Zizek Says Something Smart

by John Holbo on September 27, 2018

Once in a while it’s good for the soul to acknowledge that someone you regard as stupid said something smart. Here’s Slavoj Žižek on the wisdom – that is, stupidity – of proverbs:

“Let us engage in a mental experiment by way of trying to construct proverbial wisdom out of the relationship between terrestrial life, its pleasures, and its Beyond. If one says “Forget about the afterlife, about the Elsewhere, seize the day, enjoy life fully here and now, it’s the only life you’ve got!” it sounds deep. If one says exactly the opposite (“Do not get trapped in the illusory and vain pleasures of earthly life; money, power, and passions are all destined to vanish into thin air–think about eternity!”), it also sounds deep. If one combines the two sides (“Bring eternity into your everyday life, live your life on this earth as if it is already permeated by Eternity!”), we get another profound thought. Needless to say, the same goes for its inversion: “Do not try in vain to bring together eternity and your terrestrial life, accept humbly that you are forever split between Heaven and Earth!” If, finally, one simply gets perplexed by all these reversals and claims: “Life is an enigma, do not try to penetrate its secrets, accept the beauty of its unfathomable mystery!” the result is no less profound than its reversal: “Do not allow yourself to be distracted by false mysteries that just dissimulate the fact that, ultimately, life is very simple – it is what it is, it is simply here without reason and rhyme!” Needless to add that, by uniting mystery and simplicity, one again obtains a wisdom: “The ultimate, unfathomable mystery of life resides in its very simplicity, in the simple fact that there is life.”

I’m quoting this from Graham Harman, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy [amazon], which I am finding better than I expected. (I didn’t expect it to be bad, I just didn’t have high hopes. Heidegger stuff: usually not for me.)

The annoying thing about the Žižek is that I’ve made this very point myself before! – just not as amusingly. And now there’s no point in me trying to make it, amusingly. I have no sensible choice but to quote Žižek, which is an obnoxious thing to have to do. It’s like Žižek showing up at your front door, although admittedly not as bad. There, I admitted my feelings.

Harman’s point, in quoting Žižek, is kind of fun as well. He calls it: the stupidity of content. He starts off by defending Lovecraft against Edmund Wilson, who made fun of his ‘whistling octopus’.

[“At the Mountains of Madness” concerns] semi-invisible polypous monsters that uttered a shrill whistling sound and blasted their enemies with terrific winds. Such creatures would look very well on the covers of the pulp magazines, but they do not make good adult reading.

And so forth.

Harman imagines content-condensed analogues:

The hero of the book is a bipolar one-legged skipper who cruises the world from Nantucket with a team of multi-ethnic harpooners. The climax comes when a scary, evil white whale (the object of their hunt) swims around the ship so fast that everyone is sucked into a whirlpool – everyone except the narrator, that is, who somehow survives to tell the tale. When reflecting on such inanity, I marvel once more at the puerile enthusiasm of Melville’s admirers.


The plot of the work is visibly cracked. An Italian poet, age thirty-five, is lost in a forest. He is sad and confused and pursued by several ravenous African animals. At this point he happens to run into the ghost of Virgil, in whose company he enters a cave issuing into Hell. There, they meet scores of demons and observe a drooling Satan chewing the heads of three historic villains. They then descend Satan’s body and climb a giant mountain in the Pacific Ocean where people are forced to push boulders as punishment for minor sins. Virgil is then suddenly replaced by the dead sweetheart of the Italian poet’s childhood years. The Italian and his late muse (we are not told whether she carries a lollipop or a teddy bear) magically fly past all the planets and finally see Jesus and God. And appropriately so, I might add: for if this is the future of poetry, then only these Divine Persons can save us.

One might object that the point is really about tempo. That is, anything sounds stupid if it’s sped up. Like playing “Yakety Sax” in the background. (The exception is Žižek’s Tarrying With The Negative, which goes better with “Yakety Sax” than with nothing, if you get my meaning.)

As I was saying: Harman’s not the highest heights of comedy here, but better than the last work of Heideggerian philosophy I read in the yuks department. (I won’t name names. It was ok. But I didn’t lol.)

He makes some interesting points about what makes ideas appear smart rather than stupid – besides being, you know, smart or stupid. “For example, to argue between “the ultimate reality is flux” and “the ultimate reality is the stasis beneath the apparent flux” risks stumbling into Žižek’s bottomless duel of opposing proverbs. It is true that in different historical periods one of these philosophical alternatives is generally the cutting edge while the other is the epitome of academic tedium, just as three-dimensional illusionistic painting was fresh as the dawn in Renaissance Italy but crushingly banal in Cubist Paris.”

The intellectual fashion system is an interesting thing.

But I’m not sure I quite follow Harman to his conclusion. But that’s enough for a post anyway.

Oh, and a kind CT reader points me to this. Which he reminds me is taken from this. Very funny!

I like that there was a Lee/Kirby monster comic containing a story called “Taboo” and another in the same issue called “The Return of the Totem”. What are the odds that they were making a Freud joke? About zero, I think. But then?



Adam Roberts 09.27.18 at 8:50 am

There are lols in Heidegger, I’d say. Not all the time, granted, but when he starts going on about the potatoness of potatoes and so on.

Your (0r Harmans, or Žižek;s, or … let’s say all you three at once: Holbmanžek’s) point about the inanity of content-based crit is a profound one, I think. I hang out with academics, mostly literary critics; I also hang out with SF fans; and I’m often struck that the two demographics share many qualities, but also a key difference. So Doctor Who fans (say) know as much, in as much detail and care as much about evidence and accuracy etc wrt Who as Shakespearian scholars do wrt to Shakespeare. The difference is that SF fans tend to focus to a much greater extent on textual content, and find questions like in-text continuity and canonicity and so on fascinating (how can TOS Klingons have smooth foreheads and TNG Klingons have crumpled foreheads? There must be some in-text explanation, something that can reconcile this apparent contradiction of the content of this text!) Literary crtitic academics, though, will go to almost any length to avoid dwelling on the daft story of Hamlet (say): for them it’s all the logic of representation, contextualisation, formalism and so on.


SusanC 09.27.18 at 9:09 am

I am now imagining a sppeded-up movie of paranormal investigators being chased by Great Cthulhu to the tune of Yakety Sax. Ccurese you, John Holbo, for you have ruined the Cthulhu Mythos :-)


Gareth Wilson 09.27.18 at 10:11 am

That’s a fair point about SF fans in general. Your example about the Klingons is interesting because many fans just accept the change in make-up and are irritated by elaborate attempts to explain it. The most popular treatment of the difference is when a crumpled-forehead Klingon glares at smooth-forehead Klingons and says that they do not discuss the matter with outsiders.
Of course what’s really taken over from content in fan discussion is identity politics. Yes, they’ll argue about whether Iris West still has a journalism job, and if so why does she spend so much time in Star Labs. But they’ll spend more time debating whether it was sexist to have all the men keeping secrets from her, or whether it was racist to have her mother be a drug addict who abandoned her.


Saurs 09.27.18 at 10:31 am



JBW 09.27.18 at 11:46 am

Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock’s feathers.

Captain. (puzzled)
Very true,
So they do.

Black sheep dwell in every fold;
All that glitters is not gold;
Storks turn out to be but logs;
Bulls are but inflated frogs.


Both. (aside)
Stern conviction’s o’er me/him stealing,
That the mystic lady’s dealing
In oracular revealing.

Yes, I know —

That is so!

Though I’m anything but clever,
I could talk like that for ever:
Once a cat was killed by care,
Only brave deserve the fair.

Very true,
So they do.

Wink is often good as nod;
Spoils the child who spares the rod;
Thirsty lambs run foxy dangers;
Dogs are found in many mangers.

I agree.

Paw of cat the chestnut snatches;
Worn-out garments show new patches;
Only count the chick that hatches;
Men are grown-up catchy-catchies.


Z 09.27.18 at 11:52 am

The annoying thing about the Žižek is that I’ve made this very point myself before! – just not as amusingly. I have no sensible choice but to quote Žižek, which is an obnoxious thing to have to do.

Or you could quote the great Reboux and Müller who, in one of their parodies, imagine an incensed La Rochefoucauld getting the proofs of his Maxims (“It is great madness to want to be wise alone”, “In their first passions, women love the lover. Then, they love love”, “Only those who are despicable fear to be despised”…) and complains to the editors that they had them all backwards as he wrote “It is great wisdom to want to be wise alone”, “In their first passions, women love love. Then, they love the lover”, “Only those who are despicable do not fear to be despised”…

Everything is available at Wikisource.


Monte Davis 09.27.18 at 11:54 am

Hold on there! I came up with Battling Proverbs in my teens, and refuse to allow Žižek’s concurrence to make me doubt myself (although that has been a good guide in most cases). Many hands make light work, but too many cooks spoil the broth… well begun is half done, but there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip… u.s.w., as Heidegger would say.

Then I encountered Bohr’s “Profound truths are recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth” and thought: that’s deep!… until it self-negated in a puff of smoke. That proved it had been the work of the devil, said Rev. Dodgson, and Coleridge muttered something about enantiodromia.

Now I just sit around the aphorism barrel with Heraclitus and Laozi. There’s a little bit of yang in the yinnest of us, and a little bit of yin in the yangest of us.


John Holbo 09.27.18 at 12:32 pm

Good, I’m quoting Gilbert and Sullivan and Bohr and Coleridge instead. Screw Zizek!


Bill Benzon 09.27.18 at 12:37 pm

Žižek’s not bad here:


Yan 09.27.18 at 1:23 pm

Calling Graham Harman “Heidegger stuff” is a bit like calling Zizek “Hegel stuff.” Or Jordan Peterson “Nietzsche stuff.” Or John Holbo “Wittgenstein stuff.”

Incidentally, I always found it amazing that more students of Wittgenstein don’t appreciate Heidegger. Or that Heideggerians often don’t appreciate early Wittgenstein. There are so many points of overlap, and even the Tractatus reminds me so much of Heidegger.

I find this even weirder because I think both philosophers have an obnoxious and often, if not always, unnecessary style. So both teams should be able to see past their stylistic differences, since both are guilty of excesses in that respect.


John Holbo 09.27.18 at 1:43 pm

As to Heidegger stuff: I meant to gesture towards my own ignorance of Graham’s stuff. No idea about OOO. Haven’t a clue except it’s somehow post-Heidegger. All I knew. I came for the Lovecraft. I generally feel that Heidegger can be translated into something almost common sensical (except the nazi parts) but only after an exhausting process. I regard it as too much trouble. Perhaps Wittgenstein is similar but I think they are quite different.


BruceJ 09.27.18 at 2:06 pm

Adam Roberts:

The difference is that SF fans tend to focus to a much greater extent on textual content, and find questions like in-text continuity and canonicity and so on fascinating (how can TOS Klingons have smooth foreheads and TNG Klingons have crumpled foreheads? There must be some in-text explanation, something that can reconcile this apparent contradiction of the content of this text!)

I suspect that the key difference is that SF fans are, on a conscious level, treating their literature not so much as literature but as fragmentary records of a reality; more like history than criticism, hence the focus on content; they’re intent teasing out the unwritten facts and events between the episodes.

To wit:

The origin of the furrowed forehead is traceable to the Great Plague that wiped out nearly all Klingons, save for the despised under-caste ‘The Muckeaters’ who by virtue of generations of forced labor in the muck and sewers had developed an enormously efficient immune system to ward off the plague, in particular from tolerating ever more elaborate facial appliances as a kind of defiant celebration of their despised status, derived from the bulky, uncomfortable breathing masks they wore during their labors, which left their smooth skin wrinkled from the humidity.

That the UFP stepped in and generously aided their erstwhile enemies during the plague firmly cemented a peace between the greatly reduced empire, now made up largely by the surviving Muckeaters and the ascendant UFP.

By then the habit of applying grotesque amounts of latex and coloring to their foreheads had become so engrained in the newly higher castes who are the majority of of officers and diplomats that they would no more be seen in public without their ridges than you or I wearing nothing but cuts of meat attached to strategic body parts.

See, it’s fun! Criticism is work. Bleah.


Elf M. Sternberg 09.27.18 at 2:27 pm

This seems to me a restatement of Daniel Dennett’s “deepities,” defined as “… a proposition that seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed. It has (at least) two readings and balances precariously between them. On one reading it is true but trivial.”

So, y’know, you don’t have to go to Zizek. Dennett is a better choice.


AcademicLurker 09.27.18 at 2:40 pm

I generally feel that Heidegger can be translated into something almost common sensical



Sebastian H 09.27.18 at 3:47 pm

I know this isn’t a serious attempt to explain dueling proverbs, but I will anyway. There can be dueling proverbs, because different people need different advice. The procrastinator with poor attention to detail needs “a stitch in time saves nine”. The smart but impulsive guy needs “Look before you leap”. The ivory tower academic needs to be told to look around themselves. The compulsive narcissist needs other advice.


Neel Krishnaswami 09.27.18 at 4:03 pm

Have you seen Rosa Lyster’s essay about her invention of the Žižek game?

The other night, I pretended I didn’t know who Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian Hegelian Marxist and cultural critic, was. I’ve done this before, but never to such triumphant effect. This Marxist bro I was talking to made a reference to Žižek that he obviously assumed I would get, and my heart sank. He was a nice guy, actually, but I saw the conversation stretching out in front of us, and I saw myself having to say things about Žižek and listen to him say things about Žižek, and I saw that I really did not want this to happen. “This is a bar,” I wanted to say, the same way that my grandmother might have said “This is a church.”


not feeling very nymous today 09.27.18 at 4:29 pm

Herbert Simon, “The Proverbs of Administration”, _Public Administration Review_ **6** (1946): 53–67 [JSTOR].


Jim Harrison 09.27.18 at 5:41 pm

It eventually becomes problematic when a particular writer becomes the bete noire of a group and the subject of ritualized derision. Think of the endless denunciations of Spinoza, Heidegger, Zizek, David Graeber, etc. I got banned by Brad DeLong because his obsessive bad mouthing of Marx struck me as suspicious. Hey probably took me for one of those guys who shows up to insist that the labor theory of value is simply right if you understand it properly while in fact I’m not even a Marxist. I’m just somebody who figures that there’s a reason why certain thinkers must be compulsively dealt with, why they can’t be done with. As I recall, the figure of speech that I used in the comment that led to my banishment likened the umpteenth version of the second rate Recardian bit to a dog trying to rub the skunk smell off its muzzle. The interesting question, to my way of thinking, is the source of the continuing virulence of Marx and Spin0za and Heidegger and Graeber and Zizek if they are all just clownish imposters.


rcriii 09.27.18 at 6:55 pm

WRT the New Yorker cartoon, beacuse I am a Howard the Duck fan, my mind went to Man Thing, mainly because they did this cover over and over.


Bill Benzon 09.27.18 at 7:50 pm

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