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Slavoj Žižek is Just Another CONartist aka Modern “Public Intellectual”

May 2, 2019 7 comments

Some time ago, a reader asked me about my thoughts on Slavoj Žižek. I believe this request was linked to a recent public debate between him and Jordan Peterson. As some might remember, I had previously written a short series about the another CONartist aka Jordan Peterson. And let me be upfront about something else.. I have always seen “public intellectuals” as nothing more than mountebanks, frauds and house slaves. To be clear, I am not implying that every famous intellectual is a fraud. People such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Nassim Taleb etc achieved a lot in their fields of expertise before becoming famous intellectuals. Now contrast them to alleged “public intellectuals” such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Charles Murray and other TED-talker types.

But what really separates people such as Sagan, Feynman, Hawking or Taleb from mountebanks such Tyson, Dawkins, Harris and Murray. For starters, people in the first category derive most of their livelihood from being really good at whatever they do for a living. Sagan would have been an world-famous astrophysicist even if he never written a single popular science book or made a TV show. Feynman and Hawking would still be world-renowned physicists even if they hadn’t written a single popular book. Taleb had made tens of millions at least a decade before writing his first book. Those in the second category, in sharp contrast, derive most of their livelihood from being famous and known as “intellectuals- like how Kim Kardashian is famous for being famous.

Let us now move on to the topic of Žižek, or to be more precise- why he is a mediocre CONartist aka contemporary “public intellectual”. But before we go there, let me briefly describe how much of his content I went through before reaching that conclusion. The short version is that I viewed over 12 hours of his lectures (made over a period of at least 6 years) on YouTube. In addition, I read the transcripts of over a dozen interviews and other articles written by him over the past decade. Which is another way of telling you that I did not reach my conclusions about him lightly or because of the opinions of other people. While he is not as big a fraud as Peterson, Dawkins, Harris and Murray- he is a fraud, nonetheless. And here is why..

1] If you have watched more than a few minutes of Žižek talking in public, you will notice that he has some long-standing neurological issues affecting control of his upper body- especially hands. While there is no point in speculating on the likely cause, it is especially apparent when he is talking into a camera. After watching many of his videos, I noticed something even more peculiar- namely, that his movement disorder is far less pronounced when he is not looking at the camera. Also, his long-standing condition was under far better control before he became famous. While some of you might think that this might have something to do with aging or his underlying condition progressing, I think there is a different explanation.

Žižek’s audience until a few years ago was more local and European than it is today. But what could this possibly have to do with the public manifestation of his condition. Well.. audiences in Anglo and some Asian societies are far more likely to associate wisdom with an odd physical appearance and body language than continental European societies. This is why gurus, spiritual leaders and other assorted godmen with unusual or distinctive physical appearances are far more common in some societies than others. While he probably did not go down this road deliberately, Žižek seems to have realized that his persona gets a bigger reaction and audience if he lets his neurological condition manifest itself to the fullest extent.

2] If you have watched some of Žižek’s videos from start to end, you might have found out about his appointments at many ‘elite’ universities in the anglosphere. But why would these institutions, operating under the paradigm of neoliberalism, bother to acknowledge the existence of a self-described Marxist let alone pay for that association? While there are those who might attribute this to western universities appreciating free thought, a more likely explanation is that Žižek is harmless- like Noam Chomsky. In other words, their association with him carries no risk while simultaneously allowing them to pretend that they are intellectually tolerant.

You might have also noticed that his philosophical musings are about the pervasiveness of capitalism throughout the contemporary world. And while he points out the problems inherent in this setup- he artfully dodges any talk about how the status quo can be changed. In my opinion, this goes a long way towards explaining why so many ‘elite’ western universities are perfectly OK with inviting him as a speaker. Žižek is eerily reminiscent of all those public figures in pre-1860 USA who argued that slavery was inhumane and an abomination, but had no plans or desire on how to end it- largely because they were also profiting from its existence.

3] Another example of Žižek lazy and conventional thinking comes from his repeated insistence that China is a capitalist country managed by a tyrannical communist party. As any person, with some objectivity and more than half-a-brain, can figure out- the Chinese government is far more interested in improving the quality of life for its own people than contemporary democratic regimes in the west. While this might be for less than altruistic reasons, the end results are too hard to ignore- except perhaps for some white “public intellectuals” in west. And as mentioned in another post, the type of governance system one sees in China is common to many east-Asian countries, who have also done quite well. We can all see who has failed and who has prevailed.

Žižek’s description of the Chinese system as capitalist becomes even more laughable once you start appreciating how fundamentally different it is from anything in the west. For example- it is the government rather than capitalists who decide how things are run in China. Those foolish enough to believe that their riches protect them from the government in that country learn that is not the case, very swiftly. The Chinese government spends tens of billions on tons of seemingly unprofitable infrastructure projects, which almost always turn out to be profitable a decade or so after they were built. They invest tens of billions in acquiring competencies in multiple areas that are supposedly unprofitable for them, but which almost always become highly profitable in the next decade. And China is hardly alone in such policies.

Both Japan and South Korea implemented watered-down versions of these policies to great effect many years before China went down that path. It is telling that Žižek seems unable to imagine (privately or publicly) ways of doing things that are significantly superior to those prevalent in the west. Maybe he really likes the Kool-Aid of neoliberalism in spite of his vocal protestations to the contrary. Perhaps he has far more in common with people like Christopher Hitchens and Niall Ferguson than we (or him) would prefer to believe.

4] A further example of Žižek intellectual laziness can be seen in how he worships a lot of useless “technological” progress which has occurred in past 30-40 years and attributes it to capitalism. Let us face it.. there hasn’t been really improved that much over past 3-4 decades, and almost all of it has to do with stuff like reduction in rates of cigarette smoking, improvements in car design and occupational health, better drugs for hypertension and better management of heart attacks and strokes. Did I mention that rates of improvement in life-expectancy in developed countries since 1980 have no correlation with degree of technologification of healthcare in those countries.

Furthermore, vast majority of alleged technological breakthroughs made over past 3-4 decades from human genome sequencing, stem cell therapy, gene transfer therapies, new gene editing techniques, new drugs for most cancers have turned out be either outright failures or far less consequential than first thought. We still don’t have electric cars that can effectively compete with gasoline (or diesel) fueled ones outside major cities. Renewable energy is still an expensive joke. We don’t have anything better than chemical and a few piddly ion rocket engines for space exploration. Oh ya.. and integrated circuits, CPU design and the internet are the result of government spending money on seemingly impossible ideas.

In summary, Žižek is a secret worshiper of neoliberalism who has learned to maximize his earnings and popularity by pretending to be a Marxist and Hegelian (while accentuating his physical shortcomings in order to appear more authentic). Along the way, he keeps interpreting the world around him in ways meant to flatter the pre-existing biases and prejudices of his main audience. Then again, this is what most “public intellectuals” do and have always done.

What do you think? Comments?