Zizek and ‘intellectual suicide’
May 1, 2007
Readers who have had nothing better to do on a late Saturday morning than to read my literary journalism over the years might have noticed that there is a possible tension in what passes for my “thought”: evincing on the one hand a kind of Anglo-empiricism, I nonetheless have a soft spot for the works of such writers as Derrida, Baudrillard and Zizek, all of whom are anathema to the Anglophone analytic tradition. Why is this?, almost none of you ask. Well, there was my encounter at an impressionable age, while trying to figure out what one could possibly say about Nietzsche, with Derrida’s Éperons (that’s what you can say about Nietzsche; or rather, at least, that’s how you can say it); there was my personal encounter with Baudrillard, a man as generous and playful as his books; and there was my enjoyment, often baffled but nonetheless sincere, of Zizek’s writings. But perhaps the common factor was this: I was not at all sure that I was as clever as any of these men,1 and so even when I was troubled by seeming opacity or nonsense,2 I reckoned that I had better tread carefully.3
Luckily, the opinion journalist Johann Hari does not suffer from such uncertainty, and has taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek in an article for the New Statesman, on the occasion of the British release of the documentary film, Zizek!.4 In doing so, he furnishes a useful example of the word “postmodernist” as it is almost always used nowadays, as a kneejerk insult from reactionary anti-intellectuals.
Three times, the opinion journalist Johann Hari refers vaguely to a group or cabal called “postmodernists”, none actually worth bothering to name, who apparently all love Zizek; and he accuses Zizek himself twice of partaking in “postmodernism”. Does it matter that Zizek himself has repeatedly explicitly denounced what he understands to be “postmodernism”? Does it even matter that what is often taken to be the manifesto of these continental clowns, Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979), is at least as much a lament for as a celebration of what it describes? Indeed, is not the term “postmodern” and its cognates these days rather like the phrase “politically correct”5, existing purely as a handy boo-term for idiots?6
I only ask, since the opinion journalist Johann Hari shows no sign of actually having read any of Zizek’s books. Instead he deploys very careful language: “When you first look through the more than 50 books he has written…” (well, at least he looked through them, or, let’s be realistic, some of them); or “as you pore through Zizek’s words” (“pore over” is the more common usage, but our intrepid critic seems to be fixated on “through”: he has to get through this shit somehow or other). Here is the opinion journalist Johann Hari’s considered judgment on Zizek’s oeuvre, so far as he has managed to look or pore through it:
It seems he seeks to splice Karl Marx with the notoriously incomprehensible French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, slathering on top an infinite number of pop-cultural references.
An infinite number? Sokal and Bricmont must be spinning in their as-yet-uninhabited graves. Nonetheless, the opinion journalist Johann Hari finds it within himself to accuse Zizek, in his film performance, of “intellectual suicide”. In another world, it might be considered intellectual suicide to denounce a writer with whose works one has only a hurried and superficial acquaintance, and to throw around the term “postmodernist” as a cheap schoolboy jibe. But, readers, we don’t live in that other world, do we?7
- Update 0: It’s funny how this bit – notice I did not say “I was sure they were cleverer than me”; just I was not sure that they weren’t, this on the basis of such brilliant books as The System of Objects or The Work of Mourning, which by the way aren’t opaque at all – has enraged the defenders of reason etc., who presumably are all sure that they are just as if not more clever than the men whose books they cannot be bothered to read. By what criterion they arrive at this judgment is an interesting question. ↩
- Update 1: “Even when…” ie the judgment that the writers were clever was not based specifically on the passages of seeming opacity or nonsense, which would indeed be as silly as Ophelia Benson takes it to be. Update to the update: though this hasn’t stopped the hard-of-reading David Thompson from summarizing this post as “Steven Poole mistakes opacity for cleverness, calls people who disagree ‘reactionary anti-intellectuals.'” It’s funny how none of the critics of this post have responded to the point about the lazy use of the term “postmodernism”, perhaps because they all indulge in it themselves. ↩
- Update 2: “Tread carefully” is not meant as a synonym for “blindly worship their phatic asses”, but rather something like “expend a little more effort trying to understand what they might be getting at rather than dismissing them impatiently as wilful obscurantists, as the telepathic Ophelia Benson does”. I hope that helps. ↩
- Late update: unfortunately, his account of what is actually in the film is rather unreliable. ↩
- About which I may one day write a lengthy post. ↩
- Update 4: as I write here, it was wrong of me to suggest that Hari is an “idiot” and an “anti-intellectual” in general. It seems that it is mainly in the face of what he perceives as a homogeneous postmodernism that he has the habit of writing idiotic and anti-intellectual things, viz. this, and also his previous articles about Derrida, Baudrillard, etc. Also see this post by Antigram. ↩
- Update 5: The sequel offers some insight into another anti-“postmodernist”‘s standards of evidence and argument. ↩