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Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp, eds. The Truth of Zizek.

Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp, eds. The Truth of Zizek. New York: Continuum 2007. Pp. 276. US$120.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-8264-9060-5); US$29.95 (paper ISBN-13: 978-0-8264-9061-2).

From Simon Critchley's gratuitous reference to 'fist-fucking' in the first sentence of his Foreword on, this is a depressing, dispiriting volume. As Critchley's reference indicates, the entire aim of the collection seems to be to vulgarise, desublimate, in the old parlance demystify, the work, and indeed the person, of Slavoj Zizek. The 'truth' of Zizek is understood to correspond with some dark secret, vice or even intellectual fraud he has managed to pull off. Essay after essay accuses him not merely of the usual misreading of others' texts or misunderstanding of their arguments, but of a kind of deceit or deception in using his celebrity status to get books published that do not demonstrate 'even a minimal degree of authority on the subjects they pronounce upon' (62).

Of course, this accusation rings hollow when it is just as certain--this book being the proof of it--that virtually anything written on Zizek can also get published. The book misrepresents itself (or is misrepresented) on its back cover as the 'first sustained assessment of the significant impact of Zizek's work.' Disregarding the work of Sarah Kay, Tony Myers, Glyn Daly, Matthew Sharpe and others, who are disqualified on the ad hominem grounds of having received some input from Zizek--in that case, what about this book, which features as well a response from him?--what about the work of Ian Parker, one of the very contributors to this volume?

There is a plea by one of the contributors here for the resistance of the academic practice of citation against the leveling forces of neo-liberalism (69), but this back cover reference is exactly a symptom of this book's capitulation to these same forces. In a single moment, all the previous history of the reception and evaluation of Zizek is dismissed by the demands of making each new product appear unique within the intellectual market. The editors show what can only be called bad faith in allowing this claim to stand. Needless to say, most of us who write textbooks or put together compilations based on the work of major thinkers would do the same, but the stakes are higher in this collection than in most books. For one of the criticisms made throughout is that it is Zizek who is not reflexive enough concerning his own practice. To give just two examples, the editors in their introduction speak of the way that Zizek is caught up in a 'complex set of apparatuses, which are not merely disciplinary and institutional but bound up with commercial and market-driven imperatives' (6), and Leigh Clare Le Berge claims that Zizek's 'prolific, repetitive, regularised oeuvre should be understood as a [necessarily unconscious to him] writing cure' (11).

At the end of the book Zizek ends his long defence of himself, rather good-humouredly in the circumstances entitled 'With Defenders Like These, Who Needs Attackers?', with the question: 'At this point, when I would have to enquire into where and what my critics' hamsters are, I prefer to stop' (254). By 'hamster' there, he means that fetish object that allows us to accept the knowledge of how things are, but without really accepting it. And, undoubtedly, the hamster Zizek is referring to with regard to his critics is Zizek himself. It is his critics' displacement of criticism on to Zizek, the accusations they make of his cynical publishing strategy, that allows them to forget (even when they appear to acknowledge) their own cynicism, their own entanglement in the capitalist machinery of academic publishing (indeed, because they are less empowered than Zizek, their own deeper subjection to it).

Again, the contributors' lack of self-reflection is especially telling insofar as this is one of the constant criticisms they make of Zizek. Le Berge accuses him of maintaining a transferential relationship to a Big Other he would otherwise deny (21). Jeremy Valentine disparages him for wishing to attribute to capitalism a 'stability' and 'certainty' (181) it does not have. And Bowman contends that throughout his work Zizek draws upon a 'supplement' (35) of deconstruction he seeks to distinguish himself from. All of these criticisms of Zizek--taking the form that Zizek falsely disavows that with which he is in secret complicity--make a revealing contrast with what Parker sees as a strategy of 'over-identification' in Zizek, which takes the system 'more seriously than the system takes itself' (148), but which Parker nevertheless also finds insufficient.

There are perhaps three essays in The Truth of Zizek that do deserve serious response (though they are not the same as those Zizek chooses to respond to in the 'Afterword'). Both Mark Devenney and Oliver Marchant accuse Zizek of a flawed conception of the act. Devenney sees Zizek falling into a certain 'passion for the real' (46), the fantasy of an act that could strip the body politic of all 'infirmities' in an effectively depoliticised notion of economy (54). Marchant accuses Zizek of eliding the distinction between the ontic (politics, acting) and the ontological (the political, the act) in thinking the act as a pure decision that takes place outside of all strategic considerations. In this, Marchant argues, Zizek misreads his stated inspiration in Lenin, who in fact was always aware of the real-world dimensions of the act. Richard Stamp, for his part, takes up one of the most discussed aspects of Zizek's writing practice: his prodigious use of examples, from both high and low culture, to 'illustrate' his ideas. Commentators on Zizek--and even Zizek himself--have tended to understand Zizek's use of examples in either one of two ways: as essentially distracting from an otherwise unchanging argument, or as suggesting that Zizek's argument is nothing more than a distracted stringing together of examples. Stamp ingeniously proposes that, insofar as what Zizek's examples are meant to illustrate is their failure adequately to express their notion, there is ultimately no need for examples in Zizek's work: the same Hegelian 'lesson' is repeated no matter what Zizek writes about (170).

Zizek in his 'Afterword' does not always reply well to the criticisms made of him. In response to Marchant's objections, he argues that he does bring together the levels of the ontic and the ontological: 'This synthesis [of Event and Being] is already the Event itself' (222). This responds to Marchant's claim that all acting presumes the act, but it does not respond to his other argument, which is that there must remain a certain distinction between the ontic and the ontological, that there are actings that take place outside of the act (109). It is also fair to say that, in response to Berge's argument concerning Zizek's apparent approval of sexual harassment, it is not enough to say that the real harassment consists in becoming the 'focus of the other's desire' (208), for Zizek does indeed speak of the necessity of having to make a potentially unwanted pass if any sexual transaction is to occur. Zizek, however, is excellent in response to Stamp, arguing--as he has done elsewhere, for example with regard to the relationship between the Particular and the Universal in the chapter 'Quantum Physics with Lacan' of The Indivisible Remainder--that it is a matter of a number of universal notions circulating around a single example (234). And this is consistent with a whole line of argumentation in Zizek's 'Afterword', asserting against his critics that the Real (whether understood as capitalism, class or even philosophy) is not some overarching conceptual category that is in common to all of the various attempts to symbolise it, but is only these attempts themselves: just as they can only be explained as the successive attempts to respond to some Real, so this Real can only be seen through--and does not lie somewhere behind --these various attempts.

At one point in the 'Afterword' Zizek argues--and this is precisely to make the connection between philosophy and the act--that the 'only thing that really matters is the inherent strength and quality of the line of thought' (216). In other words, against the whole academic exercise (of the better essays here) of criticising Zizek for misreading his sources, or against the insinuations (leveled by the worse essays) of some personal failing on his part, it is in terms of something else that we must assess Zizek. 'Significant' thought, like the act, sets its own co-ordinates, determines the criteria according to which it must be judged. Everything else, although necessary, is a fall from the 'truth' of this thought. Sometimes reading this book, one feels there is often nothing more being manifested than a jealousy of or resentment towards Zizek. Like that envy analysed so long ago by Rousseau, if the contributors cannot have 'it', then they do not want others to have 'it' either (230). And in some regards this is the consequence of a kind of formal 'democracy' in academic publishing, when a book like this can stage itself as a dialogue between equals.

Rex Butler

The University of Queensland
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Author:Butler, Rex
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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