There’s an old Saturday Night Live sketch that cast Jon Lovitz as a barking, obnoxious Pablo Picasso, lazing on a restaurant patio hastily scrawling off crude doodles for passerby. He tips his waiter with a Picasso scribbled on a napkin. The joke is funny, if obvious: the value of these crude squiggles monumentally increases by dint of their Picasso-ness. “I’m Picasso!” Lovitz barks. “There’s only one!”
So it is with Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic whose very name has become its own marker of…well, if not quality, than a quality. The quality of the Žižekian: muddling up Hegel and Lacan and jokes about toilets; framing issues of global capital through old Hitchcock movies; fiercely oppositional (he’s been hailed as the “master of the counterintuitive observation”) to the point of blistering contrarianism and straight-up meaninglessness.
Given his tenuous ties to the institutionalized academic community, it’s a bit ironic that Žižek hold fast to one of academia’s core edicts: publish or perish. Žižek is almost implausibly prolific, churning out articles, essays, books, lectures, TV appearances, movies (like the epic 2012 essay film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology) and other brand-building bric-a-brac with industrial consistency.
But a consistency of output rarely correlates to the consistency of that output, and Žižek’s latest sees him passing from being something like philosophy’s Robert Pollard to its Danielle Steel. Event (tantalizingly subtitled: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept) tackles the “evental” nature of political phenomena: celebrity scandals, natural disasters, the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, humanity’s fall from prelapsarian grace and so on.
Žižek subjects this idea of “the Event” to a characteristically Žižekian battery of anti-rigour, ricocheting from Christianity to J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 to Stainslaw Lem’s Solaris to the structure of haikus, Cartesian subjectivity and Rosini’s light operas. Only one page separates a discussion of the Holocaust from an analysis of the found-footage teen party movie Project X. And a passage pertaining to viral video phenomenon Gangnam Style, which proclaims South Korean pop singer Psy as the “new Messiah,” follows just a few paragraphs after that.
The aim, which emerges through the noise like the contours of spaceship fuzzily materializing inside one of those Magic Eye puzzles, is to understand the nature of these Events in order to better grasp at how the next major Event – nothing short of the capsizing of the whole entrenched network of global capitalism and its play over the individual psyche – may transpire. Thirsty work for a volume clocking in at fewer than 200 pages.
This notion of the capital-e Event, roughly outlined as “the effect that seems to exceed its causes,” seem self-evident. Think of the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following a white policeman (allegedly) shooting and killing 18 year-old black man Mike Brown. Is not the ensuing fallout of protest a sort of capital-e Event, its resultant affects embodying broader tensions: America’s deep-rooted racial anxiety, its more modern militarization of local police forces, etc.? Do not these protests – felt on the ground and reverberating across cyberspace to anyone following the #Ferguson hashtag – stand as expressions of what Žižek terms “the universal freedom of humanity”?
Žižek also sweats the “global process of dis-eventalization [sic] which threatens the very fundamentals of our emancipatory achievements.” His key reference point here is “normalization of torture” in the critically lauded Osama bin Laden manhunt thriller Zero Dark Thirty, whose director Žižek accuses of “ethical obscenity.” (Seeing Žižek, who in this book alone relies on a rape joke to make a point and repeatedly employs the pejorative term “tranny,” accusing anyone of sloppy ethics feels a bit rich.)
But this idea of dis-eventalization also calls to mind, even more recently, Vladimir Putin’s apparent attempt to restore the geopolitical “glory” of Soviet Russia by establishing a new ring of Moscow-controlled satellite states. Isn’t Putin effectively trying to undo the Event of Soviet collapse? Or at least “reboot” (to use glossy Hollywood ad-speak) the USSR as a kind of hollow man, lacking any unifying ideology beyond nostalgia for the bygone days of Soviet communism?
Event, presumably filed in advance of these Events, offers little insight into the realties of contemporary geopolitics (except for some late-game stuff on how debt, like capitalism itself, “strives for its own expanded reproduction”). Instead of scrupulously picking apart the sorts of incidents name-checked in his introduction, Žižek gets lost down his rhetorical rabbit holes. Reading Event, even more so than a lot of its author’s recent work, gives the feeling of frantically reloading the Random Article page on Wikipedia.
As has become a trademark of his work, Žižek offers little in the way of solutions, let alone something like a thoroughgoing program for realizing (and making good on) the sort of “new universality” that an authentic political Event promises. Instead, Event serves up more cutesy, boringly Žižekian dialectical U-turns. “Division,” he writes in the book’s concluding chapter, “is the only path to true unity.” Master of the counterintuitive observation, indeed.
Sure, there may be a certain stubborn dignity in Žižek’s commitment to the “authentic political Event,” and his heard-headed contempt for any compromised political reforms (the title of his 2009 volume, In Defense of Lost Causes functions as a kind of fatalistic thesis statement). But when Žižek acknowledges, in Event’s final sentence, that his demanding argumentative CrossFit® workout may have left his reader “too exhausted to envisage the prospect of a political Event,” it feels totally goading and cynical.
It’s not the social-democratic consensus, or the dis-eventalizing forces of global capitalism, or even the perilous cycles of debt that flatten the possibilities for political revolution. It’s prankster-provocateurs like Žižek, who seem to nastily savour his work’s fatiguing effect on its would-be revolutionary reader. “One has to know to wait,” he writes, “to not lose one’s nerve.” Against the forces of a global capitalist apparatus that is constantly changing, that has mutated and evolved across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries into its own revolutionary force, maybe Žižek’s advocating for a kind of radical quietism through which, as he writes in his phonebook-thick 2012 tome Everything and Nothing, “those who refuse to change anything are effectively the agents of true change.”
Beyond this feeling like self-validating nonsense for the armchair radicals who have made Slavoj Žižek a cause célèbre–“the Elvis of cultural theory,” he’s been called; another totally meaningless phrase–it’s hard to ignore how such sluggish prescriptivism benefits Žižek himself. Like a comedian working through a long-winded shaggy dog story, Žižek defers answers from volume to volume, essay to essay, YouTube lecture to big-ticket documentary film.
What proliferates instead of the seeds of revolution is Žižek’s curious celebrity, his value as a cash-cow for academic and sorta-academic publishers like Verso and MIT press increasing with each hastily-scrawled, bewilderingly rambling text. Like Lovitz’s Picasso in that SNL sketch, the meaning of the work becomes reducible to its author’s obnoxiously forceful assertion of its own value.
“He’s Žižek!” Event seems to scream, as if it should mean anything on its own. “There’s only one!”
John Semley is a regular contributor to Globe Books.