The Moment of Zizek’s Death

I’m reading Zizek’s conclusion to the recent edited collection The Truth of Zizek, which is now officially my favorite piece by Zizek. He spends much of it responding to basic misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations of his work, proving that the very premise of the book is flawed: it’s not that we need to somehow “get past” the “introductory” stance (with the presumably unhealthy sympathy such a stance presupposes) and start doing “serious” critique. It’s clear to me that there are very few people who have grasped Zizek’s position to the degree required for giving a responsible expository lecture to undergraduates, much less developing a responsible critique.

For all the “fame” Zizek has attained, the extent of his actual impact is difficult to assess. He makes a good point in this regard when responding to one of several contributors who are openly resentful of his current celebrity status: when it comes to actual academic influence (hiring, grants, grad students, etc.), Zizek himself is incredibly marginal. A figure such as Caputo, who is virtually unknown to the general public, has plainly had a much more significant influence within academia, in any reasonable sense of the word. I have joked that Zizek’s over-productivity reflects an anxiety that people would simply forget he existed if he didn’t publish a book every six months — but what if that’s actually true? Someone like John Milbank can perhaps afford to rest on his laurels when it comes to publishing, because he has so many other channels of influence as the founder of a “movement” (or tendency, or outlook on life, or whatever the hell they want to call it now) — his former students are spread far and wide. Zizek does not have a normal academic position, however: he doesn’t advise grad students, he has no means to build an academic department filled with Lacanians, etc.

This makes me suspect that if Zizek were to drop dead today, there’s a very real chance that the whole thing would be over — not because of the inherent value of his work, which I obviously estimate fairly highly, but because of a lack of “infrastructure.” It’s ultimately good for academia for there to be a figure like Zizek — but I feel like the sentiment throughout academia as a whole would be “good riddance,” even moreso than when Derrida died. Derrida at least had a few outposts, though of course the impression one got from his critics was that the guy was absolutely inescapable, just like Zizek is supposedly dominating the debate now.

42 thoughts on “The Moment of Zizek’s Death

  1. Anthony, I did! I just wanted to be sure before I answered. And I don’t understand the comment about the presses: all the works on the first page of his Amazon search are published by MIT or Verso.

    Adam: Zizek doesn’t seem to have a concentrated base of influence — no Yale or UCI for him. But he does have a vast series of connections, across numerous departments. These aren’t departments per se, but permanent fixtures within universities, at which people who study and study with Zizek establish and run. Remember the Humanities Research Institute? It’s a UC-wide institute, so one year it’ll be here, the next at UCLA, &c. But Zizek’s a member of it, and it’s run by people who have studied with him. Zizek has networks like this across the US and Europe. They’re not traditional institutions, granted, but 1) they’re housed at traditional institutions and 2) he seems to prefer to spend the year traveling between them, and could certainly set up shop somewhere, if he wanted to. Let me talk to someone who would know much more about this. Be right back.

    (Also, how marginal can someone with a journal devoted to their thought be?)

  2. Scott,

    I think you’re missing the point. I don’t know how to help you since all the information I can think of is already provided.

    Let’s try this. Re: the press issue. Verso isn’t really a respected academic press is it? I mean, I like them, sure, but it’s not Oxford or Chicago. Re: the hiring issue. Zizek may float around a lot of institutes and other like bodies, but is he getting those students hired by philosophy departments across the world? Comp lit departments? Any departments? The journal thing… it is online. It’s not like it has the backing of any press, let alone an academic one. Tomorrow, if I wanted, I could set up a Kaufman Studies journal. It’s hardly like that publishing in that journal is getting anyone respect in an institutional way.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see how you contend that Zizek is pulling strings at any real level.

  3. Anthony, as I said, I emailed someone who would know more about this. However, Verso’s a perfectly reputable press. Check out their Fall 2007 list: Jameson, Moretti, Eagleton, Balibar, &c. If that ain’t a reputable roster, I don’t know what is. Also, you didn’t mention that his other books are published with MIT Press, whose reputation needs no defense.

    In my limited experience — again, this is why I emailed someone who would know — Zizek has helped people get jobs. Granted, they’ve been in Comp. Lit. and English departments. Take a look at that picture from The Weblog, then this link. That’s a sweet post-doc, and he wrote one of her letters.

    And actually, you couldn’t set up Kaufman Studies journal tomorrow, because you’d be infringing on the copyright I established about four minutes ago.

  4. Kaufmann studies then.

    You’re still missing my point, but I think we’re just going to disagree about this. You seem to be taking academic influence to mean there are people who are academics who are influenced by Zizek and I’m talking about academic influence in terms of the structure. Let me know when Kornbluh gets tenure, or when Yale starts looking for people with Verso Books on their CV.

  5. To my surprise I’ve heard Zizek’s name tossed about quite a bit at history lectures here at UofM, yet I’m tempted to agree with Adam insofar as most students haven’t heard of Zizek, or if they have, haven’t read any of his works, and most of the professors who reference him do so in a derisive manner.

    Hopefully that will provoke some people to incorporate his ideas into their writing, which, after reading 5 or so of his books, I feel somewhat compelled to do.

  6. Let me know when Kornbluh gets tenure, or when Yale starts looking for people with Verso Books on their CV.

    This is a strange disagreement: Marjorie Garber’s at Harvard, but Harvard’s not Yale. Moretti’s at Stanford, but Stanford’s not Yale. Is Yale the only school you’ll accept? All the other major American universities are off-limits? Kornbluh, first year on the market, earns herself an incredible post-doc at UIC: she’s to teach three courses, a lit survey, an upper-division specialty, and a graduate seminar. That’s a dream post-doc, and indicates that his name has some weight. But, yes, the plural of anecdote, &c.

    You seem to be taking academic influence to mean there are people who are academics who are influenced by Zizek and I’m talking about academic influence in terms of the structure.

    As am I: grad students he works with and writes letters for is part of the structure. He may not be their committee chair, but he’s on their committee, and his influence works the way it does as if he were at their home institution. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and will remain quiet until I hear back from someone who can give specifics.

  7. Did I miss something where Garber and Moretti were Zizek’s students?

    Wow, this is just getting more and more ridiculous. In the interest of not having this turn into a perpetual argument about Zizek I give up. You’re right. Everyone respects Zizek and he is the establishment.

  8. Can we accept that he has some amount of influence in those academic circles who welcome his ideas? Not too controversial a claim, sure, but I can see where Adam’s coming from, in the sense that one can’t really see Žižek producing a Report listing influential and marketable schools for graduate students in philosophy, and having that Report acknowledged quite generally. While he may personally intervene in the careers of certain students, what he does not do is head a department, secure its funding, and motivate the faculty in that department along certain philosophical orientations or methodologies. In fact, many departments can go along quite well completely ignoring Žižek, dealing successfully and approvingly with the fine points of non-monotonic conditional statements referring to fictional, literary entities. But, as Adam alludes, the Ž is “supposedly” the current public fascination.

  9. Did I miss something where Garber and Moretti were Zizek’s students?

    We’re speaking at (oddly) cross-purposes here. Garber and Moretti were published by Verso and hired (respectively) by Harvard and Stanford. I’m speaking to the reputation of Verso Press, not to any affiliation with Zizek.

    In the interest of not having this turn into a perpetual argument about Zizek I give up. You’re right. Everyone respects Zizek and he is the establishment.

    Well, since this is a post about Zizek’s reputation, I’m not sure what the problem with talking about Zizek’s reputation is. In fact, I’m saying that despite his non-traditional institutional status, he’s able to influence institutions in traditional ways … which is a good thing, right? Or was the point to turn him into a martyr for his own thought — someone who’s valuable, but likely to be forgotten, and more beloved for being so?

  10. I’m not beating my wife.

    The point about Verso has to deal with philosophy departments, not their red-headed step child. Still, I take your point and I accept that Verso is apparently a reputable press with major universities and departments.

  11. Anthony: “The point about Verso has to deal with philosophy departments, not their red-headed step child.”

    First, in addressing a headless man, it is perhaps best not to argue ad hair-colorum.

    That said: Adam’s question about Zizek ‘when it comes to actual academic influence (hiring, grants, grad students, etc.)’ [that’s the phrase you yourself seize as key] is distinct from the question of Zizek’s influence on Anglo-American philosophy departments. It is perfectly consistent for him to have lots of influence on the humanities and social science, and little on philosophy departments.

    I would say Zizek’s influence on Anglo-American philosophy is, in fact, negligible; his influence in the academic humanities as a whole is considerable; and his influence in the social sciences is moderate (more than in philosophy).

  12. Oi! change it back to “This is more a comment than a question” – it made me smile every time I visited this site.

    Zizek Studies is actually not that bad a journal. I think it is actually cool that he often responds.

    I would be interested to read the article at the end of the volume The Truth of Zizek, but I imagine the gist of it is in the title: with defenders like this, who needs attackers.

    To often the standard thread when Adam writes something



    Blah is incorrect. Still though, blah.

    Blah is a bit silly. Still though, rewritten blah.

    Adam – I said blah!!

  13. Adam,

    Do you correspond with Zizek at all on a personal level? Just curious.

    And, forgive my ignorance, is there some connection between Derrida and Yale I don’t know about, or is it just an example of a respected school for the conversation?

  14. Thomas:

    The “Yale School” was the group of scholars who introduced Derrida to Americans: De Man, Hillis Miller, Hartman, &c.


    So we’re concluding that Zizek has a lot of “soft power,” but relatively little “hard power.”

    I wonder whether almost all influence in the academy isn’t of the “soft” variety. I mean, there’s nothing your advisor can do to land you a job, at least, not in the active sense. It’s all about networking and connections, and Zizek does the former brilliantly and an extensive set of the latter.

  15. It seems to me that many of the most influential thinkers in Western history were outside any sort of academic system: Hume, Voltaire, Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein (though he did teach a bit as a lecturer), Lacan, etc. I don’t know that Zizek is a thinker of this caliber (hopefully that won’t be taken as denigrating Zizek), but when I look at the history of philosophy it seems to me that many of the most celebrated thinkers were outside the academic system. I take it Adam is talking about a different kind of influence or power. Adrian Johnston is another name that comes to mind as someone who has done favorably well since receiving their PhD (Zizek was on his dissertation committee and wrote the forward to his first book).

  16. I don’t know how Wittgenstein could be considered as being “outside any sort of academic system”. Huge chunks of his works are lecture notes, for Pete’s sake. The guy was less than ideal as a professor, sure, but he worked as a professor, and he did his work in a university setting, in conversation with other people at the university.

    Most of the other figures on your list are from before the modern university system took off. Kant was the first modern “academic” philosopher; after him you have Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger…. Nietzsche seems more like an outlier than any sort of norm. (Which seems fitting.)

    Not that I think this has much to do with Adam’s post, since Zizek is unquestionably an academic figure of some sort.

  17. Actually, if memory serves, Nietzsche was only excluded from academia owing to health reasons. He was a professor of philology briefly before he became chronically unemployed. I suspect if his health allowed for it he would’ve kept on going with the hunch-back game.

  18. I had understood that Wittgenstein only taught very briefly. Marx and Freud also come to mind. It’s difficult to speculate about Nietzsche. Spinoza was approached for university posts a few times but declined them. If memory serves, Hume was as well. I’m unclear as to what’s being referred to by academic power, in this post, and why it’s valuable. Is the issue that of who can write letters of recommendation, influence hiring committees, or mentor graduate students? Is that really the way things should be measured?

  19. Wittgenstein wrote most of his post-Tractatus work in at Cambridge in academia, though he absolutely despised it and the haughty Russell circle of knobs and the back-slapping therein. He tried to leave several times, going to Russia to work as a serf (they wouldn’t let him) and to Ireland, as well as the infamous school teaching episode.

    I don’t think it is particularly difficult to speculate about Nietzsche. Dan is right, his letters make it quite clear that he left due to ill health and never came back, prefering to wander around the hills and think. Then again, he had a few mates in the academy (Overbeck etc) who would fight his corner when he was attacked.

    Hume wanted into the university game, and applied for the post at the University of Edinburgh, but was rejected coz he was an atheist. Something Alasdair Macintyre makes some point I can’t recall about.

  20. Is it really bizarre to think that power within academic institutions is a separate thing from intellectual influence? And that the two wouldn’t necessarily match up?

  21. Alex, in suggesting that it’s difficult to speculate about Nietzsche, I wasn’t suggesting that we don’t know why he left, but rather whether he would have stayed had he remained healthy. Wasn’t there controversy surrounding The Birth of Tragedy and whether it was up to par for the German universities? Would there have been a place for his kind of work had he stayed? Again, it’s hard to say as it’s not clear that he would have done the sort of work he did do had he not fallen ill and left the university.

    It’s not at all bizarre, Adam. It’s just that the things you list (grants, hiring, grad students, etc) seem so trivial in the scheme of the history of thought. It seems to me that the vast amount of work that does actually take place in the universities– my own included –is dreck destined to pass from collective memory like a ripple in the water. This doesn’t strike me as intellectual influence.

  22. On the other hand, I think the question of how collective problems and research orientations emerge is a very interesting question. The work of Latour and Bourdieu is especially interesting in this connection. This, I think, aligns well with your questions about institutional power.

  23. Larval

    The controversy surround TBOT was large scale, and caused Nietzsche’s class attendance to drop right off, much to his dismay and amusement. But there were people in the academy who supported his work and it can be placed in a context where other people were making similar moves. We can ask all day if he would have done the same work if he had stayed, but it is mostly, as you say, speculaton.

    If he had not been ill in the first place, I doubt he would have been a philosopher like he is, obsessed with sickness and health etc.

  24. In 400 years, only cockroaches will have survived the nuclear apocalypse/environmental collapse/meteor collision/etc.

    It would probably make a huge difference to your career if Zizek had decided to settle down in one particular place and spearhead the creation of a philosophy department that was Lacanian in orientation, right? And getting a position in such an environment would affect what you would be able to write and publish, correct?

    It may be true that the majority of analytic philosophy will not have much lasting value — as indeed, the majority of anything does not have much lasting value — but what about all the books and articles that weren’t written because of the dominance of analytic philosophy? What about the connections that weren’t made? For instance, Whitehead was a professor of philosophy at Harvard and gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures — now he’s remembered because of a few crackpot theologians and a handful of especially thorough Deleuzians. Is that really because of his intellectual worth? And do you really think it will all “come out in the end” or something?

    I should clarify that Zizek, as SEK says, probably could settle down somewhere and form something lasting. Nothing about his basic convictions would make this an impossible move — in fact, just the opposite. (And he may well benefit from having something that would slow down his rampant overproduction.)

  25. Good points, Adam.

    Well, Charles, the issue of whether work is a major contribution to the history of philosophy and whether it is a matter of one’s own development, in understanding the world and understanding oneself are distinct. I can’t conceive any other form of engagement that would be more enjoyable for me than teaching and trying to understand the world about me. On the one hand, I think teaching is extremely important, especially in a world where increasingly students do not read at all and have little knowledge of history. On the other hand, I do think that discourse and academic engagement do push things slowly in a particular direction. I also suspect that many hope to someday have an idea that would genuinely be significant. You really don’t find that a good deal of what’s out there is trivial dreck?

  26. I have to confess I don’t. I mean, at least not in terms of some kind of individual power (there must be some better concept here, but hopefully this gets across my meaning). What you do is not trivial dreck because quality isn’t necessarily related to the quantity of historical time or amount of readers. No?

  27. I guess, being that my academic career is pretty much stagnant for me, working full time in something very different than academia has shown me that there are more things enjoyable than teaching and trying to understand the world. Or, rather, there are different forms of teaching and understand than there are in the classroom, at the university, in the Academy. I don’t disagree with you that the academic engagement can push things into a certain direction with its own crawl. I guess that’s why I don’t think I can stay there, that and I’m pretty ignorant except for what I know. I don’t read the journals or the blogs as much as I used to, so I can’t say if much of that is drek, but I do know that I wish I had a thousand lifetimes to spend in the library, and to me that seems to be something different from recognizing what’s there, out there, as trivial or dreck.

    But, I’m just more curious as to whether you take, say, publishing in a journal some small piece related to a larger project you’re working on, as something you see not really all that helpful or productive or enlightening or worthy or noble or fruitful or challenging. If so, and maybe that’s not right to say, why was it done? And here, I don’t mean for the sake of philosophy as a historical, growing piece of the world, but for your own sake. Maybe that’s too personal to ask, but it seems to me that doing something trivial for the sake of getting it done is, in the end, where we get too numb. Much of what I do in my job is numbing, and what is not is either frustrating or exhilirating. That makes me wonder if, for the ones who gain their wages from their studying, doing philosophy is this kind of work…

  28. I have been working on Zizek a good nine months. I am trained in philosophy and have no trouble understanding the books. I think the reason he is not accepted is that he’s a bit of a three card monte philosopher. The reference and meaning of his key theoretical terms change with almost each new book. The Real, object petit a and so on have no fixed meaning but are determined according to what he needs them to mean. For example I just read where Zizek describes God’s command to Abraham as sacrificing his object petit a. Last week the latter was the prize in a cracker jax box.

    Why is it that after so many ,many books we keep on buying and reading even more books? I think Zizek is more of an addiction than insight…we think we are getting somewhere. If we really are arriving at a deeper point why is it so difficult to remember exactly what he said in book X?

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