The Philosopher's Eye

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The ethics of beating up on Slavoj Zizek

People who are not too familiar with contemporary philosophy sometimes get the impression that Slavoj Zizek is widely respected among philosophers.  This isn’t the case.  The comments underneath this Crooked Timber post contain some of the reasons why not.  Zizek’s style of philosophy — if “philosophy” is the right name for what Zizek does — is pretty far from the mainstream, and I believe that even those who like the kind of thing Zizek does will admit that Zizek is mainly known as a provocateur, not a particularly careful or serious thinker.  Which isn’t to say that he can’t be entertaining and thought-provoking.  His Pervert’s Guide to Cinema is fun.

Anyway, what I really want to do in this post is nitpick something John Holbo says in the comments to that CT post:

My point about contrarianism is just that, in general, it’s a bit odd to defend Zizek by intimating the need for a sort of intellectual fastidiousness from critics that Zizek himself does not exhibit – very much by design. Of course if the critics claim they are being very scrupulous and careful and rational, that’s a different matter. But just taking as read that it is inappropriate to attack Zizek in fast, loose, out-of-control fashion seems odd. Why shouldn’t it be appropriate? Doesn’t Zizek invite it?

The thought here seems to be that Zizek is fast and loose in his arguments — so Zizek’s critics aren’t criticizable when they are fast and loose in their criticisms of his arguments.  Why would anyone believe this?  Here’s an argument:

1. Zizek is fast and loose in his arguments.
2. So, Zizek would be inconsistent if he were to criticize anyone for being fast and loose in their arguments.
3. So, Zizek cannot justifiably criticize his fast-and-loose critics.
4. If Zizek cannot justifiably criticize his fast-and-loose critics, then no one can justifiably criticize his fast-and-loose critics.
5. So, Zizek’s fast-and-loose critics cannot be justifiably criticized.

I’m not attributing this argument to Holbo, but it does seem to capture the kind of thinking that would lead to the position Holbo seems to be endorsing.  I’m with the argument as far as premise 2.  I think the move from 2 to 3 is a mistake.  And I think 4 is pretty obviously wrong.  In fact, it seems to me that it’s often precisely when some thinker X has gone all fast-and-loose that we most urgently need sharp, meticulous, non-fast-and-loose criticism of X’s argumentation.

What is Phenomenology? By Simon Glendinning, London School of Economics (Nov 2007) Philosophy Compass

Emotions in Continental Philosophy By Robert C Solomon, UT-Austin (2006) Philosophy Compass

7 comments on “The ethics of beating up on Slavoj Zizek

  1. Mariborchan
    February 4, 2010

    If you’re looking for serious literature from Žižek, take a look at all the things he does that don’t get included in his ‘elvis of cultural theory’ marketing strategy… For example, his latest publication is ‘Mythology, Madness and Laughter: Subjectivity in German Idealism’ coauthored with Markus Gabriel. But the interesting thing is, that unlike those of his publications that were highly marketed, the internet is totally silent about this publication, many people I know didn’t even notice it was published. My guess is that he does the public persona spectacle to make a living, so he can work on more serious literature.

    As far as respect among philosophers goes, it’s all about who you ask. If you look at the fields he’s working on: Hegel, Lacan, etc.. you will see that he has engaged, and worked with, the top authors of those fields.

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  4. Anonymous
    October 4, 2011

    you can criticize him all you like because i think that he has a creative mind and presents philosophical thought in comtemporary
    language for the common man. ‘big ideas’ have always confronted conservative members of our society who desire a more tradtional approach or ‘old ideas’. if philosphy is to survive ‘zizek’ and others
    are challenging the old traditions and ideologies by their informal way of reinventing them so that these inspired ideas may support ‘great disorder under heaven …’ as an opportunity for change.

  5. Ron Spencer
    May 31, 2012

    Criticizing any lack of rigor in Zizek’s thinking is superficial to his problems. Using Lacan (even in Zizek’s cagey manner) to philosophize or propose anything is a bigger weakness. Supposedly using this as a method to ‘reactualize’ (read: say something new) German Idealism in some vague new chapter of a project of Marxism makes it just well, . . silly.
    Zizek has learned how to sell books, and book talks. By getting out of the field of philosophy.

  6. 141eastpratt
    August 21, 2012

    To the original writer and to Ron Spencer, I would say that not everyone shares the narrow view of what “philosophy” is! Karl Marx wrote in 1845 that philosophy had hitherto only interpreted the world, but that now the point was to change the world. A lot of folks take that seriously. Do you?

    • Anonymous
      August 30, 2012

      That sounds like the perfect question for Zizek.

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