Sunday, December 04, 2005

Stand-Up Philosophy: Slavoj Zizek ~ The Marx Brother

from The Philadelphia Enquirer

The Wild Seinfeldian philosopher

Who or what is Slavoj Zizek?

Slavoj Zizek (pronounced SLAH-voy ZHEE-zhek) is:

(1) The name of Groucho Marx's character in Horse Feathers.

(2) The closest thing in Croatia to a cheesesteak.

(3) The latest strain of hip-hop in Bosnian clubs.

(4) A world-famous Slovenian philosopher known as the "Elvis of cultural theory."

more here

from The New Yorker

The Marx Brother

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 "close 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?

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Rebecca Mead


Susan in Italy said...

Hi. It's nice to read a blog that deals with theory. All I have to say about Zizek is that he does have one disciple, Eui Suk Kim who did his Ph.D. at University of Minnesota. So why did you decide to write about him?

eugene ionesco said...

Hi Susan,

Zizek is entertaining and provocative and his material embraces both popular and "elite" culture. This blog could be characterised, to borrow one of Toby Young's bon mots, as a repository of "low culture for highbrows", though, perhaps, it could equally plausibly be regarded as repository of "high culture for lowbrows."

riya said...

very enlightening....i like style