(Updated Sep. 1)
An oft-repeated reproach to Slavoj Zizek’s writings is that he’s impossible to understand. In fact, Zizek is sometimes held as an example of a decades-old trend of academic meaninglessness; for example, in this recent article, Nathan J. Robinson shrewdly accuses Zizek of always defending himself against critics by claiming to have been misunderstood.
The fact is: on this point, Zizek’s critics are often right; Zizek is often hard to understand. And this, I claim, is intended. Zizek, like many other philosophers throughout history, is obscuring his points and stances in order to make them palatable for the ruling ideology, while still understandable for those paying attention (hopefully me and those reading this!). Let me explain.
The keyword here is esotericism. These days, this word is commonly misused for things vaguely related to the spiritual world of ghosts and suchlike; what “esoteric” refers to, strictly speaking, is to something that conveys a non-explicit message for those who can get it.
In a previous, long essay, I made some reference to Anglo-American objections to Zizek’s convoluted style and the reasons why there’s a strong divide between British-inflected philosophy and Continental-philosophy on this point. In summary: the United Kingdom, because of its political history of political uproar, relative liberty of argument and centuries of political disputes between Puritan-Progressives and Traditionalist-Monarchists, opened up a wide space for political and philosophical discussion for centuries. In Britain, the ruling ideology wasn’t always capable of having you fired, killed, exiled, destroyed, silenced for your opinions. After independence, The United States mirrored this situation, right until the triumph of Political Correctness.
In continental Europe, the opposite trend prevails. Except for brief periods in the likes of Netherlands or Switzerland, the continental philosopher has always been hounded, persecuted and punished if he or she expressed an opinion seen as taboo-breaking (*). Thus, the continental philosopher, unlike the British philosopher, has embraced tortured, dense, complicated, easily-misunderstood language, to obfuscate his actual meaning. Only those who read carefully, and know some of the tricks of esotericism, can make any sense of much of what the likes of Heidegger or Foucault wrote.
It’s important to understand this is a continued issue for philosophers and thinkers. This situation wasn’t created by Political Correctness, which is just the means of implementation of one specific, Western ruling ideology.
Every human society has had its own or even competing ruling ideologies, and these generate taboos. As shown by Arthur M. Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines, the 2014 classic on esoteric thinking, the earliest and most lasting such taboos was religion and the existence of God: many of the examples of esoteric writing he cites (some available here for free, as an appendix to his wonderful book) regard God and the Gods, and ways in which thinkers avoided deadly accusations of non-belief.
A fundamental point made by Melzer is that it would be wrong, and indeed stupid, to try and read every text, even every philosophical text, as esoteric. In his book, he sets up a sort of test for esoteric intent, which boils down to: does the author make it somewhat clear that he’s trying to convey deeper truths than it appears? Does the author frequently cite the danger of agitating common opinion (or ruling ideology, in Zizekian terms)? Does the author indicates that he or she is aware of the esoteric tradition?
To anyone who would argue there is no evidence of any esoteric intent in Zizek, let me point out that there’s plenty of references to esoteric readings and famous esoteric authors in his writings, including the king of 20th century esotericism, Leo Strauss. For example, in page 389 of The Parallax View, Zizek is discussing modern readings of Spinoza:
“Then, the reference to Spinoza is central to the work of Leo Strauss, the father figure of today’s US neoconservatives: for Strauss, Spinoza provides a model for the split between popular ideology, appropriate for ordinary people, and true knowledge, which should remain accessible only to the few.”
Then, there’s the following graphs, from page 14 of his recent “In defense of Lost Causes”:
“A couple of years ago, Premiere magazine reported on an ingenious inquiry into how the most famous endings of Hollywood Films were translated into some of the major non-English languages. In Japan , Clark Gable’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” to Vivien Leigh from Gone With the Wind was rendered as: “I fear, my darling, that there is a slight misunderstanding between the two of us” —a bow to proverbial Japanese courtesy and etiquette. In contrast, the Chinese (in the People’s Republic of China) rendered the “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!” from Casablanca as “The two of us will now constitute a new cell of anti-fascist struggle!”—struggle against the enemy being the top priority, far above personal relations.
Although the present volume may often appear to indulge in excessively confrontational and “provocative” statements (what today can be more “provocative” than displaying even a minimal sympathy for or understanding of revolutionary terror?) , it rather practices a displacement along the lines of the examples quoted in Premiere: where the truth is that I don’t give a damn about my opponent, I say that there is a slight misunderstanding; where what is at stake is a new theoretico-political shared field of struggle, it may appear that I am talking about academic friendships and alliances . . . In such cases, it is up to the reader to unravel the clues which lie before her.”
Still in doubt? In 2011, Zizek wrote this in the London Review of Books, nominally about Wikileaks, but really apropos of nothing (the underlining in bold is mine):
“Consider too the renewed popularity of Leo Strauss: the aspect of his political thought that is so relevant today is his elitist notion of democracy, the idea of the ‘necessary lie’. Elites should rule, aware of the actual state of things (the materialist logic of power), and feed the people fables to keep them happy in their blessed ignorance. For Strauss, Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. Questioning the gods and the ethos of the city undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of human endeavours. The solution proposed was that philosophers keep their teachings secret, as in fact they did, passing them on by writing ‘between the lines’. The true, hidden message contained in the ‘great tradition’ of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke is that there are no gods, that morality is merely prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature.”
ADDENDUM: Landzek has interesting comments on the issue of who understands what when reading Zizek here. (There’s more from him in the comments below) In the Zizek Studies Facebook group, where we had spirited discussion of this post, Nathan Rothenbaum linked this very relevant article by Judith Butler, defending herself from the the same accusations of obscurity in writing that Zizek commonly faces.
*This led to the peripathetic lives of people like Descartes and Voltaire, jumping from protector to protector, shielding themselves behind political borders; in fact, one could create an index of “convuletedness in writing” and the conclusion would likely be that those writers less inclined to settle overseas tended to write the most complex prose, while those who didn’t care about being today in Sweden and tomorrow in Russia tended to prefer simpler sentences. This is perhaps my greatest objection against the European Union’s centralization of power, and in general against globalization and its underlying quest for a single, unified, universal ruling ideology, but I digress.