This recent interview with Adam Kirsch led me back to his stringent criticisms of Slavoj Žižek. The original and most systematic can be found in Mr. Kirsch’s review of Violence and In Defense of Lost Causes. Žižek’s response to that review and then Mr. Kirsch’s rejoinder are also quite instructive. Finally, Mr. Kirsch gets in one last word, calling into question Žižek’s trustworthiness and overall credibility. Each of these are equal parts fascinating, important, and entertaining.
What is clear in these exchanges is that Mr. Kirsch despises Žižek’s central message: the radical critique of western liberalism and democracy. Mr. Kirsch wonders why more people aren’t taking Žižek seriously when he seems to call for terror, violence on a massive scale, and the destruction of modern life. His suggestion is that this is itself an intentional part of Žižek’s self-marketing:
A part of the answer has to do with Žižek’s enthusiasm for American popular culture. Despite the best attempts of critical theory to demystify American mass entertainment, to lay bare the political subtext of our movies and pulp fiction and television shows, pop culture remains for most Americans apolitical and anti-political—a frivolous zone of entertainment and distraction. So when the theory-drenched Žižek illustrates his arcane notions with examples from Nip/ Tuck and Titanic, he seems to be signaling a suspension of earnestness. The effect is quite deliberate. In The Metastases of Enjoyment, for instance, he writes that “Jurassic Park is a chamber drama about the trauma of fatherhood in the style of the early Antonioni or Bergman.” Elsewhere he asks, “Is Parsifal not a model for Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, with Laurence Fishburne in the role of Gurnemanz?” Those are laugh lines, and they cunningly disarm the anxious or baffled reader with their playfulness. They relieve his reader with an expectation of comic hyperbole, and this expectation is then carried over to Žižek’s political proclamations, which are certainly hyperbolic but not at all comic.
When, in 1994, during the siege of Sarajevo, Žižek wrote that “there is no difference” between life in that city and life in any American or Western European city, that “it is no longer possible to draw a clear and unambiguous line of separation between us who live in a ‘true’ peace and the residents of Sarajevo”—well, it was only natural for readers to think that he did not really mean it, just as he did not really mean that Jurassic Park is like a Bergman movie. This intellectual promiscuity is the privilege of the licensed jester, of the man whom The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed “the Elvis of cultural theory.”
In person, too, Žižek plays the jester with practiced skill. Every journalist who sits down to interview him comes away with a smile on his face. Robert Boynton, writing in Lingua Franca in 1998, found Žižek “bearded, disheveled, and loud … like central casting’s pick for the role of Eastern European Intellectual.” Boynton was amused to see the manic, ranting philosopher order mint tea and sugar cookies: “‘Oh, I can’t drink anything stronger than herbal tea in the afternoon,’ he says meekly. ‘Caffeine makes me too nervous.'” The intellectual parallel is quite clear: in life, as in his writing, Žižek is all bark and no bite. Like a naughty child who flashes an irresistible grin, it is impossible to stay angry at him for long.
As entertaining as all this is, however, Mr. Kirsch believes that we really ought to take Žižek seriously for a moment, if for no other reason than to form a basic rational opinion about his proposals:
Whether or not it would be always a mistake to take Slavoj Žižek seriously, surely it would not be a mistake to take him seriously just once. He is, after all, a famous and influential thinker. So it might be worthwhile to consider Žižek’s work as if he means it—to ask what his ideas really are, and what sort of effects they are likely to have.
In a world of irony and self-parody, even among the fashionable, the intelligentsia, and the elite, “there is a difference between Žižek and the other jokesters. It is that he is not really joking.” Mr. Kirsch concludes:
In this way, Žižek’s allegedly progressive thought leads directly into a pit of moral and intellectual squalor. In his New York Times piece against torture, Žižek worried thatthe normalization of torture as an instrument of state was the first step in “a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone.” This is a good description of Žižek’s own work. Under the cover of comedy and hyperbole, in between allusions to movies and video games, he is engaged in the rehabilitation of many of the most evil ideas of the last century.
Now, we should say here that we actually do appreciate much of Žižek’s project precisely because of its radical and uncompromising nature. Not because we agree with Žižek or think that his positive proposals have merit, since we emphatically do not, but rather because he does get to the heart of the issue and shows the reader one mostly consistent alternative to the status quo of modern liberalism, even if it is an intolerable and abhorrent alternative. While we do not share Žižek’s enthusiasm for paleo-Leninist Utopia, we are also not willing to say that global capitalism is the obvious and necessary safeguard, nor that it is free from serious dangers, and thus we do look for true alternatives. Mr. Kirsch is right to point out the evil in Žižek, but he would himself be greatly mistaken to simply be content with this and not going on to notice in what areas Žižek’s criticisms are themselves highlighting true evil.
Still, Mr. Kirsch is at bottom correct. We should not let smart, funny, and exciting writers off the hook simply because their evils seem improbable and comedic. We should not value intellectual titillation over responsible discourse. This is a pervasive problem across print, music, and cinema: as an audience we agree to only take seriously the aspects of the work which we deem attractive. This is always selective, of course. Were Žižek initially viewed as “Right wing” rather than far Left, then he surely would not have been given such grace. But no matter the side, the problem is the same. “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, Is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, ‘I was only joking!'” It is precisely because of the power of persuasion that such a communication style is a big deal.
The theological world has its own Žižeks, even in its conservative and Reformed wings. These thinkers propose Utopian visions which would, if taken seriously, lead to many undesirable outcomes, including outright violence. Yet it is assumed that they surely cannot mean it and must instead be working on some very sophisticated and urbane project, something overwhelming aesthetic. This is how they, like Žižek, are able to protect themselves. The difference with Žižek is that he consistently points out the futility of the aesthetic apart from the political. He is relentlessly clear that his proposals call for action. It will be interesting to see if the theologians ever do take themselves seriously enough to call for action, and if so, whether anyone will then take them seriously.