David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

April 2005

In The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post‑Theory (London: BFI, 2001), Slavoj Žižek makes some criticisms of my arguments bearing on the history of film style. I reply to those criticisms in the last chapter of Figures Traced in Light (pp. 260–264). But there is much more to say about FRT, and this online essay supplements my remarks in Figures.

The Book and the Background

Most of FRT offers standard film criticism, providing impressionistic readings of various Kieslowski films in regard to recurring themes, visual motifs, dramatic structures, borrowed philosophical concepts, and the like. Žižek also reiterates 1970s argument about how film editing “sutures” the viewer into the text. I’ll have almost nothing to say about these stretches of FRT. But Žižek launches the book with an introduction and two chapters criticizing arguments made in a collection of essays edited by myself and Noël Carroll, Post‑Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996). The subtitle of Žižek’s book indicates the centrality of what he takes to be the Post‑Theory movement, even though he doesn’t pursue arguments about it through the book. Indeed, the first two chapters seem to me awkwardly welded onto a fairly conventional book of free-associative film interpretation.

Why invoke Post‑Theory at all, then?

The Preface to FRT by Colin MacCabe explains that he asked Žižek “to address the weaknesses and insularity of film studies as they had developed in the university sector over the previous two decades” (vii). Film studies, MacCabe feels, has developed a “narrowness and sterility” (vii).

It’s worth pausing on the ironies here. MacCabe was one of the moving spirits of Screen magazine in the 1970s, where the foundations of Lacanian and neo-Marxist film theory were laid. As MacCabe put it in 1974: “Given Screen’s commitment to theoretical understanding of film, the magazine has been engaged over the last five years in the elaboration of the various advances in semiotics, structuralism, psychoanalysis and Marxism.”endnote1 It is this blend that has been endlessly reiterated in the precincts of academic film studies. Across many years, it was the orthodoxy. For many of us, that trend seemed and still seems “narrow and sterile.” Judge for yourself, based on this passage signed by MacCabe from the golden age of Screen:

The problem is to understand the terms of the construction of the subject and the modalities of the replacement of this construction in specific signifying practices, where “replacement” means not merely the repetition of the place of that construction but also, more difficultly, the supplacement—the overplacing: supplementation or, in certain circumstances, supplantation (critical interruption)—of that construction in the place of its repetition.endnote2

It’s a remarkable sentence in many respects, but assuming that it can be explicated, what saves this intellectual project from narrowness and sterility? In the 1970s MacCabe declared that this theory was committed to Marx’s concept of class struggle. Exactly how Lacanian psychoanalysis was to assist the class struggle, and why it should be preferred to other means of assisting that struggle, was never made clear in Screen. In any event, MacCabe trots this claim out again as another aim of Žižek’s book, which “intervenes” in contemporary debates “without ever abandoning questions of class struggle and the unconscious” (viii–ix). Once more, neither MacCabe nor Žižek explains why one cannot be a good socialist without reading Lacan. (More on this below.)

MacCabe’s objections apply, he says, not to film historians, who have conducted “vital and important [sic] work” (vii). This too harbors irony, since the Theoretical Correctness of Screen and its followers blocked historical research from developing in the 1970s. Primary-document history was labeled “empiricist” and “positivist,” Screen published almost no such work, and for decades afterward, many historians feared being attacked for their lack of Grand Theory acumen. Efforts to study early cinema history, the history of the U.S. film industry, and the like emerged in quite different venues from the BFI publications.

Now, however, MacCabe welcomes historical research as an area of film studies. Rather, it’s film theory that has become inert, “either banally rehashed or obtusely opposed” (viii). Though MacCabe isn’t specific, it seems that the obtuse opposition is incarnated in “ ‘Post‑Theory’ and cognitivism” (viii). I say “seems” because this is as close as MacCabe gets to naming names: “For those followers of fashion who look for a retreat from Marx and Freud, a hideous mimicking of the threadbare nonsense of the ‘third way,’ this book will be a grave disappointment” (viii). Just parsing this cryptic sentence raises questions:

  • What fashion dictates a retreat from Marx and Freud? One would think that Post‑Theory was sweeping the academy. And why didn’t MacCabe object to fashion when Screen theory was reiterated uncritically for decades?
  • Presumably MacCabe finds Post‑Theory has parallels with Tony Blair and New Labour’s “Third Way.”endnote3 What are these affinities? What grounds can MacCabe have for linking ideas about cinema floated by Midwest college professors to a crisis in British politics, let alone finding the parallels “hideous”?
  • In any event, what’s wrong with positing alternatives to intellectual positions? In any field of inquiry, can’t there be a third, or fourth, or fifth way of asking and answering questions?

Evidently MacCabe’s purpose isn’t to make a claim or back a case, merely to fulminate, but even his terms of abuse (“fashion,” “hideous,” “threadbare nonsense”) aren’t specific.

Apart from reviving the allegiance of Lacan and class struggle, MacCabe says, “Žižek’s account of Post‑Theory lays bare both its obvious fallacies and its more hidden vanities” (ix). On the contrary. Although MacCabe designated Žižek his hitman, it’s more than a little surprising to find that at nearly every opportunity Žižek doesn’t engage with the substantive arguments of Post‑Theory at all.

Prince and Bordwell: Žižek’s Missed Chances

There are three essays in the anthology that directly criticize the psychoanalytic project in film theory: Stephen Prince’s “Psychoanalytic Film Theory and the Problem of the Missing Spectator”; my “Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory”; and Noël Carroll’s “Prospects for Film Theory: A Personal Assessment.” How does Žižek address the challenges these essays propose?

His chief strategy consists of invective and rhetorical questions. “Does what [the Post‑Theory attacks] describe as Theory, or what they attribute to Theory, not read as a comically simplified caricature of Lacan, Althusser et al? Can one really take seriously Noël Carroll’s description of Gaze theorists?” (4). Žižek takes you no further. No argument, no evidence, just dismissal à la MacCabe. Then, Žižek asks, who are the “Lacanians” referred to in Post‑Theory? “Except for Joan Copjec, myself, and some of my Slovene colleagues, I know of no cinema theorist who effectively accepts Lacan as his or her ultimate background” (2). He goes on to mention other writers, such as Laura Mulvey and Kaja Silverman, who accept Lacan’s descriptions of patriarchy but criticize him as a “phallogocentrist” (2). What’s odd here is that Carroll, Prince, and I don’t attack “Lacanians”; the phrase is not to be found in our essays. Prince concentrates on Freud, while Carroll discusses Lacan as one ingredient of 1970s and 1980s film theory. My essay emphasizes what I call subject-position theory, of which Lacanian doctrines form only part. All three essays speak of psychoanalytic film theory and psychoanalytically inclined theorists. To use a term Žižek employs often in FRT, one might say that the Lacanians in these essays exist only as his phantasms. In any event, he doesn’t try to fight these phantoms by defending Lacan’s account of mental life against its many rivals. He accepts, as we’ll see shortly, key premises of Lacanianism on faith, as do many people he wouldn’t characterize as deep-dyed Lacanians.

Žižek’s complaints about lumping Lacanians together diverts our attention from the point at issue. Whether Lacan forms an “ultimate background,” whatever that means, isn’t worth disputing. Žižek knows perfectly well that a great many film scholars have cited Lacan and used his work to bolster theoretical or interpretive claims. Although the three essays invoke many writers by name (and my essay analyzes one essay by the Žižek-endorsed Lacanian Copjec), the crucial issue is the role Lacan’s theories play within the intellectual doctrines of contemporary film theory. This Žižek doesn’t address.

Once we get past rhetorical questions and diversionary tactics, Žižek is given an excellent opportunity to engage with Post‑Theory by Stephen Prince’s essay. Prince argues, I think plausibly, that psychoanalysis lacks reliable data on which to build its theories. Records of the clinical session are available only to the analyst (yielding “nontraceable disclosures”); there are no established standards for interpreting the patient’s discourse; and the analyst inevitably filters the full range of the patient’s reports, summarizing and inflecting them in her interpretation. Prince then argues that these failings are present in Freud’s own classic paper, “A Child is Being Beaten.” Prince goes on to suggest that psychoanalytic theory of cinema is at a disadvantage because of its weak account of perception and its resolute ignoral of the ways in which cinema resembles the world, both of which can be better accounted for by rival theories.

There are many things Žižek (and MacCabe, the book’s patron) would object to here. But Žižek never discusses any of them. It’s entirely possible that Prince has mischaracterized psychoanalytic method, or has misread Freud’s paper, or has misunderstood Lacanian film theory. But Žižek doesn’t make any effort to show weaknesses in the essay. He merely mocks the title (p. 1).

Likewise, you’d think that he’d slice my essay to ribbons. “Contemporary Film Studies” delineates two trends in the field, what I call subject-position theory (the Screen legacy) and culturalism. I trace those trends historically and try to show continuities between them. The conceptual continuities I argue for involve social constructivism, theories of subjectivity, the centrality of identification, and an underlying commitment to semiotics. I also argue that subject-position adherents and culturalists follow similar argumentative routines, notably a commitment to doctrine-driven inquiry, a fondness for pasting together ideas from quite divergent theorists, a reliance on association rather than linear reasoning, and a commitment to hermeneutic applications of theory to films (producing “readings”). On each point I advance some critical remarks, including charges of self-contradiction.

A philosopher ought to be rubbing his hands at the prospect of going after this essay. I could be vulnerable from many angles. Žižek could attack my characterization of Freud, Lacan, and the rest; my critiques of same; and above all my outline of the two trends. Most important, although I didn’t have Žižek in mind when I wrote the essay, he himself instantiates all the conceptual commitments and rhetorical habits I criticize. His work is a pastiche of many, widely varying intellectual sources (from Ernest Laclau to Stephen Jay Gould). He is an associationist par excellence. His use of films is purely hermeneutic, with each film playing out allegories of theoretical doctrines. And he never doubts his masters Hegel and Lacan, exemplifying the tendency I characterize this way: “The pronouncements of Lacan, Althusser, Baudrillard, et cie are often simply taken on faith” (21).

So my complaints should strike very close to home. Yet not a peep from Žižek on any of these points. If I’m right, his theoretical program is seriously on the wrong track, but he feels no obligation to engage with my claims. This isn’t the thinker MacCabe says is “determined to follow the logic of any concept or text through to its bitter or sweet end” (FRT, viii).endnote4

Carroll and Žižek 1: Reply as Confirmation

Žižek is a philosopher, so perhaps we’d expect him to engage most fully with another of his profession. Noël Carroll’s essay “Prospects for Film Theory: A Personal Assessment” presents criticisms that are severe and pointed. Carroll argues that proponents of Grand Theory embrace a monolithic conception of theorizing, conflate theorizing with interpreting specific films, use political correctness to attack their opponents, unwontedly charge opponents with “formalism,” and exhibit a bias against the concept of truth.

Remarkably, Žižek responds to not a single one of these charges. He doesn’t, contra MacCabe, lay bare any fallacies, nor does he mount what he promises in his introduction will be a “critical dialogue with cognitivist/historicist Post‑Theory” (7). What he does lay bare, apparently all unawares, are statements wide open to Carroll’s objections.

Here is Carroll:

Proponents of the Theory let on that the Theory grew out of the student movement and out of a resistance to oppression everywhere. Consequently, from their point of view, criticism of the Theory virtually represents a clear and present danger to the very Revolution itself. Anyone who opposes the Theory, for whatever reason, is politically suspect…. Criticisms of the dubious psychoanalytic premises of the Theory are denounced as reactionary—in a political sense!—as if a belief in the equality of races requires assent to Lacan and the rest of the pet paraphernalia of the Theory…. (45).

MacCabe’s evocation of the class struggle in his introduction strikes this note, as does Žižek’s promise to show how Kieslowski’s work, “the site of antagonistic ideological tensions [sic], of the ‘class struggle in art’, can be redeemed by a Lacanian approach” (7).

Žižek begins his book by saying that the Post‑Theory trend is “often sustained by a stance of profound political resignation, by a will to obliterate the traces and disappointments of political engagement” (13). The one piece of evidence he supplies for this is startlingly shaky. Žižek takes the scholar Ben Brewster as “emblematic of the present-day state of cinema theory” (13). Why? Because Brewster shifted from being a proponent of Screen theory to becoming a film historian displaying an “exclusive preoccupation with pre‑1917 cinema” (13). Why does this matter? Because Brewster focuses on a period “prior to the October Revolution, as if to emphasise the will to obliterate the trauma of the failed leftist involvement in Theory” (13). About Žižek’s diagnosis that Brewster’s research constitutes a form of fetishistic disavowal reminiscent of a reluctance to look at feminine genitals, I shall say nothing. I just want to point out that Brewster has not restricted his research to cinema before 1917, not even in the book Žižek mentions in a footnote,endnote5 so the tenuous thread of association fails even as a literary conceit. On its first page, FRT presents a strained reach for cleverness at the expense of nuance and accuracy. We’ll encounter this strategy again.

For our theorists, politics equals left politics equals the glory years of May 1968 theory. Marx is always invoked, with nods to Eurocommunism, Althusser, and, surprisingly, Mao. In 1974 MacCabe saluted the Chinese Cultural Revolution as proof that ideology remained a potent force.endnote6 In a recent DVD liner note on Godard’s Tout va bien, he describes the Cultural Revolution as Mao’s effort to have the Red Guards “revolt against the ruling state and party apparatus…. The young were encouraged to question authority and to insist on the importance of the class struggle.”endnote7 MacCabe doesn’t mention that Mao stirred up the young in order to regain his power over that same party apparatus, or that the Red Guards were not encouraged to question his authority, or that the ten years of Cultural Revolution shut down China’s education, exiled intellectuals to labor camps, destroyed centuries of cultural artifacts, killed hundeds of thousands of people, and ruined the lives of millions more. Žižek also invokes the Great Helmsman: “To put it in good old Maoist terms, the principal contradiction of today’s cinema studies…. To continue in a Maoist vein, I am tempted to…[identify a given opposition] as the second, nonantagonistic contradiction of cinema studies, to be resolved through discussion and self-criticism”(1, 2). Needless to say, why Maoism is good as well as old doesn’t concern Žižek—perhaps because, like many of his other citations, this tip of the hat to the cult of personality serves merely as an effort at knowing rhetoric. Certainly self-criticism doesn’t enter his text.

So Carroll’s diagnosis—that theoretical sallies are often justified by an unwarranted link to a particular brand of politics—is borne out by the very book seeking to demolish Carroll’s views. Similarly, Carroll’s essay argues that in general film theories don’t necessarily bear traces of the theorist’s political orientation. “I have evolved theories of movie music and point-of-view editing, but they do not, in any sense that could be called logical, imply my political position about anything from gun control, to sexual harassment, to communal ownership of the means of production” (46). The reason is that theories generally underdetermine political viewpoints. “Given theories may be espoused by either the forces of light or the forces of darkness” (47). We might expect this to arouse a sustained critique from Žižek, who obviously doesn’t believe in the underdetermination of theories; but no such luck. He remains silent.

There’s yet another moment in which Žižek confirms Carroll’s critique. Carroll’s essay criticizes totalizing conceptions of theory:

Under its aegis, the film theorist sets out to subsume every aspect of cinematic phenomena under the putative laws and categories of his or her minimally customized version of the reigning orthodoxy. Theorizing becomes the routine application of some larger, unified theory to questions of cinema, which procedure unsurprisingly churns out roughly the same answers, or remarkably similar answers, in every case. The net result, in short, is theoretical impoverishment (41).

And here is Žižek, claiming that Post‑Theory

…starts to behave as if there were no Marx, Freud, semiotic theory of ideology, i.e. as if we can magically return to some kind of naivete before things like the unconscious, the overdetermination of our lives by the decentred symbolic processes, and so forth became part of our theoretical awareness (14).

Žižek can’t entertain the prospect that ideas can be “part of our theoretical awareness” and still be invalid. Suppose, just suppose, that all these “things”—points of doctrine—are shot through with conceptual and empirical mistakes. This is what Prince, Carroll, and I are saying. We don’t ignore this theory; we criticize it. Being skeptical about weak theories isn’t a return to innocence. It’s an advance; it can cast out error. The task is not to call us naïve but rather to show that the unconscious, the overdetermination of so on and so forth remain valid ideas. The way to show this is not by waxing nostalgic for the days when everyone read Althusser, but by overcoming our criticisms. Yet in Žižek’s hands, confirming Carroll’s objections once more, Lacanian theory functions as a set of axioms or dogmas rather than working ideas to be subjected to critical discussion.

Post‑Theory argues against the very idea of Theory and supports the idea of theories and theorizing (p. xiv). Theories operate at many levels of generality and tackle many different questions. Theorizing is a process of proposing, refining, correcting, and perhaps rejecting answers, in the context of a multidisciplinary conversation. But for Žižek, the unconscious, the overdetermination of our lives, and all the rest is Theory entire and whole. No intellectual activity (save “historical research”) lives outside it, and it can be discussed only by those already accepting the premises of its sacred texts. And once the only correct Theory is packaged with the only correct political attitudes, you have a powerful weapon against anyone who differs. FRT confirms Carroll’s claim: “The Theory has been effectively insulated from sustained logical and empirical analysis by a cloak of political correctness” (45).

Carroll and Žižek 2: Dialectics of Inquiry and of Nature

Žižek ignores almost all the substantive points Carroll makes in his essay. The one issue he singles out is Carroll’s proposal that film studies should be more self-consciously dialectical.

Carroll explains at several points what he means by this. In his sense, dialectics is an alternative to the method Žižek embraces, that of deriving a film theory from axioms or first principles. Instead, dialectical exchange is a form of debate, “defending one’s own theory by demonstrating that it succeeds where alternative theories falter” (56). More extensively:

Theories are framed in specific historical contexts of research for the purpose of answering certain questions, and the relative strengths of theories are assayed by comparing the answers they afford to the answers proposed by alternative theories. This conception of theory evaluation is pragmatic because: (1) it compares actual, existing rival answers to the questions at hand (rather than every logically conceivable answer); and (2) because it focuses on solutions to contextually motivated theoretical problems (rather than searching for answers to any conceivable question one might have about cinema) (56).

Žižek does object to Carroll’s point, but he misconstrues it. He says that this conception of dialectics is “simply the notion of cognition as the gradual progress of our always limited knowledge through the testing of specific hypotheses” (14). Now this is plainly not what the passage quoted above says. Žižek eliminates the communal and comparative dimensions of inquiry Carroll invokes, and introduces “the testing of specific hypotheses.” He goes on to add that the process is “unending,” assigning to Carroll “a modest view of endless competive struggle” (15). But again, Carroll does not say that the process is infinite. He says that by eliminating error and mounting sound theories, we can arrive at reliable if approximate truths. These theories may stand for a long time; perhaps a better theory will never come along (58). “There is no reason to concede that we cannot also craft film theories in the here and now that are approximately true” (58). There is nothing inherently unending about this process.

So Žižek has misunderstood Carroll’s conception of dialectical inquiry. But that’s not all. Having rewritten Carroll’s claims, Žižek blurts out: “Well, if this is dialectics, then Karl Popper, the most aggressive and dismissive critic of Hegel, was the greatest dialectician of them all!” (15). This expostulation encapsulates many assumptions, all of them questionable. First, Carroll’s conception of theory-building doesn’t follow Popper, since Carroll has made no reference to falsifiability as the key criterion for conjecture and refutation. Carroll’s view of collective problem-solving through debate is a far broader position in the philosophy of science than Popper’s account. Secondly, as Carroll points out in a subsequent version of his essay, “an unbiased examination of the history of philosophy will show, I believe, that Hegel has no patent on dialectics.”endnote8 I’d go further and observe that the concept of dialectic derives from ancient Greece, and it simply means “conversing.” Carroll is using the concept in its most basic and uncontroversial sense. Žižek could have distinguished Carroll’s use from that of other thinkers, notably Hegel, but that would require a careful and painstaking response, not a cri de cœur. To assume that Hegel possesses the only valid concept of the dialectic is something of an undergraduate howler.

Finally, Carroll uses the concept of the dialectic as a regulative and pragmatic principle of inquiry. Žižek, like Hegel, believes that the dialectic also exists in the world, as a constitutive principle of nature, society, and indeed being itself. Thus Žižek says that there is a dialectic informing the history of film style (pp. 22–25). In this way, a particular version of dialectical inquiry is justified by an ontological assumption. Žižek brooks no dispute on this: again and again he refers to the “proper” use of dialectics—the one forged by Hegel and, mysteriously, Freud (25). But he nowhere defends Hegel’s idea of dialectic against the hosts of objections that have been raised by over a century of critics; nor does he defend his somewhat idiosyncratic version of Hegel.endnote9 Another philosophical slip—Žižek confuses epistemic criteria with ontological ones—and another moment at which a canonical thinker becomes a security blanket.

Žižek has one more cluster of objections to Carroll’s conception of dialectical theory-building. “Dialectics proper,” he says, is distinguished by “the way the subject’s position of enunciation is included, inscribed into the process: the cognitivist speaks from the safe position of the excluded observer who knows the relativity and limitation of all human knowledge, including his own” (15). These are presumably the “hidden vanities” to which MacCabe alludes. The easy answer to this claim is this: Žižek uses enunciation theory as the basis for his objection. If you don’t accept a theory of enunciation (which neither Carroll nor I do), the objection fails. (Note, in passing, Žižek’s invocation of enunciation theory rests upon the oft-cited liar paradox: the semantic contradiction involved in saying “I am lying” supposedly exemplifies split subjectivity in all of language.) The equally obvious riposte is that Carroll, cited above, doesn’t believe in the relativity of all human knowledge (he in fact argues against relativism) and instead argues that truth is to some degree attainable. Once more Žižek has misunderstood the claims he’s criticizing.

Žižek goes on to create a sort of theoretical ad hominem. Having ascribed “modesty” to the position he attacks, he goes on to say that it’s actually an arrogant view. But he does this by again caricaturing the claims. “When I say, ‘The theory (which I am deploying) is just an impotent mental construct, while real life persists outside,’ or engage in similar modes of referring to the wealth of pre-theoretical experience, the apparent modesty of such statements harbours the arrogant position of enunciation of the subject who assumes the capacity to compare a theory with ‘real life’” (15). In passing, I note that Žižek here seems to equate the subject with an entity like an individual, capable of actions like assuming; but this is a philosophical error, as I point out in my Post‑Theory contribution (14–15). Also in passing, I note that until Žižek shows that enunciation theory is a plausible account of language or mental activity, his diagnosis, which wholly depends on this theory, need cause me no worries. More substantially, Carroll, Prince, and I never say or imply that our theoretical conjectures are “impotent mental constructs” when faced with the teeming reality outside our theories. Where does he get this stuff?

And what’s so arrogant about comparing a theory with real life? Žižek does it all the time. Consider this passage from an interview, in which Žižek is asked about his fondness for Lenin’s theories:

What I like in Lenin is precisely what scares people about him-the ruthless will to discard all prejudices. Why not violence? Horrible as it may sound, I think it’s a useful antidote to all the aseptic, frustrating, politically correct pacifism.

Let’s take the campaign against smoking in the U.S. I think this is a much more suspicious phenomenon than it appears to be.

If Žižek can apply Leninist politics of violence to anti-smoking legislation (will he found a Cheka to purge nonsmokers?), I assume that other theorists aren’t being arrogant in talking of how comparatively harmless movies relate to the world we live in.

Dialogue versus Monologue

Throughout Žižek’s objections to Carroll’s notion of dialectical inquiry, one blind spot is evident. In his references to “testing hypotheses” and the isolated “subject of enunciation,” in his accounts of dialectical thinking by the solitary theorist, he ignores the intersubjective dimension of theorizing. Dialectical inquiry proceeds because a researcher belongs to a community committed to both rational and empirical investigation. Whatever one’s personal feelings about people arguing against you, the regulative ideal of a research community is respect for argumentation and evidence. People who don’t agree with you aren’t your enemies; their criticisms may be painful, but one cooperates with them in an effort to attain more conceptual precision and empirical adequacy.

Yet consider what Žižek claims in another book, in commenting on an essay in Post‑Theory:

Lenin liked to point out that one could often get crucial insights into one’s own weaknesses from the perception of intelligent enemies. So, since the current essay attempts a Lacanian reading of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, it may be useful to start with a reference to “Post‑Theory,” the recent cognitivist orientation of cinema studies that establishes its identity by a thorough rejection of Lacanian cinema studies.endnote10

Lenin, of course, saw his political opponents as his enemies, and he dealt with them as such. But to characterize one’s intellectual opponents this way is revealing of Žižek’s attitude toward debate. One doesn’t cooperate with enemies.

Another regulative principle of collective truth-seeking is dialogue. Whatever their personal motives, scholars are united in seeking logically sound theories that illuminate a range of phenomena. That’s what allows debate to flourish. When the community norms flag, debate withers and theory becomes a chorus of monologues. Arguably, though, Žižek fails to grasp the intersubjective dimension of theorizing because he doesn’t believe in theory as a conversation within a community, a process of question and answer and rebuttal. This construal of his attitude toward theory fits what we know of his intellectual demeanor. Consider these reports from an admiring journalist:endnote11

Bearded, disheveled, and loud…Barely pausing to sit down, Žižek launches into a monologue so learned and amusing that it could very well appear—verbatim—in one of the many books he has written (42).

“Discussing Hegel and Lacan is like breathing for Slavoj. I’ve seen him talk about theory for four hours straight without flagging,” says UC–Berkeley’s Judith Butler. When not mediated by the printed page, however, the obsessive-compulsive quality that makes his hyperkinetic prose so exhilarating is somewhat overwhelming—even, evidently, for Žižek himself. Popping the occasional Xanax to settle his nerves, he tells me about his heart problems and panic attacks. As his eyes dart around the room and his manic monologue becomes more frantic, I fear that I may be his last interviewer. Žižek is like a performance artist who is terrified of abandoning the stage; once he starts talking, he seems unable to stop (42).

Žižek has developed an elaborate set of psychological tricks to manipulate his American students and enable him to have as little contact with them as possible. At the first meeting of each course, he announces that all students will get an A and should write a final paper only if they want to. “I terrorize them by creating a situation where they have no excuse for giving me a paper unless they think it is really good. This scares them so much, that out of forty students, I will get only a few papers,” he says. “And I get away with this because they attribute it to my ‘European eccentricity.’ ”

Žižek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar spirit. “I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a whole set of strategies for how to block this,” he says with a smirk. “The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!” Initially, Žižek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). Žižek reserves what he calls “the nasty strategy” for large lecture classes in which the students often don’t know one another. “I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear,” he claims (49).

There’s a lot to digest here—particularly the rich image of a theorist who pronounces on all things political, historical, aesthetic, and psychological criticizing Americans for being “allowed to talk about everything”—but you don’t need to be either a cognitivist or a psychoanalyst to hazard one conclusion. An insistent monologist and a teacher confessing himself uninterested in student response might not be able to appreciate the community-driven nature of inquiry postulated by Post‑Theory.

This, then, is what Žižek’s “critical dialogue” with Post‑Theory amounts to. Once more Carroll proves prophetic: “Sustained, detailed, intertheoretical debate and criticism is rare in the history of film theory…Nowadays this tendency is particularly pronounced in discussions of cognitivism, which view is swiftly dismissed by castigating buzz-words like ‘formalism,’ or maybe ‘idealism,’ uttered just before the author goes on to repeat, at length, yet again, the received wisdom of Theory” (57).

Some final comments

Žižek obviously thinks that he has engaged in a critical dialogue, and he’s not alone. A reviewendnote12 of FRT praises Žižek as “formidably well-read,” a “subtle theorist” able to operate “at the highest levels of psychological and philosophical abstraction.” The book offers, in the reviewer’s opinion, “A mode of aesthetic analysis that fully describes the most spectral and intangible [sic] of film without compromising the underlying theoretical rigor.” Everything I’ve said so far indicates that I can’t agree. Where are the subtleties? Where is the rigor? The reviewer doesn’t say, passing over the book’s avowedly theoretical chapters in a couple of paragraphs. Perhaps the reviewer accepts Žižek’s own conception of Post‑Theory. The reviewer says that Žižek’s “fierce critique” rests on the idea that Post‑Theory “attempts to move away from a reliance on theory and back toward more empirical accounts of film.” Since anyone who read Post‑Theory would understand that we plead for better theories, not the elimination of theoretical work, I have to conclude that the reviewer relies on Žižek’s characterization of the book’s project. And this is a mistake, for Žižek makes several errors.

First, he claims that the Post‑Theory collection is “a kind of manifesto” of cognitive film theory.endnote13 This flies in the face of the introduction to Post‑Theory, where Carroll and I say, “It needs to be stressed that though a number of the articles in this volume are cognitivist, the volume itself is not a primer in cognitivism…. The unifying principle in this book is that all the research included exemplifies the possibility of scholarship that is not reliant upon the psychoanalytic framework that dominates film academia (xvi).” Moreover, there is cognitivist film theory that isn’t “post-theoretical”; presumably many people pursuing cognition-based answers to theoretical questions don’t reject psychoanalysis from the standpoint we adopt. Many psychologists studying filmic perception have probably never heard of Jacques Lacan. I conclude that Žižek uses the term “Post‑Theory” to sum up a broad movement he takes to be emerging within film studies as the principal rival to the psychoanalytic (specifically, Lacanian) paradigm. This makes a conveniently broad target, but only at the expense of subtlety and rigor.

When Žižek treats the Post‑Theory movement as “the cognitivist and/or historicist reaction” to Grand Theory (FRT, 1), he displays a second confusion. To call the historical essays collected in Post‑Theory “historicist” is at best ambiguous. In the relevant sense, historicism involves the belief that concepts held by historical agents at a given time are sui generis and can’t be unproblematically translated into terms available at the historian’s moment. For example, Foucault’s position in “What Is an Author?” can be described as historicist. He posits that the modern concept of the author came into existence at a particular time and place and can’t be presumed to operate in earlier circumstances. But historicism in this sense plainly isn’t advocated or even presupposed by the historians in the Post‑Theory collection; their essays don’t take a position on this issue. Of course it’s possible that Žižek simply means to indicate that the essays are historical studies; but then he’s misusing the term “historicism.” As a philosopher, Žižek should be committed to clarifying terms rather than fogging them.

At some point someone is likely to say that Žižek is elusive because he’s playful. His flights of fancy try to get you to think outside the box; he’s a provocateur. I suppose this comes down to taste, but I find Žižek not provocative at all. Praising Lacan, Lenin, and Mao seems to me not rebellion but a retread. And we come at some point to a matter of sincerity. When is he not being playful? When is he putting forth a claim he’s committed to?

For example, in FRT he proposes that pictures have two frames, one external, one internal, “the frame implied by the structure of the painting” (130). “These two frames by definition never overlap” (130).endnote14 Yet in his prologue, Žižek explains that at a conference, asked to comment on a picture, he “engaged in a total bluff” (5) by positing the existence of these two frames. He goes on to make fun of people who took it seriously:

To my surprise, this brief intervention was a huge success, and many following participants referred to the dimension in-between-the-two-frames, elevating it into a term. This very success made me sad, really sad. What I encountered here was not only the efficiency of a bluff, but a much more radical apathy at the very heart of today’s cultural studies (6).

The postmodern emperor doesn’t need a child in the crowd to point out his nakedness; he does so himself, and mourns the fact that he fooled so many. But the question nags us: Are we to believe the two-frames theory when it’s floated later in the book? Evidently not, since it’s admittedly a bluff. But perhaps Žižek really believes the theory, so that in the prologue, when he says that his theory is a bluff, he’s bluffing. This compels us to ask: Might not everything he says about Lacan, Post‑Theory, and the rest be a bluff akin to the two-frames bluff? No wonder Žižek takes the Liar’s Paradox to be the prototype of language use.

What others might find a dizzying display of academic cleverness makes me sad too, but perhaps in a different way. 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. It’s tedious to be lectured on morality and ethics from someone who casually announces petty acts of deceit, like sneaking out of office hours or fooling gullible academics who are eager to take a master’s every word as a revelation.

“Well,” Žižek or a sympathetic reviewer might ask me, “can’t we say that he engages seriously and straightforwardly with your claims? He has much to say about your book, On the History of Film Style and your claims about contingent universals in one essay of Post‑Theory.” He does indeed. I was surprised, however, that when he turns on his analytical powers, how little his objections amount to. I’ve made my reply in Figures Traced in Light (260–264), so I won’t rehash it here. I think I show that when Žižek tries to be serious and dismantle an argument critically, the results are vague, digressive, equivocal, contradictory, and either obviously inaccurate or merely banal. This might explain why he so seldom tries to be analytical. Vagueness, digressions, equivocations, etc. are less apparent if you’re playful.

But we can forgive all this, others will reply, because Žižek is such a lively writer. Recall that Boynton, above, calls his prose “hyperkinetic” and “exhilarating,” and names him “a dazzlingly acute thinker and prose stylist.” Frankly, I can’t imagine Boynton and I are reading the same writer. As with many contemporary theorists, Žižek’s dominant register is what Frederick Crews has called ponderous coyness.endnote15 His humor is academic, and academic humor is to humor as military intelligence is to intelligence. As for the texture of the prose, try to find the acuteness and hyperkinesis here:

The underlying principle and support of this thesis of the symbolic order is that, in each field of meaning, if this field is to be ‘totalised,’ there has to be an additional/excessive signifier which, as it were, gives a positive figure to that which cannot be properly included into this field, somewhat like Spinoza’s well-known criticism of the traditional personalized notion of God: at the point at which our positive knowledge of the causal links fails, we supplement this lack with the idea of ‘God,’ which, instead of providing a precise idea of a cause, just fills in the lack of this idea. (FRT, 64–65).

Not only is this an obscure and pretentious way of recycling a familiar post-Structuralist idea, the sentences aren’t minimally well-written. (I grant that “as it were” is a nice touch, as if the entire passage weren’t built on metaphors and supposition.) In all, this writing style isn’t a good way to achieve Žižek’s goal of distinguishing “Theory proper” from “its jargonistic imitation” (FRT, 5).

What makes people think that Žižek writes gracefully, I think, is the casual way he drops in movies, current event, and homely examples. So this: “These partial objets petit a are neither subjective nor objective, but the short-circuit of the two dimensions: the subjective stain/stand-in that sustains the order of objectivity, and the objective ‘bone in the throat’ that sustains subjectivity” (FRT, 65) is followed by: “Does this not provide the reason why, in so-called caper films…?” (FRT, 66). A stretch of churned mud is softened by a stream of colorful, if far-fetched, examples.

Cutely illustrating an ontological concept through mundane instances seems to make for a user-friendly approach. In every appreciation of Žižek, there is a sentence somewhere marveling at how his vision sweeps from lofty abstraction to pop-culture examples. “He takes in subjects including national cuisines, the Cathar heresy and the literature and film of the GDR, citing Plato, Hegel, Derrida, Heidegger and more” (Monroe, “Fright of Real Theory”). But such potshot erudition is in fact quite easy to achieve. If academics are this easily impressed by name-dropping, no wonder Žižek’s bluffs find success. And from this standpoint, Žižek’s claim that correct thought moves from universal concepts to singular manifestations can be seen to serve the strategic purpose of justifying his grandiloquent rhetorical leaps from the sublime to the ridiculous, from Leninist strictures on violence to anti-smoking legislation.

Finally, I’m left with the question: Why do Žižek and MacCabe elevate a single anthology (Post‑Theory) into a movement (Post‑Theory)? The book has won little attention, and no one else has built it into a mighty opposite to Lacanian theory. I can only speculate.

My hunch is that both Žižek and MacCabe see intellectual work as a struggle for power. Recall their admiration for the likes of Lenin and Mao, note their rhetoric of enemies and obtuse opposition, and then observe that other passages suggest that by calling for conceptual and empirical theorizing, Post‑Theory aligns itself with science. And science is a threat. After telling us that no quantum physicists worry about the ontology of what they observe (I suspect this will depend on what you mean by ontology), Žižek complains:

The objectivised language of experts and scientists. . .can no longer be translated into the common language, available to everyone, but is present in it in the mode of fetishized formulae that no one really understands, but which shape our artistic and popular imaginary (Black Hole, Big Bang, Superstrings, Quantum Oscillations). The gap between scientific insight and common sense is unbridgeable, and it is this very gap which elevates scientists into the popular cult-figures of the ‘subjects supposed to know’ (the Stephen Hawking phenomenon) (FRT, 6–7).

As usual, any few lines of Žižek demand both glossing and interrogation. He starts by talking about common language, then shifts to talking about common sense; but the two aren’t the same. Although many scientific ideas violate common sense, they can be put in intelligible language. Can it really be said that science writers like Stephen Gould, Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, Jared Diamond, Deborah Blum, Helena Cronin, John Gribbin, and James Gleick can’t explain difficult scientific concepts to readers prepared to spend a little time thinking? Moreover, given Žižek’s tortured style, does he seem to have any regard for writing in a “common language, available to everyone”? And if it’s wrong for scientists to be elevated as “subjects supposed to know,” why isn’t the same stricture applied, say, to Freud and Lacan, who have become far more Delphic oracles than Einstein or Hawking? Or even applied to the “popular cult-figure” of the larger-than-life, I-am-ze-bull European intellectual who says outrageous things in order to rouse us from our bourgeois slumber?

Needless to say, Žižek is strategically vague; his comments evoke attitudes, not arguments. Nor does he mention that, whatever cult value may attend to scientists in the popular press, the general public remains remarkably resistant to scientific findings and scientific thinking. Most Americans believe in angels and a literal place called Hell. Most accept astrology, consider the theory of evolution unfounded, and think that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time. This state of affairs, surely related to the class struggle, won’t be changed by another gloss on the concept of suture.

Someone will remark that at least Žižek loves movies.

To this there’s an easy reply. Who doesn’t?


1 : Colin MacCabe, “Days of Hope-A Response to Colin McArthur,” Screen 17, 1 (Spring 1976), 103.

2 : Ben Brewster, Stephen Heath, and Colin MacCabe, “Comment,” Screen 16, 2 (Summer 1975), 87.

3 : Thanks to Benjamin Noys for pointing this out to me.

4 : I can’t resist adding that Žižek’s third chapter, devoted to the notion of suture, misses another opportunity. Instead of recycling confused 1960s and 1970s claims about point-of-view cutting, he could have attacked the cognitivist criticisms of suture theory that I float in Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison, 1985), 110–113.

5 : Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). See the many discussions of 1917 releases in the book, as well as the analysis of (1919), 133-136. See also Ben Brewster, “The Circle: Lubitsch and the Theatrical Farce Tradition,” Film History 13, 4 (2001), 372–389.

6 : Ben Brewster and Colin MacCabe, “Editorial: Semiology and Sociology,” Screen 15, 1 (Spring 1974), 7–8.

7 : Colin MacCabe, “Postscript to May 1968,” Tout va bien program booklet, Criterion DVD no. 275 (2005), 20.

8 : Noël Carroll, Engaging the Moving Image (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 399–400.

9 : I say idiosyncratic because Žižek says (and he’s apparently not being playful here): “The basic rule of dialectics is thus: whenever we are offered a simple enumeration of subspecies of a universal species, we should always look for the exception to the series” (27). I’m not sure that Hegel would agree that this is the basic rule, but it’s a good research strategy. Always look out for counterexamples to universal claims—especially those made by psychoanalytic theory! Remarkably, Žižek goes on: “For example, it is my conjecture that the key to Hitchcock’s entire opus [sic] is the film which is integral and at the same time an exception…. The Trouble with Harry (1954)” (27). Ontology and epistemology, not argued for but rather illustrated, and by a Hitchcock movie at that: such is the zigzag of the Žižekian dialectic.

10 : Slavoj Žižek, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway (Seattle: University of Washington and Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities, 2000), 4.

11 : All these quotations come from Robert S. Boynton, “Enjoy Your Žižek!” Lingua Franca 8, 7 (October 1998): 41–50.

12 : Alexei Monroe, “The Fright of Real Theory,” in Kinoeye: New Perspectives on European Film, available at <http:/www.kinoeye.org/01/04/monroe04.php>.

13 : Žižek, Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, 4.

14 : To be fussily philosophical, if this distinction is true “by definition” it can only be a deductive truth (which it obviously isn’t) or a stipulative definition posited by the speaker. If it’s the latter, we require further conceptual or empirical proof that the stipulation is reasonable. Žižek provides none.

15 : Frederick Crews, “‘Kafka Up Close’: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books (7 April 2005), 80.

David Bordwell
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