Paul A. Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Communications Theory at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. Author of the recent Žižek and the Media, Paul is the General Editor of the International Journal of Zizek Studies and co-author of Critical Theories of Mass Media: Then and Now.
Mark Thwaite: When and why did you first start reading Žižek Paul?
Paul Taylor: I had dipped in and out of Žižek since his breakout book The Sublime Object of Ideology but the catalyst for a more systematic engagement was reading his Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. This wasn't because it's his best book (it isn't) but it made a deep impression on me at a time when I was fascinated by the systematic forms of bad faith that permeate our society. Žižek's work provides notions like “pretending to pretend to believe” to describe the hypocrisy with which people claim not to believe in regressive values (bureaucracy etc.) but still enact them anyway. Working in the university sector, he helped me understand the paradoxical situation whereby many purportedly left-wing academics shamelessly facilitate the commercialization of higher education. I'm sure RSB readers can relate to similar contradictions from their own working environments.
Today we are surrounded by rhetorical devices that nobody actually believes in but which nevertheless create a pathologically cynical and destructive lingua franca – one that Mark Fisher so brilliantly analyses in Capitalist Realism. Žižek's championing of otherwise ignored philosophical and psychoanalytical traditions produces a valuable ideology-critique. He powerfully highlights what is paradoxically hidden right in front of our noses – whether in international politics or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Once you're in tune with his patented Parallax View it is difficult to see the world in quite the same way again - you start noticing the strangest things in the most unlikely places.
In this book I apply Žižek's basic approach to media content that has caught my own attention. For example, I couldn't help but see the psychoanalytical significance of the bizarre advert Tiger Woods made for Nike soon after his sex scandal - an appropriately wooden-faced Tiger listens, Hamlet-like, to the voice of his dead father. Similarly, when Ken Dodd sings an “innocent” song about “Happiness” - you don't have to be Freud to wonder about lines like “I thank the Lord that I possess/more than my share of happiness” (although it does help if you pronounce the last word with a heavy French accent à la Madame De Gaulle's reputed response to the question of what she was looking forward to in her retirement years).
MT: Reading Žižek is always exhilarating, if occasionally maddening -- is his style part of his message? Do you think that his style has held back how seriously he is taken in some quarters?
PT: The po-faced who don't “get” his style miss the serious philosophical purpose served by Žižek's undoubtedly obscene humour and apparent swerves off-topic. My book's Preface and first two chapters all deal directly with his strategic use of perversity – what I refer to, again, pace Ken Dodd, as Žižek's tickling shtick. Psychoanalysis frequently makes us confront what we already know about but stubbornly refuse to acknowledge – Žižek's style is an essential part of his technique designed to override socially entrenched forms of denial.
Žižek draws upon an ancient philosophical tradition of offending the establishment. Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and Diogenes infamously defecated and masturbated in public – at least Žižek hasn't gone that far (yet). I'd suggest that distaste felt towards Žižek reveals more about our excessively sanitized and intellectually decaffeinated times than any stylistic deficiencies he is supposed to suffer from.
The charge that he lacks seriousness is also disingenuous. In little-known works like his Mythology, Madness and Laughter: Subjectivity in German Idealism there is seriousness aplenty but that same seriousness means that such books are guaranteed to remain unread by his detractors. If they did make the effort, I guess they would then fall back on the opposite accusation that Žižek is too esoteric and abstruse. This sort of a priori prejudice is explained by Adorno's paradoxical claim that whilst genuine art (and thought) is ascetic yet unashamed, mass culture is pornographic and prudish.
I would make a Žižek-like distinction between “serious humour” and “humorous seriousness”. The first category describes Žižek's method. He uses comic means for profoundly serious political and philosophical ends. The second category refers to the media's standard operating procedure – essentially ridiculous events are presented as somehow important. This creates the gallows humour to be found in the recent reporting of UK student protests over proposed tuition fee increases. BBC news was saturated by coverage of the possibility that, due to a security breach, the Duchess of Cornwall had been poked at with a stick through the window of her Rolls Royce by a protester whilst at the very same time, a student, truncheoned by police in para-military garb, was lying in hospital with a distinctly non-hypothetical, life-threatening bleed on the brain.
MT: So is this the basic premise behind Žižek and the Media? You think his work is particularly suitable for a critical reading of the media?
PT: To reverse Hannah Arendt's famous phrase, today's media represents the evil of banality. Žižek's Heineken effect (he refreshes the parts other theorists cannot reach) stems from his unique ability to highlight deadly serious aspects of the media's comical banality. Concepts like Louis Althusser's Ideological State Apparatuses still accurately describe organizations like the BBC – but Žižek is uniquely useful for critiquing the media's modus operandi – ideology in the guise of non-ideology.
One small example... the other day I was listening to Radio 4's one o'clock news and they curtailed their already short interview with the UNITE union leader Len McCluskey about the austerity measures affecting millions of working people across Britain. This was so that the remaining extensive portion of the programme could be devoted to the tragic, but politically irrelevant, death of the BBC Diplomatic Editor, Brian Hanrahan. Heralded as the acme of impartiality, the BBC routinely sets a profoundly selective news agenda. Žižek's theory challenges this routinised media displacement of fundamental objective causes with isolated, subjective phenomena.
Henning Mankell's fictional Swedish detective Inspector Kurt Wallander demonstrates this process from popular culture. In the 2006 feature length film entitled “Firewall” starring Rolf Lassgård as Wallander, the complex plot centres upon an international group of anarchist hackers. The group plots to sabotage the worldwide banking system so that institutionalized capitalist global exploitation can be stopped. They are led by an English medic working in Africa, whose motivation comes from having witnessed at first hand how Western economic policies lead to dead babies elsewhere.
In one scene, a room full of detectives look visibly shocked when they are asked to contemplate a post-plot Swedish society without functioning banks. Then, after the group is finally thwarted, a colleague reflects that perhaps the anarchists were justified after all. The best response Wallander can muster is the observation that such activists need to come to terms with the fact that it is has always been an unfair world. Mankell the novelist is a politically committed leftist, yet this film condones a disturbingly conservative message – even at the price of dead African babies, radical systemic change within the West is inconceivable. In the context of potential ecological disaster Žižek points to the same basic media-fostered attitude – it is easier for the commentariat to envisage the end of the world than the end of the capitalist system causing the disaster.
MT: What was the most difficult aspect of writing 'Žižek and the Media'? How did you overcome it?
PT: The simultaneously most difficult and rewarding aspect of this particular book was that once I got into Žižek's mind-set (trust me, a scary place to be) absolutely everything becomes fodder for analysis. What should be just a relaxing trip to the cinema becomes a busman's holiday instead. As you've seen, I can't even watch Wallander now without reaching for a notebook. I don't have Žižek's infamously manic and tic-ridden demeanour – but I do find it difficult to turn off. On the plus side, there's the benefit that even (especially?) awful films become interesting – thus, Hot Fuzz is transformed into an extended cinematic metaphor for the Lacanian notion that any symbolic authority has an obscene underside!
The other major difficulty was trying to get my head around Žižek's voluminous output and work out how to pull together his disparate media references whilst making the whole book still work as a thematically unified whole. To overcome this theory-induced mania I found walking my Staffordshire bull-terrier “Barbie” an invaluable therapeutic tool. Her pure, slavering id acted as a highly effective countervailing force to all the superegoic injunctions I found myself battling as I wrote the book.
MT: Žižek sometimes acts like a clown next to his friend Alain Badiou -- how do you judge their intellectual relationship?
PT: Whilst I am a great admirer of Badiou, France is a foreign country: they do things differently there. For all his undoubted intellectual strengths, Badiou lacks Žižek's ability to surf the tsunami of Americanized media trivia that floods Anglophone countries. Although Žižek deals with trivia I think it's a huge mistake to view him as trivial. Some may prefer the more sober Badiou because whilst he is relatively insulated within the walls of theory, Žižek's willingness to get down and dirty in media content acts as an uncomfortable reminder of only apparently mundane media matters that we invest an awful lot of time repressing.
In addition to my above comments on the strategic purpose of Žižek so-called clowning I'd suggest that what I prefer to call Žižek's “antic disposition” needs to be understood in relation to his Eastern European heritage. Žižek has warned of the dangers of indulging in 'the reverse racism which celebrates the exotic authenticity of the Balkan Other', but with that warning duly noted, I genuinely think that Žižek's former background in the Kafkaesque reality of daily Communist life means that he has imbibed a cultural attitude to power and humour that staid Western critics could learn much from. Such an Eastern European sensitivity is contained within Jaroslav Hašek's magnificent satirical Czech novel The Good Soldier Švejk (Catch-22 avant la lettre). The above examples I've offered of the BBC's Pravda-like behaviour are easier to stomach if you are able to channel a Švejk-like spirit of anti-institutional cynicism.
Like Batman's Joker studied in the book's final chapter, clownish figures often reveal solemn truths inaccessible to more serious figures. A relevant cinematic example (ironically similar-sounding to Badiou) is the character Boudu from the classic French film Boudu Saved from Drowning (Renoir 1932). Hirsute and dishevelled, much like Žižek, the eponymous hero causes havoc and proves to be a disturbing revelatory presence within the bourgeois household he makes his home. In direct response to this question, I advocate the typical Zizekian strategy of rejecting a false binary in favour of an unconsidered third option - I don't think it should be a choice between a clownish Žižek and a Badiou full of gravitas, but rather, we should be open to the intellectual currents they both share, albeit in their very different ways.
MT: What is Žižek's relationship to the Communist Hypothesis?
PT: Žižek is a prodigiously productive example of the courage that Badiou argues is an essential element of the Communist Hypothesis: “The virtue of courage constructs itself through endurance within the impossible; time is its raw material. What takes courage is to operate in terms of a different durée to that imposed by the law of the world.” Žižek meets this definition of courage. He rejects what I describe in the book as the cod-philosophy of Nike's Just Do It advertising campaign and, anachronistically out of joint with present times, he encourages us all to go and read German Idealist philosophy instead – I get a scholarly kick out of that.
Perhaps this question is best answered by two stories Žižek is fond of telling. In the first, in 1870, Marx writes a very worried letter to Engels in 1870 when a European revolution appeared just around the corner. In his letter, Marx states, “But wait a minute. I haven’t yet finished Capital. Can’t they wait” Žižek says 'This is the Marx that I like: “Fuck revolution, I want to finish my book.” We should learn from Marx and his idea to give more time to theory.' In the second story, an old Soviet joke, Marx, Engels, and Lenin are all asked whether they would prefer a mistress or a wife. Marx says a wife, Engels a mistress, whilst to everyone's surprise Lenin says he would choose both explaining: “So that I can tell my wife that I am going to my mistress, and my mistress that I have to be with my wife...” so that Lenin could then “go to a solitary place to learn, learn and learn!”
MT: Is Žižek a Lacanian Leninist or a Leninist Lacanian!?
PT: What a great question! I'll avoid going for another Zizekian third option and plumb for a Lacanian Leninist. I get the sense that Žižek can't help letting himself get dragged into political thought whereas what really gets him excited is how a suitable dosage of Lacan can enrich cultural theory. It's the Lacanian aspect of Žižek that really enables him to get stuck into popular culture and, in Žižek's hands, Lacan becomes the ideal guide to contemporary ideology.
MT: How do you write Paul? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
PT: Guilty confession here, I have a borderline obsession with fountain pens, top quality paper, and ink. By way of anecdote, prior to a public talk and not long after I had received a couple of highly specialist and beautiful examples of pen-craft I was having lunch with Žižek and a colleague in Leeds. Whilst proudly showing the new pens to my colleague, Žižek immediately made an obscene reference to the type of ink the pens “ejaculated”. Without wishing to dwell on the potentially psychoanalytical roots of my obsession, I may be suffering from a menopausal rejection of screen-based communication. I appear to be the last person on earth who refuses to get a mobile phone and I have a visceral dislike of all the “touchy-screeny” poking about that the new generation of gizmos involve. I pine for the days when people engaged with direct experience before everyday life turned into a never-ending scene from Minority Report. On TV recently I caught the end of a “Mumford and Sons” gig. Rather than enjoying the event in the moment, a large proportion of the audience were busy filming this faux-Irish band on their phones – a simulated experience of a simulated band that must be making Baudrillard spin in his grave...
But to return to your question about the actual writing process. It starts off haphazardly. I jot down sudden thoughts on whatever piece of paper is to hand in my chaotic book-and-dvd-strewn living room. Slowly getting more organized, I then make initial jottings in longhand indulging my fountain-pen fetish. Next, my initial thoughts are typed into the computer and then begins the toil of endless re-drafting on the screen-face I dislike so much. I am immensely envious of those (mythical?) writers who can produce close-to-lapidary prose at a first attempt. Eventually, however, my rough drafts begin to assume an organic shape after constant edits. When I begin to produce relatively fluent conclusions to each chapter that segue quite naturally and neatly into the next one then I know I am making good progress.
MT: What did you discover (about yourself, about writing itself...) during the writing of 'Žižek and the Media'? How did your views on Žižek's work develop as you wrote?
PT: Having read this far, it may not surprise you to find out that writing such a critically-orientated book brought out my inner Victor Meldrew! But in our simultaneously happy-clappy and politically dysfunctional times I found the book's various negative themes increased my affinity with critical theory. I treat it as a much-needed antidote to the mentality that makes “Homer sound like balance sheets and balance sheets sound like Homer.” Beyond Žižek, working on this text reacquainted me with critical writers who genuinely deserve the title. I'm thinking of figures like Adorno, Baudrillard, Freud, Hegel and Sartre. Because they are not exactly a cheery read, contemporary culture disdains them. But, rather than question their utility, I'm side with Adorno's curmudgeonly essay Resignation and his assertion that: 'When the doors are barricaded, it is doubly important that thought not be interrupted.'
To cut to the chase, the more I read and write about Žižek, the more I appreciate theory as a non-utilitarian end-in-itself. Grappling with theory's immense abstractness appeals to me much more than supposedly much more exhilarating activities like mountaineering. Even Mount Everest is ultimately scalable by at least a few, yet none of us truly get to leave theory's base camp. Talking of mountains, in a radio interview Žižek mischievously questioned why skiers ascend by chair-lifts only to ski right back down again. He suggested that they just stay at the café at the bottom of the mountain (where they'll eventually end up anyway), avoid all the hassle in the first place and just read a good book!
My views on Žižek altered in the sense that I gained even more respect for the clarity and verve with which he expresses the most complex ideas. I had the benefit of the framework he's kindly already set up for me and yet writing this book still taxed me to my limit.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" readers? Did you write specifically for them?
PT: I aimed the book at a motivated lay reader who wants to develop more critical insight into today's mediascape and isn't afraid to tackle difficult, but rewarding, material. For my part, I used as many accessible examples as I could without dumbing down the content. I don't have any patience for people who label as pretentious and jargonistic any form of writing that involves more than two syllables. To keep with the mountaineering theme, I characterise such people as the sort who would go climbing and then complain that the ground isn't flat enough.
Perhaps the question is best answered negatively. My ideal reader is someone who is unsatisfied with the inherently conservative, smug, and limited nature of what the media typically purveys as thinking. This ideal reader can still hear the siren call of the disavowed wealth of thought that the media systematically either ignores or traduces.
MT: If anyone reading this hasn't yet read a book by Žižek, where should they start? And what other books on Žižek have you most benefited from reading?
PT: In terms of his political theory, I think Violence is one of his most self-contained and readable.
With regard to cultural theory, How To Read Lacan is a great, frequently film-based introduction to what makes Žižek such an entertainingly provocative thinker.
MT: What are you working on now Paul?
PT: To that same question a character from Thomas Wharton's historical novel Salamander replies “Don't you know that is the one question you must never ask a writer?” But to be more helpful than that... the next book is Žižek Goes to Hollywood again for Polity Press. It is a further development of the cinematic focus that's already present in this book. I've started writing a section on the film Inception so you can probably imagine my current cerebral discombobulation!
MT: Who is your favourite writer?
PT: Another confession – I appear to have the mindset of a Mittel-European grouch from the dying days of the Habsburg Empire so I always tend to be biased towards a certain tradition of Continental writing that is on the grumpier side of both theory and fiction. I've already mentioned my admiration for Adorno, Baudrillard, Freud, Hegel, and Sartre – all great writers and thinkers. In terms of fiction, my favourite novel is Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, and I love anything by Dostoevsky and Thomas Bernhard.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer of theory!?
PT: I find writing theory both an immensely rewarding and exasperating experience. At the risk of sounding bonkers and/or an early candidate for Private Eye's Pseud Corner's comment of the year, I'd describe it as both nothing and everything. What I mean by this is that in the greater scheme of things this sort of writing seems to be something of a fluffy luxury, on the other hand, I've had enthusiastic emails from readers as far apart in geography and culture as Peru and India. You never know how and where your ideas will make an impact and you can add to that the sheer absorption of being “in the flow” whilst writing – although as the same character who I've just quoted from Salamander says, “The Mohammedans say that an hour of reading is one stolen from Paradise. To that perfect thought I can only add that an hour of writing gives one a foretaste of the other place”.
More positively, although theoretical texts will never appear on advertisement hoardings, on the other hand, they avoid the fate of best-seller writing that goes in one eye and straight out the other. By contrast, I have been contacted by ex-students who have described how they have had their whole world-view changed by a theoretician that has successfully burrowed deep inside their heads. So, this time not wishing to sound like Gandalf, my tip to aspiring writers is to value theory's understated power. Since writing theory has its own unique rewards, they should try not to be too downhearted at its marginalized social status. It may well prove to be bad for your peace of mind and perhaps even your professional life (in the narrowest greasy-pole-climbing sense) but it produces an ineffable buzz that money just can't buy.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
PT: A character in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 describes how “the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be”. I would suggest that the current furore over student fees shouldn't distract us from the real origins of the wider, underlying problem. These were already evident in much earlier signs of gangrenous cultural attitudes. Think back to when, as Education Secretary, Charles Clarke openly questioned the innate value of medieval history degrees and, largely unchallenged, universities were subsequently shunted from their self-explanatory location in the Department of Education to their newly non-titular status within the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). This acronym reveals, more succinctly than I could ever hope to express, the brutish reductionism of people educated to know better. It also vividly demonstrates the stubborn value of implacably critical theory. So I would finish by saying... turn off your gizmo, go to a solitary place, pick up a book, and learn, learn, and learn!