Slavoj Zizek: Between Public Intellectual and Academic Celebrity

By Eliran Bar-El

In the third article of our special section on Superstar Professors, Eliran Bar-El considers the case of Slavoj Žižek and how this can contribute to a more refined understanding of academic celebrity and how we study it. 

The study of academic celebrities is definitely not new. It was carried out for years, although not exactly under that banner. Immediately, then, we have the problem of meaning: what exactly do mean by saying academic celebrity? Are we talking about successful innovative academics? Are we talking about worldwide recognized academics? These questions can go on forever. Yet, it is useful to link this line of questioning to the vast literature of intellectuals in general and public intellectuals more specifically. This will help frame and contextualize the opaque title of academic celebrity. So the purpose of this post is double: first, identify the problem regarding academic celebrities; and second, discuss the ways this problem is dealt within scholarly research.

I assume that academic celebrity is a sub-set of celebrities. At least by name alone this is the case. And so, just like pop-culture or sports celebrities, we can locate the academic celebrities as working within some institution, namely, academia. Now my initial question is what are the relations between public intellectuals and academic celebrities? Well, from the very beginning differences emerge: the public and academia are different domains of social life. Some public intellectuals (like artists) are not academics. And some academic celebrities are unknown to the public (perhaps Bruno Latour is such a case). Some, of course, can be both. Yet, it is reasonable to assume that academic celebrities also fall under the broader category of intellectuals. There cannot be an academic celebrity who is not an intellectual. But the matter of being a public intellectual is about acting beyond the academic field, by intervening in public affairs.

So we are dealing with two, not unrelated and yet not the same, fields and issues. Let us try to generally define them: academic celebrities are those who benefit from a high status (and recognition) in the academic space, as they are known, taught, and talked about, thus they occupy much room in that space. Just like Justin Bieber in the musical space, who occupies a lot of it, relatively of course. On the other hand, we find the public space, which is quite distinct from the academic space, just as Cambridge is distinct from London, or Yale from New-York. Here, the definition would be something like this: a public intellectual is one who successfully uses his/her symbolic capital gained within the routine field of activity (art or science etc.), in order to intervene in the political sphere and make an ethical stand regarding the public as a whole.

So coming back to the relations between academic celebrities and intellectuals, we can claim that first we have intellectuals, then some of them become celebrities within academia, and some (maybe the same) become also public intellectuals. The case of (the philo-superstar) SlavojŽižek is of special interest in this sense. First, there can be no doubt that he is an intellectual. Second, he is for sure a public intellectual (given the definition above). Third, while he is very much known outside the academic field, his reception (and reputation) within it is much more ambiguous (see for instance his very low score in the open syllabus project). Thus, his celebrity status within academia is not so established. This brings us to the crucial matter of studying intellectuals (and academics), which, as I stated at the beginning, is not new. 

Since 1924 when Max Scheler coined the phrase sociology of knowledge, the latter has been an object of sociological analysis. Although many dealt with this topic before 1924 (see, for example, Marx’s analysis of consciousness or Durkheim’s analysis of collective representations), only with Mannheim did it become a clear, explicit subfield of sociological research. And then things got messy again. Merton studied the formation of scientific knowledge, while Berger and Luckmann focused on everyday knowledge-making, and in the 1970s “the Strong Programme” emphasized the study of scientific knowledge. So the question of academics themselves was pretty much neglected, until the rise of “the new sociology of ideas”. 

The sociology of ideas aimed at looking back also on the social sciences and the humanities. See, for example, Charles Camic’s study of Parsons. The former tried to account for Parsons’ choices throughout his career, as an attempt to explain his rise to prominence in the context of Harvard’s sociology department. He claimed that the institutional conditions made Parsons adopt the European sociologists (Weber, Durkheim etc.) in order to acquire his unique position in that (American) field. Another example is Neil Gross’s account of Richard Rorty’s professional trajectory in the philosophical field. He argued that Rorty’s ‘self-concept’ resonated more with the pragmatist school rather than the analytic philosophical tradition, based on his liberal upbringing.

Today, the sociology of interventions possesses a more sophisticated toolbox for studying intellectuals, which might also account for the study of academic celebrities. The key concepts here are positioning and performance. According to Patrick Baert’s positioning theory, the focus should be more on the dynamic performative dimension of intellectual productions, rather the static intentions which are too psychological and “shady”. Additionally, the notion of context is crucial; the same academic might not become a celebrity in another spatial/temporal context. So there is a clear relational aspect to it. This processual mode of thinking regards any kind of intellectual intervention as performative, in that it achieves something in the world, namely, it positions its author(s). And, it also regards intervention as performances, a social relation between performer and audience, intellectual and public, for example.

Positioning Theory, in contrast to the new sociology of ideas, focuses on the relational dynamic and pragmatic process of rhetorical actions and reactions – or, positioning and counter-positioning. It works perforce through the consequences of intellectual thoughts. Putting that apparatus to work on the case of Žižek, which is my object of study, may actually account for his emergence as a public intellectual – and – not really an academic celebrity, like Giddens or Bourdieu. Put differently, it explains why the public is more receptive to Žižek’s ideas than academia proper. So, it is possible to show how Žižek is able to spread his ideas, creating what I have coined “the Žižek Effect”, through 5 main elements:

1. Intricate relations to critics: Žižek currently takes a leading part in an active network of critical thought, along with Perry Anderson, Judith Butler, Alain Badiou, Fredrick Jameson and many more in the global context; and, in the local context, with his team – or troika – more narrowly, he advances his line of Hegelian-Lacanian inquiry.

2. Solid relationship with journalists: Žižek frequently intervenes through commenting on major worldwide events from the trauma of 9/11, the 2008 economic crisis, to the Arab Spring and the refugee crisis – showing how once prevalent ideas lost their credibility within our global society, and suggesting alternative ones instead.

3. Strong position in the publishing industry: As an editor of various book series, in Verso, MIT, Duke UP and elsewhere, he maintained over the years a unique position which allowed him to be very prolific (with almost 70 books published), and to advance fellow authors in his edited book series.

4. Use of varied communication channels: This also makes Žižek’s ideas – which are not at all the simplest – much more accessible, as all his books (and films) are available online, where one can find hours on end of his public lectures and teachings. This allows him to disseminate his ideas directly to the public, which can take part in that intellectual performance.

5. Analyses that resonate a wider cultural sentiment: His positioning vis-à-vis the current global situation and the ones who frame it, allows him to acquire the role of a moral compass (at least for the left), against the usual notion that any grand claim for truth and universality is doomed for being proto-fascist.

Žižek is doing all that while mobilizing special kinds of performative, rhetorical tools. Generally, his use of language is unique in this respect. This is key for his public reception and academic rejection, as is clear from his polemic with Noam Chomsky. Beside cursing and telling dirty jokes, his extensive use of examples AND jokes is part of his methodology. The example (in-itself) is a crucial operator in Žižek’s work, for it not only concretizes a concept – it constitutes it. This way he positions himself both as an intellectual, who hires Hegel and Lacan, and an activist, siding with the people in their struggles, provide them with meaning while using many common-knowledge everyday examples.

This kind of process-oriented study is very illuminating. It highlights both intellectual and academic conceptualizations, together with the public and its affairs. This can turn into celebrity study, which focuses on academia, but is surely not confined to it.

Originally posted 26th May 2016

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