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.