Volume 9, Number 2 (July 2012)
Book Review: Modern day Philosopher at the Media Symposium
A Review of: Paul A. Taylor. Žižek and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.
(Reviewed by Raimondas Balužis)
(Faculty of Philosophy and Education, University of Vienna).
The title Žižek and the Media suggests that there is one particular well known person on one side, namely the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, and the whole of media that pays attention to this known person on the other side and that this book talks about the relation between the two. However, while the book really is about that, at the same time it speaks about a general figure of a philosopher and his relations to the world outside of academia in the times of media saturation. The times are over in which the most important way of communication between a philosopher and the world would be a public speech by a philosopher given on the square or just directly asking experts or statesmen fundamental questions. Paul A. Taylor demonstrates that the discourse of modern day political and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek cannot be isolated from the discourse of mass media. Media is at least as important a source of information and inspiration to psychoanalyst Žižek as are his international comrades giving him insider stories about the situation all over the globe. Žižek also uses the media extensively as the way to spread his thought. On top of his more than 50 books, “He is the subject of a documentary movie (Žižek!); presenter of a TV series (Pervert's Guide to Cinema); a regular contributor of a journalistic articles; and a conveniently viewable in a host of YouTube snippets” (2). These YouTube videos are mostly records of his frequent guest lectures that are given all over the world. Throughout the book Paul A. Taylor uses them extensively as a source. Paul A. Taylor applies Žižek's theory to write a critical book about the media and its ideological bias. Attributing the virtue of being critical to someone doesn't say much, since very many authors who are mostly writing all kinds of justifications of the current political ideology are called critics without questioning how critical they are, even though they usually don't write about any negative aspects of current democracy without counteracting it with “but it is still the best...” in the same sentence. Paul A. Taylor really does see media and its political discourse very critical. By applying Žižek's philosophical and psychoanalytical theory to the media Taylor finds a way to write an original book in the ever growing segment of secondary literature on Slavoj Žižek.
An important aspect of the relation between the media and Slavoj Žižek is mass media's superficial reception of Žižek's thoughts, which rather concentrates on his extraordinary appearance and entertaining jokes. The only negative words that Paul A. Taylor writes in this book about Žižek are descriptions of his physical presence. In this book Taylor doesn't write anything negative about Žižek's theory or way of thinking. He considers Žižek's insight as extremely valuable for explaining the current state and it is a matter of concern that his jokes and physical presence sidetrack attention: “Žižek's inimitable brand of theoretical perversity gains him notoriety and media attention but also creates the risk that his substantive intellectual points are lost amidst either the sparks of his short-circuits or po-faced annoyance at his use of filthy humour and/or speculative psychoanalytical insights (…)” (34).
The author argues, that superficial reception is at least partially caused by the ideological processes in the media. Paul A. Taylor applies Žižek's ideas about the violence in the media discourse to the relation between media and Žižek himself and shows how the symbolic violence and ideological assumptions of media's standard operating procedures are uncovered in Žižek's short interview on the American TV show NiteBeat (127-130; see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjEtmZZvGZA). The moderator of the show, Barry Nolan, presents Lacan as a mysterious psychoanalyst, “who makes Freud sound like a simple Valley girl”, and also complains about the difficulty of Žižek's book The Puppet and the Dwarf. During the short interview Žižek tries to show the everyday applications of Lacan with simple examples of postmodern ideology, whereas Nolan “seeks to maintain philosophy's place within the 'acceptable' pre-determined bounds of media discourse in which a guest 'plugs' their latest commodified cultural offering without shaking up the socially acceptable coordinates of the interaction” (140).Taylor jokes about moderators gesture (he keeps holding on Žižek's book), by explaining that he tries to ground the threateningly abstract conversation to the physical object. This kind of reception is not at all surprising given the nature of this talk show in particular and mass media as the whole. Everything what Žižek had to say must have been fitted in few minutes and there is no way some serious analysis or theoretical debate could have taken place. Actually this talk show isn't meant to be serious at all. However, while this particular talk show explicitly simplifies all the information and seeks to fit it into pre-existing narrative types, many other tv shows do the same without being explicit about it. In this case, as Taylor said, the moderator didn't want to forfeit the usual assumption of media's coverage on theoretical books, that they could not play any important role in everyday life and that they should be really relevant only to the mystified theoreticians. Nolan (as an instance of metonymy of the media) had no intention to think about changing the way they see democracy and society (Žižek has been talking about the way postmodern authority functions), or even changing the standard types of its mediated presentation.
Taylor psychoanalysed the British journalist Johann Hari who, unlike Nolan, does take his work serious, even though in his reception of Žižek he fails to meet any notion of objectivity or neutrality. Hari has expressed his hate towards incomprehensible postmodernists under the pretext of writing a review for the documentary film Žižek! Paul A. Taylor mentions some inconsistencies in the short critique written by Hari, for example, that he claims the academic population of postmodernists to be small and yet “at least some of the antipathy towards Žižek appears to be motivated by a dislike at the way in which his output has approached mainstream levels of accessibility” (47). Taylor uses Žižek's idea of an “eternal figure” on himself, as Žižek becomes an eternal figure for Hari, i.e. the embodiment of a postmodern thinker. In this way Hari sees one person as a synecdoche of the incomprehensible postmodern theory, which he hates.
Most of the book chapters are applications of Žižek's ideas and insights about the ideology and its sublime objects to the media discourse. For this reason Žižek and the Media is not much of an introductory book to Žižek. It is the analysis of the media in theoretical coordinates of Žižek.
On one occasion Taylor finds another example for Žižek's often repeated idea about the consumerist society, in which commodities are being sold together with charity. In this way the buyer is redeemed for the harm that consumerism does at the same time he buys the commodity. Žižek likes to use the example of Starbucks, where their customers are redeemed for the vices of consumerism because they buy higher priced fair trade coffee and some fraction of their profit is donated to charity (In fact, only about 6% of their coffee beans have been certified as fair trade, see: http://www.thestar.com/living/article/250730). Paul A. Taylor finds another example for this ideological manipulation on the lid of KFC bargain bucket, where World Hunger Relief campaign encourages to “Give And Help Save Lives” by donating through their website (45-46). Taylor doesn't understand how the relief of world hunger can be achieved by the consumption of over-sized portions of deep-fried food. He writes that “the function of this object is to desublimate ideology into a seemingly natural everyday item” (Ibid). Although it is fascinating how postmodern ideology can be projected onto such simple things as buckets (provided they have special lids), the objective of KFC was most likely just a good public image (if we are too suspicious to buy company's intention to save lives).
These examples should illustrate what hidden ideological mechanisms Taylor was looking for in his psychoanalysis of the media. Different irrational standard procedures shape the media much more than the content, but they are rarely questioned let alone being seen as part of the problem in connection to the content, because media consumers are so familiar with these procedures and they cannot notice it. In top of that, some acts of violence (especially objective violence) in the world do not get much media coverage at all just because it is seen as a status quo. For example in the past years tens of thousands civilians have been killed every month in The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the total number of victims cannot be told to the nearest million, yet reports on Congo are not widespread in the mass media.
It is remarkable, that about half of over 20 authors who have written a book on Slavoj Žižek do not work in a faculty of philosophy, like Paul A. Taylor who specialises in theory of communication and mass media. This proportion of authors from other departments who write on Žižek should not be surprising, given the interdisciplinary nature and very different themes of Žižek's work. There are books that focus on Žižek's political thought. There are other books on his ideas relevant to theology and on his versions of psychoanalysis or communism1. Žižek and the Media introduces Slavoj Žižek to the field of media studies and at the same time puts media under the scope of Žižek's theory. I can very well imagine, that Žižek and the Media will be read by people interested in media studies, who will get an insight into the ideological mechanisms of the media but will not necessarily feel the urge to study other psychoanalytical or philosophical books, since Paul A. Taylor used his knowledge of Žižek's entire oeuvre to make a good selection of philosophical and psychoanalytical topics relevant to media. Since there are no Žižek's books devoted entirely to media, putting together his relevant ideas and showing their applications was also a good contribution to the discourse of cultural studies.
1. On political thought: Matthew Sharpe and Geoff Boucher (2010). Zizek and Politics: A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh University Press.
On theological aspects: Adam Kotsko (2008). Žižek and Theology. New York: T & T Clark.
On psychoanalysis: Raoul Moati (editor, 2010). Autour de S. Žižek, Psychanalyse, Marxisme, Idealisme Allemand, Paris: PUF.
On communism: Chris McMillan (2012). Žižek and Communist Strategy: On the Disavowed Foundations of Global Capitalism. Edinburgh University Press.