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<nettime> _A_conversation_with_Paul_A._Taylor_(editor_of_The_Internation
Nicholas Ruiz III on Mon, 29 Jan 2007 22:47:38 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> _A_conversation_with_Paul_A._Taylor_(editor_of_The_International_Journal_of_Zizek_Studies)

A conversation with Paul A. Taylor (editor of The International
Journal of Zizek Studies)

Paul A. Taylor
Nicholas Ruiz III

Nicholas Ruiz III: Might we suspect that it is always most favorable
to have conversations with the living? Or in other words, so many of
our conversations in cultural theory, philosophy and criticism seem to
be with the dead, is it time to revaluate the practice of the living
philosopher? Is this one reason, at least, why there are journals now,
such as the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, and most
recently, the International Journal of ®i¾ek Studies (IJ®S)?

Paul A. Taylor: There seem to be a few people for whom ®i¾ek's status
amongst the alive and kicking is somehow a problem. I must admit I'm
rather nonplussed by such necrophilic tendencies which reflect an
under-acknowledged level of conservatism within academe. My view is
quite simple - either thinkers are worthy of our time and intellectual
energy, or they are not. There's also a certain amount of intellectual
bad faith regarding this enshrining of thinkers in an intellectual
hall of fame only after their physical demise. For example, Walter
Benjamin is a deservedly much-admired figure yet his own theoretical
project was suffused with a profound interest in the cultural
detritus that surrounded him. He was an intellectual ragpicker par
excellence and the highly topical nature of his radical thought is
frequently ignored by those who appear to need the insulation of a
safe historical distance before they are willing to engage with his
work - a sentiment quite at odds with his own intellectual practices
and intentions. My preference is for theorists like Benjamin and ®i¾ek
who deal directly with the ideology of the times, as it is manifested
at the time.

An online journal is a better medium than most to engage most
effectively with this topicality and it avoids another major
inconsistency that I point out in the Editorial Introduction and other
interviews I've done. This is the irony that journals with a leftist
or vaguely radical stance still subscribe to a dead-tree model of
publication built upon what amounts to an exclusionary, exploitative
model for knowledge generation. With miniscule numbers of individual
subscribers, the survival of these paper journals is dependent upon
income garnered from University library budgets via the charging of
high institutional prices - such institutions being disproportionately
represented in the richer parts of the globe. A likely response is
that dead-tree publications are necessary to ensure the quality
of content, but this is unconvincing given that the peer-review
mechanisms they use tend to be facilitated by the very online forms of
communication they only eschew at the final stages of the publication
process. This might just be me espousing a vested interest but I've
recently noticed there is a forthcoming online International Journal
of Communication edited by no less a figure than Manuel Castells
(although, judging by its initial Editorial Board, disappointingly,
only marginally more international than Baseball's "World Series"), so
I don't think (touch wood) that it's pre-emptive to say the time of
the online journal is now!

Both the ®i¾ek and Baudrillard Journals open up space for the critical
discussion of the contemporary mediascape with full scholarly rigour
but without some of the exclusionary physical constraints that offline
scholarship necessarily involves. The additional feature that ®i¾ek
is around to take umbrage with particular interpretations contained
within the Journal, is also a major asset. It would only be a drawback
if he was dictating Editorial policy - but his position on the Board
is an honorary one, and I am highly resistant to making IJ®S a fanzine
instead of a serious interrogation of his work.

NRIII: What are the big ideas in ®i¾ek's work, or perhaps, what are
the ®i¾ekian approaches to cultural theory, philosophy or criticism
that are most compelling? For what does IJ®S seek to provide a forum?

PT: In reverse order, despite the above points about its
accessibility, IJ®S is first and foremost a scholarly forum. By way
of illustration, in the middle of this interview, I have been in
another email exchange with a UK TV producer genuinely interested in
bringing higher quality content to our screens. He read a paper I'd
written about Abu Ghraib for The International Journal of Baudrillard
Studies[1] and complained about its excessive use of "jargon".
This is an attitude I've frequently encountered amongst the most
well-intentioned media practitioners and it goes straight to the heart
of IJ®S's unapologetic rationale as an outlet for scholarship - not
media-friendly superficial discussion or blunderbuss blogging.

Clarity is often desirable but its ideological components are
frequently overlooked by those who use the term as an apparently
neutral category. Those demanding more clarity are seldom confronted
with the supplementary question - clarity for whom? So I would
strongly argue that clarity is not a neutral category - there is a
great paper by Douglas Aoki[2] defending such purportedly impenetrable
theorists as Lacan. Invariably, when media figures request more
clarity they are promoting a desire for a mode of communication that
is saturated with presuppositions of the way the media is supposed
to work. In my direct experience, colleagues at the professional
practice end of communications studies tend to be so uncritically
inculcated in a very particular way of doing things that they are very
resistant to acknowledging that their way is a very particular way of
construing things and that things could be significantly otherwise. If
you ever get access to a media professional - try asking them about a
particular programme and why it wasn't produced another way and you'll
be inundated by comments "but that's not how it works", "that's not
how it's done" etc.

In this context, a hugely impressive feature of ®i¾ek's work is the
manner in which he seems to largely overcome this ideological use of
clarity to enervate intellectual life. He culls an unusually high
number of illustrations from readily accessible media content to
accompany his complex discussions - but unlike the media chatterati,
he does not shy away from the full import of this philosophical
content. I have never come across a philosopher who combines the
demotic with the esoteric so impressively and IJ®S aims to reflect
this whilst maintaining its scholarly focus. Even if, along the way,
it proves we've misrepresented certain aspects of his work, ®i¾ek
himself defends "productive misreadings" as the motivating force of
Western Philosophy.

Regarding ®i¾ek's big idea - what consistently impresses me about
him is the degree of reflexivity he brings to his work. He not
only reflects upon this amazing range of elements from popular
culture, but juxtaposes them inventively with high theory to produce
fascinating new perspectives. He even manages to incorporate a
constant theoretical awareness of the nature of his method as he goes
along. It is thus fitting that his latest book which he regards as
one of his most important is called The Parallax View - I think it
is a very good summary of his key intellectual project to date - the
constant shifting of position to look at things "awry" - to quote from
another of one his books' titles.

An obvious danger for someone who holidays so regularly in the belly
of the media whale is the subsequent muffling of his message by the
medium. But once again, here ®i¾ek exhibits unusually high levels of
perspicacity. In addition to his theoretical reflexivity, ®i¾ek also
exhibits an impressive level self-understanding. Thus, in the movie
®i¾ek! he not only plays with the conventions of the documentary form
by staging his own suicide at the end of the film and, at one point,
lying in bed wrapped in a sheet like a recumbent, togaed Socrates, but
there are also some quite poignant moments. For example, he is fully
conscious of his own need to placate his son with a Happy Meal and
Disney videos in order to help pass fraught father-son "quality time"
and in a Buenos Aires restaurant he passes a photograph of himself to
the film's director and rhetorically asks "would you let your daughter
go to the cinema with this man?"

So, to reiterate, I think his main contribution is this consistent
desire to look at things askance. He may not always succeed and the
media may continue attempting to co-opt the radicality of his analysis
but he keeps making the effort and I love that pig-headedness. In
my own work on critical theories of mass media culture I frequently
encounter examples of theorists presenting themselves as critical when
in fact they are merely servicing the status quo as in the previously
mentioned blind spots of "critical" dead-tree journals. Another major
illustration can be seen in the whole history of cultural studies
- a disciplinary debacle that is often a sophisticated exercise in
willfully denying the central insights of the Frankfurt School. I
think a major part of ®i¾ek's appeal is the manner in which he's
retained Adorno et al's criticality but breathed fresh life into their
more fatalistic tendencies.

NRIII: What do you make of ®i¾ek's "rehabilitation of dialectical
materialism" set forth in The Parallax View?[3] Is it an example of
what Todd McGowan refers to as the 'serious theory' that philosophers
so often fail to offer, or might such rehabilitation suffer only for
a romanticism of class liberation that Capital will not allow?[4]
McGowan claims that serious theory must reject the edifice of orthodox
philosophical legitimacy, in favor of a speculative illegitimacy that
a thoughtful rendering of the world requires; how might ®i¾ek satisfy
McGowan's criteria in The Parallax View?

PT: I've dealt directly with the importance of the parallax view
above but to expand upon its importance for notions of dialectical
materialism I would comment further upon this notion that ®i¾ek
provides a breath of fresh intellectual air. One of the reasons that I
admire figures such as Adorno and Baudrillard so much is that unlike
so many other theorists they tend to be unashamed to acknowledge fully
the dark implications of their analyses. They seem to understand
better than most that the word "critical" as it applies to cultural
theory may involve the connotation it has in Mathematics and Physics
of relating to the transition from one state to another, but then
again, it may just refer to a damning, pessimistic indictment of
present conditions.

I have a strong sense that much contemporary cultural theory is
hamstrung by its persistent desire to have a side order of optimism
with its critical analysis. This is a debate I'm currently conducting
with Prof Scott Lash who despite writing a book entitled A Critique
of Information seems determined to adopt a Panglossian attitude to
the life-world of the new information order that seems to stretch
the etymology of "critique" to breaking point.[5] A few lines
further on than the sentence you quote, ®i¾ek reasserts the need
to develop 'dialectical materialism, not the much more acceptable,
and much less embarrassing, "materialist dialectic"; the shift from
determinate reflection to reflective determination is crucial here'
(The Parallax View pages 4-5). Reflective determination is a nice way
of describing the reactive, accommodationist tendency of a lot of
theory at the moment. Currently, a head-in-the-sand attitude seems
to be the dominant voice within academe. Worryingly, the Panglossian
cultural studies approach is now spreading its influence into various
information society accounts of bio-politics. Most disappointing
in this regard perhaps is Mark Poster's recent Information Please!
(2006) and Jenkins's Convergence Culture (2006). Such commentators
seem determined to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear of a culture
in which people's transformation into human/information-hybrids is
apparently something to be celebrated uncritically.

As with the previously discussed failure to ask "clarity for whom?"
- works such as these embrace the various implosions brought
about in digital culture but seem loathe to look awry at who is
disproportionately benefiting. They conveniently ignore the depressing
predictability with which such "innovations" always seem to favour
the usual suspects. At the end of his introduction to Organs Without
Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, this is what leads ®i¾ek to
accuse Deleuze of being an apologist for today's digital capitalism
. Reading further on in The Parallax View from ®i¾ek's desire to
rehabilitate dialectical materialism, he points out that, from the
earliest times, philosophers have played a survival game whereby
they have hidden the truly subversive nature of their endeavours. In
contrast, too many cultural theorists today are playing a radical game
- but only in order to disguise their essentially quietist nature.
They are hibernating versions of Marx's revolutionary mole - they have
forgotten how to break to the surface again.

NRIII: I suppose we might say that there is a critical currency
deficit. Much in cultural theory and criticism seems unevenly
enamored with the Ancients. Not to say there is not value in the
polishing of old gems, but perhaps there is an eternal return to the
seductive beauty of the antiquated Text: texts about texts about
texts-unfiltered, uncompressed-an unending loop of noise and feedback.
Notwithstanding evolving concepts of novel interest: the Network,
the Order, the Multitude, Becoming, Capital and so on-the Law states
that all of these need end in a fuzzy liberal emancipation. The sign
of orthodoxy in philosophy, must it be that of a Modern emancipation
politics? And the subversive, must it be unorthodox? And even if we
believe in the viability of a democratic space, can such a concept
exist apart from its Administration?

PT: If I've understood the question/comments properly ... I think,
yes, we've actually reached a stage at which the nominally subversive
or radical have exchanged places as I've argued above. This is true of
the type of works I've already mentioned, particularly, the perennial
body of works that could be labeled under the general term cultural
populism. A consistent theme in my responses to your questions is how,
in this body of work, the worst attributes of the culture industry
are disingenously re-imagined as examples of empowerment. There is
still a pressing need to directly address the disturbing implications
so forcefully raised by Adorno - they haven't gone away they've just
become a more insidious part of our cultural environment. Adorno told
a truth too unvarnished for some when he described how the masses are
not so much cleverly duped as they are active connivers at their own
oppression. Similarly, ®i¾ek rejects the notion that the masses are
suffering from false consciousness - they do know what they are doing,
but they keep on doing it anyway. There's a migraine-inducing irony
that Adorno tends to be dismissed as unfashionable and irrelevant when
his insights have never been more obviously validated by history -
a great example of someone being beaten with the stick of their own
predictive success.

It would be easy to be mischievously snippy when offering explanations
for the types of misguided analyses I've been criticizing but I
think there is an element of middle-aged, middle-class angst about
pointing out the culpability of the bovine masses for their own
situation. By contrast, figures like Baudrillard and ®i¾ek seem to
derive at least part of their subversive status from their gleefully
recalcitrant and unfashionable willingness to make exactly these sorts
of non-politically-correct value judgments. They volubly undermine
what you term "evolving concepts of novel interest". Take Baudrillard,
for example, when he is salvaged from the misleading label as a "po-mo
theorist" and inane misreadings of his razor-sharp descriptions
of the mediascape as praise for its vacuity, one can see him for
what he is - a traditional Durkheimian who, over many years, has
consistently defended the value of symbolically-laden culture over its
empty symbol-lite manifestations in the totalitarian semiotic order
that dominates social discourse. Similarly, ®i¾ek unapologetically
criticizes "politically correct" dogma that shies away from the real
issues underlying ideology and power. His novelty is paradoxically
garnered from a dutifully close reading of the canonical triumvirate
of Kant, Hegel, and Lacan. He breathes fresh life into these thinkers
by applying them critically to popular culture. If something isn't
broken there's no point trying to fix it. With that aphorism in
mind, I find ®i¾ek's loyalty to seminal thinkers genuinely novel in
comparison to the numerous acts of intellectual bad faith exhibited
by theorists more interested in glorifying capitalism's flows with
various forms of Jesuitical casuistry than they are actually calling
an essentially commodified spade an ultimately dis-empowering digging

Specifically regarding the notion of a democratic space and its
relationship to administration - ®i¾ek points out that Western
intellectuals often want revolution without revolution. They are
indeed radical in their imaginations but when it comes to the crunch
they hide behind bureaucratic structures, disciplinary tribes and
professional "standards"/unvoiced assumptions (e.g. the previously
noted tendency to assume that a theorist needs to be dead before
one can seriously study them). The concept from ®i¾ek I keep coming
back to time and time again is his notion of the chocolate laxative
- the process/object that acts as an agent of its own containment.
I think this is a an extremely illuminating concept when applied to
conceptions of democracy and their tendency to have their substantive
content swamped by administrative minutiae (a perfect trope for this
is the way in which academics frequently betray their intellectual
responsibilities to the pursuit of knowledge by an indecent [perverse
as Lacanian terminology would describe it] attachment to committee
life, the micro-management of research and teaching etc.).

It strikes me that a particularly good example of the chocolate
laxative is the intellectual field of enquiry surrounding "online
Democracy". In a New Age happy-clappy homeopathic sort of way, the
symptom of the illness is proposed as the cure. Various well-funded
sexy new university institutes and think tanks actively pursue what
can only be termed administrative research. They exhibit jaw-dropping
levels of insensitivity to the cynical political and ethical values
lying behind the enthusiastic creation of a point-and-click polity
and shameless chutzpah in presenting it as a positive democratic
development. This mode of thought is depressingly accommodationist in
a manner that plumbs new depths in terms of Marcuse's notion of one

I like Chomsky's rule-of-thumb notion that that those most interested
in politics are invariably those who should be automatically excluded
from it for exhibiting such interest - they embody a problematic will
to power, they are not the solution to it. In this context, ®i¾ek
is, as ever, a fascinating character - the ethos of his narrowly
unsuccessful bid for the Slovenian presidency is periodically
bolstered by mischievous comments such as his claim that if he took
a job in government it would have to be something like Chief of the
Secret Police. I think in ®i¾ek's work there is this ambivalence
between the ethical injunction of "first, do no harm" and the related
Bartelby response of "I prefer not to" and his avowed admiration for
figures of such practical conviction as Lenin and St. Paul. This
aspect of ®i¾ek really does intrigue me. His reflexive approach means
that he is fully cognisant of the need to oppose the cynical knaves
who defend the obvious iniquities of the status quo through a sense
of perverse pragmatism. He also realizes that without getting your
hands dirty there is a danger of just playing the role of the holy
fool who's unrealistic posturings ironically help sustain the system
by providing the pantomime villain the establishment can rally itself
against. Being fully conscious of this danger doesn't stop ®i¾ek from
continuing to ply his theory, and engaging with the media and its
distortive power. I admire his willingness to take theoretical risks,
adopt unusual perspectives and the incredibly energetic gamesmanship
with which he packages his whole endeavour.

All of the above qualities combine to make ®i¾ek's interpretation of
Western media culture and democracy-in-practice one that is radically
critical of the disingenuously blithe notion that its lousy but the
best system we have. Whilst I suspect that any future revolution led
by most contemporary intellectuals would more than likely involve an
inordinate amount of clipboards - I sincerely doubt that, whatever
other disasters it would involve, this would be not be true in the
bright new dawn of a ®i¾ekian world.

NRIII: Is revolution a material goal today? It seems that, with
regard to the formations of polity, we have painted ourselves into a
theoretical corner. Is there life after democracy? Certainly, there
are locales that seem to believe so, in an applied and theoretical
sense. China appears well, no? Perhaps human communities still have
the choice to live side by side, operationally, philosophically, and
otherwise: one anthropic coalescence, among others? I'm not sure what
a ®i¾ekian dawn would look like? Would it be a Leninist democracy? And
what might such a polity mean to purvey and cultivate? In any event,
we look forward to more of ®i¾ek's philosophy.

 Dr. Nicholas Ruiz III
--Editor, Kritikos

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