Did somebody evade totalitarianism? On the intellectual escapism of Slavoj Zizek.

Author:Pickus, David

For those who admire Slavoj Zizek, his work represents a liberation from ideas and practices that control and manipulate us. To those put off by his presentation and skeptical of his claims, on the contrary, Zizek is not associated with any advance in knowledge, and, if anything, he illustrates the problems with intellectual fad-dishness and academics who cling to it. This author belongs to the second group. I contend that Zizek does not deliver the insights that he repeatedly promises. I propose to subject one of his works Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? to close examination. I see value in such effort not because of the specific content of any argument that Zizek makes about totalitarianism, for Zizek adopts strategies that prevent him from really addressing the topic. Rather, the book deserves attention because an interesting cautionary tale emerges from his basic stance toward his readers, his material, and himself. His presumed break with the supposedly befogged and enchained world of "standard" academia reveals a certain kind of conceit. The latter is not only inappropriate, but it also serves to isolate Zizek, keeping him from the intellectual engagement and self-awareness that philosophical liberation requires. This article is about how Zizek distorts his material and misrepresents himself. Its goal is to understand the logic of a kind of pseudo engagement and reflect on the implications of work such as this for understanding totalitarianism and our culture of learning in general.


Slavoj Zizek occupies a dual world. He is liberated and imprisoned at the same time. (1) On the one hand, for those involved in cultural studies and "theory"--broadly defined to mean a meta-critical commentary on all significant aspects of human life from philosophy and mass media to politics and pop culture--Zizek is an astounding phenomenon. A Slovene, born in 1949 in the former Yugoslavia, Zizek went from the obscurity of being an unknown left-leaning scholar interested in Lacanian psychoanalysis to being the celebrated author of numerous books in English (and other languages) about a dizzying range of provocative intellectual themes. The prestige this has brought has won him appointment as the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London and visiting positions at the University of Chicago, Columbia, Princeton and more. Zizek, the celebrity, seems to be the very model of an engaged intellectual. Eschewing the stuffiness and pedantry of the academic ivory tower, he takes up major issues of our day, proudly proclaiming that his philosophical approach enables him to shed light on the unexamined links, nodes and nexuses of our ultramodern world.

The contrast between Zizek and other philosophical figures should be emphasized. Zizek does not appear constrained by the cautious and professionalized timorousness that can blunt the work of many scholarly authors. But at the same time--adding to his popularity--Zizek continually refers to an array of formidable and rigorous thinkers. (Hegel, Marx and Lacan are only the top of the list.) He also writes for a wide audience and fully displays his humor. As his expositor Tony Myers puts it, Zizek is "no ordinary philosopher, for he thinks and writes in such a recklessly entertaining fashion, he constantly risks making philosophy enjoyable." Thus, "swiveling on his heels, he berates the political apathy of contemporary life in one moment, jokes about the man who thinks he will be eaten by a chicken in the next, then explains the philosophical realism of Keanu Reeves in Speed, exposes the philosophical basis of Viagra, and finishes up with a disclosure of the paradoxical value of Christianity to Marxism." (2) Such high-spirited philosophizing has earned Zizek much fame and perhaps envy from those more inhibited and constrained.

On the other hand--and this is the crux of this essay--we should not assess a person on the basis of how he presents himself or how he is portrayed by others. There is little reason to call Zizek an engaged intellectual, if by "engaged" we mean someone who challenges his audience with uncomfortable truths and urgently needed insights. Indeed, one who takes the trouble to wade through the verbiage finds that there is about Zizek's work something bland and undemanding. He squanders the opportunities for radical transformation that he purportedly desires. To support this thesis and argue that that he propounds a series of timid evasions, 1 will examine a single volume by Zizek: Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion. (3)

Promises Made But Not Kept

Focusing on this particular work is a helpful way to begin a critical discussion of Zizek, because the volume on Totalitarianism exemplifies the kind of heady promises that Zizek makes. (4) An iconoclastic intellectual like Zizek is right to take up the subject. The idea of totalitarianism deserves a fresh consideration by thinking people who free us of the deformations of slogans or dogma. Moreover, as Zizek himself rightly points out, our understanding of totalitarianism colors much more than our views of the Hitler and Stalin era. This "notion" not only shapes but also potentially damages our approach to social and political engagement in the present. Zizek, as a purportedly autonomous, free-standing thinker, worries about the misuse of the idea of totalitarianism both on the right and the left and announces that "the contention of this book is ... that the notion of 'totalitarianism,' far from being an effective theoretical concept, is a kind of stopgap: instead of enabling us to think, forcing us to acquire new insight into the historical reality it describes, it relieves us of the duty to think, or even actively prevents us from thinking." (5) The italics in the preceding quote are Zizek's own, and they show the extent of his ambition. He will "intervene" in the current climate of opinion and restore to us the necessary practice of thinking.

These words deserve to be taken at face value. Zizek asserts that currently "reference to the 'totalitarian' threat sustains a kind of Denkverbot (prohibition against thinking)." The prohibition imposed by invoking the specter of totalitarianism is not only employed by the right against those who would "seriously challenge the existing order," but also, according to Zizek, by the "postmodern deconstructionist Left." Hence, if Zizek were to succeed in his argument, his autonomous critique would deserve the highest praise. If, however, we discover that, despite his claims, he does not show what is wrong with the idea of totalitarianism, the problem is not simply that he is mistaken, wrongheaded, or under the influence of a false ideology. It is that he runs away from his own claims, which means that his work exhibits escapism.

To put this observation in anther way: Zizek not only promises to liberate our thought; his uninhibited and unconventional writing style is also meant to demonstrate of what one is capable if one studies totalitarianism from a position above the complacencies and conformities that confine so many others. Even the name Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? has an impish ring. It is derived from a TV commercial and applied to a serious topic. In his opening gambit, Zizek uses a statement from a tea package to derive a lesson about political theory, and for all the two hundred fifty some pages that follow, the reader is exposed to Zizek's "pyrotechnics," as he combines high and popular cultures, seriousness and humor. If it could be shown that this un-academic style did in fact lead to intellectual breakthroughs, Zizek would have to be commended for his bravery. It is daring to speak to scholars in language they deem improper. However, if his style actually impedes any understanding of his ostensible meaning--that it is hardly the "joyful science" whereby an intellectual maestro deftly and lightly takes us from breathtaking insight to breathtaking insight--then Zizek deserves a look for a different reason, namely that his style is of a piece with his substance. Both work to obviate a confrontation with realities that matter.

The most pressing issue is not that of reputation, but that of standards in scholarly argument. My main claim is that Zizek's escapism is appealing (to those who like it) because it masquerades as boldness and depth. I do not base this claim on psychological speculation about Zizek's presumed motivations or on criticism of him as a person. It is based on taking him at his own word as someone ready and able to voice uncomfortable truths about the use and misuse of the concept of totalitarianism. If it can be shown that he uses evasive strategies to avoid any substantive confrontation with his chosen topic, it is fair to claim that the thesis does not reflect a bias against Zizek, but a concern for the dangers of intellectual escapism. If someone as seemingly intrepid as Zizek can "wall himself off," it is instructive for all of us to reflect on why this should be. To this end, I will turn to the first stratagem of Zizek's discussion of totalitarianism, the dubious use of interdisciplinary scholarship.

Interdisciplinary or Undisciplined?

One of the superlatives that Zizek has attracted is to be the "most interdisciplinary thinker to emerge in recent years." (6) Thinking about "interdisciplinality" is a good place to begin a critique of Totalitarianism, for one of its salient features is that it does not confine itself to the topics and themes normally associated with totalitarianism. It alludes to a wide variety of broad issues from the humanities, social sciences and elsewhere. The opening fifty-page chapter is called "The Myth and its Vicissitudes." It is not entirely clear whether the "myth" does or does not refer to totalitarianism, since the chapter treats the issue of representation--itself very broadly defined--and includes some...

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