Almost 25 years ago, philosopher Slavoj Žižek broke through the intellectual cul-de-sac of Slovenian academia — making his mark on the English-speaking world with “The Sublime Object of Ideology” (1989), a wily fusing of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Frankfurt School idealism, and reflections on the 1979 blockbuster horror flick “Alien.”
Today, he’s everywhere. The notoriously unkempt “radical leftist” philosophe has become the unlikeliest of celebrities: a cult icon and spiritual guide for Europe’s lethargic left.
Žižek has published more than 50 books (most recently: “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously”) and starred in several documentaries. A journal, The International Journal of Žižek Studies, is devoted to his works. Žižek has been called “the Borat of philosophy,” “the Elvis of cultural theory,” and “the world’s hippest philosopher.” These are titles he abhors.
Salon caught up with Žižek, who still calls Ljubljana home, over Skype. On the agenda: the improbable celebrity of Slavoj Žižek.
You’ve given a number of interviews over the past few years. I was hoping that we could take this one up a few levels of abstraction and discuss the phenomenon that is Slavoj Žižek.
Ah, if you want to.
Most recently, Foreign Policy named you one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012.
Yes, but at the bottom of the top!
Right, you were No. 92. Do you deserve to be on the list?
No! You could not get that out of me if you tortured me! I know the polite thing is to say no.
Isn’t the first one on this list that Myanmar girl? I always forget her name. Who is that?
Do you mean Aung San Suu Kyi?
Yes! Nothing against her, but can you explain to me: In what sense she is a philosopher or intellectual?
Well first, to clarify, this is a list of “thinkers,” not “philosophers.”
Yes but in what sense is she a thinker? She just tries to bring democracy to Myanmar. OK, that’s a nice thing. But you can’t just accept an ideal as ideal. Oh, democracy! Everyone gets an orgasm so let’s bring it to as many people as possible.
Thinking begins when you ask really difficult questions. For example: What is really decided in a democratic process?
I recently had a look through The International Journal of Žižek Studies, and…
I never opened it! I promise! I never even opened that site.
What do you think of the idea?
I have good relations with Paul Taylor, who edits it. We are friends. Ironically, he thought that this would help him in his academic career, but it only brings him trouble.
As you can see now — or in any of the shitty movies that I make — I’m a nervous guy. I find it absolutely unbearable to see myself on a screen. And when people write about me, I never read it — unless there is a brutal attack and my friends think I should answer it.
I have a sense of shame here. I am afraid of seeing myself.
You’ve said this before. And you have noted the tendency for journalists to portray you as clownish or buffoonish. But I have to wonder: To what extent are you flirting with that?
You know why I do it? Because I’m terribly afraid that if people were to see me, to put it naively, how I really am, they would be terribly bored.
You know, in my private life I am an extremely depressed guy. Look where I am now! Look around. I’m in Paris.
[Žižek lifts his laptop, turning it to reveal his surroundings: a sparse hotel room, with simple bedding and a single window.]
You see? I’m in a small hotel room. I escaped my home for a week; I needed it. Here, I go out just once or twice a day to eat. Except for you, and another friend with whom I Skype, I haven’t spoken to a living person for a week. And I like it so much!
My big fear is that if I act the way I am, people will notice that there is nothing to see. So I have to be active all the time, covering up.
This is why, incidentally, I claim that reality TV is so boring: because people are not themselves. They are acting a certain image of themselves, which is extremely boring and stupid and so forth. I cannot see why people are attracted by reality TV. I think it should be prohibited. And I think Facebook and Twitter should be prohibited. Don’t you think?
You know, the only photos I have of myself are on official documents, like my passport.
But wait! This doesn’t mean that I massively despise myself. No, I like my printed work. I live for that — for theory, really. And shamelessly. I hate this leftist humanitarian attitude: People are starving! Children in Africa! Who needs theory? No! We need useless theory more than ever today, I claim.
You say you haven’t watched the 2005 documentary “Zizek!,“ which you star in. I watched it recently. There was a scene in it that struck me. It’s when you bring the director, Astra Taylor, into your kitchen — to show her that you store your socks there.
Yes, to shock her! It was a very naive thing that happened. I had mentioned that my socks were in my kitchen. She didn’t believe me. She thought: “Oh this is one of his postmodern extravaganzas.” I wanted to say: “No, fuck you; they’re really there!”
Some idiots made a lot of another clip from the film… Remember, when I’m lying in bed naked (from the waist up only, of course) giving an interview? Some idiots asked afterwards: Oh, what was the message in that?
It was so vulgar. [The director] was screwing me all day — screwing in the sense of annoying me — I was tired as a dog. She wanted to ask a few more questions. I said: “Listen, I will go to bed and you can shoot me for five more minutes.” That’s the origin of it.
Now, people look at it and say, “Oh what is the message that he’s half naked?” There’s no message. The message is that I was fucking tired.
But isn’t that what you do in much of your writing? Take the half-naked man on-screen and attribute meaning to his half-nakedness?
Let’s go back to the socks in the kitchen. Surely you understood that showing this to the director would contribute to her portrayal of you as a befuddled philosophe who can’t quite function in normal life?
No, no. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a well-organized person. I’m extremely organized. Up to the minute, everything is planned. This is how I achieve so much. Quantitatively. I’m not talking about quality.
I am very well-trained. I can work everywhere. And I learned that in the army.
I may look half abandoned, it’s true. Because I find it extremely obscene to buy things for myself: like trousers, jackets and so on. All my T-shirts are presents from different colloquia. All my socks are from business-class flights. Here I totally neglect myself.
But my apartment has to be clean; I am a control freak. That is why I was disappointed when I did my military service. It wasn’t that I was a confused philosopher and I couldn’t handle the discipline. My shock was that the old Yugoslav army was, beneath the surface of order and discipline, a chaotic society where nothing functioned. I was deeply, deeply disappointed with the army for being too chaotic.
My ideal would be to live in a monastery.
Let’s run with that. You have said before: “I am a philosopher, not a prophet.” And yet, your followers are remarkably pious; many worship you as a prophet. Why?
Well, I’m ambiguous on this. On the one hand, I return to a more classical Marxism. Like: ‘It cannot last! This is all crazy! The hour of reckoning will come, blah blah blah.’
Also, I really hate all of this politically correct, cultural studies bullshit. If you mention the phrase “postcolonialism,” I say, “Fuck it!” Postcolonialism is the invention of some rich guys from India who saw that they could make a good career in top Western universities by playing on the guilt of white liberals.
So you offer respite to the 20-something who wants to escape the fruits of postmodernism: political correctness, gender studies, etc.?
Yes, yes! That’s good!
But here I also have a bit of megalomania. I almost conceive of myself as a Christ figure. OK! Kill me! I’m ready to sacrifice myself. But the cause will remain! And so on…
But, paradoxically, I despise public appearances. This is why I almost stopped teaching entirely. The worst thing for me is contact with students. I like universities without students. And I especially hate American students. They think you owe them something. They come to you … Office hours!
How very European.
Yes, here I’m totally for Europe — and specifically for the German authoritarian tradition. England is already corrupted. In England, students think they can simply stop you and ask you a question. I find this repulsive.
That said, I quite admire the United States and Canada. In some ways, they are better than Europe now. France and Germany, for instance, are currently in a very low state intellectually — especially Germany. Nothing interesting is happening there. Yet it surprises me how intellectually alive The United States and Canada are. Let me give you an example: Hegelian studies. If Europeans want to understand Hegel, they go to Toronto or Chicago or Pittsburgh.
What would Hegel think of your popularity?
He wouldn’t have any problems with it. He even wrote — I think at the end of “Phenomenology“ — that if, as a philosopher, you really articulate the spirit of the time, the result is popularity … even if people don’t really understand you. They somehow feel it. It’s a beautiful dialectical question: How do the people feel it?
You’re a devout Lacanian. Would it be awkward for you if [psychoanalyst and psychologist Jacques] Lacan were alive today?
Definitely! Because he was such an opportunist. And he would not have liked my direction. Theoretically, he was completely anti-Hegelian. But I try to prove that, without being aware of it, he was actually a Hegelian.
When you write the popular books that you claim not to like, who do you imagine to be your reader?
Prohibited! I never ask this question. I don’t care. Another prohibition is that I never analyze myself. The idea of doing psychoanalysis on myself is disgusting. Here, I’m sort of a conservative Catholic pessimist. I think that if we look deep into ourselves, we discover a lot of shit. It is best not to know.
In “Zizek!” I was very careful that all the clues about my personality are misleading.
Why bother? For fun?
Because they are idiots! I hate journalists! Filmmakers! I think there is something obscene about it. Of course, now you catch me again: Because if I’m really indifferent, then why do I bother to lie? Yes, there is a problem there…
You know, when I got married in Argentina, I was very embarrassed. People thought I orchestrated the leak of my wedding photographs. It’s not true!
I’ve seen those photos. For someone who describes love as violent and unnecessary, you seem to have pulled off quite the affair. Your wife [Argentinian model Analia Hounie] wore a long white dress and held a bouquet. How traditional!
Yes, but did you notice something? If you look at the photos, you can see that I am not happy. Even my eyes are closed. It’s a psychotic escape. This is not happening. I’m not really here.
I planted some jokes in my wedding. Like, the organizers asked me to select music. So when I approached wife at the ceremony, they played the second movement from Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, which is usually known as the “portrait of Stalin.” And then when we embraced, the music that they played was Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” I enjoyed this in a childish way! But marriage was all a nightmare and so on and so on.
So you did it for your wife, this big wedding?
Yes, she was dreaming about it.
You know what book I really didn’t like from this perspective? Laura Kipnis’ “Against Love.” Her idea is that the last defense of the bourgeois order is ‘No sex outside love!’ It’s the Judith Butler stuff: reconstruction, identity, blah, blah, blah.
I claim it’s just the opposite. Today, passionate engagement is considered almost pathological. I think there is something subversive in saying: This is the man or woman with whom I want to stake everything.
This is why I was never able to do so-called one-night stands. It has to at least have a perspective of eternity.
You seem to hold up [feminist philosopher] Judith Butler as a kind of antithesis. You’ve mentioned her several times already. She’s your straw woman!
Yes, but personally we have great relations! Judith once told me: “Slavoj, you must think I’m a mean woman.” I said: “No, when somebody likes Hegel like you, you cannot be a total idiot!”
Are there historical figures that you relate to?
Robespierre. Maybe a bit of Lenin.
Really? Not Trotsky?
In 1918-19, Trotsky was much harsher than Stalin. And I do like this in him. But I will never forgive him for how he screwed it up in the mid-’20s. He was so stupid and arrogant. You know what he would do? He would come to party meetings carrying French classics like Flaubert, Stendhal, to signal to others: “Fuck you, I am civilized!”
You write that we need to think more and act less. But in the end you identify with Lenin: a famed man of action.
Yes, but wait a minute! Lenin was the right guy. When everything went wrong in 1914, what did he do? He moved to Switzerland and started reading Hegel.