Monday, April 30, 2012

Bullshit Litmus Test: Slavoj Zizek

So, here's an easy test of your bullshit detector. Listen to like two minutes of Slavoj Zizek.

Now, this is not anti-intellectualism, nor impatience with dopey terminology, nor any such thing. It's an intolerance for nonsense. Zizek is just about 100% bullshitter--I'm a philosopher...you can trust me on this. He's the major-league equivalent of that dude in the dorms freshman year who had the gift of gab, and who was impressed by his own (rather modest) intelligence, and liked to hold forth to stoned friends in a knowing, check-out-how-insightful-I-am kind of way.

If your bullshit detector does not peg the meter when this Zizek fellow talks, then it's probably in need of a tune-up.

The key to this kind of bullshitting is to hit near the truth often enough that people dismiss the fact that most of  what you say seems like--nay, is--nonsense. For example, the point about loving real people, in some cases even loving their imperfections even as if they were perfections...that's a worthy point, though not an original one, of course. But the path there is the utterest nonsense, and the conclusion he draws from it--that environmentalists should love trash--is bullshit of the highest order. (Protip: persons and non-persons are different in this respect.) It's a winning combination for those seeking fame via bullshitting: wander around free-associating, throwing in some tempting, exciting terminology, then hit on a basically unrelated point that's genuinely plausible so that the audience gets a thrill of recognition and you maintain some credibility, then leap to some exhilarating, quasi-paradoxical conclusion.

Just to make it clear: it's not that Zizek is a controversial figure among respectable thinkers. He's not someone serious thinkers read or think about at all. He's some kind of popular lit-critty guy who spouts bullshit for the quasi-philosophical entertainment of people who like to play around in a world of semi-coherent, titillating, two-bit faux philosophy. Maybe he's a nice guy--I don't know. But don't take him seriously because you think that, say, philosophers at Princeton are sitting around reading the guy.

The thing to keep in mind is that it's very, very, very easy to make something vaguely resembling sense. That's how e.g. Rush Limbaugh operates--free associating some bullshit, then circle around every now and then to something vaguely like the truth, then head for some conclusion you wanted all along. Almost nobody, no matter how loony, makes no sense whatsoever. Let somebody get away with making even only about 80% sense, and they can take you all sorts of crazy places. "Hey, some of that kinda sorta made sense" isn't anywhere close to being good enough. It still leaves you with something like "Uh, I didn't follow much of that." Take it from me: in Mr. Z's case, there wasn't anything there to follow. If you're really tempted by this guy, the cure is to sit down and take a couple of weeks to read very carefully through a couple of pages. At the end of that, you'll be appalled that you were ever tempted by his vaporous nonsense.

44 Comments:

Blogger Dark Avenger said...

I read the New Yorker article about him and wasn't impressed. He's the academic equivalent of Herb Tarleck from the WKRP in Cincinnati TV show, a pretentious salesman who has a product to sell and doesn't let up one nanosecond when doing so.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Bigvic said...

You say no one at Princeton is reading Zizek? How about Cornel West? He might not be a "philosopher", but it seems a bit patriarchal to start claiming who is and isn't a real philosopher. The fact that you preface everything with: "I'm a philosopher...you can trust me on this", says a lot. You must be the ultimate arbitrator for us simple people. I wonder if the reason more people aren't reading him in these big departments is because they will get marginalized by people like you.

8:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are your credentials?

2:29 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

DA: LOL Herb Tarleck. That's priceless, man.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Big V,

Greetings.

Well, I'm not expecting you to take this all on my say-so, nor that I'm the "ultimate arbiter." That's why I suggest that people go listen to him. The "I'm a philosopher" think was basically a joke, though semi-titling up, I guess, too. But saying it jokingly once is not "prefacing everything with" it.

Did you want to defend Mr. Z's "environmentalists should love trash" point? Or, for that matter, any of the other specific, rambling, free-associative nonsense in the video?

Five years ago, I'd have been happy to go through the video point-by-point...but I finally got it through my head that you can't put real projects on hold because somebody on the internet is wrong...

Still, I'd be willing to address some more specific points if you are really interested in the discussion.

But..."patriarchal"? C'mon, dude. That applies not at all here. That's the kind of lame generic criticism that gets slung all over the place by lit-critters like Mr. Z. If it's "patriarchal" to point out that bullshit is bullshit, then yay patriarchy!

9:57 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

A,

My credentials? (a) good bullshit detector, (b) have read, discussed, and written about a buttload of philosophy, (c) Ph.D. in philosophy.

(a) and (b) are way, way more important than (c)...but I include (c) just for the record.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Apples and Oranges said...

Zizek's talks are mostly word-vomit, and most of his books are too (Zizek actually called his last book bullshit). But a small number of his works (5 or 6 out of ~30) are actually really insightful philosophy. I don't read this blog, so I don't know the background of Mr. Smith, but Zizek's work is some of the most significant in contemporary continental philosophy. He has actually harshly criticized many of the "lit crit" type philosophers too. Zizek's main theoretical tools are usually ones that aren't widely used in contemporary analytic philosophy (German Idealism, Lacanian Psychoanalysis), but he actually does have a coherent philosophical project.

For an overview, you can look through Adrian Johnston's Zizek's Ontology.

5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All of your blog posts are about basic john stewart/fox news level american political reality, doesn't seem like you are heavily invested in philosopy.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

A&O,
You could be right I suppose, though I'm pretty skeptical. Everything I've ever heard or read from the guy was absolutely laughable. The kind of stuff that, as Searle said of Derrida, gives bullshit a bad name. And I have to say, if Lacanian psychoanalysis is a big component of his "thinking"...well, that explains a lot. Though I do appreciate the book recommendation, there are lots of good books to read, and at some point one has to do triage. Z is way, way, way down on my to-read list, somewhere around Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard...

A,
Dunno what to tell you, man. Make an actual point. We can talk about it.

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who is high on your to read list? What is your background in philosophy what lines of thought build your foundations?

3:47 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

A,

I don't have a restrictive nor wildly non-standard set of interests, nor an unusual background. Take your pick from Plato and Aristotle up through the moderns. All are of interest to me. So far as contemporary philosophy goes, my training was in analytic, though I'm not uptight about sticking to that. I'm currently most interested in Kant and Peirce and some issues about normative relativism that cut across epistemology and moral theory.

It's not that I have a restrictive conception of philosophy and Z lies outside of it. Rather, I've got a fairly ordinary conception of philosophy and, like most philosophers who even know of his existence--which is not that many, actually--I recognize Z as a bullshitter.

He spews vaporous clouds of nonsense, occasionally alighting near something not entirely false. Dude is to philosophy what Justin Bieber is to music. And I've fairly serious about that analogy.

The guy is no more a serious philosopher than is, say, Sam Harris. He is just not on the map, philosophically speaking--but, more importantly, he doesn't deserve to be.

Go back through and actually listen to what he says in, say, the video Sullivan links to. It's the utterest nonsense. It's free-associative word salad, for the most part.

Note also that at the one place where his "argument" requires a scientific premise, he gets it wrong.

That's weak, man. Very, very weak.

8:05 AM  
Blogger weezee said...

i think what zizek meant by learning to love trash means, from a lacanian perspective, to accept trash as a reality. from a lacanian perspective, again, we tend to choose culture over nature, hence, we accept and want the fantasy (disappearing garbage)more than the reality (that it goes somewhere). Today, there is a huge investment in ecologism which manages to disavow the residue of our consumerism - zizek speaks about this when it comes to starbucks (First as Tragedy, Then as Farce 2009). I see his point as valid, if we are wise enough to understand his analogies. I think his argument is valid; of course, he could be more straightforward in what he says- but so could the entire Academy.

5:27 PM  
Blogger weezee said...

i think what zizek meant by learning to love trash means, from a lacanian perspective, to accept trash as a reality. from a lacanian perspective, again, we tend to choose culture over nature, hence, we accept and want the fantasy (disappearing garbage)more than the reality (that it goes somewhere). Today, there is a huge investment in ecologism which manages to disavow the residue of our consumerism - zizek speaks about this when it comes to starbucks (First as Tragedy, Then as Farce 2009). I see his point as valid, if we are wise enough to understand his analogies. I think his argument is valid; of course, he could be more straightforward in what he says- but so could the entire Academy.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

W,

Thanks for the comment, but.. Z's argument, such as it is, isn't well-formulated enough for us to even evaluate it as valid or invalid. To paraphrase Wolfgang Pauli, it's not even invalid.

And relying on Lacan is just going to make the situation worse.

The problem with these guys is they are simply not serious thinkers. They're roughly the equivalent of bloggers, saying whatever comes into their heads. The difference is that a non-trivial number of people take them seriously.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zizek has been a visiting professor at Princeton and is currently the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Are you telling us he's a 100% bullshitter. Not that it couldn't be so, but if yes, then that says a lot about academia today.

4:49 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yep.

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wanted to return to this blog post after watching "Zizek!" to defend the Slovenian philosopher, but after watching the first half and then shutting it off I no longer have any desire to defend him. He does appear, in general, to be a charlatan. I think he does get at some (i.e., few) insights about sociopolitical psychology, or whatever you wanna call it, but the insights seem to be muddled due to his own self-grandiosity. I never am able to quite trust anyone who self-describes themselves as extremely intelligent or moral. I don't recall any of the people who I admire/consider to be some of the brightest persons in intellectual thought ever describing themselves in such ways.

The last time I watched any interviews/videos on Zizek was before I started my undergraduate philosophy program at a major analytic school. I was quite enthralled by Zizek then, but now I am quite disenthralled by his philosophy.

Studying analytic philosophy has been depressing in its own right (no one wants to talk about what it is to be human, unless it satisfies the Aristotelian description "rational animal"). I'm fairly doubtful about the whole representational cognition thing and the correlating truth conditions, but I'm not at an advanced stage to be able to take a firm position rejecting or accepting it. I've had hope that continental departments will allow me to express some of my thoughts about philosophy more freely, but I worry that the faculty/graduate students in those departments will be almost as quacky as Zizek. So... Basically I feel like I'm stuck between two disciplines that I probably don't even like to begin with. Maybe I'll just quit philosophy....

2:46 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yo, A,

Yeah, obviously I'm with you on Mr. Z...

Why don't you e-mail me about your unhappiness about analytic philosophy? ( Philosoraptor@gmail.com ). I actually have a few things to say about that. I was really happy with analytic philosophy, and was somehow oblivious to its obvious flaws until pretty late in the game. In fact, I (as I'd put it) ran across part of the cure before I had recognized I had the disease, and it was finding the former that got me to recognize the latter.

The short version is: analytic and continental are not the only two options. I have come to think that a focus on the history of philosophy can help one avoid a good bit of the problem. Also: there's a movement to transcend the analytic/continental divide, and that might provide an opening for you. You don't have to fit into the slots that the discipline makes prominent; once you get out of grad school, you can start basically doing whatever TF you want to do...so long at you're not at an R1 place that requires so much publishing that you basically have to immerse yourself in some sub-sub-discipline just to survive.

In my case, weird as it sound, it was a particular interpretation of an arc in philosophy constituted largely by Kant and Peirce that showed me an alternative to both the dry pedantry of analytic philosophy and the free-wheeling kookiness of the continentals...er...here I exaggerate for effect.

Anyway, it IS, of course, possible that philosophy is just bullshit across the board...but I don't think so.

8:20 AM  
Blogger weezee said...

yeah, hurry and quit.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Weird, rude thing to say to another commenter...

Another option, of course, is to, like Mr. Z, never start doing philosophy at all...

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Winston is just about 100% idiot--I'm a philosopher...you can trust me on this.

Five years ago, I'd have been happy to go through the blog point-by-point...but I finally got it through my head that you can't put real projects on hold because somebody on the internet is wrong...

J

p.s. Your habit of addressing people by their initial is really annoying.

1:56 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

LOOOOL

Nice one, J.

6:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would think it somewhat uncouth to so hastily dismiss an entire ouevre d'ensemble after having recognized a slight air of 'ambiguity' which, on occasion, manages to perforate the formulation of certain statements/arguments/conclusions posited by an author or thinker (such as Zizek - or any other, for that matter); for so far as I am concerned (and I expect that my opinion shall probably manage to elicit little more consideration than a thesis grounded upon a nihil negativum irrepraesentible - and besides, why should it deserve any more? I have no credentials, no crown, so I can't parade around like academic royalty), the presence of ambiguity should not be erroneously conflated with incredibility, and I feel as though your overtly ad hominem denigration of Zizek fits perfectly the description of an outright farce. I am not 'for' Zizek, though nor am I explicitly opposed to him in any particular manner; he is, however, a highly respected lecturer and writer (all around the world), and perhaps this is more due to the hype which surrounds him than anything else. He does seem to display a habit of entertaining superfluity, but he nonetheless manages to occupy legitimate positions (and contrapositions, for that matter). Furthermore, it appears as though you rank him upon his ability for coherent speech, but the man is not even primarily english speaking (and even then he manages to outshine most english speakers). His books are written beautifully (this stated by one who tends to rank a work upon grounds of compositional style more than anything else), and his arguments are always coherent (in written form, perhaps due to the possibility of editing, reflecting, correcting, polishing, etc - opportunities not always afforded during a public speech). There have been many great writers who were not simultaneously the best of orators - some of them would even stutter at times. You say that you cling to no hardline conception of philosophy, but your weakly articulated rejection of an entire corpus upon little more ground than a stubborn refusal reveals otherwise. The fact that you tell people to watch three minutes of a lecture so that they may thereby witness evidence of his (Zizek's) incredibility only reflects upon how opinionated (and unwilling to seriously consider another) you are, the proof of this being that another commentator to this blog entry managed to extract a legitimate claim from it (all it required was a little thought, the ability for which I have found all too often lacking in highly certified academics - perhaps they get lazy after assuming that they know it all).
Anyhow, fuck you all.
Cheers.

1:48 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Aw, A...don't go away mad...



(Note: not that it's necessary to point this out, but nobody said anything about Professor Z's English. It's the content that's incoherent.)

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Winston, you should read The Sublime Object of Ideology. What you say is true (that most Zizek's books are quite bullshit), but not totally. I've actually read that book, that I mention to you, and it is, in fact, quite interesting (not joking). It has a very "new" lecture of Marx's theory of commodity fetichism, from a "freudean" point of view, that I actually liked a lot (I "am a philosopher too", and my work is mostly in the analytical side of the road). It isn't necessary to say that, if you are looking for some kind of John Rawls, or such, wich is actually HUGE, don't go after Zizek. But the guy has his stuff, must say.

12:26 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Really? Oh, hell, I'll give it a try. Frankly, given the utter nonsense that I've read by that guy, I'm surprised...but I'll definitely check it out. Thanks for the tip!

6:40 AM  
Blogger Anonimnež said...

Well, the main thing is that you, an
overly self-concious American philosopher in the best maners of analytical tradition, probably didn't read any of important European post-structuralist or marxist stuff from last century. Nevertheless you dare to put yourself on a position that lacanians would call 'subject supposed to know.' That's why many here don't take analytical tradition seriously; we rather take it as a blabbing scholasticisim; not having any clue of discursive clue which happened a long ago in Europe.

2:45 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Whoa, Lacan in defense of Zizek...well, I'm convinced...

Actually, I've read a bit of "important European post-structuralist or Marxist stuff from last century..."... it's not my area of specialization or anything, and I can occasionally prompt myself to read more... But I have to say, the bullshit content is fairly high in a lot of that stuff. Take Lyotard's seminal _The Postmodern Condition_, for example. I studied that somewhat carefully--read it three times, worked extensively with some of the more central passages, and so on... In the end, I concluded that it the central epistemic arguments were utter bullshit. Not near misses, but total crap. Now, there's a lot of crap on the analytic side, too. I'd say that Quine's (also seminal) "Epistemology Naturalized" is also utter shit. Probably about as shitty as TPC. So this phenomenon isn't limited to "Continental" philosophy, of course. But I have to say, sometimes Zizek seems to me to not even be *trying* to make any sense.

Honest question: can you watch the video clip in question and honestly say that what the dude says there is in any way worth listening to?

9:11 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

Thanks for calling a spade a spade.

I stumbled onto Zizek from some online documentary site and watched a handful of vids about him. I admittedly enjoyed the two pervert's guide films, but as you say, if you listen to him give a lecture he circles round and round, never to make a point, pausing briefly to throw a bone to make sure we, the listeners, don't feel entirely stupid.

I can't speak for the philosophy because I'm but a lowly linguist, but I have a low bullshit tolerance.
After a few videos on youtube, I felt compelled to google "zizek is full of shit" and I ended up here.


11:50 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

"Lowly linguist" lol...

Thanks, Joel. Of course I couldn't agree more. It's amazing to me that such utter nonsense gets treated seriously.

Sometimes I think: "intellectuals" (so-called) are people who are good with language (in a literary sense, not a linguists' sense), not with logic (broadly construed). People like Zizek are (to quote one of my students) "good talkers." But that has no relationship whatsoever to being good thinkers. Your average auto mechanic (a kind of practical science, IMHO) needs and possesses reasoning abilities far in excess of what's required to do what Professor Z does...

12:20 PM  
Blogger pianomanhere said...

Can Zizek even construct a simple argument to support ANY of his breezy assertions? Everything I've seen of him on YouTube and elsewhere shows him lacking in focus, encrusted with inscrutability and engaging in evasive buffoonery. One of the many ironies of this is that one would think that a self-proclaimed Stalinist would want to make his arguments CLEARER, not more opaque. Does this man even ask himself what conclusions he has reached about anything ?

5:24 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I don't know, man... He seems like a flat-out bullshit artist to me...

5:44 PM  
Anonymous griggory said...

I'm really interested in what you said about stumbling into the cure before you realized you had the disease concerning analytic philosophy. What was it you read? I have a background in analytic and have felled the same depressing fatique with what feels sometimes like an increasingly abstract play of arguments as though for their own sake.
I'm very interested because someone else whom I respect very much said basically the exact thing you have about the third option in the history of philosophy. What is it you found?

11:54 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

griggory,

Hey man. I've been there... What happened in my case is that I more-or-less accidentally took Dick Smyth's class on C.S. Peirce at UNC. Now, Peirce is, IMO, hard to read in an unusual way. He has a lot of very interesting and complicate arguments, but he often seems to just be skipping over details. He often doesn't lay out the arguments in the way that I prefer. And without Smyth, I probably would never have appreciated Peirce at all... (Incidentally, I recommend Smyth's Peirce book, _Reading Peirce Reading_, very highly...also his Kant book _Forms of Intuition_).

At any rate, Peirce made me see that there are great, deep arguments in the history of philosophy, but appreciating them often demands an understanding of the tradition, and the thinker's philosophical antecedents. I think the analytics are often great in that they lay out their arguments more clearly, and try to make things as clear and simple as possible. But I think they go wrong by expecting every argument to ground out in clear, simple "intuitions" that everyone (allegedly) can recognize. But we don't expect that from, say, physicists...why should be expect it from philosophers? I think analytics are too quick to dismiss arguments that are not laid out clearly, and too quick to dismiss arguments that are inconsistent with "intuitions" or common sense or whatever. Smyth's class--and his Peirce book--was my first encounter with someone who could get across the fact (?) that there's a richness and depth in at least some of the history of philosophy that's largely absent in a lot of analytic stuff. Get _Reading Peirce Reading_ and check out at least chapter 5...I think that's an absurdly interesting piece of philosophy... e-mail me and I think I have a PDF I can send you...

Anyway...I admire a lot about analytic philosophy...but a steady diet of nothing but that leaves out most of what's good in philosophy, IMO.

Good luck man.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You keep echoing little asides I've heard Chomsky make...the reference to Pauli's quote, the thing about Mechanics being smarter than literary intellectuals

12:05 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

That's funny...I'm usually not a big Chomsky fan...

12:31 PM  
Blogger tneveca said...

Bullshit deserves to be marginalized. A philosopher is someone who seeks truth. By definition, this postmodern "theorist" is not a philosopher and not a truth seeker because in his world there is no truth.

4:42 AM  
Blogger Patrícia said...

A philosopher would not say: "you can trust me, I am a philosopher!".

12:06 PM  
Blogger Anon said...

A lot of Zizek's ideas also stems from Kant so you're just being a bit biased I guess. I think most of you don't like him due to the fact that he simplifies reality and ideology and criticises it from a simplified almost "non-intellectual" point of view as oppose to the philosophers that you regard as intellectuals because you don't understand half what they actually mean so must be so god damn smart.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Nope.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zizek is the Bernie Madoff of philosophy.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh shit, dude, you have put your finger, verily, pretty much on it...

Nicely done

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason he might criticize another bullshitters is not out of concern for the truth (remember, truth is lame! for him).
It's more like natural selection, competition: the narcissistic bullshitter can't allow any other bullshitter to share the spotlight and take away some of his fame.

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone here gas already mentioned, I'd rather read L. Ron Hubbard than Zizek. It really makes you think when you find a book that makes L Ron Hubbard look like a smart, coherent thinker

8:14 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home