Nothing sharpens memory quite like regret, so I cannot help noting the anniversary of a tossed-off phrase that has come back to haunt me many times over the past 10 years.
In early 2004, I began writing an occasional series of two- or three-paragraph squibs on the latest publications and doings of the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where it ran under the title "Žižek Watch." In the subhead for one such mini-article, I referred to him as "the Elvis of cultural theory." The expression took wings and has been repeated on more occasions than any sane person could track. (As of this writing, it gets 79,000 returns from Google.)
The phrase will outlive me. Last year it appeared in an article in the journal Critical Inquiry, as well as in a Canadian dissertation on the concept of totalitarian evil in the work Hannah Arendt. Someone will eventually write a book using it as a title. Remembering the line always make me cringe, as if from mild food poisoning. For the most salient quality of "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- judged, by any standard, as a characterization of Žižek's work or career -- is its near perfect meaninglessness, verging on hopeless and absolute stupidity.
Unless you know the inside joke, anyway. By my count, roughly two people in the world are in on it. So to mark the anniversary, it is time finally to put the backstory on the record.
The idea for "Žižek Watch" came from my editor at the time, Richard Byrne, an estimable playwright and cultural journalist with family roots in the Balkans. These days Rich is at the helm of the University of Maryland Baltimore County's UMBC Magazine, of which he is the founding editor. We shared a fascination with Žižek's close but complex relationship with the Slovenian post-punk band Laibach and the avant garde movement around it. Given the pace of his output (two or three books a year, just in English) and the growing frequency with which he had begun appearing in odd corners of the mass media, it felt like a matter of time before he graced The National Enquirer, or at least Weekly World News.
So it was that through a chain of associations that "Žižek Watch" alluded -- very much in passing -- to the definitive song about the improbable ubiquity of a tabloid phenomenon: "Elvis is Everywhere" by Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper.
And the rest is, if not history, at least a decade-long lesson in the sliding of the signifier across the greased skids of digital-age publicity.
A footnote in one article from 2005 did trace "the Elvis of cultural theory" back to its first appearance, albeit without identifying the origins of the phrase as such. But by now, context is irrelevant. The expression has long since escaped meaning. And even though nobody seems to get it, does not the very circulation of my remark participate in what Žižek identifies as the "mystery" of jokes -- that they seemingly appear "all of a sudden out of nowhere," produced by "the anonymous symbolic order" through "the very unfathomable contingent generative power of language"?
So writes Elvis, or somebody, in the introduction to Žižek's Jokes (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?), published by MIT Press. It is an anthology of the theorist's shtick, not an analysis of it. The cover describes it as "contain[ing] every joke cited, paraphrased, or narrated in Žižek's work in English (including some in unpublished manuscripts), including different versions of the same joke that make different points in different contexts." The sources of the collected passages are given in the book's endnotes, followed with a brief yet oddly repetitive afterword by a novelist and songwriter from Scotland who lives in Japan and writes under the pen name Momus.
The claim to be exhaustive is difficult to credit, and so is the rationale offered for its existence: "The larger point being that comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness." Along with his frequent digressions into popular culture, Žižek's use of jokes has lent his books an appearance of accessibility that accounts for his fame with a broad audience. But that quality is misleading. Žižek practices a form of what Freud called "wild psychoanalysis," with contemporary culture as the analysand. The remarks, quoted earlier, about the free-floating and anonymous nature of jokes are just Žižek's paraphrase of a point made in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, where Freud interpreted the erotic and aggressive drives manifested through manipulation of the funny bone.
By spelling that out, I've just told you more about why "comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness" than Žižek's Jokes ever does. In the afterword, Momus speculates that "the joke has become for Zizek what algebra is for his old ally and rival Badiou: the most concise way Žižek knows how to sum up a universal situational shape." The idea might well be developed further, preferably by someone who knows that Badiou's interest is in formalized set theory rather than algebra. But as formulated it is more a gesture than an insight
A gesture serving mainly to distract attention from two striking things about the book. The first is that Žižek's Jokes makes unavoidably obvious something that it was still possible to overlook 10 years ago: the dynamic role of cut-and-paste in Žižekian production.
Žižek once said that his completed theoretical edifice, spanning several volumes, would amount to a Summa Lacanica rivaling Aquinas's Summa for both scope and cohesion. But along the way, he has met the growing demand for his work from the editors of books, magazines, and newspapers by tearing off suitably sized chunks of whatever manuscript he had in progress. Sometimes he tweaked things to make it appear like freestanding essay or topical news commentary. And sometimes he did not, though publication was almost certain either way. (I know of one case where the author of a book tried, without success, to have the introduction commissioned from Žižek removed since it had nothing to do with the volume in question.)
Over time, reading Žižek became an experience in déjà vu, with passages from one volume reappearing in others or, in one case, twice in the same book. Žižek's Jokes takes this to a new level. He wrote nothing new for it. Even his two-page introduction consists of one long paragraph from an earlier book. It is a remarkable accomplishment and I do not imagine he will be able to surpass it.
The other striking feature of Žižek's Jokes is how grim the experience of reading it quickly proves to be. In accord with Freudian principles, they revolve almost entirely around sex and/or aggression, often involving racist or misogynist sentiments. All of which is fine when they appear as specimens in a cultural critique -- where they might even elicit a laugh, given the incongruity of seeing them in a context where Hegel or Heidegger have set the terms for analysis. But running through them one after another, in the service of no argument, is deadening. It ceases to be shocking. It just seems lame. Maybe he should be known as "the Jay Leno of cultural theory?" (If, you know, Leno had Tourettes.)
Of course it's also possible that Žižek has a hidden agenda -- that he's sick of being considered hilarious by people who aren't really interested in Hegel, et al., and so has decided to destroy that reputation in the most efficient way possible. And I'm not even joking about that. It makes a certain amount of sense.
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