Teaching Žižek: Philosophy for Politics Students

I was asked to write and teach a short 6 week course on Slavoj Žižek for level 6 politics students this year. The remit for this was to help them engage with the epistemological and ontological issues involved in the positivist method of political science by way of contrast.

This posed some real difficulties, other than grappling with the difficult subject matter and finding a way to explain it. My experience with teaching Politics students compared with Philosophy students is that, more or less, Plato was right. Philosophers love to think in general terms, everyone else deals in particulars. Politics students tend to be historically or statistically inclined, liking specific, empirical problems to think about and deal with. Just as Socrates’ requests for people to define bravery (the brave in general) resulted in particular instances of bravery (Achilles is brave), my abstract questions (What is freedom?) were met with particular policy ideas that would encourage freedom.

My expectation was that I would run into the same challenge with teaching Žižek. While he is very good at speaking through examples, these statements carry absolutely no authority without an understanding of the tradition of the critique of ideology; the theory needs to be understood before the particular claims can be understood.

I took the following decisions:

  • Soft focus lectures. My lectures would each be about a single aspect of the theory to be elaborated over the six weeks, but they would approach this topic in a very broad way that didn’t focus on nitty-gritty detail. Whilst a philosophy lecture might go into a great deal of detail about each premise of the argument as it appears in the text, this would not be helpful for these students. Instead, I would explain the argument through many examples to elaborate the conclusion rather than defend the conclusion by premises. I deliberately kept these lectures at a hearty pace to indirectly discourage the students from getting hung up upon the specificity of the argument, focusing more on how the argument functioned than how it was constructed, e.g. it did not matter what ideology in and for itself meant, only that these terms allowed Žižek to talk in a certain way. The aim was to make the students think about the problem in their own terms, not get lost in the impossibly large oeuvre of Žižek.
  • Podcasts. The drawback of saturating a lecture with many different examples is it would be difficult to hold in. As such, podcasts seemed necessary. Lecture notes were also available, but I did not want the students relying on these too much. A podcast, however, would repeat the active function of the lecture described above.
  • Detailed Reading in Seminars. While I believed it was essential to avoid overwhelming the students with fine detail of argumentation in the lecture, the students would still need to be conversant with it. Rather than reconstructing this in a lecture, I would read through key texts with the students so they could apply their perspective on the general problem given in the lecture to the reading and work out the finer points themselves.
  • Clear Narrative. All of this necessitated a slow pace overall – six lectures, five to introduce Žižek’s theory in stages, one to apply this understanding to the reading of Žižek’s particular political claims about political events. As such, I constructed a narrative to encourage the students to think of the lectures as a whole rather than a modular sequence. That narrative was provided by the jumping off point: was Chomsky right to criticise Žižek as a charlatan. Is positivism self-sufficient? Each lecture would return to this problem, recap previous sessions and introduce a new aspect of the post-positivist theory to fit in with the general context.
  • Very comprehensive reading lists. A certain school of thought would say that it is the students job to look in the library. However, I made sure the VLE was populated with a great deal of relevant text books if only as a psychological comfort so the students. The majority of the course was so abstract by necessity so for the most part they’d be in unfamiliar territory. A reassuring list of guidebooks a links to podcasts would help prevent them feeling lost at sea and, also, point them in the direction of help.

Overall the students were happy with the course, particularly with the VLE. The feedback I received was predominantly about the order of exposition rather than content or difficulty, so I was quite happy. The exams, of course, remain to be sat and I’m interested to see what they did with the topic.