'The Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West': Welcome to the Slavoj Zizek Show
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.
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.
- Part 1: Welcome to the Slavoj Zizek Show
- Part 2: 'He'll Have to be Sent to the Gulag'
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