Friday, October 10, 2014

The Ideological Violence of Slavoj Zizek

"There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made." (Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari)

Let's leave aside the question of plagiarism for a moment and assume that Zizek intended to mark all his quotations properly. What does his reading of Jean-Marie Muller tell us about his style of ideological critique? How, we might ask, does Zizek observe and analyze "ideology" in practice? How does he distinguish his own "critical" interventions from the "ideological" writings of people like Muller? How does he make his books?

When Zizek got caught passing off what he thought was a friend's email (which turned out to be a plagiary of a published piece) about a book he had not read as his own exegesis, Zizek and his defenders shrugged it off as no big deal. After all, they argued, he hadn't stolen anyone's "ideas", he had just borrowed their words in order to dismiss the ideas they represented. They did not think, as I do, that it was outrageous for Zizek to characterise the ideas of someone whose work he had not even read as "a new barbarism". Nor that it's a bit unfair to arrive this conclusion on the basis of a positive book review written by someone who, although anonymous, is probably a white supremacist.

In the Muller case we have a similar lack of basic decency. It's not wrong to call it violence, especially if we accept Zizek's basic argument that just because we're using words, rather than sticks and stones, we're not thereby outside the realm of violent action. Let's take a close look at how Zizek uses Muller's text to construct the ideology of non-violence.

His first task, of course, is to make sure that his readers don't think of Muller as a philosopher or critical thinker in his own right. Zizek is not treating Muller as an interlocutor, an intellectual equal, someone with whom he is in dialogue, but as someone who merely mouthes official dogma, an ideologue. Accordingly, he introduces Muller's "Non-Violence in Education" as "a text written by Jean-Marie Muller for UNESCO". Interestingly, even in the endnote to this sentence, he does not tell us the date that it was written nor the occasion upon which UNESCO requested it, nor what kind of document it is. (Indeed, his recent "clarification" in IJZS suggests that he does not know what kind of document is, describing it as an unpaginated "web manuscript", which you can confirm for yourself it is not. It is a document published by UNESCO.) He does not mention that the director general of UNESCO wrote a preface, nor, though he'll call me naive for pointing it out, does he note the disclaimer clearly printed on the copyright page: "The ideas and opinions expressed in this book are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of UNESCO." What is interesting here is that Muller's basic rights as an individual who holds his owns opinions are simply elided in Zizek's "ideological"** reading of a text that explicitly asserts them.

A page later, Zizek suggests, without an argument of any kind, that Muller's text "acquired a semi-official programmatic status". I've been trying to find information to support that claim, but have so far come up empty. It's possible that it's true, but it strikes me as Zizek's burden to prove it, not his reader's.

Finally, let's consider the actual act of interpretation that Zizek subjects Muller's text to. As I've noted in a previous post, it's a bit strange that he locates Muller's "starting point" on page 22. It's stranger still that the question Zizek raises ("But how can one wholly repudiate violence when struggle and aggression are a part of life?") and then dismisses Muller's answer to (without quite acknowledging that this indeed Muller's way of phrasing both the question and the answer) is actually dealt with by Muller on page 10, i.e., 12 pages before the "starting point" that Zizek proceeds from. Zizek is turning a flesh-and-blood philosopher, with whom he could engage in serious discussion, indeed, a philosopher who has in fact already anticipated and engaged Zizek's position, into a straw man to be ceremonially slain, a punching bag to focus his critical rage upon. Comparing the substance of the two texts, I doubt he'd fare very well if he stepped into the ring.

What follows, then, is the "problematic paragraph", either as a quote, as Zizek [says he] originally intended, or as the plagiarism [he claims] his publisher apparently preferred. It's a nicely written piece of prose (as usual, Zizek's plagiaries make better reading than his own sentences) and elegantly incorporates two quotes from Simone Weil (marred only by Zizek's or his publisher's insistence on explaining who Simone Weil was to us). Those quotes are important because Zizek will play on them later. But not before he pronounces Muller/Weil to be stuck "firmly within premodern Aristotelian coordinates" that he, Zizek, will be happy to take us outside of with the help of Lacan. As far as I can tell, both Muller and Weil's vision has a much broader horizon, they are by no means as dominated by what Zizek experiences (subjectively) as ideology as he thinks. It would certainly be worth a serious inquiry. It's only by radically caricaturing the text under discussion, eliding essential facts about it, and distorting the disposition of the argument that Zizek can come off as smarter than Muller, and Muller can appear to be the unthinking mouthpiece of UNESCO, UNESCO the soulless embodiment of ideology.

In short, as in the case of his plagiarism of Hornbeck's review of MacDonald, Zizek gets someone else to do the exegesis (the legwork) identifying a position. He then arrives on the scene, Lacan in hand, to pronounce it deconstructed. That's ideological critique. I.e., ideology masquerading as critique. Violence passing itself off as language.

*The document appears to be an English translation of pamphlet original published in French. A PDF of the French text can be downloaded from the UNESCO Database, where an English version that seems more typeset for publication than the version Zizek cites can also be found.
**Zizek positions Muller's text as an example of the "predominant ideological approach to violence" (page 53).


Adam Riggio said...

An excellent example of some of the slapdash methods of late-period Zizek. I find it particularly intriguing that the examples of plagiarism themselves (the Muller paragraphs and the American Renaissance passage) come from his works in the mid-late-2000s, when he was openly courting the popular audience that sustains him today through his documentaries. He wasn't always a pure ideologist in the sense you describe, writing philosophical polemics instead of creative philosophical engagements. He's become one. As his output was growing more prodigious and his sales larger, the temptation to write less like Zizek the creative theorist and more like the popular image of Zizek, what he presumed his regular audience wanted to hear, would similarly grow at this time.

Perhaps this period really is the downfall of Zizek as a cultural critic. Because he is capable of genuine insight in his books. It isn't as though he's a pure charlatan. Indeed, I'm very skeptical of accusations of intellectual charlatanism and fakery because I've met some very doctrinaire and hostile philosophers in North America who use those terms to dismiss all philosophy influenced by phenomenology or structuralism as worthless shit that shouldn't be in their departments or universities. So I prefer to give Zizek at least some benefit of the doubt that fame has made his works samey, repetitive, and stuck in a rut. Despite the titles of his latest works like Living in the End Times suggesting an engagement with ecological crises, it was pretty much a rehash of the old themes.

Philosophy is a creative discipline, and I think Zizek has opened up new possibilities for how a philosophical writer can engage with an audience. I've already said before, on my own blog, that I don't think the university system will be a home for the progressive philosophical tradition much longer (if it even is anymore), so we need to develop new norms to engage readers and interlocutors outside classrooms and campuses.

While I think we're in need of a good shakeup when it comes to writing style and how we engage potential audiences, we do need to preserve or carry forward norms and attitudes of fair practice. I like that Zizek is a writer who has a reputation independent of his university department and academic discipline, and the reach to get people reading philosophical texts for fun. But that's the same compliment paid to J. K. Rowling for children's literature.

Thomas said...

Thanks for the comment. I have to admit that I have very little invested in Zizek's project (but a great deal in our shared scholarly standards). So I don't know how much better his earlier work is, though I do hear similar sentiments from others I talk to.

I'm sure many people who end up as charlatans begin as competent practitioners of a craft. If what we learn from this is to read his earlier work carefully, and not pay attention to his current output, maybe that's good enough.

Still, even understood as journalism, what he does to Muller here is pretty nasty, not to mention what he does to his (trusting) reader's understanding. One the things this case is getting me to think is that in so far as "ideological critique" or "a critique of the ideological subject" is necessary, then what is needed is precisely a critique of Zizek's rhetoric. Much more than we need Zizek's critique of Muller, in fact.

Jonathan said...

Apparently a "non-issue"

Thomas said...

Yes, funny piece.