Thursday 27 November 2008

Adrian Johnston: Žižek's ontology

Those of you who are into Žižek (yes, I’m looking at you, Shane) will be interested in Adrian Johnston’s very fine new book, Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity (Northwestern UP, 2008). The book is a fascinating account of subjectivity and ontology, and it’s far and away the best and most interesting thing I’ve read on Žižek. (Actually, the best part of the book is Žižek’s humorous endorsement on the cover: he expresses some anxiety about the question whether Johnston “is the original and I am a copy.”)

To summarise Johnston’s argument very briefly: While Badiou wants to think subjectivity as something that can never emerge from being, Žižek tries to understand subjectivity as emerging from flaws that inhere in being. For Žižek, subjectivity occurs as a kind of monstrous mistake, a malfunctioning produced by the cracks and imbalances in being: “this malfunctioning occurs because substance is shot through with openings for possible deviations from its ‘normal’ functioning…. For Žižek, true subjectivity is a kind of catastrophic imbalance that shouldn’t exist, a monstrous ontological mutation that comes to be as an outgrowth of antagonisms and tensions immanent to the being of human nature” (p. 196).

This theory of subjectivity leads Žižek to rethink the very ontological foundations of materialism: “One of the most regularly recurring philosophemes in Žižek’s oeuvre … is the notion that being as such is ‘not all’. He repeatedly insists upon the incomplete and discordant nature of whatever constitutes the foundational substance of ontology. Žižek describes the Hegelian Absolute … not as a calm, serene, universal All peacefully at one with itself but, on the contrary, as at war with itself, as internally rent asunder by antagonisms and unrest…. A crack runs through being. Žižek identifies this crack as the subject” (p. 165).

On a related note, a reader of F&T has notified me of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (Blackwell, 2008) – I haven’t seen this yet, but apparently it critiques the enthusiasm with which some theologians have tried to appropriate Žižek and Badiou. If you’ve read the new Eagleton book, I’d be very interested to know what you think of it.


Shane said...

A cocaine problem and a black sweater do not an ontology make.

Adam Kotsko said...

That's probably why he also does so much philosophy, alongside his coke use and sweater-wearing.

Ben Myers said...

You're right, Shane. Weed and beige sweaters are much more effective.

Shane said...


I wasn't aware Zizek did philosophy.

Adam Kotsko said...

Shane, Don't be a jackass.

Shane said...

Adam, I used to try to argue on the internet, but finding my interlocutors impervious to rational debate, I took to heart that great principle of catholic political theology, "Where words fail, blows will avail."

But, all kidding aside. I am honestly perplexed by theologians' infatuation with Zizek. I don't know his work particularly well, but you're the Zizek scholar, so maybe you can give me some insight here.

--What does Zizek have to offer a Christian theologian trying to explicate the content of the faith? I don't mean some vague, "Well we have to know what the young people are reading in university . . ." kind of answer. I mean, what do you think Zizek has proven that gives a theologian an insight he might not have had otherwise?

--What would count as evidence that Zizek's ideas were right? Could they ever possibly be shown incorrect. And if they could not be shown incorrect, then how could you have any confidence that they were in fact correct? This has been a persistent problem with psychoanalysis since Freud and I simply don't see any good evidence that the mind is as Lacan or Zizek thinks it is, furthermore I don't see what could count as proof that they were wrong. (Anything you say is a counterexample to one of their theories, the psychoanalyst will turn against you as evidence, not that their theory is wrong, but that you are RESISTANT, and hence their theory is correct, after all.)

--And the most puzzling of all--There are dozens of important contemporary philosophers whose work might bear pretty directly on theology. Grice's work on interpretation and meaning comes to mind. The renaissance in metaphysics after Saul Kripke comes to mind. The debates about the nature of the human mind and it's relationship to the body comes to mind (Block, Fodor, the Churchlands, Dennett, et al.). Questions of epistemology (William Alston and Al Plantinga have done really interesting stuff on religious epistemology), philosophy of science (is theology a scientia divina?), all of these things there are tons of philosophers doing top-notch, rigorous scholarship on, and yet the theologians are taking the work of Zizek as the important stuff they really should be trying to interface with? Why in the world is that?

Shane said...

A further remark in the form of a vignette, to illustrate the difference in perspectives between the philosophers theologians think are important and the philosophers philosophers think are important.

Me and one of my profs --who is a very well respected continental philosopher--saw an ad for a conference called "The Future of Philosophy" where Badiou was keynoting. The prof said, "Alain Badiou isn't the future of philosophy in France, let alone anywhere else."

This seems to be my sense--people in literature and theology departments think that philosophers read a lot of Badiou, Deleuze, and Zizek. We don't.

Adam Kotsko said...

Shane, My book is available on Amazon at a reasonable price. If you add another book, you can probably get free shipping as well.

But in all seriousness! I don't think I can answer your questions satisfactorily in this space, nor am I confident that I'd get a non-dismissive response if I tried. Suffice it to say that theologians have traditionally worked more with European philosophy than with Anglo-American philosophy. (I should've realized you had analytic leanings when you questioned whether Zizek did philosophy at all -- your claim of "rigor" for the analytic figures you name, presumably as opposed to Zizek, is also nice.)

Aside from factors of inertia, I'd say that the broader purview of most continental philosophers helps make them more appealing than their Anglo-American counterparts -- makes them seem more like competitors to a holistic discourse such as theology and as potential allies when they start to draw on theology, as Zizek does, among others.

Adam Kotsko said...

There are plenty of philosophy departments that do continental stuff -- many of them in Catholic universities. Plus, what's wrong with interdisciplinarity? Many other departments, including literature and theology, kept alive the study of important strands of European philosophy that mainstream Anglo-American departments were largely content to ignore.

(I have a feeling that within a comment or two, this conversation is going to reach such a point of cliche-slinging that we're going to wish we'd taken opposite sides on the Israel-Palestine conflict instead of the analytic-continental one.)

Shane said...


It looks to me like you are the one slinging all the clichés.

I'm a member of a continental philosophy department at a catholic university. And I'm not an analytic philosopher, I'm a medievalist. You don't have to be an analytic philosopher to wonder whether what Zizek is doing is philosophy, (as opposed to psychoanalysis, literary criticism or political theory, say).

"Suffice it to say that theologians have traditionally worked more with European philosophy than with Anglo-American philosophy."

I dispute the accuracy of this statement. From Boethius to William of Ockham, theology coexisted with a form of philosophy that looked a hell of a lot more like Bertrand Russell than Gilles Deleuze. That's nearly a millenium. Now, from 1920 to 1960, perhaps the continental philosophers were more important to theologians, because in the analytic world logical positivism was coming onto the scene and then slowly dying. Also probably because most of the interesting theology was being done in germany under the shadow of some kind of Neo-Kantianism. Hermann et al. But my sense is that for theologians analytic philosophy after Wittgenstein is just this huge terra incognita, which I think is a remarkable shame. Fortunately, there are some young theologians like Oliver Crisp who have started trying to draw on analytic philosophy. May their tribe increase.

Two brief further notes:

'Rigor' is not a partisan analytic cliché. Aristotle is a rigorous thinker. As are Kant, Hegel and Husserl. Anything lacking in rigor doesn't deserve the name of an academic discipline. Even poetry has exacting, demanding, daresay rigorous, standards. If theology wants to be an academic discipline, it must be done rigorously.

I think all of the figures I mentioned above make arguments which proceed from premises better known and prior to their conclusions and attempt to anticipate and overcome potential objections. They offer evidence and try to show why what they think is correct.

Now, I don't really think Zizek is rigorous in this sense. But that's why I started this whole longer conversation to begin with--to give you a chance to prove me wrong, which you declined. That's ok, as far as it goes, but this is precisely why I think Zizek isn't rigorous, because nobody will ever try to defend the claim that he is. Don't you think this gives me a pretty justified suspicion?

Second, in my experience analytic philosophers are a lot more open to continental philosophy than vice versa. I had a conversation Ned Block about Husserl. John McDowell reads Hegel. A. J. Ayer was friends with Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This is why I just don't buy this line from the continental guys that "Oh those mean old analytic guys persecute us so much . . . " I just don't think it's true.

Third, there isn't anything wrong with interdisciplinarity--provided that you can do it well. It's already hard to do just one discipline well, however, so when you start trying to spin two sets of plates at once you need to either be really, really fucking good or you're just going to wind up talking nonsense. Witness Richard Dawkins.

As Kierkegaard would put it: Purity of heart is to will one thing.

For that matter, the analytic philosophers like interdisciplinarity too--especially disciplines like cognitive neuroscience.

Unknown said...

Here is my brief attempt at defending theological uses of Zizek, mostly so that your Gauntlet shall not just lie on the ground teasing people.

Shane, your example of poetry is, perhaps, telling. The rigor of Petrarch or Wordsworth is quite different from the rigor of Mallarme. Rigor concerns coherency, it does not concern matters of evidence, unless matters of evidence are required for the coherency of what is being claimed.

And I do not use 'coherent' as a fill-word for rigor. (this is obviously a MacIntyrean description, but I find it quite persuasive)

The question of Zizek's rigor concerns the coherency of his account of what he is trying to do to what he is trying to do. Zizek's telos being, rougly, reviving a truly revolutionary materialism.

The reason why reading Zizek can possibly be fruitful for theological speculation is found in that thick materialism and how his critique of modernity's gnosticism and Capitalism's irrationality (his term) is similar to the critique that Christianity should be forming but has not (or has not effectively or has not in large volume). Interior to this revolutionary materialism is a challenge to the ideologies and categories in which Capitalism functions. Part of that challenge goes against many syllogistic techniques and so his rhetorical technique follows a different (and positively superfluous) path (id est superfluous in a non-pejorative sense). It is an argument from the multitudes, not simple didacticism nor clear if/thens. The method is part of the meaning, as is the language, the allusions, etc. It is conflagratory philosophy but it is still philosophy because it is concerned with the true, the good, and the beautiful.

I hope that gives you at least an account so that people reading Zizek is not deemed completely faddish (though it mostly is).

Shane said...

>>Rigor concerns coherency, it does not concern matters of evidence, unless matters of evidence are required for the coherency of what is being claimed.

Ok, I see the appeal of the MacIntyrean position. MacIntyre is also obviously drawing on some earlier work on coherentist theories of justification. Here's the problem with this approach, as I see it. Coherence is certainly a good thing to hope for, but it is merely a necessary condition for a theory to be true, not a sufficient condition.

For instance, consider a really well crafted fantasy novel. All of the characters act consistently and believably. They act in a magical fantasy world where magical fantastic things happen and so magic coheres well with the storyline.

You see the point: just because we can imagine a coherent world where magic exists doesn't mean there really is any such world. And anyone who was trying to prove to us that magic did exist would have to prove considerably more than simply that magic wasn't inconsistent with all our other beliefs about the physical world. He would have to prove something further, namely that magic really existed. And that's what I mean by "evidence".

So, coherence is pretty good, but you still need a couple firm bits of evidence around which your beliefs can cohere. Susan Haack has done some interesting work on this kind of strategy of epistemic justification. Her position incorporates elements of is called Foundherentism, which sounds ghastly, but is aptly named.

So, even if Zizek could be shown to be coherent (i.e. not contradicting himself) I'm still not going to put any store in what he says until somebody can show me the evidence that he's right.

Adam Kotsko said...

It's obvious that Zizek is doing philosophy. He's working with Hegel and Kant constantly. It's not like he's doing psychoanalytic case studies -- he's doing the philosophical foundations of psychoanalysis. Claiming that it's this big mystery is dickish and unproductive.

Adam Kotsko said...

Perhaps Zizek's defenders are unable to answer you satisfactorily because you are asking for things that can't be done in the context of a blog comment box. By Ben's report, Johnston's book is about as great a defense of Zizek's rigor as a philosopher as you could ask for -- why not devote a couple days to reading it? Or maybe someone could post it paragraph by paragraph into a comment box for you.

Ben Myers said...

Adam said: "By Ben's report, Johnston's book is about as great a defense of Zizek's rigor as a philosopher as you could ask for" — yes, actually that's a very good description of what Johnston is doing in this book. The book's structure is organised around Zizek's relation to the philosophical projects of Kant, Schelling and Hegel (as they relate to Descartes).

The book's opening sentence frames this problematic very succinctly: "One of Zizek's most startling claims is his assertion that the Cartesian conception of subjectivity à la the cogito (especially as radicalized by Kant, Schelling and Hegel) is, contrary to the prevailing intellectual consensus, anything but obsolete and outdated" (p. xxiii). In other words, Johnston argues that Zizek's project is preoccupied with some of the core problems and disputes of modern Western philosophy.

I don't have strong feelings about this one way or another. But I think it's worth pointing out that Johnston's book is precisely an attempt (among other things) to respond to the claim that Zizek isn't doing "serious philosophy". Johnston might be wrong, of course (as Shane obviously thinks) — but that assessment would have to be the outcome (not the presupposition) of an engagement with his book.

Shane said...

@ Adam,

I'm not sure why you're adopting such a hostile tone here. I asked you three questions which I thought were quite reasonable and capable of being answered in at least a thumbnail sketch kind of way in a comment box.

Hell, I just defeated coherentism in 4 paragraphs right above.

Your book is currently charged out in the Fordham Library system. Once it's returned and I've finished this semester's grading I'll read it and tell you what I think if you want to continue the conversation.


Yeah, I suspect I am not going to be persuaded by Johnston. But I'm willing to have my mind changed.

At any rate it is simply ridiculous to imply that nobody ought to have an opinion about a book until after having read it.

Shane said...

Let's also look at the little bit of text right in front of us, shall we?

One of the most regularly recurring philosophemes in Žižek’s oeuvre … is the notion that being as such is ‘not all’.

Topic sentence. Ok, so we have two things--being and something else. This is already a mistake, logically. If it isn't a being it's nothing, not something. But our author presumably knows this and is just trying to be suggestive and sexy at the expense of clarity.

He repeatedly insists upon the incomplete and discordant nature of whatever constitutes the foundational substance of ontology.

Well, what is it that constitutes the foundational substance of ontology? Is it 'being' or is it the non-being-that-is-something? We get no hint. So far, we don't know anything about it; we just have a placeholder.

But this placeholder has at least two properties, namely being discordant and incomplete.

But what does it mean for the "foundational substance" to be 'discordant'? Discord is a sort of marred relation between two or more distinct things. So, clearly whatever our placeholder foundational substance is cannot be a single unity.

What does it mean for it to be 'incomplete'? Well, something is only incomplete if it has some final form it is supposed to reach. A broken rock isn't incomplete because it isn't necessarily supposed to be a whole. But now we have a second problem. The easiest way to think of something being incomplete is that it is not whole, it is missing something. But only unities can be incomplete in that sense. Because the placehold substance is supposed to be "discordant," it cannot be one single unity, but because it is "incomplete" it cannot be a multitude of distinct, separate objects.

Now, the author doesn't seem to intend to contradict himself, so we have to assume that he must mean the words differently somehow. But this means we now have an even vaguer idea what it is that we could be talking about. We have an unknown placeholder substance and two obscure properties.

Žižek describes the Hegelian Absolute … not as a calm, serene, universal All peacefully at one with itself but, on the contrary, as at war with itself, as internally rent asunder by antagonisms and unrest….

Well, this placeholder substance sure isn't Hegel's absolute. That's right. But Hegel's absolute is bullshit. What is "The Absolute" supposed to be and how were we supposed to get to know about it? Further, if the absolute is discordant, then it isn't a single unity, for the reasons we said above. But, if it is a multitude, then in what sense is it Absolute? The absolute is supposed to be a unity that subsumes everything. But in order for there to be discord, this 'foundational substance' cannot subsume everything, so it cannot be Absolute. But then why does our author call this thing absolute? Is he using the word in some Pickwickian sense? Once again, things look very obscure.

A crack runs through being. Žižek identifies this crack as the subject” (p. 165).

What does it mean to say that a crack runs through being? Well, if there are two warring parties, maybe the crack is supposed to represent the battle lines. And Zizek identifies this with the subject. Ok, what could that possibly mean?

Well, it sounds kind of like Heidegger's understanding of Dasein as the space where being appears. The point there was that being only appears as being insofar as there are subjects there to be thinking of it qua being. So, maybe Zizek's point is something like, this obscure placeholder Absolute-which-is-not-an-Absolute only shows its fundamentally discordant nature to conscious subjects who are able to think of it as discordant?

What does that get us? Well, not a whole hell of a lot seemingly. There is no good argument here to establish that there is any such thing as this foundational substance, and the author himself seems pretty unclear on what exactly it is supposed to be.
Furthermore, it's utterly unclear what any of this is supposed to have to do with materialism or subjectivity. Why would we ever take this as a persuasive account of ontology?

This reads like a magician's incantation--there are lots of large words with suggestive resonances. But there is no argument here, not even the summary of one. Further, what he is saying seems to be a series of explicit or implicit contradictions.

But, I'm sure someone who has read the entire book and believes that it represents significant and serious philosophical work with which theologians ought to engage will have a perfectly clear and sensible interpretation of this passage which resolves all of these ambiguities and exposes my misunderstandings.

Isn't that right Ben?

Anonymous said...

Does anybody else find it amusing that a medievalist is questioning the value of Zizek's work?

I was tempted to step in and say a few things on why I value some of Zizek's contributions to contemporary discourse but, seriously, have you read any of Shane's blog 'discussions' of, well, anything? So, while he may ask us what Zizek has to offer, why not turn the question around -- what does Shane have to offer? Why bother engaging with what this guy has to say?

Adam Kotsko said...

Shane, The first sentence of your gloss is off because you apparently don't know the term "non-all," because you apparently have decided on extrinsic grounds that Lacan and Zizek are not worth studying. From that point on, your analysis is based on an erroneous reading and hence of no use to anyone.

I would explain further, but since you're unlikely to be convinced by a complete book, you're even less likely to be convinced by my extemporaneous writings on the internet. You apparently are able to whip off defenses of your own positions at will in this forum -- though I don't see many people clamoring to sign on -- but I prefer more extended formats for topics that warrant them, such as, you know, Zizek's ontology or what is philosophy or things like that.

Christopher said...

Shane, thanks for your thoughts. I find them helpful, even if you are talking past Zizek.

Adam, thanks for the new adjective.

Shane said...


I'm primarily a historian. I don't find it odd at all that a medievalist would question the value of Zizek's work because the more of the history of philosophy you've read the more shallow and ephemeral contemporary philosophy seems.

The way you've asked the question hints that you don't think there was anything really philosophically interesting in the middle ages. This is false, if it is what you really want to imply, and I'd be happy to talk more about that at some other time.

As for what my comments here have to offer: mainly abuse. I used to spend a lot of time preparing careful arguments to try to demonstrate my points on this blog. But after months of just getting answers like, "Of course you're argument is logical, but theology has it's own logic so you are wrong." or "That's not what Barth says!" I decided that there just isn't any arguing with some people. So instead I thought it would be more fun just to make fun of them.


What evidence do you have that I've already decided that Lacan or Zizek isn't worth studying? I suspect they aren't, but you seem to think that I am operating with some sort of a priori prejudice that hinders me from seeing their perfectly clear value.

I have no such prejudice. I went to Leuven to work on Heidegger and his relationship to theology. While I was there I took a class from one of Lacan's students on the transference seminar. I read Zizek's "The Puppet and the Dwarf" and Badiou's work on Universalism. I also took classes with William Desmond and have read a fair amount of Milbank (the older stuff). By no means would I say that I'm an expert on this subject matter, but I'm just not as hostile to it as you seem to assume.

My colleagues here at Fordham who do continental philosophy don't seem to react this way when I ask them critical questions about Husserl or Nietzsche or whoever. They tend to answer the question, rather than trying to deflect it by accusing me of bigotry.

Adam Kotsko said...

When you ask them about Heidegger and Husserl, do you lead by accusing them of being drug addicts and then sarcastically claim that you didn't realize Heidegger and Husserl did philosophy? If not, I don't think you asking your colleagues about Heidegger and Husserl and you storming into this comment thread are comparable situations, nor should you expect comparable reactions.

Shane said...

Why so serious, Adam?

On Zizek, theology and cocaine, cf. the following:

Shane said...

"Storming into this comment thread".

Ben invited me to storm into this comment thread on the first line of the post.

Adam Kotsko said...

You admit that you're offering mainly abuse, then you wonder why people are annoyed at you. You say you're unlikely to be persuaded by a full book, but fault me for not putting in the effort to pursuade you here. I've had some bad internet exchanges in the past, many of them about Zizek, but this has to be one of the most frustrating yet. And doubtless you'll respond with a comment about how open-minded you are, if only I wouldn't be such a jerk to you. Well, I say let the big Other decide. This author is dead.

Adam Kotsko said...

I believe we can envision "storming into" a party he was invited to.

Anonymous said...


If you are not inclined to respond to Shane's comments because of Shane, perhaps you could respond for the sake of readers like myself. I enjoy Ben's blog a great deal, but I often share Shane's concerns, and I am glad he raises the issues he does and tries to argue for his positions in a way any reader like myself can track with. I am a philosophy student, doing my Honors thesis on Kierkegaard's relations to German Idealism, and I am consequently happily stuck in the 19 Century.

So, when I see what appears to me to be a faddish fascination with certain contemporary thinkers like Zizek (whose work on Schelling I have, unfortunately, not found helpful), I would love to have an expert explain to me who I should read and/or why they are worth reading.

Thus, I am very eager to see, in a blog comment format, any brief responses you may have to Shane's questions.

Shane said...

Adam, I never said I wasn't going to be persuaded by your book. I said that I was skeptical about Johnston's book, and then gave a reason--namely my analysis of the quote Ben posted. Maybe I'm wrong, but before you get all high and mighty, let me simply remind you that prejudices aren't always vicious, but are the conditions of the possibility of interpretation, as Gadamer is surely correct to argue.

That said, I do intend to read your book as soon as it comes back in to the library, as I said above.

Adam Kotsko said...

I don't like to attempt to answer questions like that in blog comment format, or in blogs at all, because I always find that I get really petty, point-missing responses, and that bothers me.

I don't know you at all, Samuel, so maybe you'd be the exception -- but someone else almost certainly would come along and do some uninformed, free-associative "critique" of what I'm saying, and as I said, it bothers me. I know I should be able to ignore that kind of thing, but I can't. That's one of my many failings as a human being. For that reason, I've become increasingly reluctant to post about my current work on my blog, because I know I'm going to get stupid comments and can't handle it. Honestly, I shouldn't have let myself get drawn into this conversation in the first place -- again, my failings as a human being are evident.

Thankfully for everyone, I've written a book and Johnston has written a book (and I assume some articles advancing positions similar to those in the book if you looked for them). I'm sure that if you hit refresh a few times on Amazon, you could even buy them together for a discount! My tone in the book is calm, clear, and self-effacing, unlike my tone here.

It may sound like I'm being unfair asking you to devote the time necessary to reading a book to someone you suspect is a fad. But I have to say, my experience of blogging makes me extremely reluctant to even attempt to answer questions such as you and Shane are asking in this format -- maybe in principle they could be handled well here, but everything about the format conspires against it, at least for me. If Zizek is a fad like you suspect, then he'll just go away and you don't have to worry about it. If you have some vague thought that he might not be a mere fad, then he is probably worth at least devoting one secondary book to, so that you can discuss him in some kind of informed way -- i.e., going beyond Shane's extremely vague objections about whether Zizek's claims are disprovable or not. It's not that those are invalid questions, but they could be asked of virtually any major philosopher, and you need to get at what Zizek is saying in more detail if you want to answer them in a way that's specific to Zizek rather than being a free-floating inquiry into the conditions of possibility of disprovability, etc. As for Shane's questions about what it means for being to have a crack in it, etc., I can only say: if you're genuinely curious, then there is a pretty decent body of secondary work on Zizek that can explain it for you and/or point you in the right direction in his works. If it's a quasi-rhetorical question indicating that you don't think there's any clear way to make something like "a crack in being" make sense, then how are a couple sentences on a blog going to change your mind? You're probably just going to respond that my explanation itself still doesn't make sense to you and we'll be caught in an infinite regress problem until I finally give up and then you can be content that Zizek's supporters can't answer your questions.

Anonymous said...


Fair enough. I wonder, though, if you saw Dr. Bruce McCormack's interactions on this blog? I guess that stands, for me, as decisive proof that blogs can be put to good use. As I recall, McCormack (here or elsewhere) simply stated that he would ignore any comments and responses that he thought were not substantive; it seems like you could operate with a similar principle, but I appreciate your reasons for declining, and will attempt to get some extra-reading in as I get time.

I guess I view this as an opportunity for someone like yourself to tailor a short precis of Zizek for a curious and even skeptical audience. I am heading over to Amazon now to poke around in the Zizek section . . .

Dave Belcher said...


I've been away from internet, so I didn't see this until there were all these comments (which means you may not see this), but I posted a "review" of Johnston's book a little while back.

Anonymous said...


You said:
This seems to be my sense--people in literature and theology departments think that philosophers read a lot of Badiou, Deleuze, and Zizek. We don't.

Well, I'm a graduate student in a philosophy department, supervised by (well respected) philosophers; and we read lots of Badiou and Zizek.

So maybe don't use yourself/your department to generalize what 'philosophers' do?

Anonymous said...

opps! meant to say Badiou and Deleuze...but Zizek pops up a fair bit as well.

Shane said...


A quick search of the Philosopher's Index reveals 10 items written on (but not BY) Zizek from 2007-2009. Five of those are book reviews and two of them are in journals of theology. One in a political theory journal. And I had never heard of any these journals before.

For the apples-to-apples comparison, over the same time period there were more than 200 things published on Heidegger, including 60 articles in peer-reviewed journals and 6 books.

That says to me that Zizek is still a very marginal figure in contemporary philosophy.

So maybe its your experience that isn't representative rather than mine?

Anthony Paul Smith said...

Shane, your last comment is a great example of a reading fail.

Anonymous said...

You may be right about Zizek, but if you refer to my above comment, and subsequent clarification, I was primarily referring to your claim that 'philosophers' do not read Badiou and Deleuze.

Adam Kotsko said...

If Heidegger is the standard, then yes, Zizek is a marginal figure. He's also marginal compared to Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

Shane said...


sorry, missed the second comment. I'm actually more interested in Deleuze than Zizek or Badiou.


My bad.

@Adam Kotsko,

My point was to compare English language literature within contintental philosophy. Continental philosophy is already kind of a fringe (at least in the American academy) and Zizek seems to be at the fringe of that fringe.

This isn't to say that it isn't worth reading--my poison of choice medieval semantics and metaphysics isn't exactly the most mainstream either. It is just to corroborate my earlier empirical claim that philosophers just aren't as into Zizek as people in other disciplines might think.

Shane said...

Actually, as I've been running some more numbers, Heidegger might be an anomaly. There is apparently an avalanche of Heidegger literature. >1000 articles, books and book chapters in the last 13 years. Which is astounding. Unsurprisingly, Kant is winning so far at nearly 2000 over the same time period. Aquinas comes in about 500.

Adam Kotsko said...

The fact that you're surprised by the volume of the Heidegger literature indicates to me that you may not be very familiar with the shape of continental philosophy in the English-speaking world -- phenomenology still dominates, and the discipline as a whole sometimes threatens to become "Heidegger Studies." Even Deleuze is a somewhat marginal figure in proper philosophy departments, though this is changing.

In analytic departments, of course, it's a whole different ballgame.

Shane said...


The total above also includes French and German literature as well as English. And, while I knew there was a lot being written on Heidegger, I didn't realize exactly how much. He even edged out Wittgenstein!

Kant still has the highest total I've seen so far at just over 2000. Aristotle came in around 1500 somewhere.

Here's another guy who has apparently done more thorough meta-analysis of some recent movements in intellectual history:

Anonymous said...

Whoa. Your latest comments are published in the future for me. I thought it was still Monday, December 01, 2008 around 11:40am...

You guys are amazing.

And I side with Adam on this. Read Zizek.

Anonymous said...

Holy shit! My own comment is in the future.

I feel like I'm in a Stanislaw Lem story...

I hope I don't beat myself up.

Ben Myers said...

Yeah, although I'm in the States at the moment, the blog is still running on Brisbane time. What can I say? Australia is the land of the future.

Daniel Imburgia said...

Wow, it's quite a heady treat for regular folks to eavesdrop in such interesting discussions. Is that what goes on all the time backstage in philosophy depts? and y'all get paid for this too! It never even occurred to me to support an argument with the philo index stats or Amazon sales numbers. I reckon i ought to see if Dan Brown (of the DaVinci Code) has a theo/philo blog. Of course more is written on Hitler than Heidegger and Zizek combined, but then Hitler gets a lot of crossover attn. from vegetarians and dog lovers. Then again, in my youth in the 60's, i, like Zizek, availed myself of pharmaceutical learning aids (apropos what Shane said, "A cocaine problem and a black sweater do not an ontology make"), but i don't know the statistical relationship among coke using, Sweaters and booksales, let alone how to apply that equation to the 'rigorous' study of ontology. I can tell you though, we would have loved to have Zizek up with us 3 nights into an ounce and a half study session! I mean, have you seen those tweeded-out, sweatervested, pipe-smoking old-dudes in musty Cambridge (didn't Levinas record a discussion about the existential distinction between a 'sweater' and a sweater-vest at Davos? turns out Cassier was a turtleneck man and lost (some say) to Heidegger, a devout (gentile) sweater-man like Zizek, go figure). anyway, i'm interested to how this argument turns out to see whose book to get. Of course, Zizek's passion and attention to desire, sex, and money appeals to me in a Gadarene-tabloid sort of way (the word "love" however, only appears once in Heideggers "Being and Time," and that in a foot note). Maybe if Neurath had had a crackat Youtube or the log/pos crew could find a super-star, like a Sarah Palin type, they could up-market ('crack in being' does have a palinesque ring to it, however). obliged, daniel.

ps the posting verificaion word is "grati," make of it what you will (but falsifiable it not).

Shane said...

Hi Dan, great question! The equation is the following:

P = s(C + 2S)/K^2

Where P is philosophical insight, C is caffeine (in mg), S is hours of sleep, K is cocaine use (in grams) and s is the sartre, a scaling factor determined experimentally by J.P Sartre. As you can see, philosophical insight like all the great fundamental forces obeys an inverse square law. The higher you get the more you yammer on and so the thinner your insights get spread.

Anonymous said...

For a profound all inclusive meta-analysis of the origins and consequences of the current world situation please check out:

Follow the prompts through the various sections.

I agree with Shane re Zizek---as did Bill Shakespeare -- or was that Bill Posters?

Zizek is "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing" -- except is own self-importance---a legend in his owm mind.

The current crisis is driven by hell-deep collective emotional-sexual patterning which instantaneously enfolds everything into the same deadly Klik-Klak pattern.

We are all Borg now!

Unless you are prepared to take the red pill.

And no amount of talkety talk makes the slightest bit of REAL difference.

Anonymous said...

zizek is married to a model but you are not!

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