Zizek & the Academic Industrial Complex

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


October 26, 2013

Zizek & the Academic Industrial Complex

There are two kinds of people in the world: People who love Žižek and people who hate him. My working assumption is that the two camps are better off ignoring each other because there’s really no point trying to reconcile the two or have a debate over whether Žižek is an important thinker or merely a charlatan.

I naively believe that we all place our bets and then history will decide. If he’s worth listening to, then his work will influence his followers to interpret the world in interesting and creative ways, bringing to light aspects of cultural phenomena in a way that’s not possible with other thinkers. And if not, then he will disappear.

Some of my friends on Twitter don’t share my pragmatism, and try to provoke me into getting into debates with them in the mistaken belief that they have some kind of devastating points to make that will sink all of my battleships. This is mostly not true, and usually the problem is that they just don’t understand Žižek. I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve read that proceed from some crucial theoretical misunderstanding, or believe that he is attacking some position of theirs, when if they had read his actual work, they would realize he actually argues in favor of. No wonder that when people pose critical questions to him at his public appearances, he often begins his response with, “I agree with you…”

The problem is that Žižek is a philosopher, not just a pundit, and it’s actually not possible to get a true understanding of what he’s getting at just by watching one or two lectures and reading his newspaper columns. Yasmin Nair wrote a very popular and mostly critical article where she claims that his biggest fans are overgrown male graduate students and that “Žižek allows people to engage in academic potty humour, to delight in what they think is the profane…”

The first claim is highly dubious, since Žižek owes most of his success to women like director Sophie Fiennes who turned him into media star with her films A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Astra Taylor’s documentaries Žižek! and Examined Life, and academics like Jodi Dean and Alenka Zupancic. If there is a gender question, it is why Žižek’s most prominent promoters are women.

The second point about academic potty humor is a stronger one—perhaps his fans do take him in this way, but in my experience it is more frequently the critics who take this as permission to be truly uncivil in their attacks. But regardless of who is guilty of this, it is based in a superficial understanding of his position. Contrary to his public persona, Žižek is a philosopher of politeness, a fact that is not immediately obvious until we delve deeply into his actual writings on Lacanian concepts like perversion and the Symbolic order.

Although this seems to be contradicted by his numerous obscene jokes, in public he almost always apologizes before he says them. One could respond “This can’t mean anything, since he still says obscene things!”, a mere empty gesture designed to distract us from the reality of what he actually said. We can imagine Žižek responding, as he did in How to read Lacan, “The most elementary level of symbolic exchange is a so-called ‘empty gesture’.”

Isn’t his apology merely obeying the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit? Yes, and if you are familiar with Žižek’s work, you are aware that there are theoretical reasons behind this move, which imply that in the choice between the letter and the spirit of the law, choosing the letter is the subversive option.

Those who interpret his vulgar jokes as a kind of devilish glee celebrating the absence of any rules and goading us into throwing off our inhibitions and enjoy dirty humor simply do not understand what Žižek is talking about.

Keeping in mind that past performance is no guarantee of future results, we who have been bullish on Žižek and placed our bets appropriately haven’t been disappointed or surprised by his success, but those who have shorted his stock have found that he hasn’t disappeared. Compounding their error, they mislead themselves with confused cultural analyses about the source of his popularity and what pathologies they reveal about his fans.

They often hit on the absurd pseudo-insight that popularity as such is a sign of something pathological, as if being obscure and ignored is the sine qua non of academic excellence. His fans are cultish devotees who can’t think for themselves, and—unseemly for an academic—he is the “Elvis of cultural theory,” a rock star who is able to fill auditoriums with huge, adoring crowds.

And the jokes. So many jokes.

What’s most distinctive about Žižek is the way he flaunts all the usual standards of academia, and quite naturally, this sticks in the craw of those academics who have carefully crafted their own public persona of impeccable professorial respectability. Žižek makes no effort hide is contempt for mainstream academia, saying “If anything, most of the idiots that I know are academics. That’s why I don’t have any interest in communicating too much with academics.”

In response to the criticism he faced for writing copy for Abercrombie & Fitch’s 2003 Back to School catalog, he said “If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!’” To put it more simply, the Žižek Industrial Complex coined by Yasmin Nair is surely dwarfed by the Academia Industrial Complex, a much vaster and more insidious phenomenon which perhaps deserves more scrutiny.

Žižek’s jokes are of course part of the game. Academics are supposed to be serious profesisonals, not constantly cracking jokes, much less obscene ones, and making a fool of themselves in public. They are supposed to give the impression of upperclass dignity, conveying all the usual status markers because this will win the support of the middle class seeking to enforce the cultural gulf separating themselves from the working class. This necessarily involves a repression of certain things that are regarded as inappropriate, an exclusion that betrays the openness that characterizes genuine intellectual inquiry by making certain things off-limits because they threaten the class position of academics.

Using the absurd as a framework for finding profound truths does not make a mockery of genuine thinking, it is its very essence. We often hear slurs like pseudo-intellectual or dorm-room philosopher to characterize those who in manner or appearance, deviate noticeably from the conventions of those who are authorized to think. Yasmin Nair comes close to this by calling Žižek’s fans overgrown graduate students.

What this misses is that geniune intellect is the pseudo-intellect. Thinking beyond the conventions of what’s acceptable by definition puts us at risk of talking nonsense. If you’re committed to the axiom that we don’t have a framework for understanding the totality of human existence, then whatever escapes us necessarily appears at first as impossible, insane, absurd and maybe obscene. Obviously, many initially absurd things remain that way, but to exclude the absurd from the outset is dangerously limiting.

From Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious we learn that jokes may express a repressed and even traumatic truth, so although it is true that many come to Žižek’s lectures to hear jokes, one should not be so quick to dismiss him as a mere entertainer, or his fans as superficial and incapable of real thinking.