Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Slavoj Žižek Is All Over the Internets

So who the hell is this Slavoj Žižek guy, this apparent rock star of philosophy who turns up all over the internet? There was even a story on Huffington Post about a Facebook page devoted to drafting Zizek to host Saturday Night Live. Hmmm . . . I thought to myself. First Betty White and now Slavoj Žižek - he must be cool.

So, I turned to Wikipedia to find out:

It was not until the 1989 publication of his first book written in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, that Žižek achieved international recognition as a social theorist. Since then, he has continued to develop his status as a confrontational intellectual. One of Žižek's most-widely discussed books, The Ticklish Subject (1999), explicitly positions itself against Deconstructionists, Heideggerians, Habermasians, cognitive scientists, and what Žižek describes as New Age "obscurantists".

One of the problems in outlining Žižek's work and ideas is that he seems to change his theoretical position (for instance, on the question of whether Lacan is a structuralist or poststructuralist) between books and sometimes even within the pages of one book. Because of this, some of his critics have accused him of inconsistency and lacking intellectual rigor. However, Ian Parker claims that there is no "Žižekian" system of philosophy because Žižek, with all his inconsistencies, is trying to make us think much harder about what we are willing to believe and accept from a single writer (Parker, 2004). Indeed, Žižek himself defends Jacques Lacan for constantly updating his theories, arguing that it is not the task of the philosopher to act as the Big Other who tells us about the world but rather to challenge our own ideological presuppositions. The philosopher, for Žižek, is more someone engaged in critique than someone who tries to answer questions.[12]

However, this claim about the role of the philosopher/theorist is complicated by how Žižek frequently derides the consumerist fashionability of postmodern cultural criticism while affirming his universal emancipatory stance and love for "grand explanations" (Žižek, 2008). In contrast to Parker, Adrian Johnston's book Zizek's Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity argues against the position that Žižek's thought has no consistency or underlying project. Specifically, Johnston claims in his Preface that beneath "what could be called 'the cultural studies Žižek'" is a singular "philosophical trajectory that runs like a continuous, bisecting diagonal line through the entire span of his writing (i.e. the retroactive Lacanian reconstruction of the chain Kant-Schelling-Hegel)." Žižek's affirmation of this claim suggests that like his predecessor Hegel, Žižek's work is better described as rigorous in the sense of systematic rather than as comprising a single, all-encompassing "system."

Hmmm . . . I bet he would have a totally postmodern, self-reflexive monologue deconstructing monologues in general and the meta-theoretical construct upon which the idea of an opening is situated within the cultural zeitgeist. Man, that would be funny.

Anyway, here are some recent articles from around the web and from the journal devoted to talking about Zizek. Seems that Zizek is not a postmodernist, does not reject the big Other, and still frames some of his work in Marxist terminology.

Living in the End Times by Slavoj Žižek

Steven Poole on Slavoj Žižek's omnivorous analyses

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has an admirable form of reply to the near-continuous dribble of attacks on him, whether from the bienpensant liberals he so enjoys provoking, or even, as last year in the conservative American magazine the New Republic, a crazed and borderline illiterate review alleging that Žižek was a "fascist" and also anti-semitic. He simply writes another book.

Living in the End Times, by Slavoj Zizek
432pp, Verso, £20

In this latest installment of his cliffhanging Saturday-morning philosophical escapades, Žižek announces: "The global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point." End-times thinking has a long and rather unimpressive history as prediction, but Žižek adopts it anyway (perhaps as a useful lie), organising his material via Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), which are supposed to describe our stages of response to the incipient doom.

The result is, as usual, a compendium of long passages of fierce brilliance, interspersed with occasional frustrating sketchiness. There are scintillating discussions of counterfactual history (why is it dominated by conservative historians?), Radovan Karadžic and the "poetico-military complex" in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, and the conflict between Dutch gays and Muslims (deconstructed as a "pseudo-struggle"). Žižek is consistently penetrating on the depredations suffered by poor countries such as Haiti: "Whenever we are tempted by the fascinating spectacle of third world violence," he concludes, "we should always take a self-reflexive turn and ask ourselves how we ourselves are implicated in it."

Occasionally, though, one winces: at a muddled stereotype of "Oriental wisdom", crudely contrasted to Christianity, or an argument about "harassment" in Britain that is apparently ignorant of the statutory definition. Discussing the idea of a "basic income" for all, Žižek seems just to get bored, eventually dismissing it on the vague grounds that it is "utopian". His book endorses "a return to the critique of political economy", yet it seems that this proposal, which would concretely improve the situation of the poor, does not offer enough purchase for a dazzling performance of the revaluation of all values to detain Žižek's delightfully promiscuous attention for very long.

Read more. Next up, also from The Guardian, an interview.

Slavoj Žižek: interview

The Marxist provocateur and bestselling philosopher on communism, poststructural theory and his reluctance to play poster boy for the fashionable European left

By Sean O'Hagan

A clip from Astra Taylor's film Examined Life which features Slavoj Zizek

The large lecture hall of the French Institute in Barcelona is full to overflowing. People line the walls, sit in the aisles and stand three-deep at the back. There are a few middle-aged, smartly dressed people in attendance as well as a handful of old leftists with long hair and caps, but the majority of the audience are young and stylishly dishevelled, the kind of people one would expect to see at a Hot Chip or Vampire Weekend gig.

They have gathered here to listen to a 61-year-old Slovenian philosopher called Slavoj Žižek, whose critique of global capitalism now stretches to more than 50 books translated into more than 20 languages. Žižek describes himself as "a complicated communist" and, as if to complicate things further, he deploys the psychoanalytical theories of the late French thinker Jacques Lacan to illustrate the ways in which capitalist ideology works on the collective imagination. "I don't give clear answers to even the simplest, most direct questions," Žižek says. "I like to complicate issues. I hate simple narratives. I suspect them. This is my automatic reaction."

Žižek's book titles reflect his playful and often self-contradictory theoretical thrust. They include: The Ticklish Subject, which deals with "the spectre of the Cartesian subject in western thought"; The Plague of Fantasies, which analyses the ways in which "audiovisual media clouds the ability to reason and understand the world"; and the wonderfully titled Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, a fierce critique of "the liberal-democratic consensus".

He seems drawn to taking unfashionable stances that make him unpopular with traditionalists of whatever political hue. A recent book, In Defence of Lost Causes, argued that, in philosophical-political terms, Heidegger's fascist sympathies and Foucault's support of the Iranian revolution were "right steps in the wrong direction". Rebecca Mead, writing in the New Yorker, dubbed him "the Marx Brother" and described his approach thus: "His favoured form of argument is paradox, and his favoured mode of delivery is a kind of vaudevillian overstatement, buttressed by the appearance of utter conviction." That just about nails it – except that it overlooks the seriousness of Žižek's thinking and the way he has managed to bring dialectics into the mainstream.

"Slavoj is unique in that he operates between two different and, for the most part, exclusive, places," says the film-maker Sophie Fiennes, who directed him in The Pervert's Guide to the Cinema, a documentary that is as provocative as its title suggests, but in a strictly intellectual way. "He has been incredibly successful in taking theory out of the ivory tower of academia and into the world. He challenges the current fear of words like 'ideology' and, correctly in my view, sees this fear as a product of our information culture. It is also, he argues, a fear of what real, deep political thinking might generate in terms of unrest and discontent."

Read more.

The Notes Taken also reviews Living in the End Times:
I complain about Žižek, but the very things about which he frustrates me are the things that keep me coming back for more. I do enjoy a good cultural critique, especially one that's counterintuitive. I just can't shake the feeling every time I finish one of his books that I've been had.
Spectrum, from the Tribune India, reviews Philosophy in the Present, by Alain Badiou and Žižek:

Philosophy in the PresentALAN Badiou and Slavoj Žižek are Europe’s two most eminent philosophers who have in their recent book brought philosophy out of the closet, bang into the arena of everyday affairs. Philosophy’s ethical and political intervention is so necessary to at least know what questions we are asking and to also face up to the fact that we are sometimes asking the wrong questions.

Badiou teaches philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure and College International de Philosophie in Paris, whereas Žižek is professor at the European Graduate School, and at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. I cannot imagine any student of philosophy or political theory doing without confronting two of the most controversial thinkers of modern times who have written much on communism, on Sarkozy, on ethics and Metapolitics. Their desire to reconceptualise philosophy as an imaginative substitute to the empty theoretical position of the New Left, a thesis so well argued here in this book, gives a galvanising call to political leaders to engage the minds of philosophers in discussing political and social issues.

Such was the practice followed by President Francois Mitterrand who "positioned himself in a long tradition in which enlightened power sought to come closer to the philosophers and to draw legitimacy from this proximity". Philosophy to Badiou is both intervention and commitment and cannot be relegated to the dry areas of classroom teaching. Philosophy for him "is concerned with novel, extraordinary truths, and yet speaks in the name of all". This is indeed a universal feature of philosophy which can enable a far better understanding of not only the serious issues confronting mankind but also lead to a more positive and engaging dialogue. Žižek agrees with this postulation and further discusses how philosophy can move us beyond the mere "normal" or "moderate" aspects of our reality.


Vol 4, No 1 (2010)

Žižek and Ideology - Guest Editors: Heiko Feldner and Fabio Vighi

This one looks good to me, among the many interesting articles:

Habermas avec Žižek*

Ricardo Camargo – Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile

Habermas's Inter-Subjective Approach to the Truth

The starting point of Habermas is that the foundation of a social order rests on an inter-subjective basis, which is explained by the natural telos of reaching understanding attributed to language, expressed in human speech, as he says, 'reaching understanding is the inherent telos of human speech' (Habermas, 2004, 287). Habermas's approach assumes that the basic function of language is to help individuals to coordinate their actions, through the mobilization of shared and accepted meanings. As it is well known this is a pragmatic and inter-subjective function rather than an essentialist–objectivist one. Therefore, the meaning of any linguistic utterance is given by its underlying reason, which can be accepted (therefore shared and known) or not by all individuals interacting in a communicative action. Furthermore, Habermas asserts that each act of speech always involves certain validity claims, which are a sort of commitment that a speaker assumes to rationally justify his/her speech. A validity claim — said Habermas — must be grounded in experience and 'must be able to hold up against all counterarguments and command the assent of all potential participants in a discourse' (Habermas, 2001, 89). They are of three types: truthfulness, truth and rightness.¹ In other words, in each act of speech, the speaker must be in a position to give reasons (which means that there must be reasons) to justify that he is sincere in his communication (truthfulness), and that what he is saying is true and right.

It is worthwhile noting that the validity of the reasons referred is only reached when the hearer accepts them as a satisfactory foundation of the speech, and thus the coordination of actions mobilized by the meaning of the utterance takes place. In other words, although Habermas asserts a rationalist basis for a communicative action, he uses a notion of rationality that is assumed to be an inter-subjective pragmatic construction (Habermas, 2004, Vol. I, 308–309). This notion is very far from the tradition of an enlightened individual reason, which, in fact — as has been suggested by McCarthy — defines a definitive shift from a declining 'paradigm of consciousness to an [emergent] paradigm of language' (McCarthy, 2004, xi). The direct consequence of this inter-subjective matrix is that the truth validity claim, that is, the speaker's commitment to offer reasons to justify the truth of his/her utterance, only becomes (a real) Truth (with capital T) — pragmatically speaking — if it is accepted by the hearer on the basis of the reasons given by the speaker.

Even more suggestive is the distinction posed by Habermas between two types of validities: Gültigkeit (which 'conceptually transcends space and time') and soziale Geltung ('based merely on settled customs or threat of sanctions'), and the primacy given to the latter (Habermas, 1996, 20–21). Indeed, Habermas is not unaware of the existence of a hypothetical universal-type validity (Gültigkeit) that '[might] exceed all contexts', a sort of objective notion of truth, but, as he argues, since 'no one has direct access to uninterpreted conditions of validity' (Habermas, 1996, 14), his explicit option is in favour of a contextualized notion of validity, a 'validity proven for us'. The reason for this more pragmatic option is due to the fact that, for Habermas, this is the only way in which a true validity claim could '(b)ear the burden of social integration for a context-bound everyday practice' (Habermas, 1996, 21).

In this way, Habermas is able to get rid of any essentialist notion of truth from his matrix of communicative actions, replacing it with a consensus theory of truth, whose main criterion of validity is given by a sort of 'success rate' of the act of speech in its declared pragmatic aim of reaching an inter-subjective assent of all other potential participants in a given discourse (Habermas, 2001, 89). Although the results of this thesis are very attractive for an era in which any assertion of a vantage point results in a theory that is hard to defend, it opens new problems for the place and status of truth in the constitution of society.
Read the whole article.

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