Žižeks will be Žižeks…

Well now you’ve gone and endorsed Trump. Forty whacks with a wet noodle, you lil’ rascal.

230px-slavoj_zizek_in_liverpool_croppedSlavoj Žižek’s recent thoughts on the U.S. presidential race have made him some new friends at Breitbart, outraged others, and made the rest of us do the Lucille Bluth eye roll (see “Martha Stewart Needs to Get Somewhere…“). It has also revived the old discussion about the decline of the public intellectual.

Quartz‘s Olivia Goldhill has offered a particularly thoughtful piece on the subject, arguing that Žižek’s recent pronouncement is the latest sign that philosophy has become so decadent and insular that it has lost sight of its purpose entirely. As we re-adjudicate the matter of the public intellectual in contemporary culture, we are likely to, as Goldhill does, invoke past greats like Sartre, Camus, Arendt, and Foucault. And it’s true that when it comes to public intellectuals, they don’t make ’em like they used to.

But I would urge caution before laying the problem entirely at academic philosophy’s feet. To do so is to misunderstand the relationship between the philosopher and the public intellectual. When the likes of Arendt and Foucault were asked to talk in a public forum about social issues, they were not being asked to ‘do philosophy’ in a public forum. Rather, they were asked to give their opinions on social issues because they had done important philosophical work elsewhere. Their importance as philosophers translated into credibility as public thinkers. This is not the same thing as doing philosophy in public. You can see this division most clearly in the work of Noam Chomsky, who is the last living public intellectual of that previous era (although I think Chomsky has always adhered to the division too strictly).

Part of Žižek’s problem is that he has built his brand on philosophical readings of pop culture so that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether he is philosophizing, publicly opining, or just performing.  Actually, I don’t think that’s a problem in and of itself because he has made some really significant philosophical contributions that way. The point is that Žižek is a difficult figure not because of the philosophy he actually does in the public but because he does philosophy in the public at all. That’s the part that doesn’t fit the mold of the public intellectual.

As for his stupidity and naive nihilism regarding a President Trump, I chalk that up to the perils of academic superstardom. He’s been surrounded by sycophants for so long (and academics can be champion sycophants) telling him that everything he says is brilliant and revolutionary that he sometimes believes it himself. It’s precisely why Jerry Seinfeld is no longer funny.

So yes, philosophy has become decadent and insular. There are some really good philosophers out there working on that problem as we speak. But the decline of the public intellectual also has to be an indictment of the public itself. At best, people with advanced degrees in Philosophy (or any of the Humanities for that matter) are considered vestigial organs, and and worst, they are the First Estate circa 1789…or perhaps the last druids hold up on Anglesey.

We seem much more content listening to the public opinions of people who only make opinions for a living. That’s the real death of the public intellectual.

 

 

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Zizek on Populism

I recently came across Zizek’s (with apologies for the inappropriate orthography) post on The Philosophical Salon, in which he defends himself from tweeters and comment sectioners. I’m not terribly interested in the specifics of his rebuttal, except to say that it’s a fascinating state of affairs when the likes of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift seem far better equipped to defend themselves than Slavoj Zizek. “The medium is the massage” and all that.

As always, though, Zizek has a way of turning the perfectly intuitive into something worth arguing.  I’m referring to the following passage from Part Two of his defense:

The stance that sustains these tweet rejoinders is a mixture of self-righteous Political Correctness and brutal sarcasm: the moment anything that sounds problematic is perceived, a reply is automatically triggered—usually a PC commonplace. Although critics like to emphasize how they reject normativity (“the imposed heterosexual norm,” etc.), their stance itself is one of ruthless normativity, denouncing every minimal deviation from the PC dogma as “transphobia,” or “Fascism,” or whatever. Such a tweet culture, combining official tolerance and openness with extreme intolerance towards actually different views, simply renders critical thinking impossible.

Again, I have nothing to say about the specifics of this, as I have neither the expertise nor the ethos. But in general terms, he points to something I’ve been struggling with for a while: How does one separate an authentic political movement from just another iteration of populism? Although populism goes hand-in-hand with reactionary thinking and so mostly afflicts those who identify with the Right, that’s not always the case. Badiou has devoted much of his career to figuring how to draw the distinction between a properly transformative Event and a reactionary episode. However, Zizek points to something much simpler. Perhaps populism is just a multitude with an orthodoxy (which of course is a contradiction).

Or maybe I’m just looking to preserve my own ego, for instance, for having been a wheaty Bernie Sanders supporter without being a chaffy BernieBro.