"Media more incestuous than a medieval village"

Tere Vadén Assistant professor, Hypermedia, University of Tampere talks to Dr Paul Taylor, editor of the International Journal of Zizek Studies about the state of media and communications research, philosophical inquiry, open access publishing. This article appears in the forthcoming issue of niin & näin and is reproduced here with kind permission.

TV: How was the IJZS conceived? I understand you have been one of the editors in chief from the beginning? So maybe our readers would also like to know something about your background. And what is your personal & the journal’s path to the Zizekian world?

paultaylor.jpgPT: My first degree was in Economics and Politics, my PhD involved a sociological study of the computer underground, and since then my professional research has explored digital culture from a more theoretical perspective. Most recently, my attention has focused upon media culture more generally and I’m increasingly concentrating upon cinema’s usefulness for illustrating theoretical analysis to a generation of students for whom books are the equivalent of kryptonite to Superman! My academic background represents rather a long, slow and painful path to the realization that to paraphrase Heidegger, “The essence of Communications is nothing communicational”. Working within the disciplinary field of Communications, I have found that the most fundamental questions about communicational acts and processes are almost systematically avoided. Like the apocryphal person looking under a street lamp for a bunch of keys dropped on the dark side of the street, merely because that’s where the light is best, communications studies tends to fetishize methodological approaches as an end in themselves rather than the means to an overarching intellectual end that they should be.

there is also seems to be the over-compensatory tendency of a young academic discipline to establish its social ‘scientific’ boundaries. This has led to a growth in what Lazarsfeld so unironically labelled administrative research, that is, research designed to produce projects and findings amenable to government and institutional paymasters and/or areas of enquiry that are thorough and systematic but immensely uninteresting from an intellectual point of view

Apart from such narrow methodological foci, there is also seems to be the over-compensatory tendency of a young academic discipline to establish its social ‘scientific’ boundaries. This has led to a growth in what Lazarsfeld so unironically labelled administrative research, that is, research designed to produce projects and findings amenable to government and institutional paymasters and/or areas of enquiry that are thorough and systematic but immensely uninteresting from an intellectual point of view. Sometimes, to partially compensate for this innate dryness, a certain “sexiness by association” is sometimes garnered by uncritically engaging with celebrity culture and those in positions of political power – fawning over an imaginary robe, rather than being willing to point out the Emperor’s nudity.

Faced with this rather dispiriting situation, I was drawn to the work of Jean Baudrillard. His work added a level of reflexivity sorely lacking in mainstream Communications. This drew me into contact with the online International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (IJBS) of which I became an Editorial Board member (I’m surprised that so far there hasn’t been a substantial piece of work that compares Baudrillard and Zizek). From this experience my eyes were opened not only to a more radical approach to media content and history but also the potential of the online format for disseminating that knowledge. The irony of a Communications discipline slow to realize the significance of this new communicational opportunity didn’t escape me and I decided to emulate IJBS with a similarly conceived IJZS.

Love him or loathe him, like Sloterdijk, Zizek’s approach is suffused with an intellectual appetite and panache that, at its best, makes scholarship an all-consuming cerebral vocation and, when lacking, produces scholarship’s etiolated underside – the dry pedantry of narrow, defensive categorizing more suited as an activity for one of Kafka’s labyrinthine offices or Musil’s Kakania

The huge attraction for me of Zizek’s output rests in a combination of its depth and range. I consistently return to various profound thinkers whose early insights can still be applied to the contemporary mediascape such as Benjamin and Heidegger – their work rewards repeated, careful readings – but Zizek’s uniqueness resides in the way he effortlessly applies such nuanced analysis to a huge range of demotic phenomena. An average page of Zizek can take you from Kant, Schelling and Schopenhauer and Lacan to Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers with detours to Hitchcock, David Lynch and miscellaneous minor films along the way. As the Founding Editor of IJZS this can create its own set of problems in so far as it produces an extremely diverse range of Zizekian-inspired submissions as well as the fact that his provocative style often irritates the followers of specific thinkers which can make obtaining responses from them quite difficult.

I’m currently re-reading Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, and whilst doing so, I am reminded of how Zizek’s work first appealed to me as an antidote to the shameless Machiavellianism positioning and bureaucratic posturing that now dominates university faculties. Love him or loathe him, like Sloterdijk, Zizek’s approach is suffused with an intellectual appetite and panache that, at its best, makes scholarship an all-consuming cerebral vocation and, when lacking, produces scholarship’s etiolated underside – the dry pedantry of narrow, defensive categorizing more suited as an activity for one of Kafka’s labyrinthine offices or Musil’s Kakania.

TV: I’m also especially interested in the “political economy” of OA publishing. How was the decision to go OA made, and how is the journal economically sustained? I’m not looking for nitty-gritty details, but
for the big picture: how is it possible? (This is also because we have been trying to get an OA journal off the grounds for quite some time now, with no success).

PT: Drawing upon IJBS for inspiration, from its very conception, IJZS was always designed to be open access. This was due to my inability to understand the logic of going down the dead tree publication route for a journal whose content seeks to engage with popular culture on a truly international basis. Given the reflexivity of Zizek’s work and the consistent manner with which it ponders the grounds of its own analysis, it struck me as quite hypocritical that otherwise admirably left-wing academics are so keen to subscribe (both metaphorically and literally) to neo-liberal publication models designed to ring-fence rather than freely disseminate knowledge. This is particularly ironic when those same dead-tree journals discuss (without apparent awarenss of the irony) issues such as technologically-sponsored empowerment and the politics of globalization. The reason for this tension is easy to explain – professional kudos is gained in almost inverse proportion to a journal’s readership in numerical terms.

By contrast to such professional insularity, walking the open access talk has proved relatively simple in terms of the basic economics. Space on a commercial server is rented on an annual, easily affordable, basis using my own funds. I am also involved as one of the contributors to the online Subaltern cinema collective. This is similarly situated on a private server, but driven by the same goal of open access for maximum intellectual reach and impact. IJZS started out life on my Department’s server using a simple technical infrastructure supported on an ad hoc basis by a departmental colleague. After starting with an initial look to the Site that my current co-Editor David Gunkel described as “an Ikea-porn design disaster”, I quickly realized that my enthusiastic amateurism was not sustainable in the long term. After creating a suitable logo design with help from a graphically-literate friend, I managed to enlist/cajole David into re-designing the Site’s whole aesthetic. The next stage was to improve the technical functionality of the Site. The early version involved having to html code each individual article, an early decision was made to switch to a pdf format for articles and use the Open Journal Software (OJS) developed in Canada for the Site’s structure. OJS is an evolving software system that provides free, off-the-shelf, journal capabilities that include automated user distribution lists, article submission processes, translation and search facilities.

My experience of both IJZS and Subaltern Sites is that the relatively low technical set-up cost risks becoming insignificant compared to the potential technical difficulties of adapting an off-the-shelf journal/blog to your own specific requirements. In the IJZS case, for example, David Gunkel has spent a large amount of time fine-tuning the various glitches and technical inconsistencies that inevitably arise. On the plus side, OJS provides a standardized format supported by the international Open Access community which will hopefully eventually help to create a major countervailing resource to the incipient commercialization of intellectual enquiry.

TV: And then, Mr Z. How did he get involved?

Beyond contributing new papers for IJZS Zizek’s role is an honorary one. As a basic matter of courtesy I contacted him when first setting up the Journal to make sure he had no objection, but beyond that, contact is deliberately limited. Since in Lacanian psychoanalysis it is not a good idea to get too close to the object of your desire, perhaps it is good that I have still not met him!

TV: One thing that pops up clearly is the tension, contrast or “Auseinandersetzung” of “administrative research” and a more serious intellectual undertaking. Co-incidentally or not, I also remember my first encounter with Zizek’s text, it was an interview on a net site and the topic was the wars in ex-Yugoslavia; what struck me was his insistence that “true friendship means that you can insult the other” (this against PC pacification). So there seems to be something alluring and exciting about the honesty, quite simply, of not subscribing to the well-intentioned niceties of academic and pseudo-academic discussion.

PT: Yes, I think this is a good summary of a key issue – the manner in which the tenets of administrative research have been internalized by academics either subsconsciously or deliberately and why this makes Zizek such an appealing alternative figure. Whilst Sartre gave us the notion “hell is other people”, my personal hell-on-earth is the current growth in the two main types of academic that now dominate universities:

1. The careerist cynic.

2. The illiberal literalist/Lacanian pervert

1. Sloterdijk’s distinction between the cynic and the Diogenes-like kynic is a useful one with which to see through the abuse of scholarly standards that occurs by those disproportionately likely to avow their commitment to those same standards. The fate of rhetorical entombment in the glossy pages of university brochures, rather than living enactment, now awaits concepts such as “excellence” that have become a vacuous pastiche of their former meaning. This cynicism is then compounded in a series of manoeuvres:

  • the way in which academic gossip establishes reputation by repetition and/or a perceived closeness to the levers of power/celebrity rather than actual scholarly achievement
  • the cynical exercise of noblesse oblige to consumers of mass culture – few are willing to criticize its content for fear of being labelled elitist (the perennially lazy dismissal of Adorno’s insights)

Zizek is an interesting figure in relation to both these manoeuvres. In terms of reputation, his popularity amongst a wide range of scholars from different academic subjects is more than matched by the low esteem he is held in by those disciplinary thought police for whom trans-disciplinarity is only acceptable as a buzz-word on an application for research funding. He is a small-scale celebrity with a movie, TV documentary series, sell-out crowds for his talks, and a mini-publishing industry in his own right – yet to the extent that he does enjoy any mild celebrity status – this has been earned without dumbing down his message. Thus, in terms of the patronization and faux-naïf valorization of mass culture by the well-educated who should know better, Zizek is unparalleled for the manner with which he mines mass culture for illustrative examples of unashamedly complex philosophical/psychoanalytical arguments. It is worth reiterating, mass culture provides him with examples from which to better understand psychoanalytical insights but, innately derivative and deeply commercialized as it is, he does not bend over backwards to disingenuously value it for its own sake as is the tendency of many more intellectually insecure cultural populists.

2. Richard Rorty is a proponent of the power of narratives as a critical resource and as such shares Sloterdijk’s appreciation of literature as a resource for the non-cynical, kynical perspective . He offers us the notion of the liberal ironist. This is a person who “faces up to the contingency of his or her own central beliefs and desires” (Rorty 1989: xv) the liberal element of the term stemming from the fact that: “Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.” (ibid: xv) In contrast, British universities are now dominated by the illiberal literalist – the academic who clings so tightly to the reassuring structures of bureaucracy and disciplinary purity that any sense of intellectual curiosity is sacrificed on the altar of po-faced literalism. Lacan defines the pervert in a similar fashion, the sexual pervert is characterized by their excessive identification with one (often arbitrary) aspect of the seductive process – to the extent that the high-heeled shoe becomes more important than the person wearing it – bringing to mind Kaul Kraus’s observation that “the most miserable creature on earth is the shoe fetishist who has to settle for the whole woman”.

An interesting element of Baudrillard’s work was his consistent argument that a certain cultural richness has been lost as the social ambiguities of traditional society have been replaced by the cold communicational efficiencies of a totalitarian semiotic order that despite its rhetoric of interactivity actually serves to fabricate non-communication. Patterns of behaviour based upon agonistic notions of seduction are now replaced by the crass explicitness of which widespread pornography is merely the reflection of a deeper underlying social rejection of veiled subtlety. In this context and in relation to your mention of political correctness, Zizek is a great example of Bataille’s provocative, non-politically-correct call (approvingly cited by Badurillard in The Conspiracy of Art [2005]) that we should aim to think like a woman taking off her dress.

Yes, we should be prepared to insult each other more often, because both the offence given and the offence taken, at least implies ideas worth arguing over. Currently, universities are dominated by ideas from which any intellectual content has been eviscerated in advance. The technical notion of research has almost completely usurped the substantive practice of scholarship to the extent that I doubt that many careerist academics are able to conceptualize the distinction.

The OA movement at least offers the potential for countervailing values. It is this sense of alternative values that has fuelled the translation initiative at IJZS. Such is the colonizing power of English on the internet, it may well prove to be merely an exercise in linguistic window-dressing. However, I’m a great believer in symbols and for an International journal not to offer at least the opportunity for a truly international flavour, strikes me as hypocritical. The plan therefore is to continue to encourage voluntary translations of existing content and submissions in contributors’ mother tongue that can then be translated into English. If the invitation is only taken up sporadically, I still think it is worth making the gesture.

TV: One great thing about OA seems to be a Marxian one: by controlling the means of production one is allowed a heightened degree of honesty in this sense. (That is also the beauty of the free software movement – one does not only complain and whine but starts writing the free system). But back to the details: Do you see enough volunteers or enthusiasts around the IJZS so that the relatively ambitious and very praiseworthy goals of translation can be achieved? And what are your plans? How big and what kind of big should the IJZS become?

PT: On the general political point – the centres of media power ( in the British case I’m thinking of London) are frequently more incestuous than a mountain-locked medieval village. The much-vaunted traditions of journalistic professionalism and world-class standards has degenerated into a fig-leaf for maintaining a refuge for upper-middleclass privilege and summer work experience for trustafarian offspring. The OA movement at least offers the potential for countervailing values. It is this sense of alternative values that has fuelled the translation initiative at IJZS. Such is the colonizing power of English on the internet, it may well prove to be merely an exercise in linguistic window-dressing. However, I’m a great believer in symbols and for an International journal not to offer at least the opportunity for a truly international flavour, strikes me as hypocritical. The plan therefore is to continue to encourage voluntary translations of existing content and submissions in contributors’ mother tongue that can then be translated into English. If the invitation is only taken up sporadically, I still think it is worth making the gesture.

IJZS already has its welcome page in a wide range of currently under-represented languages and a slowly growing number of actual articles have been translated. For example, in addition to some of the main European languages and Chinese, the Editorial introduction is currently being prepared in both Tamil and Hindi and a Special Issue on Zizek and India has been commissioned. It may well be the case that academics working in those languages already have good English, but I repeat, it sends out a symbolic statement to the non-Anglophone world that it should push back more against that automatic assumption the internet must be exclusively in English. As to how big, IJZS should or could become – it’s unashamedly academic content will make sure it never “sells out” and sacrifices conceptual difficulty for commercial success, but on the other hand, it’s commitment to a genuinely global online audience means that, like Heinekein, it may well reach the parts other journals cannot reach!

This article appears courtesy Tere Vadén Assistant professor, Hypermedia, University of Tampere and the journal niin & näin. Reproduced here with kind permission.

One thought on “"Media more incestuous than a medieval village"

  1. Dear Tere Vaden
    Your interview is really interesting.Currently,i am trying to introduce Zizek in Malayalam language.
    All the best
    Sanil.M.N

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