Not content to leave the business of critiquing Slavoj Žižek to me, John Gray takes apart a few thousand pages of Žižekian word salad to arrive at a conclusion I reached long ago: that the world’s most celebrated contemporary philosopher-clown is churning out meaningless pages at a rate that threatens to outpace even the voracious appetite of the disaffected youth who clamor for that meaninglessness.
Here is the very end of Gray’s lengthy and biting review of two of Žižek’s books:
Whether or not Marx’s vision of communism is “the inherent capitalist fantasy,” Žižek’s vision—which apart from rejecting earlier conceptions lacks any definite content—is well adapted to an economy based on the continuous production of novel commodities and experiences, each supposed to be different from any that has gone before. With the prevailing capitalist order aware that it is in trouble but unable to conceive of practicable alternatives, Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility. That there should be this isomorphism between Žižek’s thinking and contemporary capitalism is not surprising. After all, it is only an economy of the kind that exists today that could produce a thinker such as Žižek. The role of global public intellectual Žižek performs has emerged along with a media apparatus and a culture of celebrity that are integral to the current model of capitalist expansion.
In a stupendous feat of intellectual overproduction Žižek has created a fantasmatic critique of the present order, a critique that claims to repudiate practically everything that currently exists and in some sense actually does, but that at the same time reproduces the compulsive, purposeless dynamism that he perceives in the operations of capitalism. Achieving a deceptive substance by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision, Žižek’s work—nicely illustrating the principles of paraconsistent logic—amounts in the end to less than nothing.
Rather than arguing with Gray about whether or not Žižek has some sort of prescription for our future, Žižek’s acolytes will almost certainly claim that Gray hasn’t read Žižek’s work carefully enough or that Gray hasn’t read enough of the various theorists whose work has influenced Žižek. Failing there, they’ll assert that any flaws we might find with Žižek’s work are there by design; in other words, Žižek is either making fun of his reader, is intentionally asserting things he doesn’t believe, or — as Gray asserts — “is engaged — wittingly or otherwise — in a kind of auto-parody.”
Of course, it does make a difference whether Žižek is doing this sort of thing “wittingly or otherwise.” If he intends to parody himself or assert things he doesn’t believe, then he’s a charlatan; if it’s all unwitting, then he’s just a clown who managed to fool a lot of people into making him a global celebrity.
I could go either way on this one, as there’s seemingly no good reason for parodying oneself or filling one’s books with things one doesn’t believe … just as there’s no good reason to assert (as Žižek does, for example) that “It’s crucial to see violence which is done repeatedly to keep the things the way they are. In that sense, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.”
But I’m sure someone will write in to inform me that it’s just Žižek being Žižek and that a small mind like mine will never understand what he’s all about. Nonetheless, the more I read, the more convinced I am that — whatever reasons someone might allege are behind his various “philosophical” hijinx — it’s all just a lot of flash and very little substance.