zizek is no gandhi (another post on bad, bad writing)

You may think, like Andrew Perrin does, that my rant against bad writing is cheap academic posturing. The reason I am focused on bad writing is that it undermines our central mission as scholars and thinkers. Consider the rather lame interaction between philosopher John Gray and Slavoj Zizek. Gray goes nuclear on Zizek and picks on a passage where Zizek compares Hitler and Gandhi. Zizek thinks that Gray can’t read. This is an example of where Zizek’s poor writing leads to Gray’s misdirected response. I choose this example because I agree with Zizek’s point, but Zizek has distracted the reader from his idea through the flippant and sloppy use of language.

In summary, Zizek, correctly in my view, argues that Gandhi was more radical than a blood thirsty dictator like Hitler:

Instead of directly attacking the colonial state, Gandhi organized movements of civil disobedience, of boycotting British products, of creating social space outside the scope of the colonial state. One should then say that, crazy as it may sound, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.

Let’s stop right there and think about what is happening. Zizek wishes to emphasize the point that Hitler’s regime was on some level highly conservative. This point has been made by lots of people who have noted that a lot of powerful groups in Germany benefited from Nazism and that racial hatred, like Nazism, merely reinforces existing ethnic relations, rather than change them. In contrast, Gandhian non-violence required that people soften their hatred toward others, a softening that truly changes social relations.

So how does Zizek pursue this point? By choosing a comparison case (Gandhian non-violence) that has a very well defined and common sense description and then slapping a label on it (violence) that, in every day speech, has the completely opposite meaning. Many readers, rightfully, will obsess over a strong word like violence and quickly forget the preceding subtlety.

The point about Gandhi’s radicalism is very important and can stand on its own. And, when written out in clear prose, the idea commands attention. By hiding the argument behind coy diction, Zizek makes things hard to understand for all but the most loyal disciple. Bad writing destroys the argument.

Finally, let me add that Gandhi himself was an exceptionally clear writer. On how nonviolence is very radical and can even transform the oppressor:

Nonviolence is ‘not a resignation from all real fighting against wickedness’. On the contrary, the nonviolence of my conception is a more active and real fight against wickedness than retaliation whose very nature is to increase wickedness. I contemplate, a mental and therefore a moral opposition to immoralities. I seek entirely to blunt the edge of the tyrant’s sword, not by putting up against it a sharper-edged weapon, but by disappointing his expectation that I would be offering physical resistance. The resistance of the soul that I should offer would elude him. It would at first dazzle him and at last compel recognition from him, which recognition would not humiliate him but would uplift him. It may be urged that this is an ideal state. And so it is.


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Written by fabiorojas

September 20, 2012 at 3:48 am

5 Responses

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  1. I don’t think your example is very well chosen. Your issue with Zizek here is not with his writing, but, in an important sense, with his thinking. The passage you quote is not especially poorly written. What you object to is his choice of words, indeed, his choice of a specific word, and perhaps the basic Hitler-Gandhi comparison. But both of these provocations are entirely intentional on Zizek’s part. There’s nothing sloppy about it.

    Zizek is not trying to say something else which the word “violence” obscures. He’s really trying to get us to understand something (he thinks is) important about violence. (It’s like Heidegger’s “Gewalt”, which is also uncomfortable reading in his Intro to Metaphysics. But very necessary reading, and thinking, nonetheless.) To say Zizek meant to say something less provocative is really to miss the point.

    In any case, I just don’t see the “bad writing” in the sentence you quote. I think it makes perfect sense. (Unlike some of the other examples you’ve chosen, where I can at least see why you would call it obscure.)

    I’m inclined to agree with Zizek that Gray has misread him, not with you that Zizek’s bad writing has misled Gray. Gray has seized upon a rhetorical “weakness” of the passage, one that is, perhaps, “asking” to be exploited. But it can ultimately only be exploited by being distorted. That shows less character in Gray than poor writing skills in Zizek, who was leaving his argument intentionally vulnerable (because only vulnerability on this point would allow him to make it).

    Finally, if you take the (deserved) aura off Gandhi’s writing, I think you’ll have to agree that it’s somewhat vague and purple in its phrasing. His point his perfectly good, but isn’t the writing at bit, you know, puffed up? I mean, if it wasn’t Gandhi but, say, Chris Hedges, I’d smirk a little, as I sometimes do with Hedges, who I also generally agree with in substance.



    September 20, 2012 at 6:38 pm

  2. Andy Perrin is no Genrikh Yagoda.



    September 20, 2012 at 10:12 pm

  3. My Slovenian is worse than Zizek English.



    September 21, 2012 at 1:37 pm

  4. @Blokhin: thanks – faint praise, to be sure.
    @Thomas: yes, right.



    September 24, 2012 at 11:41 pm

  5. I absolutely agree with Thomas.
    If your looking for poetry in the lines read Ghandi.
    If you want poetry in between the lines read Zizek.
    Zizek purposely tries to push the reader – and if you don’t think it’s good writing, fair enough. I think this is very subjective, actually.
    Sadly enough, you will probably not bring about the changes Zizek wants to see.



    October 3, 2012 at 8:08 am

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