Friday, July 20, 2007

What do you do with a slovenly Slavoj?

First join the discussions on one of Eileen's projects and then mix it up with Jeffrey on art, commerce, and the aesthetics of death here.

Stuart Klawens, the film critic for The Nation, is the butt of a lot of jokes in our household. Even though I like his work, I have to recognize the justness of ALK's everlasting pique with Klawens for his inaccurate review of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When I start to tell ALK about a Klawens review, ALK likes to imagine herself Klawens and reinvent its plot: I'd give an example, but today she's at the Transit Museum with a train-obsessed houseguest. Lately, we've acquired another, er, jokebutt: Zizek. Zizek! We're convinced he meets Klawens at the movies weekly.

But that's giving too much credit to Zizek. Klawens might, at least so far as ALK is concerned, miss some nuance, but he never matches Zizek's dementia. It's as if his filmic memory is a tribute to Travesties (with Lacan filling the structural position provided by Wilde in the original). Some examples. Enjoy Your Symptom! (second edition!) on Now, Voyager: Charlotte (Bette Davis) does not relapse "soon after" (17) returning home from her sea voyage; she relapses after about 20 minutes of film and months of narrative time, and then only after she takes on responsibility for her mother's death, a motivation that should have produced something for Zizek; Charlotte does not have to make a choice between the sanity of Tina, her surrogate daughter, and her love for Tina's father, Jerry: she sacrifices marriage, and that perhaps only for a time: she doesn't sacrifice love or companionship. Plague of Fantasies offers the example of Spielberg's Star Wars (75). The Parallax View silently corrects the error, but refers to The Phantom Menace as "Stars Wars III" (arguably correct) and, in the same paragraph, The Return of the Jedi as "Part III of the Saga" (103; not that I'm a Star Wars fan, but Jedi is part VI: and even we call it Part III because it's the third movie made, we can't have two different films be III). On 411 n1, he writes of Kill Bill 2 that "in the final confrontation between the Uma Thurman character [KTS: er, "The Bride" or "Beatrix Kiddo"] and her father ("Bill")": nope, oh god nope.

Here's what finally set me off. On The Valve, John Holbo cites a 2002 interview with Zizek in which Z calls Microsoft Word a "language" ("The paradigmatic example here is probably Microsoft. Microsoft word [sic] has more or less established itself as the predominant computer language, but this has nothing to do with normal market logic. Why do the vast majority of people use Microsoft? Not because it’s the best. Almost every hacker will tell you that other languages are better."). Series of Tubes anyone?

As has probably happened hundreds of times with Zizek's readers, I'm on the verge of giving up, and not because of his philosophy or politics, but because of his sloppiness. Can't the man hire a fact-checker? Surely there are grad students who would do this for free?

Now, I don't deny Zizek's brilliance. Of course not. Nor do I deny his clarity. Maybe I'm missing something in Agamben, but I tend to find Zizek explains Agamben much better than Agamben explains himself. For example.

So, with all this in mind, I'm asking a boring (to use one of Zizek's favorite words) question for the weekend: what do we do with Zizek's sloppiness? How should it affect our reading? Am I missing the point by focusing on mere facts? Is brilliance better than accuracy (of course it is, but accuracy has to count for something: how would we grade a student who made these errors?)? Could someone else (someone not white or male?) get away with this? Is Zizek's sloppiness symptomatic and is it worth thinking about in itself? Surely one or ten of you have a standard answer to what I perhaps mistakenly think is a problem. I'm wondering if we can do this without the standard repudiations of Zizek or professions of weariness, but perhaps that's impossible. Or, given this post, hypocritical.

(if you'd prefer, a side discussion on the question of time and the now and its problems, particularly for a philosopher from the Balkans, which we might say was an emblematic mixture of modern and medieval during the 90s: in The Parallax View:
The clearest sign of the reign of biopolitics is the obsession with the topic of 'stress': how to avoid stressful situations, how to 'cope' with them. 'Stress' is our name for the excessive dimension of life, for the 'too-muchness' that must be kept under control. (For this reason, today, more than ever, the gap that separates psychoanalysis from therapy imposes itself in all its brutality: if you want therapeutic improvement, you will in fact get help much more quickly and efficiently from a combination of behavioral-cognitivist therapies and chemical treatment [pills].) (310)
Fair enough: psychoanalysis as a mode of critique rather than a medical regime. We preserve its utility by sloughing off what might be thought its primary utility. But wait, who's Zizek's "our"? When's "today"? Where are we?)

UPDATE: eerily, at the very moment I was writing this, Adam Roberts was writing this. The Corsican Brothers? Or Dead Ringers?


Nicola Masciandaro said...

We love Zizek because he returns philosophy to its home in the ad hoc, where our today can be whoever's whenever, not because he speaks the truth, but because he truly speaks.

Anonymous said...

cucyes nicola. truly. But Zizek also attacks philosphy as a reader of everything. In this way he is something (in his own sloppy way) of an autodidact. We recall someone like Auerbach's ability to say things like "to my knowledge, this set of blah blah x or y rhetorical devices have never been used to this effect in all of the literature of romantic languages..." that, of course, is because there was such a tidy understanding of what _was_ that entire corpus.

Zizek's corpus itself is more sloppy. Obviously his most narrowly defined one (as that picture shows swimmingly!) but also his body of what he reads and thinks. He needs to move so quickly, in a book like _the puppet and the dwarf_, from st. Paul to a blockbuster movie, that I cannot help if certain missed facts are absolutely unavoidable if the sort of _effeticivity_ that Zizek's work has is to actually be written and though. How can we possibly do this without being sort of a sloppy autodidact? I personally and more apt to say: damnit, get it right! Do the reading! Know the material! Do the hard work! But maybe this is a personal problem. And life may not be "a personal thing" (Deleuze).

So, I am saying that another thing in the equation here is this term: _effectivity_. Its one that I think lurks behind and drives the productin of quite a lot of the theory I read and _like_ and want to _read_ actively and productively. (I include Derrida in this without question: keeping the game going is one way of counting the cost of the work: asking, ok, I could make these observations in this essay, but why should I? to what _effect_?). I think it is a cateogry that becomes more valid the more one thinks of reading theory as reading simply another variaty of a "high" literary production (fiction, poetry, theory, drama, film, etc.). This practice would raise the stakes both for the "creative" writing and the "critical" or "theoretical" writing as they are commonly sequestered. Perhaps this is part of what was behind my comments on a possible "poetics" for "doing/writing" history last week. I have posted before also on this blog with the following idea of E. Said in mind, from an essay (in _Relfections on Exile_) about Vico: that, (paraphrased) according to Vico, what matters to the historian is not what evidence is there, but what evidence you can make up.

Anonymous said...

oh yeah, i think Freud's Leonardo Da Vinci and a memory of his childhood a heck of a read with huge glaring fact-checking error. just as an example of this somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

Zizek's sloppiness is legendary--and it's a legend he himself helped to propagate. When I had lunch with him back in like 96, I brought up the subject of his footnotes (and lack thereof). He began to explain that most of the notes in his earliest (pre-English) work were completely fabricated. He also explained that he quotes and writes about films he's never seen. Of course, I laughed my ass off, and at that time I was so enamored of Zizek that I couldn't have cared less that be made stuff up.

At that same lunch, he also shared with us that when he was in analysis in Paris, he only ever made stuff up (dreams, fantasies, etc.) to throw the analysts off.

Zizek is (and I don't use the usual verb "has" here) an immense ego. His sloppiness I see as more an assertion of his tricksterish ego than a lack of fact-checking.

PS I have many other Zizek stories, including sharing a train ride to NYC with him in which we discussed his weight and a story involving a strip club dj, zizek, and a gaggle of sycophantic grad students.

dein, MU

Jay Allbritton said...

I always thought of Zizek as being a bit like Hendrix. Always going for the brilliant insight rather that technical expertise.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Lots of very smart people are sloppy writers and could truly use a good fact checker as well as an extra copyeditor. Ever read Homi Bhabha's Location of Culture? Elizabeth Grosz, too, is a brilliant thinker who is also prone to employing the wrong word, making typos, and repeating herself via use of the cut and paste function.

We medievalists seem especially galled by niggling mistakes -- probably because those who trained us inculcated such obsessiveness. More than that: we work in a discipline that is at worst both timid *and* obsessive, terrified of error because no one beats brows like another medievalist.

Karl Steel said...

Ever read Homi Bhabha's Location of Culture?

Yup. But impenetrability isn't the same thing as sloppiness. Not necessarily.

The short version here is that Zizek often gets the things wrong that I know; by doing so, he doesn't exactly convince me that he knows the things well that I don't know. It's not that hard to get these things right. It might mean writing a bit more slowly; it might be correcting matters in second editions, in one's cut and pasting, and so forth. And this isn't a matter of confusing Odo for Odilo of Cluny (as Goldhammer did in one of his translations, iirc: sloppy, and perhaps a niggling mistake, but here an indication that perhaps a medievalist should have gone over his work); with Zizek, it's a matter of getting things wrong that are very, very easy to get right. As for the comment on Microsoft word as a "language," well, that's the sort of error that's not niggling: any way I try to make sense of it, it's gibberish.

I should say, however, that it would be boring (natch) to demand Zizek watch the movies he talks about. I don't want to assume that watching a film necessarily would give Zizek a less mediated, more authentic, more honest experience than just working with what he's picked up here and there.

More to say tomorrow.

Karl Steel said...

His sloppiness I see as more an assertion of his tricksterish ego than a lack of fact-checking.

Not sure I agree with the arrangement of these two elements. I'm inclined to see a causal relationship, although in which direction I don't know.

Perhaps there's an ongoing tribute to Lacan and his medieval manuscript (see Holsinger Premodern Condition)? Still more surpassing Lacan at his own game?

Out of curiosity, and from your assembled expertise, who are the other philosophical/theoretical tricksters? Dan mentions Freud. Jeffrey mentions Grosz, but from what little I know (I've read only Volatile Bodies) I don't think of her as a trickster. So I wonder: any women?

Adam Roberts Project said...

Karl: "...eerily, at the very moment I was writing this, Adam Roberts was writing this. The Corsican Brothers? Or Dead Ringers?"

Hah! Let's play Dead Ringers, why not. You can be Jeremy Irons, and I'll be ... um, Jeremy Irons.

When that film came out I was doing my PhD at Cambridge, and took my then girlfriend to see it; at a delicate and early stage of our relationship. Has there ever been a worse date-movie, in the history of movies?

I was going to segue from that obvious 'error' into error more generally. But it's such a huge issue that I barely know where to start.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

One more thing, then I'm done defending a person who writes too much and too quickly: Bhabha's Location of Culture isn't just dense, it has weird cut and paste errors as well -- not as finished a product as it needed to be. As to Mr Z: could any of the problem be that he's not a native English speaker? His polyglot capabilities are enviable.

mon rodriguez-amat said...

Do we need the ultimate truth (or the ultimate truth of methodology, rigour and politeness)? Cannot we take them as those mechanisms of truth Foucault talked about ?

Shouldn't it be better considered a rethoric problem: Does Zizek convince ? Do his arguments make the ball (of thought) move ?

I find his style deep stimulating (from psychoanalysis this would be taken sexually, don't care), the same way your weblog.

Karl Steel said...


Thanks for pointing that out re: Bhabha. I suppose because I've never sat down with the book and gone all the way through it--I pick it up here and there--I haven't noticed that problem. It's odd: it's not as though Bhabha is so prolific, and the book has gone through, I presume, so many printings that I would expect he'd want to intervene at some point to clean it up.


thanks for that link and the points. SZ gets at one of my points much better than I do, namely, that demanding that he watch the films is, at least in part, a precritical demand. Boring, if you will. I'm glad to see him turning his errors into critical hay.

Why? Because ultimately I don't want to see this conversation proceed as 'sure, SZ's slovenly, but he 'moves the ball'/he's a trickster/he is my secret sharer in wanting épater l'académie.' Let's lose the but to think through his errors as something other than errors, something other than symptoms of haste/expansiveness/unwillingness to hire a copy editor (after all, the careful, correct English of the our professional writing is a second language to all of us). Is it possible to get us past the 'attack' v. 'defense' mode?

We're smart enough to do something more interesting. And I'd like to think we can respect SZ enough to damn him if he's a fuckup, but to first expect that he's doing something interesting with his own fuckupedness.

Eileen Joy said...

I like to think of Zizek as, not a stream of consciousness cultural critic, but as a stream of stuttering consciousness cultural critic. There's no system there, and sometimes no facts, but, pace Gertrude Stein, there *is* a "there" there. I love Zizek's unqualified enthusiasm for everything--it's ridiculous, but also endearing. It would likely be a little stupid to use him as model of a certain kind of ethical critique, although he works pretty hard to make you think he *is* an ethical critic. You grab insights from him where and when you can, and disregard the rest, if you want to let him get away with it. But ultimately, without turning figures like Zizek into some kind of critico-philosophical "theism" [i.e., to say "Zizeckian" this and that], they can be appreciated for their flamboyance, without which, much of what is interesting about his thought might have never been said. He can be an egomaniac, and still be right *some* of the time.

Michael O'Rourke said...

Fuck, how does one keep up with you guys? I go away for a few days and there is so much to digest and ruminate upon. Thanks first to EJ for the introduction to her special journal issue. I'm flattered by its acknowledgment of my work and energized by it.

I've just got back from the very large Cultural Studies Now conference in London--perhaps the biggest and most politicized conference of its type for some time. I talked about Readings' university in ruins and Bersani's "Sociability and Cruising" and how Queer Theory needs to cruise, "be-with" CS and that this can disrupt the kind of business we do in the university. Among many other things in my 12 minutes. So, I found your intro immensely helpful as a jump-off point. Or a dive right in point even.

I love Michael Uebel's Zizek stories. I have a few too but I'm writing a review of Richard Stamp and Paul Bowman's The Truth of Zizek (I'm recommending it on ITM again--get it and read it because it is the first book ever to really take SZ on) and you really must read Zizek's long and seriously irate response to the book's contributors ("With defenders like these who needs attackers?) where he seeks to refute some of the claims the authors (and Karl in his post) make about his sloppiness only to simply go ahead and do each of the things they say he does. And perhaps this is Zizek taking the piss but the sense of hurt in the response is very, very earnest. So, I'm not sure.

Finally, I heard Rosi Braidotti give a keynote at the weekend in which she referred to SZ as "a pale, histrionic version of Lacan".

Karl Steel said...

Just found another one!

Parallax View, 219, "like a Magrittean hand drawing the hand, that, in its turn draws the first hand."


Clearly Zizek didn't go to Evergreen.

Michael OR: I'm buying Truth of Zizek tomorrow. Thanks for recommending it again. Seems essential.

Karl Steel said...

"Why are cinema-lovers so obsessed with gaffes, small mistakes....Is not our pleasure in discovering gaffes a kind of revenge of the ego against our unconscious beliefs?" TPV 425 n37.