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Zizek? Rascal!

Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek

Žižek has been under sustained attack by critics who find his analysis arcane, subjective and frankly, pointless. In the latest issue of the peer-reviewed and open source International Journal of Žižek Studies (Vol 1, No 3, 2007), Prof Todd McGowan (Univ of Vermont) makes a compelling argument defending a Žižekian reading of cinema (I use the term cinema as opposed to film. Why? Because I define film to be the text while cinema is the entire institution within which a film is financed, produced, distributed, exhibited, received, critiqued, and controlled). Žižek points to the centrality of the pleasure principle in cinema and how by not asking why we derive pleasure from watching films, we shy away from the big question (read his introduction to the special issue here). Instead, intellectual capabilities are spent in counting, measuring, and valorising cinematic content (such as cuts, mise-en-scene, cinematography etc). As argued by McGowan:

It is David Bordwell (perhaps Žižek’s fiercest critic) who lays out this accusation in its most complete form. According to Bordwell, Žižek is simply an irresponsible scholar. He wonders, “Are we wasting our time in expecting Žižek to offer reasonable arguments? Fundamental questions of responsibility arise here, especially in relation to a writer not hesitant to condemn the beliefs and actions of others” (2005).

McGowan also points to Žižek’s critics who suggest that he downplays the significance of the filmic medium itself making his contribution to film studies problematic. As McGowan points out, “though Žižek does often ignore textual and medium specificity, what he doesn’t ignore is the way that films organize and deploy the spectator’s enjoyment.”

(Video of Zizek responding to critics that he does not even view some of the films and then going on to do a brilliant analysis of Casablanca. NOTE: The video owner does not permit embedding. The link to the video is here)

It is ironic that Andrew Sarris, the American film writer had this to say about film criticism:

“Film history devoid of value judgements would degenerate into a hobby like bridge or stamp collecting, respectable in its esoteric way, but not too revelatory” (1968 The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 New York : E P Dutton)

Writing in her seminal paper “The politics of film canons” (Cinema Journal 24/3 Spring, 1985) Janet Staiger argues about the selection of certain films in film studies and what they inform us about the implicit power relations:

Grouping, classifying, and finding typicality are time honoured traditions in the acquisition of knowledge. Thus, large number of films can be handled if some generalizations are made. Thus horror films are classified thus because they typify a certain style of filmmaking. (p8-11)

Indeed, Bordwell engages in exactly the same methodology in his own research and bypasses the ticklish subject of “enjoyment”. Clearly, their approach of film studies is not geared to address this question, as McGowan argues:

…the great theorists of the cinema have not made the category of enjoyment central to their speculation about the cinema’s significance as an art. A brief look at the major film theorists reveals a lacuna surrounding the enjoyment that film produces. For each of these theories, the phenomenon of enjoyment is not the primary phenomenon in the cinema but at best the byproduct of some other appeal that the cinema makes. By basing itself in the primacy of the filmic text’s organization of enjoyment, Žižek’s approach offers film theory grounding in the fundamental appeal of cinema.

The Introduction article of this Special Cinema issue of the journal along with the other articles is a must read for anybody interested in going beyond cinematic navel gazing:



1 Heikki Ruotsalainen { 10.06.07 at 3:09 pm }

Thanks for this. Zizek is very relevant to film studies. The attacks on him probably reflect the clerical nature of film studies as a discipline and who they will permit into its fold. In that respect, Zizek is a true subaltern to the field. Yet his voice (or the lack of it) is probably the most important.

2 Jeff Ashton { 10.07.07 at 2:59 am }

why do we identify with films? why is it so compelling? we all know it is fake, yet we respond to it with emotions. the papers in the journal are a god send! thank you

3 Ravi { 10.09.07 at 9:33 am }

Here is my take in support of McGowan and Kishore. This is an excerpt from my article on Zizek’s book Fright of Real Tears, published in Jurnal Skrin Malaysia in 2005.

“Even Bordwell concedes that there were emerging alternatives even at the heyday of Grand Theories such as the rise of ‘middle level’ research (Bordwell,1996:27-29). Interestingly, ‘middle-level’ research, along with Carroll’s ‘piece meal theorising’ and the general notion of cognitivism forms the backbone of the Post-Theory. But despite the obvious literal meaning, the so-called ‘middle-level’ research does not get the advantage of a clear definition in Bordwell’s overview of the ‘middle-level’ research studies. They are only described as in-depth, empirical and problem-driven. There is no clear answer to the natural question in the mind of the reader, Why call it ‘middle-level research’? even though Bordwell seeks to capture the essence of the trend in detail when he writes: “…We need not choose between practising Lacanianism and compiling a filmography. The scholarly work of the last ten years has shown that one robust rival to Theory is a middle-range inquiry that moves easily from bodies of evidence to more general arguments and implications. This piecemeal, problem-driven reflection and research is as far from data shuffling as it is from the ethereal speculations of Grand Theory” (Bordwell and Carroll,1996:xiii). The problem with such a position accorded to ‘middle-level research’ springs from not what it seems to embody but what it replaces as the other choices. Bordwell and Carroll are no doubt polemical when they declare “we need not choose between practising Lacanianism and compiling filmography” (Bordwell and Carroll,1996:xiii), but one can not be a researcher by being a mere practitioner of Lacan or one can not fail to qualify as researcher for being in the area of filmography. Filmographies can go beyond being mere compilations and practising Lacanians can not be researchers always. To call something ‘middle-level’ research, when one does not believe in the existence of the other two levels, where research is a reality and a long running possibility, defies logic. How could research of a particular kind, middle, high or low, unseat a theory of a particular kind, Grand or pedestrian. Bordwell errs second time on this count when he declares, while concluding the chapter, “Grand Theories will come and go, but research and scholarship will endure” (Bordwell,1996:30), seeking to implicitly thrash the works inspired by the minds of Freud, Lacan, Althusser, Barthes, Metz etc., as not worthy of being termed scholarly and research oriented. It would have been more appropriate and objective for one to say that theories will come and go, but research and scholarship will profit from the evolution of theories, Grand or otherwise.”

4 Kishore Budha { 10.09.07 at 11:14 am }

From Bordwell’s “Planet Hong Kong: Popular cinema and the art of entertainment”:

Popular cinema is rooted in business – the impulse to turn out pictures regularly to satisfy a mass audience’s appetite. The aesthetic of such a cinema, Bordwell argues, is founded on mass tastes, including such as “pratfalls, spills, bodily functions, ladder accidents, and other base constants of human life” (Bordwell 2000:6).

Bordwell argues (and concedes) that Hong Kong cinema is considered to have embodied this demand of mass entertainment and thus given way to pictorial pleasures in place of dialogical finesse. And since the objective of mass filmmakers is to rivet the audience’s attention, they strive for clear and dynamic images rather than contemplative ones.

It is surprising he should oppose Zizek because he concedes that popular cinema is meant to entertain, but stops short of asking why, even if it is merely a musing? It is not enough to say that it is mass taste. On the other hand to castigate anybody who attempts an explanation of why the mass taste exists appears to reflect a desire to control what will and will not be a part of film theory/studies.

5 Kishore Budha { 10.09.07 at 11:24 am }

And he also says: Popular art flourishes by constantly and quietly refining the tradition; seeking originality at all costs can on the other hand lead to chaos (Bordwell 2000:13).

I wonder what he means when he says originality can lead to chaos — what is original and what does he allude to as chaos?

6 John { 10.09.07 at 11:21 pm }

You and everybody else can read Zizek until you are blue in the face or up until your last breath and it wont make the slightest bit of difference to anything—zilch zero.


Because his endless left brained impenetratable tower of babble is itself the problem—very much symptomatic of the dis-ease that Zizek is describing.

The World Mummery will continue on its never ending relentless klik-klak patterning regardless of anyones left brained babbling.

By contrast please check out these related potentially liberating communications—-liberating if you Understand and respond to what is being communicated.

1. http://www.mummerybook.org
2. http://www.daplastique.com
3. http://www.aboutadidam.org/readings/art_is_love/index.html
4. http://global.adidam.org/books/eleutherios.html
5. http://www.easydeathbook.com

7 paul { 10.16.07 at 6:03 pm }

I’d love to read those links in more depth … but I’ve fallen in liberated love with a tree, mmmm, woody …. mmmmm

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