Hot from the Slavoj Zizek Masturbatorium

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Dec 18 15:02:10 MST 1999

Somebody from York University wrote:
>Can someone explain this please.

I volunteer.

Mark must be reading the LBO-Archives, like I do, since a discussion has
just broken out over Zizek, one of Doug Henwood's favorite thinkers. Mark
has no use for Zizek, nor do I. Zizek is a ego-tripping, jargon-spouting,
cult-building superstar academic who represents himself as a more evolved
thinker than the stodgy, moldy fig Marxists with their crude
base-superstructure model.

I am not sure how the discussion broke out, but Doug wrote that Zizek told
him that he was vehemantly opposed to imperialist intervention in Kosovo,
but I am not sure on what basis, given this item from the April 24,'99

>>The Slovenians were the first to be attacked by Slobodan Milosevic's
Serbia, in the three-day war of 1990. That conflict revealed the extent of
international apathy towards Milosevic's aggressive nationalism, which has
culminated in the Kosovan war. Today, Zizek lambasts "the interminable
procrastination" of Western governments and says that "I definitely support
the bombing" of Milosevic's regime by Nato. But he argues that Milosevic is
also symptomatic of the New World Order, and that our real focus should be
on creating "transnational political movements" to counter it.<<

Here's all you'll ever need to now about the dreadful Zizek:

The Independent (London), June 21, 1998, Sunday

Interview: Terrible old Stalinist with the answer to life, the universe and
everything; Slovenian thinker Slavoj Zizek is a darling of the intellectual
left and a brilliant commentator on pop culture. But the really important
thing about him is that he is terrifyingly hip in the way only a bearded
Eastern European intellectual can be. Prepare to namedrop

by Jenny Madden /Ben Seymour

"GOD IS THE ultimate tamagochi!" Gleeful but sexy-sounding obscurity is
part of the job description for philosophers, especially ones with beards
who lecture on cinema and contemporary culture, so this and similarly
provocative pronouncements can have come as no surprise to Slavoj Zizek's
audience at the National Film Theatre last week. And since Britain is a bit
short on fashionable intellectuals, the black polo-neck wearing classes
were there in force to drink in the bearded Balkan's genre-scrambling

Not since post-modernism reached saturation point in the Eighties has
theory (as opposed to the practice of tunnel-digging and tree-house
building) been so fashionable. Youth and style magazines like Dazed and
Confused and The Idler are stuffed with lengthy interviews with
contemporary thinkers. But Zizek, recently voted "most entertaining
speaker" by London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, is a rather different
experience from the laid-back and frankly impenetrable intellectual stars
of the Seventies and Eighties like Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida.
His manic monologues, drawing on all aspects of culture from the operas of
Wagner to the films of Jim Carrey, leave his fans in a state of excitement
rarely associated with the world of philosophy. With his thick Slovenian
accent and wonderfully Freudian speech impediment he sounds like a
turbocharged Eastern European vacuum cleaner, sucking the debris of modern
life into his hyperactive brain.

Finding "Adorno" next to "Alvin Stardust" in the index of yet another
trendy treatise from post-modern academia has long provided students with
harmless pleasure. The difference with Zizek is that his cultural
ecleticism is bent to serious political purpose. Colin McCabe, head of
research at the British Film Institute in London and himself one of the
most influential writers on film and theory in this country, is overflowing
with enthusiasm for the radical Slovenian philosopher: "What makes him so
important is his ability to relate the most abstract theoretical language
to the most concrete political facts. He uses contemporary films like
Breaking the Waves and Leaving Las Vegas as a way of meditating on
contemporary emotional and sexual relationships and manages to decode Lacan
in the process. With his specific East European perspective, and
unapologetic development of the ideas of Freud and Marx, Zizek is doing
what no one else has done. He makes theory interesting and important again."

Born in 1949, Zizek studied philosophy at the University of Ljubljana
during the years of Communism and then immersed himself in the teachings of
the infamous and influential psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in Paris. Back in
Slovenia he was politically active in the alternative movement during the
Eighties, and later ran for the presidency of the Republic of Slovenia in
the country's first multi-party elections. His English language conquest of
the realms of film, politics and popular culture really began in the early
Nineties, when he edited the seminal Everything You Always Wanted to Know
About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). Since then, he has produced
eight more books, dozens of articles and been translated into twelve
languages - all while holding down his day job as senior researcher at the
Institute of Social Studies in his home town. His next The Ticklish
Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, will consolidate his
assault on the foundations of contemporary political thought.

Urgency, bordering on emergency, best describes Zizek's approach to
philosophising. After a three-hour phone interview he is willing to talk in
stream of consciousness mode for another two hours, "as long as I don't
collapse". It's no surprise to find the superheated Zizek has recently been
the victim of panic attacks. De Beauvoir to his Sartre, Zizek's wife Renata
Salecl (herself an impressively eclectic cultural theorist) recently stood
in for her beleaguered husband at a conference on feminism and
psychoanalysis. While they have collaborated on the cosy-sounding title
Gaze and Voice as Love Object, being married to Zizek could be a full-time
job in its own right.

Impatient of his own frailty, Zizek rages against the trend to medicalise
complex human emotions and is one of the few intellectuals prepared to
speak out against the reduction of the psychological to the biological. On
the delicate subject of the new impotence- curing wonder drug, Zizek (who
habitually speaks in lecture-room mode) declares: "Does not changing
erection into something that can be achieved through a direct medical
intervention deny the man knowledge of his true attitude? In what form will
his dissatisfaction find an outlet, when it is deprived of the simple sign
of impotence?"

In Zizek's view we short-circuit the emotional at our peril. Problems arise
not only when desires are denied expression, but, above all, when they are
too easily attained. Most of us fantasise about doing a job we enjoy for a
living instead of the daily drudge. But Zizek reminds us to be careful what
we wish for, because it just might come true: "If anyone embodies the
potential catch-22 in the future of work, it is the young hackers employed
by companies like Microsoft. It's like a distorted realisation of Marx's
dream of disalienation. Here one no longer faces the split between one's
job and one's own private pleasures. The hired hacker is paid to indulge
his 'individuality'. The employer's demand is no longer 'Behave properly,
wear grey suits' etc - it's 'Be as idiosyncratic as you can, indulge in
your crazy ideas - you will lose your job if you don't.' You are paid not
to slave away at a job you hate but, on the contrary, to enjoy yourself.
Yet the pressure is much worse."

With a renaissance man's grasp of the world around him (as Slovenia
"ambassador of science" he has developed an in-depth knowledge of quantum
physics) and a journalist's eye for detail (he writes regularly in one of
the national papers) Zizek's often contentious observations are usually
rooted in hard evidence: "I spoke with a psychiatrist whose main customers
are Microsoft people and she told me that they can take it for a couple of
years then the job gets so suffocating they disappear. They move a little
bit East, you know, towards those horrible states like Montana and Idaho
and then become - how do you call them? - survivalists, extreme right-wing
gangsters. They simply want to escape! They cannot stand it!"

Not content with comparing the almighty to a kind of technological terrapin
(sadly, the constraints of space prevent us from reproducing his entirely
cogent argument here), Zizek goes on to liken the rigours of tamagochi care
to the ultimately false and sterile activity of contemporary politics. His
key philosophical concern is with the distinction between "Act" and (mere)
"activity"; "The most succinct definition of false activity is as follows;
when I am frenetically active not to achieve something, but in order to
prevent something from happening." For Zizek, identity politics,
superficially dedicated to promoting concrete, practical ends (for example
saving the rain forests or lowering the age of consent) nevertheless
unconsciously avoids confronting the root of social problems. "Like the
obsessional neurotic, the 'new political movements' are frantically active
precisely in order to insure that something - that which really matters,
the smooth functioning of the market - will not be disturbed."

This last phrase is the giveaway. Whilst Marx has become rather chic of
late, with intellectuals falling over themselves to declare their debt to
an abridged version of his ideas, Zizek is unusual in holding on to the
most radical aspects of his legacy. This "terrible old Stalinist" (as he
self-mockingly puts it) challenges the notion that there can be no
alternative to the market. "Politics is a very recent thing, perhaps it
will have been only a brief episode in human history. Maybe the situation
is globally pessimistic, and political acts as such will soon no longer be
possible. Until that time, we must try to locate the universal demand in
any particular struggle and to repoliticise the economic."

So, when he's not contemplating the future prospects for human
emancipation, how does Zizek relax? Does this populist polymath ever worry
that, having made his cultural pleasures the stuff of his theoretical
labour, he will end up like one of those deracinated microserfs? "You know
the stereotype of the teenage boy who wraps up his copy of Playboy in The
Principles of Mathematics or whatever? Well, for me the situation is
reversed. I pretend to be reading popular literature, but inside it's some
purely theoretical work by Hegel. That's what I really enjoy."

Louis Proyect
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