Gritty Realism, Snowpiercer, and the Tedious Trauma of the Real

CaptureIf you read Zizek, you know this bit as well as you know the wheelbarrow joke. Here’s evidence of our pathetic attempt to elude the traumatic kernel of the Real. We need to know that the pleasure will always come with filth; that the neighbor will never not be in some way annoying; that dreams of purity, happiness, and unmediated delight are sick frauds, liberal dreams just this side of fascism.

For Zizek, maybe, the worst of these fantasies is the fantasy of capitalism without excess. The Nazis wanted just that, blaming the Jews for the structural unpleasantness of business. The fascist, eschatological dream is the dream of a culture without disharmony, a state without excess, money without suffering, life without rot.

It’s an attractive argument, if Zizek’s celebrity is any guide, and attractive because it’s so very portable. We on the left like it because it’s an argument against fantasies of wholeness. If the Real always sticks to our shoe, then there’s no way to get that pure, happy small town world that, say, “The Christmas Shoes” loves. There’s no chance at kitsch.

But it’s also just this side of “you have to break eggs to make an omelette” authenticity of gritty realism. Gritty realism is a wonderful antidote for people — men especially, comfortable men especially especially — who feel that they’re leading too soft a life. That dream of coming into contact with the harsh truth of things, and living through it, is the core of most “Last Man” fantasies (from End of Grass to The Road to The Dog Stars); but it’s also the core of living in this capitalist world and constantly going on about a grimness that the comfortable man himself perpetuates. The gritty realist believes himself to be living without illusions, bedding down with the Real, facing things “as they really are.” The gritty realist indulges in guilt for the sake of honesty and in honesty for the sake of itself. There’s no goal,  no hope or plan of change, because that hope is, of course, false. Gritty realism is knowing something as true and, because it’s true, just continuing to live with it, so that perpetuating the status quo becomes a virtue.

They’re the ones who don’t walk away from Omelas.

So, let’s take the ending of Snowpiercer, which, you know, spoilers. Wilford plays the standard world-weary sophisticate who functions as the villain and object of desire in so many contemporary actioners (see also Loki or, uh, Paradise Lost), there to offer Real Power, but only if its recipient acknowledges the traumatic kernel of the Real. In fact, he’s selling gritty realism to the gritty Real itself (Curtis, played by Chris(t) Evans), the baby-eating filth from the back of the car, there to stain the smooth workings of the machine; but Wilford out-reals the Real by telling Curtis why he needs children to keep the machine running: without this continual sacrifice of children, there’s no future for humanity. We have to keep bringing them forward and using them up. It’s gritty Reproductive futurity, the dialectical reversal of the tyrannical child, so that they become slaves to our own stupid desire to survive.

Curtis says no. He sacrifices his arm, and then his whole self, colluding in the (accidental?) destruction of the train, leaving only Yona (Go Ah-sung) and Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis) alive, there, in the mountains, in a world that’s gradually thawing, probably on the verge of either starving or being eaten, either by each other or the polar bear (see also this crap post).

The choice seems to be to go along with the train or to walk away into nothing, because anything else would try to elude the traumatic kernel of the Real.

But that hopeless grittiness forgets that this isn’t a closed system (EDIT: contra Aaron Bady’s excellent and as they say epic post at The New Inquiry, which I just read, where he writes “This movie takes for granted that there is no alternative, and that’s the thing we shouldn’t take seriously”). Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) knows that the earth is gradually rewarming. Maybe it’s not: the ‘frozen arm’ punishment early in the film shouldn’t have worked in a warming world. Yona and Timmy and everyone might have walked away from the train; they might have hoped on the sun and the earth’s own molten core; they might have seized control of the train, redistributed the goods and the labor, ate the resisters, and remembered that they are human, capable of making and solving problems (rotating shifts of children, perhaps?, until an engineer offered a better solution?).

I realize, of course, that Snowpiercer is a fairy tale: the absence of a llvestock car is proof enough of that. But it’s a film, that like (incorrectly read?) Zizek, elevates the Real to the position of Final Truth, demanding that we get with the trauma if we want to live at all.

Or it reminds us, faintly, that there’s more to life that the Real, but kills nearly everyone off before we see how that life might have been led.

Love Objects – Beroul, mainly

Shipwreck porcelain fused with coral

Shipwreck porcelain fused with coral

For various reasons, I’m thinking right now of the last book of Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship, which I (mis?)remember as featuring Aelred and a few select monks scurrying from the attention of their colleagues, hoping to keep their friendship and conversation free of the clutter of untrustworthy, unsympathetic, unpalatable others. Aelred knows that friendship, and by extension, love have their limits.

Both are limited by whether we want to be friends with our fellows, of course, but also by the limits of our existence itself. Because nothing can be everywhere, because everything that is has only so much space, attention, and time, only so many ways of grasping or engaging or connecting, we, whatever we are, can’t love everything. Unless you assume a fundamental oneness connecting us all inextricably–and I just don’t–our being at all limits our love. Whatever direction we take excludes the others we might have lit up with our love. Whatever direction we take leaves the others to themselves.

The same, maybe not incidentally, goes for eating.

Also, various reasons drive me to think of a scene in Beroul’s Tristan:

After sunset that night, when it had grown quite dark, Tristan set off with his squire. He knew the lie of the land well. They rode to Lantyan. He dismounted and went into the town. The watchmen were giving loud blasts on their horns. Tristan slipped into a ditch and went along it until he reached the hall of the castle. He was in great danger. He came to the window the king’s chamber and called him, taking care not to speak too loud. The king awoke and said:

‘Who are you, coming at this time? What do you want? Tell me your name.’

‘Sire I am Tristan. I am bringing a letter for you which I will leave on this window ledge. I dare not talk to you for long. I am leaving the letter behind, I dare not stay.’

Tristan turned to leave. The king sprang out of bed and called out three times: ‘For God’s sake, fair nephew, wait for your uncle!’

The king picked up the letter. Tristan had gone. He dared not remain and slipped away quickly back to his waiting squire and jumped on his horse.

(translation from Alan S. Fedrick; for a probably unreliable edition of the French, see here, beginning at “Anuit, après solel couchier”)

“Por Deu, beaus niès, ton oncle atent!” Mark wants the family back together. He wants Tristan to accept his love. And Tristan, feeling the obligation, flees, fleeing this love and this duty to hew to others.

Yet Tristan doesn’t flee Mark’s love entirely. Just imagine Tristan’s disappointment, or ours, had Mark read the letter, seen his nephew fleeing, and only shrugged. Beroul wants his hero. He needs to show us a desirable Tristan, but there’s more going on here than that. All at once, we see Tristan’s abandonment of his uncle and his family; we see how he abandons it all for love; and we see the other side, what Tristan’s choice inflicts on a terribly wronged uncle, who for whatever reason foolishly longs to reunite the family. We see how Mark’s been left miserably to himself.

Or, as elsewhere in Beroul, we see this story from the perspective of Tristan’s enormous, heroic self-regard, who here wants to believe that his uncle would call after him, even if he professes to want nothing to do with him. We see Tristan wanting the love he doesn’t want.

Art, medieval and otherwise, tends to take the perspective of the frustrated lover, eventually rewarded. It tends to want to make us sympathetic to love. I don’t know of any medieval narratives of being stalked (except maybe?), nor any of someone or something trying to exempt itself from God’s charitable regime. Beroul gives us something rare, then, when he presents a King who wants what he shouldn’t want and won’t get, and a nephew embarrassed by love he doesn’t want, desperate to be let alone so he and Isolde can love on their own terms, but desperate too to keep his hold on Mark.

One more thought, just as incomplete as the others: We tend to like love and we love to talk about it. No surprise. But with all due apologies for a dialectical reversal, I’m citing Žižek: in The Parallax View, he writes “finding oneself in the position of the beloved is . . . violent, even traumatic: being loved makes me tangibly aware of the gap between what I am as a determinate being and the unfathomable X in me which stimulates love.” The feeling of being loved, particularly when it’s unwanted, is “why me?” “please, not me,” “you’ve got the wrong one,” or even “who, me?”

Being loved can be annoying, dangerous, or estranging. To try to put this in the language of object-oriented philosophy, the feeling being loved is of discovering some mode of apprehension you didn’t know you had, of discovering something unknown reaching out from yourself to attract another, of discovering that some other wants to take you into its orbit. You feel yourself an object for another and, disturbed by your own attractiveness to that object, you feel yourself estranged from yourself, as if looking down into your own depths to find stored modes of apprehension and attraction that you perhaps hope had never been activated.

(picture from the Seattle Art Museum, by Alison Kinney)


379952_2463771285988_1603420228_32505295_1460412144_nHorrified to wake up today to see that Bloomberg has ordered an overnight police raid on Occupy Wall Street. The 5,000 books in the OWS library: dumped. Destroyed [edit at 4:15pm Nov 15: actually, not destroyed. The City really screwed up in not making this information public as soon as possible edit again at 12:21 PM Nov 16, actually mostly destroyed]. Bloomberg gave (is giving?) a press conference, not so much to justify his decision (since, for the powerful, as we know from Marie’s fables, the act itself is the justification) as to offer the public the proper narrative. Here, he is saying, is how we must understand. Here is what we must know. Hail to/from the Chief!

He is saying this (which I learned about via here):

At one o’clock this morning, the New York City Police Department and the owners of Zuccotti Park notified protestors in the park that they had to immediately remove tents, sleeping bags and other belongings, and must follow the park rules if they wished to continue to use it to protest. Many protestors peacefully complied and left. At Brookfield’s request, members of the NYPD and Sanitation Department assisted in removing any remaining tents and sleeping bags. This action was taken at this time of day to reduce the risk of confrontation in the park, and to minimize disruption to the surrounding neighborhood.

To reduce the risk of confrontation. Shades of “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” no? I’m put in mind, too, of the appalling narrative offered by University of California Police Captain Margo Bennett, whose forces, acting with the at least implicit approval of UC Chancellor Birgeneau, assaulted students and professors. Captain Bennett (caput! yet another head!), had this to say for/to us: “I understand that many students may not think that, but linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”

Right. On the question of confrontation and violence, here’s some material from my book, edited a bit:

Slavoj Žižek’s Violence: Six Sideways Reflections distinguishes between subjective, objective, and symbolic violence. Subjective violence, violence as it is typically understood, is committed by a “clearly identifiable agent” an individual murderer, an anthropophagous pig, a 70-year-old poet, and so forth whose act disturbs the supposedly peaceful relations of the status quo. Objective violence is the systemic and generally unacknowledged violence by which the status quo sustains itself, committed as a constitutive element of the “objective” status quo itself. Finally, symbolic violence is the violence of language, which distinguishes one subject from another (and thus renders a nonnarcissistic relation between subjects possible). My thinking with Žižek’s terms could, in fact, start with his own work. When he asserts that, because they possess language, “humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence,” he decides as confidently as any humanist that animals lack language, and, like any humanist, he sustains that difference by ranking human lives above animal lives: through the subjective violence of his own carnivorousness (exemplified by his notorious assertion that vegetarians are “degenerates . . . turn[ing] into monkeys”); through the objective violence of exercising the privilege of being human in a system that fundamentally values human life more than anything else; and finally through the symbolic violence by which he not only articulates a distinction between subject and world (a necessary activity for any thought capable of acknowledging others as others, for better or worse), but also posits an abyssal difference between animals and humans. All these violences work in concert to generate the human and the animal.

Later in the book, I consider Ratramnus of Corbie’s Letter on the Cynocephali (treated by me here some years ago). Ratramnus proves that the Cynocephali, the monsters with human bodies and dogheads, are human, because they domesticate animals. Though they wear hides, the flayed skins of their dead animals, and though “suisque cogant imperiis subjacere” (they compel them to submit to their rule), Ratramnus explains “At vero cenocephali, cum domesticorum animalium dicuntur habere multitudinem, eis minime convenit bestialis feritas, quorum animalia domestica lenitate mansuefiunt” (but since the cynocephali are said to keep a multitude of domestic animals, then animal fierceness does not fit them, because they tame their domestic animals gently).

Gentle Compulsion! Here’s what I said:

No matter how gently Ratramnus claims it is enforced, Ratramnus has not purged violence from the subjugation of animals: he has in fact preserved its aspects of mastery for his newly named humans, while attempting to displace the violence from the enactors onto the “fierce” victims. To recall Žižek’s distinction again, Ratramnus’s attention to the subjective violence of the domesticated animals masks the objective violence of cynocephalic—and, by extension, human—ascendancy. Typically, the mask is a symptom, in this case, of Ratramnus’s wish to elude his own knowledge of the impossibility of being human. The cynocephalic head, terrifying, carnivorous, yet in the place of reason, materializes the ineluctable and dehumanizing violence of the human condition. Like any human, the cynocephali must dominate animals; but to do so, and thus to claim reason for themselves and deny it to animals, requires violence; but to be violent means acting like a beast. Without “bestialis feritas” there is no claim to possess reason, and thus no claim to be human; but neither is there a human with it.

The cynocephali? They’re just avoiding confrontation. If their animals try to keep their hides on, they’re the ones being violent. If one of their beasts fights back, they’re the ones being a ferox, ferocious, an animal.

Hail to the chief with a dog’s ravening head!

(image via here)

I expect you’re familiar with the story of Brother Juniper and the Pig (Latin is here, paragraphs 2-9, Italian here, and modern English translation here). Briefly: Juniper is the fool of fools among Saint Francis’s band, no doubt narratively necessary because the original fool, Francis, had become an the administrator of his flock. The first act of Juniper’s holy foolishness: to satisfy a sick brother’s craving for a pig’s foot. Juniper heads out to the forest, finds a herd of pigs, captures one and cuts off its foot, and voila! He heals his brother. But then an enraged and nearly implacable swineherd shows up. Finally calmed by Juniper’s innocence, the swineherd bestows on the friars the remainder the now 3-footed pig. Francis declares, “Fratres mei, fratres mei; utinam ego haberem de talibus iuniperis unam silvam” [My Brothers, my brothers: would that I had a forest of such Junipers!”] The end.

Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio [Francis, God’s Jester, distributed in English as “The Flowers of St. Francis”] treats the episode a bit differently. Click on the image above for a sense of how the hunt begins. Juniper isn’t just hunting down a pig. He piously understands the pig as participating in the community of charity: just as the film’s Juniper keeps giving his habit away to the poor, so too will the pig give away its foot. Soon enough Juniper finds a herd of 5 or so pigs, and addresses them: “Brother pigs, the Lord has placed you on my path to help me. Listen to me. Brother pig, listen to me, please. Most handsome pig, with your succulent foot, would you grant my sick brother’s wish? I promise I won’t hurt you. The Lord will help us in need. Think, brother, of the few opportunities we have to do good.” With this, Juniper and his knife disappear behind a bush, which shivers while an unseen pig screams. And keeps screaming. Horribly.

4898025309_b5bb7cde88_bJuniper prays, “Thank you, Lord, for the good that that pig and I will do with this foot.” He returns, the pig’s scream following him through the valley, and he declares, “Listen, he’s thanking the Lord too.” The pig screams for a while more, then stops.

The swineherd, as in the original, appears, but remains implacable: “You call this doing good? One of your friars cut off my pig’s foot!” He leaves, and then here, too, returns with the carcass, but Rossellini (or Fellini (!), or perhaps his other screenwriters) simply has the swineherd throw down a gutted carcass, shouting, “Here, you vagrants, eat!,” and then stomp away. What he offers them may be less a charitable donation than an all-too vividly rendered carcass, made inedible by its own coagulated blood. So much for Brother Pig.

4898025693_cd813e76d2_bThough Rossellini’s film ends with Francis sending his friars out into the world to preach peace, though through the film the friars, particularly Juniper, bring peace wherever they go, or at least suffer meekly for Christ’s sake, through Rossellini gives us the illusion of immediate access to peace by casting actual monks to play his friars, he nonetheless assaults us with the cinematic equivalent of the Turkish March in the Ode to Joy, as glossed by Žižek. Forgive the long quote:

In the middle of the movement, after we hear the main melody (the Joy theme) in three orchestral and three vocal variations, something unexpected happens at this first climax, which has bothered critics since its first performance 180 years ago. At bar 331, the tone changes totally and, instead of the solemn hymnic progression, the same “Joy” theme is repeated in the marcia Turca (“Turkish march”) style. Borrowed from the military music for wind and percussion instruments that 18th century European armies adopted from the Turkish Janissaries, the mode becomes that of a carnivalesque popular parade, a mocking spectacle. Some critics have even compared the “absurd grunts” of the bassoons and bass drum that accompany the beginning of the marcia Turca to farts. And after this point, everything goes wrong, the simple solemn dignity of the first part of the movement is never recovered.

However, what if things do not go wrong only at bar 331, with the entrance of the marcia Turca? What if, instead, something was wrong from the very beginning? We should accept that there is something insipidly fake about the Ode to Joy, so that the chaos that enters after the bar 331 is a kind of the “return of the repressed,” a symptom of what was wrong from the very beginning. We should thus shift the entire perspective and perceive the marcia as a return to everyday normality that cuts short the display of preposterous portentousness and brings us back to earth, as if saying “you want the celebrate the brotherhood of men? Here they are, the real humanity.”

And does the same not hold for Europe today? After inviting all mankind to embrace the celebration of ecstasy, the second strophe of Schiller’s poem that is set to the music of “Ode to Joy” ominously ends: “But he who cannot rejoice, let him steal weeping away from our circle.”

4898025517_a4ff2076b7_bHe who cannot accept our peace, our charity, let him steal weeping, footless and pigless, away from our circle. Let his screams be heard as joining our prayer. To his credit, Rossellini has not made what the “The Decent Film Guide” calls a “beautifully simple little film,” nor has he made a film that offers “a compelling vision of life that rejects materialism and violence.” He has done that, that is true, but that’s not all. Only a third of the way through Francesco giullare di Dio, Rossellini shows us the true, shattering violence of revolution, that the inclusiveness of community and of dreams of peace cannot help but leave behind the equivalent of a bereft swineherd and mutilated pig, each dragooned into someone else’s simple and naive dreams of a pure charity.

So much from Brother Pig. So much for Brother Pig.

Quick and Dirty Reviews: Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism

3952010I honestly can’t remember who recommended Adriana Cavarero’s Horrorism to me, so, whoever or whatever you are, thanks for enriching my understanding of violence as I slog my way towards finishing my book. Review is below the fold.

“Today it is particularly senseless that the meaning of war and its horror–as well, obviously, as its terror–should still be entrusted to the perspective of the warrior….The civilian victims, of whom the numbers of dead have soared from the Second World War on, do not share the desire to kill, much less the desire to get killed” (65).

“the instant of time that blows the bodies of the ‘human bombs’ and their victims to pieces today annuls the dimension of time: time in which to face up to the reality of one’s own crime and to answer for it singularly. Closed in on itself, suicidal horrorism thus takes pride in the unappealability of its work in the service of an instantaneous and irresponsible violence. In this sense, it is no surprise that books on female suicide bombings written by women who are disposed to understand them, if not justify and sympathize with them, have a tendency to minimize the ethical responsibility of the bombers” (103)

I think other people are likely to to get a lot more out of this book than I did. Adriana Cavarero rightly demands that we should try to apprehend violence from the perspective not of the warrior (or ‘terrorist’) but from that of the victim. The victim, we should presume, does not care about whether or not he or she is being mutilated, tortured, or killed by a state actor, a criminal, or suicide bomber. Nor does the victim care about the motivation of the agent of violence: here she might have used one of Zizek’s favorite quotes, this from Deleuze: “si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutu!”, since these dreams of the other, dreams whether for ‘freedom and democracy’ or for the Caliphate or whatever, do not matter to the victim. What matters is the pain and death, especially when the victim, caught unawares, has been unable to defend him or herself from the violence. This latter point, too, is key to Cavarero, as she observes that what distinguishes modern warfare from Homeric violence (her paradigm) is the particular suffering of the defenseless. Not the battlefield, but the bombed out city, or marketplace, or supermarket, or the theater filled with corpses and poison gas, is the picture of modern mass violence. For those interested in a richer philosophy and politics of war, for those interested in engaging in further debates with Bataille (she’s against him), Arendt (largely for), suicide bombing (particularly when committed by women), and contemporary modes of violence, I imagine this book is indispensable. But it absolutely needs to be paired with Zizek’s Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, in large part because Cavarero never considers the systemic violence of global capitalism itself. To use Zizek’s terminology, she is so committed to studying subjective violence that–symptomatically–she does not see the system of violence that sustains her own way of life.

We might save Cavarero’s analysis by imagining what a ‘horroristic’ study might make of the fancy widget-maker (fwm): does the fwm care whether or not she is making a fw for the international yuppie smart set? Would it be all the same to her if she were manufacturing, say, toilet plungers? I suspect so. Cavarero demands that warriors and terrorists alike try to understand the violence they commit from the perspective of the victim. What might happen to our (where our= “the international yuppie smart set”) love of our fw when we try to apprehend it from the perspective of the worker? Alternately, in my own work, I could demand that we try to understand nonhuman death from the perspective of the nonhuman. What does the cow care whether its meat is properly cooked? What does the sheep care whether its skin will be used for Chaucer or, god help it, Lydgate? Cavarero could ask such questions, but she is relentlessly and unthinkingly anthropocentric, a stance that is becoming increasingly unforgivable for any critical theorist, given the growing body of critical animal theory. However, when she writes, “Horror has to do precisely with the killing of uniqueness….it consists in an attack on the ontological material that, transforming unique beings into a mass of superfluous beings whose ‘murder is as impersonal as the squashing of a gnat’ [qting Arendt Origins of Totalitarianism:], also takes away from them their own death” (43), this surely applies as much to animals, medieval or modern, as it does to the human animal caught up in some totalitarian fantasy.

I have to confess to a perhaps petty annoyance with her typical litany of historical horrors: Stalinist Ukraine, Maoist China, Palestine and Israel, Iraq, Guernica, the Khmer Rouge, Chechnya, Rwanda, German and Japanese firebombed (& otherwise) cities, Nanking, the Holocaust, Armenia (with a few scattered references to Italian cases). There’s no evidence that she considered why this representative litany occurred to her and not, say, the Congo of King Leopold or the DR Congo of the twenty-first century: my sense is that consideration of these other African killing fields would require an analysis of her own complicity as a citizen of a wealthy European nation. I suffer an even pettier annoyance when she writes: “Any review of the refined arts of war developed over the course of the century would have to dedicate a separate chapter to the aerial bombardments inaugurated by German forces over Guernica and Coventry” (51). Why not Italian forces over Ethiopia the year before Guernica, or, arguably, RAF forces over Sulaymaniyah? (and while it’s tempting to suggest the Zeppelin raids of English, beginning in 1915, the difference between these and Sulaymaniyah, Ethiopia, or Guernica is that the English could defend themselves: the Kurds, Ethiopians, and Basques could not, and thus stand as better representatives of horrorism (unlike the inhabitants of Coventry)). And perhaps pettiest of all: her moments of sloppiness, e.g., “…in this massacre there are not even innocents anymore, given that, whoever they are, each one is as good as the next in the abstract role of example. Although called infidel or miscreant, the absolute enemy loses all quality and assumes the role of anyone at all, with respect to whom the eventual faith of every singular victim–who sometimes, and certainly in modern Iraq, believes in the same god as his murderers–is just an accident” (75). Good point on the purposeful randomness of the victims of modern mass violence, but, c’mon, this not only elides the religious differences between Sunni and Shia, it also elides the fact that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God! Sheesh. Just like Catholics and Protestants, who have gotten along, as we know, famously well.

What do you do with a slovenly Slavoj?

zizek2Stuart 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?


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.

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.

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


“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. – See more at: