Towards the end of March 2020, while Italy and Spain were still counting deaths by the hundreds on a daily basis, the word got out that renowned public intellectual Slavoj Žižek is publishing a book on the Covid-19 pandemic. This was after he has been publishing online articles on it since January. In fact, Žižek was hardly the only intellectual that publicly and possibly hastily reacted to this global traumatic event. Most noticeably, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben sparked a heated debate after considering Italy’s response to the virus as merely a ‘state of exception’. Other than him, among those who intervened in the event we find prominent intellectuals such as Yuval Noha Harari, Jean-Luc Nancy, Naomi Klein, Judith Butler, David Harvey and Alain Badiou.
However, unlike these intellectuals, Žižek draws most of the fire because he made it his modus operandi to act almost spontaneously and to write as if instinctively. Surely, it happened before with regard to the Arab Spring of 2011, the financial crisis of 2008, and the 9/11 event of 2001. Shortly after these events happened or even during their happening Žižek had already published something about them. This also holds with regard to less global events or not as traumatic, such as national-level protests, as Žižek was there to comment on them, presumably making them intelligible and significant by articulating their true meaning. Against the background of his incommensurable publication rate, Žižek’s ‘instinctual writing’ is usually met with a correlative ‘instinctual critiquing’ from various angles and on different points.
As soon as the word of Žižek’s upcoming book circulated in today’s digital public sphere, i.e., on new social media (intensified by the self-isolation), numerous reactions were not late to come. Using Twitter and Facebook, users voiced their concerns and raised harsh critiques against Žižek. First to react were other intellectuals or academics, university lecturers and students. Their reactions are varied, and when examined they reveal the intellectual or political positioning of Žižek as it is done by others. Moreover, the examination of these positioning moves via their performances shows that they are parts of a broader context, specifically of today’s changing conditions of intellectual life and the challenged role of public intellectuals. Thus, the goal of this essay is not to defend Žižek, which he does better anyway, but to characterize the critique raised against him and perhaps explain its relation to Žižek’s social intellectual conditions of possibility.
As one looks at a sample of the reactions to Žižek’s publication, several themes emerge through repetition. For instance, one person doubted the authenticity of this advertisement, suspecting it might be a fake or a joke, and therefore asked: ‘is this for real? #Žižek #hotoffthepresses #disasteracademics’; this tweet was answered by: ‘Apparently not a joke. Slavoj Žižek has written a book on all this already. Wow. He moved fast. #Žižek #COVID-19’. Other persons wondered about the immediate timing of Žižek’s intellectual intervention, which was answered by his repetitive form:
A: ‘How so fast…?’
A1: ‘because sir we are not worthy of this genius’
A2: ‘probably a collection of the articles written so far on the subject, plus some cutouts and further “expanding”…’.
A3: ‘It would be foolish to ask when did Žižek write the book because the book he printed here is already written in his head and his books since Parallax View  and The Sublime Object of Ideology . Only the concrete book (hardware) is newly created, the cognitive substance in it is like the original yeast that you use in sourdough, it is there and matures ahead of itself in his head. Žižek is the ultimate cook or baker or simply the THINKER of his time, some kind of a Turing…’
B: ‘HOW DOES HE WRITE SO QUICKLY!?!’
B1: ‘He says much the same from book to book.’
B2: ‘I think he got a thousand pages of hegelian, lacanian jokes laying around somewhere. and he simply chooses the suitable jokes and adds his spicy dialectics in between them and voila idelogie critique a la Žižek’
A third strand of critique is Žižek’s possible exploitation of the dire circumstances, or in other words, the accusation of profiteering:
C: ‘Lol… well that’s certainly a way to war profiteer off of the situation… i guess it’s time in quarantine well spent when you turn out a book on the pandemic while it’s still going on’
C1: ‘They are giving away free e-books. How is that profiteering?’
C: ‘I didn’t see that… still, it was a joke… no harm intended’
One sociology professor raised the following snarky question, and another historian found Žižek’s intervention exemplary of the growing ‘quick thoughts’ trend: ‘Doesn’t Slavoj #Žižek technically count as part of the gig economy?’
D: ‘I don’t understand the annoyance about Žižek specifically. How is his quick-book any different than the lugubrious essays and “quick thought” published by all sorts? He’s a rona hustler like every other non-specialist academic from what I can gather.’
D1: ‘Reinflaming preexisting aggravations’
D: ‘also, most other hustle through the ephemera of online discourse. maybe newspapers and magazines. putting this one between covers and taking up shelf space for as long as we still have libraries feels like an escalation of trolling’
And lastly, the following Twitter sketch illustrates the problematic by having the ‘professional intellectual’, or academic researcher/expert (on the left), getting upset at Žižek (on the right) and his public appeal:
When put together, these critical themes can be expanded to reflect the following points:
- Temporality: ‘He always tries to be the first’
- Authority: ‘He transgresses disciplinary boundaries’
- Power-identity: ‘He abuses his reputably dominant position’
- Position: ‘He thinks he is above everyone else’
- Scope: ‘He tries to be a ‘know-it-all’’
- Motive: ‘He makes money of the suffering of others’
- Content: ‘He writes the same thing’
- Form: ‘His works are not academically rigorous’
At face value, these pointed critiques may indeed seem reasonable. For example, what is this compulsive urge to intervene so quickly, to be the first one? Maybe there is also an economic reason behind it? And who is Žižek to have a say at a purely biological matter, of which he knows nothing about and has no real expertise since he is not a biologist, virologist, epidemiologist or even a medical doctor? Is he not using his powerful intellectual position as ‘theorist’ in order to bolster that position, usually occupied by normative white men, even more? And is not publishing the same materials over and over again as ‘new’—a form of cheating? So, does Žižek think he is better than everybody else, academics and publics alike, and that he is allowed to break all the rules—ethical, professional and intellectual?
A closer look beneath the surface level of these critiques and reactions indicates something else. To start with, it should be noted that Žižek mode of intellectual intervention is not new, nor did it change over the last several decades. And if his mode of intervention, the immediate, broad, etc., is repetitive, that means that something is making it so, forcing it to repeat itself and reinstate what is already stated. Žižek’s repetition is caused, at bottom, by his persistent performance of the role of a sacrificial intellectual.
To unpack the link between Žižek’s performance and its critical effects, one should start by looking at the recent dramatic changes in the general conditions of intellectual life. The major shift could be described as that from the codex to the post-codex era, in which intellectual work—be in thinking, writing or talking—is performed not only on paper and not solely by professional intellectual. Rather, in today’s intellectual economy, such work is done by many laypersons and is involved in many screens. Furthermore, the current digital public sphere also poses great challenges for the conventional mode of intellectual production. From the vertical hierarchical model of the Ivory Tower, reserving the right to speak only for the recognized knowledgeable, we have shifted to a popularized horizontal model of communication whereby fewer restrictions have led to massive access to and engagement with knowledge production.
In such changing material conditions, it is not surprising that intellectuals and the dissemination of their ideas transform as well. Roughly from early modernity to the 1980s or so, the model of the authoritative intellectual predominated. Epitomized by public intellectuals such as Sartre, this kind on intellectuals enjoyed an elitist upbringing, broad well-rounded education, and proper mentoring and vouching by already esteemed intellectuals. As such, the performative mode of the authoritative intellectual relied on authenticity as the base from which it was possible and plausible to commentate on every topic whatsoever, appear everywhere, and thus to speak in the name of everyone.
More recently, following the rise of the social sciences and the demise of ‘big’ philosophical systems and –isms, a multi-front critique was mounted against the authoritative intellectual. For instance, Foucault famously discounted what he called ‘general’ intellectuals, noting how in their attempt to be authentic and to represent the whole there is significant posturing, with or without subjective bad-faith, on account of which these intellectuals gain much power and while speaking for everyone they silence many unheard, repressed voices. He positioned himself away of such model, and instead preferred the position of ‘particular’ intellectuals, or what can be called ‘the expert intellectual’, such as scientists or researchers. This was his way of resisting the temptation to become ‘part of the problem’—of repressing parts of society—while thinking you are the solution. After all, US President Trump used the same rhetoric when he advocated a rush return to ‘business as usual’ so the market will not collapse because of the pandemic’s isolation.
This line of thought effectively caused the almost complete disappearance of the authoritative public intellectual from the public sphere. Nonetheless, as opposed to the ‘declinist thesis’, public intellectuals did not vanish entirely from the post-modern landscape; they have transformed. As said, one new form is the expert intellectual, and another is the dialogical. Yet, the rise of these new intellectual models was not long-lasting. Amidst growing appearance of notions such as ‘fake-news’, ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative-facts’, western democratic societies have started experiencing what some have called the ‘crisis’ or ‘death’ of expertise. Accompanied by changes in the political model of authority (shifting from rational-procedural to charismatic-personal, to use Weber’s terms), a break of social trust and societies’ inability to manufacture consensual consent, have caused the decline of even the expert intellectual. Consequently, previously fringe positions such as climate-deniers or anti-vaxxers became more popularly attractive.
Back to Žižek; how does he fit into all of this? The answer resides in his performative mode of intellectual intervention, namely the sacrificial intellectual model. Unlike the authoritative and expert intellectuals, the sacrificial type does not rely on authenticity or expertise and rather performatively denounces both of them, usually through speaking truth to power or holding contradictory positions. Starting from Socrates, the philosopher-intellectual had to perform a sacrificial act commonly referred to as ‘Dying for Ideas’. Actually, the physical death of an intellectual is a specific extreme case of intellectual sacrifice. More often though, the sacrifice is not physical, as with Socrates, Bruno, or many unknown dissident intellectuals who paid with their lives for the ideas they had; rather, it is symbolic, and refers to the undermined self-position, role, image or persona. The sacrificial intellectual, therefore, is the one that ironically undermines his or her own intellectual position, relinquishes authenticity and authority, and in doing so gains public legitimacy and appeal.
From this perspective, a relativization of Žižek’s position and its critique is achieved. We see that it is not really his position that is being criticized, but that of the authoritative traits that some find in his intellectual performance. And in fact, this critique of the authoritative intellectual position is summoned and welcomed by Žižek himself as he assumes the sacrificial position traditionally referred to as ‘the fool’ or ‘court-jester’. As sacrificial intellectual, Žižek repeatedly rejects the authoritative intellectual position and denounces what in Lacanian terms is called the ‘subject-supposed-to-know’. Similar to the clinical dialectical practice, he generates the analyst’s position via an active rejection of the master’s position of knowledge/power, which rests on the public authority usually ascribed to professional thinkers or practitioners.
When looked at even more closely, the critique of Žižek’s assumed authoritative position shows the positioning of those mounting it, and the social conditions of knowledge production to which they react through Žižek. Particularly regarding temporality, Jagna Oltarzewsk notes that ‘The quasi-simultaneity of event and response creates a sense of temporal compression and theatre heightened by the vestiges of énonciation—a Žižekian trademark—that linger in his online submissions, and, increasingly, in his published work, jarring with the carefully edited norms of the standard academic énoncé’. By recalling Émile Benveniste’s distinction between the level of the enunciation (as the act of saying) and the level of the enounced (as what is said), she argues that Žižek’s performance is able to inject traces of the act of saying into what is said. This creates the sense and sensation of a compressed timing that brings together the event and the response, blurring the border between them and rendering them indistinguishable.
In his interventions, from books to blog-posts, Žižek makes his tone linger in-and-through the text, not letting the ‘I’ that speaks to be obfuscated behind the ‘I’ that is spoken of. This kind of subjectivized performance counters the supposedly objective, distanced and remote performance expected of intellectuals. The latter thrives on separating, not blurring, the subject that speaks from the object referred: the more separated and less subjective, the more ‘scientific’ a statement is, presumably. The price that Žižek has been paying for his unexpected performance is the sacrifice of his intellectual position. By turning against accepted and expected norms of academic performance Žižek signals that he is not an authoritative intellectual.
Žižek’s rejection of the authoritative intellectual brings the problem of authority (political as intellectual) to the fore. Many reactions to Žižek’s pandemic book assumed the position of gate-keepers who participated in the boundary work demarcating science from non-science, which, as Thomas Gieryn showed, is a process as long as modernity. But which authority is being challenged here? Given the clear scientific event, the pandemic presumably calls for scientists with very specific expertise involving the particular tasks at hand: controlling the spread of the virus by learning its properties and advising on policies. It is definitely undesirable that general policy would be dictated by hoaxers and charlatans rather than certified professionals. From that angle, Žižek’s critics did not approve of his intervention, or rather infiltration into public discourse where the issue clearly does not invite a philosopher. This shows that even critical intellectuals can be dogmatic when it comes to the symbolic value and capital of academia itself. Žižek’s critics protected, so to speak, the sacredness ideal of science and its disciplinary boundaries from the profanities and empty gestures of non-scientific holistic imposters.
In that, Žižek’s critique stands for academic and scientific authority, and is positioned against the public and philosophical undermining of that authority. The shift in political authority with the rise of figures such as Trump and Johnson, indicates that today charismatic performance matters more than the content performed. While these leaders are far from being known for their accuracy, they are undoubtedly entertaining. In the digital public sphere and the context of viral communication, the visual trumps the textual and thus the performance itself, or the medium, takes precedence over the content or message. Thus, the kind of gate-keeping critique mounted against Žižek is part of the counter-movement against the ongoing blurring of professionals and laypersons. With no little justification, academics now feel threatened by anyone with an active online presence and millions of followers, also known as ‘influencers’. In short, intellectual authority is itself changing. It is affected greatly by the recent social and technological developments, and now it stresses much more the enjoying element of communication. Although the reaction that defends intellectual authority is somewhat merited, directing it at Žižek also somewhat misses the point.
As a philosopher and global public intellectual, Žižek’s celebratory performance is not to be dismissed as anti-academic ‘on-line bullshit’, nor should it be looked at as a rigorous ‘expert scientific work’. Therefore, there is no overstepping of boundaries, but the expansion of them to include a broader intellectual line of thought than the narrow-minded problem-solving discourse. Here one should recall the role of sacrificial intellectuals who focus more on raising the right questions instead on providing answers to given questions. As he commonly put it, Žižek attempts to interrupt the spontaneous injunction of today’s permissive societies to enjoy what they do and do what they enjoy. In this enjoyment-driven libidinal economy, intellectual work, which has very little enjoyment, is much less desirable. To think for thinking’s sake, and not for any utility other than that, runs counter the capitalist utilitarian logic of practical productivity and efficiency. So when Žižek intervenes in a biological event, his intervention does not take the place of experts but adds to them a broader contextualization that mediates the trauma to the broader public in an accessible enjoyable manner.
As for the motive of profiteering or capitalizing on catastrophes, this is surely not farfetched. In addition to ‘influencers’, there are new figures such as the promotional intellectual like Jordan Peterson, and the thought leader like Bill Gates. All these figures, classically known as rhetoricians, make what they do for a hefty (surplus) profit: influencers have commercial sponsors which they advertise; Peterson has merchandise for sale on his website; and Gates has international corporations. Žižek, on the other hand, has none of those. He does not operate any online account, and does not rely on any commercial sponsors that back-finance his work. Also, the profits authors make from books these days, with an average of 10% royalties pay, is hardly worth the labor time and effort of making them. Even for renowned public intellectuals, these revenues are hardly enough to substantiate an economic motive. If anything, considering also the amount of time that each book takes to be published after it is written, namely the copyediting, proofreading, etc., writing many books makes even less economic sense.
It is nonetheless true that the capitalist mode of production does push for incessant reproduction of the same in infinitely different guises. The relation between Žižek’s ‘instinctive’, ‘repetitive’ and ‘self-plagiarist’ performative mode and today’s conditions of intellectual activity is demonstrated by John Gray. On the one hand, he recognizes Žižek as ‘one of the world’s best-known public intellectuals’ that illustrates the contradictions of contemporary capitalism; on the other, he maintains that ‘The role of global public intellectual Žižek performs has emerged along with a media apparatus and a culture of celebrity that are integral to the current model of capitalist expansion’. At once promising everlasting innovation but in the same old form, and keeping publishing as a for-profit factory while writing about communism and anti-capitalism, is Žižek’s oppositional positioning of his conditions and his critical reactions to them.
Žižek’s oppositional positioning also led many critics to focus on his supposedly powerful identity. Although not exactly a WASP, being white, normative, Christian, European and perhaps a wealthy man is what allows Žižek to accumulate much symbolic capital and occupy a vantage position in the academic arena (considered a high-ranking intellectual). From this power-position, according to the critics, it is easier to take hold of greater and longer physical space in public stores by publishing as many books as possible. However, as noted before, Žižek does not hold much of the same properties of the authoritative intellectual. First, his educational background is not so worldly famous and does not include names such as Oxford, Harvard or the Sorbonne. Not only intellectually but also geographically, Ljubljana is not on a global city as London or New York. Politically, Slovenia is barely an appropriate candidate to be part of the oppressive (colonialist and imperialist) north-west. Given its history as part of the Eastern Bloc, it is more sensible to associate Žižek with the south-eastern perspective. For example of this oppositional positioning that confuses many readers, Žižek’s fascination with Western culture and cinema, which dates back to his upbringing in Slovenia as it was torn between East and West, led Stefan Auer to label him as a ‘Western intellectual’, albeit a ‘strange’ one.
Importantly, so far we did not even mention any of Žižek’s actual arguments, on the pandemic or any other topic. We followed the critique and its trajectory from the social contexts and relations to the personal performance and its effects. As these critical effects focus much on the personal details of Žižek’s production, such as his style, timing, motive, etc., reading Žižek becomes unnecessary and Žižek himself can be jettisoned in favor of his straw-man/punch-bag image. In fact, just as the sacrificial intellectual is an old phenomenon, so is this ad hominem critique. This rhetorical strategy, as already noted by Aristotle, critiques the speaking subject instead of the subject matter, and attacks the authority or characteristics of the author while deflecting away the argument. As Žižek put it:
I find these critiques of my work problematic on more than one count, even if I dis-count the very problematic ‘grounding’ of my bodily tics (incidentally, the result of an organic disease for which I am taking medicines!) in my anxiety about being excluded from academic apparatuses and not recognized as a ‘serious’ philosopher. (Can one even imagine the Politically Correct outcry if another thinker—who is, say, a lesbian feminist—were to be ‘analyzed’ at such a level?)
This critique against Žižek is a result of him bringing himself as a subject into the matter, by leaving the rhetorical traces of the saying in the said. Yet, this opens the door for a ‘media-academia trade-off’ by which Žižek sacrificed his intellectual position, not taken as a serious philosopher for his public and nowadays mediatic engagement. Besides the focus on his bodily form and the exclusion of the actual arguments made, the ad hominem critique leads to questioning the position of speech.
When facing an event, political or biological, two possibilities immediately and forcefully present themselves: observer or participant. As Žižek remarked apropos of the Arab Spring, when it erupted it was clear that it was real and no expert knowledge was needed to ‘understand’ what was going on (people protested for their freedom). This is the universal dimension opened up in the particular situation of Tunisia, Egypt, etc., which as universal was recognizable everywhere (since all humans strive for freedom). Hence, for instance, in one of the first books published after the Arab Spring happened, Hamid Dabashi opened by declaring his position of participant in the event, considering the book a part of the revolution. Along similar lines, Žižek participates in the pandemic event not as a biologist, but as sacrificial public intellectual proposing a broader meaning that links the biological specifications to the virus outbreak with the social, economic and political conditionings of it. In doing so he follows Hegel’s understanding of critique: To critique is to find and transgress a limit (of knowledge), and to find a limit is ‘to know how to sacrifice oneself’. According to Hegel and contra Aristotle, contradiction is the rule of truth and as a result the world itself (not only language) is ironic, presenting contradictory appearances. This ‘Socratic irony of the world’ is embodied and performed in Žižek’s oppositional positioning, which comes at the price of his sacrifice of his intellectual position. Žižek thus performs an anti-intellectual participatory performance, going against the neutral and balanced understanding of scientific objectivity of the eternal observer. As put by one of Žižek’s students, philosopher Alenka Zupančič:
‘In any social conflict, a “neutral” position is always and necessarily the position of the ruling class: it seems “neutral” because it has achieved the status of the dominant ideology, which always strikes us as self-evident. The criterion of objectivity in such a case is thus not neutrality, but the capacity of theory to occupy a singular, specific point of view within the situation. In this sense, the objectivity is linked here to the very capacity of being “partial” or “partisan.” One can thus discover the essence of this conflictual reality only by occupying certain positions, and not others, in this very conflict’.
Eliran Bar-El is a sociologist based at the University of Cambridge.