an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 4, January 2007, ISSN 1552-5112
A conversation with Paul A. Taylor (editor of The International Journal of Žižek Studies)
Nicholas Ruiz III: Might we suspect that it is always most favorable to have conversations with the living? Or in other words, so many of our conversations in cultural theory, philosophy and criticism seem to be with the dead, is it time to revaluate the practice of the living philosopher? Is this one reason, at least, why there are journals now, such as the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, and most recently, the International Journal of Žižek Studies (IJŽS)?
Paul A. Taylor: There seem to be a few people for whom Žižek’s status amongst the alive and kicking is somehow a problem. I must admit I'm rather nonplussed by such necrophilic tendencies which reflect an under-acknowledged level of conservatism within academe. My view is quite simple - either thinkers are worthy of our time and intellectual energy, or they are not. There's also a certain amount of intellectual bad faith regarding this enshrining of thinkers in an intellectual hall of fame only after their physical demise. For example, Walter Benjamin is a deservedly much-admired figure yet his own theoretical project was suffused with a profound interest in the cultural detritus that surrounded him. He was an intellectual ragpicker par excellence and the highly topical nature of his radical thought is frequently ignored by those who appear to need the insulation of a safe historical distance before they are willing to engage with his work - a sentiment quite at odds with his own intellectual practices and intentions. My preference is for theorists like Benjamin and Žižek who deal directly with the ideology of the times, as it is manifested at the time.
An online journal is a better medium than most to engage most effectively with this topicality and it avoids another major inconsistency that I point out in the Editorial Introduction and other interviews I've done. This is the irony that journals with a leftist or vaguely radical stance still subscribe to a dead-tree model of publication built upon what amounts to an exclusionary, exploitative model for knowledge generation. With miniscule numbers of individual subscribers, the survival of these paper journals is dependent upon income garnered from University library budgets via the charging of high institutional prices - such institutions being disproportionately represented in the richer parts of the globe. A likely response is that dead-tree publications are necessary to ensure the quality of content, but this is unconvincing given that the peer-review mechanisms they use tend to be facilitated by the very online forms of communication they only eschew at the final stages of the publication process. This might just be me espousing a vested interest but I've recently noticed there is a forthcoming online International Journal of Communication edited by no less a figure than Manuel Castells (although, judging by its initial Editorial Board, disappointingly, only marginally more international than Baseball's "World Series"), so I don't think (touch wood) that it's pre-emptive to say the time of the online journal is now!
Both the Žižek and Baudrillard Journals open up space for the critical discussion of the contemporary mediascape with full scholarly rigour but without some of the exclusionary physical constraints that offline scholarship necessarily involves. The additional feature that Žižek is around to take umbrage with particular interpretations contained within the Journal, is also a major asset. It would only be a drawback if he was dictating Editorial policy - but his position on the Board is an honorary one, and I am highly resistant to making IJŽS a fanzine instead of a serious interrogation of his work.
NRIII: What are the big ideas in Žižek’s work, or perhaps, what are the Žižekian approaches to cultural theory, philosophy or criticism that are most compelling? For what does IJŽS seek to provide a forum?
PT: In reverse order, despite the above points about its accessibility, IJŽS is first and foremost a scholarly forum. By way of illustration, in the middle of this interview, I have been in another email exchange with a UK TV producer genuinely interested in bringing higher quality content to our screens. He read a paper I'd written about Abu Ghraib for The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies and complained about its excessive use of "jargon". This is an attitude I've frequently encountered amongst the most well-intentioned media practitioners and it goes straight to the heart of IJŽS's unapologetic rationale as an outlet for scholarship - not media-friendly superficial discussion or blunderbuss blogging.
Clarity is often desirable but its ideological components are frequently overlooked by those who use the term as an apparently neutral category. Those demanding more clarity are seldom confronted with the supplementary question - clarity for whom? So I would strongly argue that clarity is not a neutral category - there is a great paper by Douglas Aoki defending such purportedly impenetrable theorists as Lacan. Invariably, when media figures request more clarity they are promoting a desire for a mode of communication that is saturated with presuppositions of the way the media is supposed to work. In my direct experience, colleagues at the professional practice end of communications studies tend to be so uncritically inculcated in a very particular way of doing things that they are very resistant to acknowledging that their way is a very particular way of construing things and that things could be significantly otherwise. If you ever get access to a media professional - try asking them about a particular programme and why it wasn't produced another way and you'll be inundated by comments "but that's not how it works", "that's not how it's done" etc.
In this context, a hugely impressive feature of Žižek’s work is the manner in which he seems to largely overcome this ideological use of clarity to enervate intellectual life. He culls an unusually high number of illustrations from readily accessible media content to accompany his complex discussions - but unlike the media chatterati, he does not shy away from the full import of this philosophical content. I have never come across a philosopher who combines the demotic with the esoteric so impressively and IJŽS aims to reflect this whilst maintaining its scholarly focus. Even if, along the way, it proves we've misrepresented certain aspects of his work, Žižek himself defends "productive misreadings" as the motivating force of Western Philosophy.
Regarding Žižek’s big idea - what consistently impresses me about him is the degree of reflexivity he brings to his work. He not only reflects upon this amazing range of elements from popular culture, but juxtaposes them inventively with high theory to produce fascinating new perspectives. He even manages to incorporate a constant theoretical awareness of the nature of his method as he goes along. It is thus fitting that his latest book which he regards as one of his most important is called The Parallax View - I think it is a very good summary of his key intellectual project to date - the constant shifting of position to look at things "awry" - to quote from another of one his books’ titles.
An obvious danger for someone who holidays so regularly in the belly of the media whale is the subsequent muffling of his message by the medium. But once again, here Žižek exhibits unusually high levels of perspicacity. In addition to his theoretical reflexivity, Žižek also exhibits an impressive level self-understanding. Thus, in the movie Žižek! he not only plays with the conventions of the documentary form by staging his own suicide at the end of the film and, at one point, lying in bed wrapped in a sheet like a recumbent, togaed Socrates, but there are also some quite poignant moments. For example, he is fully conscious of his own need to placate his son with a Happy Meal and Disney videos in order to help pass fraught father-son "quality time" and in a Buenos Aires restaurant he passes a photograph of himself to the film’s director and rhetorically asks "would you let your daughter go to the cinema with this man?"
reiterate, I think his main contribution is this consistent desire to look at
things askance. He may not always succeed and the media may continue attempting
to co-opt the radicality of his analysis but he keeps making the effort and I
love that pig-headedness. In my own work on critical theories of mass media
culture I frequently encounter examples of theorists presenting themselves as
critical when in fact they are merely servicing the status quo as in the
previously mentioned blind spots of "critical" dead-tree journals.
Another major illustration can be seen in the whole history of cultural studies
- a disciplinary debacle that is often a sophisticated exercise in willfully
denying the central insights of the
NRIII: What do you make of Žižek’s “rehabilitation of dialectical materialism” set forth in The Parallax View? Is it an example of what Todd McGowan refers to as the ‘serious theory’ that philosophers so often fail to offer, or might such rehabilitation suffer only for a romanticism of class liberation that Capital will not allow? McGowan claims that serious theory must reject the edifice of orthodox philosophical legitimacy, in favor of a speculative illegitimacy that a thoughtful rendering of the world requires; how might Žižek satisfy McGowan’s criteria in The Parallax View?
PT: I've dealt directly with the importance of the parallax view above but to expand upon its importance for notions of dialectical materialism I would comment further upon this notion that Žižek provides a breath of fresh intellectual air. One of the reasons that I admire figures such as Adorno and Baudrillard so much is that unlike so many other theorists they tend to be unashamed to acknowledge fully the dark implications of their analyses. They seem to understand better than most that the word "critical" as it applies to cultural theory may involve the connotation it has in Mathematics and Physics of relating to the transition from one state to another, but then again, it may just refer to a damning, pessimistic indictment of present conditions.
I have a strong sense that much contemporary cultural theory is hamstrung by its persistent desire to have a side order of optimism with its critical analysis. This is a debate I'm currently conducting with Prof Scott Lash who despite writing a book entitled A Critique of Information seems determined to adopt a Panglossian attitude to the life-world of the new information order that seems to stretch the etymology of "critique" to breaking point. A few lines further on than the sentence you quote, Žižek reasserts the need to develop 'dialectical materialism, not the much more acceptable, and much less embarrassing, "materialist dialectic"; the shift from determinate reflection to reflective determination is crucial here' (The Parallax View pages 4-5). Reflective determination is a nice way of describing the reactive, accommodationist tendency of a lot of theory at the moment. Currently, a head-in-the-sand attitude seems to be the dominant voice within academe. Worryingly, the Panglossian cultural studies approach is now spreading its influence into various information society accounts of bio-politics. Most disappointing in this regard perhaps is Mark Poster's recent Information Please! (2006) and Jenkins's Convergence Culture (2006). Such commentators seem determined to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear of a culture in which people's transformation into human/information-hybrids is apparently something to be celebrated uncritically.
As with the previously discussed failure to ask "clarity for whom?" – works such as these embrace the various implosions brought about in digital culture but seem loathe to look awry at who is disproportionately benefiting. They conveniently ignore the depressing predictability with which such "innovations" always seem to favour the usual suspects. At the end of his introduction to Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, this is what leads Žižek to accuse Deleuze of being an apologist for today's digital capitalism . Reading further on in The Parallax View from Žižek’s desire to rehabilitate dialectical materialism, he points out that, from the earliest times, philosophers have played a survival game whereby they have hidden the truly subversive nature of their endeavours. In contrast, too many cultural theorists today are playing a radical game - but only in order to disguise their essentially quietist nature. They are hibernating versions of Marx's revolutionary mole - they have forgotten how to break to the surface again.
NRIII: I suppose we might say that there is a critical currency deficit. Much in cultural theory and criticism seems unevenly enamored with the Ancients. Not to say there is not value in the polishing of old gems, but perhaps there is an eternal return to the seductive beauty of the antiquated Text: texts about texts about texts—unfiltered, uncompressed—an unending loop of noise and feedback. Notwithstanding evolving concepts of novel interest: the Network, the Order, the Multitude, Becoming, Capital and so on—the Law states that all of these need end in a fuzzy liberal emancipation. The sign of orthodoxy in philosophy, must it be that of a Modern emancipation politics? And the subversive, must it be unorthodox? And even if we believe in the viability of a democratic space, can such a concept exist apart from its Administration?
PT: If I've understood the question/comments properly ... I think, yes, we've actually reached a stage at which the nominally subversive or radical have exchanged places as I've argued above. This is true of the type of works I've already mentioned, particularly, the perennial body of works that could be labeled under the general term cultural populism. A consistent theme in my responses to your questions is how, in this body of work, the worst attributes of the culture industry are disingenously re-imagined as examples of empowerment. There is still a pressing need to directly address the disturbing implications so forcefully raised by Adorno - they haven't gone away they've just become a more insidious part of our cultural environment. Adorno told a truth too unvarnished for some when he described how the masses are not so much cleverly duped as they are active connivers at their own oppression. Similarly, Žižek rejects the notion that the masses are suffering from false consciousness - they do know what they are doing, but they keep on doing it anyway. There's a migraine-inducing irony that Adorno tends to be dismissed as unfashionable and irrelevant when his insights have never been more obviously validated by history - a great example of someone being beaten with the stick of their own predictive success.
It would be easy to be mischievously snippy when offering explanations for the types of misguided analyses I've been criticizing but I think there is an element of middle-aged, middle-class angst about pointing out the culpability of the bovine masses for their own situation. By contrast, figures like Baudrillard and Žižek seem to derive at least part of their subversive status from their gleefully recalcitrant and unfashionable willingness to make exactly these sorts of non-politically-correct value judgments. They volubly undermine what you term "evolving concepts of novel interest". Take Baudrillard, for example, when he is salvaged from the misleading label as a "po-mo theorist" and inane misreadings of his razor-sharp descriptions of the mediascape as praise for its vacuity, one can see him for what he is - a traditional Durkheimian who, over many years, has consistently defended the value of symbolically-laden culture over its empty symbol-lite manifestations in the totalitarian semiotic order that dominates social discourse. Similarly, Žižek unapologetically criticizes "politically correct" dogma that shies away from the real issues underlying ideology and power. His novelty is paradoxically garnered from a dutifully close reading of the canonical triumvirate of Kant, Hegel, and Lacan. He breathes fresh life into these thinkers by applying them critically to popular culture. If something isn't broken there's no point trying to fix it. With that aphorism in mind, I find Žižek’s loyalty to seminal thinkers genuinely novel in comparison to the numerous acts of intellectual bad faith exhibited by theorists more interested in glorifying capitalism's flows with various forms of Jesuitical casuistry than they are actually calling an essentially commodified spade an ultimately dis-empowering digging implement.
Specifically regarding the notion of a democratic space and its relationship to administration - Žižek points out that Western intellectuals often want revolution without revolution. They are indeed radical in their imaginations but when it comes to the crunch they hide behind bureaucratic structures, disciplinary tribes and professional "standards"/unvoiced assumptions (e.g. the previously noted tendency to assume that a theorist needs to be dead before one can seriously study them). The concept from Žižek I keep coming back to time and time again is his notion of the chocolate laxative - the process/object that acts as an agent of its own containment. I think this is a an extremely illuminating concept when applied to conceptions of democracy and their tendency to have their substantive content swamped by administrative minutiae (a perfect trope for this is the way in which academics frequently betray their intellectual responsibilities to the pursuit of knowledge by an indecent [perverse as Lacanian terminology would describe it] attachment to committee life, the micro-management of research and teaching etc.).
It strikes me that a particularly good example of the chocolate laxative is the intellectual field of enquiry surrounding "online Democracy". In a New Age happy-clappy homeopathic sort of way, the symptom of the illness is proposed as the cure. Various well-funded sexy new university institutes and think tanks actively pursue what can only be termed administrative research. They exhibit jaw-dropping levels of insensitivity to the cynical political and ethical values lying behind the enthusiastic creation of a point-and-click polity and shameless chutzpah in presenting it as a positive democratic development. This mode of thought is depressingly accommodationist in a manner that plumbs new depths in terms of Marcuse's notion of one dimensionality.
I like Chomsky's rule-of-thumb notion
that that those most interested in politics are invariably those who should be
automatically excluded from it for exhibiting such interest - they embody a problematic will to power,
they are not the solution to it. In this context, Žižek is, as ever, a
fascinating character - the ethos of his narrowly unsuccessful bid for the
Slovenian presidency is periodically bolstered by mischievous comments such as
his claim that if he took a job in government it would have to be something
like Chief of the Secret Police. I think in Žižek’s work there is this
ambivalence between the ethical injunction of "first, do no harm" and
the related Bartelby response of "I prefer not to" and his avowed
admiration for figures of such practical conviction as Lenin and
All of the above qualities combine to make Žižek’s interpretation of Western media culture and democracy-in-practice one that is radically critical of the disingenuously blithe notion that its lousy but the best system we have. Whilst I suspect that any future revolution led by most contemporary intellectuals would more than likely involve an inordinate amount of clipboards - I sincerely doubt that, whatever other disasters it would involve, this would be not be true in the bright new dawn of a Žižekian world.
NRIII: Is revolution
a material goal today? It seems that,
with regard to the formations of polity, we have painted ourselves into a
theoretical corner. Is there life after
democracy? Certainly, there are locales
that seem to believe so, in an applied and theoretical sense.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 4, January 2007, ISSN 1552-5112
Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View,
 See Taylor (2006) Putting the Critique back into A Critique of Information: Refusing to follow the Order in Information Communication and Society Vol 9.5 and Lash's response in the same issue Dialectic of Information: A Response to Taylor.