April 6th, 2020

The importance of keeping your thoughts together

I recently watched this video of a debate between Slavoj Žižek and Will Self. Or rather, the event was, as far as I can tell, supposed to be a debate between Žižek and Self, but it ended up being rather something else. There's really no point in watching the video unless you want to waste (slightly more than) an hour of your life, but I found the video surprisingly revealing, not because of the actual discussion itself, but because of the way the two men interacted, and how people seem to have perceived that interaction.

I have referenced Žižek and some of his ideas many times in the past, not because I am an especially big fan or admirer of his, but simply because he is, for better or for worse, one of the better-known people with the title of "philosopher" living in our world today. Žižek may not be the most important philosopher to have ever lived, but he is a philosopher who is alive now, and that makes him significant as a classically-trained philosopher who interprets our present-day world and all of its social, political, and media events through the eyes of Hegel, Marx, et al. The results have sometimes not been particularly valuable, because there is no guarantee that examination of something will produce useful or meaningful results, but I've never really formed a strong opinion on Žižek one way or the other: I've never really decided that I like him or dislike him, never made a general judgment of the form "I usually agree with Žižek" or "I usually disagree with Žižek". He's just who he is, and while I have often spotted deficiencies in his thinking, this is to be expected with any philosopher: No human being can see all of our world clearly, and no human being can avoid oversights or self-contradictions in their own thinking, so although I sometimes disagree with Žižek on some things, it doesn't really matter. Again, I usually don't like him or dislike him. He's a guy with opinions, and some of those opinions are insightful or interesting, while others are not, or at least do not seem to be.

The video I linked to above brought forth several ideas which I've often had about Žižek but never really thought about at length, because I've never really seen them highlighted by someone else so vividly. Anyone who has seen Žižek hold any kind of talk knows how difficult it is to keep him on track: He is so used to free-associating everything with everything that literally the simplest question or statement is likely to elicit a long, rambling series of ideas from him which are almost entirely unrelated to the question or statement which prompted them. (Witness how at the beginning of the video, Žižek gives a monologue which he promises will not take long because "a lively debate is much better", then proceeds to ramble for 10 minutes with no apparent point other than that people should buy his latest book.) When Žižek is speaking alone, this isn't necessarily such a bad thing, because people are there to see him speak, and even if he ends up expressing a string of ideas which are unrelated, unfinished, and often partially incoherent, there's still some kernel of an idea there which he is hitting on which may be worth expanding upon for people who want to think about philosophy and how it intersects with current politics, society, or media.

But Žižek on stage with someone else is a different story entirely. Žižek is not particularly polite about the niceties that we are normally accustomed to regarding interrupting people or expressing oneself in a way that might be palatable to others, and the contrast between Žižek and Self is like night and day: Žižek constantly raves and rambles and seems to make the same mistake that Americans stereotypically make when speaking, namely thinking that if you speak loudly, this helps people to understand you better. It doesn't help that Žižek's native language is not English, and although his English is good enough for him to express himself fairly clearly, I do sometimes get the impression that he is struggling slightly to find the right word or phrase to express what he wants to say, and that this struggle frustrates him, for which he compensates by trying to speak more forcefully, which only makes the effect worse. By contrast, Self sits through the entire video and has trouble getting a word in because Žižek, like the Energizer bunny, just keeps going and going and is very difficult to stop for anything, but when Self does speak, he speaks with a moderate tone and an eloquent, incisive mode of questioning which strips away most of the bullshit surrounding Žižek's words and gets to their essence, a valuable service for any audience listening to Žižek since Žižek would otherwise couch his words in endless rambling anecdotes and tangents.

Again, I think the event portrayed in the video was intended as some kind of discussion or debate between Žižek and Self, but it ends up being more like an interview in which Self is the interviewer and Žižek the interviewee. It can hardly be otherwise: Self never really has a chance to express a complete idea because Žižek constantly interrupts him, often simply by shouting "NO!" and then, rather than elaborating on why he just said that, beginning to speak about something else instead. As a result, Self can only try to rein in Žižek as much as he can, pressing Žižek to finish explaining his ideas which he leaves unfinished and asking Žižek to clarify points which don't seem to make much sense. The tone between the two men is at times somewhat confrontational in nature, but I got the impression that this was more joking than serious, that they're putting on an entertaining show for the camera and the audience more than they are really fighting. Nonetheless, the entire video really is not much more than Žižek raving for an hour, with Self occasionally speaking up to ask Žižek to clarify himself.

After watching the video, I was surprised by the YouTube comments, which by and large seemed to express precisely the opposite of my opinion, namely that Self came across as arrogant, rude, and condescending. It's difficult for me to understand how anyone can perceive the video this way. It's true that when Self does speak, it's usually because he disagrees with Žižek and is either expressing his disagreement or asking Žižek to explain something in further detail, but I never perceived his responses as arrogant. Certainly, he seems to get impatient with Žižek at some points, but it would be difficult to not get impatient when you speak with someone for an hour and they seem unable or unwilling to provide a direct answer to anything which you say or ask. Yes, Self takes issue with a lot of things Žižek says, but who wouldn't? Who wouldn't take issue when someone constantly spews a stream of controversial statements, refuses to justify them, interrupts you whenever you attempt to ask a clarifying question, and shows no interest in keeping the conversation on track--any track?

It really amazes me that people seem to perceive Žižek as cool and interesting just because he constantly produces "stimulating" ideas; it goes to show just how easily people are fooled by a little showmanship. Žižek references pop culture a lot to frame his ideas, and this in itself is fine, but I suspect that this is a big reason why he is so popular: People think it's cool to hear about some currently-popular movie in what seems like a serious discussion about philosophy. Žižek's animated way of speaking, complete with his famously constantly-moving hands, adds to his appeal as a speaker, and it occurs to me quite suddenly and forcefully that people who like Žižek like him just because he's entertaining, for the same reason people like "shock jock" performers like Howard Stern or Lenny Bruce: Not because of any inherent value in what they say, but just because they're entertaining and tend to say things which go against accepted societal norms. I've had this thought before in a sort of subconscious way, but I never really dwelled on it before, but having seen the interaction between Žižek and Self, it suddenly dawned on me: I don't really like Žižek. I don't like the way he just keeps going and going without ever really coming to a point. It's worse when he speaks, but even in writing, where he presumably has an editor to help keep his passages on track, it seems like he has a lot to say, but what he says isn't really his own ideas; all he's doing is just rehashing things other people have written or said and recasting them in different ways. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but for all of his prolific output, Žižek doesn't actually have a lot of his own original ideas. He's just riding on the success of other famous philosophers, using his ability to entertainingly riff on their names to make a living. When asked to actually explain his ideas in greater detail, Žižek consistently gets flustered and simply changes the subject by going on another tangent.

This, too, becomes apparent during the discussion between Žižek and Self when Self takes issue with Žižek's repeated references to the writing of Jacques Lacan, a French psychiatrist who figures prominently in most of Žižek's work. Although Lacan is not exactly an obscure figure, his work and ideas are significantly less known to the majority of people, even to scholars, than those of people like Hegel, Kant, or Nietzsche. This enables Žižek to pull the most typical trick in the pseudo-intellectual's book: That of citing some relatively obscure fact or figure with the intention of gaining control of the conversation because the other people likely aren't familiar with the topic being brought up, which allows the speaker a near-monopoly on the matter. Self accuses Žižek--not without cause, I'd say--of hiding behind a wall of impressive-seeming names and ideas rather than explaining his ideas in a way that a common audience can understand. Žižek dismisses these concerns as irrelevant, insisting that it's not his problem was other people read, and in so doing, he reveals a self-satisfied elitism combined with a contemptuous disregard for his audience.

Of course, these problems are some of the most fundamental problems within the formal study of philosophy, the very reason why many people denigrate Philosophy as an academic field of study: It has a propensity to become so fascinated with pointless musings that it ends up going in circles, getting stuck in limitlessly iterative examinations of its own ideas without ever really making any progress or coming up with new insights from this study; besides that, it has a tendency to associate too strongly with names of particular philosophers instead of actual ideas, resulting in people saying things like "This is a Socratic idea", or "I am a Nietzschean", which don't really communicate anything. Good philosophers are aware of these pitfalls and learn to avoid them by breaking the cycle of self-replication, not allowing paths of thought to go in a circle, and focusing on specific ideas rather than the histories of specific people. Žižek does none of this, and seems perfectly content to let his ideas roam wherever his mind happens to drift at any moment (and his mind is very drifty), and repeatedly using statements like "I am a Marxist" to answer questions about his opinion, as if this is an adequate explanation of what he thinks. Little wonder that Self seems dissatisfied with Žižek's answers to his questions; at one point, Self pointedly says "Slavoj, you gotta do better than this, man. You've gotta do better than these pathetic one-liners. You've gotta address things that you say in your book", but the point seems lost on Žižek, who also spends much of the conversation indignantly asking why Self doesn't accept Žižek's ideas, as if it is self-evident that Žižek is correct, and that this point needs no further clarification.

Perhaps the biggest idea which I took away from the discussion between Žižek and Self, however, is how important it is to keep your ideas together, and how being a writer of long-form fiction is probably one of the best ways to practice doing this. Self is not a pure philosopher; he's primarily a novelist, and when you write a novel that's hundreds of pages long, you need to consider how you're going to keep the thread of the story intact through those hundreds of pages, which requires you to think ahead about where your ideas are going and how you're going to make the ending make sense with regard to where things began. Žižek also writes books that are hundreds of pages long, but because he does not write stories, but rather more classical philosophy books which are really just filled with his own opinions and musings about things, he's free to ramble all over the place, and if the ending bears very little relationship to the beginning, it doesn't really matter. When you're a novelist, you need to keep your ideas together and make sure they're coherent and that they make sense; when you're a philosopher, you're under no such obligation.

I used to write novels, but I haven't written one in about 8 years. The last one turned out fairly badly; I couldn't keep ideology from creeping into it, and so the end result was more like an ideological tract, the classical case of an idea needlessly stretched out into book form when it could have been expressed in a page or two. Since then, I've avoided long-form writing, because my ideas of the present are too forceful, too insistent for me to be a good writer of long-form fiction; my ideas as of late have come out as short, perfunctory bursts of outrage, and I have maintained this attitude for close to 10 years now. Nietzsche also reached a point where he found that his thinking was suited to this manner of expression, resulting in his book Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, which is not really a coherent book but rather a collection of fairly random and disconnected ideas which occurred to him. This type of writing is not without value, but after a while, it does tend to fall into the trap of being pointless stream-of-consciousness writing, more like a diary which someone keeps where they write down passing thoughts instead of something which is intended to communicate a larger idea. To be a writer, first you have to be undisciplined, allowing your mind the freedom to scale new heights and explore new realms, but then you have to be disciplined so that you can get your new ideas onto paper in a way that makes sense and is worth reading for anyone else. It's sometimes a difficult balance, especially if those alternating periods of mental laxness and discipline reflect themselves in your lifestyle, which may account for why many artists go through cycles of licentious drug abuse and rigid austerity.

I sometimes wonder if it might be time for me to try writing another book-length work, but I keep avoiding this idea, for two main reasons: First of all, I don't really have any good ideas for a book, nothing that would really justify writing out hundreds of pages, and if an idea isn't worth hundreds of pages, then it is something better expressed in brief essays--hence the reason why most of my writing has been on this blog in recent years. Secondly, I know that if I actually wrote another book of a few hundred pages, no one would ever read it. As it is, hardly anyone reads this blog; very few people bother to read these little snapshots of ideas which take about 10 minutes to read each. Who's going to sit down and read 200 pages from me, especially when I have nowhere to post such works? The idea is a non-starter.

The problem now is that my thoughts are not collected. I'm good at writing and expressing individual ideas, but I'm not good at piecing them together in a way that makes them fit together sensibly and cohesively. If I could put together all of the ideas I've had by now, the result would be sort of a "theory of everything according to LateBlt", because I've written a fair bit on most of the major topics of human study: History, literature, philosophy, science, technology, politics, psychology, sociology, and so on. To combine my views on all of these things would be a sort of net picture of my overall mind and mindset. In theory, it would be an interesting project. In reality, again, who would care enough to read it? No one. The disjointed, disorganized, scattershot writings I've collected here will have to do, because it's likely that they will be my last contribution to the world.