Published Humanitas, Volume XXI, Nos. 1 and 2, 2008
Arizona State University
For those who admire Slavoj Žižek, his work represents a liberation from ideas and practices that control and manipulate us. To those put off by his presentation and skeptical of his claims, on the contrary, Žižek is not associated with any advance in knowledge, and, if anything, he illustrates the problems with intellectual faddishness and academics who cling to it. This author belongs to the second group. I contend that Žižek does not deliver the insights that he repeatedly promises. I propose to subject one of his works Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? to close examination. I see value in such effort not because of the specific content of any argument that Žižek makes about totalitarianism, for Žižek adopts strategies that prevent him from really addressing the topic. Rather, the book deserves attention because an interesting cautionary tale emerges from his basic stance toward his readers, his material, and himself. His presumed break with the supposedly befogged and enchained world of “standard” academia reveals a certain kind of conceit. The latter is not only inappropriate, but it also serves to isolate Žižek, keeping him from the intellectual engagement and self-awareness that philosophical liberation requires. This article is about how Žižek distorts his material and misrepresents himself. Its goal is to understand the logic of a kind of pseudo engagement and reflect on the implications of work such as this for understanding totalitarianism and our culture of learning in general.
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