Pathway :: Home
Written by dave mitchell
Friday, 15 April 2005
(check out this article on Slavoj Zizek, the only radical theorist I know who makes me laugh out loud which changing the way I see the world... -d)
How a philosopher from Slovenia became an international star
By Rebecca Mead
The New Yorker
Like all the small, oddly shaped European countries that emerged from the shadow of the Soviet bloc in the last decade of the twentieth century, Slovenia has needed to work hard to establish its place on the international stage. This has been something of a challenge, on account of the country's tiny population, just two million, and its diminutive size. Slovenia, the first of the former Yugoslav republics to become independent, is slightly smaller than New Jersey, though it has considerably more mountains - about a third of the country consists of Alps that have burst beyond Austria's seams - and rather less beach; its coastline is twenty-nine miles long and squeezed between Italy and Croatia, with whom it has a contested border. The project of Slovenian distinctiveness was surely not helped when, a year after independence, Slovakia made its own declaration of statehood, thus confusing those casual watchers of the world scene who were still having trouble distinguishing between Latvia and Lithuania.
Slovenia has, however, a reputation disproportionately large for its size when it comes to the world of ideas. This state of affairs is due to the work of Slavoj Zizek, a fifty-four-year-old Lacanian-Marxist philosopher from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Zizek, who has been translated into more than twenty languages, has written books on subjects as wide-ranging as Hitchcock, Lenin, opera, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th. In the fifteen years since he started publishing in English, Zizek has established himself as a thinker whose views are worth paying attention to - if not always taking seriously, since always to take Slavoj Zizek seriously would be to make a category mistake.
Zizek leaves no social or natural phenomenon untheorized, and is a master of the counterintuitive observation; he has, for example, criticized political theorists who argue that America has become a post-industrial society by pointing out that the working class of the United States still exists and can be found in China, and has also noted that the "dose door" button in an elevator does nothing to hasten the door closing but merely gives the presser a false sense of effective activity. Like many of Zizek's observations, this is the kind of insight that forever changes one's experience, in this case of elevator riding, even if one does not necessarily follow Zizek in his comparison of the beguiled button-presser to the hapless citizen of a Western liberal democracy who thinks he's participating in the political process by voting but, because of the consensus on fundamental issues shared by both major parties, has actually been offered no choice at all. Zizek's aim, in his work, is to combine a Marxist critique of capitalism with a psychoanalytically informed unmasking of the ways in which capitalism works upon the public imagination. His favored form of argument is paradox, and his favored mode of delivery is a kind of vaudevillian overstatement, buttressed by the appearance of utter conviction.
There are not many places in the world hospitable to a thinker whose two theoretical foundations are an extremely difficult French psychoanalyst - the number of people who are equipped to discuss the works of Jacques Lacan rivals the number of those who are fluent in Slovene - and a political theorist who inspired a century's worth of political experiments now considered to have been a disaster by almost everyone save a few holdouts in countries like North Korea. Among the places a Lacanian-Marxist can feel at home are the English departments of many American universities, those lonely outposts of left-wing conviction in a country where radical socialism is about as likely to take root as radical fruitarianism. Here Zizek is a celebrated and pampered guest, bristling with authenticity. He has held visiting posts at Duke and at Princeton and at Cardozo Law School, in New York City, and has lectured widely elsewhere in the United States. "People have been worried that so much social and literary theory is so difficult and rarefied that they can't really relate to it," Judith Butler, who teaches at Berkeley, says. "But Zizek is very interested in engaging popular culture to ground his views, and for many people it has come as a great relief that he can be talking about Althusser and 'Gladiator' at the same time." James Miller, the chairman of the liberal-studies department at New School University, where Zizek was a visiting professor six years ago, says, "He was like Diogenes the Cynic parachuted into the American academy."
Zizek is bearded and bearish, and restricts his wardrobe to proletarian shirts and bluejeans, with an occasional excursion into corduroy. He owns neither jacket nor tie. He speaks six languages, is made uncomfortable by conversational lapses, and avoids them through the ample use of animated monologue. He speaks English at high speed in an accent recalling that of Latka, the character of indeterminate Mitteleuropean origin played by Andy Kaufman on "Taxi." If, in the progress of intellectual fashions, Jacques Derrida's appeal was that he was fascinatingly difficult, and Michel Foucault's was that he was sexily rigorous, then Zizek's lies in his accessible absurdity. Unlike earlier academic superstars, however, Zizek has no disciples: there is no School of Zizek, no graduate students writing Zizekian readings of the novels of Henry James or of "Star Trek" for their theses. Such a thing would be impossible, since one of the characteristics of Zizek's work is that he applies his critical methodology even to the results of his own critical inquiry, which is another way of saying that he contradicts himself all the time. Eric Santner, who teaches at the University of Chicago and is a dose friend of Zizek, says, "One of his fundamental gestures is this: he will present a problem, or a text, then produce the reading that you have come to expect from him, and then he will say, 'I am tempted to think it is just the opposite.'" To a generation of students raised on "Seinfeld," Zizek's examination of the minutiae of popular culture - his observation, for example, that when he sees a tube of toothpaste advertising "thirty per cent free" he wants to cut off the free third and put it in his pocket - could not be more familiar, and neither could the ironic, self-undermining gesture. As Zizek might put it, he may appear to be a serious leftist intellectual, but is it not the case that he is in fact a comedian?
Recently, Zizek was in Chicago, where he was delivering a lecture at the basement Institute for the Humanities of the University of Illinois. It was a chill, icy afternoon, and Zizek was led through the modernist campus of the university, with its tower blocks perched on stilts, by an open-faced young associate professor named Nicholas Brown. When the buildings were first erected, in the mid-sixties, Brown explained, they were linked by elevated walkways, so that, as campus legend has it, students would not have the opportunity to congregate in open spaces, protesting the types of things students protested in those days. This is the kind of remembrance of authoritarianism past that delights Zizek, one of whose formative experiences was being in Prague during the spring of 1968, just as Russian tanks rolled in. "I found there, on the central square, a caf�that miraculously worked through this emergency," he says. "I remember they had wonderful strawberry cakes, and I was sitting there eating strawberry cakes and watching Russian tanks against demonstrators. It was perfect." Zizek has since developed diabetes, which makes the memory more poignant still.
Zizek's lecture was entitled "The Perverse Core of Christianity." Lately, he has taken to writing a great deal about Christianity, his enthusiasm for which is matched only by his commitment to atheism. Among his recent publications, he is most proud of having been asked to contribute to a German newsletter for priests that offers material for sermons. "This is, like, if you want to educate small girls, you ask a pervert," he says.
For an hour, Zizek led his audience on a bewildering tour of his current thinking on religion, which included his admiration for St. Paul as the first Leninist ("He said, let's go to work, let's build the Party"); his impatience with the kind of cultural-studies academic who speaks respectfully of the religious traditions of others but finds actual religious belief embarrassing ("To put it in crazy terms, I was almost on the Taliban's side when they were bombing the Bamian statues-everyone was so outraged but was also saying, 'Oh, but we don't really believe'"); and a riff on a child's eagerness to get to the toy inside a chocolate egg as demonstrating what Lacan called "object small-a" ("This is the perfect case of Jacques Lacan's motto from Seminar 11: I love you, but inexplicably I love something in you more than you, and therefore I destroy you"). He explained what he meant by the perverse core of Christianity-that Christ's sacrifice on the Cross offers a way for the Christian to indulge in secret desires without having to pay for them-with an illustration from what he referred to as one of the great achievements of Western civilization: "The Sound of Music." "After Maria goes back to the monastery because she is unable to deal with her attraction to Captain von Trapp, she goes to the Reverend Mother expecting some stem advice," Zizek said. "But, instead of criticizing her, the Reverend Mother gives her the message in that weird song 'Climb Every Mountain.' I think this is the most obscene moment in the movie. The very person one would expect to preach abstinence turns out to be the agent of fidelity to one's longings. Significantly, when 'The Sound of Music' was shown in the ex-Yugoslavia, the three minutes of this song was the only part of the film that was censored." It was an extremely entertaining performance, though one contrived to leave the audience perplexed about what, exactly, Zizek stood for. One man, from the back of the room, accused Zizek of "weak-mindedness" for adhering to atheism after making such a spirited case for Christianity. Zizek replied, "When I discuss Christianity with superficial Catholics, their usual line of defense is to say, 'You atheists, you cannot really understand what is a religious experience.' But how do they know what is an atheist experience? I am almost tempted to claim that it is more natural for us to believe. To be an atheist, my God, is a very difficult thing."
An elderly man raised his hand. "What, in your opinion, is a good social order?" he asked. "Communism!" Zizek said, affecting surprise that he could be expected to deliver any other answer. "I am absolutely in favor of egalitarianism with a taste of terror." There was laughter among the younger generation while the elderly man looked horrified, and stammered, "I've seen dictatorships in other countries, and I believe democracy is better than your dictatorships."
"I agree," Zizek said. "But my problem is, what is democracy-today? I am not saying Eastern European socialism is better - my God, I lived there. But take this country. What do you, here, decide at elections? I am just saying that something happened twenty or twenty-five years ago, with the collapse of socialism, and, at the same time, the Western social-democratic worker state losing its power of sustaining political imagination. What disappeared at that point was the belief that humanity, as a collective subject, can actively intervene and somehow steer social development. In the last thirty years, we are again accepting the notion of history as fate. Thirty or forty years ago, there were still debates about what the future will be - Communism, socialism, fascism, liberal capitalism, totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism. The idea was that life would somehow go on on earth, but that there are different possibilities. Now we talk all the time about the end of the world, but it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system. Life on earth maybe will end, but somehow capitalism will go on."
Although Zizek spends about two-thirds of his time circulating through the campuses of Western universities, his official employer is the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. Thanks to the lingering socialist practice of funding artists and intellectuals to a degree unheard of in a market economy, Zizek has no teaching responsibilities at the university, and is free to abandon his post often in order to take up his prestigious overseas assignments. Zizek has been courted by academic institutions in the United States to make a permanent home in this country, but he has resisted the seduction. "In the United States, you have all these office hours and students, and that is madness," he says. "People are always asking me, Why don't you get a job in the States? But I am not interested, basically. Why, if you have a job where you do nothing, would you change it for a job where you have to do something?"
Though he may lack explicit responsibilities, Zizek works constantly, and publishes as fast as he can think, sometimes faster. His most recent book to be published in the United States is "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," five essays commenting on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; because Zizek had trouble making up his mind exactly what he thought about September 11th, he revised the book before sending it off to different foreign publishers. Zizek's current take on September 11th is that, contrary to the received wisdom-that the attacks delivered a wakeup call to the United States and reminded Americans that there is a world beyond their shores-September 11th really acted as a sedative, an opportunity for the return to a nostalgic dream of American superiority and distinctiveness which had been in abeyance since Vietnam, and could now be augmented by a satisfying sense of victimhood. Zizek is a little embarrassed by his more journalistic writing, and says that he would like to publish only pure philosophy-, but the lure of a popular audience has proved irresistible.
His relentless compulsion to theory-monger is, he moans, a curse. "I live a horrible life," he says. "All pleasures are ruined for me. Last night, I listened to Wagner's 'Siegfried,' in order to relax, and it was so wonderful. But after hall an hour I started writing down ideas. It happens to me all the time. People say 'l envy you-you do for work what we do for fun.' But they don't know it is also the other way around." He reads at least three books at a time, so that when he tires of reading he can relax by switching to a different book. He does not indulge in the favored pastimes of his countrymen, such as skiing. "I have a whole rational theory against skiing," he says. "What does skiing mean? It means that you go up to go down. So why don't you stay down the whole time and read a good book? "Though he loves the opera, attending a performance, like all supposedly recreational activities, consists of anxiety piled on top of nervousness. A recent production of "Die Walkre" left him a wreck: "There were, two understudies, and before the third act they announced that the understudy for Wotan had got a slight throat inflammation, but, heroically, he would try to go on," he said. "I know the opera by heart, and every time there was a long passage approaching I was completely terrified for him." Zizek does not drink or smoke, though he says he would love to do both, if only he liked the taste. Even sex is not, for him, an escape into unself-consciousness. "Are you crazy?" he says. "That is where one should control oneself Sex is duty-my God-sex is not pleasure."
Zizek lives alone in a neat studio apartment in Ljubljana that is equipped with a twin bed, a television, a VCR, a DVD player, a desk, and a laptop. The walls are fined with shelves full of books and videos. "Videos and DVDs have ruined movies for me," he says. "Instead of seeing the movie, I buy it, and then I have it, so why should I watch it?" Zizek has been married and divorced twice, and has a son from each marriage; one son is thirty, and the other is three. (Officially, he doesn't have a girlfriend; unofficially, he does.) "If anything, I have too much space," he says of his home. "Every two months, I am doing a nice Stalinist purge. I look at a book and say, 'Will I ever really read this? It is like Stalin said: This guy is no good for socialism, so out to the Gulag he goes."
His shelves are filled with theoretical works as well as some popular books. Zizek is particularly fond of detective novels, and he considers Patricia Highsmith "the best writer of the twentieth century-even better than Chandler." He adds, "People who say 'Don't tell me the end' have it all wrong. I read the first ten pages and then I read the ending, and that is the test: do I still want to read it?" His collection of movies includes the Nazi propaganda film "The Eternal Jew," the sale of which is banned in Germany ("All my German leftist friends have copies"), and Soviet-era romances about happy agricultural workers. He also has some popular movies, including "Liar Liar" and "The Last Seduction." The actress Linda Fiorentino, is among the people Zizek would most like to have dinner with, as is the actress Liv Tyler. "And it is a great sin to admit it and now I deny it, but I used to have a crush on Meg Ryan," he says. "Everyone says, 'How could you? But at the beginning she made a thriller, a remake of an old film noir. Now, with this Tom Hanks stuff, it is over." There is a kitchenette in the apartment with enough room for him to pour a can of soup into a saucepan, heat it up, eat it, and wash the dish without taking a step. His bathroom is equipped with tiny bottles of shampoo from the hotels of many nations. "All my socks are from Lufthansa," he says.
Like his apartment, Zizek's writing betrays his peripatetic life style. When he illustrates the sameness between political parties on an American electoral ballot by comparing the choice to that between Equal and Sweet'n Low, or between Letterman and Leno, the text speaks of insomniac nights spent in places like the Evanston Hilton, absorbing America through the blue screen.
Ljubljana is a city of great charm, built on the Sava River, with cobblestoned streets, Baroque churches, and handsome Art Nouveau stores. Its most celebrated landmark is a castle perched on top of a hill, which Zizek has never visited, while walking around Ljubljana, he is more concerned with pointing out the kinds of sights that are not included in the tourist guides. Crossing the principal thoroughfare, Zizek says, "This is the main street of Ljubljana, which in a typical post-socialist way used to be called Tito Street and is now called Slovenia Street." As he passes a nineteen-fifties office building that adjoins a nineteenth-century building, he says, "The newer building is the Parliament, and the old one was the office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. I love how they didn't even pretend to keep them separate." At the Three Bridges, a picturesque crossing point at a bend in the river, he says, "Those bridges were designed by a fascist architect in the nineteen-thirties who has recently been reclaimed as a postmodernist." Seeing a street-side hawker selling copies of Mladina, a weekly magazine that was an important dissident organ in the nineteen-eighties, he comments, "Back then, newsstands weren't allowed to sell Mladina, so it had to be sold on the street like this. Now, of course, the newsstands are allowed to sell anything, but Mladina likes to keep doing it this way for the appearance of authenticity." He expressed disappointment at the closing of a coffee bar in the old city called Nostalgia: "They served sandwiches made from not very good bread, with just butter and jam, like we had under socialism. I loved that place."
Ljubljana has a population of only two hundred and fifty-four thousand, and is thus rather like a college in which everybody knows everybody and has either slept with them or fought with them or both. Zizek is the Most Likely to Succeed, though he is also endowed with the nervous, awkward manner of one who regularly flunks Phys. Ed. As is true in much of Eastern Europe, intellectuals - even poets - have a more significant role in public life than is the case in nations with more carefree histories. Unlike intellectuals in the rest of Eastern Europe-or anywhere in the world, for that matter - Slovenian intellectuals are oddly familiar with the theories of Jacques Lacan, thanks, largely, to Zizek, who helped introduce his work in the nineteen-seventies. Slovenian magazine editors, artists, and TV talking heads are perplexingly well equipped to throw around Lacanian terms such as "floating signifier? and "big Other." Half the Slovenian government seems to have studied Lacan at the university, including the former General Secretary of the ruling party, Gregor Golobic, who wrote, for his thesis at the University of Ljubljana, a Lacanian critique of the philosophy of Cratylus. ("He is my best friend! I love him!" Zizek says. "He is the future Slovene Stalin. He is a man of power. He is the kind of guy who, when I am in his office and talking with him and a minister calls, he says to the minister, 'Fuck off! I don't have time to talk to you.'") The philosopher Richard Rorty, who, while teaching at the University of Virginia, invited Zizek and Judith Butler there to discuss Lacan, says, "Zizek told me the great battle in Slovenian politics is between the Lacanians, who dominate the civil service, and the Heideggerians, who dominate the military."
Zizek was the only child of professional parents, and as a teenager was a fanatical consumer of movies and books, spending every spare hour watching Hollywood classics at the government sponsored cin�ath�ue. As an undergraduate at the University of Ljubljana, he came across the newly emerging works of the French structuralists, who were naturally absent from the Marxist curriculum, and wrote for his master's thesis a survey of the work of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and other Continental philosophers who have since become canonical. Although the thesis was thought brilliant, Zizek was denied his advanced degree until he agreed to add an appendix giving an amount of his criticisms of Marx; that way, should Zizek turn out to be a dangerous dissident, his supervisor would be able to claim that he'd made efforts to keep the young scholar on the correct political track.
Even after revising his work, Zizek was deemed unfit to teach, so eventually he took himself to France, where he lived on and off for four years, studying under Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan's son-in-law and intellectual heir. Zizek also went into psychoanalysis with Miller, after a traumatic love affair (The woman in question was the wife of a former colleague; to prove his devotion to her, he embedded romantic acrostics in the books he was publishing at the time.) Zizek considers his therapy unfinished. "The analysis did help me along," he says, "but it was not so much what Miller did as the very fact that I would think, Should I kill myself? What am I saying? Tomorrow at five, I have an appointment with my analyst, so how can I kill myself?"
The nineteen-seventies were a bleak time for Zizek, but things took a different turn in the eighties, when the Communist government in Yugoslavia was losing its grip. Although Zizek, like most Yugoslavs who wanted to get along in the world, was a member of the Communist Party, he became active in the opposition movement. He was particularly attuned to public relations. "He liked to quote Lenin as saying that you should do something every day," says Ali Zerdin, a journalist at Mladina who was, like Zizek, a member of an opposition group called the Committee for the Protection of Human Rights. "He would always try to anticipate the opposite side's reaction. Once, someone said we should have a hunger strike, and he said, 'No, the Serbian TV will just say that all the fat Slavenian people are on a diet.'"
Zizek is of the opinion that citizens of some former socialist countries never had it so good as in the last years of socialism, since, besides having state-subsidized food, housing, wages, and culture, they also had the pleasure of being able to complain about the government. "For three years, there was absolute freedom," he says. "There were none of the regulations that there are now, like over hard-core pornography. Then, you had kiosks selling newspapers, and they'd display posters with the really hard-core stuff. Once, with my son, who was small at the time, I passed a kiosk where there was a large poster with a naked lady sitting on a Harley-Davidson with her legs spread wide, and my son said, 'Look isn't that nice? But he didn't notice the lady-he meant the Harley-Davidson! That time is kind of a lost paradise."
In those years, Zizek was instrumental in establishing the ideological principles of the Liberal Democratic party, the moderate, center-left party that grew out of the student movement and has governed Slovenia for the better part of the past decade. "He helped us, because we were twenty- or twenty-five-year-olds wanting to change the state, and he was a professor and very clever, but he didn't become a strong member of the Party, because he always changed his position," Jozef Skolc, the former Minister of Culture, explains. Zizek says now that he was ambivalent about Slovenian independence: he was critical of it on theoretical grounds but embraced its political expediency. He resolved his qualms long enough to run for a seat on Slovenia's four-person Presidential committee in the country's first democratic elections, in 1990, coming in an honorable fifth-by far the best result for him, and perhaps for Slovenia, since, if he had been elected, his first action would have been to resign. "I thought the position meant that you had a meeting once a week, and then a certain influence and power - but no, it was a twenty-four-hour-a-day job, with all these stupid social obligations," he says.
Zizek was asked to consider becoming a government minister in the mid-nineties, and declined. "The Prime Minister said, 'Do you want Science? Culture?' I told him, 'Are you crazy? Who wants that crap? I am only interested in two posts - either Minister of the Interior or the head of the Secret Police.'" He was, however, made a kind of cultural ambassador for Slovenia, and was granted a diplomatic passport. He has since relinquished it. "I thought it would make it easier to travel, but it was the opposite," he says. "I would try to go through with the diplomatic passport, and the immigration officials would look at me and think, What kind of diplomat is this guy? So it would take twice as long."
In the week before Slovenia became an independent nation, Zizek contributed an essay to Mladina entitled "Hail Freedonia." In it, he adapted an old Marx Brothers joke - "You want a lawyer? Get a lawyer. You'll have more troubles, but at least you1 have a lawyer" - to the project of Slovenian nationalism: "You want to be independent? Be independent. You'll have more problems, but at least you'll be independent. "The works of Groucho Marx are as useful a reference in understanding Zizek as are those of Karl Marx, since everything he says about politics should be understood not only as a policy proposal but as a kind of performance piece. James Miller, of the New School, says of Zizek's lectures, "You would sit through these torrents of verbiage, and you had this post-structuralist and relativist aura on the one hand, and then he would be defending something like democratic socialism. The first time I talked with him, I said, 'But Slavoj, this is inconsistent' He listened to my criticism and ignored it. When he talks, he has such a good time that he just keeps going."
With the works of Karl Marx now standard reading material for campus intellectuals, Zizek has been making the more outrageous case for a return to Lenin; he recently edited a collection of Lenin's works, entitled "Revolution at the Gates," and provided it with a fulsome preface and afterword. "I know Lenin could have been incredibly cruel, and so on," he says. "All I am saying is that it was an unheard-of explosion of freedom, and this crazy belief that we are really starting something new." Stalin, on the other hand, functions for Zizek as a kind of stock gag. "It doesn't mean that he's glorifying Stalin," his friend Eric Santner says. "In part, what he means is that there is no avoidance of the complexities of entering into a power struggle - that the left can't just occupy a position of critique, and that there are risks involved. I think that is what Stalin as a signifier means for him." Zizek's book "Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?" argues against conflating Stalinism with Nazism; he does, however, confess to a soft spot for Mussolini "You know, the democrats in 1925 accused Mussolini: 'You want to rule Italy, but you don't have any program,"' he says. "You know what was his answer? We do have a program: our program is to rule Italy at any price. 'I lave Mussolini-a great guy, sadly seduced later by Hitler."
Zizek likes to think of himself as deeply politically incorrect, delights in calling himself a male chauvinist, and flamboyantly fads to toe the line on gay-rights issues. "My highest defense of homosexuality would be that you prove it is unnatural, because this is truly spiritual," he says. "Any idiot can follow nature, but isn't the truly great thing to say, I love you so much that I break all the laws of nature for you'?" Unfortunately for Zizek, his peers remain unpersuaded of his essential bad nature. Gayatri Spivak, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, says, "I've said to him, 'Slavoj, you have a politically correct soul, and you arc deeply suspicious of it.' If he ever does say something that is very boldly politically incorrect, he tells you that he's doing it. I think that, at the end of the day, he is even susceptible to feminism." And when Zizek invokes Stalin or Lenin or Communism in a lecture, he is met with knowing chuckles, since no one could possibly be so unsophisticated as to take him literally. No one, that is, except the odd elderly gentleman with actual experience of totalitarian Europe, a type of whom there are fewer and fewer.
Some weeks ago, Zizek touched down in New York for a couple of days. In addition to shopping for Playmobil products for his younger son at Toys R Us in Times Square - "I look so Eastern European, carrying around these big shopping bags," he said - the main purpose of the trip was to deliver a lecture at Deitch Projects, a gallery in SoHo. The lecture took place on a bitterly cold evening, and the white-painted, hangarlike gallery was unheated, but this did not deter the crowd of six hundred or so, huddled in hipster winter garb of long black coats and peculiar headgear of Peruvian or Russian provenance. In fact, there were more would-be attendees than the gallery's security guards could handle, and dozens were refused entry. Rather than going away, they massed at the gallery's windows and periodically banged on them to be let in, lending the event an air of anticipation less suited to an academic lecture than to a rare appearance by an obscure but essential Belgian techno dj.
Because Zizek had been provided with a chair and a table rather than a lectern, he was hidden from the sight of most of his audience. His presence consisted of an amplified, disembodied voice filled with hesitations, stops and starts, as if he were constantly expecting to be interrupted, like a nervous guest at a cocktail party. He began by showing some clips from Hitchcock films, which were out of the planned order - I'm sorry, this has never happened to me before," he said, in the embarrassed manner of a disappointing lover - and which were subtitled in Slovene, which Zizek described as an "obscenity." He was so absorbed in giving a Lacanian interpretation of Hitchcock's frequent resort to what he called "the perplexed gaze" that he seemed unaware of the arrival of a police car on the street outside, its flashing blue fight flickering over dejected faces, a cop with a megaphone ordering everyone to move on.
Zizek performed much of the same material that had gone down so well in Chicago - the chocolate-egg riff, jokes about Christian indulgence disguised as renunciation ("Become a celibate Catholic priest and you can have all the small boys you want"), the line about the Bamian Buddhas. Eventually, though, he tamed to more pressing issues. "You probably saw the movie 'Minority Report' in which people are arrested before they commit the crime," he said. "Why does this sound familiar? This is the new model for international relations. The U.S. state knows in advance who will attack you." This, Zizek said, was the effect of the war on terror. "The terrorist attack is taken for granted, but endlessly postponed," he said. "The true catastrophe is that we are living under a permanent threat of catastrophe."
Zizek was against the war in Iraq, he said, but not, as so many of his colleagues in the academy argued, because there was insufficient reason to attack Iraq. He suggested that the United States had adduced too many reasons. "What if the true purpose of the war is to pass to a global emergency state?" he said. "What worries me is that I see all around the signs of what I am tempted to call a silent revolution. This worries me even more than the big, explosive event. "The fact that torture has become a legitimate subject of conversation was an example of this kind of creeping social change, it would be a mistake, he said, to understand this shift as simply the necessary means to the desired end of deposing Saddam Hussein. "It is not that the ends justify the means; the end is the means themselves," Zizek said. He seemed to be almost sorry that he couldn't find a way to endorse the war, and disappointed to be obliged to align himself with a simplistic antiwar movement. Even to Zizek, it seemed, pointing out paradoxes was an inadequate, if essential, response. "Iraq is a bad country-why not attack it?" he said. "But it is because of what an attack means that I oppose it." He sounded as perplexed and as helpless as any less learned observer of the political moment.
After the talk as some of his audience darted off, Zizek invited questions. Word gradually got around that there were refreshments on a balcony level at the other end of the gallery, and, as Zizek continued to speak, the rows of seats grew more depleted. An hour passed; by then Zizek had moved on from Iraq and was telling old gags from the socialist era-three men walk into a Siberian prison camp, that sort of thing-while the drone from the balcony, with its twin distractions of wine and cheese, swelled, until the chatter of those who had succeeded in gaining entry was as loud as the banging of those who had been left out in the cold.
Photograph by Dudley Reed
Last Updated ( Saturday, 16 April 2005 )
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