If you don’t know who Slavoj Žižek is, my first piece of advice would be that you should treasure your ignorance. In my view he’s an utterly absurd figure, but this view is not universal. Credulous people – people who are basically intelligent but assume that anything expressed in incoherent but resonant terms by a professor with an eccentric manner and a central European accent must be profound truth – have a nasty habit of anointing him some kind of guru for the left. This would be funny (he’s like a cartoon leftist made flesh, even down to the beard) if it weren’t so counterproductive.
So who is Žižek?
Well, he’s an academic, although precisely what kind of academic is open to question. Wikipedia describes him as a ‘philosopher and cultural critic’ who has ‘made contributions to political theory, film theory and theoretical psychoanalysis’. Alarm bells may already be sounding in your head: a philosopher who does ‘cultural criticism’ (whatever that is), not philosophy? a psychotherapist who does ‘theory’, not psychotherapy? a political theorist who does film criticism, not politics? At best this is dilettantism, at worst the track record of a man who is seeking to avoid the detailed scrutiny of his peers.
I should make it clear at an early stage that I have no detailed knowledge of Žižek’s academic work. I have an outline understanding of the areas in which he works, but he wasn’t part of the background reading for my degree, and I haven’t followed up on him in the time since. Part of the reason for this is that Žižek works in the tradition of Hegel and Althusser, two thinkers who were part of my degree reading, but who I found so dull I promptly forgot everything I ever read. This means there would be a lot of background reading before I could get to Žižek’s own work, and I’ve never really had the inclination to put in the time. I do know a little of one of Žižek’s other touchstones, the psychotherapist Jacques Lacan, and have to say that his use of Lacanian concepts makes me wonder if Žižek might be one of those academics – disturbingly common amongst cultural theorists – who don’t actually understand the ideas they borrow from other disciplines.
In any case, I don’t know enough about Žižek’s academic work to offer an opinion on it. I do feel slightly more qualified to comment on his interventions into contemporary politics, and his adventures in the world of intellectual celebrity. Žižek is one of those academics – like Camille Paglia, or Susan Greenfield – who seem to be lavishly available for appearances that boost their personal status within mainstream culture but struggle to find the time for bread-and-butter academic tasks like teaching, or presenting their ideas in academic forums. This means it’s a little hard to take when Žižek – in the course of an interview for The Guardian – complains about his fame, and the demands that his ‘adoring followers’ place upon him.
This is, clearly, disingenuous. It’s a great deal easier not to be famous – so easy, in fact, that it comes naturally to all of us. Not-famous is the default state for all of us; even scholars who publish books with titles like Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism have to take a whole series of steps beyond the simple act of publishing in order to become famous. Steps such as, for example, agreeing to give interviews in The Guardian (an unusual step for academics, unless they are seeking fame outside academic circles). Or steps such as publishing in English rather than their native language – a clear attempt to appeal to a broader audience. Or steps such as deciding to open an interview with a female journalist with an unsolicited account of a former girlfriend who, allegedly, asked to be raped – as clear an example of an interviewee trolling a journalist as I’ve ever seen. (Congratulations to the journalist concerned, Decca Aitkenhead, for not falling for it, and for reacting with no more than amused detachment when Žižek decided to talk about anal sex, or discuss with her the taste of semen.)
The fact is that, for all his apparent radicalism, Žižek is deeply conservative, in ways that are both trivial and profound. Trivially, his conservatism is demonstrated in The Guardian interview by his hankering for a supposedly lost world of romance (even if he does dress it up in terms that try – and fail – to shock, perhaps as an attempt to disguise the deeply bourgeois sentiments):
This postmodern, permissive, pragmatic etiquette towards sex. It’s horrible. They claim sex is healthy; it’s good for the heart, for blood circulation, it relaxes you. They even go into how kissing is also good because it develops the muscles here – this is horrible, my God! […] It’s no longer that absolute passion. I like this idea of sex as part of love, you know: ‘I’m ready to sell my mother into slavery just to fuck you for ever.’ There is something nice, transcendent, about it. I remain incurably romantic.
Žižek’s conservatism is most insidious, though, in the way he undermines the possibility of radical change. Partly he does this by systematically disparaging the only possible engine of such change: ordinary people. The authoritarian left has long had an uneasy relationship with people, always ready to speak in the name of ‘the People’ as an abstract concept, but frequently contemptuous of actual individuals. Žižek rehearses the point in The Guardian:
Humanity? Yes, it’s OK – some great talks, some great arts. Concrete people? No, 99% are boring idiots.
The endorsement of a point of view he ascribes to Stalinists and totalitarians is, of course, another puerile attempt to shock (and another one that fails; I’m pretty sure no-one except Johann Hari has ever believed that Žižek is actually a Stalinist), but his ascription of the opposite view to ‘liberals’ – always the epithet of choice for a supposed leftist looking for a quick way to rubbish their opponents – is grotesque.
Yes, of course, there are liberals who express concern for individuals, just as there are conservatives and even fascists who do the same, but this is not to say that respect for the individual is wrong. For anyone interested in achieving radical change, contempt for people is a tactical error because without popular support no movement for change can ever hope for long term success. But for people on the left, support for people (not ‘the People’, as defined in ideological terms, but actual people) is not just a matter of good tactics, it’s the reason we’re leftwingers in the first place. Concern for people, a desire to improve their – our – lot in life, is the very heart and purpose of leftwing politics, and anyone who will speak contemptuously of ‘concrete people’ is by definition no longer leftwing.* Žižek may affect, still, the outer form of a leftwinger but he has abandoned the inner substance.
This, then, is one way that Žižek’s personal conservatism manifests itself, but there’s another way in which he serves a fundamentally conservative purpose. The established order is powerful and entrenched, but this is not just a matter of its having the means to impose itself by force and coercion. Alongside the prisons and police officers, the laws and judges, the established order also sustains itself by other, subtler means. Sometimes it achieves this by duping people into fighting against their own interests and for the status quo (as in today’s attempt by David Cameron to persuade the working poor who can’t afford decent accommodation that their enemies are the unemployed poor who get housing benefit and not the landlords who charge unaffordable rents). Another method the established order deploys is in co-opting its opponents, bringing them within the system and thus containing and neutralising them It is precisely this that Žižek has allowed to happen to himself, or perhaps entered into gladly.
The cumulative effect of all of Žižek’s posturing is to promote and sustain the idea that radical leftwing politics is esoteric and removed from ordinary people – that it is something that university professors do, using an arcane jargon that only they speak, and revolves around ideas that only they understand. It changes leftwing politics from an immediate, comprehensible solution to real-world problems and into an abstract and slow-paced process in which the goal is, in Žižek’s own words, not ‘to propose complete solutions […] but to ask the right questions’. This process of questioning is open-ended and eternal, never to be completed – handy for academics who make a more-than-comfortable living asking the questions (Žižek boasts in the article about the luxury holidays he enjoys with his son), but profoundly unhelpful for anyone interested in actually achieving change.
Contrary to the arguments and example of Žižek, leftwing politics is not the exclusive playground of the intelligentsia. Familiarity with the works of Hegel, Marx, Gramsci, Žižek (and on, and on, and on…) is not essential. Leftwing politics is not something that happens only in university seminar rooms and between the pages of academic books (though, of course, it can happen in those places). Leftwing politics is not what happens when a Žižek pontificates and prevaricates in the name of a ‘People’ he holds in contempt.
Leftwing politics is what happens whenever and wherever people think and talk about the unfairness of the existing order. Leftwing politics is what happens when they think and talk about the means by which it frustrates their hopes for themselves, and their families, and their communities. Leftwing politics is what happens when the kinds of people so disparaged by Žižek act together to build a future that is fair for everyone.
* – This is not to say that leftwing politics is one never-ending happy singsong, or that to be leftwing you have to be unfailingly empathetic. Leftwingers are just people, with the same range of temperaments as everyone else, and subject to the same moods, feelings of frustration, and so on. The point is that the naked contempt Žižek displays when he describes 99% of people as ‘boring’ and ‘idiots’ is incompatible with sincerely held leftwing views.