Žižek and Sprezzatura


I had a rather open weekend, mainly due to various waiting room scenarios, so not open by choice, I suppose, and I brought a book along, like you do, to kill some time. It just happened to be Žižek’s latest Living in the End Times which I have purchased but have not read, and to be honest, I didn’t really plan on reading it as one reads a book, i.e. from cover to cover. I was planning to skim through it one day to see what the kids are into these days and be cool if anyone asked if I read it.

Having read half of the book in what might very well be considered one long sitting, I think I finally put my finger on what it is that I don’t like about Žižek as a writer, in addition to all the opinions of his that I don’t agree with: Žižek is not a writer. Don’t get me wrong, he writes and writes a lot, but there’s nothing writerly about his books which are, I realized in the same flash of insight, are, of course, not books either.

This insight didn’t come all of a sudden. Anyone familiar with works of Žižek knows the problem: his books are not really about what they claim they are about, especially the last couple or so, the title and, in many many instances, subtitles and sections don’t provide the promised content. Half the book into Living in the End Times I am yet to read anything about “end times” or “living” or to understand why the chapters are cutely labeled after the stages of accepting a loss. What I do get is an endless barrage of observations united by only one common characteristic: they all came into the head of Žižek in roughly this particular sequence. They read as transcripts of long diatribes patiently transcribed by an unfortunate secretary. Don’t get me wrong, I do find some of the observations, cultural references, anecdotes, or occasional obscenities to be deeply entertaining (therefore the hope that reading Žižek while waiting would be helpful in terms of killing time), but here’s the thing: Žižek’s writing is best understood (and possibly enjoyed) as the absolute opposite of sprezzatura.

Sprezzatura, sometimes rendered as “effortless mastery,” is one of the qualities of a successful courtier in Castiglione’s famous manual. I have realized on many occasions that I am not sure my adoptive American culture really appreciates the beauty of sprezzatura. Take this example, any foreigner living in the US is bound to meet a person who will inevitably pay them the following compliment: “You speak English so well! Did you speak it before you came? Was it very difficult to learn?” To which I always have a tendency to reply with the same sort of “Thank you, you are too kind” and no real details. One doesn’t want to reveal the actual sweaty-bloody details of one’s acquisition of some skill, it’s indecent to emphasize how hard I was working on my English (and continue to do so on the daily basis). The more effortless my English appears, the more I fit with the ideal of sprezzatura (or so I think). Americans on the other hand seem to be quite comfortable describing to themselves and anyone who would listen exactly how much effort they put into their skills.  If this “effortless mastery” is a kind of virtue, then Žižek’s writing is its very opposite and can be labeled “effortful inanity“. Again, not because Žižek lacks genius or inspiration, he probably has too much of both, but because, either due to time constraints or lack of real interest, he does not write, he dictates his thoughts at his readers.

Writing, as I understand it, involves a kind of transformation of the immediacy of one’s thoughts into a qualitatively different medium of text. I almost always get annoyed at some blowhard’s advice to write the way one thinks – thinking and writing are heterogeneous realms. Žižek’s lack of effort when it comes to writing is not shown in his frequent reusing of previous texts (these days he acquired a decency of introducing long quotes from his books with a “As I have stated before”) or retelling of the same jokes, but in his complete lack of writing style. There’s no style in his books, not artistic molding of thoughts into texts, no overall structure of either a book as a whole or a chapter as an element of that whole. It’s just all straight up from my mouth to your eyes diarrhea of half-baked (half-cooked) thoughts that the reader is supposed to put together. It’s a kind of “do it yourself” thinking book. And it is nonetheless effortful. How is it possible? How can you just put words on paper without any seeming organization or style and yet come across as so effortful, so rough and amateurish? This is where the secret of sprezzatura comes in.

The true secret of effortless writing is that it is never effortless, but must appear as such in order to impress and therefore produce an effect. I don’t know about you, but all these “advice columns” are making me sick not because they are dumb, but because they operate under the pragmatic assumption that all the young writers out there lack one thing: an advice from an older writer. That this is nonsense is quite obvious – the world of writing is saturated with advice. The real question is the following: what is the advice giver actually saying when he is giving advice? Yes, the most immediate response is that he is presenting himself as advice giver, as being important enough to give advice. But on a deeper level, those who give advice are supposedly trying to dispel the myth that writing is hard and can only be done by a select few, but in fact by doing so, they try to persuade themselves that even though they have little talent for really really good writing, they must not give up, because writing is democratic, if you know the few rules that guide it, even you can become a writer.

Žižek’s texts are openly and painfully unpolished, because polishing them is our job. Žižek couldn’t care less, he’s interested in thoughts. The fact that he produces monstrously ugly books (no structure, no development of argument, no real underlying purpose) does not bother him personally (or he keeps that frustration deep down inside) and I resent it as a reader. As a reader, I want to know that whoever wrote the book I’m reading is at least putting some effort into it and then skillfully hiding that effort. Knowing about how much time it takes some graham harman to write his book would be like knowing how many strokes it took my father to come while he and my mother were conceiving me. Exactly, gross!

15 thoughts on “Žižek and Sprezzatura

  1. Knowing about how much time it takes some graham harman to write his book would be like knowing how many strokes it took my father to come while he and my mother were conceiving me. Exactly, gross!

    Nice. I don’t read or pay attention to much of anything Zizek says anymore, he’s more of a clown to me, albeit a predatory clown surrounded by a bunch of wannabe fanboys. Nonetheless, while he can be amusing at times I’m still not all that sure that there’s anything really there behind all the jokes and cultural allusions, and that’s despite what many people I respect have been insisting for quite some time now. Oh well.

    Anyway, unrelated to Zizek, but having to do with reading/writing, is this interesting commentary I read this afternoon on Blanchot’s short essay, “Reading,” by Jonathan Little. The essay details how the “noli me legere of the book gives way to the Lazare, veni foras of the reader.” Good stuff.

  2. On a related note, did you read Espen Hammer’s critique of the Gabriel and Zizek collaboration? I tend to agree with him on Gabriel – the plumping for Schelling’s unprethinkable being is just too simple and hides a host of problems. And Hammer’s obviously as frustrated as you by reading Z.

  3. A long time ago when I was still a student, me and two of my buddies stumbled over a project initiated by a guy who wanted to make a backup of himself. I wonder if he was the only German Extropian at that time. The primary purpose was a most accurate reconstruction of his person from all the braindumps in tapes and media, as well as the movies which screened his body. I don’t know if he really believed in the Singularity or Tiplers Omega Point but it was some kind of Pascalian bet on future possibilities of resurrection technology. Incidentally he called his metaphysical project “Ramses” well aware that he created his multimedia sarcophagus.

    We were fascinated by this idea but I don’t believe anyone of us kept track or did even do something slightly similar. It is not only the faint believe in the Singularity but in my own case I’m sure I would turn it into a Big Other whom I want to appeal to. I don’t think the Ramses guy had similar concerns and he might have been an ugly fuck with some tics but that’s the way he wanted to be resurrected by god-like machines or an evolved future humanity. He didn’t care much about the way the future gods would perceive him but only in the means they are for him.

    Maybe this tells us something about Zizekian morality/aesthetics, which is also to some extent at least, anti-bourgeouis, leftist morality. We may well accept the inexistence of the Big Other but still behave as if it exists, as if Kant, Wittgenstein and Nietzsche are our correctors and dispute our texts. In this particular case the tribunal of the great ancestors plays the role of the Big Other, which obviously doesn’t exist because the ancestors are all dead. Do we want to be liberated from all this and exist as barely more than flesh with some thoughts reflected by our equal peers and media or do we want to relate to something that is bigger than us, even if we don’t believe it is real?

    So we in fact embrace ideology by what we are doing and presenting us the underlying absurd or fictitious assumptions ( “the tribunal of the ancestors” ) doesn’t make any difference to us because it gives us a direction to improve our skills and eventually even our morality. If people believe they have to improve their skills because of ruthless competition on the market place this is equally fine for me. It is not about taking this competition for real but the skills as something being important. The non-identical subjectivity is not some obscurantist anti-scientism or “withdrawnness from myself” but an extension into the future which is connected to an advancement that is implied in this subjectivity.

    So the future machine-gods will have certainly enough data to resurrect our wannabe Ramses but are they also interested in this particular trace of development? What can the existence of Ramses tell them about themselves?

    • Someone must write a book immediately – The Tribunal of the Future Machine-Gods – it sounds so promising…

      I like your story, Kay, but I keep thinking to myself: what sort of person does one have to be to actually think people care about one’s inner most thoughts/observations on life/25 good things happened to me this month nonsense?

  4. Thanks for the link, Utisz. I don’t mind Zizek in small essays, even though they often aren’t real essays either, it’s the book form that I now officially detest (even I will probably finish this book, because I’m in “finishing things”)…

    It’s strange to me that some Zizek apologist didn’t yet write a book about how Zizek’s style is “performative” and how his working it out in front of you is all meant to be that way – you know what I mean? The same way I don’t think Derrida’s style was very performative either, but it would be a nice way to go in terms of embracing Zizek’s “open-endedness”…

    • Hmm, at the risk of sounding like a “Zizek apologist,” I have to disagree with you here. But before beginning, I’ve noticed a strange trend recently whereby anyone who wants to defend something or someone popular first has to begin by noting that they are “not an apologist” or worse, “fanboy.” For example, I’ve followed Apple-related things pretty closely for about a decade now (about how long I’ve been a graphic designer), and in the last couple of years, probably since the release of the iPhone, I’ve noticed that any time someone wants to publicly defend Apple (usually against idiotic and unfounded arguments), one always has to preface their argument with, “I’m no Apple fanboy, but…” There’s a kind of strange disavowal at work. But really, my only reason for bringing this up is that it seems to me that once something becomes “popular,” there’s a strange tendency for a bunch of other people to then say how bad it is and how it’s always ever only been bad, usually without taking into consideration the fact that there’s almost always a difference between something’s genuine worth and the reason for why it became popular. The decision to just “not like it” anymore strikes me as a kind of “mauvaise foi,” and almost always cedes the understanding of whatever the object of interest is to the common one, which is unfortunate.

      Anyhow! Rather than making one of those awful and predictable arguments you cite above, for example, “Zizek’s work is meant to seem poorly written and read as if it’s been dictated from the Verso publisher’s office, in order to expose the lack within the reader and to break the transference in order to create a revolutionary subjectivity….,” I think I would rather just simply say that I think there are a couple of Zizek books that I think are well-written and nicely structured:

      1. Tarrying with the Negative
      2. Looking Awry: Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture
      3. The Ticklish Subject

      I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the argument that Zizek is more of an essayist, and that his books only tenuously connect all of the essays together, but this seems like more of a stylistic matter and so I don’t know how I would judge it. It seems to work for him, so whatever. The books that don’t seem to work as well are ones that deal almost primarily with “topical” matters, like Zizek’s specific writings on Christianity (The Fragile Absolute, Milbank vs. Zizek one, Puppet and the Dwarf probably being the only one worth reading of them), as well as political interventions (Welcome to the Desert of the Real, In Defense of Lost Causes, Living in the End Times, etc.). In contrast, the above three books all have very clearly stated aims, I actually think #2 does the best of setting out a proposal and living up to its promise (my grasp of Lacan was minimal when I read the book), but #1 probably contains the fewest self-indulgent digressions that became a hallmark of Zizek’s worst books.

      I also like this idea of “Sprezzatura,” so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. I don’t disagree (“I agree” sounds more conciliatory, but since we’re “arguing” here, I’m going with “I don’t disagree”), those books you mention are much better than, say, Defense of Lost Causes and Living in the End Times. Don’t get me wrong (yet again), I don’t consider Zizek’s output to be a waste of time, I’m still reading this Living in the End Times book, I just don’t think he is a writer of books, that’s all. I don’t mean it as an attack, just a way I’ve learned to deal with frustration when reading Zizek’s “books”.

    It might very well be just me, but I like to read books that have a kind of organizational structure that takes me from chapter to chapter: why does it begin at point A and what have we got at point Z is important to me as a reader. Even in his early books though, Tarrying with the Negative or The Ticklish Subject (which I have read), there’s no real structure, that is to say, there’s a difference between a proposed structural development (with titles and subtitles) and a hidden lack of organization. They are, of course, much better organized (and I’m not saying “better organized” = “better books” but only that good books in my estimation are structured in some way), but they are still a pain to read as books.

    Again, I’m not against self-indulgence in Zizek. I’m mostly irritated by the explicit lack of care when it comes to the final product. This carelessness does not hide anything, it’s not an attempt to say “here, I threw something together for your pleasure” while the author was painstakingly crafting every sentence. This is just straight up no excuses carelessness that only reveals how much better the book could have been was he to put some actual effort into it.

  6. In that case I think we do agree. Personally, I also find the constant pop-culture digressions pretty annoying as a reader, since they require you to be constantly looking for the “thread” that connects the arguments together, so you end up have to do a lot of leg-work in terms of page-flipping and scanning to figure out what he’s really trying to say. Maybe that will change with the latest “important” book he’s writing, but my guess is probably not.

    And maybe I’m just less sensitive to the matter because Zizek was my first substantial introduction to contemporary philosophy, so I just sort of took “bad” writing (however you choose to define it) as axiomatic of postmodernism, without giving it much thought or attention. Either way, I don’t think his books would suffer if he had a more discerning editor.

    • Every book he’s writing is his opus magnum – that’s the problem with self-pronouncement (a la Harman): this next book will be my most important book! Let the others judge it, you can’t evaluate your own work, you’re too close to it.

  7. Mikhail, I think ‘effortful’ for Zizek is very good, but I had noticed it just as much when he speaks in interviews–it’s contrived and forced to a degree. I don’t know how much this has to do with the quality of the ideas, but some think ‘style is character’, and that’s often been important to professional writers. Zizek-speak is not a thing of beauty, the way even Baudrillard-speak is, which can sound a bit drunk sometimes, but has some tangents and trademark indecencies. Deleuze is almost always sensual, whether or not translated. But that ‘effortful’ is exactly right, I would just had that his whole persona comes across that way, he presents himself as somewhat forced.

    I don’t really see that much but banality in talking about everything you do on a blog, sometimes it’s funny, but maybe you think those people should just go do LiveJournal or MySpace of Facebook, etc., I told you I started enjoying Harman’s blog, but for the wrong reasons. I think he’s funny, but I don’t think it’s intentional. Levy Bryant’s blog, on the other hand, is also rather more effortful, or just sounds garden-variety academic. But–definitely not ‘writerly’. Sometimes John Doyle can be writerly, and Dominic Fox too, just to name a couple of them out of this bunch. Then there are those who want to be writers, and they sound effortful as hell, I won’t torture those anymore, and once in a while they do even come up with some halfway-decent, if effortful, writing.

    • I should also have added my friend traxus of American Stranger, who writes beautifully polished prose. You’ve probably read his journal piece on Harman and Latour. He’s got a lot of sprezzatura, which is something that also always tends to glisten.

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