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The “Only Joking” Defense

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One would think that Paul’s observations on Zizek’s remarks about teaching would be unassailable.  But among other things personality cults generate defenses of the transparently indefensible, so Bob is Boring in comments:

Dang, that’s a lot of Zizek-hate.

I think he’s delightful. I certainly don’t always agree with him, and not all of his writings are great. I loved Looking Awry. That was the most I ever understood about Lacan.

[…]

And I find the statement in the OP to show clear signs of hyperbole. You know: rhetoric, for effect?

Ah, yes, the delightful scamp was Only Joking!  (I speak here only of the comments under dispute; I also don’t know enough to take a position on the quality of his theoretical work.)  And, indeed, one doesn’t need high-level critical skills to spot “hyperbole” in his remarks.  So let us say he kinda was Only Joking and is not literally indifferent to whether his students kill themselves.  How far does that get us? Well:

  • Were his comments funny?  Good God no, they were witless in a self-impressed way.  Among other things, good comedy rarely punches down.
  • Was the point the hyperbole was trying to make (“My shitty inferiors, I will gladly take the money that will leave many of you debt peons, so long as you expect nothing in exchange for it”) a good one?  No, it was a reprehensible one, and one that as Paul says actually says a lot about the role of arbitrarily selected “superstars” in academia.

Obviously, the point of this kind of half-joking hyperbole is to preempt criticism; by taking the remarks seriously you mark yourself as the square, the butt of the joke.  But it’s a chickenshit rhetorical move, and the sentiments the quasi-joke reflect reveal a problem that’s entirely serious.

…as djw reminds me in comments, I forgot about the best part of the comment:

Plus, I love that there’s a public intellectual willing to go on Brazillian talk shows and rant about Marx – we need more crazy bloviators moving the Overton window back to the left.

As a connoisseur of arguments that use the phrase “Overton Window” to assume multiple can openers,  I must agree that he will be a real game-changer on steroids.  I can now move on to awarding commenter Nick today’s internets:

Q: how many Slovenian Lacanians does it take to move the Overton Window in the US?

A: just one — as long as he appears on Brazilian talk shows.

 

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  • Malaclypse

    Since the effect the “joke” is going for is “Ha, ha, I don’t give a shit about whether my students learn,” he sucks either way.

  • good comedy rarely punches down

    But isn’t it characteristic of what passes for humor among conservatives to do exactly this? I’m thinking of racial jokes in particular.

    JzB
    DISPLACED OHIOAN

  • KmCO

    You only say that because, in your zeal to be a good American, you unconsciously and without a will of your own must denigrate leftist European comrades within inches of their academic lives. /s

    • Heh.

      • rea

        Don’t take it personally–he’s only joking.

  • Nobdy

    Is it possible to view the joke as self-effacing self-caricature? Such as when a celebrity plays themselves in a movie or TV show as completely arrogant or out of touch to poke fun at their public persona (An example might be Matt LeBlanc on Episodes, though the characterization is a bit more complex.)

    I read the comments at least partially as self-mockery. “Look at me! I’m too self-important to do my job and I can’t stand office hours. I’m anti-social and lazy and I’m going to make fun of it.” That seems to fit in with his schtick and wouldn’t be punching down.

    • Craigo

      You read “my students are stupid and so is everyone else” as self-mockery?

      • Nobdy

        It’s so over the top it could be an attempt to play the fool. If Bill Murray goes on a talk show and someone asks him “Who is your favorite actor” and he says “Bill Murray. Nobody else comes close. Nobody else is half as talented.” We don’t read that as a sincere claim that he’s the best actor and everyone else sucks, but as a joke.

        A professor could intend “My students are all idiots in comparison to my magnificence and even speaking to them in office hours is an insult to my grand intellect. I am so magnificent that the only person worth speaking to in office hours is, in fact, me, and even I might not be worthy of my own time.” as a similar joke. I’m not saying it worked, but given his persona I think it could be the intent.

        • Craigo

          Two thoughts:

          1) Bill Murray is a comedian, so it’s much, much more reasonable that he’s making a joke.

          2) In your scenario, Bill Murray is not explicitly mocking the people without whom he would not have a job.

          I find this argument uncompelling, to say the least.

          • Nobdy

            1) This guy sees himself as a comedian and has a comic persona. That doesn’t mean he’s good at it, especially in English, but we’re talking intent, not execution.

            2) If a comedian went on a talk show while they were doing a Broadway play and someone asked “Is there anything you don’t like about doing Broadway” and he or she said “The audience. I just hate them. They’re so demanding! It’s like they expect me to sing and dance and tell jokes for them just because they. I just want to sit on stage and read the paper, maybe have some tea. Why can’t you just buy a ticket and come, and we can all read together quietly for an hour, as long as you’re not a giggler, and then go home?” It would still read as a joke. Not necessarily a great one, but people wouldn’t take it as sincere and would view it as self-mockery more than an attack on the audience.

            I’m just offering a potential interpretation here, not making an argument other than “This is a possible intent he might have had.”

            • gmack

              I like the effort, but there is a key problem. As several commenters in the other thread attest, there is ample evidence that he actually does take all sorts of unethical steps to avoid grading (like telling students not to give him papers and then giving them an A), and apparently some have claimed that he fills up his office hours sign-up sheets with fake names so as to avoid talking with students there. In short, if his remarks were meant to be engaging in a kind of ironic mockery of the pretensions of academics, his actions seem simply to engage in those pretensions.

              • Nobdy

                One can be pompous and self-aware enough to make fun of your own pomposity.

                It’s also possible (clear?) that he’s extremely lazy so his unethical behavior could be about shirking work rather than hating his students.

                The truth is that professors generally don’t like reading papers, at least for undergrad classes, not necesarily because they hate their students or the students work, but reading 80 papers on closely related topics is likely to suck. Many professors who like and respect their students would like to get out of grading papers if they could.

            • Craigo

              There’s a difference between potential interpretation, and grasping at straws.

              The simplest and most likely explanation is that his words are exactly what they appear – not an especially clumsy attempt at self-deprecation, since he, you know, never deprecates himself, but a privileged and arrogant individual trampling on those he sees as beneath him.

        • Autonomous Coward

          I think the comparison would be more apt if the question asked was “What is the worst movie ever” and Bill Murray proceeded to go on an hour long rant about how shitty Stripes, Caddyshack, What About Bob, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, That One Where He Dressed Up Like A Clown And Robbed A Bank, and Saturday Night Live were and that anyone who had ever bothered to watch them should be surgically castrated.

          • Nobdy

            Zizek did not attack his own work, and even if Bill Murray did that it would be perceived as a joke or at least could be.

            • Autonomous Coward

              I would still very much prefer to watch Bill Murray make such a rant rather than watching Zizek saying anything.

              And the movie was “Quick Change” which is a seriously underrated film.

            • Autonomous Coward

              So, in your opinion, Zizek’s lack of self-deprecation w/r/t his writing (or his teaching ability, as would be more germane in this situation) makes it *more* probable that he was “only joking”?

              Seriously?

              Forget this. I’m going to go watch Quick Change.

              (Bicycle jousting, fuck yeah.)

              • Nobdy

                I did not say that. I merely said that your analogy was askew. What Zizek did would (if it were intended as a joke) be like Bill Murray making fun of his fans. If Zizek made fun of his own work it would be more obviously self-deprecating.

        • Steve LaBonne

          Attempt?

    • Grumpy

      the classic “maybe his entire persona is performance art” defense. If only they’d tried it at Nuremberg.

      • N__B

        Indeed. I think “Only Joking” is just as logically compelling as a defense as “Stand Your Ground.”

        Your honor, while it’s true my client shot and killed an unarmed man, he was Only Joking.

        • Nobdy

          So now a professor being a jerk makes him a cross between Himmler and George Zimmerman? Heinrich Himmerman?

          You obviously can’t defend genocide or murder by saying just joking, but calling students idiots is very different.

          • calling all toasters

            Are you really so stupid as to believe this? Just kidding.

          • N__B

            I stopped responding to you about two months ago after you posted some idiotic claptrap in response to me, but you’ve outdone yourself. What the everloving fuck does your resposne have to do with my comment?

            • KmCO

              Nobdy’s occasional contrarian schtick does get exceedingly tiresome, which is especially so because when he’s not being a contrarian he’s actually a pretty decent commenter here.

              • N__B

                I would answer, but I’m not sure if you’re Only Joking and I don’t want to get shot.

            • Tom Servo

              Maybe he meant to respond to Grumpy, who actually made the Nazi reference? I give up. His mother’s a dirty whore. Just kidding.

          • Malaclypse

            So now a professor being a jerk makes him a cross between Himmler and George Zimmerman?

            Obviously, the bear was Only Joking. You owe him an apology.

  • DAS

    The “only joking” defense reminds me of my almost 9 year old daughter: she will say something incredibly rude, overly direct and just plain offensive and either precede it or immediately follow it with “no offense”. Because somehow saying “no offense” makes it non-offensive.

    • MAJeff

      I thought all the kids were saying, “just sayin.'”

      • calling all toasters

        If the 9 year-olds are saying “just sayin,” I’m going to have to find a new tagline. Just saying Take it as you will That’s the fact, Jack! True story Semprini.

        • Malaclypse

          The fact is, I know the eight-year-olds are dropping “literally” like a drunken Biden.

          • calling all toasters

            As if.

        • wjts

          Semprini.

          OUT!

    • KmCO

      A good number of people who are older than nine have a variation on this concept, namely the “I’m not racist, but…” maneuver.

      • DAS

        Also popular: “Not you. You’re different”.

        • MAJeff

          Or, “I can look past….”

        • Tom Servo

          I say that awkwardly when I accidentally complain about something I know the person does. “I could never study for the bar exam in bed instead of in the library. *awkward pause, realization* But I’m sure it’s different for you!”

    • Manny Kant

      “No offense” is a phrase that can basically only be used when you are trying to give offense.

      • N__B

        Or when describing a scoreless sports team.

        • swearyanthony

          Something something hockey your mom sportsball

          • N__B

            Decent band name, better album name.

      • Tom Servo

        But are too much of a wuss to just say it straight out.

      • Rarely Posts

        I think “no offense” sometimes makes sense when you’re about to introduce some constructive criticism (or coaching) to a friend, but yeah, it only makes sense when introducing a statement that might offend the person.

    • Tristan

      OT, my sister used to do that around that age. She once, right across the dinner table with everyone there, and for no discernible reason, said to my older brother regarding an upcoming basketball game ‘I hope you don’t win’ (with the ‘don’t’ emphasized) ‘No offense.’ He got quite angry, and she just kept repeating it in an increasingly insistent tone. I think it must be one of those language/brain development things at that age. On some level they really don’t realize that this ‘trick’ they’ve recently discovered is not an absolute negator of the other person’s emotional response allowing them to speak with impunity.

      Alternatively, my sister was just a particularly awful child.

  • swearyanthony

    Good comedy never ever punches down. See all the (relativly) recent fuss about rape jokes. Nope

    • KmCO

      Comedy punches up. Cruelty punches down.

      • swearyanthony

        Exactly. Good comedy always, always punches up.

        Am reminded of recent discussion about Sterling on Twitter with a libertarian person I know “but what if he’d been fired for supporting gay marriage would you be so chill with the firing then” well no. Because punching up vs punching down.

        • Nobdy

          Magic Johnson is 6’9″ so that’s definitely punching up.

  • swearyanthony

    More seriously, Zizek is the Thömas Fríedman of his field – he’s not insightful. But people who should know better adore his work.

    • Jeffrey Beaumont

      I think you probably ought to substantiate a criticism like that.

      • swearyanthony

        How? Name a recent (ever) Zizek point that made you go “oo that’s interesting, and I will re-evaluate my opinion on that”

        • calling all toasters

          To be fair, the entire field of philosophy since Hume (or maybe Heraclitus) has failed that test for me.

          • ChrisTS

            Wheh!

            • N__B

              I’m not sure what you mean by that. You could be expressing relief that you don’t have to contribute to the thread, which would be understandable if you are busy; you could be ironically commenting on the importance of the field of philosophy in the lives of different commenters, which would be mildly opaque but understandable; or you could be challenging calling all toasters to a duel, theoretical or practical, using weapons literal or immaterial, which would be objectively despicable. I, for one, hope to see more gore smeared across my screen than the last time I tried to make it through Ravenholm using only the gravity gun and crowbar, eschewing use of my various firearms as effete.

              • Jordan

                Well, ChrisTS is a philosophy professor, ya know :).

                But more importantly, what hat where you wearing?

                • My head is too close an approximation of a cube for me to wear hats. They either get hung up on the corners and don’t sit right, or they blur the corners and hide my crowning glory-bumps.

        • SEK

          Name a recent (ever) Zizek point that made you go “oo that’s interesting, and I will re-evaluate my opinion on that”

          You’ve clearly never read Zizek on film. As long as he’s not talking about The Matrix — which he famously claimed not to have even seen before writing volumes about it — he’s frequently making insightful remarks about film and ideology.

          Again, I rarely agree with what he says, but he gives me great substance to argue with.

      • Tom Servo

        They both have terrible facial hair.

  • LeeEsq

    One day I hope to wake up and find out that the entire first part of the 21st century was some sort of black comedy for intergalactic beings of great power. Its the least depressing explanation for our world.

  • Atrios

    When I was 11-12 or so a friend literally spit in my face and then, feeling regret, said “just kidding.” That’s when I learned the limits and absurdity of the “just kidding” defense. It’s ok to point out that something was meant to be a joke, of course, but it isn’t a defense.

  • Jeffrey Beaumont

    There is no defense for the man’s shitty comments, but… Does anyone know if Foucault was nice to his students? Derrida? I have never gotten the sense that people who are doing thoughtful theoretical work were great teachers. I would be curious if anyone has any actual input on this (some sort of facts, not speculation)…?

    • swearyanthony

      Did they publicly make fun of their students?

    • DAS

      Derrida gave me directions to the French department office once. He seemed quite nice, actually. But I wasn’t his student — I was just a lost freshman.

      • calling all toasters

        People have told me that not only was Derrida a nice person, but that he knew all the fervor over his ideas was overblown and was embarrassed and amused by that. Of course, that would have been the perfect thing to say to me to make me like Derrida, so there may have been a little salesmanship involved.

    • calling all toasters

      Fermi was a prince of a person and cared about his students, according to many second-hand reports I’ve gotten. Feynman was a pretty good teacher, too. But then, they worked in a field that requires evidence.

      • Paul Campos

        I happened to come up some rememberances of Fermi’s teaching just this week. In addition to having what seemed like a a great natural talent for simplifying extremely complex ideas, he apparently put great effort into preparing his lectures, even at a time when he was probably the second-most famous physicist in the world, and could have chosen not to teach any classes at all.

        • calling all toasters

          I happened to come up[on] some remembrances of Fermi’s teaching just this week.

          OK, you win.

      • rea

        My mother, who knew him, thought Fermi was wonderful.

      • DAS

        Fermi may have been a prince of a person, but Fermat was a prime person. I heard it third, fifth, seventeenth, 257th and 65,537th hand.

    • Murc

      Jacques Derrida was responsible for destroying an entire generation of thinkers with his relentless nihilism, so I could really give a fuck about whether he was nice to the minds he was poisoning while was doing it.

      • calling all toasters

        Feh. That’s what they said about Allan Bloom, and… wait, you’re right.

      • Tom Servo

        The director of the first year legal writing program at my school had a large Derrida poster in her office. When I saw it, everything immediately made sense.

    • sharculese

      Abraham Lincoln sold poison milk to schoolchildren.

      • calling all toasters

        He was certainly no George Washington. Intertoob Klassiks!

      • junker

        +1 quadruple bypass

    • SEK

      Does anyone know if Foucault was nice to his students? Derrida?

      I took three seminars with Derrida, and I can assure you that he was much more than just “nice” to his students.

      I know I told the story about hanging out with Derrida before I got to UCI, when I was just a prospective graduate student visiting the school, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

      Needless to say, it involved talking about our cats and him and Hillis Miller offering me a ride back to my hotel.

    • Protagoras

      John Rawls had a reputation for being one of the nicest people ever, and my one personal conversation with him didn’t contradict that. I don’t know how he was with his official students, but he was generous with his time with those who were not his students; it’d be pretty weird if he treated his actual students worse (and I’ve never heard any such stories). Of course, maybe Americans are better than Europeans (though I can easily think of some Americans with pretty bad reputations as well).

    • Jeffrey Beaumont

      All anecdotal, but I’ll take them. Consensus is Derrida and Fermi weren’t bitter about office hours.
      No one has anything on Foucault?

  • To hell with his “just joking” shtick – every other professor in the world has to stand by their work as part of their professional code of conduct, just like they have to act professionally towards their students.

    • ’cause, you know, if he doesn’t want to do his job, there’s a lot of unemployed PhDs who could be employed out of his salary.

    • DAS

      It’s true. We are obligated to act professionally towards our students. However, we also have to complain to other faculty members about how imbecilic, underprepared and in general horrid our students are. That’s part of our professional code of conduct as well.

  • Bruce Baugh

    The thing that struck me about his comments was the utterly avoidable as well as pointless cruelty. In less time than it would take to tell three different over-sharing students “I don’t care, go kill yourself”, he could have told a TA to go get him a stack of cards and info sheets for whatever campus office provides counseling and support services. Then he could interrupt an over-sharer to say “This is not for me, I don’t address such personal issues…but here, these people do, and I’m told they’d be happy to help you in any way they can. Take this and be on your way.”

    Of course I’m never surprised by gratuitous cruelty from people still swanning over Stalin. It’s just interesting that he’s willing to spend more energy on that – or at least to claim that he does or would like to – than on a dismissal that would include help.

    • wjts

      Who has time to provide students with information about campus services when you’re a tough-minded renegade truth-teller who laughs at conformity and scoffs at protocol? Sure, Dr. Cuddy the precinct captain his department chair may bristle at his unorthodox methods, but there’s no denying that Dr. House Detective Max Hellhammer Zizek cures patients closes cases transforms the face of modern scholarship!

      • FlipYrWhig
        • wjts

          FlipYrWhig, sit down.

          But yeah, I don’t see why the rest of us have any obligation to play The Stupid Chief to Zizek’s McGarnagle. Maybe if we ignore him, he’ll go away.

    • gmack

      In my view, his remarks were a “joke,” but the target of the joke is not really is students, but the whole set of “liberal pieties” that would lead administrations to ask professors to provide counseling information to troubled students, etc. In other words, Zizek’s main target is essentially the same one various “radicals” have attacked since the 19th century: a certain variety of “bourgeois liberalism,” this time in the form of an emphasis on therapy and nurturance.

      • gmack

        Oops, I meant my construction to be “not just his students, but also…” He’s clearly mocking his students, but I think his goal is to produce a kind of sputtering rage in do-gooder bourgeois liberals.

      • Bruce Baugh

        If so, then it also lets him do his little part to keep students ignorant, isolated, and alienated, denied a connection that can help build peer solidarity of a sort that in my experience has often been critical in building the group awareness that turns students into effective engines of pressure and change.

        But hey, since when does a busy Stalinist ever care about emergent class awareness, anyway?

  • Lee Rudolph

    So, how does the “only joking” defense compare to the
    “honorable intentions and nothing less” defense?

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