'The Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West': Welcome to the Slavoj Zizek Show

By Philipp Oehmke

Part 2: 'He'll Have to be Sent to the Gulag'

His repertoire is a mix of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Hegel's idealist philosophy -- of film analysis, criticism of democracy, capitalism and ideology, and an occasionally authoritarian Marxism paired with everyday observations. He explains the ontological essence of the Germans, French and Americans on the basis of their toilet habits and the resulting relationship with their fecal matter, and he initially reacts to criticism with a cheerful "Fuck you!" -- pronounced in hard Slavic consonants. He tells colleagues he values but who advocate theories contrary to his own that they should prepare to enter the gulag when he, Zizek, comes into power. He relishes the shudder that the word gulag elicits.

"Take my friend Peter, for example, fucking Sloterdijk. I like him a lot, but he'll obviously have to be sent to the gulag. He'll be in a slightly better position there. Perhaps he could work as a cook."

One could say it's funny, especially the way Zizek delivers it, in his exaggerated and emphatic way. But one could also think of the more than 30 million people who fell victim to Soviet terror. Those who find Zizek's remarks amusing could just as easily be telling jokes about concentration camps.

"But you know?" Zizek says in response to such criticism. "The best, most impressive films about the Holocaust are comedies."

Two Posters of Stalin

Zizek loves to correct viewpoints when precisely the opposite is considered correct. He calls this counterintuitive observation. His favorite thought form is the paradox. Using his psychoanalytical skills, he attempts to demonstrate how liberal democracy manipulates people. One of his famous everyday observations on this subject relates to the buttons used to close the door in elevators. He has discovered that they are placebos. The doors don't close a second faster when one presses the button, but they don't have to. It's sufficient that the person pressing the button has the illusion that he is able to influence something. The political illusion machine that calls itself Western democracy functions in exactly the same way, says Zizek.

His detractors accuse him of fighting liberal democracy and of wanting to replace it with authoritarian Marxism, even Stalinism. They say he is particularly dangerous because he cloaks his totalitarianism in pop culture. The jacket of his book "In Defense of Lost Causes" depicts a guillotine, the symbol of leftist terror decreed from above -- "good terror," as Zizek has been known to say. The Suhrkamp publishing house removed passages from the German edition of the book which reportedly toyed with totalitarianism.

There are two posters of Josef Stalin on the wall in Zizek's apartment in a new building in downtown Ljubljana.

"It doesn't mean anything! It's just a joke," Zizek is quick to point out.

He says that he'll be happy to remove the posters of Stalin from the wall if they offend his visitors. And he says that he is tired of being characterized as a Stalinist. He has been sharply criticized in recent weeks in publications like the liberal, left-leaning US magazine The New Republic, Germany's Merkur and the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. His critics write that Zizek's thoughts on communism ignore history and are insufficiently serious, and that his theory of revolution is downright fascist. And now he has even been accused, once again, of anti-Semitism. Even Suhrkamp decided not to publish some of his writings, arguing that they could -- maliciously -- be interpreted as anti-Semitic. These accusations are opprobrious, but Zizek knows he isn't entirely innocent. His constant drilling, poking and questioning is truly subversive, but sometimes it makes him extremely vulnerable. He says that those who attack him in this way have rarely comprehended his thoughts.

For Zizek, philosophy means thinking out of bounds -- far removed from practical execution, as opposed to reality-based political science, which must have its limits. When American leftist liberals accuse him of making a case for a new leftist dictatorship, Zizek points out that it was he, not they, who lived under (former Yugoslav dictator Josip) Tito and, as a young professor, was barred from teaching.

The Itinerant Intellectual

Zizek's roughly 600-square-foot apartment looks as though Tito were still in power. It consists of three rooms and is carelessly furnished. A poster from a Mark Rothko exhibition hangs on the wall above the sofa in Soviet-era colors; otherwise, the furnishings consist of a rack of DVDs, bookshelves, mountains of "Star Wars" Legos and his laundry, which he keeps in his kitchen cabinets. He serves iced tea in Disney cups.

He lives alone in the apartment, except when his son from his second marriage stays with him. He also has a son from his first marriage. His last wife was an Argentine lingerie model, 30 years his junior, the daughter of a student of Lacan who, ironically enough, is named Analia.

Zizek wears jeans and a T-shirt, blue sandals from the Adlon Hotel in Berlin and socks from Lufthansa's Business Class. "I haven't bought any socks in years," he says. He stays in the best hotels, and he has just returned from a trip to China and Los Angeles. He spoke about Mao in China and Richard Wagner in Los Angeles. The Chinese had invited him because of his status as a communist thought leader, but he doesn't believe that they understand his theories.

"They translated 10 of my books, the idiots," says Zizek. The Chinese translated the books as poetry and not as philosophical and political works. The translators had supposedly never heard of Hegel and had no idea what they were actually translating. To make up for these deficiencies, they tried to make his words sound appealing.

The experience of meeting Zizek is initially fascinating for everyone (for the first hour), then frustrating (it's impossible to get a word in edgewise) and, finally, cathartic (the conversation does, eventually, come to an end). Zizek begins to talk within the first few seconds, and in his case talking means screaming, gesticulating, spitting and sweating. He has a speech defect known as sigmatism, and when he pronounces the letter "s" it sounds like a bicycle pump. He usually begins his discourse with the words "Did you know…," and then he jumps from topic to topic, like a thinking machine that's been stuffed with coins and from then on doesn't stop spitting out words.

Empty Battery

Zizek has created an artificial character. His appearances are performances, something between art and comedy. He says that he wants to get away from these standup comedy appearances, and that he wants to give a serious lecture in Berlin, mostly about Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the subject of his new book. He says that he has already written 700 pages. It would take a normal person 10 years to write 700 pages about the man who may have been the most difficult thinker in the history of philosophy. Zizek wrote his 700 pages on airplanes in the last few months.

A comforting thing happens after exactly three hours in Zizek time. Suddenly his battery seems to have run empty, and the machine stops. Zizek has diabetes. His blood sugar is much too high, he says, or maybe it's much too low. The symptoms seem to be particularly severe at the moment. But Slavoj Zizek would not be Slavoj Zizek if he were to describe such a thing in such banal terms. Instead, he says: "You know, my diabetes has now become a self-perpetuating system, completely independent of external influences! It does what it pleases. And now I have to go to sleep."

On the way to Berlin, Zizek has not managed to put together his talk on the plane, as he had expected. While the speaker preceding him at the Volksbühne, a short man from Turkey with long hair and a long beard, is still speaking, Zizek is shifting papers from one stack to the next, searching, writing things down and furiously reading his notes. Strands of hair are pasted to his forehead. Zizek doesn't just sweat while speaking, but also while thinking.

It is now the second day of the conference, and so far Zizek has had to content himself by merely asking the speakers questions. Now, he immediately attacks Negri who, on the previous day, had accused him and Badiou of neglecting the class struggle. Negri's theory of the "multitude," that is, his concept of a revolutionary subject that sees commonality in the differences among individuals, assumes that late capitalism eliminated itself, and that this alone is the source of a revolutionary situation. This is far too concrete and pragmatic for Zizek and Badiou. Zizek arms himself with Hegel's concept of totality, with Plato's concept of truth and Heidegger's concept of the event. He argues that to one has to be outside the state to abolish it, but that Negri remains within the system, which is why his "multitude" can never start a revolution.

'Think I'm an Idiot'

Negri, furrowing his leathery brow, reacts testily. Zizek, he says, has lost the revolutionary subject, but without a revolutionary subject there can be no resistance. Badiou observes the argument with the face of an old turtle, as if he were wondering which of the two he would like to send to a labor camp first. The moderator asks Badiou whether he would like to comment. Badiou waves aside the question, flashes a wolfish grin, and says that he intends to comment on Negri, and perhaps on Zizek, as well, the next day. It sounds like a threat.

At the end of Zizek's lecture, an audience member asks a complicated and unintelligible question. "You made a good point," says Zizek, and continues to talk about Hegel. His response has nothing to do with the question, which in turn has nothing to do with the lecture. The game could continue endlessly in the same vein. Suddenly Zizek pushes aside the cardboard screen and interrupts his Hegel lecture. "Okay! It doesn't matter. As I said already, you made quite a good point. And the truth is that I have no response. In fact, my long-winded talk was also just an attempt to cover up that fact!" The audience seems grateful, now that Zizek has said that it's okay to say that you don't understand something and don't have a clue as to what something is talking about. Even Zizek does it.

"I know that people often think I'm an idiot," he says that evening, "that nostalgic Leninist. But I'm not crazy. I'm much more modest and much more pessimistic."

Why pessimistic? In fact, it isn't absurd at all to assume that capitalism and democracy have reached a dead end. "That's true," says Zizek, "but I believe that the left is, tragically, bereft of any vision to be taken seriously. We all wish for a real, authentic revolution! But it has take place far away, preferably in Cuba, Vietnam, China or Nicaragua. The advantage of that is that it allows us to continue with our careers here." He ends the conversation by saying that it's time for him to return to his hotel -- you know, the diabetes, he says.

'See You Tomorrow!'

Late Saturday evening, just as the US and Ghana World Cup match is in overtime, Zizek calls again. He sounds excited. "Did you watch my clash with Negri today? Unbelievable! What is he talking about! That late capitalism is doing away with itself?"

Zizek says that the revolution can never function without an authority, without control, and that this was already the case during the French Revolution and with the Jacobins.

He pauses. Zizek rarely pauses when he speaks, because it makes him feel self-conscious for an instant.

Finally he says: The thing about the state and revolution reminds him of women. "It's impossible to live with them, but even more impossible without them."

He seems about to talk himself into a rage again, but just as the machine is revving up he suddenly interrupts himself.

"Oh, let's forget about it. I'll see you tomorrow, my friend!"

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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BTraven 07/12/2010
Since only a few have the time to read his books which, by the way, seem to be very difficult to follow it would have been quite nice had the Spiegel delivered a summarisation of his works instead of an home story which, so my feeling, would have been really restricted to his place where he lives had he owned a villa on Cote d’ Azur. However, he has only a small flat, so the idea to accompany him on his travel to Berlin was a good decision but after reading the article I know more about the person than about his thesis. What distinguishes him from the other two luminaries of Marxism except envy and an healthy rivalry?
johnmoseley 07/13/2010
I'm sorry, but it's worse even than BTraven says. The author appears to dislike Zizek hugely, but to offer no subtantive criticism, just a lot of snide insinuation and various leering attempts to make him and his colleagues look absurd. Apparently the work itself can be dismissed both on the grounds that it's too abstruse to be of interest or use to ordinary people AND on the grounds that it's sexy and poppy and fun to read. Sounds like the author's making excuses to me. And he tries to make his points while being, himself, both poppy and populist (beer and football -- now that's something we can all understand), but, sadly, without being very much fun. Moving to the photo gallery, the pictures of Zizek soon give way to statements by him on the failures of western democracy illustrated by images of Soviet troops. As rhetoric, this juxtaposition is both disgusting and embarrassingly sophomoric. The support it implies, simplistically, for Soviet communism, is simply not to be found in Zizek's writing. I refer you to his short and entertaining work, 'Did someone say totalitarianism?' so you can experience for yourselves his clear revulsion for Stalinism and the Khmer Rouge. It might be too much for the writers and editors of Der Spiegel to completely understand Zizek's positions, which are complex and often counter-intuitive, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect grown-up people to be able to grasp that just because he's critical of our own system, it doesn't mean he's an apologist for totalitarians. I suppose you could be forgiven on the grounds that Zizek still refers to himself as a communist, but, honestly, it shouldn't have taken you more than half an hour searching online to discover that that absolutely does not make him a defender of the old eastern bloc. The quote on Holocaust comedies is also out of context and misleading. In short, this is a hatchet job of which everyone involved should be thoroughly ashamed.
johnmoseley 07/13/2010
In fact, here's Zizek's piece on Holocaust comedies, though the quote attributed to him in the photo gallery does not appear in it. http://www.lacan.com/zizekholocaust.htm
BTraven 07/15/2010
---Quote (Originally by johnmoseley)--- I'm sorry, but it's worse even than BTraven says. The author appears to dislike Zizek hugely, but to offer no subtantive criticism, just a lot of snide insinuation and various leering attempts to make him and his colleagues look absurd. Apparently the work itself can be dismissed both on the grounds that it's too abstruse to be of interest or use to ordinary people AND on the grounds that it's sexy and poppy and fun to read. Sounds like the author's making excuses to me. And he tries to make his points while being, himself, both poppy and populist (beer and football -- now that's something we can all understand), but, sadly, without being very much fun. ---End Quote--- You are right – despite spending a lot of time with him and probably reading same books by him as well as same biographies, I think the English one on Wiki would be sufficient, I believe to make out from the text the author did not get on well with him which would be no surprise to me given the circumstance that only a few will enjoy his presence over a longer period. Though it is quite hard being together with him he focuses too much on his personality, especially the cult he believes Zisek created deliberately to make him more popular. He does not write why he is so appealing to young people. Perhaps, he should have asked some of them during the conference in Berlin.
BTraven 07/15/2010
---Quote (Originally by esperonto)--- You can watch a lot of videos of him speaking on youtube. Many of them are in terribly garbled English, but what you can make out, he says abrupt stuff like "vegetarians are degenerates" and has a very brazen manner. I dont particularly like that he has spent so much time with American private schools. I think he learned his George Bush arrogance at American private schools, in partucilar probably at the New School for Social research in New York. Shudder to think what secret societies he joined. In any case, not my idea of communism, but for a side-show freak philosopher, he is top notch. Just another European elitest who lived in New York. I wish I had never lived in New York or Europe, that I had just stayed in other cities more disconected from Europe and maintained a playful view of things where you can experiment and do things without these strangely conservative elitests who masqeurade as liberals. I would hate to see what wierd agressive form of elitest communism this Zizek guy would make. Its a contradiction in terms: communism for an elite. It goes against the whole idea of "communality" to have an elite. Thats what was wrong with Stalinism. They formed an elite, which engaged in things like playing tennis while peasants starved. I think his gulag jokes are no lie. I don't see why Russians like Stalin even now. Whatever happened to Marx or even Trotsky or Lenin? Why do they blow up a big photo of Stalin and put it in red square? Because the Russians are upperclass. They are bourgeoisie, and Stalin represents their fake communist capitalist elitism. Stalin was furthermore not a Russian at all but a Georgian. They should hang up Lenin, who was actually a Russian. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Tov_lenin_ochishchaet.jpg ---End Quote--- I think it is quite hard to watching him. And the species of Germans who focus so much on pronunciation that persons from nationalities whose mother languages make it impossible for them to hide their identity will probably indulge in a feeling of superiority when listening to him. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2010/jul/06/slavoj-zizek-living-in-the-end-times By the way – in contrast to capitalism many people who regarded themselves as elite found themselves later in Gulag. Zizek joked about the deep fall, too. It is something that never has happened to capitalist.
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