“The Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West – To Himself: Slavoj Žižek and the Perils of Popularity”
**Draft Copy—Not for circulation or citation without permission**
More and more, it seems, Slavoj Žižek is everywhere. Granted, he is not yet a household name on a par with other public intellectuals like Paul Krugman or Cornell West, much less with popular pundits like Thomas Friedman, Arianna Huffington or – to move even further into the twilight realm where punditry, politics, and celebrity begin queasily to overlap – Keith Olbermann or Glenn Beck. Still, Žižek indubitably stands at the very forefront of the very small corps of intellectuals who simultaneously maintain their academic productivity and have developed a public persona, following, and presence.
Of course, in the academic world, Žižek has been a veritable star ever since the 1989 publication of his first English-language text, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso); subsequently, his books, articles, and edited collections have appeared semi-annually if not more frequently. Recently, moreover, Žižek has been supplementing his academic publications and lectures with a stunning variety of public pronouncements and appearances, delivered in what nearly amounts to a full-spectrum media blitz. Even as he continues to work primarily with the vigorously left-wing press Verso, several of his most recent books -- Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (Picador, 2008) and How to Read Lacan (Norton, 2007) – have been published by mainstream imprints in series aimed at popular reading audiences. In newspapers and magazines, he has steadily written columns and opinion pieces, now numbering into the double digits, on contemporary events, especially for British publications like The Guardian and the London Review of Books, but also for prestigious North American outlets like The New York Times.[i] On film, he has been the sole subject of two documentaries (Žižek! [2006; dir. Astra Taylor] and The Reality of the Virtual [2004; dir. Ben Wright]), the host of a third (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema [2007; dir. Sophie Fiennes]), and has been prominently featured in at least one more (The Examined Life [2009; dir. Astra Taylor]). Multiple clips from these films, along with those of many more interviews and lecture appearances (including in the “Authors@Google” and “RSAnimates” series), can now be found on Youtube, where many register tens of thousands of views.[ii] Finally, how many other living thinkers can boast of having an entire academic journal devoted to studying and contextualizing their still-growing body of work? (I refer to the International Journal of Žižek Studies, founded in 2006.)[iii]
As regular readers of Žižek will know, not every one of these interventions is unique; on the contrary, like Oscar Wilde before him, Žižek routinely borrows from himself, enthusiastically and unapologetically recycling (and frequently remediating) his characteristically polemical observations and paradoxical-sounding insights. Indeed, Žižek’s propensity to redeploy the same parable-like jokes, punch-lines, and examples has itself become something of a running joke. Whereas this habit of self-plagiarization is often explained – even by Žižek himself – as a function of his neurotic-obsessive need to write quickly and continually,[iv] however, today I want to consider it as a symptom, not of Žižek’s psychology (however fascinating it may be), but rather of his ambition. Indeed, I propose that the increasingly recursive nature of Žižek’s public writings and appearances is one symptom – or, to use a less freighted term, one by-product – of the ongoing enlargement of his profile as a celebrity public intellectual.[v]
I wish to dismiss at the outset, however, those lines of argument – including, again, Žižek’s own occasional comments to this effect – that his drive to augment his public profile is purely or even primarily a function of narcissism or greed. No doubt, Žižek thrives on being controversial and polemical in a way that requires a degree of public visibility – a fact to which I will return momentarily. And, no doubt, he pulls in an annual income that far exceeds the salaries of most academics. But if Žižek truly wanted to “sell out” or “cash in,” as some have suggested, there is also no doubt he could do so in ways that would require much less effort and, for that matter, produce much more profit.
So let us proceed on the assumption that Žižek sincerely wishes to enlarge his public profile in order that his brand of radical criticism may reach a greater audience – in order, that is, to further what Žižek himself has recently termed the “hard work on our own ideological underground” that will in turn facilitate “emancipatory struggle.”[vi] In this context, the question now becomes: is Žižek succeeding in his stated aims? This is, of course, a very large question. For my part today, I am interested to think about what is being lost, sacrificed, or otherwise disseminated (in the Derridean sense) in Žižek’s quest to gain mainstream traction for his ideas. The epithet I have modified for the surtitle of my talk, associated with a notorious review by Adam Kirsch in The New Republic attacking several of Žižek’s monographs, exemplifies the way in which Žižek’s thought, as it has begun to reach a larger, non-academic audience, is being systematically and seriously misunderstood.[vii] Of course, as anyone who has picked up one of his recent books knows, Žižek (or at least his publisher) has cannily taken Kirsch’s attempt at a term of opprobrium and proudly used it as puffery.[viii] My own final twist on the phrase, however, is meant to signify my concern that, despite or perhaps precisely because of Žižek’s desire to reach an ever-larger audience (a desire that, characteristically, he has recently disavowed[ix]), he is choosing or being forced to modify – usually, to simplify – his ideas and opinions to the point where they openly invite misapprehension, confusion, or worse. At a time when the mainstream media, especially in North America, seems more than usually prone to hysterical conservatism and reactionary anti-intellectualism, Žižek’s adaptations of his complex philosophical positions for mainstream consumption run the risk of further alienating the very public he seems determined to reach.
There are a number of explanations for the degree of celebrity that Žižek has achieved. Until recently, his writing has consistently been both improbably dense and extremely learned – so much so that even Geoffrey Galt Harpham, one of Žižek’s loudest academic critics, has openly conceded that Žižek is “the most extraordinary scholarly mind of his generation”[x] – yet at the same time, it has always been larded with entertaining examples taken quite self-consciously from popular culture, especially Hollywood. Moreover, although Harpham has accused Žižek of an impersonal writing style, “A bristling, dazzling surface with no tantalizing intimations of hidden depths or partially concealed subjectivity” (93), I would argue that in fact the reverse is true: part of Žižek’s appeal has long lain in the passionate intensity of his writing -- not just the openness of his intellectual excitement, but also the explicitness of his political commitments. Indeed, Harpham is probably closer to unraveling the secret of Žižek’s success when he observes that Žižek’s very method of argumentation – his “cascading” use of examples, his obsessive return to the same set of theoretical problems and solutions – makes his work essentially “para-academic,” that is, outside the norm of Western academic practice.[xi] Precisely because he has never been bound by many of the conventions that govern academic writing and argument, Žižek has perhaps found it easier than others to engage specialist and non-specialist audiences simultaneously. His more recent excursions into partially or wholly non-academic communication outlets (columns, op-eds, documentaries, book signings), then, is arguably a logical extension of his long-held convictions regarding the mutual imbrications of high and low culture, academic and popular subject matters, [and even critical theory and revolutionary practice].
As Žižek has moved more aggressively into more popular media, moreover, it makes sense that he has recently begun to modulate the vocabulary and tenor of his remarks and insights to accommodate a more expansive, less specialized audience. Many times, such code-shifting is quite straightforward, and results in only minimal leakage of meaning. From the start, for example, Žižek has vigorously defended his frequent use of Hollywood movies as examples of psychoanalytic phenomena or ideological devices; but whereas in Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, first published by Routledge in 1992, he explains his method by stating (presumably for an all-academic readership) that “to put it in Hegelese: Hollywood is conceived as a ‘phenomenology’ of the Lacanian Spirit, its appearing for the common consciousness,”[xii] almost two decades later, in a recent interview with The Times of India, this justification has been translated into more accessible terms: “The Hollywood products are the best indicators of where we are moving in our collective ideology. If you look at reality, it’s confusing, but in Hollywood you get the distilled version of reality.” My point is not that the earlier statement is true and the later one false, since both have arguably been operative in Žižek’s methodology from the start; in this case, it is simply a matter of Žižek choosing which of his justifications makes the most sense in a given media context.
In other cases, however, the matter is less clear. Certainly, Žižek’s attempts to speak to a broader audience have run into intellectual resistance on several fronts simultaneously. Kirsch, for example, has accused Žižek of knowingly softening or concealing the radical nature of his left-wing political convictions for the purposes of entering the mainstream media.[xiii] Meanwhile, from near the other end of the political spectrum, Simon Critchley and others have attacked Žižek on a variety of grounds for being insufficiently committed to the praxis of radical change.[xiv] It would seem, in other words, that as he tries to expand his popular appeal, Žižek is running into the classic dilemma of disappointing everyone: far too radical for the conservative mainstream, yet not militant enough for the left intelligentsia, Žižek has now essentially been accused of a Sartrean bad faith by both sides at once.[xv]
Even such accusations of bad faith, however, still depend on a certain degree of familiarity with the body of Žižek’s academically oriented writings. The ultimate success or failure of Žižek’s attempts to gain a larger audience for his ideas, however, arguably rests on the reception of his newer, more accessible pronouncements – his editorials, public lectures, interviews, documentary appearances, and so forth. Certainly, whatever other changes he may be making to attempt to reach a non-specialist audience, Žižek has not abandoned one of his favorite rhetorical strategies: the polemical, often counter-intuitive assertion. Thus, in the past several years alone, one finds the following attention-grabbing statements:
On the subject of the ecological movement, in the 2008 documentary Examined Life (dir. Astra Taylor): “So I think what we should do to confront properly the threat of ecological catastrophe is not this New Age stuff of breaking through from this technologically manipulative mood to find our roots in nature, but, on the contrary, to cut off even more our roots in nature.”[xvi]
On the question of how Hitler could be understood to have been “not violent enough,” in a 2009 public letter responding to Kirsch’s review: “In this precise sense of violence, Ghandi was more violent than Hitler: Ghandi’s movement effectively endeavored to interrupt the basic functioning of the British colonial sense.”[xvii]
On the relationship between public and private, in a September 2010 interview with the online magazine io9: “These are problems of the commons, the resources we collectively own or share. Nature is commons, biogenetics is commons, intellectual property is commons. So how did Bill Gates become the richest man on earth? We are paying him rent. He privatized part of the ‘general intellect,’ the social network of communication – it’s a new enclosure of the commons.”[xviii]
For those of us familiar with the intellectual traditions which Žižek regularly adapts and deploys, such statements may make a certain amount of immediate sense. His assertion that the contemporary ecological crisis can only be properly confronted if we “cut off even more our roots in nature,” for instance, is itself thoroughly rooted in a tradition of ideological critique reaching back to Feuerbach and Marx; the statements on Ghandi’s systemic violence draw on Žižek’s own book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, whose subtitle in turn echoes his early Lacanian study, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture; the remarks about Bill Gates draw on a long tradition of Marxian thought regarding the essentially exploitative nature of capitalism, as well as the newer, Spinozist-inspired work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.
In Žižek’s full-length books, such influences are often closer to the surface, and his naturally effusive writing style usually facilitates a fuller exposition of his ideas’ intellectual origins (if not always their practical ramifications). Very little or none of this, however, is made apparent or explicit in the examples I’ve just quoted. Thus, for those who are encountering Žižek’s ideas for the first time in these popular -- and therefore of necessity relatively compressed – formats, and who also probably lack familiarity with Žižek’s favored intellectual sources (especially Lacan, Marx, and Hegel) and strategies (especially the dialectic, but also irony and hyperbole), the effect may be startling, to say the least. By way of example, let me cite the following passages from just the first few of the many approving comments left by online readers of Kirsch’s notorious review – a self-selecting group, to be sure, but also one that seems particularly likely to be unfamiliar with the vast body of Žižek’s oeuvre: “Lefties, get over yourselves”; “Really excellent article, a brilliant unmasking of that disgusting man”; “Why such a pseudo-sophisticated nutcase gets so much attention is something a good psychoanalyst might be able to figure out”; “This Žižek is a type [or] specimen of the kind of unworldly silliness that infects and degrades academia like a terminal drug habit.”[xix]
The virulence and spleen characteristic of anonymous online comments are certainly well exemplified by this selection (which could have been much lengthier). Of most interest for my purposes, however, is the driving idea of the last commenter I quoted: that Žižek represents all that is stereotypically “bad” about academics in general, and left-wing academics in particular. This idea, in fact, runs like a red thread through many of the comments on Kirsch’s review and, moreover, through many of the online comments generated by other pieces by or relating to Žižek; again and again, commentators assert that Žižek exemplifies some characteristic combination of idealism, elitism, cynicism, dogmatism, and/ or totalitarianism (to arrange the most common epithets in what I take to be ascending order of condemnation).
These responses confirm, in essence, the core of my concerns regarding the cost of Žižek’s growing public profile. In his quest for mainstream attention, Žižek has decided (or been forced by the nature of today’s soundbite-oriented media) mostly to jettison the theoretical framework – his unique synthesis of Lacanian psychoanalysis, German idealism, and Marxism – that gives his political views and insights their consistency and coherence. Removed from the clarifying and deepening intellectual context in which they operate most effectively, his characteristically pugnacious and counter-intuitive arguments thus tend, at best, to lend themselves to misreading, and at worst, to reinforce stereotypes already nursed by a public that is frequently given (at least in America) to suspicion of intellectuals, especially of the left-wing variety.
Take, for example, Žižek’s provocative interpretation of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal – that the American soldiers were de facto initiating their prisoners into American culture, through what amounted to a series of degrading hazing rituals.[xx] For those of us familiar with Žižek’s previous deployments of Lacanian concepts like jouissance or the essential imposture of the Master, this interpretation is comprehensible, even logical, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with it. However, for readers who lack (or, possibly, simply reject the validity of) such a framework, it is not hard to see why they -- like Kirsch – would be horrified by Žižek’s claim that the Abu Ghraib episode represents “a direct insight . . . into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the U.S. way of life.”[xxi] The fact that “obscene enjoyment” here refers to a psychoanalytic state of affairs – the necessary obverse of the Ego’s official position – and therefore is not specific to “the U.S. way of life” can hardly be expected to be understood by the average reader. In fact, the expanded version of this argument in Žižek’s book Violence does contain a short discussion of the Lacanian principles underpinning this interpretation, but it is highly compressed and awkwardly inserted into the middle of a typically Žižekian digression on several Hollywood films with similar structures. Kirsch, of course, simply reproduces the most superficially outrageous-sounding bits of Žižek’s argument – and thus elicits predictable howls of outrage.
Doubtless, Žižek is hardly the first academic to discover that increasing celebrity is often accompanied by increasing public misapprehension and even condemnation; Jean Baudrillard and Edward Said spring to mind as immediate forerunners in this regard at least. Lately, Žižek has been striking a defiant tone, telling The Times of India that he doesn’t care whether the mainstream dismisses him as “not serious” or demonizes him as “threatening” and “dangerous.” But then what, we might ask, is a public intellectual without her or his public – especially if, as I have tried to suggest here, the only people who can properly appreciate (and, I should add, critically interrogate) Žižek’s public pronouncements are those who are already deeply familiar (if not also largely sympathetic) with the assumptions and concepts behind those very pronouncements? Almost two decades ago, Said himself asserted that “One task of the intellectual is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication.”[xxii] But what if, in the process of attempting to do so, that same intellectual inadvertently reinforces the very “stereotypes and reductive categories” surrounding intellectuals themselves?
In March of 2008, Žižek gave a much-anticipated presentation at the CUNY Graduate Center, timed to reflect the 40th anniversary of the May ’68 upheavals. The glossy promotional poster, which encouraged people to attend this “rare NYC talk,” featured a prominent by-line in aggressive capital letters: “RESIST[;] ATTACK[;] UNDERMINE.” The accompanying illustration, which took up most of the poster, was equally eye-catching: in the background, old-fashioned bi-planes swarmed, while in the foreground, threatening to burst out of the frame, a creature with Žižek’s (photoshopped) head and the body of a giant ape ran amok in downtown Manhattan. Especially given Žižek’s well-known fascination with Hollywood films, at first glance the image could not seem more apt. And yet everyone knows the fate of King Kong: driven mad by desire, yet unable to communicate effectively with the humans around him, Kong certainly gets the attention of the masses with his destructive antics – only to die, angry and alone, in a hail of machine-gun fire. Alas, in real terms, the great ape’s greatest success was to mobilize the forces of counter-revolution against him. Let’s hope Žižek shares neither the same fate, nor the same success.
Evan Gottlieb, Oregon State University
[i] Zizek has been conspicuously absent from “The Stone,” the new philosophy column in The New York Times moderated by Simon Critchley – possibly due to Zizek’s very public disagreements with Critchley over their political and philosophical differences.
[ii] A basic Google search for “Zizek” turns up approximately 1.3 million hits; small change compared to, say, Brittney Spears, Kobe Bryant, or J.K. Rowling, but still significant for an accredited intellectual.
[iii] See also the ever-increasing number of scholarly monographs devoted in part or whole to explicating and analyzing Zizek’s work.
[iv] See, for example, Leigh Claire LaBerge, “The Writing Cure: Slavoj Zizek, Analysand of Modernity,” in The Truth of Zizek, eds. Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp (London: Continuum, 2007), 9-26.
[v] As far back as 2003, Geoffrey Galt Harpham was complaining in Critical Inquiry that he did not know how to respond to Zizek’s rejoinder to Harpham’s critique of Zizek’s method, given that the latter’s piece appeared to be composed primarily of stitched-together passages from previous work. One cannot help but wonder whether this was a purposeful joke on Zizek’s part! See Harpham, “Response to Slavoj Zizek,” Critical Inquiry 29 (Spring 2003): 504.
[vi] Zizek, “Tolerance as an Ideological Category,” Critical Inquiry 34 (Summer 2008):682.
[vii] In fact, the term “the most dangerous philosopher in the West” does not appear anywhere in the body of Kirsch’s original review, and Kirsch now claims that the phrase is a misprision of the initial “cover line” for the review: “the most despicable philosopher in the West” (Kirsch, “Zizek Strikes Again,” The New Republic, July 26 2010, (accessed 11/10/10). “Dangerous,” however, is indeed the adjective Kirsch himself used in the title of his response to Zizek’s published letter of complaint; see Kirsch, “Disputations: Still the Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West – A Reply to Slavoj Zizek,” The New Republic, Jan. 7 2009, (accessed 11/10/10).
[viii] While it is possible that it was Verso, and not Zizek himself, who decided to use the insult as publicity on Zizek’s subsequent books, Zizek himself is clearly well aware of the phrase’s redolence, since he alludes to it specifically at the beginning of a recent interview in The Times of India (“First they called me a joker, now I am a dangerous thinker,” Jan. 10, 2010, [accessed 11/10/2010]).
[ix] In a recent interview in The New Statesman, Zizek claims that he is tired of writing “political” work, and is currently devoting himself to his true passion, a massive philosophical tome on Hegel. While this may be true, in the meantime his production of opinion pieces and public appearances does not appear to have slowed.
[x] Harpham, “Criticism as Symptom: Slavoj Zizek and the End of Knowledge,” in The Character of Criticism (Routledge: New York and London, 2006), 94.
[xi] Harpham, “Criticism as Symptom,” 86, 94.
[xii] Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), xi.
[xiii] See Kirsch, “Disputations.”
[xiv] See, for example, Simon Critchley’s “Foreword: Why Zizek Must Be Defended,” in The Truth of Zizek, as well as many of the essays therein.
[xv] This, of course, is a charge that Zizek in turn is happy to lob back at his critics; see, for example, his direct response to Kirsch’s review, “Disputations: Who Are You Calling Anti-Semitic?,” The New Republic Jan. 7, 2009,
[xvi] Zizek, “Ecology,” in Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, ed. Astra Taylor (New York: The New Press, 2009), 161.
[xvii] Zizek, “Disputations: Who Are You Calling Anti-Semitic?” Zizek makes the same provocative claim again – although this time using the opposite logic (that Ghandi was more violent than Hitler because the former’s actions effectively caused the British to stay longer in India) – in the above-cited interview with The Times of India.
[xix] See the “Comments” section of Kirsch, “The Deadly Jester.”
[xx] Zizek, “Between Two Deaths – The Culture of Torture,” 16Beaver, June 26 2004, http://www.16beavergroup.org/
mtarchive/archives/001084.php (accessed 10/12/10). An expanded version of the same argument subsequently appeared in Zizek’s Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 171-76.
[xxi] Zizek, Violence, 176; quoted in Kirsch, “Deadly Jester.”
[xxii] Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Vintage, 1994), xi.