Stumbling into Žižek

About a year ago I was browsing in a book completely unrelated to my Ph.D. research; it was about criticism of Shakespeare plays on film. I happened on a phrase that summed up an unexpressed insight I’d had about my research subject (a Swiss traveler in the U.S. in the 1820s). It was a well-turned noun phrase: the “penetrating power of the perplexed foreign gaze.”

I grabbed an index card and made a note. The author was one Slavoj Zizek. Cool name, I thought. Must be some kind of critic. I felt grateful to him for supplying a label for my subject’s characteristic of, on the one hand, getting muddled about American commonplaces and, on the other, seizing on details and insights that an American observer would be almost certain to overlook. I thought this phrase might help me answer the prime dissertation question, “So what?”

I have forgotten when I learned that the Slovenian intellectual’s name is actually written “Žižek” and pronounced with “Zsa Zsa” consonants. The caroned Z, especially the capital, presents a challenge to a lot of English-language publishers, so it’s often reduced to an unadorned Z. (Do I sound like a typography geek? Guilty as charged.)

Nothing else came of my minor discovery until right after my oral exam last spring. My examining committee asked a few questions about my dissertation, and I innocently told the anecdote of happening on an apt phrase (which I repeated) from some critic called “Slavoy Zee-zek.” No one said anything, and I thought I detected one of those chills that follow a faux pas. I thought it must have been mild disapproval of my borrowing from cultural criticism before I had even read all my primary documents. It didn’t seem likely that the issue (if I wasn’t just being oversensitive) was with this particular critic.

Afterwards, when I finally sought some background on Žižek, I found that this presumably obscure writer is actually the hottest of academic celebrities right now. No wonder, then. Although I was the one who mentioned his name, I was probably the only person in the room who hadn’t formed an opinion about Žižek. As with preceding superstars like Derrida, Foucault, or Lacan, it seems that nobody who has heard of Žižek is indifferent to him. Not a few think he’s a fraud. Others have become his groupies. He’s the subject of at least one movie. And of course, in compliance with Godwin’s Law of Internet discourse, he’s been called a fascist.

Reading Žižek’s major work is a low priority for me, although I will track down his essay “The Foreign Gaze Which Sees Too Much.” Frankly I’m now concerned that by quoting him at all, I may be pigeonholed as part of some faction or other. It’s a little disheartening. I had hoped to find my way to some stimulating thinking about what may happen when a foreigner plays the role of observer. Turns out that the path leads to a battlefield.

So I wonder whether I can use Žižek’s essay as an authority, in the bibliographic sense, without implying that I’ve submitted to the authority of Žižek. The answer, of course, is that it depends on how each reader responds to my work. I’m probably worrying too much. (All part of the ordeal of dissertation writing, I guess.)

It also depends on whether Žižek sets off the academic equivalent of pack journalism, much as Foucault has done. As with pack journalists worrying the factoid of the moment, I’ve sometimes seen Foucault invoked simply (so it seems) out of a felt need to “work him in.” Mentioning Foucault shows that you’re caught up with the headlines. (I feel that I’m going to have to read Discipline and Punish, at least, because my subject writes about visits to American prisons and asylums. I think Foucault’s analysis, interesting as it is, also has a historical context, and therefore matters no more, probably less, than that of any relevant contemporary intellectual. But when publishing in our historical context, it’s de rigeur to discuss Foucault.)

I don’t mean to complain, as I know it only takes a minority of scholars (or journalists) to create an impression of a pack. It doesn’t mean that the majority is star-struck, or desperate for recognition, or pushing a political agenda. Most of us toil along doing interesting work in obscurity.

Anyway, my take on Žižek so far, based on superficial knowledge, is that he’s a passionate controversialist with a well-trained pen, something like Nietzsche, and like him, easy to misconstrue. He deserves most of the attention he’s getting, leaving aside the irrelevant question of whether someone else deserves it more. I’m very willing, as a reader and thinking person, to wrestle with his ideas and his language, as time permits. What I’m not willing to do is to join an embattled camp, either for or against Žižekism. I don’t see that as consistent with doing history well.

3 thoughts on “Stumbling into Žižek

  1. This is probably the most honest, if brief, assessment of Zizek AND his reception I’ve ever read. Your final comparison with Nietzsche is apt, though I think it goes deeper than style in some places—particularly around their respective critiques of Buddhism. I really appreciate it, and will probably use it as a standard for introducing him to others.

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