June 15th, 2009 / 12:52 pm
Author Spotlight

Another long interview (this time with Žižek brain, Adam Kotsko)

Haha, he looks funny

Haha, he looks funny

When Adam Kotsko’s book Žižek and Theology was published about a year ago, he was still working on his PhD at Chicago Theological Seminary. It’s an impressive feat and an impressive book. Certainly there are better introductions to Žižek’s thought than Adam’s book, which takes as its starting point the issue of where Žižek aligns with theology — duh – but I still found it to be a valuable crash course. (Does anyone else find it useful to approach a new subject from a specific perspective, and then apply what you know about that perspective to the subject? I risk conflating the two things when I do it this way, but wtf: I’m okay with being wrong.)

When I started paying attention to the Internet, Adam Kotsko was there with his website “The Homepage.” This was before the proliferation of blogs, but it was essentially a blog with brilliant (and, sadly, unarchived) content, including a Hate List that was 1000′s of items long. When blogs came around he moved his site to “The Weblog,” where I was an active participant. There was a lot of hullabaloo over there in those days, around 2003 – 2005ish (?), and there was a “Library Without Condition” and a massive reading of Borges’s “Library of Babel” during which a bunch of bloggers posted thoughtful and provocative essays. It was very much like HTML Giant but with more capitalized letters. You can check out The Weblog in its current, boring-er incarnation here.

I asked Adam some questions about his book and his publisher and the publishing deal and about his life and stuff like that. It’s long, but not as long as the Sam Pink/Chris Higgs conversation (I’m still reeling from that one).

What’s Žižek and Theology about? How did it come to be published? What was it like working with Continuum?

Žižek and Theology is the first volume in a series at Continuum (under the T&T Clark imprint) on the theme of “Philosopher X and Theology.” I assume that most of the volumes of the series will be more argumentative, but I thought that since Žižek is still so new and so widely misunderstood, I would take the opportunity to make a case for what I saw as the development of his system, focused on his use of theology. Apparently it’s kind of taboo to interpret Žižek in terms of a development with various periods, etc., but I found that his use of theology-and specifically his use of theology in his self-proclaimed magnum opus Parallax View, which proves that it wasn’t just a flash in the pan-required me to think in terms of development and change, because when he starts to focus on theology, he really is doing new stuff that you wouldn’t have predicted from his previous work.

It was actually a stroke of luck that I got the opportunity to write this-my doctoral advisor, Ted Jennings, had recently published a book on Derrida and St. Paul, so the series editor approached him about the possibility of doing the Derrida and Theology volume. He didn’t have time to do it, but recommended me as someone who could do a volume on Žižek, so they asked me to submit a proposal. Without Ted to vouch for me, I doubt my proposal ever would’ve been accepted, since it’s pretty rare for an academic to do a book pre-dissertation. But from submitting the proposal all the way through the process, everything was remarkably smooth-I really enjoyed working with everyone at Continuum and would recommend them to everyone.

Continuum is huge for a small, independent press. I mean, they are independent, right? But they do 600 books a year and they’re based in NY and London. Do they give you a lot of attention?

From my understanding, Continuum has really expanded in the last several years, buying up a lot of smaller presses and even some university press catalogues-for instance, T&T Clark used to be an independent publisher but is now part of Continuum. I felt I got plenty of personal attention. That might be a matter of working specifically with the T&T Clark people, but I have no point of comparison for that.

How has the book been received, and how do you feel about the book now that it’s been out for about a year?

The book seems to have been relatively well-received, though academic publishing works so slowly that it’s hard to tell even one year on-only a couple actual reviews have appeared in journals, for example, though there have been some reviews on blogs as well. From what I can tell, people find the core aspect of the book-the narrative of Žižek’s development-to be helpful, but there’s been more controversy around my final chapter, where I draw connections between Žižek’s work and other theologians. Most specifically, some people seemed to be genuinely pissed off that I compared Žižek to the “death of God” theologian Thomas Altizer, and more generally to be disturbed that I claimed that Žižek believed that the institutional church was a betrayal of Christianity-in one case quoting what was basically a paraphrase of Žižek as though it was my own personal opinion, in order to distance Žižek from such disturbing ideas. From what I can tell, though, Žižek’s writings since my book was published have confirmed my interpretations for the most part, and I guess that’s the most important part of the “reception” because it confirms the value of my interpretation, or at least makes it clear that the book wasn’t obsolete the moment it was published-always the danger when writing about a living philosopher, especially one as manically overproductive as Žižek is. (Most satisfyingly, in his latest work on theology, Žižek quotes Altizer approvingly and at great length.)

Can you write a haiku that explains Žižek and Theology?

Has theology
stolen our Žižek, or has
Žižek stolen it?

So you’re clearly not a poet. Where do you rank yourself in terms of Žižek scholars? Are you in the top 100? Do you hate any other Žižek scholars? Shit talk.

I am absolutely certain that I’m in the top 100 Žižek scholars, and I don’t think anyone would dispute that. What I’ll claim for my exact placement really depends on a lot of factors-most importantly how much I’ve had to drink that evening. Ask me again next time you visit Chicago.

If I wanted to write a story that included racist or gay bashing elements, or something like that, could Žižek help? Can language be violent?

I just got finished reading Žižek’s little book on violence, and he would definitely say (and I agree) that language can be violent-it’s what he calls “objective violence,” as opposed to “subjective violence” (things done directly by some particular person). But the most important kind of violence is “systemic violence,” the baseline level of violence that is needed simply to preserve the status quo. I’m pretty sure that if a film used racist or gay-bashing elements and made it a matter of either restraining the bad racist/homophobic individual or teaching people how to use less hurtful terms (political correctness), Žižek would say it had evaded the most important question: what systemic problems are producing this misdirected outburst of violence? At the same time, it seems to me that it’d be difficult to do a movie that dealt with systemic violence in a non-cheap or non-reductionist way.

Why does Žižek spend so much energy discussing mainstream media? Would he be less popular if he wrote about less popular stuff? Is he our Baudrillard?

It seems pretty clear to me that Žižek wouldn’t be as popular without the pop-culture stuff and all the dumb jokes. I don’t think that he writes about it for marketing purposes-there’s this great passage where he talks about how he uses all his pop culture interests as grist for the mill so that he can justify enjoying it all, and I think his own enjoyment shows through and provides the reader with a little reward of enjoyment as well. Even if the pop culture references provide the hook, though, I think that his staying power has a lot to do with his manic energy and obvious passion. That’s why I don’t think he’s our Baudrillard-though I’m not a scholar of Baudrillard by any means, he always makes me think of a kind of cynical detachment that was very “90s.” Žižek’s the opposite of that, but I don’t think that our as-yet unnamed decade is. To put it differently: Baudrillard was the philosopher who fit with the era of Seinfeld. I don’t know if there’s anything that captures the 2000s like Seinfeld did the 90s, but whatever it is, it’s not like Žižek. He’s tapping into what’s absent rather than synchronizing with an existing trend-and therefore the danger is that we set him up as this figure who thinks for us, has conviction for us.

Can Žižek offer anything to irrational literature? I’m thinking of your appreciation for Pynchon, for example. Do the readings inform each other?

I haven’t thought very seriously about literature since I was an English major in college, but I did get into Pynchon and Žižek around the same time and liked them both for what intuitively feels like very similar reasons. I think there’s a dissertation topic here for an enterprising scholar-you’ve got the anti-capitalism, the mix of high culture and low-brow stuff, a lot of obviously “psychoanalytic” themes in Pynchon, etc.

What does it mean to you “to think seriously about something?” Weren’t there some good novels on that list of 100 books you read in a year? Did you approach Gravity’s Rainbow much differently than Being and Time or Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript?

I don’t think I approached them any differently-it’s just a matter of what I’ve been working with on a day-to-day basis for the last few years and what’s unfortunately fallen by the wayside. It’s really a matter of my course of study more than anything. I’ll have a wandering thought about Pynchon, but I really need to work with Heidegger (or whoever) in an intensive way. I did recently read the latest Pynchon novel, Against the Day, but it’s hard for me to figure out a way to integrate it into my “work,” and so that’s probably going to fall by the wayside in my thoughts as well, even though I thought it was a great book. And part of not feeling like I can integrate it into my work comes from the sense that I haven’t really kept up with literature and thus wouldn’t be a credible voice if I did decide to write about it. But maybe that’s just my own neuroses.

I assume, now that you’ve finished your PhD, you want to keep working in academia. How do you feel about your prospects?

I feel a lot better about my prospects than I did as recently as a month ago, because I was extremely fortunate to get a one-year position at Kalamazoo College, which is a really nice liberal arts school in southwest Michigan. I feel like I’ll be as well-positioned as I can be for the next round of the job market-but I’m also prepared for the worst, trying to prepare myself mentally for if the year at Kalamazoo ends and I have nothing lined up. You have to be paranoid about the academic job market, especially during a world-historical financial crisis. I’m not in despair or anything, but all I can do is try to keep publishing, do a good job on teaching, and hope for the best.

If you were to write a novel, what would it be about? What books are you looking forward to this summer?

This is kind of a sensitive question for me, because I have periodic crises of faith where I ask myself: “Did I want to be an academic, or did I want to be a writer?” And for me, the gold standard of being a “writer” is writing a novel-but I don’t have a topic! I could do the generic coming-of-age story, which in my case would be about the weird way I escaped from evangelicalism, but who cares about that? More recently, I thought it might be fun to do something on the bizarre phenomenon of Nazarene Bible Quizzing, which is kind of a “quiz bowl” based on the Bible. Whenever I go into detail about it with people, they’re morbidly fascinated, but at the same time, I don’t know how to make a real story out of it. For a time, I also thought that if I got a job at a big university, I’d take courses (presumably for free, as an employee) at the business school as research for a novel about “the philosopher goes to business school” or something along those lines. That’s obviously on indefinite hold now, though.

This summer I hope to read Infinite Jest-I borrowed my girlfriend’s copy and have read three pages in the last month, so I’m pretty optimistic that I’ll finish it with time to spare.

You’ve been blogging forever. What are your thoughts on your blog-circle? Do you still fight with The Valve people or whatever? Has your blog been a tool for promoting your book?

I have been blogging forever, and sometimes I wonder why-at least why I keep The Weblog going, which is more like my personal blog. In my early years as a grad student, I used The Weblog to try out new ideas and wound up gathering a pretty decent circle of my peers who were in the same boat. It became a kind of hub of the philosophy or theory blogs that were starting to come out at the time. Some of the people I met that way have drifted away, but some are my most important colleagues, my intellectual circle of sorts-for instance, a group of us who came together basically through The Weblog pulled together a really well-attended conference panel whose procedings were recently published in a journal.

A couple years ago I split my blogging life, creating a new academic blog called An und für sich, which I tried to keep as low-key and slow-paced as possible. That’s where my energy has increasingly been located, and The Weblog is just kind of a remains as a “leftover”-a kind of symbol for this to me is that AUFS’s traffic has been growing steadily, while The Weblog has remained pretty much static. It’s like I’m running a neighborhood bar that has faithful regulars, but that no one else is really interested in trying out. I often wonder why I still maintain The Weblog, but weirdly it feels like quitting would actually be making too big a deal out of the thing.

As for the Valve people, I continued to argue with them for far too long-but our most recent argument will likely be our last, because it seemed to be abundantly clear that they weren’t really arguing in good faith. To be fair, though, things have really changed there since the heyday of our big arguments. Current readers who kept track of more recent arguments in the “old style” were probably very confused.

The blog has been a tool for promoting my book. Pre-orders were apparently really strong, and I would credit my blog for that-plus my blog presence probably prompted more blog-based reviews than the average academic book would get (and why not? It’s pretty cool to be able to do a review and be reasonably confident that the author will read it and respond to it), which presumably helped sales as well.

You write a lot about TV at your blog. Do you think TV shows are starting to develop an episodic parallel to great literature? Do you feel like your television habits are a necessary distraction from your serious work, or are you just addicted?

I think of TV as a necessary distraction, but I’m pretty selective about what I watch-I’m not the kind of person who just turns on a Mythbusters marathon and zones out for five hours or whatever. Partly my selectivity is a way of coping with my addiction, because I know that if I start a new show and like it, I’ll be tearing through the DVDs of previous seasons and basically will be completely owned by the show until I get to a point where I’ve caught up to the current episodes. With some shows, it’s totally worth it-I think it’s pretty uncontroversial that The Wire is an amazing achievement that bears comparison with the true greats in any medium, for instance. I do think that TV is maturing, largely as a result of the emergence of HBO as a space for “quality television” in the last decade or so. HBO isn’t doing everything that’s worthwhile, but their stuff really raised expectations about what was possible with TV. In many ways, I think that we’re in a kind of golden age of television, where the medium is finally coming into its own as a vehicle for something other than cliché plot points  meant to sell ads-and that’s because there are increasingly ways to sell the TV content directly, like paying for a premium cable channel or buying the DVDs or going on iTunes. I’m so convinced of this that I’m actually writing a short book that’s mostly about TV, using pop culture as a way to put forward awkwardness as an important philosophical concept. I hope to finish that up this summer, and I guess that would actually be the book I’m most looking forward to reading.

Awkwardness. That book sounds fascinating. Is it, like, Michael Cera kind of awkwardness?

Yeah. I’m actually organizing it around three main points of reference: The Office, Judd Apatow-type stuff (which would include Michael Cera), and Curb Your Enthusiasm. I have two basic goals. One is to try to account for the fact that “awkward humor” has become such a huge deal in the last several years-what is the resonance of this trend telling us about our cultural moment? The second, which no one ever knows how seriously to take (answer: very), is to try to get at what the experience of awkwardness can tell us about the human condition more generally. And now that I think about it, this is another thing where at least the venue for the book came out of my blog-some blog friends of mine are participating in a series of short, weird books for a small British press, and that was my “in,” I suppose.

Do academic writers make money from their books?

Some do, but most don’t. I got an advance on the Žižek book, and it’s sold well enough that I’ll likely eventually get some small amount of money in addition-one of the benefits of being able to piggy-back off of someone else’s fame. Once when I asked my professors about the earnings from their books, they laughed and told me it was beer money at best. The very biggest celebrities can make a lot of money, but I’m pretty sure that the ceiling for the amount a scholarly book can make is pretty low in the grand scheme of publishing.

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