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: