[Marxism] Useful article on Zizek

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 11 07:03:55 MST 2009


http://linguafranca.mirror.theinfo.org/9810/zizek.html
Volume 8, No. 7 - October 1998

Enjoy Your Zizek!
An Excitable Slovenian Philosopher Examines The Obscene Practices 
Of Everyday Life -- Including His Own
By Robert S. Boynton

AMID THE BUSTLE OF Tony Blair's Britain, the tradition of the 
afternoon tea is one of the last remaining traces of the country's 
genteel past. There are few places that conjure up that past 
better than the oak-paneled King's Bar Loung e at the Hotel 
Russell, a fading Victorian pile that sits on the edge of 
Bloomsbury, only a few short blocks from the British Museum. On a 
drizzly summer afternoon, I sink into one of the Lounge's 
overstuffed leather chairs, feeling as if I were being tra 
nsported back to an earlier, more leisurely era--far from "cool 
Britannia" and debates over the future of the euro. The spell is 
abruptly broken, however, by the sudden, agitated entrance of the 
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is in town to delive r a 
series of lectures at the British Film Institute.

"We must have the most fanatically precise English tea," Zizek 
insists, gesticulating dramatically in the style of a European 
dictator. "Everything must be exactly the way the English do it: 
clotted cream, cucumber sandwiches, scones. It must be the mo st 
radically English experience possible!"

Bearded, disheveled, and loud, Zizek looks like central casting's 
pick for the role of Eastern European Intellectual. Newspapers are 
lowered and conversations stop as a skittish waiter shows us to a 
small table in the far corner of the room. Barely pau sing to sit 
down, Zizek launches into a monologue so learned and amusing that 
it could very well appear--verbatim--in one of the many books he 
has written about the obscene rules that sustain our supposedly 
civilized social practices. With lightning speed , he moves from 
the decline of British culture ("They took perfectly good tea, 
added milk, and made it look like filthy dishwater!") to Hollywood 
("Brad Pitt's Seven Years in Tibet--a terrible movie!") to the 
Tibetan legal system ("a process of for malized bribery where 
opposing parties bid against each other in a ritualized auction--I 
absolutely love this!").

Zizek talks exactly as he writes, in a nonstop pastiche of 
Hegelian philosophy, Marxist dialectics, and Lacanian jargon 
leavened with references to film noir, dirty jokes, and pop 
culture ephemera. "Discussing Hegel and Lacan is like breathing 
for Slav oj. I've seen him talk about theory for four hours 
straight without flagging," says UC-Berkeley's Judith Butler. When 
not mediated by the printed page, however, the 
obsessive-compulsive quality that makes his hyperkinetic prose so 
exhilarating is somewhat overwhelming--even, evidently, for Zizek 
himself. Popping the occasional Xanax to settle his nerves, he 
tells me about his heart problems and frequent panic attacks. As 
his eyes dart around the room and his manic monologue becomes more 
frantic, I fear th at I may be his last interviewer. Zizek is like 
a performance artist who is terrified of abandoning the stage; 
once he starts talking, he seems unable to stop. "You must be much 
crueler, more brutal with me!" he pleads, even as he speeds his 
pace to preve nt me from cutting him off. "You should never enter 
a sadomasochistic relationship," he scolds, a sly smile peeking 
out from his bushy beard. "You wouldn't whip your partner hard 
enough!"

When the waiter returns, Zizek finally pauses, studies the menu, 
and orders a pot of mint tea and a plate of sugar cookies. Mint 
tea and cookies? What about our "radical" English experience? "Oh, 
I can't drink anything stronger than herbal tea in the a 
fternoon," he says meekly. "Caffeine makes me too nervous."

FOR ZIZEK, a conversation--whatever the topic--is an exercise in 
self-contradiction. When he thinks you are beginning to get a 
handle on his motives or desires, he pulls an about-face, insists 
he doesn't mean anything he has just said , that his own views are 
the exact opposite. His contrariness is famous, and as a writer it 
has generally served him well--helping to earn him a reputation as 
a dazzlingly acute thinker and prose stylist and to win him a cult 
following among American grad uate students. In person, however, 
it seems that Zizek's contrariness is at least partly an 
uncontrollable compulsion. And yet his manipulations and 
subterfuges are so entertaining, and his intellect so stimulating, 
that it is far wiser to surrender witho ut a fight than to try to 
trump him at his game.

Later that evening, I have an opportunity to watch Zizek's 
mesmerizing oratorical skills in action at the Museum of the 
Moving Image, where he gives a standing-room-only lecture on the 
erotic forces at play in science fiction. The audience is a 
diverse group, with hip, nose-ring-studded film theorists jostling 
for seats with graying, tweedy academics. Beforehand, I find Zizek 
pacing madly outside the auditorium, and he confides to me that 
this week's panic attacks have been so severe he nearly canceled 
tonight's engagement. A few minutes into his talk, however, he is 
fine; his emotional anxiety is quickly transformed into a blur of 
theoretical intensity.

By the time his two-week-long lecture series is completed, he has 
offered a succession of Lacanian interpretations--accompanied by 
visuals--of Titanic, Deep Impact, The Abyss, several works by 
Hitchcock and David Lynch, and even an episode of Oprah (with 
Slovene subtitles). At one point, he gleefully fast-forwards over 
a portion of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, explaining that despite 
its theoretical value it is quite a dull film. "For me, life 
exists only insofar as I can theorize i t," he confesses. "I can 
be bored to death by a movie, but if you give me a good theory, I 
will gladly erase the past in an Orwellian fashion and claim that 
I have always enjoyed it!" It is a bravura performance, replete 
with Zizek's trademark synthesis o f philosophical verve and 
rhetorical playfulness--an intellectual style that recently led 
Terry Eagleton to describe him in The London Review of Books as 
"the most formidably brilliant exponent of psychoanalysis, indeed 
of cultural theory in genera l, to have emerged in Europe for some 
decades."

Of course, many readers are likely to feel disoriented by Zizek's 
fast-paced, densely associative writing, as well as by his 
reliance on the difficult notions of a notorious French 
psychoanalyst. Zizek's chief intellectual hero, Jacques Lacan, is 
a man whom recent critics have portrayed as an eccentric tyrant 
who may have perpetrated a grand intellectual hoax on his 
followers. But Zizek's appeal is due, in part, to his considerable 
ease with two subjects that most disciples of Lacan disregard: 
popular culture and politics. In much of his work, Zizek employs 
familiar concepts from the psychoanalytic and Lacanian 
lexicon--projection, inversion, the Real and the Symbolic--to 
explore the ideological contradictions of contemporary life. In 
books like Enj oy Your Symptom!, Looking Awry, The Plague of 
Fantasies, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan 
(But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), he offers provocative, and 
always lively, readings of everything from Patricia Highsmith 
novels to the resurgence of nationalism in Eastern Europe.

Politically savvy and deeply rational, Zizek's Lacan is a far cry 
from the abstruse guru of indeterminancy invoked by American 
literary theorists. In his writing, Zizek militates against the 
"distorted picture of Lacan as belonging to the field of 'pos 
t-structuralism.'" Rather, he argues that Lacan offers "perhaps 
the most radical contemporary version of the Enlightenment."

Zizek's Lacanian defense of the Enlightenment distinguishes him 
from many contemporary theorists. Indeed, the enormous popularity 
of Zizek's best-known book, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, 
1989), may owe something to the fact that it off ers an 
alternative to two entrenched and antithetical bodies of 
contemporary thought: the French postmodernists' skepticism about 
the Enlightenment ideals of universality, truth, reason, and 
progress, and the German theorist Jürgen Habermas's attempt to 
vindicate those ideals with his theory of "communicative 
rationality." While Foucault and Derrida dissolve the human 
subject in a sea of discursive indeterminacy and historical 
contingency, Habermas's defense of reason ultimately rests on a 
vision of the individual as an ethical actor in a functional 
community.

Zizek is sympathetic to many of Habermas's aims, but he offers a 
more complex psychoanalytic account of human thinking and 
desiring. Unlike Habermas, he assumes that communities are 
constitutively dysfunctional and that the human subject is always 
divi ded against itself by contradictory desires and 
identifications. And the rationalist project must proceed from the 
recognition of these fundamental truths. The thrill of reading 
Zizek (who, as a stylist, no one would ever confuse with the 
turgid Habermas) arises in part from the collision between the 
insanity he finds everywhere in our psychic and social lives and 
the rigorous clarity with which he anatomizes its workings. "He 
has almost single-handedly revived a dynamically dialectical, 
Hegelian, style o f thinking," says Eric Santner, a professor of 
Germanic studies at the University of Chicago. "I think of him as 
a sort of 'logician of culture' who reveals the underlying 
structures of politics and ideology in much the way Kant did."

If Zizek's is not a household name in academe, this is not due to 
a lack of effort on his part. His ability to compose his books in 
English (parts of them are subsequently translated into Slovene) 
has so hastened his pace of publication that his variou s 
English-language publishers must occasionally scramble to keep him 
from flooding the market. No less than a dozen titles have 
appeared under his name since 1989, including several essay 
collections in the separate book series he edits for Verso and for 
Duke University Press. And 1999 will be a big year--even for Zizek 
Inc. Blackwell is publishing The Zizek Reader, and Verso is 
publishing The Ticklish Subject. Advertised as his magnum opus, 
The Ticklish Subject may be his most focuse d and most political 
book to date. Taking on contemporary intellectual bugaboos--from 
political correctness to multiculturalism--Zizek argues for a 
radical politics that will be unafraid to make sweeping claims in 
the name of a universal human subject. "A spectre is haunting 
Western academia," he writes, "the spectre of the Cartesian subject."

MANY OF ZIZEK'S distinguishing marks--his passion for 
psychoanalytic inversions, his fascination with Western popular 
culture, his resistance to the cynical logic of 
depoliticization--can be traced to the paradoxes of growing up 
unde r Yugloslav socialism. Born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1949, 
Zizek was the son of devout communists who grew increasingly 
disenchanted. He had a difficult relationship with his father, who 
wanted him to become an economist. Instead, Zizek divided his atte 
ntion between reading philosophy and watching movies. Access to 
Western movies was easy because of a tradition requiring that 
movie companies deposit a copy of each film they distributed with 
the archives of regional universities. "The cinematheque theate r 
was a miracle for us," remembers Zizek. "We were able to see 
unlimited Hollywood movies and European art films--one or two a 
day, five days a week."

Despite its relatively liberal cultural and political policies, 
Zizek argues, Tito's Yugoslavia produced a more repressive (though 
subtly so) brand of ideology than the other Eastern-bloc 
countries. While Czechoslovakian or Polish authorities made no s 
ecret of their authoritarian tactics, the more permissive 
Yugoslavian communists sent out mixed signals about what was and 
was not permitted, thereby fostering an unusually effective, 
because at least partially self-regulating, system of censorship. 
By wa y of example, Zizek tells the story of a Slovenian book 
publisher in the fairly tolerant late 1970s who wanted to collect 
some of the best-known Soviet dissident writing. "The party line 
fluctuated so much that the Central Committee of the League of 
Slove ne Communists was terrified of committing itself one way or 
the other," Zizek explains. "So the members said, 'Wait a minute, 
you are yourself free to decide what to publish'--which was the 
really Kafkaesque situation. At least with Polish censorship, it 
was a strict bureaucracy, which would negotiate, reach a 
compromise, and give you a final decision. This would have been 
paradise for us! The nightmare of Yugoslavia was that you couldn't 
get a clear answer from anyone about anything."

The young Zizek was attracted to ideas that were relatively 
uncontaminated by ruling ideologies. After completing his 
undergraduate studies in 1971, Zizek wrote a four-hundred-page 
master's thesis called "The Theoretical and Practical Relevance of 
Fren ch Structuralism," which canvassed the work of Lacan, 
Derrida, Kristeva, Lévi-Strauss and Deleuze. Initially, Zizek was 
promised a university position. But when the evaluating committee 
judged his thesis insufficiently Marxist, the job went to anot 
her, less qualified candidate. "Slavoj was so charismatic and 
brilliant they were afraid to allow him to teach at the university 
lest he become the reigning sovereign at the department of 
philosophy and influence students," says the Lacanian social 
philos opher Mladen Dolar, who was also a graduate student at the 
time.

Zizek was devastated by this slight and spent the next several 
years virtually unemployed, supporting himself by translating 
philosophy from the German and living off his parents. In 1977, 
some of his former professors used their connections to win him a 
job at the Central Committee of the League of Slovene Communists, 
where, apart from assisting with occasional speeches (in which he 
would insert covertly subversive comments), Zizek was left alone 
to do his own philosophical work: The philosopher whose unreliable 
politics prevented him from teaching was now helping to write 
propaganda for the leaders of Slovenia's Communist Party. Zizek 
still revels in the irony. "I would write philosophy papers and 
then deliver them at international conferences in Ita ly and 
France--trips that were paid for by the Central Committee!"

If Yugoslavian socialism produced a thoroughly cynical citizenry, 
a country of people who understood that the last thing the regime 
desired was for them to believe too ardently in the official 
principles of communism, this, argues Zizek, was ideology a t its 
most effective. "The paradox of the regime was that if people were 
to take their ideology seriously it would effectively destroy the 
system," he says. In his account, cynicism and apathy are 
explanations not for the regime's failure but, perversely, for its 
success. "The conventional wisdom is that socialism was a failure 
because, instead of creating a 'New Man,' it produced a country of 
cynics who believed that the system is corrupt, politics is a 
horror, and that only private happiness is possible ," he argues. 
"But my point is this: Perhaps depoliticization was the true aim 
of socialist education? This was surely the daily experience of my 
youth."

To counter this depoliticization, Zizek banded together with the 
Ljubljana Lacanians, a tightknit group of Slovenian scholars that 
included Mladen Dolar, Alenka Zupancic, Miran Bozovic, Zdravko 
Kobe, and Zizek's wife, Renata Salecl. In their hands, Fre nch 
psychoanalysis acquired an often highly comic cast. The group took 
over a journal, Problemi, and founded a book publishing series, 
Analecta; inspired by Lacan's roots in the French surrealist 
movement (he was friends with André Breton an d Salvador Dalí), 
they used these outlets to perpetrate several literary hoaxes. 
Articles in Problemi were frequently written under pseudonyms or 
left unsigned, in parodic imitation of Stalinist practice. Zizek 
once wrote a pseudonymous revi ew attacking one of his own books 
on Lacan. On another occasion, Problemi published a fictional 
roundtable discussion of feminism in which Zizek played the 
boorish interlocutor, posing provocative questions to nonexistent 
participants. (Later, in Enjoy Your Symptom!, Zizek continued to 
engage in literary hoaxes with an essay on the films of Roberto 
Rossellini--none of which he had seen.) With the regime's aversion 
to Lacan on the rise, Zizek sensed a wonderful opportunity for 
mischief; writi ng in a widely read academic journal, Anthropos, 
under an assumed name, he published a deliberately clumsy attack 
on an imaginary book that allegedly detailed why Lacan's theories 
were wrong. The next day bookstores across Ljubljana received 
reques ts for the title.

In 1981, Zizek spent a year in Paris, where he met some of the 
thinkers whose work he had been so avidly consuming. He would 
return often. In 1982, however, Lacan died and his mantle passed 
to his son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller--a man who would play an 
important role in Zizek's career. A former student of Althusser's, 
Miller had impressed Lacan with the coherence he brought to the 
master's sprawling theoretical system. While many Lacanians accuse 
Miller of simplifying Lacan (perish the thought!), oth ers believe 
that Lacan's posthumous reputation would not have grown without 
Miller's ordering influence. A shrewd political operator, Miller 
was eager to expand the Lacanian empire farther than its 
progenitor had ever imagined. Miller taught two classes i n Paris: 
one that was open to anyone, and an exclusive, thirty-student 
seminar at the École de la Cause Freudienne in which he examined 
the works of Lacan page by page. After a brief interview, Zizek 
and Dolar were invited to attend this latter cla ss. "Miller took 
enormous interest in us because we came from Yugoslavia," Dolar 
remembers. "We had been publishing Lacan in Problemi and Analecta 
for years, and he was grateful for that. He thinks very 
strategically and didn't have anyone else est ablished in Eastern 
Europe. To him, we were the last stronghold of Western culture on 
the eastern front."

Zizek's Paris years, although intellectually stimulating, were not 
very happy. Thanks to Miller, who got him a coveted teaching 
fellowship, he was able to stay in Paris and write a second 
dissertation, a Lacanian reading of Hegel, Marx, and Saul Kripke , 
portions of which would later become The Sublime Object of 
Ideology. But his first marriage, to a fellow Slovenian philosophy 
graduate student, had just ended, and there were times he felt he 
was on the brink of committing suicide. His meager sti pend barely 
kept him alive. He was a ripe if reluctant candidate for 
psychoanalysis, and there were many days, he says, when he skipped 
meals in order to pay for treatment.

In addition to being Zizek's teacher, adviser, and sponsor, 
Jacques-Alain Miller became his analyst as well. While familiarity 
between analyst and analysand is discouraged by Freudians, it was 
not unusual for Lacanians to socialize with their patients. 
Lacan's most controversial psychoanalytic innovation, however, was 
the variable, or "short," session through which he tried to combat 
a patient's resistance by introducing an element of discontinuity 
into the therapeutic process. In contrast to Freud's f ifty-minute 
"hour," Lacan's sessions ended the moment he sensed the patient 
had uttered an important word or phrase--a break that might occur 
in fifteen minutes or less. Miller had fine-tuned the logic of 
therapy to the point that few sessions lasted more than ten 
minutes. "To be in analysis with Miller was to step into a divine, 
predestined universe," says Zizek. "He was a totally arbitrary 
despot. He would say, come back tomorrow at exactly 4:55, but this 
didn't mean anything! I would arrive at 4:55 and would find a 
dozen people waiting."

One goal of the variable session is to keep a patient from 
preparing material ahead of time. In this respect, Lacanian 
psychoanalysis met its match in Zizek. "It was my strict rule, my 
sole ethical principle, to lie consistently: to invent all 
symptoms , fabricate all dreams," he reports of his treatment. "It 
was obsessional neurosis in its absolute purest form. Because you 
never knew how long it would last, I was always prepared for at 
least two sessions. I have this incredible fear of what I might 
dis cover if I really went into analysis. What if I lost my 
frenetic theoretical desire? What if I turned into a common 
person?" Eventually, Zizek claims, he had Miller completely taken 
in by his charade: "Once I knew what aroused his interest, I 
invented eve n more complicated scenarios and dreams. One involved 
the Bette Davis movie All About Eve. Miller's daughter is named 
Eve, so I told him that I had dreamed about going to a movie with 
Bette Davis in it. I planned every detail so that when I finishe d 
he announced grandly, 'This was your revenge against me!'"

As the head of the main Lacanian publishing house, Miller was in a 
position to turn Zizek's doctoral dissertation into a book. So, 
when not presenting his fabricated dreams and fantasies, Zizek 
would transform his sessions into de facto academic semina rs to 
impress Miller with his keen intellect. Although Zizek 
successfully defended his dissertation in front of Miller, he 
learned after the defense that Miller did not intend to publish 
his thesis in book form. The following night he had his first 
panic attack, which had all the symptoms of a heart attack. 
Eventually, he placed the manuscript with the publishing house of 
a rival Lacanian faction.

Before Zizek began shuttling between Paris and Ljubljana, his 
professional prospects had already taken a turn for the better. He 
was still unable to hold a university position, but in 1979 some 
friends intervened and got him a job as a researcher at th e 
Institute for Sociology. Given its social science orientation, 
Zizek was not allowed to do philosophy; instead, he announced that 
he would do research on the formation of Slovenian national 
identity. "I did the transcendental trick and said that althoug h 
the long-term project is on Slovene nationalism, I must first 
sketch the conceptual structure of nationalism," he says. 
"Unfortunately, this 'clarification' has now gone on for two decades."

The job was a blessing in disguise. Once Zizek made his peace with 
the social scientists, he discovered that he was free to write, 
with none of the bureaucratic and pedagogical burdens of a Western 
academic. In essence, he is on permanent sabbatical. " Every three 
years I write a research proposal. Then I subdivide it into three 
one-sentence paragraphs, which I call my yearly projects. At the 
end of each year I change the research proposal's future-tense 
verbs into the past tense and then call it my fin al report," he 
explains. Because the institute's budget depends on how much its 
members publish, Zizek--who publishes more work in international 
publications than everyone else combined--is left completely 
alone. "With total freedom, I am a total workahol ic," he says.

Total freedom also allowed Zizek to play a role in Slovenian 
politics. Although not a full-fledged activist, he was intimately 
involved in the movement that helped hasten the end of Yugoslavian 
socialism. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Zizek was a popular 
newspaper columnist for the weekly Mladina and helped found the 
Liberal Democratic Party, which opposes both communism and 
right-wing nationalism and has stressed feminist and environmental 
issues. In 1990, he even ran for a seat on the fou r-member 
collective Slovenian presidency (he finished fifth). As Slovenia 
achieved a mostly peaceful independence, Zizek wrote frequently 
about the bloody conflicts nearby. And when the Liberal Democrats 
came to power in 1992, he found himself in the odd position of 
being an intellectual who wasn't marginalized. Zizek is quite 
proud of the "dirty deals" and compromises made by his party. "I 
despise abstract leftists who don't want to touch power because it 
is corrupting," he says. "No, power is there to b e grabbed. I 
don't have any problem with that."

THE DAY AFTER Zizek's lecture, he and his wife, Renata Salecl, 
meet me for lunch at a cozy Greek café just down the block from 
their London hotel. An attractive woman with a round face and 
short blond hair, Salecl is as calm an d deliberate as Zizek is 
nervous and neurotic. Zizek, who claims he lacks the social graces 
to attend cocktail parties or schmooze with scholars and 
politicians, says that he relies on her to navigate the shoals of 
the outside world. She buys his clothes ("For me, shopping is like 
masturbating in public," he says), negotiates their teaching 
deals, and generally keeps him from having a nervous breakdown. 
Her first book, Discipline as a Condition of Freedom (which was 
recently staged as a ballet), wa s a Foucault-inspired analysis of 
communist Yugoslavia. "Nobody believed in the rules, but they 
nevertheless kept following them obediently, and I wanted to know 
why," she explains. She has spent the morning at the offices of 
Verso, which will be publishi ng her book [Per]versions of Love & 
Hate this fall.

Together, she and Zizek have mastered the intricacies of American 
academic politics and established a congenial teaching ritual that 
keeps them in the United States for one semester every year. 
Recently, they have held positions at Columbia, Princeton, Tulane, 
University of Minnesota, Cardozo Law School, and the New School 
for Social Research; this fall, they are teaching at the 
University of Michigan. The duo has refined the process to a 
science. Each university must provide teaching positions, office 
s, and accommodations for both of them and agree that they will 
each teach one two-month course, consisting of one lecture per 
week on whatever subject they happen to be writing about. In 
addition to his U.S. pay, Zizek receives a full salary from his 
ins titute in Ljubljana. "When people ask me why I don't teach 
permanently in the United States, I tell them that it is because 
American universities have this very strange, eccentric idea that 
you must work for your salary," Zizek says. "I prefer to do the o 
pposite and not work for my salary!"

Zizek has developed an elaborate set of psychological tricks to 
manipulate his American students and enable him to have as little 
contact with them as possible. At the first meeting of each 
course, he announces that all students will get an A and shoul d 
write a final paper only if they want to. "I terrorize them by 
creating a situation where they have no excuse for giving me a 
paper unless they think it is really good. This scares them so 
much, that out of forty students, I will get only a few papers," 
he says. "And I get away with this because they attribute it to my 
'European eccentricity.'"

Zizek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar 
spirit. "I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, 
since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about 
everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a 
whole set of strategies for how to block this," he says with a 
smirk. "The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me 
and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!" Initially, 
Zizek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that 
students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the 
idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on 
the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). 
Zizek reserves what he calls "the nasty strategy" fo r large 
lecture classes in which the students often don't know one 
another. "I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and 
then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students 
think that all the hours are full and I can disappear," he explains.

UNDERGRADUATES ARE APT to be tolerant of their professors' 
idiosyncracies, but Zizek may have less luck hiding from critics 
when The Ticklish Subject is published this winter. Just as he 
once saw socialist Yugoslavia as a count ry that had been 
cynically depoliticized by its leaders, so Zizek now believes that 
conservatives, liberals, and radicals have effectively stamped out 
genuine politics in the West. The modern era, he argues, is 
decidedly "post-political." Instead of polit ics, he writes, we 
have a largely conflict-free "collaboration of enlightened 
technocrats (economists, public opinion specialists...) and 
liberal multiculturalists" who negotiate a series of compromises 
that pose as--but fail to reflect--a "universal cons ensus."

Blair's New Labourites and Clinton's New Democrats are only the 
most recent depoliticized political parties to have made "the art 
of the possible" their modest mantra. Zizek also charges that 
sexual and ethnic identity politics "fits perfectly the depo 
liticized notion of society in which every particular group is 
ëaccounted for,' has its specific status (of a victim) 
acknowledged through affirmative action or other measures destined 
to guarantee social justice." In satisfying grievances through pr 
ograms targeted to specific groups, such as affirmative action, 
the tolerant liberal establishment prevents the emergence of a 
genuinely universal--and in Zizek's definition, properly 
political--impulse.

For Zizek, all successful ideologies function the same way. If 
American-style consumer capitalism has replaced Yugoslavian 
Marxism as the antagonist, the battle is still the same: to create 
the conditions for what he calls "politics proper," a vaguely 
defined, but deeply heroic and inherently universalist impulse, in 
which a given social order and its power interests are 
destabilized and overthrown. "Authentic politics is the art of the 
impossible," he writes. "It changes the very parameters of what is 
considered 'possible' in the existing constellation."

This is a noble vision, but when Zizek turns to history, he finds 
only fleeting examples of genuine politics in action: in ancient 
Athens; in the proclamations of the Third Estate during the French 
Revolution; in the Polish Solidarity movement; and in the last, 
heady days of the East German Republic before the Wall came down 
and the crowds stopped chanting "Wir sind das Volk" ("We are the 
people!") and began chanting "Wir sind ein Volk" ("We are a/one 
people!"). The shift from defi nite to indefinite article, writes 
Zizek, marked "the closure of the momentary authentic political 
opening, the reappropriation of the democratic impetus by the 
thrust towards reunification of Germany, which meant rejoining 
Western Germany's liberal-capit alist police/political order."

In articulating his political credo, Zizek attempts to synthesize 
three unlikely--perhaps incompatible--sources: Lacan's notion of 
the subject as a "pure void" that is "radically out of joint" with 
the world, Marx's political economy, and St. Paul's co nviction 
that universal truth is the only force capable of recognizing the 
needs of the particular. Zizek is fond of calling himself a 
"Pauline materialist," and he admires St. Paul's muscular vision. 
He believes that the post-political deadlock can be br oken only 
by a gesture that undermines "capitalist globalization from the 
standpoint of universal truth in the same way that Pauline 
Christianity did to the Roman global empire." He adds: "My dream 
is to combine an extremely dark, pessimistic belief that life is 
basically horrible and contingent, with a revolutionary social 
attitude."

AS PHILOSOPHY, Zizek's argument is breathtaking, but as social 
prescription, "dream" may be an apt word. The only way to combat 
the dominance of global capitalism, he argues, is through a 
"direct socialization of the productive proces s"--an agenda that 
is unlikely to play well in Slovenia, which is now enjoying many 
of the fruits of Western consumer capitalism. When pressed to 
specify what controlling the productive process might look like, 
Zizek admits he doesn't know, although he fe els certain that an 
alternative to capitalism will emerge and that the public debate 
must be opened up to include subjects like control over genetic 
engineering. Like many who call for a return to the primacy of 
economics, Zizek has only the most tenuous grasp of the subject.

What then are we to make of Zizek's eloquent plea for a return to 
politics? Is it just another self-undermining gesture? In part it 
is, but that may be the point. The blissful freedom of the utopian 
political moment is something, he believes, we all de sire. But so 
too, he would acknowlege, do we desire ideologies and 
institutions. And these contradictory impulses--toward liberation 
and constraint--are not only political. A central tenet of 
Lacanian psychoanalysis is that the push and pull of anarchic d 
esires and inhibiting defense mechanisms structure the psychic 
life of the individual. And why shouldn't this same dialectic 
characterize Zizek's own intellectual life, which has been devoted 
to proclaiming the universal relevance of Lacan's ideas?

"Do not forget that with me everything is the opposite of what it 
seems," he says. "Deep down I am very conservative; I just play at 
this subversive stuff. My most secret dream is to write an 
old-fashioned, multivolume theological tract on Lacanian the ory 
in the style of Aquinas. I would examine each of Lacan's theories 
in a completely dogmatic way, considering the arguments for and 
against each statement and then offering a commentary. I would be 
happiest if I could be a monk in my cell, with nothing to do but 
write my Summa Lacaniana."

But wouldn't that be lonely? Once again, Zizek qualifies his 
qualification. "Okay, maybe not a solitary monk. I could be a monk 
with a woman."




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