Mummy, that man with the funny accent is confusing me


I haven’t yet managed to see the new documentary film Žižek!, which hasn’t yet made it to the provinces. I have however read the review thereof in the New Statesman by Johann Hari (age 13¾) in which Johann shows little or no understanding of what the great man is about. I’m far from being an uncritical fan of Žižek – I find him entertaining and aggravating in pretty much equal measure – but he surely deserves better than the treatment Johann dishes out.

Steven Poole has already written a quite excellent riposte to Johann, which I won’t recap in any real detail. I agree with Steven that Johann shows little sign of understanding what postmodernism is. There is no shame in that – even Alex Callinicos, the Greatest Living Philostopher Known to Mankind, doesn’t understand what postmodernism is. But Žižek isn’t a postmodernist, and cribbing from Francis Wheen’s Mumbo-Jumbo and throwing around “postmodernist” as an all-purpose insult doesn’t really make a case. Likewise, Johann finds Lacan impenetrable. Again, I find Lacan pretty obscure, and that’s with a background in Reichian psychoanalysis. But Lacan’s obscurity doesn’t prove Žižek’s charlatanry, unless you hold to the philistine English view that anything difficult must be smoke and mirrors.

There are also some rather distasteful guilt-by-association arguments, of the Marko Attila Hoare variety. As in: Žižek approvingly quotes Alain Badiou; he must therefore subscribe to Badiou’s entire bill of goods; Badiou used to be a Maoist; therefore Žižek is an apologist, at least by proxy, for Mao’s atrocities. Not only is this unconvincing, it doesn’t hold up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. For instance, in the Balkan wars Badiou took a pro-Serbian position, while Žižek has quite a pronounced streak of Slovene chauvinism.

What I wanted to pay some attention to is the question of exactly why Hari doesn’t get Žižek. A commenter on the Poole review noted that Johann has a double first in philosophy from Cambridge. Now, Johann is a smart bloke, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify him to comment on, oh, most modern European philosophy. Cambridge, erstwhile stomping ground of Russell and Wittgenstein, is the spiritual home of analytical philosophy, which is to be sharply distinguished from the continental Hegelian tradition.

Let me explain. The Hegelian approach to philosophy is basically historicist. The analytical approach is pseudo-scientific – “pseudo” because, as Sokal and Bricmont could tell you, philosophy is not a science. Nonetheless, it aspires to be scientific, and especially to approximate mathematical thought. Remember that 99% of scientists don’t give a rat’s ass about Newton’s life and times, or the historical context of the development of Newtonian thought. They don’t even read Newton’s books. What they want is to have Newton’s laws clearly written down in a textbook.

Well, analytical philosophy is a bit like that. Its methodology is based on the idea that a philosopher’s work can be boiled down to succinct “propositions”, and the task is to critique those propositions. Historical background, context, even translation from foreign languages, are of no interest to the analytical philosopher. If you have an essay to write on Wittgenstein’s concept of free will, you can read the works of Wittgenstein and the relevant contextual literature to your heart’s content, but your essay will hinge on Wittgenstein’s propositions. In fact, if you are a skilled bluffer, you can just go to the index, find three or four quotes on free will, and build a massive interpretive apparatus around the propositions. The propositions stand alone, and your interpretation can only be judged on its own coherence.

This actually works pretty well for Wittgenstein or Russell. It doesn’t work at all well for any philosopher who can’t be easily reduced to “propositions”. This is why Cambridge’s responses to Nietzsche have been uniformly wretched. It explains why Baudrillard drives English philosophers haywire. And it’s also a clue as to why Johann, for all his smarts, seems to be totally clueless when it comes to Žižek, Badiou or indeed Derrida, who he lashed a while back.

It occurs to me that an awful lot of these comical misunderstandings could be avoided if a) Britain followed France’s example of giving secondary-level students a basic grounding in philosophy, and b) the tyranny of analytical philosophy was replaced by a return to a more historicist approach. I don’t, for example, believe that a philosophy student should be let loose on Nietzsche without at least a minimal grasp of German language and literature, and the history of Nietzsche’s time. This would be quite a challenge to traditional English philistinism, but it might be worth it for bringing some clarity of thought. Of course, we Irish aren’t in much of a position to talk, as there is virtually no philosophical activity on the Emerald Isle, barring a few Thomists in the religious orders. A few steps on that road over here may be in order.

And if you get the chance to see Žižek the movie, please do. Once you get a grip on the accent, old Slavoj is quite the turn.


  1. Andy Newman said,

    May 11, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    Given that Johann hari shows little or no understanding of almost anything – is it surprising he doesn’t understand Žižek?

    Hari is the most conceited, fatuous, opinionated prick in history.

  2. Red Squirrel said,

    May 11, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    A documentary on Zizek? What sorcery is this? Where, when?

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 11, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    I don’t know, Andy. I tend to find Johann endearingly gormless. And he probably deserves credit for owning up to being wrong on Iraq.

    The documentary is in the cinemas now. Although it may take a while to reach us in the backwaters.

  4. Andy Newman said,

    May 11, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    Yes – he did admit he was wrong, and fiar ply to the jumped up squirt of piss, he has been quite good on Venezuela.

    But he is so amazingly lazy as a thinker (and in everyway looking at his picture)

  5. ejh said,

    May 12, 2007 at 10:51 am

    He also loves himself so much he could be played by Peter Ustinov in a reprise of his performance in “Quo Vadis”.

    If Ustinov wasn’t dead, obviously.

  6. Cian O'Connor said,

    May 12, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    Actually Johann did SPS (Social and Political Studies) at Cambridge, though apparently the double first is accurate. The people who did SPS when I was there (a few years before Johann) seemed to aspire to the dizzy heights of party politics, or opinion journalism. Which I suppose is marginally better than the alternative careers Cambridge students lust after (going into the “Arts”, investment banking or something involving an MBA. I really didn’t enjoy my three years there…).

    I’ve no idea what the course was like academically, though Cambridge isn’t really known for its sociologists. And as somebody who got a 2.2, I’ve always thought that a double first from Cambridge in anything social sciencey/artsy says more about the person’s ability to bullshit, than their actual intellectual abilities.

  7. Cian O'Connor said,

    May 12, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    He got a double first in Social and Political Sciences (I checked his website). Which was marginally more respectable than Land Economy when I was there. Seemed to be filled with ambitious pseudo-lefties, who read very little. Hari would seem a good fit.

    I think anglo anti-intellectualism explains Hari quite well, no? Apparently if you attack intellectuals it shows your prolier than thou.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 13, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    Right enough, a background in PSP would explain a highly skilled bluffer. And our Johann does fit the profile of an English anti-intellectual intellectual. Had he not got a paying media gig, I could picture him going far in the SWP.

  9. ejh said,

    May 13, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Has mine host read the posting on this subject on D Squared?

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 14, 2007 at 11:39 am

    I did indeed, and thanks for linking here.

  11. Kevin said,

    May 21, 2007 at 12:39 am

    I struggled through the comments following Poole’s post, as well as those following the defence of Hari over at Butterflies and Wheels. I’m not much better for that effort. Every piece apropos of the Žižek!, including Hari’s piece, seems characterised by an unwillingness to tackle or defend Žižek’s output. Hari shows himself as of light reading; in attacking him though, so too does Poole. In the comments, we learn he has read one Žižek text. He’s quiet about that in the original post, and in fact, implies that he’s read an awful lot more.

    The whole thing seems a bit of a non-thing.

    For two years I thought Johann Hari was a lesbian, because of that mugshot. When I discover his actual sex, I had trouble adapting. Then, on the phone with him as a young Leaving Certificate student looking for help with a research project, I let slip some pronoun or term that would imply I was talking to a woman. There was a weird, but brief, silence. The conversation continued, uncomfortably.

  12. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 21, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Yes, as somebody who’s read quite a lot of Žižek, the bluffing is easy to spot. Not that it’s a straightforward business defending Žižek, in that you can’t always tell when he’s being serious. But that’s part of the fun of reading him, along with the fact that even when you don’t agree with him he’s usually unpredictable and interesting.

    By way of contrast, when I heard Hari was doing Žižek, my first guess of what he had written wasn’t far off. If you’ve laboured through Wheen and Cohen on this sort of thing, the British pundit tackling continental thought becomes a bit wearying, especially if you know something about continental thought.

    And yes, that mugshot is strangely androgynous.

  13. May 23, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    […] getting stuck in to Johann Hari (age 13¾) and his comical misunderstandings of Slavoj Žižek, I included a brief […]

  14. August 17, 2007 at 9:24 am

    […] me say at the outset that I have no problem in principle with giving Hari stick – I’ve done it myself once or twice. But the background to this is […]

  15. L said,

    December 29, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    The account given of “Analytical Philosophy”, an egregious construct, is complete rubbish. There are many analytic philosophers who employ history and the history of philosophy in their work (Macintyre, Bennett, Schultz, etc) and this criticism is none other than an irrelevance. As for the proposition that analytical philosophy focuses on ‘propositions’, this may well be the case for Moore and early Russell but is certainly not the case for a large number of analytical philosophers I can think of. It seems the author of this article does not know what supposed ‘Analytical Philosophy’ is. How dare he castigate people’s ignorance of what ‘Postmodernism’ is.

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