Never Mind the Bollocks
A bearded man with idiosyncratic English and astonishing intensity is talking about Mary Kay Letourneau the 36 year old school teacher imprisoned in Seattle earlier this year for a passionate love affair with her 14 year old pupil. He's been trying to describe what an authentically ethical act would be, arguing that no objective standards would determine it, indeed, that it exceeds any utilitarian definition of what is good for you. Having described it he draws a mesmerising whirlwind of thought to its conclusion saying "we need more people with Mary Kay's stance in today's politics."
Recently, a different man broke the world endurance record of 1000 hours spent on the Big Dipper roller coaster ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Our insistent bearded man has just replayed the entire sensation for a BFI audience in one hour -only this time with a substantial objective. He's the most ravenously brilliant speaker I've ever seen and he's kept a capacity crowd enraptured while demolishing the platitudes of contemporary cultural debate. Every now and again he'll digress from his urgently enacted script with a hilariously appropriate story like the one about Bill Clinton having lied "sincerely, with inner conviction, somehow believing it" about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and claiming that this is the paradoxical structure of an ideological statement. He'll tell a joke or every now and again just mention that he's an "old Stalinist", which draws gleeful laughter from an audience who are mostly in their twenties.
It's all been in aid of a thesis about what it would mean to commit an autonomous act of liberating decisiveness which he's already illustrated with Nicholas Cage's character in Leaving Las Vegas who decided to drink himself to death. "A true act" he argues, "traverses, disturbs the very fantasmatic background that sustains our daily activity," and dissolves the parameters of the world in which it occurs. This exhilarating ride from the present into future possibilities ends with him saying that acts like these, unheard of inconceivable acts, are still possible today and that the case of Mary Kay Letourneau proves it. Amidst a cacophony of cheers, giggles and claps as well as a certain awed respect he's clearly carried us all with him. It's tempting to say this man is a star, an irresistible force of mind and embodiment of its audacious potential. I've heard nothing like it before. It's tempting to say never mind the bollocks, here's Slavoj Zizek.
An American critic famously described Slavoj Zizek as "the giant of Ljubljana" and the capital of Slovenia, which is the lively filling in a sandwich made up of Austria and Croatia, is his home. Zizek is a bundle of unlikely elements; arguably the most significant but certainly the brightest star in the philosophical cosmos, throwing out light by way of an infectious plundering of pop culture in movies, murder mysteries and the mediatised everyday. He's a theorist in an age when the perceived wisdom is that philosophical theory is excruciatingly uncool, neither credible nor any longer even possible. Worse, Zizek's theory is rooted in Freud and Marx, and fuses the thinking of the notoriously difficult Jacques Lacan with the founding figures of German Idealism from Kant to Schelling and Hegel.
But Zizek, like any genuine original, is re-writing those rules in more ways than one. For one thing his cultish popularity in the decade since the collapse of European Socialism have made him a lot hipper than those complacent doubters of theory. For another his thinking restores life to the possibility of a radical political project, rejecting the notion that the state we're in is a paradise-like 'end of history'. Finally it does all this with the piquancy of his direct involvement in the political upheavals in Slovenia when it was forced to opt out of Serbian controlled former Yugoslavia and declare Independence in 1990.
So, Zizek is a theorist who has come close to political office, a Lacanian of sorts who draws devoted crowds wherever he speaks, and a serious philosopher with an arsenal of genuinely funny jokes and tabloid stories which he uses to test and defend his highly combative thought. He's almost unique amongst philosophers for his vigorous promiscuity in the realm of ideas, for having published a dense and lengthy interview with himself, as well as for being highly accessible. Britain's best-selling cultural critic, Terry Eagleton, has written of Zizek's "enviable knack of making Kant ... sound riotously exciting" which he says is a "rebuke" to "the high-minded terrorism of so much French theory." But the real significance of the Zizek Effect is the way that the astonishing intensity of his performance, the brilliantly persuasive eclecticism and exhilarating polemic, is a faithful embodiment of the substance of his thinking. It's a unique phenomenon that can be found in the stream of books that have appeared in recent years since he started writing in English.
If the optimum age for a pop star is 20, a thinker only really graduates to being a philosopher as such at the age of 50. There are of course exceptions and Zizek, who will be fifty next year, is one, in that the key features of his thought have been present from the very first. His first book in English was a volume of essays that he edited called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan [But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock] which appeared in 1988. It has much of the character and force of his thinking but was a by-product of the work that appeared in 1989 as The Sublime Object of Ideology, followed closely by For They Know Not What They Do. In between came a small book called Looking Awry - which Zizek now says should be subtitled "Everything I Wasn't Able to Put Into The Sublime Object". In these three books you have the core of his thinking and its characteristic expression, condensed and honed from at least fifteen years of work already published in Slovene or French. Indeed Zizek possesses true philosophical precocity, having published his first book during his second year at University -the optimum age for a pop star.
Ideas have contexts, times and places that give them their significance. For Zizek "it was already absolutely clear to me that I would be studying philosophy when I was 16, so I was reading that. I must have been 17 when it became clear to me that I would become a philosopher. But then it took some time." About a year in fact, before the wave of French thinking associated with the late Sixties hit and Zizek devoured it and in particular the radical deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida with whom he had contact and still has letters and books bearing personal dedications. The impact in the West is now a matter of history and was "incredible" in Tito's Yugoslavia, but for Zizek it had unwelcome consequences which would nevertheless shape the unorthodox direction of his thinking.
That direction is probably only now becoming clear after eight major volumes of theory, and five that he's edited himself or with his wife Renata Salecl, a significant critic in her own right. The essays that crop up in other volumes and books in other languages are all now superseded by the books in English. But the year in which Zizek acquires the conventional philosopher's mantle happens to be a significant one for his work. He has recently completed his largest and perhaps most definitive book, The Ticklish Subject. The Absent Centre of Political Ontology which is a comprehensive and contentious account of the contemporary subject. There will also be a major Reader of his work published in a series alongside names like Wittgenstein and Bataille, and at least three further books are in the pipeline.
All of his work has in common an attempt to grapple with the modern or postmodern subject -you and I, the notion of "an act proper", and an attempt to articulate and conjure philosophical limits and beginnings. These are difficult ideas and problems but they also mark a development away from and against current orthodoxies about politics and culture and the stasis of postmodernity in which life beyond the flattened present is inconceivable. It's this that makes Zizek the most exciting thinker of our times.
As my plane dips dramatically down the Southern face of the Austrian Alps into Slovenia and then virtually toboggans down the Slovenian hills to land in pretty countryside outside Ljubljana I realise that I'm carrying some unlikely baggage. It's just a notion, voiced by the narrator of Jack Kerouac's On The Road, about pursuing people who "burn burn burn ... like fabulous yellow Roman candles". It's vainglorious as well as inappropriate in a country like Slovenia from whose capital you would reach a national border or the Adriatic sea within about an hour's travelling in any direction. But I've come to Ljubljana to interview Zizek, and despite his healthy obsession with movies and popular culture, the jokes and politics that will fill our conversation, what would you ask a philosopher who reads the palm of the present better than anyone else about, but their ideas? So I am on the road, only it's the road of the impossible.
If you look out from the centre of Ljubljana's charming medley of period architectures there are hills and mountains all around the city. In the centre is another hill topped by a castle and looped by a river which was the central feature in Ljubljana's redesign in the 1930s and 40s by the great proto-postmodernist architect Jose Plecnik. Plecnik wanted to build a grand Slovenian Parliament on the top of the hill which offers a panorama of the whole city that reminded me of the famous bird's eye view of the town in Hitchcock's film The Birds, a favourite reference of Zizek's. A theorist might be expected to relish such a view of the whole but Zizek avoids "kitschy" things like Museums or 'sights', and so has never seen this particular view of his home. He lives near the city's centre as it stretches Eastwards from the baroque Old Town towards an area of former army barracks which -like London's Shoreditch- is now home to artists and will house a new Museum of Modern Art.
Zizek's home is in a modern apartment building with an elegantly expensive air to it. Inside, his own apartment feels the opposite of lived-in; cool, immaculately tidy even spartan, it feels like the home of successful busy people whose work frequently takes them abroad. Indeed, Zizek's second wife Renata, who has an office here, has recently completed a posting in Berlin while Zizek is in constant demand to lecture or appear all over the world and though he is selective about his commitments his schedule involves frantic movement from city to city. He works in another apartment close by which is similarly orderly and describes himself to me as an "absolute obsessional neurotic" about things, meaning there is "absolutely no chaos, everything is absolutely ordered. All the chaos is in the computer, but no, no, no I'm obsessed with it, how everything must be in its proper place."
Predictably, all this order allows him freedom of speculative thought and contrasts with his unpretentious good humour and the astonishing urgency with which he approaches everything. In person -much like in his lectures and books- Zizek is a tidal wave of energy which, along with a desire to make every second count, is evidence of a creative brain of the highest calibre, thinking, digesting, questioning and resolving. But also communicating at awesome speed, making mental manoeuvres that deliver clear, succinct summaries but which also works faster than speech so that his sentences overlap each other without any aural grammar, except in the form of reflex disclaimers like "I talk too much, please interrupt" or re-issues of the invitation to "bombard me with questions."
Zizek was born in Ljubljana in 1949, the year after Tito broke with Stalin enabling Yugoslavia to develop a system of socialist self-management in opposition to the closed regimes in the East. He was an only child: "absolutely alone, all my friends tell me it shows very well, no, no, no, I never shared attention with others." As a child the family moved to the Adriatic coast to assuage his Father's lung problems, returning to Ljubljana when he was in his early teens where he attended a High School based on the German system of rigorous drilling in a classical education. He won't admit to being exceptional but says "I knew my destiny, how shall I put it?" He says that although he "usually finished with the highest grades, nonetheless I was indifferent towards High School. I already had my own interests." Apart from reading philosophy, Zizek was making films with friends and developing an obsession with Alfred Hitchcock and others.
One of the remarkable things about Zizek is that he writes his dense philosophical theory in very clear English, while drawing on French or German sources -both languages that he speaks. "From when I was 13, 14 my, not only pop culture identification -pop music, cinema etc- but also what I was reading, was almost exclusively English language. After I was 17, 18 I don't think I read a work of literature which was not in English." Specifically he consumed vast amounts of detective fiction, from Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell of whom he has read "everything -when I say everything I mean everything" to Earle Stanley Gardner, even Nevil Shute but not "Agatha Christie crap". This he matched with an equally obsessive consumption of movies with a marked preference for popular genres -the index to a recent book places Joseph Stalin between Steven Spielberg and Star Wars, for example. The point is that these things crop up in his work completely naturally, they are continuous with the Hegel and Lacan, and ways to test out ideas as opposed to gruesome populist gestures.
What were the parents of such a singular young man like? "My mother and father were, how shall I put it? State bureaucrats, not the top, but upper middle class, lower nomenclatura, whatever you call it. To give you an idea, what were their last jobs? My father was a representative of a Slovene company exporting electronic small ... parts, not final products, to Germany. My mother was Head of the Supply Department at the Central Ljubljana Hospital. So I would say, mid, upper level positions, yes." His mother survived her husband and died last year of cancer, a death that his loyal friends tell me has deeply shaken him.
Otherwise, he tells me this in a notably matter of fact voice, as if surprised by my interest. This is not reluctance on his part, he repeatedly tells me to ask him anything I like and is notably open about himself and his life, but reveals something else. A philosopher's roots, perhaps more than anyone else's, are self generated. Of course they're produced by contingencies of time and place but philosophers in a sense invent themselves, and so it is with Zizek. The period of Zizek's self invention in this sense was the 1970's when he was in his twenties and about to experience a dramatic set back.
Yugoslavia was swept up in the general liberalisation of Eastern Europe during the mid-1960s, and similarly opted for a clamp down as opposition began to develop. In Yugoslavia the closing down manifested itself in a new Constitution in 1974 and led to a period described effectively as the "times of lead". Since Zizek is a keen analyst of the workings of power it's important to grasp the way the Yugoslavian regime operated as distinct from a country like Czechoslovakia where dissidents were either imprisoned or, as in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, ended up cleaning windows.
In Yugoslavia dissident figures, even during this period which Zizek describes as "the last counter attack by hardliners in the Party," were not imprisoned but removed from influence. Invariably that meant their influence on students and so the method of containment involved being farmed out to government Institutes where they could work but not develop a following. This is what happened to the charismatic Zizek whose Frenchified Marxism was considered "too unreliable." So whilst completing postgraduate studies in philosophy at Ljubljana University, an explicit promise of a teaching post at the University was withdrawn and he found himself ostracised.
Mladen Dolar, a student activist at the time and now part of what Zizek refers to wryly as "the Lacanian inner party circle" in Slovenia told me that Zizek had a reputation even then. "Slavoj was very well known, as this extremely odd guy who has read everything and nobody could quite make out what he was and they gave him a grilling on the grounds that he was not a Marxist in any kind of accepted sense." Dolar says that Zizek's charisma and brilliance would have guaranteed him a following and that his expulsion was considered a scandal. Zizek told me, "this was very humiliating for me, I already had a son and a wife and was jobless for four or five years, throughout all the mid Seventies I was jobless, unemployed, it was very humiliating. It was a big shock."
From 1973 through 1977 Zizek was considered "too dissident to teach but -and this is a nice paradox which gives you an idea of the crazy situation at that time- I was at the same time employed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party". For two years after 1977 he worked in the Marxist Centre, described by Dolar as a kind of think tank set up to monitor developing ideas in the West, but which soon became a purely bureaucratic exercise in compiling reports on internal committees. Zizek left to take up what was considered a humiliating position as a Researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology in 1979, home to a number of other inconvenient people. It's a job that he retains because he says "how shall I put it in Michael Fox terms? You saw that movie? It's The Secret of My Success."
The "secret" is that for twenty years he has done pure research, with no obligations whatsoever, no teaching and no students. "Officially I was collaborating on a sociological research project and had to mask and cheat up to the early 1990s. But I did whatever I wanted, it's really a kind of sinecure, a permanent sabbatical and no-one asks me what I am doing. Which is why I stick to this job even now." But there is another secret to his achievement, which is grounded in the years of unemployment. It's impossible to imagine Zizek idle, and when I asked him what he did during that time he said, "Aargh! Luckily both my parents had good jobs, so they supported me." Then, with uncharacteristic pauses, he continued "I did a lot of work for our journal. I did a lot of translations. I published a lot. I wrote a lot ... so basically if you don't take into account this psychological anxiety -will I ever find a job?- it wasn't bad ... I travelled a lot and incidentally I did my military service at that time."
Paradoxically, it was in the context of Yugoslavia's faked democracy, of "totalitarianism masked as false freedom", that his distinctive thinking was able to develop independently. "I'm even tempted to say that it was in those four years of unemployment that all the elements of what is now identified as the Slovenian school were established. Which is, to be precise, three distinct features: this strict almost obsessive insistence that Lacan is to be read against the background of modern philosophy, Descartes, Kant and Hegel. Second feature is the analysis of politics and ideological mechanisms and so on. Third feature is the popular culture connection, Hitchcock, science fiction, detective novels etc. All that I formulated in those years of the late Seventies."
Eagerly, Zizek alights on an example "to describe my early fate", and recounts the story by Somerset Maugham in which a verger is sacked for being unable to read or write and when, some years later, he opens an account to invest the fortune he has subsequently made the bank manager remarks on what he might have been if he'd been literate. The ex-verger says "I can tell you exactly: I would have been the poor idiot pulling the bells in the service! So!" Zizek continues with forgivable relish, "that's my answer, when people say, my God, you had your failure in the Seventies, what would you be if you had got that job. I can tell you exactly! No International fame, I would be a stupid, unknown professor here in Slovenia which is why I think it was a blessing in disguise!"
I arrived in Ljubljana at the peak of Slovenian summer to talk about the Slovenian Spring, but with temperatures of 40 degrees the irony was hard to appreciate. The Slovenian Spring refers to the second half of the 1980s, a period that saw the gradual collapse of the old regime and the mobilising of 'social movements' into the political pluralism that characterises contemporary Slovenia. Zizek was a spokesperson for these alternative groups, writing regularly for Mladina, a youth magazine and the forum of opposition, and even standing for political office in 1990. He came a narrow fifth in the election for Presidency, a body of four people supporting the President, which was a ground breaking success for the oppositional groups that he represented. Officially he stood for the Liberal Democrats, a party with Young Socialist roots, which has been in government for the last six years since a conservative alliance of ex-communists and Nationalists collapsed.
Zizek's apartment is probably the coolest place in the city, since the heat exacerbates a serious heart condition which can flare up at any time and in the meantime can generate panic attacks. When we set off for dinner on my first evening, having agreed to meet each morning for the remaining week, Zizek is wearing some distinctly stylish shades, a baseball cap back to front and a big grin. Then comes the serious business of avoiding the sun; "let's be scientific about it" he says, darting between patches of shadow and arriving without being caught by a single beam. On the way we pass Mladina and Zizek points out where the Secret Service used to spy on them from, and a little later pass by the parliament building, adjoining what was the Central Committee of the Communist Party which was in turn opposite the Secret Service headquarters.
Today Zizek's friends and contemporaries are in power, and he's regularly called on for advice. Indeed one of our morning sessions is curtailed by a request for his presence and though he's ambivalent about this involvement he smiles and waves vigorously from the official car that picks him up. He's perceived as being close to the government in Ljubljana and is fiercely pragmatic about the responsibilities of political power, but the person that mapped the city for me is a temperamental outsider, ultimately too unorthodox for any political establishment.
I pass Plecnik's incongruous monument to Napoleon on the way to my first morning session and cross the river at Shoemaker Bridge which, the night before, had hosted Ljubljana's Big Band as it pumped out versions of theme tunes from James Bond to Star Wars into a balmy evening. I should have expected such incongruities, since Zizek's philosophy emphasises the old lesson of Freud and Marx, that exception, in terms of crisis or in terms of pathological symptom, is the general structural rule and harbours universal laws. In an old interview, for example, Zizek described the Slovenian link to Jacques Lacan as "contingent, an absolute exception" produced almost in dissident opposition to the official Yugoslavian Marxism. In fact, contingent -in the sense of a kind of necessary accident, is his most used word.
Zizek steers our first interview towards Lacan, the great interpreter of Freud whose best known line is that the unconscious is structured like a language. We're sheltering in the careful cool of Zizek's apartment, in which a baroque mirror reflects a room of neutrally elegant Conran-style furnishings, clad in bold red and blue amidst blond wood shelving and dominated by an outsize television which dwarfs the huge volumes of Hegel camped on a top shelf. Zizek will go on to answer everything I ask with exceptional intellectual generosity but moved with notable speed to establish his philosophical distance from Lacan. In his view "Lacan ended in a deadlock", unable to articulate an "ethics of enjoyment" that would produce a "different form of collectivity on the morning after " the pathological fantasy has been "traversed" and its symptom embraced. Zizek, who has published a book called Enjoy Your Symptom!, describes this as "a productive failure but nonetheless a failure".
A second exception came when I asked what he thought the role of the intellectual was today. This is every minor academic's favourite subject, but after attempting some remarks Zizek finally said, "okay let's skip this, you can well see I don't have anything interesting to say about it." This was striking because he's a paragon of intellectual engagement, the opposite of the safely distanced preacher of principle, the "beautiful soul" attached to dogmatic details, or the patrician idealist serving up wisdoms. Zizek argues that social change is not something you objectively quantify because "if you wait for the right time for revolution, then it never arrives. No! You must do it, it is only through these failed precocious attempts that the right moment arrives." So, significant change is motored by a kind of hysterical insistence, an incoherent pushing, acting, risking of everything that only appears to make sense in retrospect. "Social changes always erupt in a totally unpredictable way," Zizek says, which is why he doesn't waste energy on establishing A Great Height.
Here is the key to his thinking and the substantial heart of his ideas. If you plotted them as a map, the continents would be Hegel, Schelling and Kant, the ocean would be Jacques Lacan and one of the bigger islands would be Louis Althusser, the fierce theorist of ideology who is important to Zizek's thinking. Lacan is a link or the means by which to arrive at the others, and therefore also not the ultimate goal of Zizek's thought. Zizek has "okay, two doctoral theses, what the hell, yes," the second gained in Paris in the mid Eighties being a retranslation of his "psychoanalytic reading of Hegel" from the late Seventies. During 2 or 3 years in Paris he became a full member of "the gang" of Lacanians, studying particular texts minutely with Lacan's son-in-law and infamously divisive heir Jacques-Alain Miller, as well as undergoing a year's analysis with Miller. The latter was a predictable failure but Zizek also spent time touring the country giving lectures and trying to establish their clinic-based organisation.
Today he says "I hate Paris ... too many bad associations," and though he scrupulously credits Miller with his own understanding of Lacan, he told me that Miller "never fully bought my return to Hegel" and the lack of recognition and difficulties getting published [despite Miller being a publisher] became deeply frustrating. Mladen Dolar reiterates this, and told me that when in 1986 or 87 "it dawned on him that he would have to take care of himself, the success came extremely quickly" as he launched himself at the English speaking world.
Zizek describes the appeal of the Lacanian community like this: "it may appear extremely theological, dogmatic but precisely because you have the basic coordinates fixed it gives you an incredible freedom to think. What do I mean by this? It's incredible the extent to which the very fundamentals are again and again put into question. This is what attracted me so immensely." Zizek's is the late Lacan of topological models and mathemes, the Lacan who argued that though an individual's life-world is formed in a symbolic order, i.e. language, the domain of drives that exceeds this process of inscription, which he called "the Real", constantly returns to disrupt its fantasmatic universe.
It is this theory that Zizek pulled into political analysis, conflating Lacan's "Real" with social antagonisms, and with which he returned to Hegel enabling him to keep the dialectical process, in a sense, open. The model of Hegel for Zizek is not one of the reconciling of contradictory opposites, but the famous Escher image of two hands drawing each other simultaneously, or "the science fiction paradox of going back to the future, you go into the past and engender yourself." For Zizek this is the model for a self consciousness that exists as an event in time, for the almost simultaneous and contingent way of forming something from nothing, or Nothingness. This, in Hegelese, is "the notion of self-relating radical negativity" which is a moment of beginning.
One of Lacan's crucial ideas for Zizek is contained in an essay called 'Kant with Sade', which argues not the obvious thing that the author of the Critique of Pure Reason is really a Sadist, but that Sade is the true Kantian. So the imperative to "follow one's desire" or "Enjoy! overlaps with the one to "Do Your Duty!" with the resulting paradox that a realisation or regulation of your desire produces a desire for regulation. More significantly, however, Zizek says to me that "if I look really really deep into my heart, my focus is not Lacan, my focus is not even politics, my ultimate focus is Hegel and Schelling. I use Lacan to re-actualise Hegel in the same way that Lacan used Sade" to recover Kant. This is a reading against the grain, but Zizek concludes that "I'm struggling with the problem of subjectivity because my ultimate aim is to defend philosophically the dimension of modern Cartesian subjectivity." His new book centres on this problem which he describes as the spectre that haunts all of modern philosophy and which it can no longer face up to.
For Zizek, the 'new' subject is not the same as the 'old' rational one, but something constituted in a void, beyond "the zero point" in a domain of pure semblances. He likens this Hegelian "night of the world" to something from Stephen King, a zone of the undead, of ghosts, vampires and unconscious drives. It's in this abysmal void that the "sublime objects" of self and nation emerge to act as ill-fitting plugs, merely marking their entry into language. The positive force of this is that it keeps everything radically unstable, open and vulnerable to eruptive change because, to put it crudely, if this is true then anything is possible.
Essentially, Zizek is taking on the standard American notion of "identity politics" arguing that this "hybrid co-existence of diverse cultural life-worlds" and associated "particular struggles" is a model of homogeneous conformity. Zizek is at his contentious best when he links these "PC battles" to the theoretical category of perversion, arguing in effect that we are all perverts now. The pervert is the conformist, uncritically adopting some particular, contingent idea of themselves -based on sexuality, ethnicity or region- and though they can appear subversive they are actually the repressed upholder of the symbolic law. The alternative model is the hysteric who struggles and resists their place in the system, knows it's a "fundamental lie" and remains "open". Their ambivalent attitude is "as Sam Goldwyn said in one of his famous stupid mistakes when discussing a film deal, "Include me out!"
It's from the hysterical position of an antagonistic relation to the systematic whole that an act and specifically a "political act proper" is possible. This Zizek compares to the neatly differentiated postmodern subject and says "maybe I'm a little bit rude, but this is my big obsession ... I don't accept that the multiple dispersed form of identity is subversive. No! I think that the predominant form of subjectivity is multiple, disseminated, inconsistent and so on ... it fits. The system can swallow it." By system he means, of course, the system of global capitalism whose fluid economy requires a subject-consumer to suit it. It is very precisely this to which Zizek refers when he says that we need more people with the stance of Mary Kay Letourneau in today's politics.
All of a sudden, Zizek looks genuinely shocked and there is a definite pause before he says "Oh my God, don't tell me you fell for that? It's totally fake!"
I stare hard at his slight physical figure, which is not small so much as softened by hard brain work. When Zizek speaks he says a lot, fast and furiously, in sustained bursts which combine a scatter gun approach that can theorise about literally anything with a kind of creative almost performative precision. When he speaks like you and I his improvised sentences are like immaculate lines of text. There is a near-lisp or perhaps it's sheer friction in his voice, and since he inhabits his ideas and speech it is accompanied by physical and vocal gestures of assertion -"yeh, yeh, yeh" or "no, no, no" -as well as a range of tics which are the by-products of such intensity.
At the end of the Eighties three particular moments stand out in the story of Slavoj Zizek. One of them turns out to be a fake, though it is in a way the most revealing.
In 1988 he helped to form a Committee to defend a soldier and three journalists, including two from Mladina, charged with spying by the formidable Yugoslav army. Their trial was a desperate and clumsy attempt to halt the collapse of the old regime and would be followed by an equally inept ten day war to prevent Slovenian Independence. Whilst Slobodan Milosovic and the Serbians learnt from the thwarted aggression, the trial was also pivotal for Zizek. It's an example of "a particular demand acting as a stand-in for a universal rejection of government" -like the Poll Tax Riots here- the opposite to the usual approach of not reading too much into a single event. The Committee was accused at the time of being "a kind of shadow government, about to overthrow the existing communist government" and this, Zizek says, was true. Indeed, he argues that the trial marked the beginning of real, confrontational politics, with Committee members going on to become key political figures.
At almost exactly the same time Zizek was launching himself on English speaking audiences in the United States. Just as with the early books in English, he drew on a kind of Greatest Hits of his material and it made a huge impact. He tried to pass this off to me as the result of having fifteen years of good jokes but reluctantly acknowledged that "these first appearances immediately established my reputation," they "were kind of a really thundering shock, the greatest success I had." He consolidated it with a year or two in New York in the early 1990's and the rest has been history; globe trotting success, endless invitations, full cult status and so on.
In the preface to For They Know Not What They Do he describes the point at which these two moments came together. The book grew from a series of public lectures that Zizek gave on six consecutive Mondays in the Winter of 1989-90, in the run up to the first "free elections" in Slovenia "a unique utopian moment ... when all options seemed open." It describes the unprecedented appetite for this curious blend of "the 'highest' theory" with "the 'lowest' popular culture" which saw theoretical ideas discussed in television debates, not least by Zizek himself. The more that I discovered about the Slovenian Spring the more extraordinary these lectures appeared, and the more they seemed to exemplify his theoretical demands.
I wanted to ask him what it felt like to give such lectures against the back-drop of success in New York and imminent war at home, but of course it was these lectures that turned out to be fake. "It's completely not true. Absolutely! It's to dramatise it, to dupe idiots like you. Completely fake! Completely fake! You see, you are a naive Western intellectual. You fell for it!" He looked delighted, so I said I would quote him and he said "You can!" with tremendous conviction, adding "Yes, I didn't say off the record" before going on to verify that the substance was true but the scenario was not. "Its just one in a series of my fakes ... I do this all the time."
I should have known better because in person Zizek's love of provocation, an instinctive subversiveness and a lovely recklessness in terms of humour as well as profound ideas is apparent. In contrast to the sound of Zizek's voice, there is often a smile lurking in his beard and he is passionate about things, generous in spirit and in fact. It's a combination of qualities that make for a radical openness towards everything, partly to test or hone his own ideas which, he says, is one reason for writing in English. Partly too because "I always try to give a fair chance to the enemy, not because of some inherent honesty but because I'm always afraid of missing some crucial point. My God what if the guy is right?" So: "I don't have this arrogance: I know it, no, no, no."
This relates to the way he works and lives, things he protects with extreme zealousness. He told me "I'm a workaholic. I'm too narcissistically attached to theory. I work like crazy on it." His last two books The Plague of Fantasies and The Indivisible Remainder cover the spectrum of his work, the former more accessible, the latter about FWJ Schelling and quantum physics and -along with his book on Hegel, Tarrying with the Negative- is his most important work. Much clarifies when Zizek explains how his books are composed: "all the time I make notes, ideas, developments, different lines of thought and then at a certain moment montage begins, I make a choice and recompose it as a book. There is never a time when I say now I am writing a book, I work in a different way." He will not write to commission and is obsessively strict about not being diverted from this perpetual research even when he takes up visiting posts at American Universities.
Zizek is now an International figure but pointedly chooses to stay in Slovenia. I realised that Ljubljana must now feel like a sanctuary for him, but it's also home to his son and the "inner party circle" that includes his wife Renata Salecl, Mladen Dolar, as well as Miran Bosovic and Alenka Zupancic, each of whom publish in this field, have edited the group's journal, and helps organise their small press. Zizek's work is only published in this journal, but nowadays someone has to translate it into Slovene as he writes exclusively in English. However, "it doesn't say 'translated' -you know why? I don't want to appear too arrogant." He likes it too that "crazy things" still happen there and instances the virtual NSK State set up by artists and musicians responsible for many of the cultural and political provocations that typify Slovenia's recent history. In 1993, for example, they -including Zizek and the Slovenian band Laibach, "occupied" a Berlin theatre, and more recently the Slovenian government officially recognised the virtual State's passports.
Zizek will continue to pursue philosophical questions, though he says "all you can do is reformulate the problem so that the problem disappears, to rephrase it, to change the very terms." His provocative talk of Stalinism is partly another joke, partly a reminder that he is almost alone in attempting to theorise the way that Stalinism operated and partly serious. He says that if Stalinism means "someone who doesn't accept liberal democracy as the final horizon, who furthermore acknowledges the need for -let's call if by its name- terror in certain situations then I am a Stalinist." The point is that the effort is to find a way "to break out of the deadlock of global capitalism -which is the only relevant question." He adds that "it's an absolutely open question. Maybe there is no way out." But Zizek, who cannot be accused of political naiveté or utopianism will continue with his combustible energy and rigorous intellect to burn a way through.
The story of Slavoj Zizek is near its beginning. He is arguably the key philosophical name at the end of the Century, uniquely capable of making his phrase "miracles do happen!" ring with new truth. He asks the big, fundamental questions about life experience, reality, social organisation and the future in an age of very local agendas and modest expectations. He does it in a way that is molten and addictive, in a language and mode of address that is as agile and capacious as our daily experience of life in the raw. And he and his ideas are all of a piece, full of perpetual motion paradoxes and unlikely as can be.
There is a growing consensus about this singular brilliance, tinged with concerns expressed about the corrosive effect of popularity on his work. His name crops up in the work of critics like Ernesto Laclau and Jacqueline Rose, and Terry Eagleton describes him as "the most formidably brilliant exponent of cultural theory ... to have emerged in Europe for some decades." But no one has yet begun to define or grapple with the core of his thinking. The Zizek Reader edited by Elizabeth Wright, and his own major new work The Ticklish Subject will begin to change that. At the same time Zizek is also tiring of the demands that fame makes on him, and taken together I suspect that this will prove to be the pivotal moment when a certain word-of-mouth following converts into full-blooded recognition.
On my last night in Ljubljana there was a tremendous storm. All of a sudden a long hoped for, half expected but still surprising torrent of rain and thunder smashed from the sky to end a becalmed week of baking heat. In the exhilaration and relief I tried hard to read too much into it and that reminded me of why I was standing happily saturated in Ljubljana: Slavoj Zizek gives me hope.
[The Guardian covered my expenses for this trip in the Summer of 1998, but decided not to run the piece. The Independent subsequently commissioned and ran a further interview-based piece around the publication of The Ticklish Subject and Zizek Reader in 1999. salon3 first published this as a pamphlet in 2000.]
© The Author. 2000.
Never Mind the Bollocks. G. Mannes Abbott, The Independent, May 3.