Tuesday, October 2, 2007

writing about Zizek

I am now obliged to write a paper about The Parallax View. Reading and thinking with Zizek is, I'm fairly certain, bad both for your prose and your head. So far I've written several fat paragraphs about the dust-jacket, not because I've nothing to say about the inside, but because it seems like a reasonable place to start. These paragraphs are a bit ridiculous, so I'll probably cut them from the final paper, or reduce them substantially (they'd be almost 2 1/2 pages of what can't be more than 8 or 9 total--too much). In the interests of not letting myself forget that I sometimes write this sort of stuff, I'm going to post it here, now.

Since so much of The Parallax View is about the play of appearances, it seems to me that a prejudiced over-reading of the most superficial and transitory part of the book-as-commodity (the jacket) is in order. The front of is a painting of an empty arm-chair, wrapped in a white cloth; to the viewer’s left is a table covered with papers, which can be seen to wrap around the spine. Before following the table around the book, what is this chair? I can only see it as a reference to Magritte.[1] The folding of the white cloth is strongly reminiscent of Magritte’s series of cloth-covered heads. Further echoes immediately suggest themselves. The title of the book—in bold, empty white type, contrasting sharply with the textured, painted background—labels the empty chair. Ceci n’est pas un pipe is only the most famous of Magritte’s ‘labeled’ paintings, there is a whole series of them; always, the label is not the same as the picture. So far we have an empty chair, labeled by the title of the book, and even signed by the name of the author at the bottom. Should we then read the label as misdirection or questioning?

Following the table around to the spine of the volume, we arrive at the back cover. We see that behind the table there is a couch, only the very end of which we could see on the front, it also is empty. There is little text, only the technical information, and the barcode (I am pleased to learn that MIT Press is able so easily to categorize The Parallax View as ‘philosophy/cultural studies.’) Mostly, there is the second half of the picture: a man (bald) sitting and writing, the paper supported by his knee, which appendage almost, but not quite, touches the table. At this point: the images on the two sides of the book are connected by the table (covered in written-on paper), and behind the table, the couch. Should we see here “two sides of the same coin,” connected by, on the one hand, writing, the very image of intellection, and on the other, the couch, the emblem of psychoanalysis?

The man sitting taking analytic notes on the spectral occupant of the couch is not anonymous. It is Lenin.[2] Of course, things become more complicated when we open the back flap, and see the picture of Zizek there, in the normal spot for such images. It is a picture of a piece of installation art. An empty chair and a plant before a large mirror, in which we see Zizek, sitting, absent from ‘reality.’ (Magritte, again, has several paintings which play with the idea of the mirror.) The formal parallel between the portrait of Zizek and the painting of Lenin is unavoidable—indeed, the original painting was reversed when it was put onto the cover, perhaps just so as to make the parallelism work.[3] Zizek is thus in Lenin’s ‘place’—are we supposed to be able to apply a Lacanian grid of some sort to the cover? Would we read the empty spots of the couch and chair for subject-positions, one and two, Lenin for the analyst and then the fourth position would be we, ourselves, the viewers of the painting, possessors of the book? For Lacan, if we may hazard a generalization, what was most interesting about the Sausseurian formula of the sign was neither the signifier at the top, nor the signified on the bottom, but rather the bar separating the two. The cover of Zizek’s book, then, might also be not so much about the two sides, as about the gap of representation as such—in this case, the spine of the book. At the bottom is the publisher’s logo, out of which rises the leg of the table (a phallus?), supporting the written-on pages (phallogocentric discourse?). Hovering above this field of text is the title of the book, framed by the one of the back-cushions of the couch (psychoanalysis itself)—above this, textured nothingness. Have we yet achieved non-sense?

This is a good point to pull up out of this hermeneutic spiraling nosedive. The superficial and disposable outside of the book puts, I think, a very fine point on the game of representation, in which art, politics and psycho-analysis are all deeply involved. The relationship between Zizek and Lenin is highlighted, and by extension, the relation of psychoanalysis to politics. Similarly at play in the jacket design are the covered and the uncovered; the real and the phantasmic; the human and the inhuman.

[1] Clearly, there are no formal similarities between Magritte’s photo-realist-surrealism and the socialist-realist painting used for the cover-art of The Parallax View. This painting is itself a copy made by Grigori Shpolyanski from an original by Isaac Brodsky. The game of political (mis)-representation is very much afoot (see note on front-flap). Although one finds things to disagree with on nearly every page of The Parallax View, there are relatively few outright errors. Interesting, then, that Zizek as a passing comparison to the self-constitution of consciousness, incorrectly attributes to Magritte the M.C. Escher picture of a hand drawing another hand, itself drawing the first hand (219). Should this be read symptomatically?

[2] I tread on thin ice here: The picture’s title is “Lenin at the Smolny Institute,” which I think means a specific time and place, December 1917, when Lenin and his cabinet agreed that Finland should be separate from Russia. I wouldn’t speculate further on this without more information.

[3] Of course, this reversal often happens—perhaps it is a technical convenience? The cover of Laclau’s On Populist Reason also reverses its painting, a detail from “The Fourth Estate” by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. What conclusion, if any, is to be drawn from the fact that this painting is also featured as the background to the opening credits of Bernardo Bertollucci’s epic film Novocento? Did either Laclau or Zizek even have a hand in the design of their books? Does the answer matter?

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