Home > Uncategorized > Again on Žižek’s style

Again on Žižek’s style

I finally finished First As Tragedy, Then As Farce yesterday, having put it aside for a month once the end-of-semester whirlwhind struck. In addition to being so enjoyable to read, it always strikes me how clear Žižek is. Sometimes he does play a bit loosely with certain terms (I had a conversation last night about what he really means by “the state” in this book, which I still don’t understand), and his work is piled high with technical allusions the reader is to some degree expected to pick up on. But a reader can get on perfectly well without a crisp definition of the terms and without the allusions, still understanding the point under discussion. At least at the micro-level.

That’s the thing: Žižek is an amazingly clear, very plain-spoken, common-sense kind of writer, in the context of a single page or a continuous few pages. (All the more impressive given how, in a common-sense way, he’s able to directly confront common sense.) It’s partly the effortlessness of reading that makes him so enjoyable to read. But taken as wholes, especially in the more popular pieces like this one, his books are extremely erratic. It takes quite a bit of work—quite a bit more work than other, lesser writers—to really make sense of what the point has been once you’ve made it to the last page. There’s definitely a “main point” to this book, about the constitutive instability of capitalism and the renewed possibility of communism as an alternative, but its bulk is made up of other tangential points—about immigration in France, Obama’s victory, superhero films, Ayn Rand, the relation of Haiti to Hegel…

I don’t mean this as a criticism, God knows. These “tangents” are absolutely central to his success as a writer and public theorist. In fact, I’m tempted to think that this style—the frenetic unraveling of little points, happily digressive, all in service of one big, less determinate point (communists, come home!)—should, on the contrary, be directly advocated. I wonder for myself, at least, if I’ve not become too concerned with crafting an essay around a single large-scale syllogism—a kind of thinking that doesn’t come naturally to most, and which is therefore intrinsically less interesting, less capable of holding a reader’s attention.

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  1. Bhochka
    May 22, 2010 at 6:48 am

    Absolutely agreed, and I think you touch upon a very important point – the sheer pleasure of reading or listening to Zizek, which so many people dismiss as either incidental to the appreciation of his work, or as a cheap distraction from ‘serious’ thought. When I began reading him I really had very little sense of Lacan, or Freud, or David Lynch, or many of the other figures who populate his work – with the exception of Marx and Hitchcock! His work stimulated me to read wider and deeper, and five years on I still read him obsessively for insights, most of which I agree with, some of which I don’t – but at some level agreement or disagreement seem almost trivial when engaging with him. The prose style is both engaging and clear, and despite the way he apparently digresses endlessly, as you point out, the line of thought is usually entirely consistent, pushing a determinate matrix of ideas to their limit. In this sense he’s a very brave philosopher, because he relentlessly follows his own ideas to their logical conclusions, even if they seem apparently contradictory of each other.
    I think it’s crucial not to miss out, also, on the role that comic performance – in many registers – plays in his work. I’d go so far as to argue that comedy becomes, for Zizek, an active mechanism whereby he captures the world. Astra Taylor’s film brought that home well, I think – and I think it’s incredibly productive to read Zizek in conjunction with Alenka Zupancic’s great book on comedy – for me, the other great achievement of the Slovenian-Lacanian ‘troika’.

  1. May 22, 2010 at 12:14 am

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