I first became aware of Slavoj Zizek whilst studying film theory. I read some of his work when writing what would become a sort of ‘dissertation’. My subject for this paper was an investigation into the relations between the films of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and post modern photography. It would eventually culminate in how my conclusions impacted on my own early, and fairly naïve absurdist image making. Whilst researching the paper I was recommended a renowned book, edited by Zizek, luminously entitled Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan: (but Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). During this time I became intrigued by his pragmatic approach to film theory and how it related to his leftist political positioning.
From this initial discovery I went on to read his 2005 book Interrogating the Real. Within the book, Zizek’s range of cultural source material and absolute ‘contemporariness’ was a genuine surprise to me at that time. Making direct, highly plausible connections - as far as I was concerned - between western populist culture, the political mainstream establishment and both ideological and psychoanalytical philosophies, enabled me to make far deeper ideo-historical considerations about my own current culturally defined situation.
Properly introducing me to the work of Hegel is another reason why I now feel a great sense of indebtedness to Zizek. Since experiencing Hegel’s writing first hand, it has had a crucial effect on my own philosophical and political education; and helped course its critical direction. Because of this indirect academic commendation of Zizek’s I have felt compelled to write this article. Therefore in writing this piece I hope to direct others towards these thinkers and their associated subjects. After that, those who do read this will have to use their own well fashioned tools (metaphorically speaking of course), to make up their own minds on Zizek, his work and my general, current take on it.
I assume an extremely brief introduction to this philosopher is required at this point. Zizek, a native Yugoslav born in Slovenia, is an author, philosopher, thinker, cultural figure, film maker; and dare I say, has now become an ‘(in)famous’ individual. He has written in excess of 50 books on ideology, film, psychoanalysis, visual culture and Marxism - to mention just a selected few subjects. Also contributing too many other texts and journals; as editor, essayist and - not too forget as is the case here - as subject matter itself. Zizek has steadily over the last two decades become a behemoth on the contemporary Left’s current ideo-philosophical ‘stage’. However it appears to be his lectures and public talks (which I have experienced first-hand for myself) that have attracted the most attention. His eccentric, ‘larger than life’ persona; and I must say somewhat peculiar demeanour, has made him an intriguingly imposing figure.
“Philosophers and academics love radicalism and revolts, but only from a distance.” S.Z.
What makes Zizek culturally relevant on a far bigger scale than many other modern theorists is his continued support and intellectual weight, which he puts behind definite causes. This is crucial in making him one of today’s most important political activists/thinkers, in my view. Not a Leftist philosopher whom procrastinates and develops vigorous analytical debates on western defined capitalism’s many foibles without any real action being taken themselves to address and directly engage in the debate. This is sadly all too common. No, Zizek is at the forefront of the latest round of examinations into our economic failures, and the many issues now evident (if they weren’t already) around capitalism’s social injustices and, as a consequent, the calamity it has become.
It is clear to me that Zizek has become relevant too a far larger audience than most other philosophers. I say this because of the transition his public persona has made from a kind of court jester figure, telling dirty jokes, stories and using clever metaphors to define a variety of cultural and ideological situations. As is always the case with the establishment, the ‘fear factor’ comes into play when, with continued infamy, it leads to larger audiences and publicity. Once simply recommended as a ‘good laugh’ and an entertaining figure by many, Zizek now comes with a warning: “Don’t be fooled by this guy and his dirty jokes he is actually dangerous and subversive”, to paraphrase Zizek’s very own anecdote. In response to such warnings, I guess all that can be said is that hopefully Zizek can be a genuine threat to those who subscribe to greed and the protection of the current failing economic structures. Therefore such widespread cautions directed towards him are testament to his work thus far, which one can only hope continues to grow in popularity.
Zizek’s current positioning seems to be antithetical to Lacanian discourse. One of Zizek’s foremost critical sources: Lacan’s (in very basic terms) chief concern and objective is one of revelation. He attempts, and I would say largely succeeds in revealing the illusions that Capitalism is based on. However Lacan believes that what he reveals about capitalism is permanent. It cannot be changed. However, Zizek takes a great deal of what Lacan says, but is, clearly by his actions and rhetoric, not so accepting of the finality of the prevailing systems that control and preside over us. In a talk given to Yale’s Political Union in April of this year he stated that: “I am afraid that this eternal marriage between democracy and capitalism is slowly coming to an end,” (…) “We have to reinvent capitalism.”
His views are of the emancipatory sort. In recent talks and texts he has drawn upon the Egyptian uprising as a catalyst for change and potentially for further revolutionary acts. This act culminated in the ultimate “Explosions of emancipatory energy” in Tahrir square on the 25th of January 2011. Then less than a month later on the 11th of February the government had resigned and elections called. The exact source(s) of this change are undoubtedly complex; yet no less remarkable for this. However Zizek has used this event, and other long awaited - perhaps less successful and far more bitter recent Middle Eastern uprisings – as further reasoning for his anti-Lacanian position. This position he, amongst others, has described as “developing a politics of resistance”. Although pragmatic on this point - as I too believe one should be in particular contexts - Zizek states that ‘it is crucial to always resist where one can’.
“Philosophy is its own time conceived in thoughts.”
Hegel, Zizek explains is not a philosopher who can be simply considered in a historicist context. His ideas go beyond ‘contemporariness’ and into the realm of ‘otherness’ or something that is out of reach. His knowing is a far more all-inclusive knowledge; described as an “absolute knowing”. This is a negation and Hegel a philosopher of negation. He - in the same way as Descartes and Plato did before him - manages to define an epoch that succeeds him; but crucially in the negative sense. Therefore this “Absolute Knowing” is the opposite of what it first suggests. He is in fact, as Zizek surmises, taking historicism to its most radical conclusion, by suggesting that “This is where we are now and what is beyond this is an ‘openness’, which is out of reach.” In a sense Zizek believes that Hegel is able to go beyond Kant; as he looks, not for the real but “cracks in the real” itself. Reality, for Hegel is incomplete. “This is where we are today for the time being”, is how Zizek describes it.
Zizek refreshingly takes his political stance from this Hegelian notion of ‘openness’. The French word avenir is fittingly used by him in this context. The notion of ‘what is to come’, in the revelatory sense and not simply ‘the future’, helps to define Zizek’s logic with regards enforced change and action. The present predicament is totally unique as all era defining moments are. The Occupy Movement, of which Zizek has been an important supporter and sometime critique of; shows that in the West a steadily growing engagement with actual change is starting to happen also. For me this movement heavily relates to the Hegelian position of open discourse, and to coin the old Leninist phrase, trying to find out “what is to be done?”. In very basic terms therefore an explanation as to why this moment is unique; is for a variety of reasons (for which I do have the time to examine thoroughly now, so lets just say because of ‘progress’) become clear on an unprecedented scale - to anyone who would want to find out - that the democratic structures we have are not strong enough to deal with the current economic problem(s). Because of this knowledge the situation is wholly unique. Today information/knowledge is key and therefore ideology - in the 20th century sense of the word - is dead or at the very least terminally ill. We are coming to the end of an epoch Zizek explains, and a new one, for good or bad will take its place. Therefore I believe these times are the epitome of the Hegelian model of philosophical thinking and should be applied by the Left in order to help more effectively win the argument. We must be the purveyors of defining the next epoch. Change will come with or without us. So for effective influence, political guidance and unity a figure like Zizek will be required.
Capitalism as we have known it will fight tooth and nail to survive. But it will die in its current form that seems inevitable to me. If, or perhaps even when they get very desperate, they may well use the Greek economic crisis as a bitter warning to all us dissenters. A crisis caused not by Greeks but by the world markets and western leaders. If we take Forbes Magazine as a guide on this, Greece (if they don’t co-operate) may be used in a kind of Guinea Pig scenario. It stated that Greece may be thrown out of the Euro - and perhaps worse still - in order to say “This is what you get when you play with us.” Under such circumstances the desolation for the Greek people would be unthinkable. For Zizek such rhetoric and suggestions by Forbes is just another example of the sheer desperation the supporters of Capitalism are, and in turn testament to its unavoidable demise. In my view the Greeks or Irish or Spanish or any western Capital run country for that matter, economic problems are not actually about debt at all. They will never repay the debt because no one will repay any ‘debt’. If the rich(er) economies can’t repay, which they won’t, what chance do Greece have? The money doesn’t exist and it never did. This is just the manner in which the death of this system will occur; ‘To live by the sword’ seems apt in this instance.
As a result it is not possible for me, Zizek or anyone to define what change will take place and the forms it will have. Zizek still, ridiculed by some on both left and right, believes that in the correct fashion Communism could still be applied. He gives reasons for this contentious decision. Firstly it still relates to us ‘the Commons’: the people, directly in both terminology and more importantly definition itself. Secondly it still has a clear definition. Through all it’s tumultuous past it has remained, and always will because of its very characterisation, as a tangible political objective. This makes it easier to realise of course. Thirdly, because of its historical background Communism continually reminds societies that they are ‘playing with fire’; for Zizek this is undoubtedly a positive. And lastly it holds real historical revolutionary meaning. A factor integral to Zizek’s intellectual make-up; and therefore it can facilitate his natural Hegelian stance situated within the ‘canon’ of fundamental change.
A writer of real significance now, and a crucially important political activist of the Left; Zizek may well become the figure head for Leftist politics and debate - if he hasn’t done this already. Therefore as unity is always required in any resistance movement, I hope that Slavoj Zizek can provide this. A highly complex individual who has such a wealth of writing already behind him; Zizek’s complete dedication to ‘the cause’ is truly remarkable and I believe could inspire this unity. My main motivation for writing this article was to simply pass onto other interested parties knowledge of Zizek and his work. Then those who choose to can proceed with discovering him for themselves. Furthermore by making people aware of him I have attempted to play my own, very small part, in a possible exchange of ideas and activism.
note. The primary source for this article was Slavoj Zizek’s book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism; Verso Books (London & New York, 2012)