Zizek the Joker

How seriously are we supposed to take Slavoj Zizek? Anyone who has seen him in action, with his spittle-laced rants and autoerotic beard stroking, knows not to take everything he says entirely seriously. But if we do that, then we’re left with a philosophy made up of jokes, in which case we might as well read self-help books and Malcom Gladwell. Stripped of his jokes, however, Zizek emerges as an ursine fascist longing for the return of Hitler and Stalin.

At least that’s how Adam Kirsch invites us to read him. For the space of a review essay Kirsch decides to take Zizek entirely seriously, just to see what happens. Kirsch finds a philosopher with a passion for the Lacanian Real. For Zizek the Real found its last world historical moment in the political upheavals of the twentieth century, when the megabombs and the genocides provided “the direct experience of the Real as opposed to the everyday social reality–the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality.” To illustrate how deluded we all are, Zizek likes to invoke The Matrix, from which Zizek borrowed a line for one of his books, Welcome to the Desert of the Real.

A Zizekian reading of Zizek’s reading of the Wachowski Brothers’ film would point out that Zizek errs in his reading of that film precisely because he takes it too seriously—as too virtual. The Real shimmers for a moment in the film: when Neo’s computer first starts to go haywire, signaling some defect in the master code. That moment is the objet petit a, when the object gaze can’t put something into a coherent framework. Once Neo starts to investigate, the film devolves into just another high-concept sci-fi film. Zizek is blind to the blindness of the genre film and its relation to the Real.

Zizek’s blindness comes from his tendency to zig all the time, but only zag sometimes. Then, almost invariably, he loses track (or interest) in his own process of thought. This habit makes Zizek one of the few dialectical philosophers worth reading. (If you want to see dialectical thought in all its dreary glory, try Adorno.) But it also gets him into trouble, as Kirsch points out. For instance, Zizek likes to consider Jews through a "fantasmatic screen" (Zizek’s phrase). In and of itself, such a screen isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic, but Zizek has an unseemly fascination with this particular screen. Worse, Zizek seems perfectly happy gazing at it.  As Kirsch writes, “Jews are a mere abstraction, objects of fantasy and speculation, that can be forced to play any number of roles in his psychic economy.”

One could leap to Zizek’s defense and point out that this is another instance of Zizek the joker at work again. Indeed, for Lacan jokes suspend us between two meanings. During the telling, the meaning of a joke is always in the future, in the future anterior tense. (Lacan once jokingly pointed out that symptoms have the same structure.) So Zizek’s authoritarian longings ("Give the dictatorship of the proletariat a chance!") can be seen as suspended between two possible meanings: a desire to move beyond the self-deceptions and platitudes of liberal democracy, or a desire to reveal his own internal “pit of moral and intellectual squalor,” as Kirsch puts it. All that feverish writing and dangerous joke-telling is more likely to be driven by some dark, internal need to enjoy one’s symptom, intellectual integrity be damned.


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