A Brief Reply to a Long Comment On Žižek

This is a reply to comment by Mr. Alex Reynolds in a previous blog entry explaining my position as a fan of the Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek. The introduction to the said blog entry was, of course, something of a joke, a play on the postmodernist commonplace of how no narrative can be privileged to explain the complexity of life and history anymore. Thus the juxtaposition of Žižek’s cultural theory and Maria Ozawa’s pornographic videography. Consequently, an excess meaning can be traced in the demonstration of how in this era of late capitalism what has been described as the condition of postmodernity inaugurates a multiplicity of (and often contradictory) identities.

Coming from a university with a culture of student activism, I join immersions in impoverished communities, protest actions on various issues, and espouse a “nationalist, scientific and mass-oriented culture” in the Maoist mold. But then as a student of Literature in the Humanities Department, I study The Illiad, Oedipus Rex and other artifacts of Western “high culture” in the classroom. But then I also keep myself updated on the latest Korean pop songs from my classmates and friends and listen to these songs while reading on Said or the latest by Žižek in the dormitory. And in facebook, I got hit for watching the latest Harry Potter without reading the book version first.

Seriously though, I don’t think it would be fruitful to dismiss Derrida, Lacan, Žižek, and much of Post-Saussurean theory on the premise that the language these theorists use in expounding their texts lack clarity. The aim of their theoretical projects is precisely to demonstrate that what we perceive as “natural,” “obvious,” and “commonsensical” are ideologically constructed. Common sense, as Catherine Belsey notes in her book Critical Practice (London: Methuen, 1980), is “rooted in a specific historical situation and operating in conjunction with a particular social formation”[1] and is thus “produced in a specific society by ways in which that society talks and thinks about itself and its experience.”[2] And since “Common sense appears obvious because it is inscribed in the language we speak,”[3] a critique of ideology necessitates a reappraisal of the concept of language as “merely the medium in which autonomous individuals transmit messages to each other about an independently constituted world of things… transparency of language is an illusion.”[4] Belsey explains:

Partly as a consequence of this theory, the language used by its practitioners is usually far from transparent. The effect of this is to alert the reader to the opacity of language, and to avoid the “tyranny of lucidity,” the impression that what is being said must be true because it is obvious, clear and familiar… New concepts, new theories, necessitate new, unfamiliar and therefore intially difficult discourses. [5]

As Adorno and Horkheimer already pointed in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947): “False clarity is only another name for myth; and myth has always been obscure and enlightening at one and the same time: always using the devices of familiarity and straightforward dismissal to avoid the labor of conceptualization.” [6] Of course, there is a proper place for everything. I don’t use Lacanese when writing for the student paper or speak in Derridean aporias to my classmates. Anyhow, my position vis-a-vis Žižek is perhaps better captured by Filipino literary critic and poet Edel E. Garcellano:

It is not surprising that Žižek would find resonance in the heart of young scholars: The Elvis Presley of philo is a veritable compendium of film, music, philo & lit giants that are intertwined in a new light: this bestiary that would dazzle the Socratic flaneurs in MTV mix. At this point of historical flux when Marxism is a god that failed & the future isn’t even privy to Benjamin’s angel, anyone who emerges from the ruins of despair would find Žižek a comforting figure that survived the first wave of socialism but wouldn’t denounce it, assaying also as unacceptable the triumphalistic chest beating of capitalism. Which exactly fills the bill for a generation of Filipino activists who devours Žižek as a feast of texts: he represents a positive despair in view of the promise yet unfulfilled by the revolutionists of the ’70s, its deflection in the ’80s, & the subsequent rectification in the past decades to keep their hopes alive.[7]

As I’ve pointed out before, I do have reservations about Žižek. But it has nothing to do with his lack of clarity or his compulsion to be original, which as Mr. Alex Reynolds points out, leads him to cling to the most unoriginal and orthodox Leninist positions (which for me is one of the good things about Žižek!). My primary reservation would be, apart from those I already pointed out in my previous blog entry, Filipino Marxist scholar E. San Juan Jr.’s observation that Žižek does not go beyond questioning the coordinates of the present order:

Armed with Žižek’s apercus disseminated in numerous books and articles circulated all over the world, are we any wiser or more fully informed of the total picture of the world today after his brilliant disclosure? Are we more adequately mobilized to confront Obama’s imperial mission in Afghanistan and all over the world, including the Philippines, via the subservient neocolonial Arroyo regime? Can the Lacanian-Freudian theoretical framework clarify the root and solution to the unprecedented global economic crisis started by the financial collapse of 2008? Is US hegemony still standing after the powerful Žižek diagnosis of self-deception, seduction, and traumatic cathexes?[8] ■

1. As cited in Isagani R. Cruz, “Ang Wika bilang Ideolohiya o ang Wika ng Teorya bilang Teorya ng Wika” in Bukod na Bukod: Mga Piling Sanaysay, edited by David Jonathan Y. Bayot (Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press, 2003), 133.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 134.

5. Ibid.

6. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by John Cumming (London: Verso, 1979), xiv.

7. Edel E. Garcellano, “Theory, Theory, Theory,” Edel Garcellano: Poems Old and New, 9 May 2008, http://theworksofedelgarcellano.wordpress.com/2008/05/13/theory-theory-theory

8. E. San Juan Jr., “On Zizek’s Popularity in Diliman, Philippines, and the Problem of Freudian and Lacanian Speculations for Social Change in the Philippines and Elsewhere: A Brief Comment,” The E. San Juan Jr. Archive, 5 April 2009, http://rizalarchive.blogspot.com/2009/04/who-is-afraid-of-zizek.html

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4 thoughts on “A Brief Reply to a Long Comment On Žižek

  1. Then I think it is perhaps nice to arrest the same revulsion of San Juan against Zizek? What does it mean to question Zizek’s articulation on the account of our capacities in altering the same coordinates that we are starving to be hammered down? Even Zizek never proclaimed to be messiah bringing down the prophecy of what will the future be but fully aware that he has nothing to say that is new given the labour time subsumed under the historical stage of capitalist mode of production. More so, what seems to be problematic is that we expect these people to produce the solutions on how the revolution will be placed into practice like in the Philippines. Zizek will never do that because that is the finest act of misunderstanding Marxism.

  2. Pingback: After the Dinner Party | After the Dinner Party

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