PRINT Summer 2006


Slavoj Žižek

“I LIVE IN TERROR of not being misunderstood,” complains one of Oscar Wilde’s characters. Shafts of wit like this reflect a peculiarly colonial kind of perversity. As a devout Irish republican, Wilde takes some piece of conventional English wisdom and rips it inside out, turns it on its head, tampers mischievously with a word here and there so as to flip a cliché into its opposite. Like Shakespeare’s enslaved Caliban, he learns to speak the tongue of his imperial masters but returns it to them in the form of a curse or a hardboiled epigram. The colonial is dependent on metropolitan culture, but perversity—in Wilde’s case, sexual as well as intellectual—is his or her secret revenge upon it. By parodying or inverting the stale wisdom of the metropolis the colonial artist manages to outdo it. Are Wilde’s impeccably well-made English drawing-room comedies obedient imitations or wicked mockeries? Is he too perfect an Englishman to be the genuine article? Does the mimic man flatter you or send you up?

If Wilde hailed from a country that his compatriot James Joyce once described as “an afterthought of Europe,” Slavoj Žižek comes from a tiny nation wedged ambiguously between central Europe and that sinister slice of otherness known as the Balkans. It is no wonder, then, that he is so fascinated by psychoanalysis. His native Slovenia has about half the population of the minuscule Republic of Ireland, and you can raise a cheap laugh in Zagreb or Belgrade by declaring that you met everyone in Slovenia over the course of your weekend visit there. A mixture of sage, clown, jester, and guru, Žižek has concocted a small-nation brand of perversity that knows no bounds. He is, after all, a kind of Christian atheist, which even Wilde might have found a touch extravagant. (Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, Žižek shrewdly comments, is unchristian in its utter lack of the comic dimension of Christianity.)

Žižek has only to clap eyes on a received truth to feel the intolerable itch to deface it. In the course of his latest theoretical provocation, The Parallax View, for example, he puts in a good word for Stalinism, speaks up for revolutionary violence, defends the idea of the political Leader, and champions US fundamentalism against bien-pensant liberalism (among other reasons because adherents to the former believe in struggle while proponents of the latter believe only in difference). He also praises dialectical materialism, which is scarcely a hot topic in the bars and discos. One awaits with interest a book from him portraying Henry Kissinger as the very model of a Trotskyist militant.

Žižek was brought up as an orthodox Marxist-Leninist in Communist Yugoslavia, researched on Heidegger for his first book (published when he was twenty-two), and moved via his twin heroes Hegel and Lacan into a species of post-Marxism. Yet the more “posts” of one kind or another have become all the rage, the more this dedicated non-follower of fashion has perversely backtracked to a highly sophisticated version of his old hard-line beliefs. When heterodoxies become orthodox, Žižek can be found dropping them like cold bricks. He needs the goad of awkwardness and antagonism to come alive. If there was now to be a mass conversion to his own case, he might jettison it immediately and argue that Scientology, dialectically understood, is the only true materialism. In this book, he merely contents himself with claiming that theology is. In typically perverse manner, he signs on for almost all Catholic doctrines except for a belief in God, which is rather like loving everything about Coca-Cola except its taste.

Antimodishness apart, however, Žižek’s polemics against what he scathingly summarizes here as “the usual gang of democracy-to-come-deconstructionist-postsecular-Levinasian-respect-for-Otherness suspects” come as a timely douche of cold water. He is a loud, abrasive, fiercely idiosyncratic battler who has scant patience with the soft-spoken pieties of multiculturalism or liberal democracy. Postcolonialism, in Žižek’s view, is, among other things, a way of avoiding confronting one’s own society. He is the kind of intellectual bruiser who gets out of bed already arguing about Hegel. As a child of Yugoslav neo-Stalinism and its bloody collapse, he has at least had a taste of real political conflict, however unpleasant, in contrast to the kind of gentrified leftism that is embarrassed by talk of class struggle and assumes with astonishing obtuseness that all forms of difference, diversity, marginality, otherness, subversion, inclusivism, and antiessentialism are ipso facto positive. As a card-carrying Lacanian, Žižek holds to the hard, horrific core of the Real and the immortality of the death drive rather than to the soft, plastic, endlessly malleable world of postmodernism, which converts reality into one gigantic cosmetic surgery.

Against the postmodern particularists, he defends an idea of universality—but universality as a site of antagonism, not as some bland resolution. His typical strategy is to seize on ideas that postmodernism has disdainfully discarded, lend them a radical twist, and turn them on the postmodernists in order to out-left them. It is not that he has been outstripped by fashionable left orthodoxies, but that he is already out in front of them. As a natural-born debunker, one squarely on the side of the demons rather than the angels, this Slovenian satyr is allergic to the kind of solemnly moralizing sentimentalism that so often passes for public discourse in the United States.

“Parallax” names the perceived shift in an object’s position that occurs when the observer changes his perspective, an idea that Žižek takes as the grand organizing principle of this book. It turns out, in fact, to be nothing of the kind, since organizing principles are as abhorrent to the Žižekian sensibility as humility is to Donald Rumsfeld. The book remembers from time to time that it is supposed to be about parallax, before instantly forgetting it again. What it is actually about can be summarized in a single word: everything. Its author’s wide-eyed intellectual omnivorousness is in a way more American than European. The Parallax View ranges from Kant to brain science, Derrida to the demilitarized zone in Korea, Sade to Star Wars. There are brilliant riffs on evil, Kierkegaard, Abu Ghraib, Marxism, Charlie Chaplin, the prose style of Henry James, neuro-engineering, God, seduction, anti-Semitism, quantum physics, Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate, and a great deal more. It is a positive orgy of ideas. Like a man with a surfeit of intellectual testosterone, Žižek is unable to keep still for a moment, and his books leap around like a frisky adolescent. He is a reviewer’s nightmare. It is not exactly that he digresses, since there is nothing for him to digress from. Instead, we have a potentially infinite series of mini-narratives, each of which hooks on to the next while the author cunningly conceals the joins. He is the kind of thinker who makes lateral thinking look boringly linear.

To this extent, Žižek is a postmodern writer but not a postmodern thinker, an irony that this connoisseur of paradox might appreciate. If he has pathological aversion to the fashionable, he is certainly fashionable enough himself. He is less an author than a phenomenon, like punk rock or Hurricane Katrina. One of his dust jackets shows him lying like a beached whale on the couch in Freud’s London consulting room. His works abandon grand narratives for sprawling, spiderlike webs of text in which everything weaves itself into everything else. He is the perfect postmodern philosopher, too, in his self-ironizing and personal flamboyance, his zany, offbeat obsessions, as well as in his casually promiscuous mixing of Hölderlin and Hitchcock or Wagner and Terri Schiavo.

Though there is less clowning in this book (which he evidently regards as his magnum opus) than in most of his work, it is, as usual, hard at times to know just how convinced he is by his own arguments. Asking whether he is sincere is a bit like asking whether a juggler is sincere. If he is a formidably erudite thinker who seems to have read just about everything (though the visual arts are something of a blind spot), he is also a canny opportunist who makes it up as he goes along, formulates his insights on the hoof, and casually shifts his positions from book to book (the parallax view indeed). He can be glib and mildly disingenuous as well as splendidly illuminating. He is a sucker for a striking paradox, as when he tells us here that I know you have a mind only insofar as you are opaque to me, or contrasts the way the world appears to us not with how it really is, but how it really appears to us.

Žižek is that rare breed of writer—one who is both lucid and esoteric. If he is sometimes hard to understand, it is because of the intricacy of his ideas, not because of a self-preening style. In fact, his style briskly deflates the pompous self-importance of the superstar theorist. He is never in the least obscurantist, though he lacks a certain gravitas and much of the time sounds more knowledgeable than wise.

The Parallax View is impressively original stuff, even though one is haunted by the uncanny feeling that one has read it all somewhere before. One has indeed, but in Žižek’s own works. His mind is so robustly idiosyncratic that its presence in his books makes all of them sound somehow the same. Regular readers, like chess commentators, learn after a while what moves to expect. Take, for example, this sentence: “The crack between the herring and the side of the can, to put the matter in Hegelese, is actually a crack within the pickled herring itself. It is the way the pickled herring differs minimally from itself, the void or ontological gap without which it would instantly lapse into nonbeing. And can we not detect a parallel here with—in Lacanese—the way the apparent fissure between finger and torn fingernail is nothing but the difference between fingernail and non-fingernail, as the former becomes simply the empty place vacated by the latter?” This is actually my own Žižekese, not his. But he has probably written this sentence somewhere, or at least will do now.

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory and John Rylands Fellow at the University of Manchester, UK.


Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. 448 pages.