Having Fun with Elvis on Stage is a strong contender for the title of Worst Record Ever Made. In 1974, Elvis – a superstar but also bloated, broke and artistically bankrupt – let Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, find a new way to exploit and humiliate him by releasing an album not of songs (since most of the royalties for music would have gone elsewhere) but instead a collection of between-song onstage banter from his shows in Las Vegas. It’s often slurred and unclear and it consists of mostly unfunny jokes.
Slavoj Žižek is an intellectual superstar, commanding audiences of adoring theory fans worldwide: interviews, movies, lectures. His early works are admired, full of insight and intellectual synthesis (perhaps they are a bit like Elvis’ early hits: wondrous the first time you hear them, but in retrospect more like mainstream-friendly versions of what others had done before). And now, MIT Press has produced a collection of Žižek’s jokes, excerpted from his works.
The flimsy intellectual argument behind the book is that the jokes will, in a sort of a flash, expose some profound insight about, say, human sexuality or Freud or Hegel. Well, frankly, most here don’t. And the few that have some inkling of this are taken from, for example, Freud or Lacan and are just grindingly repeated in marginally different forms. (Even the afterword admits that “Žižek risks giving the appearance of a slightly absent-minded old uncle at a wedding” who tells the same joke over and over again.)
Worse, Žižek’s (and the publisher’s) phrase is that many of the jokes are “nicely vulgar”. In my view this means that lots of the so-called jokes are just plain racist or anti-Semitic, many are pretty sexist, and some are downright misogynistic.
Up jumps my imaginary Žižek from the pages, in a cloud of dollars: “Ah ha, gotcha! This reveals you as a typical humourless, pious, prudish, bourgeois academic, hung up about sex and race.” Yep, I am all those things – indeed, I’m widely known as the “enemy of fun” – and so, yes, I am offended. But since imaginary Žižek knows how easy my type is to offend, that makes these jokes lazy as well. “But”, he says, “prudes like you need to be offended to make you self-aware.” Yes, indeed, because without a boringly and elaborately explained sexist “joke” (“what’s wrong with being sexy?” ask Spinal Tap, hovering behind imaginary Žižek), I’d never have realised that – GOSH! – I think about sex.
“Well, you,” imaginary Žižek says, putting his arm chummily around my shoulder, “you, my clever sophisticated academic friend do know all this, so you know I am just ironically ribbing those who don’t: let us admire together how cleverly I épate les bourgeois! It’s ironic sexism for a good cause!” Well, actually, let’s not admire how well you can piss people off. It’s simply tiresome, frankly a bit teenage and (see humourless and prudish, above) I find nasty prejudice disguised as comedy, at best, well, unfunny. The fact that this book is to be published on – ha ha – April Fool’s Day doesn’t change all this.
These days, Žižek argues the same thing over and over again, reuses whole passages and threads, writes badly and even stupidly. And now he’s allowed someone to harvest the unfunny jokes that show him at his worst. “I repeat myself because capitalism still needs defeating,” whispers imaginary Žižek. Maybe, but lazy academic prose, very questionable “jokes” and wearing a jester’s hat for the intellectual bourgeoisie probably isn’t how the revolution will happen.
In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus writes that Elvis in the 1970s just “performed the victory” rather than actually inhabiting and developing his music. The world of music has changed since then. These days we don’t expect our superstars to shine, explode and die like supernovae. Now we expect them to step back from their brightest fame, to return to their roots, to rediscover what motivated them and produce something that grips us and them. Perhaps Žižek is trapped by “being Žižek”. Couldn’t the academic Colonel Tom Parkers (and even, perhaps, his own internal colonels) leave Žižek alone and let him produce some work worthy of his talents?
Žižek’s Jokes (Did You Hear the One about Hegel and Negation?)
By Slavoj Žižeks
MIT Press, 168pp, £12.95
Published 1 April 2014