The Aesthetics of Transgression

The below text has been adapted from a panel presentation.


In this famous Dwayne Booth cartoon from an old issue of Spy Magazine, a painter asks a businessman, "Can I have a grant so that I can finish my art?" To the right, we see the painter's unfinished project: a portrait of the businessman captioned "FUCKING ASSHO."

Since I know how much a joke can be improved by a pedantic explanation, I'd like to point out that the painter's grant request is doubly disingenuous. First, and most obviously, the painter is, without shame, asking the businessman to finance his own hit-piece. Second, and this is the element that makes the joke work, the painter does not need the money he is requesting to "finish his art." All he has left to do is paint two more letters ("L" and "E"), which could not possibly cost thousands of dollars to do.

This cartoon is sometimes cited to illustrate a conservative point: that the state and the wealthy are under no ethical obligation to finance art or criticism, and that the artist or critic has no legitimate grievance when he is denied funding. I want to use this cartoon instead to frame a discussion I think a little more interesting and productive: the paradox of radical social criticism as a profession.

To begin, we might conceive of Booth's painter and businessman as standing in a dialectical relation to one another (not quite a lordship-and-bondage relationship, but close enough). So in order to explore the paradoxical character of the situation at hand, I want to view it from the vantage point of each party in turn. First, let us assume the position of the painter, the bombastic social critic, a figure who flaunts convention and propriety, brazenly demanding that a capitalist fund the endeavor of spitting in his face. And who better to represent such a figure than Slavoj Zizek?

Over the problem of Slavoj Zizek much ink has been spilled and many hands have been wrung. Any discussion of his scholarship is invariably contaminated by the omnipresence of his personal brand. It is difficult to determine whether one should treat Zizek as an academic or as a pop icon. How seriously can one take Zizek as a thinker? One of my favorite examples of authors responding to this dilemma comes from a 2007 article by Andrew Robinson and Simon Tormey critiquing Zizek's reading of Lenin. Toward the end of the article's introductory section, Robinson and Tormey have a "word on method," which runs as follows:

"We have chosen, somewhat controversially, to take Zizek at his word. This raises the objection that Zizek is being playful or strategic, that maybe he doesn't 'mean' all of what he says, and that we are falling for a trap in taking him to task for his views. We have chosen, however, to take Zizek seriously."

Although I echo this call to take Zizek seriously, I don't think taking him seriously requires that we "look past" his celebrity status or deliberately confrontational style. On the contrary, I contend that Zizek's celebrity depends on an aesthetic of transgression which greatly informs his scholarship. For the purposes of this presentation, then, I accept a high degree of indistinction between Zizek-as-celebrity and Zizek-as-scholar. I am not sure how to appropriately address one without addressing the other.

For starters, Zizek's status as a celebrity depends on his status as an academic, and specifically as an uncouth academic. He is animated and flippant, not austere and professorial. Indeed, he resents the label "professor" and calls students "boring idiots." In the realm of research, Zizek spurns conventions to the degree that, to paraphrase a remark by Jeremy Gilbert, he appears to regard himself as "the Great Exception to the ordinary rules of academic conduct." One need only look back to Zizek's high-profile plagiarism scandal two years ago (a scandal, incidentally, for which he faced no serious repercussions) to support this point. Zizek's celebrity is facilitated by a dutifully cultivated method of transgression against the norms of academic professionalism, norms from which Zizek nonetheless benefits as his citation numbers rise and his critics often face more rigorous challenges than he does himself (see Robinson and Tormey's anticipated objection above). This methodical transgression becomes aestheticized not only through Zizek's endearingly comical assortment of verbal and physical tics, but also through his confrontational writing style, his bobbing and weaving through "high" and "low" culture, and his propensity for telling off-color jokes.

Zizek infuses his aesthetic of transgression with a kind of self-conscious ultra-leftism, which manifests in consistent efforts to position himself as the only true radical in opposition to soft-left (and particularly postmodernist) fashions. He acknowledges as much in the introduction to In Defense of Lost Causes, admitting that he "indulge[s] in excessively confrontational and 'provocative' statements," particularly during his defense of revolutionary terror. One can also see this principle at work in his engagements with Laclau and Butler, at numerous points throughout which he plays the role of Marxism's haggard defender against the depoliticizing influences of populism and identity politics, respectively. As much as Laclau and Butler decry Marxist "essentialism," he charges, they silently accept essential categories themselves. By refusing to question capitalism or liberal democracy, they allow the existing political and economic order to remain an uncontested backdrop for their own (post-)political projects.

Yet if we follow Zizek in this critique, it is unclear whether his alternative leads to any more satisfying political possibilities. Zizek dismisses Laclau's preferred forms of praxis, contending that radical democracy consists in a "depoliticization of the economy," as does populism, by pinning the blame for problems integral to capitalism on a scapegoated outsider. Since they fail to address the roots of capitalist crisis, he classifies these types of political engagement as "pseudo-activity." But what does Zizek propose instead? His usual counterproposal to pseudo-activity is not authentic activity, but rather the refusal to act. Zizek holds firmly that "sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do" (violent here invoked in the positive sense of Benjaminian "divine violence").

Zizek's simultaneous commitments to political inaction and Marxist (quasi-)orthodoxy lead him to valorize revolutionary terror while remaining utterly incapable of situating revolutionary agency in the present situation. Zizek has much admiration for revolutions of the past, but little hope for such an upheaval today. If there is a culminating force with the potential to overthrow capitalism, it is not a proletarian class-for-itself, but an impending ecological catastrophe. It would be only a little uncharitable to say Zizek's answer to "what is to be done" is to wait for the apocalypse, or some other divinely violent, "evental" rupture. It is, indeed, along these lines that Simon Critchley once likened him to a "Slovenian Hamlet: utterly paralyzed but dreaming of an avenging violent act for which, finally, he lacks the courage." This is the position in which Zizek's aesthetic of transgression places us: we enthusiastically refuse, in truly Bartlebian fashion, not only the established order but also every mode of challenging it that the contemporary political situation affords us.

Theorizing Zizek the celebrity-scholar in terms of the aesthetics of transgression is useful in part because Zizek himself has expressed skepticism of the social value of some transgressive artwork. He explains in Demanding the Impossible that he does not consider Andres Serrano's infamous piece "Piss Christ," a photograph of a crucifix suspended in urine, truly subversive. There is nothing inherently radical in challenging notions of decency or disgust: "Some things are simply disgusting. I don't think this is a bourgeois plot or the proletarian reappropriation of high culture or whatever."

In this moment, Zizek stumbles onto a point of approximate agreement with cultural critic Steven Shaviro, who has similarly, though more rigorously, questioned whether an aesthetic of transgression is really subversive in the neoliberal era. When the individual becomes always and everywhere homo oeconomicus, and when the dictates of the market begin to subsume every sphere of human activity, does an aesthetic and moral attack against bourgeois propriety still have any force? Shaviro gives an emphatic no:

"Neoliberalism has no problem with excess. Far from being subversive, transgression today is entirely normative. ... Every supposedly 'transgressive' act or representation expands the field of capital investment."

This juncture provides us with an opportune moment to reverse our vantage point and situate ourselves in the position of the businessman, the capitalist. How does he regard the subversive painter, the social critic? The minor brouhaha that met its debut aside, we can see how artwork like "Piss Christ" might fall beneath this category of pseudo-transgression: art that purports to attack bourgeois decency, but is ultimately appropriated for bourgeois purposes, namely, capital investment. (Parenthetically, we might recall that the outrage over "Piss Christ" was mainly economic; the conservative argument against Serrano's piece was not that it should not have been made, but that it should not have received public funding. And this is an argument that today, one often hears directed not just at transgressive art, but at art in general.)

The point here is that moral and physical excess, if aestheticized and subsequently marketed, can easily be accommodated in a culture whose wellspring is capitalist excess on an unprecedented global scale. But, and here's the truly relevant bit for my purposes here, what about ideological excess? If excess itself is no longer subversive, can ideological excess, that is, subversion itself be aestheticized and converted into a profit opportunity?

If the case of Slavoj Zizek, Superstar is any indication, then yes. What strikes me in much of Zizek's work is how easily many of his pithiest critiques can be turned back onto him, the celebrity-scholar, as an object of analysis. For instance, Zizek is fond of remarking that the communist planners in China are today the most ruthless capitalists. Meanwhile, Zizek, the communist intellectual, is one of the most relentless careerists. Zizek is also fond of explicating the ideological implications of, say, coffee without caffeine, or soda without sugar: the transgressive object is rendered benign via the extraction of its pathological element. Meanwhile, Zizek's aestheticized ultra-leftism follows just such a pattern. He is a self-styled communist who defends revolutionary terror, but without ascribing traditional historical agency to the proletariat or calling for a revolution himself. He is thus a Marxist, but without the ostensibly pathological component that makes Marxism an actual threat to the established order.

Truly in keeping with the anesthetizing aestheticization of transgression under the conditions of neoliberalism, Zizek is dubbed the "most dangerous philosopher in the West" precisely because he is not dangerous. He is akin to the court jester who mocks the king and gladly accepts payment for the privilege, or, alternatively, the painter who unashamedly sells the businessman an insulting caricature, ultimately to the businessman's delight.

May 11, 2016