Philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek has been called the Elvis of contemporary intellectuals more than once. After all, not only can he boast a publication and speaking record that should make him the envy of every academic in the Western world, but he has recently been the star of an eponymous titled documentary (2005's Zizek!) and laid down several commentary tracks on the DVD release of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006). Indeed, while Zizek's name certainly holds a prominent place in the philosophy section at your local bookstore, it is not limited to it.
With regard to Zizek's newest and perhaps most ambitious work The Parallax View though, we might be best served to drop the rock star metaphor and talk about jazz instead. The Parallax View is series of brief riffs on a staggering range of topics without the benefit of an obvious structure (much like good jazz). From the fascist potential of modern art to the Hegelian turn in the brain sciences The Parallax View proceeds with only a common thematic to guide it: that is, Zizek wishes to demonstrate how there is a fundamental short circuit or point of disjunction in the make-up of reality -- the parallax gap.
A parallax gap for Zizek is a "confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible." (4), or what we might call the minimal difference between two incommensurable points-of-view. For instance, one of the problems that has sustained constant interest in philosophy of mind as well as the various scientific approaches to understanding the mind is the notion of the explanatory gap. A neuroscientist may be able to offer an exhaustive account of what happens in my mind (what areas of the brain light up with activity etc) when I eat a piece of delicious cake. I cannot help but think though, that she is missing the point. What the neuroscientist misses in her account of my experience of eating is precisely the experience itself: the first-person phenomenal sensation of actually eating the cake. When it comes down to offering the "best" description of how the mind works I can either buy the objective map the neuroscientist presents me with or the subjective qualitative account that I immediately experience, but it seems impossible to assert the primacy of one without dismissing the other. That is, for Zizek there is no way for the two perspectives to meet in any fashion that still preserves what remains essential to both. In short, the parallax gap.
The Parallax View then is an attempt to show that such an "explanatory gap" is not exclusive to problems of mind, but is simply a constitutive element of reality itself -- that our experiences are filled with "blindspots" between some elements. However, Zizek's goal is not to show how such gaps can be resolved -- of how we can bring a neurological map together with a qualitative experience without conflict -- but to explain how such gaps must themselves become a part of any attempt to theorize experience. This includes, of course, our experience as persons in love, as readers of books, and even as political subjects. The parallax gap, Zizek insists, touches on every level of our being. If the idea of such a gap sounds somewhat obscure but nevertheless vaguely intriguing then I have done my job of explaining it in a way that befits Zizek.
As I mentioned above, the parallax gap functions as more of a thematic glue than as a central organizing principle. While Zizek takes pains to at least briefly highlight the parallax gap in each of the various discussions, the book itself does not systematically build from gap to gap, but instead zigs and zags from parallax to parallax. While such an approach gives each section of the book a certain freshness (where is the gap going to pop up?) it also represents its greatest weakness. While each section is very interesting on its own, there is little connection between the different discussions. The whole book then comes off as a series of notes, as if Zizek was just jotting down different parallax gaps as he thought of them and never went back to provide any kind of flow among the different chapters. Moreover, while some sections emphasize and put their particular parallax gap at the center of discussion, others simply mention their gap and move on to other tangential topics that, while almost always fascinating, really detract from the unity of the book. In fact, the only reason I fail to offer a section-by-section account (besides the obvious fact it would make this review far too long) is that it would simply read more like a random bar conversation than a progressive argument. For instance, Zizek moves quickly through comments on the Freudian Death Drive to the parallax of Jesus as God and man, to an analysis of the late Johnny Cash song "When the Man Comes Around" (with all of the lyrics helpfully included) all in the space of three pages.
Zizek has described The Parallax View as his magnum opus and to be fair the book is not lacking in intellectual scope (he theorizes everything from the notion of morality in Henry James to the place of the Jew in contemporary Europe). The problem is that in the end Zizek fails to tie all of his insights together, to build off of his various discussions to anything that resembles an ending. It feels as if the final chapter of the book is more or less arbitrary -- he could have closed it with any of the sections and it would have given us just as much satisfaction. This is the problem in attempting to describe the structure of The Parallax View, other than a few references to previous discussions it seems as if each section is self-contained and overall arrangement is rather arbitrary. While this allows the reader to jump around at their leisure, it also prevents Zizek from building any momentum from section to section, chapter to chapter The Parallax View then reads more like a series of very interesting notes than a complete work of philosophy. While this may make for good jazz, it sometimes makes for very frustrating reading.
Despite the obvious structural flaws of The Parallax View it is still a worthwhile and oftentimes fascinating peek into contemporary cultural theory (perhaps its jumbled structure is a mirroring of present day Anglo-American culture). Zizek combines the insights of 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel with 20th century French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in many brilliant and oftentimes unexpected ways. While neither Hegel nor Lacan is exactly an easy read, Zizek manages to make their ideas quite accessible through a near endless series of pop culture examples. This is an accomplishment in itself and anyone wishing to familiarize themselves with either thinker can find a wealth of helpful philosophical hints in The Parallax View.
Even though there are many obvious shortcomings to Zizek's approach in The Parallax View it is still a thoroughly worthwhile read. While we may not get the kind of satisfying closure that we might have hoped, Zizek still makes a valuable contribution to contemporary philosophy -- even if his most fascinating insights remain only slightly connected to one another. I recommend this book not only for those that might be interested in Zizek as a philosopher and exponent of psychoanalytic theory, but also for those who are simply interested in Zizek as a kind of pop culture phenomenon. A reader can simply dive into The Parallax View at any point and find something interesting or at least outrageous. If you find yourself unable to understand a Hegelian or Lacanian theory just keep reading, Zizek will either provide you with a wealth of examples or simply change the subject. Zizek is among our most valuable contemporary theorists and The Parallax View, despite its shortcomings, is a much-welcomed intervention into the philosophical scene.
© 2007 Adam Hutchinson
Adam Hutchinson is currently a PhD student in philosophy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA.