Friday, July 30, 2010

The Will to Polemic

I sometimes think that one of Slavoj Žižek missions is to confound the efforts of anyone who tries to make sense of his writings, his interviews, his lectures, or any other of his "performance media." So Brian Dillon deserves plenty of points for his review of Žižek's latest book, Living in the End Times, now available on the Web site for the London Telegraph. Dillon seems to "get" that Žižek is, first and foremost, a performer (as I suggest in my own first sentence); and any other labels, such as "philosopher" (which determines the shelf on which I put his books) or "social theorist," are purely incidental. Actually, the labels Dillon invokes tend to do a much better job than any others I have encountered in writings about Žižek:

Rather, it’s his range that impresses – he’s equal parts forbidding theorist of the contemporary political and cultural scene, and contriver of entertainingly elaborate paradoxes. If it weren’t for the hangdog persona and residual communism, he’d be an intellectual dandy: the closest thing we have to the mock-aristocratic socialist Oscar Wilde.

Dillon even goes so far as to assert that Living in the End Times makes a single unifying point (the sort of claim that is likely to have a jaw-dropping effect on anyone who has heard Žižek speak):

At the heart of the book is an argument that will be familiar to readers of his recent work. The language of social liberalism espoused in the West on the Right and Left alike is, Žižek contends, nothing less than the purest form of intolerance. In fact, “tolerance” is precisely the problem: a weasel word that allows politicians of any ideological stripe to claim that they act in the name of freedom.

What Dillon seems to have missed, however, is that this is Žižek-as-performer in action; and, if, in the spirit of Jacques Derrida, rhetoric is the key element of a Žižek performance, then the actual unifying force is the rhetoric of polemic. When we then look at what the polemic is attacking, we discover, as Matthew Sharpe did in his Žižek entry for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, that reading Žižek is "oddly reminiscent of Nietzsche;" and that reminiscence is readily triggered by Dillon's above observation.

There is, however, one element of Žižek's "texts" (scare quotes to allow for his diversity of media) that definitely does not remind the reader of Friedrich Nietzsche. That is the element of chutzpah. Nietzsche took himself far too seriously to admit any spirit of chutzpah in his writing (which may have led to his descent into madness, if I may exercise some chutzpah of my own); but Žižek has no such compunctions. Consider the final example of his work that Dillon examines:

Take, for example, his – on the face of it, bizarre and tasteless – comparison of the crimes of Josef Fritzl with “a much more respectable Austrian myth, that of the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music”. Fritzl’s incarceration and rape of his daughter, his abuse and neglect of the children she bore him: all of this is appalling but, Žižek ventures, also entirely of a piece with kitsch visions of the perfect nuclear family. Fritzl, to an admittedly extreme degree, had merely fulfilled the deepest fantasy of the patriarchal father: to “protect” his family to the extent of destroying it.

Žižek’s point – which he surely shares with a long line of philosophical moralists, from St Augustine to Freud – is that it is our most “natural” and “caring” urges that can lead us either into the silliest fantasies (the “sacred intensity” of The Sound of Music) or the horrors enacted by the likes of Fritzl. It’s a thesis with vast geopolitical implications, and Living in the End Times elaborates some of them with extraordinary wit and rigour.

Pauline Kael once said in a radio interview that she would rather take an eight-year-old child to see La Dolce Vita than any full-length Walt Disney cartoon, her point being that the latter was far more traumatic than the former. It is no secret that many of our favorite myths are just as traumatizing. We need only look at the original sources collected by the Brothers Grimm. However, turning this observation of a Christmas institution of a television-watching community by drawing an analogy with such an extreme act of depravity requires far more chutzpah than "the average bear" is capable of mustering. If we are to accept Dillon's "intellectual dandy" label, then Žižek sports the apparel of chutzpah. Thus, while the Telegraph may wish to celebrate the release of his latest book with such a perceptive review, I would prefer to celebrate by offering Žižek a Chutzpah of the Week award!

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