Friday, November 20, 2009

What We Can Learn From Zizek

This past week the philosopher Slavoj Zizek visted Loyola University New Orleans, and I had the chance to spend some time with him over dinner, as well as attend his public talk, "Uses and Misuses of Violence." I want to use this post to reflect on what we can learn from Zizek. This is a practical guide. I am not concerned here with delineating the 'big philosophy' of Zizek's thinking; rather, I am interested in touching on a few ways that I found Zizek's visit useful in relation to my own pedagogical practices.

First, it is necessary to point out the obvious but sometimes ignored reality that Zizek is a public intellectual. This is a difficult role with at times contradictory demands. One the one hand, the public intellectual has to be understood as profoundly intellectual—and accordingly held to certain (shifting) standards. On the other hand, the public intellectual must be clearly public—and therefore utterly accessible and entertaining. This is an extremely difficult (if not outright impossible) balancing act, and we should not too easily dismiss Zizek with regard to one side or the other of this dual role. (Common complaints tend to be "He's too narcissistic and theatrical" or "He's too tangential or sweeping in his references to follow.") The role of the public intellectual is tricky, and yet increasingly important—we should be supportive of such figures, and not get caught in the oppositional role of vulgar critics who can discount personalities (and performances) wholesale. What Zizek teaches us—on a really basic level—is that there is still a lot of hard thinking to do concerning society and culture.

At one point near the end of his talk, Zizek said something very useful about violence: he encouraged his audience to look for violence precisely where it is not perceived. This sounds counter-intuitive—and it is. That is what makes it philosophical and challenging. To look for violence in unexpected places is not a call to mass paranoia, but is rather a matter of "asking the right questions" about situations that seem 'normal'. It is a continual process, not a final judgment. How do we orient ourselves in such a continual process that also demands constant perception and assessment? In one of my current classes, my students and I are discussing this question as appears throughout the apocalyptic novel Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler.

Zizek called for a reclaiming of 'civility' and 'decency', which I think surprised many people, as he is hardly ashamed of using perverse anecdotes, obscenities, and graphic illustrations to make his theoretical points. Zizek posed 'civility' against 'habits'—suggesting that sometimes the most 'decent' and 'civil' we can be is to jar ourselves out of habitual modes of thinking (and thus acting). Zizek also advocated to the audience that we need to "change our dreams." This was a very interesting modification of the Marxian premise that the base (actions in the material world) must change the superstructure (thoughts, dreams, consciousness). Perhaps the 'dreams' here are to be understood as somehow more material—as activated settings and scenes, as it were. I found this formulation puzzling but totally intriguing, and I will continue to think about how humans might be able to change their dreams with instantaneous material effects (not simply as a matter of thought).

This point also came up in Zizek's provocation that we "stop saying things that keep everything the same." If there is one simple thing we can learn from Zizek, it is an attention to detail in terms of how we describe things, how we name situations, and what sorts of terms become standard, expected. This may sound all too simple, but it becomes complex, fast—taken seriously, this sort of radical refusal to say things that keep everything the same allows for the unforeseen, indeed possibly the unforeseeable. Taken seriously, too, such a positive refusal can greatly impact the ways we learn, teach, and live. Things cannot and do not stay the same—and when we STOP acting as if things CAN stay the same, this opens up worlds of possibilities. (Zizek is interested in thinking about history as not only what happened in the past, but also in terms of all the things that didn't happen, and for what reasons.) I am completely aware of how naively optimistic this idea of 'stopping-for-the-sake-of-change' may sound. But it is also a real lesson that we cannot help but keep learning. In my other class this semester, my students are grappling with this very issue in Philip K. Dick's novel Time Out of Joint, considering how the characters accept or refuse to accept as-if static material conditions.

So there is my brief synopsis of what we can learn from Zizek. I have written this as an attempt to take the public intellectual seriously, as seriously as he takes himself, certainly—but also (and just as much) as seriously as he takes the world at large. And isn't this intellectual seriousness (or what Donna Haraway calls "serious play") what we try to teach our students, if nothing else?