We lack the philosophers that we require for an era marked by agitation and occupation. From the UK student movement and the London riots, through to the many instantiations of the Arab Spring, along the fault lines opened along the Mediterranean from Spain to Greece, and on now to Turkey and Brazil, discontent has moved from the university seminar room and little magazine out on to the street.
The heyday of leftwing philosophy and theory came, somewhat ironically, during the high-water mark of capitalism, a period when the ‘end of history’ was repeatedly declared, prosperity was registered in rising house prices and dazzling growth in developing nations and the emergence of one of the most revolutionary technologies humanity has yet developed. Despite this, the front tables of the better bookshops of the world were stocked with titles like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, a neo-Marxist – and strangely optimistic – analysis of the world at the turn of the century. Critical perversity was the order of the day, as the question posed to the world-be leftist thinker was a difficult one: ‘How, when everything seems so good, when the claim is that the “rising tides” of the globalised economy will “raise all boats,” to articulate a critique of the current order.’
Among only a few other colleagues and competitors, one man has stuttered to the forefront of continental philosophy and radical speculation. The author of a stream of books that combine, in varying proportions, philosophical speculation and pop commentary, he is the go-to-guy for ‘serious publications’ who want some radical cultural criticism and never fails to deliver an off-the-cuff rendition of exactly the sort of eccentricity that sells copies. For these troubled but exhilarating times, we have Slavoj Žižek.
Understanding why Žižek has become the world’s favourite radical thinker can help us to understand both what is wrong with our intellectual situation and some of the impediments limiting the progress of this disunited worldwide movement for change. It is a change which, while it might not require leaders, would certainly benefit from some articulate analysis, sage contextualisation and acute advice. Instead, Žižek’s work is marked by a reflexive perversity – a methodological inheritance from his philosophical and psychoanalytical forefathers. This perversity makes his arguments and analyses exciting but is also at the back of the problems with his work and his status as one of the central philosophers of the Left.
The first works that Žižek published in English provide an obvious place to start, as it was with those that he started to make a name for himself in Anglo-American academia. In such books as The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) and Enjoy Your Symptom!(1992), Žižek deploys psychoanalytical techniques – Lacanian, specifically – to reopen old questions about continental philosophy and psychoanalysis itself. Classical psychoanalysis is not only about the treatment of ‘perversity’ – it is itself from the start a fundamentally perverse method, bent on turning around whatever seems obvious to discover what, it believes, is hiding in plain sight. A dream about X is never really about X, but always about something else, generally something meaningful in a different frame. To carry on neurotically about Y is not, at the bottom, ever about anxiety about Y but rather about some other hidden matter.
A clear example of the way that Žižek adopts a psychoanalytically ‘perverse’ mode of working can be found relatively early on in his Enjoy Your Symptom, subtitled ‘Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out’. In an exploration of Lacan’s famous aphorism that ‘a letter always arrives at its destination’, a complicated concept having to do with the sense of ‘fatedness’ that we feel when we come to the end of a series of seemingly chance events, Žižek marshals the examples of, first, the climactic recognition of the tramp by his once blind beloved at the end of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, as well as the rather baroque twists that constitute the plot of the Bette Davis melodrama Now, Voyager.In the latter Charlotte Vale is recovering from a nervous breakdown induced by her mother’s abusive attentions when she falls in love with a man who can’t leave his wife because his own daughter is herself on the verge of psychological collapse. A plot twist situates the protagonist in the same asylum as her lover’s daughter, where the two form a bond. Upon the death of her lover’s wife, she is free to marry him. Yet to do so would push the daughter into madness. Charlotte chooses to abandon her dream of marrying the man for the sake of the daughter.
Žižek reads this as a prime example of a letter ‘arriving at its destination’, as Charlotte, in her attempts to redress her situation, only succeeds in turning it around. What was for a time lost in the post, entangled in the misdirections of the plot, eventually makes its way back to her mail box. It is, indeed, an illustration of the thought behind the Lacanian aphorism. But the problem is that, because it – like so many of the other examples he mobilises in his work – plays fast and loose with the distinctions between art and life, philosophical speculation and the evidence mustered to buttress it, it remains unclear exactly what we are meant to do with Žižek’s demonstration.
If we are viewing a film whose first scene involves someone finding a lost mobile phone and answering a call on it, we are justified in anticipating that the ‘message has found its recipient,’ and something will come of this seemingly coincidental situation. But in the real world, which is often enough not organised by the generic mandates and tropes of Hollywood movies, it’s perfectly possible that I could answer the ringing mobile phone that someone has left behind on the table next to mine at Starbucks and find on the other end an operator imploring me to upgrade my own mobile phone or to refinance my debt. I hang up, turn the phone in to the barista, and move on with my day.
It’s not that it’s necessarily illegitimate to illustrate philosophical arguments with instances from literary or cultural productions. Far from it. But what is vital, especially if one is making truth claims, however complex the notion of ‘truth’ at play is, is to register an awareness of the genre of – and the generic conventions at play in – the works from which one draws. The fact that ‘a letter always arrives at its destination’ in blockbuster films is not surprising, as a commercial production would obviously resist the introduction of psychologically meaningless events or situations.
Now, Voyager simply couldn’t be a film about a traumatised woman who uncomplicatedly gets better through love. There would have been no narrative room for its killer concluding line: ‘Why reach for the moon, when we can have the stars?’ Psychoanalysis, the foundation of Žižek’s intellectual construction, is notorious for its confusion on this point. It’s worth remembering, for instance, that the father of the ‘science’ of psychoanalysis grounded his most famous concept on the case study of a quasi-mythological literary character who pre-existed Christ by around 300 years and who suffered problems of varying, if rather intense, varieties with his father and mother.
It is not hard to see why, despite the flimsiness of the argument and the category errors, Žižek’s approach as illustrated here would be attractive to humanities postgraduates. It is, after all, difficult to make writing in the humanities feel as though it matters. To play fast and loose with genre and its relation to reality, to work with either a confusion or a cynicism about the relative weight of things – these are avenues to easy significance. The fact that Žižek can, by sleight of hand, make Now, Voyagerinto a treatise on the depths of human psychology gives student writing about Terminator the confidence that they, too, can introduce world-historical significance and political import into their own journeyman efforts.
Critical perversity – spinning the dials of generic difference, forwarding arguments that are wildly against the grain, or affiliating with previous thinkers whose intentions would seem to be contradictory to one’s own – is one way to stand out amidst an increasingly crowded field of fellow graduate students or would-be commentators. But the situation isn’t solely determined by academic job-market conditions and left-wing publishing’s limited purse. A tendency to perversity has long been written into the DNA of continental philosophy.
From Hegel’s location of the ‘end of history’ in the autocratic Prussian state through to Heidegger’s membership in the Nazi party, from Paul de Man’s youthful anti-Semitic screeds to the writings of the newly popular Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt and on to Michel Foucault’s enthusiasm for the emergence of the Iranian Revolution, it is difficult to ignore the curiously high number of philosophers embraced by the philosophical left and its comrades in other disciplines who began or finished their careers with an embrace of the moderate to extreme right. All of this is well-documented. But the case to be made about Žižek is not one grounded in guilt by association. Rather, it is Žižek’s relentless attacks on what he calls ‘liberal multiculturalism’ that places him safely within this tradition of philosophical perversity when it comes to politics. Originating in a series of performed volleys against ‘political correctness’, we can find in these attacks a point of contact between the methodology of a work like Enjoy Your Symptomand the darker side of Žižek’s brand of political commentary.
The philosophical left has a long tradition of appropriating its enemies’ jargon. The Situationists called this détournage, while Michel de Certeau labelled a parallel practice la perruque – other names have been used by other thinkers. And it’s a useful and effective tactic – in certain situations. But on the other hand, there’s always the possibility that by adopting the opposition’s discourse we end up, to détourne Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, ‘becoming the change we never wanted to be.’ Žižek’s work treads a dangerous line in this regard, and in numerous instances seems to fall into reiteration rather than reappropriation of the terms and ideas that he incessantly ‘borrows’ from the right. To cite one glaring instance, in his 2012 work The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, he borrows the term Leitkultur in the course of a discussion of a controversial statement against liberal multiculturalism by Angela Merkel.
[I]nstead of playing the Beautiful Soul and bemoaning the newly emerging racist Europe such statements announce, we should turn a critical eye upon ourselves, asking to what extent our own abstract multiculturalism has contributed to this sad state of things […] The task is to move beyond the mere tolerance of others towards a positive emancipatory Leitkultur, which alone can sustain an authentic coexistence and mixing of different cultures, and to engage in the forthcoming battle for that Leitkultur. Do not simply respect others, but offer them a common struggle, since our most pressing problems today are problems we have in common.
Leitkultur is a word introduced into German political debates at the turn of the century by the sociologist Bassam Tibi. It means, literally, ‘dominant culture’. While Tibi’s intentions may have been complex, it was quickly taken up by the German right as a lexical cudgel against immigration and multiculturalism and in favour of assimilation. Žižek uses it as a provocation – he knows in advance that many will be upset by his deployment of a tainted term. But for us to read Žižek’s usage of it here, barely different than its instantiations in those debates in Germany, as a guerilla intervention into the discourse of his opponents is to see things as they are ‘supposed to be’ rather than as they are.
Moreover, it would be to ignore some fairly obvious signs that such moves are inconsistent with his general behaviour, even with his fundamental philosophical outlook. Early in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek’s first book to be published in English, he advances a critique of what he sees to be a misreading of Freud on the part of the anti-psychoanalytical psychologist Hans-Jiirgen Eysenck. His reproach of Freud is, according to Žižek, ‘based on a fundamental theoretical error: the identification of the unconscious desire at work in the dream with the “latent thought” […] but as Freud continually emphasises, there is nothing “unconscious” in the “latent dream thought”: this thought is an entirely “normal” thought which can be articulated in the syntax of everyday, common language.’
In other words, and to put it slightly reductively, there’s a tendency to see whatever is hidden behind and driving our dreams as complex and secret, folded as it is in the murky depths of our unconsciousnesses. But Žižek contends that ‘if we seek the “secret of the dream” in the latent content hidden by the manifest text, we are doomed to disappointment: all we find is some entirely “normal” – albeit usually unpleasant – thought.’
So where we expect – or want – a secret to unravel, we find nothing but the ‘normal’ and ‘unpleasant’: disappointment with a friend or lover, uneasiness about our work, conventional gripes with our families, pettiness about money. For the sake of an example, let’s translate Žižek’s model of Freud from the interpretation of dreams to the interpretation of art and apply it to Hamlet. Rather than a barely graspable expression of the human condition, in this model the play would likely be ‘about’ some quotidian, albeit ‘unpleasant’ problem on the part of its author: a tedious anxiety about his mother or father, wife, lover or child. That this is likely the case, according to this model, doesn’t eliminate the value of the play, as what is of interest is the displacing work of figuration that Shakespeare formed upon his boring problem to make it into a work of art.
Rather than mysterious or complex, hidden and only extractable through the labours of therapy or the misdirections of art, the latent content, the ‘meaning’, is in Žižek’s version banal. This may well be as true about Hamletas it is about the dream – so Žižek may be right in his argument about Freud. But more interesting than its degree of philosophical correctness is the way it might be seen to stand as a conceptual analogue of another aspect of Žižek’s work and public pronouncements.
In his writings and public pronouncements Žižek can come to seem like a patient in some sort of auto-therapy session who has been convinced by his analyst that, beneath any projected veneer of complexity, there’s nothing to be found but mundane anxieties and desires. Because of this, Žižek the patient feels at liberty to give them utterance, time and again, as if this discovery has liberated him from the responsibility to be anything other than crude in an exceedingly ordinary way.
In the early works, this tendency took the form of a series of theoretical examples that with an awkward hilarity took a poke at ‘politically correct’ academic culture. In The Plague of Fantasies, he explains the triadic nature of ideology first through the differences between German, French, and American toilets, then via an excursus on different styles of female pubic grooming (‘do we not encounter the same semiotic triangle in the three main hairstyles of the female sex organ’s pubic hair? … another version of the Levi-Straussian semiotic triangle of “raw” wild hair, well-kept “baked” hair and shaved “boiled” hair?’
Another often-repeated anecdote, ostensibly in illustration of the ‘performative efficiency’ of racism, Žižek explains what he sees to be the ice-breaking purpose of racist jokes. The following iteration of the story comes from a radio interview:
How did I become here a friend, a true friend, am not advising anybody to do it because it was a risky gesture, but it worked wonderfully with a – with a – with a black, African-American guy. No? How did I become? We were very friendly, already, but not really, but then I risk and told him, it’s a horrible thing I warn you, ‘Is it true that you blacks, you know, have a big penis, no? But that you can even move it so that if you have on your leg above your knee a fly you can Boff! smash it with your penis?’ The guy embraced me and told me dying of laughter, ‘Now you can call me a nigger.’ Like when blacks tell you ‘you can call me a nigger’ means they really accept you, no? 
Žižek’s implicit argument about such ‘jokes’ would be that they break against the enforced proprieties and casual hypocrisies of ‘liberal tolerance,’ that they demonstrate a brave sense of ease about the ordinary, ‘unpleasant’ stuff that lies at the base of all of our dreams and thoughts. But as Žižek’s position has shifted from rising star of academic theory to cultural commentator and premier public intellectual of the radical left, what started as a patter of off-colour jokes has moved from the margin of his thought closer to the centre.
In another recent critique of European multiculturalism, he discusses (and seems at least to half-justify) a pogrom against Roma families that had taken place recently in Slovenia. Describing the protests against the Roma, he suggests that rather than condemn the participants as ‘racists’, ‘liberals’ should instead address the ‘constant fighting and shooting in the Roma camp […] the constant theft of animals [and] other forms of small harassments from the Roma,’ thereby lending their attention (and sympathies?) to the ‘locals’.
Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of same tendency starts with Žižek’s publication of a piece in 2008 in the German journal Lettre International, which cited ‘Noam Chomsky’s biting remark that Obama is a white man blackened by a couple of hours of sun-tanning.’ A journalist for Harper’s Magazine, Sam Stark, was surprised at the attribution of such a statement to Noam Chomsky and discovered it was likely rather a paraphrase of an off-colour joke made by Silvio Berlusconi upon Obama’s election. When confronted by Stark with the error, Žižek apologised for the misattribution, but nonetheless endorsed the sentiment of the sentence itself.
[E]ven if the statement I falsely attributed to Chomsky were to be truly made by him, I would not consider it a patronisingly racist slur, but a fully admissible characterisation in our political and ideological struggle. There are African-American intellectuals who allow themselves to be fully co-opted into the white-liberal academic establishment, and they are loved by the establishment precisely because they seem ‘one of us,’ white with a darkened skin. 
There are countless examples of similar gestures, such as his use of a very loaded term in a 2011 piece for the London Review of Booksabout the recent riots in London: ‘On British streets during the unrest, what we saw was not men reduced to ‘beasts’, but the stripped-down form of the ‘beast’ produced by capitalist ideology.’  Even more disturbingly, there is his detailed description of an horrific child-pornographic image in Parallax Viewin order to explain a point about the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, which leaves us wondering where exactly Žižek stumbled upon the image and why he would choose that as an appropriate philosophical illustration. (The passage is honestly a bit too much to quote here).
True to the unseemly banality of the latent thought that underlies the dream in Žižek’s readings, these belches against ‘political correctness,’ meant to be in service of a radical argument against liberalism and what he sees to be its masking, hypocritical embrace of ‘tolerance’, come rather to seem like an exposure of something more fundamental than the argument itself. When accumulated and presented as a catalogue we must suspect that the relationship between what’s accidental and what’s central, between what is a tic and what is the coherence that the tic interrupts, are, if not reversed, at least ambiguous. Many prefer to believe that these ‘inappropriate’ performances are accidental slippages or embarrassing digressions from an otherwise serious and well-intentioned body of philosophical work. But the ‘serious’ philosophical statements and the off-colour jokes are not accidental cohabitants of the persona ‘Slavoj Žižek’. Rather, they are two modes of manifesting the same thing: a philosophical model that is interested in the intricacies of performance but ultimately views humanity with an incredible cynical eye. His cynicism is such that most agents and institutions on the left, or even in the comfortable centre, would disavow it in an instant if they recognised it.
His programme is both consistent and transparent enough to allow us to sketch a series of complementary moves or gestures that reappear throughout Žižek’s work: to distract from the complexity (some might say inscrutability) of European philosophy and psychoanalysis by (mis)applying it to Youtube clips and the multiplex; to mistake seminar room philosophising for radical politics; to in turn espouse a radicality so extreme and anachronistic as to allow denizens of the seminar room to refrain from any actual political engagement; to focalise this politics against the ‘liberal’ incursions of multiculturalism; and to coat the whole assemblage in hipster irony, post-Iron Curtain exotic pseudo-authenticity, and lashes of ‘political incorrectness’ played the same way as a shock jock in the Bible Belt. This work is, in short, tailormade to reinforce the instinctual attitudes of a certain type of scholar or student, one more at home with the action movie and its wish-fulfilments than the dry intricacies of text or the slow movements of history.
The failure (or refusal) of many recent political movements to articulate even a minimal set of demands or aspirations, whether causally related to Žižek’s influence or not, reaffirm that today’s figureheads of the politicised humanities aren’t up to the tasks at hand. Techniques developed in the hothouse of the fin de siècle reign of theory, when any critique seemed perverse and alternatives to the dominant narrative of history obscure, have passed their sell-by date. Žižek asks in his recent Year of Dreaming Dangerously,
What are we to do in such depressive times when dreams seem to fade away? Is the only choice we have between the nostalgic-narcissistic remembrance of sublime moments of enthusiasm and the cynical-realist explanation of why these attempts to change the situation inevitably had to fail?
It has become clear that, if there is an answer to these questions, we are going to have to learn to look elsewhere.
The editors of The White Review are inviting responses to this essay. Please get in touch via editors [at] thewhitereview.org to discuss. ‘Enjoy Your Symptoms’ is the first in an ongoing series of essays tackling the state of the Left.