Slavoj Zizek: The Subtle Art

Only Slavoj Zizek could compare Jane Austen to Hegel and get away with it. A smile comes to our lips, we want to laugh, and, yet, we wonder to ourselves: “How could he compare this dialectical monstrosity to this subtle ironist, this comic novelist of manners?” Yet, one realizes that is just the point, it was Austen’s inwardness, her subjective individuation, her consciousness of those subtle misrecognitions that slip between fault lines of conversation and observation, those subtle ironies that raise an eyebrow, cause a smirk, bring a quiet recognition of that true wit that is both her power and her art that aligns her with the master of dialectical persuasion.

It is Jane Austen who is perhaps the only counterpart to Hegel in literature: Pride and Prejudice is the literary Phenomenology of Spirit; Mansfield Park the Science of Logic and Emma the Encyclopedia… No wonder, then that we find in Pride and Prejudice the perfect case of this dialectic of truth arising from misrecognition. (66)1

What’s interesting in Zizek’s bringing together Hegel and Austen to discuss the subtle art of misrecognition is not that it neatly ties together the strands of his Hegelian argument, but that like any true didactic scholar he teaches us through the power of delight and elucidation rather than through abstract verbalism. This is why it is usually fun to read Zizek even if you disagree with him at time, he entertains and delights, instructs and illustrates without bludgeoning one with the truth of his argument. He is didactic and dialectical at the same time. There is a subtle rhythm to his method, repetitions of word and tone that intersperse the abstract truth of his argument with layers of empirical wit and illustrations from other authors to make his points.

In less than two pages Hegel with Austen grabs the reader, forces the reader to wake up, grasp the concept of misrecognition and understand its unique power as a part of the Hegelian arsenal of tools, and does all this in such a smooth entertaining way that one almost forgets that one is learning and being taught something by a master of the Hegelian art. If anything else should ever be written about Zizek it should be a study of his mastery of teaching, of his ability to convey deep learning in a way that allows the student to grasp the essential features without being overpowered by it sheer abstract force. Through humor he disarms you, allows you to become a part of the joke, the irony, to get inside the thought and ride its verbal play. One could imagine Zizek and Socrates getting along with each other amiably, which would have made Plato envious and bitter. Yet, listening to the verbal hijinks even Plato might have learned a thing or two.

Maybe Zizek is too slick, too easy to read and get on with, maybe that is not always a good thing, but it’s a part of what separates him out from hundreds of other philosophical players who may or may not have greater depth and conceptual tales to tell. Why? Because most philosophical discourse is not only boring, but mercilessly abstract and rigidly monotonic in its renditions. Do you ever catch yourself reading through three pages of difficult abstract discourse of some particular concept and coming to a point where you suddenly wake up and realize you have no clue what you just read? So you have to go back a couple pages and pick up the thread again, start over, reread the passages, slow down take a couple notes to ponder the meaning, then continue? Not a memorable experience is it? And, we do it all the time…. Some authors prose is so full of neologism, so thick with ponderous terminology that after just a few pages we take the book and throw it over toward the door where it will make a great book stop. Don’t tell me you haven’t done that, or at least wanted too. Why are some philosophers so full of it, so abstract and terminological that one needs a stack of dictionaries, encyclopedias, a shelf of specialist commentaries, etc. Why? Do they really think it helps to get their point across? Do they truly think that such discourse will change the world? Do they think such ideas will filter down into the realm of action and shape peoples minds for the better? Or, are they so caught within the meshes of their particular discipline of high academic gamesmanship that what the common reader thinks is beneath them, that they already know that their ideas are for the few, the elite, the crème-de-la crème of philosophical pretension.

Of course I’m not asking everyone to write in the style of Zizek, but it would be nice for philosophers to spend more time learning how to learn, learning what it takes to teach and illustrate ideas, notions, concepts, etc. in ways that are both inventive and alive, that convey the information in a lively memorable manner, rather than leaving one feeling like the book just read was a total waste of time and energy (even if one knows that the truths within its pages are valid and earth shattering). Let’s face it there are other times when Zizek is exasperating, when his verbal pyrogenic display of wit and energy is almost too much, when he could cut his argument down a little, get to his point a little faster; yet, in the end we always come to that point when we say: “Ah! So that’s what he was getting at!”

Strange, but true, he is one of the most exasperating conductors of thought going, and he disturbs as much as he entertains, leaves you dangling with more questions than answers; yet, that is the point, isn’t it? It’s problems, not solutions that make us think! And, that my friends, is the subtle art that infiltrates one’s mind, breaking down the distortions of its filtering judgments and through the power of misrecognition helps one perceive the truth that otherwise would remain both obscure and unrecognized within the abstract conceptual framework of a philosopher’s thought. What we misperceive in an other’s thought is the distortions of our own subjective positions and point of view. The subtle art is to break down those barriers of misrecognition and allow the truth to stand revealed in all its naked splendor devoid of our own distorted perspective. That is Zizek’s subtle art in a nutshell.

1. Slavoj Zizek. The Sublime Object of Ideology. (Verso 1989)

3 thoughts on “Slavoj Zizek: The Subtle Art

  1. heh,try and get American readers to feel the delightful scandal of Derrida putting Hegel on the same page as Genet, but yes this art of collage, of aspect-dawnings, kierkegaard’s indirect communications, etc,keep waiting for computer games and such to catch up/onto these literary virtual experiences, exposure therapies…


    • Yea, I think a lot of the Japanese technowave stuff Full Metal Apache, etc. fits the bill… One of the things I still like about Gibson’s work is that for him the future is now, the present is so volatile that we’ve flipped the switch: reality is our unconscious, and we alone are real… all these reversals – Zizek’s trademark… if it gets stuck reverse it, plunge a little dipper into it and see what turns up.


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