Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

As a thinker, one must be "the bad example" faithful and grateful

For example – examples that think
PHILOSOPHY / Perhaps the example is better for innovation than the question. Like Michel Foucault, Slavoj Žižek likes to bypass more traditional academic sources.


The Italian philosopher Alessandro Ferrara has described how to constantly discuss what Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary should exemplify. Not least, it says something about what potential the good example holds, but to unleash this potential, one must approach the example with the right attitude.

Brian Benjamin Hansen's book For example – examples that think (2021) contains, among many other things, a defense of Slavoj Žižek's materialistic exemplary practice, which is characterized by a high degree of elasticity and readiness for change.

The panopticon is a way of understanding different techniques and practices in one
given period – as a prison.

Overall, the book operates with two types of examples. There is «the rhetorical example», which only has to convey a theory that is fixed in advance – the purpose of «the rhetorical example» is thus to facilitate communication, the example has a pedagogical purpose. And then there is «the theoretical example», the type of example that Žižek swears by, which acts as a thought-forming generator, a raw corrective, a destabilizing curiosity. If the function of the rhetorical example is to convey and disseminate (theory, concept, idea), then the function of the theoretical example is to expand, rebuild or undermine: The question here is not whether the example is in line with the concept, but rather whether the concept is measure with the example.

Before I return to Žižek, which is the book's main profile, I would like to highlight Benjamin Hansen's fine review of French Michel Foucault's way of working, a method which, like Plato, Hegel's and Žižek's method, is described in very precise language. . All the chapters of the book are good and without much theory jargon, but in my eyes especially the sections on Foucault og Žižek.

Michel Foucault

Paradigms are practices

Like Aristotle, Foucault uses the term “paradigm” to describe different ways of thinking, understanding, and being in the world, paradigms are practices that can take the form of worldviews and that can be retrospectively unearthed by the materials left behind by time. But unlike Aristotle, who is rounded by a «pragmatic optimism of reason». This is reflected in thoughts such as: "There are in fact paradigms with which the world can be uncovered, and we as thinking beings have the ability to select the right paradigms for the right practical, moral and theoretical understanding of the world". Then Foucault is not so concerned with "how paradigms can help us in practical terms", but more with "how a particular paradigm constitutes exactly what seems practical". Foucault's project is to locate the places "where something constitutes itself as a paradigm for certain ways of perceiving something or acting". And in order to do so, Foucault must work thoroughly and patiently, as well as read both central and peripheral documents, "diaries, first-person narratives, pseudo-scientific texts, etc."

Foucault believes in the material and proceeds by «testing the empiric against himself». As Benjamin Hansen aptly writes, Foucault does not want to detectbut showcase trends. The movement goes from example to thesis, e.g. the panopticon, despite its particular status, becomes a path to understanding different techniques and practices in a given period – like a prison – it becomes, after painstaking tests, a picture of something paradigmatic.

Provokes for thinking

Like Foucault, Žižek likes to bypass more traditional academic sources, and for both thinkers the example, with yet another good formulation by Benjamin Hansen, has «ontological precedence». In Žižek, the good example is «poorly» understood in the sense that it contains a «more», the alleged reality of the theory's explanatory model is different from the example, the concept does not include everything, the example transcends the theory. Or in Benjamin Hansen's words: «The example functions as an interruption, and as something that in its own right provokes thinking».


According to Benjamin Hansen, in order to find the good «bad examples», one must watch over the world with a psychoanalyst's' even-floating attention », seek the indefinable, the peculiar, and be faithful and grateful to the example. An example is good if, in Benjamin Hansen's words, it can be repositioned, repeated and form the basis for generalization, and perhaps the «example» is even a better engine for new thinking than the «question», because it starts out there, with something that exists as a «compelling otherness», something that one cannot run from.

However, the potential of the example is only released if one respects the example of good and evil and is not selective in one's reading. The good readings surprise in a convincing way – and the question is, does Žižeks always do? Something else is the question of the truth value of the example. Benjamin Hansen writes that a true action in Žižek's books is always surprising. But the question is, is a surprising, concept-breaking act from a movie or cartoon now also always true? The Žižek can rightly use the baby egg to approach an understanding of the mechanics of desire, because we have seen that it works in practice: Baby eggs are sold on a large scale. But what about the inner logic of a fiction film? That a Hitchcock film moves by a theoretical understanding is no guarantee that it is right and the theory is wrong? Maybe not, but it can create counter-intuitive thinking!

You may also like