The Parallax View (Reprint Edition)
by Slavoj Žižek
The MIT Press, 448 pp. ISBN 978-0-262-51268-8
The Parallax View, which first appeared in February 2006, was reprinted in April 2009 in a paperback edition that includes substantial additions by the author, the ever prolific “Elvis of Philosophy,” Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is the closest thing to a rock star the academic Left is likely to get; the industry has its celebrities, to be sure, but none of such aptitudes — and amplitudes — as the man from Ljubljana. The Parallax View stands, then, as his Blue Hawaii, the “magnum opus” of his substantial oeuvre. Such a claim notwithstanding, The Parallax View proves a generally rewarding if uneven work.
Cribbed from the Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani (to his credit, Žižek is forthright in his appropriations, quoting liberally from Karatani’s Transcritique), a parallax gap, the lynchpin concept of Žižek’s theoretical apparatus, is an “observed difference [that] is not simply ‘subjective,’” Žižek writes, but “is rather … an ‘epistemological’ shift in the subject’s point of view [which] always reflects an ‘ontological’ shift in the object itself.” For instance, from one perspective an individual’s condition appears as one of freedom; from another, however, it appears as one determined by immanent constraints. (Goethe fairly captured this parallax when he wrote, “None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.”) The validity of the one, moreover, does not depend on the other’s invalidation, and, in fact, cannot be brought to invalidate the other. They simply exist as true propositions separated by an insurmountable gap. The task, then, becomes then not a matter of resolving the antinomies (by definition an impossible task) nor even to harmonize them, but simply to think them in their mutually contradictory character as a precursor to their theorization.
I took from Žižek’s explication of the parallax gap this: Every posited antinomy, opposition or other binarism conceals in itself a more pluriform nature, the terms themselves irreducible to themselves (a challenge to Western thought’s principle of identity: an entity is identical to itself), leaving an irreducible bare difference, the old Derridean stand-by, that remains largely unaccountable but ontologically substantial nonetheless — a locus of “the Real.” Ultimately uncognizable, this difference, which for Žižek is the Lacanian “objet petit a,” opens a parallax gap wherein this difference serves as a common referent among the actors of any ideological disagreement.
I found this a compelling thesis, and Žižek, while often given to an over-reliance on rhetorical questions, ellipses, and anacoluthon — this latter tendency perhaps inspired by Saint Paul, himself an inveterate employer of anacoluthon, whom Žižek frequently discusses in the early portions of The Parallax View — is in the main persuasive. I have to balk, however, at Žižek’s frequent recourse to pop-cultural examples. Are overwrought, pandering summer blockbusters like The Matrix and The Revenge of the Sith really so fraught with important theoretical implications?
The real shortcoming of The Parallax View, as I see it, comes in the final pages, wherein Žižek, having explicated his theory, waxes prescriptive, encouraging his readers to adopt what can only be described as an ascesis of imitatio Bartlebly. Bartleby, the titular character of Herman Melville’s immortal tale, is the pioneering figure of what Žižek deems is the most effective subjective positionality of resistance. The so-called “Bartleby-parallax” manages to avoid being caught up in the Hegelian pseudo-negations of counterhegemonic practices (Oh, the ever elusive Hegelian “negation of the negation!”). And we must, Žižek warns, be as resistant to these pseudo-negations in our “preferring-not-to’s” as to the hegemonic ills the former are intended to redress — I prefer not to eat factory-farmed, adulterated, genetically modified food; I prefer not to purchase food from an organic farming co-operative. Because not to do so and to remain, rather, in the old dialectic of resorting to alternatives to dismaying hegemony, is to remain ensnared in the Foucauldian circuits of power that result in the eternal recursion and reinscription of prevailing sociopolitical relations. The parallactic Bartleby, however, disrupts the workings of ideological apparatuses by cultivating an inner disposition of refusal until, according to Žižek, there opens up possibilities which are not determined by the dialectic.
This is precisely where Žižek lost me. I recall Bartleby’s fate: blind, starving, homeless, jailed … eventually dead. And, for all of Žižek’s hostility to what he calls “postmodern techno-gnosticism,” Bartleby seem an odd exemplar, given the fact that Melville often mused upon the tenets of Gnosticism. (He composed a poem on Gnosticism, and The Confidence Man, his last published novel, arguably lends itself to a Gnostic interpretation.) Žižek’s recommendation here seems too close to Baudrillard’s injunction to “be silent” in the face of popular media — essentially to choose a mode of resistance likely futile, all while consoling oneself that futility is inevitable, until from the inchoate parallax gap of the Real messianically springs, like Athena from the head of Zeus, the possibility of truly efficacious revolution.
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