25 November, 2013Issue 23.4Philosophy

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More Than Something?

Chris Green

Zizek Slavoj Žižek
Less Than Nothing
Verso Books, 2013
1056 pages
ISBN 978-1781681275

Reading Hegel has long been something those who study philosophy have avoided, although not without a measure of guilt. While none seem to doubt the importance of Hegel in the history of Western thought, he is read by few and apparently understood by fewer, although to admit to either is something akin to confessing a crime. A strange anxiety surrounds his work, a pathological fear that everyone reads and understands Hegel but oneself. Philosophical discussions are often littered with vague references to “Hegelian” moments and passing allusions to the “master and slave dialectic” (a common favourite), seemingly provoked by the feeling of having to prove that you have actually read him. Such references are dutifully ignored by others who are scared of revealing that they haven’t read Hegel, or even worse, that they did and merely failed to understand. The result is, paradoxically, that Hegel is a constant presence in philosophical discussions, not just in spite of how relatively under-read he remains, but perhaps even because of it. Just as Pascal argued that the way to cure one’s unbelief in God was to act as if one already believed, to kneel and pray and allow belief to find you, so the understanding of Hegel (or at least a close enough impression) is achieved through acting like one who already understands. A rather considerable amount of dishonesty surrounds Hegel, not least in the innumerable, immaculate, unbent, and undefiled copies of The Phenomenology of Spirit that adorn the bookshelves of many a would-be philosopher, not least the one on my own.

It is into this milieu that Žižek’s latest book, Less Than Nothing, enters and its presence is immediately hard to ignore. At just over a thousand pages long, the paperback version appears more an exercise in experimental bookbinding than a philosophical investigation, the pages rather ominously straining under their own weight. Žižek largely solidified his reputation by making Jacques Lacan, another infamously incomprehensible thinker, accessible to a wider audience with entertaining books filled with pop-cultural references. Yet Žižek himself has always maintained that he only ever read Lacan to understand Hegel, a revelation that all but guarantees this volume will reach magnum opus status. A timely interjection on a timeless figure from a philosopher who seems to be constantly, and almost involuntarily, redefining what it means to be a public intellectual. Yet any hopes for a similar treatment of Hegel’s philosophy to those found in his work on Lacan are initially deflated by the sheer size of the volume, before being finally dashed by Žižek himself in the introduction. Here he states that it was never his intention to write “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hegel”, a throwaway line that provokes a chuckle on first reading, but soon develops a new meaning as the book progresses. The first chapter begins with a line from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the few philosophical works to rival the status of Hegel’s Phenomenology as a classic of impenetrability, and this sets the tone rather bluntly. At this point, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hegel” is a very appealing proposition. Only nine-hundred and eighty-seven pages left to go.

Yet while the Žižek who wrote the wonderful (and mercifully short) How to Read Lacan is conspicuously absent, the familiar fascinating and frustrating mix of prosaic allegory and impenetrable high theory that runs throughout much of his previous output is at once on display here. Part One of the book—titled “The Drink Before”, in proper Žižekian style—begins with an examination of the impossibility of an aesthetic representation of the Holocaust, before moving through Plato, Christianity, and German Idealism in a manner that implies it must make sense to someone. Much here is interesting and, once you stop wondering when Hegel himself might get a look in, there are plenty of pleasant little detours. Yet doing the work of constructing a thread of cognition between anecdotes—an exercise all too familiar to any Žižek fan—is an often tiring and laborious process, and having to go back and re-read passages—again, nothing new for any long-time readers—is an especially dispiriting job when what remains yet to be read is better expressed in inches than pages. One standout section of indirect self-criticism deals with a story Žižek tells in an earlier book of having bluffed his way through a critique of a painting at an art roundtable and his horror at witnessing other participants pick up and make use of his off-the-cuff remarks. Here Žižek explains that later in the same book he reintroduces the very same notions in a non-ironic way and that those who noticed the repetition mistook it as either an exercise in self-parody or a sign of senility. The point, Žižek tells us, is that mocking an attitude does not necessarily undermine it and that the way in which people today are cynical and maintain an ironic distance to beliefs betrays an often more deeply serious attachment to them. For example, when someone mocks their love for another person, this often precisely expresses their uneasiness with the intensity of the attachment. Yet this rather odd confession is misplaced: it does not seem that Žižek should have to apologise for his use of irony or humour. The sheer magnitude of his commercial success demonstrates that his style and persona, while clearly grating to some, are attractive to many. Although Žižek clearly takes his own work seriously, “The Question” when it comes to Less Than Nothing is whether the rest of us should.

A chapter titled “Is it Still Possible to Be a Hegelian Today?” opens the second part of the book, a question which lingers rather awkwardly as the next several hundred pages avoid answering it, at least explicitly. The breadth of Žižek’s engagement with philosophy, theology, history, music, and film is initially impressive, but soon becomes rather a tiresome game of Hegelian safari, where the inescapable ubiquity of the protagonist is further proved every time dialectics are spotted in the wild. A short section on Foucault and Derrida manages to cover David Lynch films, Aztec sacrifices, Napoleon, and zombies in an improbably short space, and while this is all very entertaining, it begins to feel like Žižek is simply ticking boxes. Like Paul McCartney plodding through the obligatory “Hey Jude” every time he appears on television, so the familiar Žižek repertoire—The Matrix trilogy, X-Files, Hitchcock etc—duly makes its appearance. The second part of the book—on Lacan as a repetition of Hegel—treads this familiar ground largely to good effect, and is by far the strongest section. Here Žižek is at his idiosyncratic best, telling vulgar “old Slovene jokes” and explaining complex psychoanalytical concepts through metaphors involving popular children’s confectionaries. Yet old Žižekian problems repeat themselves here too. A chapter on sexual difference succinctly demonstrates why psychoanalysis has drawn so much ire from feminist thinkers and, although Žižek has quite clearly made an effort to address some of the criticism of his previous work in this regard, it still makes for somewhat awkward reading in places. The most original work in the book comes in Part Four—”The Cigarette After”—where Žižek discusses the ontology of quantum physics. It may sound slightly contrived—it may, in fact, be slightly contrived—but here Žižek challenges triumphant declarations of quantum physics having killed philosophy by invoking its own inherently philosophical nature in a way that cannot be faulted for its imagination or ambition. However, the obscurity of this last section can’t help but provoke the feeling of being, one-thousand pages later, considerably more lost than before.

The first time I saw Žižek talk in public a few years ago, he joked that the reason he wrote so many books was that he was constantly avoiding writing his “big book on Hegel”. I was immediately reminded of a concept from Lacan that I learned from Žižek himself—the objet petit a, the unattainable object of desire, which also acts as the cause of desire itself. Žižek’s unwritten book on Hegel seemed exactly the sort of “one day I will get round to it” justification we all make for our present actions, so I was slightly surprised when I found out that he had, in fact, written it. The question that kept re-emerging when reading it, however, was who it could possibly have been written for. By his own admission, it is no “Idiot’s Guide”, yet the number of people who have and will buy this book will surely dwarf the number who can actually claim to follow most of it. Any book with a chapter titled “Parataxis: Figures of the Dialectical Process” that makes it to a paperback run is evidence enough of that. Yet Žižek himself is a victim of the same dilemma that Hegel himself seems trapped in—many feel compelled to talk about him, many claim to read him, yet so few seem to understand him that you begin to wonder if there really is something substantial there, beneath all the hype. The introduction to Less Than Nothing begins by stating that the arch-model of idiocy is the na√Øve child who, oblivious to the implicit social rules, exclaims that the emperor is really naked. Reading Hegel, and Žižek for that matter, can feel much the same way. Less Than Nothing appears to be a book written primarily for its author, and yet will no doubt be bought by many. It is overlong, contradictory, and confused, yet in places it approaches brilliance. For it to suffer the same fate as so many copies of Hegel’s Phenomenology would be unfortunate, although this might perhaps, and somewhat appropriately, be inevitable.

Chris Green is reading for an MPhil in Political Theory at St Anne’s College, Oxford.