Drinking the Žižek Kool-Aid

A review of Slavoj Žižek’s recent talk at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Few public figures would think of calling Gandhi’s attitudes towards the caste system in India “proto-fascist” during a university talk. Even fewer would find an adoring audience pealing over with laughter at the comment. Somehow this is not a surprising reaction to Slavoj Žižek, a neo-Marxist Slovenian philosopher who has, surely much to his own satisfaction, earned a reputation for being a polarizing, pompous, and possibly brilliant thinker and critic.

Žižek is like your condescending and eccentric uncle who, immediately after telling an awkward sex joke at a family dinner, mocks your criticism of Western imperialism as being juvenile and dated. No, there is no Western “we must all eat hamburgers mode” he would say, before going on a ten-minute diatribe about how the global order is purely capitalist, and how authoritarian regimes in Asia thrive on this fact. His conclusion would end with something about apartheid and the apocalypse.

As is typical to his visits to college campuses, Žižek jumped spastically from one topic to the next at this week’s packed lecture at the London School of Economics, which was punctuated with elaborate gesticulations and mischievous chuckles. Students from across the UK flocked to hear him speak on the topic of “Censoring our Dreams,” which covered everything from the social anxieties underlying cult films to society’s sterilization of sex that has taken all the fun out of the act.

But why has Žižek found such a rock star celebrity status as a philosopher? Why is there an International Journal of Žižek studies?

This is, after all, a man who is notoriously condescending, if not plain malicious to the students he speaks to. In a June Slate article Rebecca Schuman said he was a “grade-A, number-one, world-class jerk” and quoted him calling his students “boring idiots.” The article actually revealed that Žižek has said much worse, complaining about the office hours he has to hold as a professor in the United States and the personal questions and problems his students share with him. “And what should I tell them? I don’t care. Kill yourself. It’s not my problem,” he said.

Perhaps part of his appeal comes from people’s desire to prove that they can handle the insults and bullying jabs. Žižek is a theatrical and witty orator who somehow manages to make his Hegelian and Marxist pop culture spin on philosophy edgy, cutting, and even sexy — rather than old fashioned and out of touch. Those who can “take” the acerbic wit prove that they are not as soft and sensitive as the tedious politically correct thinkers that Žižek scorns.

Another reason people fawn over Žižek is that although he is a Marxist, he is more than happy to criticize anyone anywhere on the political spectrum. Nothing and no one is sacred. (He is the type to make a joke about your mother).

Take the classic example of Žižek’s commentary on Starbucks, which uses a business model the philosopher called “capitalist genius at its purest” during his LSE talk. According to Žižek, because it is politically unfashionable to be purely a consumer in today’s age, Starbucks “will put up posters that say 5 percent of profits go to some stupid Guatemalan children.” This, Žižek explains, helps people feel like they are paying social dues. They can buy their way out of capitalist, consumer guilt through a (superficial) “altruism” that is already conveniently included in the price of the commodity. One swipe and you have your caffeine, consumer, and phony humanitarian fix.

This sort of criticism is appealing to everyone — activists who call for the death of all monolith corporations, and the Wall Street brokers who mock humanitarianists that smugly pats themselves on the back more than they do any actual “good” in society.

Žižek is also very skilled at marrying the high and low brow in a naughtily subversive manner. During his talk, the Starbucks analysis was, for example, followed by a description of the tragedy of romantic relationships today, which he says are sadly not supposed to be passionate all-consuming love affairs because we now live in a time in which people are becoming “fake Richard Gere-like Buddhists” who warn against attaching oneself to anything or anyone too much. Žižek explained that this is the same phenomenon that leads to beer without alcohol, coffee without caffeine, and sausages without fat. “It’s sex basically without sex….’safe sex’” he shuddered, to the rapt audience’s delight.

After listening to Žižek’s two-hour talk at LSE, dozens of students lined up to buy his book and have it signed. One of those waiting in line was Marilena Karkampoulia, an International History Master’s student. “I think he’s a genius,” she said. “He is adept at using everyday examples to show his theory.” She added that she was buying his book since “he himself said it was a short talk so he couldn’t get everything in.”

Of course, not everyone is enraptured with how Žižek’s presents the content of his talks, which can jump haphazardly from how the media covers rape to the zeitgeist as revealed in the Hunger Games. His approach can be scattered and incoherent, and his monologues seem to be thrown together by “false improvisation… and come across as chaotic order,” as one spectator put it.

Ty Joplin, an Oxford politics student attending the talk, said it was a “good performance” but one that he appreciated more as an entertaining movie than a rigorous philosophical discussion.

More often than not though, the audience of Žižekphiles is thrilled to hear the philosopher make fun of his excessively idealistic leftist friends, and even, to a certain degree, himself.  Wryly, Žižek says that he hopes the audience is as corrupt as he is himself, chuckling at how his friends tease him for his penchant for Hollywood movies, and call him “a stupid Marxist influenced by a Communist Yugoslav past.” But his tongue-in-cheek comments about a neo-Stalinist “golden dream” are more about taking pride in how much his “inappropriate” behavior ruffles the feathers of politically correct, boring upper-middle class academics than an authentic joke at his own expense.

At the end of the LSE talk, Žižek makes a typical comment: “I am very sorry if I was too long… on the other hand I am not sorry.” He jokingly called the moderator “a colonialist agent” for ending the session. Then the philosopher tried to pack a Tyler Durdin Fight Club-style “wake up” punch with a bully-like Marxist fist. And the audience, eager to show that they were as clever and tough as he is, ate it up.

Drink the Žižek Kool-Aid yourself by listening to the LSE podcast of the event.

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Ana Baric

Ana is a writer and anti-corruption advocate, with roots in the Balkans and the United States. She was formerly a reporter for Thomson Reuters in London and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in Sarajevo. Sometimes she tweets at @anabarich.