Book Review from the March 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Slavoj Zizek. A Zizekian Gaze at Education'. By Tony Wall and David Perrin. Springer. 2015.
A recent review in the Socialist Standard of a book on the nature of democracy in advanced capitalist society pointed out the hollowness of the voting process, used as it is to confirm and consolidate the status quo, compared to the much more varied and meaningful use it could be put to in a society organised differently. The same can surely be said of the education system under capitalism whose main purpose is not to spread knowledge and understanding for its own sake but to impart to its ‘consumers’ the ‘skills’ necessary to carry out functions in the market system when their formal education is over and at the same time to habituate them to the ‘normality’ of that system, making it unlikely they will look beyond it for alternatives forms of social organisation.
This is something clearly articulated by Wall and Perrin in their book on the Slovenian left-wing social commentator and philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. In the last 20-odd years Zizek has produced numerous works in which he seeks to analyse the workings of modern capitalism and in particular how it shapes the psyche of all those who live under it. As this book points out, some have seen Zizek as an intellectual charlatan, ‘an empty vessel making much philosophical noise’, but Wall and Perrin, while making it clear that Zizek ‘rarely speaks about education directly’, find his broader insights into capitalist society sufficiently stimulating to apply them to the education system they themselves work in. In doing so, they go on a discursive tour that takes in situationism, the autodidactic educational tradition, and attempts at alternative education like A S Neill’s Summerhill School.
They point out how the ‘familiarity breeds consent’ processes Zizek emphasises are, in the area of education as in others, both subtle and all-encompassing so that ‘we carry on regardless, even if we have been trained to question our own assumptions and engage in critical reflection – we are readily duped and tricked and “being critical” can even lead to the concepts we are seeking to dismantle taking an even tighter grip on us’. Here we have an excellent description of how acceptance of the increasingly rigid processes of capitalist education envelop both teachers and students. Some of course do see through it, but attempts to pursue a different path within that system are most likely to result in estrangement, in weary resignation or, as the authors put it, ‘acting as if’ (e.g. as if ‘dumbing-down were not taking place or Ofsted inspections in schools or research assessment exercises in universities really were crucially important), because of our need to fit in, or even because our job may depend on it.
The final chapter of this book, the first attempt to apply Zizek’s ideas to education, is entitled ‘Now What Might We Do’. But the writers seem to recognise that the amount that can be done within the framework in which they operate as educators is extremely limited. They quote approvingly Zizek’s statements that ‘one should analyse the capitalist system as a totality of interdependent links’ and that ‘you can think beyond capitalism and liberal democracy as the ultimate framework of our lives’. They recognise that the subject they are dealing with ‘goes beyond education departments and their policies, and it even goes beyond nation states’. But just as it is difficult to find in Zizek’s writings a clearly articulated view of what we might replace the current social set-up with and how that can be done, so Wall and Perrin too, perhaps inevitably given the subject of their study, limit themselves to offering what they call ‘glimpses into navigating differently’ and conclude by stating that ‘while Zizek may have been asking the questions, it is up to us both to provide the answers and act on them’.