Sound, Fury and Not Much Else

Slovenia’s second most famous export, Slavoj Žižek, gets full marks for effort, but his 1970s dialectic seems a bit retro

Books

Slavoj Žižek: His work is a blur of non-sequiturs and weighty quotations (Matthew Tsimitak CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 155 BC, the Athenians sent a delegation to Rome. Carneades, the leading academic sceptic of the day, was one of the ambassadors. He gave an oration on the importance of justice, a speech which made a huge impression on the listeners, who were swayed by Carneades’ formidable rhetoric and reasoning. The next day, Carneades argued against the concept of justice, again convincing everyone with his flawless logic. Carneades’ tongue so scared the Romans that they sent him packing.

Carneades was of course trying to make a serious point about the difficulty of knowledge, but from the very beginning of philosophy, sophistry, in the pejorative, bullshit, sense of the word, has always been lurking in the sophy.

Is Slavoj Žižek a philosopher? Well, he has a beard, which is a good start. He has achieved an exalted status in much of the academic world in the last few years, where many in the humanities seem to take his outpourings seriously. Žižek does describe himself as such on the flyleaf of his latest opus Disparities, to wit a “Hegelian philosopher”, but goes on to add he is “a Lacanian psychoanalyst and a Communist”. Žižek is also International Director at the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities. I have no problem with his appointment, but I wonder if Birkbeck would be willing to appoint a loud-and-proud fascist to a similar position, and before anyone starts arguing that Communism is morally superior to fascism, they should have a look at 20th-century history.

When I read this stuff about Lacan and Communism, I can’t help feeling Žižek is fessing up to his true nature. If I had any doubts they were dispelled by the introduction, where Žižek refers to Louis Althusser, the wife-strangling French Marxist, and his notion that philosophy is the class struggle in the field of theory. You can’t write that unless you’re either having a laugh or you’re as thick as a plank, and I don’t think Žižek is thick.

The only good thing about the late Communist bloc of Eastern Europe, I’d maintain, was the education system. It was a no-nonsense system where you knew the answers or you failed the exam. And there were lots of exams. No coursework, no self-expression, no mania for making things fun or easy. No worrying about hurting students’ feelings. There was none of the sick-note culture that now pervades universities in Britain where every other student is dyslexic, depressed, or having gender reassignment and gets dispensation as a result. Žižek is a product of that system and the small country (Slovenia) he comes from.

He clearly has a mastery of English, French and German. He is astonishingly well-read. I can’t think of anyone else who would bring in Rowan Williams, Céline, Racine, Mallarmé, G.K. Chesterton, Lenin, the German philosophers and mix them up with the Alien and Star Wars films.

Disparities, however, isn’t a book for civilians. If you’re not up on your Hegel and your dialectical materialism you won’t even get a foothold. (And is anyone really up on Hegel? All that Begriff and Vorstellung, the Handlung and the Tat, or dialectical materialism where theoreticians have wasted their entire lives striving to get even more proletarian.)

Apart from the generous helpings of hefty philosophical structures, Žižek’s trick is to move fast. It’s like the old cups and ball con you see on street corners in which you have to guess which cup is hiding the ball, but Žižek’s legerdemain is so fast, not only do you not know where the ball is, Žižek doesn’t even need a ball. Disparities is a blur of non-sequiturs and weighty quotations used as stun grenades to prevent readers from noticing that nothing much is being said and there’s little coherence between paragraphs.

Take the introduction: Žižek argues that Hegel’s thought is like a kraken, a giant squid that exerts influence from the black abyss. OK, Hegel’s thought has had an important influence on politics and philosophy, not at all obvious to the present-day fresher or man in the street. Then Žižek points out that the “first” philosopher, Thales of Miletus, believed everything was made out of water, you know, where krakens live. Relevance to first analogy? Zero.

Then we are told the “awakened Kraken” that has come to the surface in recent times is “a perfect image of global Capital”. I can go along with the tentacles business, but capital has been around for quite a while, as Karl Marx noted, and I’ve never seen Wall Street as a particularly shadowy, hidden entity. I would have thought a film buff like Žižek would know they have made films about it, many actually called Wall Street. Relevance to first analogy? Zero.

The Kraken is an overriding motif to the book, and Bloomsbury has helpfully put an illustration of a menacing cephalopod on the cover to ram this home. But it’s free association; it’s as if someone asked Žižek to list a dozen things he associates with a large tentacled creature. An interesting, but incoherent jumble.

Against The Double Blackmail is a very different book. Much shorter, it also has the clarity of a newspaper column. Of the Left, Žižek nevertheless has a go at many on the Left who he feels have no adequate response to the refugee/migrant crisis. Žižek argues: “The ultimate cause of refugees is today’s global capitalism itself and its geopolitical games.” He ends the book, “Let’s bring class struggle back”, acknowledging “maybe such global solidarity is a utopia”. Here at least Žižek is saying something clearly, even if, in the opinion of this reviewer, it’s completely inane.

Nevertheless, Žižek has to be given full marks for effort. There is also Antigone, Žižek’s remix of Sophocles’ play, which comes with a foreword by Hanif Kureishi, and a introduction by Žižek nearly as long as the play (and which, if you don’t know Paul Claudel’s play L’Otage, isn’t going to make much sense). I have to say Žižek’s version reads well on the page, but whether it has dramatic legs I can’t tell.

These books left me with admiration for Žižek’s industry and education, if not his substance. If Socrates was a gadfly, Žižek is a dotty bumblebee flitting from one notion to another. His wizardry with cut-and-paste is impressive, and it’s not his fault that there are simpletons in the academic world who take him seriously, because I doubt he takes himself seriously. Look at the gurning photo of Žižek at the back of Against the Double Blackmail and surely he’s giving the careful observer another wink: “Yes, I am the Communist clown” — although he’s missing the red nose, which in his case would be especially pertinent.

If you want a proper cerebral read I’d recommend Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Inequality, which is a more thoughtful assessment of poverty than Žižek’s, or indeed Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, which came to mind when I was perusing Disparities.

Žižek’s big on Shakespeare, so let me close in Žižekian fashion with a quotation from Macbeth that sums up his work: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But, hey, classy sound and fury, and love the retro 1970s dialectic.