October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
October 2, 2006
Review: Žižek! Directed by Astra Taylor. Zeitgeist, 2005. 71 minutes.
The Parallax View. By Slavoj Žižek. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. 434 pp.
Slavoj Žižek should make everyone very, very uncomfortable. The irony of the situation is, he doesn’t. Indeed, Žižek, a large, bearded beast of a man, who talks incessantly, particularly when he is under the eye of Astra Taylor’s tongue-in-cheek camera, is hounded by his complex reputation: as an intellectual heavy-weight with a radical love of most things Hitchcock, as an author of obscene proliferation, even as a one-time copy writer for the oh-so-naughty 2003 Abercrombie and Fitch quarterly. In These Times has called him “an academic rock star,” and it is precisely at the point of international celebrity that Žižek! Picks up.
We follow the Slovenian philosopher from the halls of a public building onto the podium, the camera tracking his walk like so many rockumentaries, cutting between the philosopher’s back to the excited audience. One could almost imagine restless foot-pounding, flickering lighters, a Les Paul guitar strung over his shoulders. Indeed, the celebrity fetish, in all its awkwardness, isn’t hidden by Taylor. At one point in the film, a young male fan unexpectedly embraces the sweating post-lecture Žižek, claiming, “I had to touch you.” Elsewhere, a woman approaches him in a park for an autograph. Clearly, the trials of fame can penetrate even the most impenetrable of discursive realms.
To her credit, Taylor and her crew do not fixate on this bubblegum aspect of Žižek’s career. In fact, they problematize it, moving back and forth between Žižek the icon and Žižek the philosopher. In doing so, the crucial center of Žižek’s otherwise centerless thought is revealed—like every good celebrity, hype hides a certain void. The film includes close-ups of Žižek analyzing his own neuroses, including his self-professed hatred of people and the anxiety of a negative discovery. “This is my fear,” he confesses to the camera, “as if I am nothing who pretends all the time to be somebody, and has to be hyperactive all the time just to fascinate people enough so that they don’t notice that there is nothing.”
More than simply a repetition of classic celebrity fear and loathing, Žižek reveals in this statement a central tenet of his own intellectual project, a continuity of the great tradition of philosophy of the negative. The paradox of his particular negativity is that it enables powerful positive statements—statements on love, politics, ontology, film, theology—all captured within a core commitment to what he calls “radical materialism.”
The difficulty in talking about Žižek’s thought, despite all its positive statements, is that it contains few positive concepts. That is to say, Žižek says a lot, but he is not advocating a complete paradigm or coherent project. The definition of philosophy he offers in the film is telling in this regard: “Philosophy does not solve problems. The duty of philosophy is not to solve problems but to redefine problems, to show how what we experience as a problem is a false problem.” This is the “philosophy as analysis” (in both the scientific and Lacanian sense of the word), and the first reason Žižek should make more people uncomfortable. His witty and intelligent lectures and writings, peppered with pop culture and phallic jokes, are ultimately revelatory of our own voids, the things with which we are occupied that ultimately turn out to be nothing, mere tics, unthought paradigms, capitalist forces disguised as free choices.
On a basic, visceral level, then, he isn’t all that appealing. On the other hand, the virtue of his work is precisely the fact that it isn’t safe, that the process of confronting ideology is as inevitable as it is monstrous. In other words, we have nothing to learn from Žižek, but he has everything to teach us.
His latest lesson comes in the form of his excessive volume, The Parallax View. Like Žižek himself, the book is somewhat inhuman. The rate and density of the thought, the many realms from which it pulls, is breathtaking. But so is a punch in the gut, and the book blurs the line between the sublime and the painful. It is not for the faint of heart, nor is it designed for the everyday reader. While Žižek’s writing is unique in cultural theory for its readability, the pleasure of unpretentious prose is swallowed in the Pynchonesque encyclopedism of his conceptual maw. You better know your Hegel, your Kant, your Kierkegaard, your Heidegger and, above all else, your Lacan; but you should also know your Hardt and Negri, Badiou, Deleuze, Derrida, Henry James, your Christian theology; your Marxist politics, your Hitchcock, Kieslowski, Lynch, Spielberg, and your I Love Lucy. And that’s only a sampling from one chapter. So I must confess right here that, as a reviewer, I fall far short of the necessary requirements to give this volume its due. At the same time, and to Žižek’s credit, even for the inadequate reader, The Parallax View offers a tremendous amount, even if that all boils down to nothing.
So what, then, is the parallax view, or, the term Žižek uses more often, the parallax gap? The simplest definition is: the “confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible.” In more abstract terms, it is “the noncoincidence” of the “One with itself” (7). In other words, the parallax is a negative within a positive, the break in the whole, the infinite excess within the finite, the relation between the subject and the object wherein each is irreducible to- yet inextricable from the other. The importance of this concept, for Žižek, is that it becomes the foundation for his “dialectical materialism.” Instead of adopting either a flat positivist philosophical materialism (in the vein of scientific naturalism), Žižek attempts to demonstrate that being cannot be conceived of as simply one, but a ruptured one—and this division makes all the difference. The Parallax View is his (somewhat) systematic exposition of this difference.
Once the parallax gap is articulated, one can see it everywhere, including in and as philosophy itself, which, counter-intuitively, is what gives it its universality: “philosophy emerges in the interstices between different communities, in the fragile space of exchange and circulation between them, a space which lacks any positive identity” (8). This is the space of thought and the realm of truth. It is not bound to the postmodern “discursive communities” (hence Žižek’s agon with happy multiculturalism, poststructuralist dissemination, and the liberal humanist mantra “let’s all get along”) but it is the very rupture of the community.
In a similar way, the advent of consciousness occurs in the gap between experience and the physical descriptions found in brain science, the subject of the second major division in the book. This was, for me, the easiest example of the parallax to understand: one cannot simply “reduce” the experience of consciousness to the “positive” firing of neurons in the hunk of meat that is our brains. Instead, there is an incommensurable and unmediated break between the two realms, both of which are accessible to us but which are not accessible to each other. After a long analysis of the many theorizations in contemporary cognitive studies which attempt to deal with this gap, Žižek offers his own solution: he takes the “radical materialist” route of arguing that consciousness is the gap itself (241). A materialist to the end, he introduces into matter that tricky and yet all-powerful element of consciousness, but consciousness as nothing.
What, then, of Žižek’s (in)famous fascination with religion? What are the “building blocks for a materialist theology,” the title to the second chapter of his book? This chapter, like all of his chapters, moves so rapidly that one has a hard time keeping up. Perhaps the most crucial theological claim is also an ethical one, which he pulls, appropriately, from Kierkegaard: the name of “God” as the designation of “the purely negative gesture of meaningless sacrifice,” Kierkegaard’s “infinite resignation” (75). What is so significant here for Žižek—a point he eventually gets to after pages of circuitous and diverse Lacanian analysis—is that the negative gesture is symptomatic of a properly atheistic theology, in that it relegates the absolute (and the divine as the transcendent absolute) into an entirely other realm, leaving the universe as a properly “godless” place. As a result:
[what] Kierkegaardian “infinite resignation” confronts us with is pure Meaning. Meaning as such, reduced to the empty form of Meaning which remains after I have renounced all humanly determined finite Meaning: pure, unconditional Meaning can appear (and it has to appear) only as nonsense. The content of pure Meaning can only be negative: the Void, the absence of Meaning. [. . .] [Meaning] is reduced to the minimal difference between the presence and absence of meaning itself[.] (85)
God is dead, for the materialist, but it is precisely the death of God that properly brings the infinite, as pure absurd (and absurd because it is pure) meaning, into the world. What activity reveals this minimal difference, this religion as parallax? For Žižek, it is “proper Christian love,” defined as “excessive care for the beloved, a ‘biased’ commitment which disturbs the balance of the Whole” (103). Love, as Žižek says many times, is a violent act, even an “evil” act; but it is also the manifestation of the materialist infinite, the break in the whole that, in the simplest terms, makes things happen.
No matter what your religious, anti-religious, or indifferent stripe, this kind of talk doesn’t make anyone happy. It seems simultaneously too reductive and too excessive, too much infinite and too much finitude, too Christian and not Christian enough. But that, I think, is his entire point.
Žižek is not interested in moderation, in defining the good life. Instead, his goal is to break up the whole in which we all live through the introduction of the void of philosophy. And the pursuit of this impossible goal is incessant. Even if you make it through his materialist theology without too many objections, you come face to face with his politics, the last parallax addressed in the third section of the book.
Again, there is simultaneously too much and not enough of Žižek’s political thought. This is where, clearly, his celebrity comes from: his bearded and sweaty enthusiasm, captured in all its glory on film, evokes the image of the bold and violent Leftist academic, calling for revolution, bringing to us, at last, the Message. And, as one of the last disciples of Stalin, one could well imagine this to be true. But, as always, the parallax nothing returns.
Žižek’s political thought, like his theology, is brutally unsettling and unforgiving. Many of his targets are obvious manifestations of the capitalist establishment, and the book offers minute and rigorous analyses of things like Abu Ghraib, anti-anti-Semitism, religious fundamentalism, and especially, global capital.
But just when you think he is going to jump on the organic-food-hybrid-car- activist-liberal-intervention bandwagon, he pulls his final negation, advocating, instead, what he calls the “Bartleby parallax.” In Herman Melville’s story of Wall Street, Bartleby the scrivener’s famous line is “I would prefer not to.” More than simply the self-centered “I don’t want to do that,” Žižek reads Bartleby as something like the truest negation of capitalist and imperial logic, the insertion of nothing into the hyperactive economy of both entrepreneurs and over-enthusiastic do-gooders. Bartleby, like Christian love, disrupts the Whole in a way that the Whole cannot even begin to understand. This is the political message Žižek offers, and, like so much of his thought, it is as revelatory as it is unsatisfying.
My biggest critique of Žižek (or at least my critique of my understanding of Žižek) is also where more traditional Christian theologies would perhaps offer an alternative to this political negation. While orthodoxy could not accept his purely materialist Christianity, orthodoxy ought to more expressly acknowledge the equally radical materialist element found in Christ’s teachings. By doing so, one can advocate a truly active politic which cuts the knot of ideology, not Bartlebyian passivity which merely unties it. When, for instance, Christ claims that there is not a bird in the field that falls outside of God’s will, and, elsewhere, that what one does to the least of these, one does to him, he is articulating a fundamental principle in Christian theology: the last shall be first, the small shall be great, the humble shall be raised.
This is a radical materialism that is, dare I say it, in a parallax relationship to that offered by Žižek. For an orthodox Christian, materialism adheres to the idea that the divine is so inscribed into the material world that transcendence is present in immanence, the miniscule is itself valuable. What must be remembered is that this is not New Age obscurantism (one of Žižek’s favorite targets) but a properly dialectical relationship between the material and the divine. The material world is significant not because it is God but because God is in it, in contrast to Kierkegaard’s radical Outside; what Žižek might call the divine gap resides alongside everything, making, in effect, the All more than itself.
This has crucial implications for political action. If even the smallest act is significant, regardless of its implication in a larger ideological system like global capital, because it participates in a divine excess which global capital cannot contain, then one can intervene without simply being reintegrated into the very thing one is attempting to resist. All of the good work done in the world, “to the least of these,” even as it is annexed by the insidious forces of empire and finance, is not simply blind exploitation but something akin to the pure Meaning, the minimal difference, that Žižek articulates earlier in his text. Bartleby’s withdrawal is not the only option if one’s thinking is sufficiently theological; and for all of his brilliant insight, in this regard I do not think Žižek is theological enough.
But a positive theology, total politics, or complete ontology is not his goal, and so it is dishonest for anyone, particularly his growing fan base, to hold him to it. In the opening shot of Žižek!, the nuance of his philosophy is perfectly encapsulated. Staring off, past the camera, his eyes darkly rimmed as if he is perpetually sleep deprived, (which he probably is), Žižek offers his “spontaneous attitude towards the universe”:
“It’s a very dark one. The first thesis would have been a kind of total vanity: there is nothing, basically. [. . .] If you look at the universe, it’s one big void. But then how do things emerge? Here, I feel a kind of spontaneous affinity with quantum physics, where [. . .] the idea there is that [the] universe is a void, but a kind of positively charged void. And then particular things appear when the balance of the void is disturbed. And I like this idea spontaneously very much, the fact that it’s not just nothing. Things are out there.”
The negative, then, has a positive charge. It makes things happen in a moment of “cosmic imbalance.” This is, in fact, the perfect analogy for Žižekian philosophy itself: a cosmic rupture which brings imbalance to our own ways of thinking, a troubling therapy session where all comes apart only to emerge as something else, a terrifying confrontation with the inhuman core which makes us human at the beginning. We should not try to tame Slavoj Žižek for, as the violence of his philosophy demonstrates, he loves you.
 Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006, 4. Subsequent references to the book will be included parenthetically in the text.
 Hence, in a Žižekian reversal, we can see that his on-camera confession of his fear of nothing is really a revelation of the fact that, in his nothing, he is the philosopher par excellence.
Paul Jaussen is a lecturer at Case Western Reserve University. He rides a motorcycle.