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07/08/2010 06:06 PM

'The Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West'

Welcome to the Slavoj Zizek Show

By Philipp Oehmke

In the midst of a crisis of capitalism, the Western underground is rediscovering communism. Its star is the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who mixes Marxism with pop culture and psychoanalysis. His appearances offer stand-up comedy for a radical leftist avant-garde.

It is five a.m. on a Friday morning, and Slavoj Zizek is on his way to the Idea of Communism Conference, traveling from Ljubljana to Berlin via Zurich. He finds it irritating that Alain Badiou, the French Maoist, will be making the introductory remarks.

And is it true, he wonders, that Toni -- Antonio Negri, a former sympathizer with the Red Brigades terrorist group -- is also coming, even though he is always at odds with Alain? When would Negri speak, what might he talk about and -- above all -- why has he, Slavoj Zizek, not been kept in the loop?

But Zizek doesn't have time to waste pondering these minor irritations. He's brought a few stacks of notes, which he must now use to write a one-and-a-half hour presentation during his two short flights. A bit about Marx, a lot about Hegel, something about Badiou's "communist hypothesis" (which, he reasons, he could criticize a little) and something about Negri's concept of the "multitude" (which he could even criticize sharply).

He can't find his notes. But it doesn't matter, because he is so full of thoughts that are just waiting to bubble out of him. He's packed an extra T-shirt for tomorrow or the next day. It's hot in Ljubljana, even at this early hour. Zizek is already sweating. The conference on communism begins in a few hours.

The Big Three

The Big Three, the great thinkers of the new left, will be speaking at the event, held at Berlin's Volksbühne Theater on a weekend in late June: Antonio Negri, an Italian in his late 70s, is a former political prisoner and the author of "Empire," the best known neo-Marxist bestseller of the last 10 years; Alain Badiou, a philosophy professor in Paris, is in his early 70s, very abstract, a Maoist and a universalist, and is searching for a new "communist hypothesis"; and Zizek, a Slovenian psychoanalyst in his early 60s who teaches philosophy in Ljubljana and is a visiting professor in London and Saas Fe, Switzerland, the "Elvis of Cultural Theory" (as he is referred to in a film). One of his bitterest opponents once called Zizek "the most dangerous philosopher in the West." It wasn't meant as a compliment, which is precisely why Zizek likes the nickname so much.

The three men are intellectuals, but they are also stars, like the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and, more recently, the post-structuralists Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. But ever since the height of the post-structuralists' popularity, almost 20 years ago now, this position has remained unoccupied, with the possible exception of Bernard Henri-Levy, whom Zizek despises mainly because of his tendency to show too much chest hair.

It was Negri who revived radical leftist theory 10 years ago. The socialism of the Eastern Bloc had failed, and American political scientist Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed the eternal victory of capitalism and, with it, "the end of history." Then came Negri. He was steeped in theory, but he was also a credible class warrior. He'd been in prison because the authorities believed he was the brain behind the Red Brigades. Michael Hardt, an American literature professor, helped him summarize his thoughts in three books. They became global bestsellers, the most successful of which was the first one, "Empire," a sort of new Mao bible for a young, hip, anti-G8 left.

Zizek, Badiou and Negri have known each other for years. Sometimes they work together, but each of them is more apt to take note of what the others are doing, what they are saying or what they are writing about, even if they have more than likely not read the others' books. Negri is not aloof enough and too much of a class warrior for Zizek and Badiou. Badiou is too rarefied for Negri, and Zizek publishes so many books that even he probably doesn't have time to read them all.

The New 'Communist Hypothesis'

It is early in the afternoon, and Zizek is sitting in the first row in the large hall of the Volksbühne, forced to remain silent for an hour. He has many talents, but keeping still is not one of them. Next to his chair is a plastic shopping bag that contains everything he needs during the three days of the conference. The room is full, and some of the roughly 1,000 members of the audience are sitting on the steps. They are young people, most of them under 30, a panopticon of leftist subcultures. Some are dressed like Brecht, others like Sartre, and many of them look as if they were backpacking through Southeast Asia and were about to start juggling with flaming sticks. All wear headphones, so they can listen to simultaneous translations of Badiou's presentation in French, Negri's in Italian and Zizek's and the other speakers' in strongly accented English. Zizek, who is fluent in six languages, including German, is the only one not wearing headphones.

Most of the presentations are difficult enough to understand in their original languages. Translated, they become virtually unintelligible. But the point is not to provide easy or concrete answers, which are readily available from the Left Party or the unions. The conference is also not about looking back into history, back into the gloomy 20th century, with the catastrophes that occurred in the name of communism and the more than 30 million people who were murdered under Stalin and Pol Pot; the labor camps, the police states. This conference is about theory. It's about a new "communist hypothesis," as Badiou calls it, about universalism, the subject in history, events of truth, Hegel and psychoanalysis after Jacques Lacan.

The word "communism" is printed in large letters on the roof of the theater on Rosa Luxemburg Square. But what are all these people doing here? Outside, in the streets of Berlin, summer has finally arrived. The attendees could just as well be drinking beer and watching one of the World Cup matches being broadcast on large screens.

Pop-Star Philosophers

Some 20 years after the tentative end of the communist experiment, and exactly 21 months after the near-collapse of the capitalist status quo, there is apparently a new yearning -- not for leftist policy, but for leftist theory. As practical problems become more pressing, our democracy becomes weary, the euro seems headed for failure, Germany's coalition government becomes less and less effective, and the banks more and more unmanageable, the more abstract does the search for truth and the practice of philosophy become.

Philosophy no longer moves society the way it did until the end of the 1960s, writes Karl Heinz Bohrer in the current issue of the magazine Merkur. But thinking has changed in the last few decades. Philosophy has become cultural criticism, more essayistic, more volatile, more anecdotal and more literary -- in the vein of the French philosophers Deleuze, Foucault and Roland Barthes, and of people like Peter Sloterdijk.

This brand of theory also has to be consistently sexy. It has to entertain, provoke and be easily quotable in the form of sound bites and physically palpable like rock music. Zizek delivers all of the above. One could say that he's reinvented the profession. Some would say he's defiled the profession.

Badiou gives the introduction, and Zizek, sitting in the first row, can hardly remain in his seat. He moves his lips as if he were giving the talk himself. Badiou is an affable, well-dressed elderly gentleman. He doesn't look like an enemy of the state, but more like an easy-going East German pensioner. Negri, who is also sitting on the stage, looks like Badiou's polar opposite. He seems emaciated, as if he had just been released from prison, and not nine years ago. Badiou quotes Mao in his introduction: "Be resolute, fear no sacrifice and surmount every difficulty to win victory."

And just as the audience looks ready to cringe, Zizek interrupts Badiou to quote Samuel Beckett instead: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." He laughs and looks around to see if anyone is laughing with him.

He can speak more quickly than he can think. He's like a jackhammer. He has published more than 50 books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages. His most recent book, "Living in the End Times," is a 400-page treatise on the demise of the liberal democracy.

He gives more than 200 lectures a year and has held visiting professorships at elite American universities. He recently spoke to an audience of 2,000 people in Buenos Aires. He is the subject of two documentary films, and in another film he interprets movies from a psychoanalytical point of view as he speeds across the ocean in a motorboat. There are Zizek T-shirts and Zizek records, and there is a Zizek club and an international Zizek journal.

'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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