Dare to Quote! On Zizek and Wikipedia

Reading Slavoj Zizek’s 2010 Living in the End Times book, I noticed the author quoting Wikipedia a number of times. No big deal, you would say but it is significant in the light of the ongoing controversy around Wikipedia as a reliable (academic) source. Zizek is considered a leading intellectual, and arguably Europe’s most famous baby boom philosopher  (b. 1949). This postwar generation entered their professional lives in the age of the (electronic) type writer, well before the introduction of the personal computer. As authors they are the ones that profit from the copyright regimes and are known to have a firm grip on the print media. Even though computer literate (read: they can type) their cultural attitude towards the WWW is ambivalent–if not absent. If a critic like Zizek includes Wikipedia in his verbal stream of consciousness it is a sign of the times that Wikipedia has become an integral part of our media environment.

So far, in the case of Zizek, referenced media have been books, followed by feature films. Forget newspapers, television and radio, or hearsay conversations and correspondences. If Zizek starts telling stories it is based on contemporary myths and current affairs that are supposed to be known to all of us, written down without detailed references. If Zizek starts to theorize he talks aloud, like in a bar, and it is this oral, narrative element that constitutes his philosophy. To include Wikipedia in these rants is part of a significant cultural shift and it is odd that Zizek himself is unaware of this Event.

As far as I know Zizek has not yet written at length about the internet, mobile phones, e-readers or computer games. What in Living in the End Times resurfaces is his fascination for post-humanism and techno-gnosis. The example analyzed in this book it is MIT’s Sixth Sense research program (“wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world around us with digital information and lets us use natural hand gestures to interact with that information”). Much like Zizek’s analysis of early 90s Virtual Reality it is in particular the embodiment of information that interests the psycho analyst. Zizek cannot distinguish between networked communication and the ‘virtual architecture’ (if possible in 3D) of Second Life or World of Warcraft. The invisible, non-representational nature of new media falls outside of Zizek’s theory scope. Zizek is not the only theorist we can blame for the confusion between cyberspace and virtual reality. But twenty years onwards you would think that someone could have given Zizek a basic update what has happened in the world of new media.

Libertarians are indeed featured (Ayn Rand) but the Silicon Valley techno-libertarian religion is not an object of study for Zizek. It is in particular the dark, apocalyptic side of Ray Kurzweil that interests Zizek, not Google. An interesting example of his  blind spot for the networked nature of capitalism is on display in Zizek’s visit to Google’s Mountain View headquarters where he spoke during the Authors@Google lunch series in October 2008.  Zizek is the perfect example if you want to show how little cultural studies and film theories have to say about the internet. As Zizek recently admitted to The Guardian: “I am a good Hegelian. If you have a good theory, forget about the reality.” The problem in this case is that Zizek not even as a basic set of critical notions, let alone a theory. This could be reason why he remains silence about it in his books.

All the more interesting that In Living in the End Times we can find at least five references to Wikipedia (always without URL).  The books also refers to used internet sources in thirteen footnotes in which he does point to actual web locations but forgets to mention dates or author names. The editors at Verso Books did not include Wikipedia in the index. They did include ‘internet’ with three page references, but none of them are significant, idea-wise. “He is very much a thinker for our turbulent, high speed, information-led lives,” Sophie Fiennes remarks in the same Guardian piece. Sure, but it is a pity that when Zizek will eventually slow down to write his real Magnum Opus its topic will be Hegel and not the internet.