One Last Post on Slavoj Žižek

Irrelevant or indispensable? You decide.

Longtime reader Joel emailed me. He asked,

I’m so incredibly tired of intellectual hipster Christians discussing obscure theological thinkers like Žižek I could scream. Can you please explain to me, in terms that a regular person can understand, how these arguments have any influence on everyday life?

Joel, tell us how you really feel. :-) But it’s a fair question, I think, even if it has an edge to it. So I put it out to a couple of my friends who are Žižek experts, and David Fitch sent this back. Thanks, David. Here’s his post:

Studying Žižek is not for everybody. In fact Žižek is so difficult, few academics are willing to commit the time to understand him. But I still think reading Žižek is incredibly fruitful for Christians who are seeking to be a faithful political witness in the world for the Kingdom of God in Christ.

For me, Žižek provides the means to do therapy on ourselves in order to understand the perverted dynamics that drive so much of our political life together, whether it be our life in American capitalism, or our life in the local church, or the various versions of culture wars Christians strangely find themselves caught up in whether they like it or not. Žižek helps us unravel our political allegiances and what’s behind them and then work for truth and clarity in the way we seek to live life together. This can help Christians (because Christianity for me is a political allegiance). Yes, Žižek helps Christians reveal the antagonism/false enjoyments/perverted drives that lie at the core of our lives. He also gives helpful strategies on how to subvert the false politics that come from these places. I like these tactics because I see them (and I admit this is in the way I use Žižek) as a way of getting beyond the violence, which is important to me.

So, yes Zizek going to be a difficult read. But he’s worth it. He’ll help pastors deal with tons of crap. But he’s not for everybody. I suggest sticking to his compelling political/cultural work. I think Žižek’s theological ouvre takes too much work with very little pay off for the day to day Christian leader (Pete Rollins would disagree). But I admit to learning from Žižek’s theology, particularly his debates with Badiou (here) and John Milbank and Creston Davis (here and here). To me however this is not worth wading through. On the other hand his work with political /cultural theory, economic systems is golden. I’d start with this simple little book here.  Or just read me on this here. ;)


Another friend of mine, Drew Sumrall, also responded on his blog:

Of course Žižek is ‘really’ an atheist. Card-carrying. He doesn’t ‘believe’ (in the sense the gentleman does) because God himself doesn’t ‘believe’.
God dies when he dies this second time.
So the question is not: ‘did God ‘really’ die on Calvary’?—No, ‘he’ was always-already dead.
The point is: Christianity is the site where God proclaims his own non-existence.
  • nakedpastor

    I read Žižek because he wades through all my superfluous junk clogging my intellect and sets the axe at the very root of my illusions, fantasies and assumptions. I spend the time trying to understand him primarily for theological reasons. I consider him essential.

  • Traci

    Does one have to know how to put those cool accent marks on the Zs to read this guy? If so, I’m out.

    • Jeff King

      All you have to do is copy+paste Žižek’s name from Wikipedia and the accents come ready-made! And we can just read the Wikipedia summaries of his work instead while we’re at it!

  • Craig

    I’d like to offer a challenge to Zizek readers. With clarity and precision, state the specific theses that, in your view, Zizek has convincingly argued.

    Or, if the Zizek’s value lies elsewhere, please try to explain.

    • Drew Sumrall

      Spirit is a bone.

      • Craig

        Which bone?

        • Drew Sumrall

          The bone that spirit is not.

          • Craig

            What has he reduced to this absurdity?

            • Drew Sumrall

              The notion of ‘infinite judgement’. The failure of the first reading proffers the right reading. The subject is nothing but the impossibility of its own signifying representation.

              • Craig

                While the meaning of these statements might well be clear and precise to some, they only mystify those of us who lack familiarity with this style/tradition of philosophy. Will every clarifying phrase necessarily introduce another seemingly enigmatic claim, or another bit of jargon specific to a small circle of equally obscure writers?

                • BradC

                  Zizek uses paradox all the time -it’s become his “brand”. I’ve thought at times “He’s trying too hard to make this technique work” but it usually does…it just takes a while to unpack his thoughts. Most philosophers are creating an argument in response to an existing argument.. they assume you know what they are doing. It’s just a pragmatic approach not intended to obscure thought.

                  • Craig

                    “Most philosophers are creating an argument in response to an existing argument..”

                    Alight, but in Zizek’s case are we always entering an existing argument that is severely esoteric, and necessarily so?

                    Zizek uses paradox all the time ….it just takes a while to unpack his thoughts.

                    Does the content of his proposals allow translation into a more conventional argument? If so, let’s have it. If not, why not?

                    • semiotheque

                      Craig, you’re making exactly the same move that materialists make about faith: you’re choosing the discourse and saying that anything outside that discourse is not worth your time to engage in. That might be; I’m not going to tell you how to spend your time. But it might also be the case that engaging this stuff on its own terms, rather than on the terms you’re insisting on, is indeed worthwhile.

                      A few months ago Noam Chomsky said basically what you’re implying about Zizek: he said “Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing.”

                      I wrote the following on a forum to indicate why this is a problematic position to take: What I find disheartening about this, particularly as applied to Derrida, is the underlying supposition that unless a thing can be reduced to “principles” simple enough for a twelve-year-old to understand, it’s not a thing worth understanding. What if, in fact, the work of reading a text was, in fact, more complex and unstable and uncertain than something that could adequately be reduced to a small number of simple principles? Chomsky doesn’t seem to allow for that.

                      The problem, to me, with that line of criticism is that the post-structuralist, continental, Lacanian &c. (lumping in and glossing over some real differences) project includes at least in part the suggestion that the mere act of making claims is itself kind of problematic because language is not what we think it is, and that clear, simple statements are themselves an act of exclusion and even violence. So it kind of misses the point of the whole project to expect simple claims and principles. (I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, FWIW, and further aware that the act of attempting to explain this stuff in simple terms is not without a certain irony.)

                      Put it this way: you could explain Newtonian physics to a twelve-year-old and if they were reasonably bright they would get it, or at least most of it. But Newtonian physics are by no means the end of physics and are even misleading at certain scales. It’s totally okay to teach Newtonian physics as a starting place because at a macro level, it mostly works and that’s okay, but if you want to understand what is really going on with physical objects, there’s a lot of complexity that might, in fact, just not be able to be reduced to a level where a non-prodigy twelve-year-old can understand it. But that doesn’t mean there’s no there to non-Newtonian physics. It means that the underlying phenomena that physics studies and models are weird and complex and often counter-intuitive. Why should the same not be true of language and text and discourse itself?

                      Yes, it’s an imperfect analogy because the claims of physics are testable and falsifiable and those claims, such as they are, of the post-structuralists are perhaps … less so. But that is, as I note above, an attempt to impose the rules of one discourse upon another. Such an attempt may indeed be valid, but I think it’s worth examining the assumption that the rules of one particular discourse are somehow applicable by default.

                    • Craig

                      Semiotheque, I didn’t see your thoughtful reply until just today. Let me respond with a few questions.

                      you’re choosing the discourse and saying that anything outside that discourse is not worth your time to engage in.

                      I’m not sure what you mean by “discourse.” I’ve simply chosen to ask a question, and it’s a rather open-ended one. My challenge asks this:

                      With clarity and precision, state the specific theses that, in your view, Zizek has convincingly argued. Or, if the Zizek’s value lies elsewhere, please try to explain.

                      I am not a 12-year-old child, and I’m open to the possibility that Zizek’s contributions cannot be distilled into any specific theses for which he has provided convincing arguments. So, are you suggesting that Zizek’s value cannot be explained–and that such a broad and open-ended request is somehow too constraining? (Btw, are you also suggesting that faithful readers of Zizek cannot faithfully state, with clarity and precision, specific theses that Zizek has convincingly argued?)

                      clear, simple statements are themselves an act of exclusion and even violence.

                      Violence to what? Would clear, non-simple statements also necessarily commit this violence? (Is clarity, as such, something we ought to avoid?)

                    • BradC

                      Not a proposal just some commentary, but I think you should get a good idea of why he is an essential voice:
                      BTW – everyone doing theology should buy a copy of the Children of Men DVD full version and add to your library.

    • BradC

      Zizek is not intellectual hipster stuff – he is essential. These reactions seem like more of the same – Christians challenged to re-think some cherished positions …that don’t want to read or think!

      I agree his mannerisms are weird and his paradoxical statements cause you to pause i.e. “What world leader demonstrates Agape to his people more than any other world leader…perhaps kim jung ill”, etc. This isn’t nonsensical blabbering – he usually has some very challenging thoughts if you unpack what he is saying.

      And to clarify Zizek isn’t an Atheist like most Atheist. Most thoughtful philosophers can’t/won’t say with certainty that “God doesn’t exist” they just carefully phrase a statement that indicates “they don’t have faith that God exists”. Zizek, Rorty, Marion, DeVries, Tracy, etc etc all recognized the profound return of faith in contemporary epistemological structures.

      Zizek is essential to me.. less essential is this type of dismissal that comes from Christian thinkers that are being challenged.

      • Craig

        I don’t mind hard reading or hard thinking–so long as I have sufficient confidence that such efforts are relatively well spent. I can list a lot of non-Zizek stuff that I know is likely to reward my efforts. In fact, there is so much on that list that I know I will never get to it all in my lifetime.

        So that’s why I don’t read Zizek. That said, I’m willing to let my mind be changed about this. Zizek readers might change my mind by taking up my challenge.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Clearly having a name that no one can pronounce has a profound impact on the thought of a person.

  • BradC

    One last post and I am finished defending Zizek (as if he needs my defense)

    Zizek mannerisms are somewhat odd – he constantly brushes his hair out of his eyes, he has a slight stutter and lisp when speaking english, he rub’s his face when in thought, he speak very fast, etc, etc and his writing is more of the same in structure, but some of his insight is profound and I pray he is not dismissed as pseudo-intellectual hipster stuff or just good name to mention to impress.

    Work through his stylistic mess and you will find some profound insight. Book to read: Paul’s New Moment – Milbank, Zizek, Davis.

    • Craig

      Do you really think that it is the odd mannerisms that turn people like me off? Can you state with clarity and precision any of these profound insights? Why not give it a try?

      • BradC

        Just to clarify – Have you read any Zizek or heard him speak or are you just another critic hoping no one else has either?

        I won’t waste anymore time with Christians that criticize these thinkers without any investment of thought – it’s just pointless.

        I remember listening to everyone criticize Derrida and this evil of “postmodernism” in the 90′s, I didn’t understand from what I was reading he made sense and so I invested some time to listen to him to see if I wasn’t picking up a nuanced thought or idea that wasn’t clear in his writing. He was clear, understandable (even when speaking through an interpreter) and compelling. I was even more encouraged to find others in the conference that agreed and wanted to make an investment of time and thought.

        I’ve read Zizek, listened to him speak and have had private conversations with him. I find his thoughts compelling – especially his concept of Agape. Until you’ve invested something there is no reason to continue this discussion.

        • Craig

          Why can’t any of the Zizek fans just answer the simple challenge? Do they imagine such evasiveness will compel anyone to start reading Zizek? As if there were nothing else to read!

          • BradC

            So I guess the answer is no – Why are you being so evasive?
            You do the investment on your own – study his critique of the Cartesian Self and his concept of Agape and get back to me when you have.

            • Craig

              I think you entirely miss the spirit of this interchange BradC. I am not a Zizek reader. I’m just an educated guy who has heard Zizek’s name come up a few times and have read a few of his short essays. Nothing impressed me–now I couldn’t even tell you the topics of those short essays. I hesitate to make much of an investment in any writer who lacks a reputation for precision and clarity. There is a very long list of “philosophers” on this list, and I’m always casually gathering further information about them. Sometimes that information pushes the philosopher further down on my priority list. Such is the case with Zizek, when I discover that his ardent fans cannot straightforwardly answer my reasonable challenge questions.

  • jrieves

    I’m the person who asked the question and, much as I like David’s response, it hasn’t been answered. I wasn’t asking about Zizek’s significance as much as I was the arguments surrounding him. As Tony said, my question “has an edge to it” for two reasons: first, the whole thing smacks of entitled rich kids educated beyond their intelligence desperately wanting to prove just how smart they really are. Second, like so many other things privileged white Christians do, by arguing about whether Zizek, his atheism, or any other useless idea, we don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable fact that we live like royalty compared to others in our own communities who dwell in squalor. I don’t know whether Zizek is irrelevant or not, but your bullshit arguments are another story. What I’m asking is why I should pay attention to them.