing] at its most elementary: “moving” is the striving to reach the void, namely, “things move,” there is something instead of nothing, not because reality is in excess in comparison with mere nothing, but because reality is less than nothing. This is why reality has to be supplemented by fiction: to conceal its emptiness. (18-9)
Confused? I certainly was. How can something exist, and yet simultaneously nothing exist—or rather, less-than-not-exist? Furthermore, who—or what—is “supplementing reality by fiction,” if (less than) nothing exists? Are (e.g.) novels being written by things that don’t exist—or perhaps by things that don’t even not exist? Does Žižek exist? If he doesn’t—or if he doesn’t-even-not-exist—then who the hell wrote the book I’m reading? What’s more, who the hell is reading it?
But perhaps, I thought, I might be able to get a better grip on the book’s central thesis by beginning with its subtitle: “Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.” As someone who’s always struggled with understanding just what, exactly, dialectical materialism consists in, I was curious to see to what extent Žižek was able to enlighten me. (Curious, but not especially hopeful.)
Here are some relevant excerpts from the book:
- Here are the very last lines of Parmenides: —’Then may we not sum up the argument in a word and say truly: If one is not, then nothing is?’— ‘Certainly.’ —’Let thus much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.’ —’Most true.’ Is this not the most succinct, minimal definition of dialectical materialism? If there is no One, just multiplicities of multiplicities, then the ultimate reality is the Void itself; all determinate things “are and are not.” (114-5)
- Buddhism thus provides a radical answer to the question “Why is there something and not nothing?”: there is only Nothing, nothing “really exists,” all “somethings,” all determinate entities, emerge only from a subjective perspectival illusion. Dialectical materialism here goes a step further: even Nothing does not exist—if by “Nothing” we mean the primordial abyss in which all differences are obliterated. What, ultimately, “there is” is only the absolute Difference, the self-repelling Gap. (599)
- [D]ialectical materialism begins with the axiom of de-centering: the sex organs involved in copulation function as “organs without bodies,” organs invested with libidinal intensity which are experienced as minimally separated from the subjects’ bodies—it is not the subjects themselves who copulate but their organs “out there.” […] This means that even (or precisely) in the most intense sexual activity, the participating subject is reduced to the role of a helpless, passive observer of its own activity, to a gaze fascinated by what is taking place…
- The true foundation of dialectical materialism is not the necessity of contingency, but the contingency of necessity. (1218)
- [According to] dialectical materialism … there is no “objective” reality, every reality is already transcendentally constituted. (1390-1)
- [O]ne cannot help noticing that, as to the positive content of Hawking’s Theory of Everything, it bears an unmistakable resemblance to dialectical materialism, or is at least fully compatible with a reasonable version of dialectical materialism. (2820)
Thus, dialectical materialism, as construed by Žižek, is the thesis that: (i) nothing exists; (ii) nothing (or Nothing) does not exist; (iii) in general, things both exist and don’t exist; however, (iv) “absolute Difference” (aka “the self-repelling Gap”) exists, while (v) objective reality definitely does not exist. It also claims—in fact, it even “begins with” the thesis—that (vi) sex (which seems to exist) is a passive experience for all sexual participants (who also seem to exist—at least while having sex). Ultimately, though, dialectical materialism’s “true foundation” is the thesis that: (vi) necessity (a concept which, presumably, exists) is contingent (a concept which also apparently exists). Oh, and if you’re still unsure what the thesis of dialectical materialism is: (vii) Hawking’s (uncompleted, and hence presumably only semi-existing) Theory of Everything “unmistakably resembles” it. So there.
Still confused? I still was. So I turned to a slightly more recent (2015) book of Žižek’s, Absolute Recoil. This book’s subtitle is: “Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism.”
I was disappointed when I discovered in the Introduction that the book “contains chapters in—not on—dialectical materialism: dialectical materialism is not the book’s topic; it is, rather, practiced within these pages” (12)—this sounded slightly hand-wavy to me. Nevertheless, I was hopeful that Žižek would provide the reader with at least some explicit definition that I could work with, to at least give me some kind of handle on what the hell Less Than Nothing (and, by extensions, Absolute Recoil) was supposed to be about.
Here are some relevant excerpts:
- [D]ialectical materialism transposes back into nature not subjectivity as such but the very gap that separates subjectivity from objective reality. (35)
- [W]hat characterizes dialectical materialism is precisely that it incorporates the idealist legacy, against vulgar democratic materialism in all its guises, from scientist naturalism to the post-Deleuzian assertion of spiritualized “vibrant” matter. Dialectical materialism is, first, a materialism without matter, without the metaphysical notion of matter as a full substantial entity—in dialectical materialism, matter “disappears” in a set of purely formal relations. Second, despite being materialism without matter, it is not idealism without an idea—it is a materialism with an Idea, an assertion of the eternal Idea outside the space of idealism. (165-6)
- For dialectical materialism … the subject is prior to the process of subjectivization: this process fills in the void (the empty form) that is the pure subject. (183)
- Dialectical materialism considers historical materialism as a specific ontology, a kind of metaphysica specialis of the social being, as the application of the universal laws of dialectics to the social sphere … (214-5)
- [D]ialectical materialism does not posit just the original multiplicity of being…. For dialectical materialism, one has to think a Two prior to multiplicity… (598)
- …[T]he position of dialectical materialism is that there is no peace even in the Void. (932)
Gone are the obscure references to the possibility—and, indeed, the actuality—of simultaneous existence and (less than) nonexistence, and of necessity being (necessarily? continently?) contingent. Now, we are told that dialectical materialism: (i) claims that matter definitely does not exist, although at least one Idea does exist; (ii) is committed to a specific metaphysical thesis regarding historical materialism; (iii) claims that “the process of subjectivization … fills the void of” “the pure subject”; (iv) affirms that the “gap” which “separates subjectivity from objective reality” (a reality which, we are apparently now led to assume, exists) is to be “transposed onto nature”; (v) that one has to think (of the number?) two before thinking of any kind of multiplicity; and (vi) peace can’t be found anywhere—let alone in the (existent? nonexistent?) Void.
Is such almost comic obscurity intentional on Žižek’s part? It’s certainly possible—though, interestingly, Žižek himself denies that it is: in the 2005 documentary Žižek!, Žižek unequivocally affirms that he’s “a total Enlightenment person. I believe in clear sentences and so on.”
On the (dubious) presumption of Žižek’s intellectual honesty, then, we are apparently left with two options:
- Žižek has expressed these ideas as close to clearly as one possibly can, but the ideas themselves are too complicated for most of us (except, e.g., Žižek) to understand;
- Žižek has honestly tried to express these ideas as clearly as he can, but he has done so in a suboptimal way (due to, for instance, a poor writing style, lack of intelligence, etc.).
Though (1) is, of course, always a possibility, I see little evidence to suggest that only Žižek, as well as, perhaps, a smattering of other Hegelian/Lacanian philosophers, are capable of grasping such ostensibly complex philosophical ideas—for the simple reason that, from what I can gather from the comprehensible part of his writing, Žižek isn’t really that smart.
To (further) illustrate this point, take the final chapter of Less Than Nothing, which is—to put it lightly—a catastrophically embarrassing foray into the philosophy of quantum mechanics (a topic I have experience teaching at university level). Here, Žižek fails to cite a single established contemporary philosopher of quantum mechanics, instead mostly relying on popular science books by Brian Greene and Steven Hawking, as well as a book on quantum mechanics by Karen Barad, a Professor of Feminist Studies, Philosophy, and the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In this chapter, Žižek ends up endorsing, with virtually no argumentation, a wildly controversial interpretation of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics—which is, in itself, an extremely controversial position to adopt in the philosophy of quantum mechanics. (According to Žižek, the Copenhagen Interpretation claims that “it is the collapse of the quantum waves in the act of perception which fixes quantum oscillations into a single objective reality” —a position which, among other things, he appears to be unaware was famously mocked by the great physicist John Bell: “Was the wavefunction of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system … with a Ph.D.?”) Žižek also makes numerous crucial technical mistakes throughout the chapter (e.g., he confuses decoherence with wave-function collapse ); and, in classic Žižekian style, he goes wildly—and I mean wildly—off topic.
Here are a few excerpts from the chapter—which, to repeat, is ostensibly about what Hegelian philosophy has to say on the philosophy of quantum mechanics:
- Perhaps aliens are already here, but just so large or so small that we do not even notice each other. (1390)
- …[W]e should insist on (sexual) difference itself as the primary fact, as the impossible Real with regard to which both positions, “masculine” and “feminine,” appear as secondary, as two attempts to resolve its deadlock. (1434)
- [I]t seems that the very diagnosis of Hamlet as an obsessional neurotic points in this direction: in contrast to hysteria which is found throughout all (at least Western) history, obsessional neurosis is a distinctly modern phenomenon. (1460)
- So, to conclude, let us recapitulate not only this chapter, but the focal point of the entire book, by taking as a starting point Ray Brassier’s question: “How does thought think the death of thinking?’ (1463)
- One has to oppose here sexuality and animal sex (copulation): animal sex is not “sexual” in the precise sense of human sexuality. (1473)
Yes, it really is this bad: further Žižekian ruminations on sex—on this occasion, animal sex—are supposed to illuminate the nature and philosophical implications of the quantum world. This would of course be amusing—if it wasn’t also an intellectual travesty.
I won’t try to give an analysis of the rest of the book, much of which is virtually indistinguishable from what one will read in essays produced by the various postmodern essay generators that one can find online (e.g., “when Meillassoux asserts contingency as the only necessity, his mistake is to conceive this assertion according to the masculine side of Lacan’s formulae of sexuation, that is, according to the logic of universality and its constitutive exception” ). So let us, instead, take a step back, and ask ourselves the obvious question: Why, in spite of his repetitiveness, his racism, his reactionary tendencies, his inconsistent beliefs, his complete inability to stick to a single topic, and his virtually self-evident charlatanism, does Žižek have such major appeal among audiences today?
This question is, I think, ill-posed. That is, I do not believe that Žižek is celebrated around the world in spite of the fact that he clearly possesses all of the negative qualities enumerated above. Rather, I suspect, he is celebrated in large part precisely because of them.
In particular, I think that his “controversial” positions on refugees and Islam are almost ideally suited to a contemporary media culture that thrives on outrage; I believe that his discursiveness is a perfect match for an age in which our attention spans are growing ever shorter (thanks, in part, to our increasing use of social media); and I suspect that the (astoundingly) repetitive nature of his writing simply isn’t a problem, and may even be beneficial, in a broader intellectual culture in which people only seldom read books. As my friend the philosopher James Williams has put it, in much in the same way that Donald Trump was the perfect “clickbait candidate,” Žižek is the ultimate “a clickbait philosopher”: ideally suited for TV sound bites, he’ll give us our commodified “radicalism,” one insane, outrageously provocative quote at a time.
That said, I doubt that there is any single reason why people like reading, watching, or listening to Žižek. Some, I suspect, take pleasure in his regular use of coarse or seedy jokes; some might like his frequent references to popular culture; others, perhaps, merely enjoy the overall effect of his physical appearance and mannerisms (his heavy accent, his lisp, his incessant tics, and his invariably disheveled look); and others, I suspect, are simply hoodwinked (by the media, by their teachers, by their friends, or even by Žižek himself) into thinking that what they are reading or listening to is truly profound thought—when, in fact, it is anything but.
This, however, still leaves several puzzles unsolved. Why, for instance, does Penguin—one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the world—continue to to publish Žižek books, and to market them as misleadingly as they do? And how is it that, for instance, Yanis Varoufakis—someone whom I generally admire—felt comfortable publicly describing Žižek’s last book, which consisted almost entirely of pervy nonsense, as “excellent.” How did this happen?
The short answer is that I don’t know—in much the same way that I don’t know why other charlatans (including, incidentally, Žižek’s hero, Jacques Lacan) throughout history became famous, were offered exorbitant book contracts, and were treated with awe and reverence by students, academics, and members of the general public.
However, what I can say with a fair amount of certainty is that the effect of Žižek’s fame is—and will likely continue to be—significantly deleterious to the global left. Right-wingers tend to mock him, and appeal to him as a textbook example of a moronic leftist Marxist intellectual (and not without some justification). At the same time, many progressivists, having been repeatedly informed (albeit sometimes only implicitly) by the media class that this is what a leftist intellectual is like, will likely be tempted by the false dilemma of: (i) trying to defend him in the name of “progressivism”—a doomed, and even dangerous enterprise; or, even worse, (ii) rejecting him and, as a result, rejecting their progressive politics or instincts.
Ultimately, what we on the left should do is what Žižek himself is only rarely capable of doing: exercise our critical faculties, and in particular notice a false dilemma when we see one. More specifically, the left should, in my view, denounce—and, preferably, renounce—Žižek as the fraudulent clown that he is, and openly and explicitly call him out as a parody of progressivism, a disgrace to academia, and the embodiment of a corrupted media system and deeply impoverished intellectual landscape.
It is a truism that today the left—and, indeed, wider human society—faces many important challenges, including addressing and limiting the future (and present) impact of climate change and consequent biodiversity loss, eliminating the ever-present (and growing) threat of nuclear war, and combating numerous forms of global inequality. The world doesn’t need to—and, arguably, cannot really afford—to provide Slavoj Žižek with a platform from which he can aimlessly pontificate about shits and farts, about pedophilic Muslims, and existent-cum-nonexistent somethings/nothings. We can do better.
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.
APPENDIX I: Argument Formalization
Below is my proposed formalization of the Žižek passage quoted at the beginning of this essay. Please send any other/better formalisations to: [email protected].
P1 Nothing fundamentally exists.
P2 Things emerge from this non-existent Nothing.
P3 Quantum mechanics, i.e., thesis that the world is a positively charged field, is true.
P4 The universe exists by mistake. [By P1, P2, and P3.]
P5 The universe existing by mistake is a cosmic catastrophe.
P6 If the universe’s existence is a cosmic catastrophe, we should try to counteract this catastrophe.
P7 The only way to counteract the universe’s being a cosmic catastrophe is to love other people.
P8 We should love other people. [By P4, P5, P6, and P7]
P9 It is impossible to love everyone.
P10 Ought implies can. [Suppressed premise.]
P11 We should love a subset of everyone (or everything) who (that) exists.
P12 To not love everyone (or everything) is evil.
Conclusion Love is evil. [By P9, P10, P11, and P12]
Corollary We should do something evil.
This formalization, though roughly accurate, ignores Žižek’s various remarks about “(cosmic) imbalances.” I have chosen to do this because I have interpreted these remarks as merely making analogies between different aspects of the argument, rather than as part of the formal argument per se.
The argument, as it stands, is obviously invalid: in particular, P1, P2, and P3 do not by themselves entail P4. Such a problem could of course be easily be remedied by supplementing the argument with the additional premise that P1, P2, and P3 entail P4. However, this would in turn increase the already significant problems with the truth of the argument’s premises, all of which —with the possible exception of P8—may legitimately be questioned, and some of which (e.g., P3) are farcical. (Also, regarding P12: Is liking stuff also evil?)
APPENDIX II: Most Preposterous Žižek quote
Choosing this was extraordinarily difficult. Initially, I was tempted to opt for my all-time favourite Žižekian world salad, which I came across in Trouble in Paradise:
[T]he negation of the Right gives us the (established) Left, but the negation of the Left does not give us the Right again, but rather a non-Left which is of the Left more than the (established) Left itself. (TP, 126).
However, this was quickly superseded by another, even more unintentionally amusing quote in the same book, in which Žižek pontificates over the virtues of onanism compared to normal sexual intercourse:
A directly pleasurable thing is probably rhythmic squeezing of oneself, masturbation maybe, and definitely not the complex effort of a full act of copulation which, again, has to be learned. (TP, 136-7)
However, the ultimate winner was decided when I began watching Žižek’s videos on YouTube, and came across a truly remarkable interview in which, for some reason, Žižek feels the need to explain the meaning of (male) homosexuality to his interviewer, Cathy Newman:
If I am gay, I am a man who wants to do it with a man.
The quote, though undoubtedly amusing on its own terms, in my view becomes the outright winner when one also takes into account (as, perhaps, one shouldn’t) Newman’s bone-dry response:
Yeah. I understand that. I mean, there are bits of your book that I found hard to grasp but that … that is clear.
Feel free to send your own favorite quotes to [email protected]
APPENDIX III: How to Write like Žižek
- Use at least one of—and preferably more than one of—the following words: obscene, obscenity, perverse, perversion, ambiguous, ambiguity, paradox, paradoxically, sex, sexuation, ideology, ideologically, (self-)negation.
- Use at least one—and preferably more than one—“emphasizing” word such as: precisely, absolutely, definitely, definitively, radically, fully, fundamentally.
- Refer to—and, preferably, allow the sentence to be interpreted as a critique of—capitalism, political correctness, “liberal” (aka insufficiently radical) leftists, or minorities (especially Muslim immigrants).
- Refer to one of—and preferably refer to more than one of—the following philosophers: Hegel, Lacan, Marx, Freud, Badiou, and/or one of the following historical figures: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Lenin.
- Make use of at least one—and preferably more than one—“technical” Hegelian/Lacanian/Badiouan/psychoanalytic concept: the Real, the Absolute, the Event, the Nothing, the Void, the non-All, the object petit a, the Transcendental, the superego.
Here are three examples:
- But is not the obscene ambiguity of capitalism precisely an Event in Badiou’s sense—that is, a paradoxical (self-)negation of the Real?
- Here we must absolutely reject the implied distinction between the ideology of Stalinism and its leftist liberal perversion; rather, we must fully embrace the inherent paradoxicality of the Hegelian Absolute
- Lacan’s theory of sexuation definitively offers an answer: the Nothing as embraced by Muslim immigrants is fundamentally obscene in more than a purely ideological sense—it is transcendentally constituted; it is radically sexualised.
Again, please feel free to send your own best efforts – or your own alternative Žižekian writing formulae – to [email protected]