Tagged: labor

A ticklish subject: Decrying, defending Žižek as teacher

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

  • Slavoj Žižek’s pedagogy became a topic of debate among critics and supporters of the philosopher after video of an interview with Žižek was posted to YouTube. In the 10-minute video, recorded in April at the 2014 Žižek Conference in Cincinnati, Žižek discusses his loathing of office hours, among other subjects. Regarding classes he has taught in the U.S., Žižek recalls telling students “If you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A”. Here is the video on YouTube, or you can watch the embed below:

I even told students at the New School for example… if you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A. If you give me a paper I may read it and not like it and you can get a lower grade.

  • And regarding office hours:

I can’t imagine a worse experience than some idiot comes there and starts to ask you questions, which is still tolerable. The problem is that here in the United States students tend to be so open that sooner or later, if you’re kind to them, they even start to ask you personal questions [about] private problems… What should I tell them?

Zizek has always been vocal about his general disdain for students and humanity writ large. He once admitted in 2008 that seeing stupid people happy makes him depressed, before describing teaching as the worst job he has ever had.


On a personal note, I was once told at the New School by a senior faculty member that Zizek would fill up his sign-up sheet for office hours with fake names to avoid student contact. I still wonder if that story is true, but now it doesn’t seem so out of character.

I have no idea what a superstar like Žižek gets paid, and I don’t know if he actually fills his office-hours sign-up sheet with fake names so that none of the “boring idiots” come and bother him with their stupid problems, as one New School faculty member has apparently claimed. But I feel safe in guessing that he earns more to not-grade one “shitty paper” than many professors do in a semester.

The real problem with Žižek, in any case, isn’t that he feels this way or that he says these things aloud. It’s that he does so and people think it’s hilarious. It’s that his view is, believe it or not, a common “superstar” view of students—so common, in fact, that if you work at a research university and actually like teaching, you should maybe pretend you don’t, lest you appear not “serious” enough about your research.


The academy is in crisis. The humanities’ relevance is questioned obnoxiously on a near-daily basis. Humanists need to think carefully about who our heroes are, and who should represent our disciplines to the public. Maybe, just maybe, this Ži-jerk has finally proved himself unsuited to the task.

I’m sure all of us have stories of colleagues basically slandering their students, and there is no more common complaint in the academic world than about the tedium of grading. I would venture to say that much of the resentment of Zizek’s attitudes stems from an unacknowledged desire to do exactly the things they’re castigating Zizek for. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to tell the students what I really think of them? Wouldn’t it be great not to have to deal with their crappy writing? Wouldn’t it be amazing to finally take the university at its word, valuing research absolutely and exclusively while making at best a token gesture toward teaching?

Indeed, it was disdain for teaching that made it so tempting to outsource pedagogical labor to grad students and underpaid adjuncts so that real professors could have the space to do real academic work. Zizek’s opinions aren’t some crazy outlier, they’re the structuring principles of our system of academic labor.

That I have met Zizek personally and can attest that he is no jerk is a minor point. That I personally witnessed him reject dinner with established professors and instead choose to sit with undergraduate students at a University of Rochester event is also fairly trivial but instructive about his actual attitude towards students.


No one has been more outspoken, or effective, about combating this “crisis” [in academia] than Zizek. He is dogmatic in his steadfast criticism of the Bologna reforms in Europe. Rejecting globalization’s call for experts instead of critically-thinking humanists cannot be accomplished through office hours and friendly teaching styles.

The risk of losing liberal arts is indelibly linked to the intrusion of unfettered (ostensibly) “market” mechanisms throughout human life. Where there used to be at least some sanctuary, now there is none. Education is just one of the last to fall.

Mrs. Schuman also uses the basic strategy that is usually employed by politically right-wing authors who try to dismiss Žižek’s political engagements, more specifically taking one of his jokes out of context. I have followed some comments of various professors online about this specific Žižek’s statement of ‘not reading and examining student papers’ and most of them have shared some sympathy with Žižek’s joke, agreeing that doing such work actually consumes a huge amount of their time for which they don’t receive much gratification. Mrs. Schuman fails to notice that Žižek is employed as senior researcher and not as a regular professor, at least at his faculty in Ljubljana and to attack him for not grading papers there is simply absurd, since it’s a formal post and it’s quite rare that he appears to deliver a lecture there at all. She also, like most of the people bashing him, fails to notice the statement was a joke, like many of phrases like this mainly produced in recorded interviews to provoke a media response, so in a way Mrs. Schuman’s text could have said to have been expected before it was ever written.

But anyone who is familiar with how he develops theory should notice that he is also the International Director of the Institute for the Humanities at Birbkeck in London, where he annually holds very serious ‘masterclasses’, which consist of multiple successive days of lectures followed by discussions with his students, where there is more than enough opportunity for those who are genuinely interested in his work to provide their comments and criticism, and more importantly, get a first-person perspective and a chance to collaborate on the development of his theory; his lectures there have often ended up as important parts of his big philosophical tomes later on. So he does teach classes, very important classes which have philosophical consequences, and Mrs. Schuman repeats the accusation against him simply because she doesn’t seem to be very familiar with his work. Those that are obsessed with Žižek’s place in the employment scheme of academia usually harbour resentment and envy due to their personal lack of luck at getting a satisfying job in the academic machinery and are just searching for quick attempts at dismissal.

TV still sucks, we should still complain about hipsters, your job shouldn’t exist

None of this could be happening at a worse time. According to the latest S.O.S. from climate science, we have maybe 15 years to enact a radical civilizational shift before game over. This may be generous, it may be alarmist; no one knows. What is certain is that pulling off a civilizational Houdini trick will require not just switching energy tracks, but somehow confronting the “endless growth” paradigm of the Industrial Revolution that continues to be shared by everyone from Charles Koch to Paul Krugman. We face very long odds in just getting our heads fully around our situation, let alone organizing around it. But it will be impossible if we no longer even understand the dangers of chuckling along to Kia commercials while flipping between Maher, “Merlin” and “Girls.”

  • Zaitchik’s article name checks pertinent critics and theorists including Adorno’s “cultural industry,” Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” and even Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.” Where this article was discussed on sites like Reddit or Metafilter commenters seemed angry at Zaitchik, overly defensive as if they felt under attack for watching “Hannibal” and “Game of Thrones”. I thoroughly enjoyed Zaitchik’s piece, even if it doesn’t present a fully developed argument, because the perspective he presents strongly resonates with many of the philosophical foundations that have shaped my own views on media, particularly the media ecology tradition. A large part of Zaitchik’s argument is that even if television content is the highest quality it has ever been, the form of television and its effects are the same as ever:

Staring at images on a little screen — that are edited in ways that weaken the brain’s capacity for sustained and critical thought, that encourage passivity and continued viewing, that are controlled by a handful of publicly traded corporations, that have baked into them lots of extremely slick and manipulating advertising — is not the most productive or pleasurable way to spend your time, whether you’re interested in serious social change, or just want to have a calm, clear and rewarding relationship with the real world around you.

But wait, you say, you’re not just being a killjoy and a bore, you’re living in the past. Television in 2014 is not the same as television in 1984, or 1994. That’s true. Chomsky’s “propaganda model,” set out during cable’s late dawn in “Manufacturing Consent,” is due for an update. The rise of on-demand viewing and token progressive programming has complicated the picture. But only by a little. The old arguments were about structure, advertising, structure, ownership, and structure, more than they were about programming content, or what time of the day you watched it. Less has changed than remains the same. By all means, let’s revisit the old arguments. That is, if everyone isn’t busy binge-watching “House of Cards.”

It’s been something to watch, this televisionification of the left. Open a window on social media during prime time, and you’ll find young journalists talking about TV under Twitter avatars of themselves in MSNBC makeup. Fifteen years ago, these people might have attended media reform congresses discussing how corporate TV pacifies and controls people, and how those facts flow from the nature of the medium. Today, they’re more likely to status-update themselves on their favorite corporate cable channel, as if this were something to brag about.

The entertainment demands of the 21st Century seem (apparently) bottomless. We’ve outsourced much of our serotonin production to the corporations which control music, sports, television, games, movies, and books. And they’ve grown increasingly desperate to produce the most universally acceptable, exportable, franchisable, exciting, boring, money-making pablum possible. Of course that is not new either… yet it continues to worsen.

Various alternative cultures have been attempting to fight it for decades. The beats, hippies, punks, and grunge kids all tried… and eventually lost. But the hipsters have avoided it altogether by never producing anything of substance except a lifestyle based upon fetishizing obscurity and cultivating tasteful disdain. A noncommital and safe appreciation of ironic art and dead artists. No ideals, no demands, no struggle.

Rarely has the modern alternative to pop culture been so self-conscious and crippled. The mainstream has repeatedly beaten down and destroyed a half-century’s worth of attempts to keep art on a worthwhile and genuine path, but now it seems the final scion of those indie movements has adopted the: ‘if you can’t beat‘em, join‘em’ compromise of creative death.

  • In an interview for PBS, London School of Economics professor David Graeber poses the question: should your job exist?

How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist? But, of course, you’re not going to tell your boss that. So I thought, you know, there must be enormous moral and spiritual damage done to our society. And then I thought, well, maybe that explains some other things, like why is it there’s this deep, popular resentment against people who have real jobs? They can get people so angry at auto-workers, just because they make 30 bucks an hour, which is like nowhere near what corporate lawyers make, but nobody seems to resent them. They get angry at the auto-workers; they get angry at teachers. They don’t get angry at school administrators, who actually make more money. Most of the problems people blame on teachers, and I think on some level, that’s resentment: all these people with meaningless jobs are saying, but, you guys get to teach kids, you get to make cars; that’s real work. We don’t get to do real work; you want benefits, too? That’s not reasonable.

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.

Technology, hyperemployment, and femininity

If you’re like many people, you’ve started using your smartphone as an alarm clock. Now it’s the first thing you see and hear in the morning. And touch, before your spouse or your crusty eyes. Then the ritual begins. Overnight, twenty or forty new emails: spam, solicitations, invitations or requests from those whose days pass during your nights, mailing list reminders, bill pay notices. A quick triage, only to be undone while you shower and breakfast.


Often, we cast these new obligations either as compulsions (the addictive, possibly dangerous draw of online life) or as necessities (the importance of digital contact and an “online brand” in the information economy). But what if we’re mistaken, and both tendencies are really just symptoms of hyperemployment?


Hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies. And even calling them “unpaid” is slightly unfair, since we do get something back from these services, even if they often take more than they give. Rather than just being exploited or duped, we’ve been hyperemployed. We do tiny bits of work for Google, for Tumblr, for Twitter, all day and every day.

Bogost writes, “hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies.” This tacit agreement, however, extends beyond social media and e-mail and is really a form of housework and maintenance for our daily lives. In that regard, I wonder if calling the cozy arrangement between digital technologies, data economies, and invisible labor “employment” runs the danger of side-stepping the deeper (gendered and racialized) antagonisms inherent in the distinction between what is considered labor and what is considered “care.”

For more than thirty years, Marxist feminists have been arguing that women’s unpaid labor–housework, reproduction, etc.–is a prerequisite for capitalist wage labor, surplus value extraction, and profit-making. Capital can extract surplus value from waged labor only because the wage laborer is supported by (extracts surplus value from) unwaged labor, mainly in the form of the wife. Gregory’s argument is that what Bogost is pointing to isn’t a new phenomenon so much as a reconfiguration of an ongoing practice: we are all our own wives and moms, so to speak. Indeed, as Bogost’s example suggests, our smartphones wake us up, not our moms, just as emails accomplish a lot of the relational work (scheduling, reminding, checking in, etc.) conventionally performed by women.

So does technology relieve the burden on women to perform certain traditionally feminine tasks? Sure! If your husband scans the news on his iPad, you no longer need to collect the morning paper. If your kids have SpongeBob SquarePants for company, you are free to leave them bathed in television glare while you check Twitter/wallow in 21st-century guilt. On the other hand, assigning a task to a computer doesn’t necessarily make it go away. Wageless work may now be more evenly distributed among men and women, but someone still has to send the reminder emails and program the vacuum bot. We haven’t escaped the reality of unpaid labor; we’ve simply spread it around.