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Žižek at its worst 

Incontinence of the Void
Forfatter: Slavoj Žižek
Forlag: MIT Press (USA)
Slavoj Žižek's latest book is occasionally unreadable – but his use of popular culture is as ingenious as repetitive.


Slavoj Žižek has been one of my favorite thinkers for many years, but despite everything that fascinates him, it is just as frustrating. Not least Žižek's generous use of psychoanalysis theory – and in particular Jacques Lacan's variant – is essential for understanding this man's writings, but the material moisture meter shows you the I have never quite managed to reconcile myself. Secondly, his manic production is a challenge, as the sheer volume of publications in itself testifies to a writer with no limitation ability – which inevitably leads to many repetitions and unclear thematic boundaries between the books he throws. In addition, Žižek sometimes ends up in a philosophical cul-de-sac that, in my opinion, brings out the absolute worst in him.

Defensive position. His latest book, Incontinence of the Void, are of this kind. This is possibly not only the most difficult book Žižek has written, but also the least elegant. Something has to do with its overly defensive starting point: on the one hand, he will defend himself against those who claim that he is not a "proper philosopher", while on the other he will write an equivalent, or comment, on the Slovenian philosopher Alenka Zupancic érins What IS Sex, which came out in the same series as Žižek's book earlier this year (her book on humor, The Odd One In. On Comedy by 2008, by the way, is outstanding – some of the best I've read about laughter).

The reasoning is so elaborate and loaded with special philosophy references that the book often simply becomes impenetrable. Unless you have a deep and deep love for the said Lacan, it also becomes enervating at length, since every thought is so thoroughly kneaded into the Lacanian terminology. In other words, I'm not even going to try to unpack what Žižek really wants. When explaining the book's title, for example, Lacan's conceptual apparatus blends in such a way that I can hardly breathe.

«The notion of the Incontinence of the Void is a kind of negative of this coincidence of the opposites: It brings together the double failure of the penis which leaks at the highest level (secreting sperm) and at the lowest level (secreting urine). Our ontological premise is that reality itself is not the positive outcome of some productive One but the outcome of its redoubled failure. ”


Unclear goal. The above quote is – at least for the undersigned – far from clear. Now, of course, one can object that subject-philosophical texts – which this must be regarded as, despite Žižek's dissent position in the environment – must be able to afford a hefty level of abstraction, but on the whole I have rarely had any problem understanding what Žižek has on heart. Here, however, I fall short – and as an ihuga Žižek reader, I must reasonably assume that this will apply to quite a few others as well.

The Slovenian's wretched concept carpet lifts when he has a tangible image to attach to his pondering.

Although reading Incontinence of the Void far and away is like moving in a conceptual fog, it brightens up occasionally – and fortunately Žižek has retained many of his strengths in this book as well. I think of his highly regarded references to popular culture, including Hitchcock (who is a regular with the philosopher), but also to Philip K. Dick and GK Chesterton. Ok, it might be debatable whether these guys stand for popular culture in the strict sense – but in any case, they create more air and much-needed respite in Žižek's text.

The Slovenian's reading of South Korean Kim Ki-duk's film Spring, summer, autumn, winter… and spring (2004) is an example of entertaining reading. The monk who ends up as a killer – though we don't see the murder – is about taking his Buddhism extremely seriously, Žižek claims. The creed to never bind closely to anything or anyone can, if we follow Žižek's thinking, have quite dire consequences when deciding to rid Mon with what you feel strongly about. Exercise does not necessarily make mastery.

Or, as when Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) comes in The crime takes the law into his own hands and kills the perpetrator, knowing that he will not receive the punishment he deserves. Deeply problematic, but still the most radical ethical act, says Žižek (thus quoting Søren Kierkegaard): not only to sacrifice law and justice, but also his own life – family relationships and work – to do it morally right.

Recycling. It is as if Žižek's woolly concept carpet rises when he has a concrete narrative or a tangible picture to attach his pondering to, and the use of films and books still makes Žižek a pleasure to follow. But again: with the many repetitions of both examples and lines of thought, this strength also becomes Žižek's weakness – he becomes the master of recycling itself. After reading one of his jokes, you can be absolutely sure that it will reappear in another book, lecture or article.

The problem with  Incontinence of the Void in other words, it is not clear what it is really about. Is it a commentary on Zupancic Žerdin, or is it a philosophical self-defense? Or something else entirely? The book speaks in many directions – as well as suffering from the weight of the Lacanian conceptual bar.

Kjetil Røed
Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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