Monday, December 01, 2008

Famous Idiots
Slvoj Zizek Edition

Adam Kirsch discusses that Zizek guy at TNR.

Let me note that I don't personally know any philosophers who take this guy seriously. In fact, most analytic philosophers (who, let me admit, have their own problems) wouldn't even recognize the guy's name. So don't blame us.

I had never heard of him until I was watching the special features on the Children of Men DVD. Some guy comes on and starts spewing complete nonsense. I mean, seriously: he made no sense whatsoever. The disk identified him as a philosopher, so I looked him up. Otherwise, I'd have never heard of Zizak at all.

Guys like this--and I'd put e.g. Derrida and Foucault and Lyotard in this camp--present us all with a dilemma. Prima facie, they sound like kooks...but, hey, lots of good philosophers sound like kooks on first contact. Kant comes to mind. So you can either ignore them or dig in and really try to figure them out. Thing is, life is short. After awhile in this biz, you can get fairly good at doing triage. I write guys like Mr. Z off fairly quickly because they are bullshitters. No doubt there are some decent points buried in their thousands of pages of published work. But folks like this are just fundamentally unserious. They are screwing around, studying, as Peirce would say, in a literary spirit, more concerned with saying things that are novel and provocative than in saying things that are reasonable and true. This "philosophy" is really a kind of mixture of philosophy and literature. Now, some literature aims at truth in some way, but often in an oblique, allusive way. These Po-Mo-ish Continental types seem are probably trying to get at the truth in some way and to some extent, but they are just to unserious and undisiciplined. They are bullshitters in Harry Frankfurt's sense--they don't care enough about the distinction between truth and falsehood

My view is that, if I'm going to spend thousands of hours studying somebody's writings, I've got to have some assurance that they're trustworthy, some reason to believe that I'm not just wasting my time. Without some such assurance, you are just buying a pig in a poke. Given the fact that life is short and intellectual energy is radically finite, this would not be an intelligent way to conduct your affairs. Kant is damnably difficult, and he may be completely wrong, but at least he's putting his heart and soul into trying to be right. His mistakes are honest mistakes. The same, I believe, cannot be said about many of the folks in Mr. Z's camp. This is something you can discern without reading the entire ouvre. And the clearer it becomes that you're reading a bullshitter, the less rational it becomes to keep going, even though there are bound to be bits of non-bullshit here and there.

If you want a taste of Mr. Z's "philosophical" antics, just check out, for example, this gem and I think you'll see what I mean.

You might think that this guy is just a harmless buffoon, but I assure you, such folks are turning the minds of thousands of English (and LitCrit, etc.) students into mush. Reading guys like this actually makes you dumber, and I, like many other people, fear that it's not uncommon now for people to come out of many LitCrit and so-called "theory" classes being worse reasoners than they were when they walked in the door.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What philosophers take YOU seriously?

3:59 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Oh, man, A. You are, like, some kind of master of rhetoric. I mean, the way you skillfully turned that around on me...I...I stand in awe of your rapier-like wit, and steel-trap mind.

7:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the paper you link to, and it's not *that* bad. Certainly, it's not Derrida/Fish bad. The argument seems to go roughly like this: Concepts of essential propertie are artifacts of language, such concepts allow us to make impersonal generalizations concerning other people, such generalizations play an important role in political violence, so, use of language fosters political violence as much as it prevents it. Of course: One, this is still not a great argument. Two, it's not a very orginal argument. And three, I might be reading too generously. But even so, can you imagine trying pull the outline of an argument from a Lacan paper? It's not that bad and it looks like Z. is sincerely trying to make a point, though it sure doesn't show why this guy got a movie made about him.

One virtue of these mustachioed PoMo types is that their BS looks like BS. This is far less dangerous than the skills many Analytic types posses to cast their most flagrant BS as opinions so reasonable you would have to be a lunatic to withhold assent. See, for examples, Sandel on gay marriage or Russell from 1945 on.

Sorry for my ealier outburst BTW. My moods and interest seem to shift on a random basis. Still, I write some great porn and poltical satire.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Sorry, A, you're a different Anonymous than I thought. I thought you were irritating Anonymous. Please to forgive overly snide response above.

I think you're being way, way, way too charitable to Mr. Z...though I'm probably going to say something more detailed about the paper later, so I won't go into it now.

Analytic philosophers definitely have their own problems, but in general not nearly so bad as the Continentals. It's true that their stuff is generally more tightly-argued, and that, in general, their logical skills are much better. So if they're wrong, it won't be so obvious. And, of course, a fair number of analytic philosophers are full of shit. But being full of shit is not just the normal state of the PoMo Continental types, it seems almost to be their goal.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh, and, by the way: even your charitable reconstruction of Z's argument is laughable, as I'm sure you'll admit.

6:24 PM  
Blogger matthew christman said...

You lump Zizek in with the post-modernists, but as that TNR article points out, he's a hard-core ideologue, and like most ideologues, he has no truck with po-mo. He views post-modernism as Satre did, as the last refuge of the bourgoise. Now, I'm not a fan of Zizek, but I do think that this view is generally correct. Po-mo got defined as "leftist" in the 90s due to it's obsession with identity politics at a time (post Soviet collapse) when the left was intellectually at sea, and for want of a better idea, became similiarly synonymous with identity politics. Post Modernist approachs to global capitalism are, as Terry Eagleton points out, largely positive. Post-Modernist contempt for foundational truth and exhulation of niche self-defintion are a perfect fit for the logic of global capitalism, which respects no human ideals and offers an ever-expanding array of media and consumer products to allow members of a given "subaltern" their precious self-expression. Then there's the post-modernist pessimism towards the possibility of social change in a world where language orders our reality, making transcendance of social norms impossible. Better to write some flash fiction on the internet and attend a furry convention.

12:48 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

FWIW, I'm often inclined to group philosophers according to their methods. So from my perspective, Z looks a lot like the PoMos, since he doesn't seem to aim at careful argument, but, rather, writes in a quasi-literary style. Basically everybody who does that goes into the same category in my book.

Except for Nietzsche.

8:28 AM  

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