WHEN Slavoj Žižek’s work first struck the outer crust of the Anglo-American academy, it made a significant dent. As the debris was cleared, it became apparent that something wholly unexpected had been going on in Slovenian for quite a while, and that it was now going to go on for quite a while in English. Readers of this magazine will already have sampled Žižek’s cocktail, but it is as well to recall the chief ingredients. A firm grip on the tradition of German classical philosophy, firm enough to club more or less anything into submission with it; an intimacy with the paradoxes and blind cuts of the speculative psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, put into the service of rendering classical German philosophy deconstruction-proof; a limitless appetite for mass culture, especially Hollywood films, and for interpreting that culture by the unlikely means listed above – these, vigorously stirred, made the fixed stars of the intellectual firmament wobble, if you read enough of the stuff. Amongst the first of his achievements to appear in English was an inspired re-reading of Marx’s theory of ideology. This formed the basis for a ferocious assault on the then dominant (I’m talking about the academy, remember) logic of identity politics. Some of the identity politicians and post-Marxists felt that the assault was mounted from an old hat Lukácsian Marxism. Ernesto Laclau, in an elaborate trialogue with Žižek and the American critic Judith Butler, went so far as to wonder out loud whether Žižek might be nostalgic for Stalinism. Žižek, typically, instead of trying to avoid confirming Laclau’s suspicion, has taken every opportunity to play up to the tag. At an early point in this book, one especially self-applauding piece of Menshevik-baiting by Lenin is described as a “crucial strategic insight”. At moments like these, Žižek is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It is the kind of thing that led Laclau to describe Žižek’s voice as “R-r-revolutionary”. The hard-man act is not serious: Žižek ends the book in praise not of Lenin but of Bartleby, who “couldn’t even hurt a fly – that’s what makes his presence so unbearable”.
Žižek’s éclat was deserved. He burst on to our scene at a moment when the dismissal of Marx’s thinking had become more than usually smug and ill-informed. He reanimated a current of utopian thinking which, circa 1989, was regularly being identified in all parts of the political spectrum with totalitarianism itself. He was able to prise open even the stupidest film to get at the fears and fantasies buried in it. Nor would it be true to say that his work has stood still since. An especially striking development has been Žižek’s championing of aspects of Christianity, which he finds important in the genesis of universalist politics. He accurately understands “with me there is neither Jew nor Greek” as a critical moment on the path towards an egalitarian political theory.
That last instance, though, also indicates some of the limitations of Žižek’s work. The contribution of Christianity to egalitarian thinking has already been charted much more attentively and incisively by scholars whose work Žižek either has not read, or doesn’t think it important to discuss. Once you have read Louis Dumont’s Essays on Individualism or Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom you will find Zizek’s version pretty thin. This goes for much of his work. The cultural examples, whether mass-cultural, literary, art-filmic, or (even) musical, are expendable. Žižek moves in, Hegel-Lacanises them in a flash of admittedly often brilliant illumination, and then moves on to another one. The examples never disturb the conceptual framework, they just exemplify it. And, in turn, this means that the concepts cannot fully illuminate the examples, because they are not interested enough in what the examples are like. Paragraph after paragraph will begin with the imperative “Take...”. At one point, Žižek quotes Kafka’s ‘Odradek’. Even a hardened reader will be taken aback at the rapidity with which he then moves straight into his Lacanian patter about it. There isn’t even a pause for breath, and so the impression given is that it is a matter of indifference to Žižek whether he is considering Kafka or Krazy Kat. There’s nothing democratic about that, only a failure to pay attention. Such is Žižek’s verve, wit and native intelligence that he usually digresses away from strict execution of the concept upon the example. In this way, something of interest almost always gets said about the examples. But the experience is not a philosophical one – that is to say not one in which concepts and examples move and change before our eyes as we give ourselves over to them – but one of what Hegel called “picture-thinking”.
This takes us beyond the kind of sketching I have been doing so far and into the philosophical guts of the authorship. The key problem is that, for all his devotion, Žižek does not take Hegel seriously enough. (The Lacanianism, by contrast, is in deadly earnest). If you, reader, are tempted to buy this book, may I suggest you also look at the ‘Preface’ to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit? In the ‘Preface’, Hegel spends a lot of time patiently explaining that what is important about his thinking is not so much a new vocabulary or a new set of concepts, peculiar to him, as a particular way of doing philosophy. And what is distinctive about that is precisely its lack of interest in its own private philosophical property, as it were. It is not that for Hegel it isn’t important to be right. On the contrary, it is not enough to be right. You also need to understand what you mean when you are right: which means, in the end, understanding how everyone else has helped you to be right.
Whether or not you find this line of thinking persuasive, it does lead to a way of reading other bodies of thought which is very different from Žižek’s. Žižek’s usual mode of address to rival schools is to point out that they just don’t get some Lacanian twist or other which he himself has understood. His praise, conversely, takes the form of indicating that the admired thinker is Lacanian without knowing it. For Žižek, a great deal, in the end (or “again and again”, as he tellingly puts it in the prose for the series Short Circuits, of which this book is a part) hangs on having the right opinions, whereas for Hegel nothing at all depends on this. And this means that nothing can be less Hegelian than continually to give a “Hegelian” reading of everything.
Žižek knows this. But Hegel is not so hard to know, as he is to do. Hegel’s idea of speculative thinking issues in works of tremendous concentration and artifice. These are, emphatically, books, in which the spontaneous power of thinking is locked in a war embrace with the drive to construction. In such writing, it is of the utmost moment what comes where. Although Žižek, by contrast, routinely rejects any structure in which the universal is merely exemplified by particulars, that is in fact the default situation in his own writing. It is no accident that it is precisely this speculative element of thinking, the most important thing about Hegel, that eludes Žižek. It is the price he pays for trying to construct a Hegel who is deconstruction-proof.
The Parallax View offers a show of organization. It has an introduction, parts, “interludes”, and so on. But no reader will seriously think that it would matter if the interludes were parts or the parts interludes. It could all come anywhere, because it is all shot from a Lacanian pistol. The blurb offers the information that Žižek himself describes this work as “his magnum opus”, but it is not really an opus at all. It is the valuable record of what an extremely intelligent Hegelian-Lacanian happens to think about whatever happens to have crossed his cerebral cortex at the time of writing. If, as I recommend, you read The Parallax View in tandem with Hegel’s ‘Preface’, you will be struck by how fiercely Hegel’s work derides Žižek. Initially impressed by Zizek’s ability to apply Hegel to everything from Claudel to Star Wars? “A closer inspection shows that this expansion has not come about through one and the same principle having spontaneously assumed different shapes, but rather through the shapeless repetition of one and the same formula, only externally applied to diverse materials, thereby obtaining merely a boring show of diversity”.
Žižek’s is a mind not only of impressive rapidity and suppleness, but of real bravura. Perhaps his finest achievement to date is the dedication in The Ticklish Subject: “To nobody and nothing”. But his books are becoming “sun-clear reports to the public about the true essence of the newest philosophy”, to name the title of a book by Fichte mocked in Hegel’s ‘Preface’. His are gifts too important to be wasted in this way. Slavoj Žižek Must Try Harder.