Joker Apart

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Interviews with Slavoj Žižek

It is a sparkling Sunday morning in early autumn, and one of the world's leading public intellectuals, dressed in a mod jacket and sandals and swigging from a can of Diet Coke, is giving me the benefit of his experience on cheap London hotels. "This one" - he points to it - "is pretty reasonable. Not cheap, you know, but cheap for London. There are other good ones around here, if you know where to look. And you can walk everywhere from here."

We are in the heart of bohemian Bloomsbury, but this is a far cry from what I had expected. When I agreed to meet Slavoj Zizek in Tavistock Square, it was because he mentioned that he'd like to look at a house in the square where Lenin had once lived and written one of his books. When we get there, there is little to see apart from a statue of Gandhi - Lenin no longer packs in the tourists, and there is no record of him having stayed here - and so he entertains me and the photographer with quips and apercus from everyone from Brecht to Kierkegaard.

Zizek positively fizzes with enthusiasm for anything that might be hoisted into the world of ideas, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to get him to shut up. When the photographer tells him to keep his mouth closed for the pictures, he dutifully obeys for about two seconds before launching into a half-serious aside in which he compares the camera to a phallus. "You spoke," fumes the photographer in jokey exasperation. On discovering that the photographer is Scottish, Zizek assures him that they share a bond of kinship. "We Slovenians are even better misers than you Scottish. You know how Scotland began? One of us Slovenians was spending too much money, so we put him on a boat and he landed in Scotland."

For someone like Slavoj Zizek, even a joke can be an exercise in theory. In the flesh, the bearded, intense Slovenian looks a little like Jesus might have done, if Jesus had lasted another 10 years, upped sticks to the chillier climes of eastern Europe and converted to revolutionary Marxism.

A one-man heavy industry of cultural criticism, the 58-year-old Zizek has authored more than 50 books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages, on subjects as diverse as Hitchcock, Lenin, and the terrorist attacks of September 11. His brand of social theory - a peculiar amalgam of Karl Marx, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the trash can of contemporary popular culture - has long afforded him a cult following among fashionable young academics.

No longer tethered to a single institution, Zizek spends his time roving between speaking engagements at institutions all over the world. He is leaving London first thing tomorrow, he tells me, for Paris to be profiled by the newspaper Libération. Then he is off to headline a Design Congress in Copenhagen ("€7,500," he shouts to me, still under the photographer's cosh, "first-class everything, and all that for 40 minutes selling them some old stuff") and then it is back to Slovenia.

On April 1 this year ("a great day to get married"), he married a 27-year-old Argentinian former lingerie model and now spends one third of his time in Slovenia looking after his young son from a former marriage, a third of his time with his new wife in Buenos Aires, and the rest of his time on the road.

As soon as he has been released from the photographer's grip, I decide to whisk him off for Sunday lunch. I am a little lost, and take out my map, but Zizek immediately grabs it. It turns out that he knows the area well - he stays here whenever he is in town - and he decides to take me on a tour of it. He delights in showing me the restaurant in Russell Square that is using the name of Virginia Woolf ("that nasty bitch, a total snob") to sell its pasta and burgers. He pokes gentle fun at the Brunswick Centre for its attempts to use architecture to create a community. And he leads me directly to the pub I have been trying to find on his behalf.

Zizek's resemblance to Jesus may not be wholly accidental, it turns out, because he is taking up the cudgels of radical propaganda in a new way. As soon as we are seated and have ordered - I try to talk him into having the Sunday roast, but he has a delicate stomach, and settles for the risotto - I ask him about his enthusiasm for Lenin.

While he is not a believer himself, he sees it as his mission to rage against the demise of our Judaeo-Christian heritage and its replacement by a burgeoning palette of destructive, new-age attempts at spirituality. Typically, his soft spot for both Leninism and Christianity is a deliberate kick against the tide of the times.

Whereas it is now de rigueur for intellectuals to profess a certain grudging respect for Marx and his analysis, Lenin's reputation - even among leftists - remains that of a brutal authoritarian pragmatist. Zizek begs to differ. For him, Lenin was the St Paul of communism, the organisational genius who, just as St Paul invented the Christian church, turned communism from an idea into a global movement. We should miss both Lenin and St Paul, he argues, because these days we are retreating into a new-age spirituality that turns up its nose at any engagements in the real world.

Zizek is keen to rubbish the assumption that we live in a decadent, consumption-obsessed society. There is, he maintains, plenty of belief around. It is just that our beliefs are secreted within the fabric of our lifestyles, and we profess not to take them very seriously - witness, he says, the popularity of everything from books like The Da Vinci Code to newspaper horoscopes.

Zizek sees it as his job to keep alive the revolutionary conscience, and he specialises in needling leftwingers and liberals who have moved on to make their peace with the political system. It has won him some interesting intellectual bedfellows, and a few enemies. He is critical, for example, of the liberal notion of harassment in contemporary western societies. He agrees that the real experience of sexual or racial harassment can be terrifying, but goes on to argues that - almost imperceptibly - the idea of harassment has slid into a social neurosis that means no more than an injunction to keep out of our personal space. "The liberal idea of tolerance," he argues, "is more and more a kind of intolerance. What it means is leave me alone, don't harass me, I'm intolerant towards your over-proximity." He sees something suspicious in the way that smokers are increasingly kept at a distance and seen as polluters who are intent on violating space. It is part of the antiseptic nature of contemporary culture, he says - coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, cakes without sugar.

But, I protest, he has just ordered a Diet Coke to go with his chocolate fudge brownie. "Come on," he says. "I don't have any problem violating my own insights in practice." Even the Iraq war, he points out, was initially conceived as a decaffeinated conflict - a war without victims, at least on our side. "Nowadays," he says, "you can do anything that you want - anal, oral, fisting" - I stare down momentarily into my Yorkshire pudding - "but you need to be wearing gloves, condoms, protection."

He is struck, he says, in his debates with American advocates of multiculturalism, by how much their professed respect for other cultures is defined by their distance from the culture at hand. "For the multiculturalist," he argues, "white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are prohibited, Italians and Irish get a little respect, blacks are good, native Americans are even better. The further away we go, the more they deserve respect. This is a kind of inverted, patronising respect that puts everyone at a distance."

As a former citizen of Yugoslavia, Zizek argues that, prior to its break-up, ethnic jokes told by the different peoples of the country about each other were cathartic, helping to bond them to the devil they knew. The only effective antidote to our antiseptic multiculturalism, he remains convinced, "is the exchange of obscenities, the practice of telling racist or xenophobic jokes in a non-racist manner".

Zizek's jokes are very funny, but it is about time that I let him go. He is leaving the next day, after all, and needs to go to Tottenham Court Road to search out some PlayStation games for his son. His son's current favourite, he tells me, is one where the player assumes the role of taxi driver and is rewarded for ferrying passengers neatly to their various destinations. But instead of following the rules, Zizek's son delights in flooring just about everything in sight: cars, traffic lights, even passing pedestrians. Though I am too polite to say so, it strikes me that the boy Zizek might well have a future in the family business.