Lingua Franca, October 1998
Amid the bustle of Tony Blair’s Britain, the tradition of the afternoon tea is one of the last remaining traces of the country’s genteel past. There are few places that conjure up that past better than the oak-paneled King’s Bar Lounge at the Hotel Russell, a fading Victorian pile that sits on the edge of Bloomsbury, only a few short blocks from the British Museum. On a drizzly summer afternoon, I sink into one of the Lounge’s overstuffed leather chairs, feeling as if I were being transported back to an earlier, more leisurely era–far from “cool Britannia” and debates over the future of the euro. The spell is abruptly broken, however, by the sudden, agitated entrance of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is in town to deliver a series of lectures at the British Film Institute.
“We must have the most fanatically precise English tea,” Zizek insists, gesticulating dramatically in the style of a European dictator. “Everything must be exactly the way the English do it: clotted cream, cucumber sandwiches, scones. It must be the mo st radically English experience possible!”
Bearded, disheveled, and loud, Zizek looks like central casting’s pick for the role of Eastern European Intellectual. Newspapers are lowered and conversations stop as a skittish waiter shows us to a small table in the far corner of the room. Barely pausing to sit down, Zizek launches into a monologue so learned and amusing that it could very well appear–verbatim–in one of the many books he has written about the obscene rules that sustain our supposedly civilized social practices. With lightning speed , he moves from the decline of British culture (“They took perfectly good tea, added milk, and made it look like filthy dishwater!”) to Hollywood (“Brad Pitt’s Seven Years in Tibet–a terrible movie!”) to the Tibetan legal system (“a process of formalized bribery where opposing parties bid against each other in a ritualized auction–I absolutely love this!”).
Zizek talks exactly as he writes, in a nonstop pastiche of Hegelian philosophy, Marxist dialectics, and Lacanian jargon leavened with references to film noir, dirty jokes, and pop culture ephemera. “Discussing Hegel and Lacan is like breathing for Slav oj. I’ve seen him talk about theory for four hours straight without flagging,” says UC-Berkeley’s Judith Butler. When not mediated by the printed page, however, the obsessive-compulsive quality that makes his hyperkinetic prose so exhilarating is somewhat overwhelming–even, evidently, for Zizek himself. Popping the occasional Xanax to settle his nerves, he tells me about his heart problems and frequent panic attacks. As his eyes dart around the room and his manic monologue becomes more frantic, I fear th at I may be his last interviewer. Zizek is like a performance artist who is terrified of abandoning the stage; once he starts talking, he seems unable to stop. “You must be much crueler, more brutal with me!” he pleads, even as he speeds his pace to prevent me from cutting him off. “You should never enter a sadomasochistic relationship,” he scolds, a sly smile peeking out from his bushy beard. “You wouldn’t whip your partner hard enough!”
When the waiter returns, Zizek finally pauses, studies the menu, and orders a pot of mint tea and a plate of sugar cookies. Mint tea and cookies? What about our “radical” English experience? “Oh, I can’t drink anything stronger than herbal tea in the a fternoon,” he says meekly. “Caffeine makes me too nervous.”
FOR ZIZEK, a conversation–whatever the topic–is an exercise in self-contradiction. When he thinks you are beginning to get a handle on his motives or desires, he pulls an about-face, insists he doesn’t mean anything he has just said , that his own views are the exact opposite. His contrariness is famous, and as a writer it has generally served him well–helping to earn him a reputation as a dazzlingly acute thinker and prose stylist and to win him a cult following among American graduate students. In person, however, it seems that Zizek’s contrariness is at least partly an uncontrollable compulsion. And yet his manipulations and subterfuges are so entertaining, and his intellect so stimulating, that it is far wiser to surrender without a fight than to try to trump him at his game.
Later that evening, I have an opportunity to watch Zizek’s mesmerizing oratorical skills in action at the Museum of the Moving Image, where he gives a standing-room-only lecture on the erotic forces at play in science fiction. The audience is a diverse group, with hip, nose-ring-studded film theorists jostling for seats with graying, tweedy academics. Beforehand, I find Zizek pacing madly outside the auditorium, and he confides to me that this week’s panic attacks have been so severe he nearly canceled tonight’s engagement. A few minutes into his talk, however, he is fine; his emotional anxiety is quickly transformed into a blur of theoretical intensity.
By the time his two-week-long lecture series is completed, he has offered a succession of Lacanian interpretations–accompanied by visuals–of Titanic, Deep Impact, The Abyss, several works by Hitchcock and David Lynch, and even an episode of Oprah (with Slovene subtitles). At one point, he gleefully fast-forwards over a portion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, explaining that despite its theoretical value it is quite a dull film. “For me, life exists only insofar as I can theorize i t,” he confesses. “I can be bored to death by a movie, but if you give me a good theory, I will gladly erase the past in an Orwellian fashion and claim that I have always enjoyed it!” It is a bravura performance, replete with Zizek’s trademark synthesis o f philosophical verve and rhetorical playfulness–an intellectual style that recently led Terry Eagleton to describe him in The London Review of Books as “the most formidably brilliant exponent of psychoanalysis, indeed of cultural theory in genera l, to have emerged in Europe for some decades.”
Of course, many readers are likely to feel disoriented by Zizek’s fast-paced, densely associative writing, as well as by his reliance on the difficult notions of a notorious French psychoanalyst. Zizek’s chief intellectual hero, Jacques Lacan, is a man whom recent critics have portrayed as an eccentric tyrant who may have perpetrated a grand intellectual hoax on his followers. But Zizek’s appeal is due, in part, to his considerable ease with two subjects that most disciples of Lacan disregard: popular culture and politics. In much of his work, Zizek employs familiar concepts from the psychoanalytic and Lacanian lexicon–projection, inversion, the Real and the Symbolic–to explore the ideological contradictions of contemporary life. In books like Enjoy Your Symptom!, Looking Awry, The Plague of Fantasies, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), he offers provocative, and always lively, readings of everything from Patricia Highsmith novels to the resurgence of nationalism in Eastern Europe.
Politically savvy and deeply rational, Zizek’s Lacan is a far cry from the abstruse guru of indeterminancy invoked by American literary theorists. In his writing, Zizek militates against the “distorted picture of Lacan as belonging to the field of “pos t-structuralism.'” Rather, he argues that Lacan offers “perhaps the most radical contemporary version of the Enlightenment.”
Zizek’s Lacanian defense of the Enlightenment distinguishes him from many contemporary theorists. Indeed, the enormous popularity of Zizek’s best-known book, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, 1989), may owe something to the fact that it off ers an alternative to two entrenched and antithetical bodies of contemporary thought: the French postmodernists’ skepticism about the Enlightenment ideals of universality, truth, reason, and progress, and the German theorist JÃrgen Habermas’s attempt to vindicate those ideals with his theory of “communicative rationality.” While Foucault and Derrida dissolve the human subject in a sea of discursive indeterminacy and historical contingency, Habermas’s defense of reason ultimately rests on a vision of the individual as an ethical actor in a functional community.
Zizek is sympathetic to many of Habermas’s aims, but he offers a more complex psychoanalytic account of human thinking and desiring. Unlike Habermas, he assumes that communities are constitutively dysfunctional and that the human subject is always divi ded against itself by contradictory desires and identifications. And the rationalist project must proceed from the recognition of these fundamental truths. The thrill of reading Zizek (who, as a stylist, no one would ever confuse with the turgid Habermas) arises in part from the collision between the insanity he finds everywhere in our psychic and social lives and the rigorous clarity with which he anatomizes its workings. “He has almost single-handedly revived a dynamically dialectical, Hegelian, style o f thinking,” says Eric Santner, a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Chicago. “I think of him as a sort of “logician of culture’ who reveals the underlying structures of politics and ideology in much the way Kant did.”
If Zizek’s is not a household name in academe, this is not due to a lack of effort on his part. His ability to compose his books in English (parts of them are subsequently translated into Slovene) has so hastened his pace of publication that his various English-language publishers must occasionally scramble to keep him from flooding the market. No less than a dozen titles have appeared under his name since 1989, including several essay collections in the separate book series he edits for Verso and for Duke University Press. And 1999 will be a big year–even for Zizek Inc. Blackwell is publishing The Zizek Reader, and Verso is publishing The Ticklish Subject. Advertised as his magnum opus, The Ticklish Subject may be his most focused and most political book to date. Taking on contemporary intellectual bugaboos–from political correctness to multiculturalism–Zizek argues for a radical politics that will be unafraid to make sweeping claims in the name of a universal human subject. “A spectre is haunting Western academia,” he writes, “the spectre of the Cartesian subject.”
MANY OF ZIZEK’s distinguishing marks–his passion for psychoanalytic inversions, his fascination with Western popular culture, his resistance to the cynical logic of depoliticization–can be traced to the paradoxes of growing up unde r Yugloslav socialism. Born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1949, Zizek was the son of devout communists who grew increasingly disenchanted. He had a difficult relationship with his father, who wanted him to become an economist. Instead, Zizek divided his atte ntion between reading philosophy and watching movies. Access to Western movies was easy because of a tradition requiring that movie companies deposit a copy of each film they distributed with the archives of regional universities. “The cinematheque theater was a miracle for us,” remembers Zizek. “We were able to see unlimited Hollywood movies and European art films–one or two a day, five days a week.”
Despite its relatively liberal cultural and political policies, Zizek argues, Tito’s Yugoslavia produced a more repressive (though subtly so) brand of ideology than the other Eastern-bloc countries. While Czechoslovakian or Polish authorities made no secret of their authoritarian tactics, the more permissive Yugoslavian communists sent out mixed signals about what was and was not permitted, thereby fostering an unusually effective, because at least partially self-regulating, system of censorship. By wa y of example, Zizek tells the story of a Slovenian book publisher in the fairly tolerant late 1970s who wanted to collect some of the best-known Soviet dissident writing. “The party line fluctuated so much that the Central Committee of the League of Slovene Communists was terrified of committing itself one way or the other,” Zizek explains. “So the members said, “Wait a minute, you are yourself free to decide what to publish’–which was the really Kafkaesque situation. At least with Polish censorship, it was a strict bureaucracy, which would negotiate, reach a compromise, and give you a final decision. This would have been paradise for us! The nightmare of Yugoslavia was that you couldn’t get a clear answer from anyone about anything.”
The young Zizek was attracted to ideas that were relatively uncontaminated by ruling ideologies. After completing his undergraduate studies in 1971, Zizek wrote a four-hundred-page master’s thesis called “The Theoretical and Practical Relevance of French Structuralism,” which canvassed the work of Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, LÃ©vi-Strauss and Deleuze. Initially, Zizek was promised a university position. But when the evaluating committee judged his thesis insufficiently Marxist, the job went to another, less qualified candidate. “Slavoj was so charismatic and brilliant they were afraid to allow him to teach at the university lest he become the reigning sovereign at the department of philosophy and influence students,” says the Lacanian social philosopher Mladen Dolar, who was also a graduate student at the time.
Zizek was devastated by this slight and spent the next several years virtually unemployed, supporting himself by translating philosophy from the German and living off his parents. In 1977, some of his former professors used their connections to win him a job at the Central Committee of the League of Slovene Communists, where, apart from assisting with occasional speeches (in which he would insert covertly subversive comments), Zizek was left alone to do his own philosophical work: The philosopher whose unreliable politics prevented him from teaching was now helping to write propaganda for the leaders of Slovenia’s Communist Party. Zizek still revels in the irony. “I would write philosophy papers and then deliver them at international conferences in Italy and France–trips that were paid for by the Central Committee!”
If Yugoslavian socialism produced a thoroughly cynical citizenry, a country of people who understood that the last thing the regime desired was for them to believe too ardently in the official principles of communism, this, argues Zizek, was ideology a t its most effective. “The paradox of the regime was that if people were to take their ideology seriously it would effectively destroy the system,” he says. In his account, cynicism and apathy are explanations not for the regime’s failure but, perversely, for its success. “The conventional wisdom is that socialism was a failure because, instead of creating a “New Man,’ it produced a country of cynics who believed that the system is corrupt, politics is a horror, and that only private happiness is possible ,” he argues. “But my point is this: Perhaps depoliticization was the true aim of socialist education? This was surely the daily experience of my youth.”
To counter this depoliticization, Zizek banded together with the Ljubljana Lacanians, a tightknit group of Slovenian scholars that included Mladen Dolar, Alenka Zupancic, Miran Bozovic, Zdravko Kobe, and Zizek’s wife, Renata Salecl. In their hands, Fre nch psychoanalysis acquired an often highly comic cast. The group took over a journal, Problemi, and founded a book publishing series, Analecta; inspired by Lacan’s roots in the French surrealist movement (he was friends with AndrÃ© Breton an d Salvador DalÃ), they used these outlets to perpetrate several literary hoaxes. Articles in Problemi were frequently written under pseudonyms or left unsigned, in parodic imitation of Stalinist practice. Zizek once wrote a pseudonymous review attacking one of his own books on Lacan. On another occasion, Problemi published a fictional roundtable discussion of feminism in which Zizek played the boorish interlocutor, posing provocative questions to nonexistent participants. (Later, in Enjoy Your Symptom!, Zizek continued to engage in literary hoaxes with an essay on the films of Roberto Rossellini–none of which he had seen.) With the regime’s aversion to Lacan on the rise, Zizek sensed a wonderful opportunity for mischief; writing in a widely read academic journal, Anthropos, under an assumed name, he published a deliberately clumsy attack on an imaginary book that allegedly detailed why Lacan’s theories were wrong. The next day bookstores across Ljubljana received requests for the title.
In 1981, Zizek spent a year in Paris, where he met some of the thinkers whose work he had been so avidly consuming. He would return often. In 1982, however, Lacan died and his mantle passed to his son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller–a man who would play an important role in Zizek’s career. A former student of Althusser’s, Miller had impressed Lacan with the coherence he brought to the master’s sprawling theoretical system. While many Lacanians accuse Miller of simplifying Lacan (perish the thought!), others believe that Lacan’s posthumous reputation would not have grown without Miller’s ordering influence. A shrewd political operator, Miller was eager to expand the Lacanian empire farther than its progenitor had ever imagined. Miller taught two classes in Paris: one that was open to anyone, and an exclusive, thirty-student seminar at the Ãcole de la Cause Freudienne in which he examined the works of Lacan page by page. After a brief interview, Zizek and Dolar were invited to attend this latter class. “Miller took enormous interest in us because we came from Yugoslavia,” Dolar remembers. “We had been publishing Lacan in Problemi and Analecta for years, and he was grateful for that. He thinks very strategically and didn’t have anyone else est ablished in Eastern Europe. To him, we were the last stronghold of Western culture on the eastern front.”
Zizek’s Paris years, although intellectually stimulating, were not very happy. Thanks to Miller, who got him a coveted teaching fellowship, he was able to stay in Paris and write a second dissertation, a Lacanian reading of Hegel, Marx, and Saul Kripke , portions of which would later become The Sublime Object of Ideology. But his first marriage, to a fellow Slovenian philosophy graduate student, had just ended, and there were times he felt he was on the brink of committing suicide. His meager sti pend barely kept him alive. He was a ripe if reluctant candidate for psychoanalysis, and there were many days, he says, when he skipped meals in order to pay for treatment.
In addition to being Zizek’s teacher, adviser, and sponsor, Jacques-Alain Miller became his analyst as well. While familiarity between analyst and analysand is discouraged by Freudians, it was not unusual for Lacanians to socialize with their patients. Lacan’s most controversial psychoanalytic innovation, however, was the variable, or “short,” session through which he tried to combat a patient’s resistance by introducing an element of discontinuity into the therapeutic process. In contrast to Freud’s f ifty-minute “hour,” Lacan’s sessions ended the moment he sensed the patient had uttered an important word or phrase–a break that might occur in fifteen minutes or less. Miller had fine-tuned the logic of therapy to the point that few sessions lasted more than ten minutes. “To be in analysis with Miller was to step into a divine, predestined universe,” says Zizek. “He was a totally arbitrary despot. He would say, come back tomorrow at exactly 4:55, but this didn’t mean anything! I would arrive at 4:55 and would find a dozen people waiting.”
One goal of the variable session is to keep a patient from preparing material ahead of time. In this respect, Lacanian psychoanalysis met its match in Zizek. “It was my strict rule, my sole ethical principle, to lie consistently: to invent all symptoms , fabricate all dreams,” he reports of his treatment. “It was obsessional neurosis in its absolute purest form. Because you never knew how long it would last, I was always prepared for at least two sessions. I have this incredible fear of what I might dis cover if I really went into analysis. What if I lost my frenetic theoretical desire? What if I turned into a common person?” Eventually, Zizek claims, he had Miller completely taken in by his charade: “Once I knew what aroused his interest, I invented eve n more complicated scenarios and dreams. One involved the Bette Davis movie All About Eve. Miller’s daughter is named Eve, so I told him that I had dreamed about going to a movie with Bette Davis in it. I planned every detail so that when I finished he announced grandly, “This was your revenge against me!'”
As the head of the main Lacanian publishing house, Miller was in a position to turn Zizek’s doctoral dissertation into a book. So, when not presenting his fabricated dreams and fantasies, Zizek would transform his sessions into de facto academic seminars to impress Miller with his keen intellect. Although Zizek successfully defended his dissertation in front of Miller, he learned after the defense that Miller did not intend to publish his thesis in book form. The following night he had his first panic attack, which had all the symptoms of a heart attack. Eventually, he placed the manuscript with the publishing house of a rival Lacanian faction.
Before Zizek began shuttling between Paris and Ljubljana, his professional prospects had already taken a turn for the better. He was still unable to hold a university position, but in 1979 some friends intervened and got him a job as a researcher at the Institute for Sociology. Given its social science orientation, Zizek was not allowed to do philosophy; instead, he announced that he would do research on the formation of Slovenian national identity. “I did the transcendental trick and said that although the long-term project is on Slovene nationalism, I must first sketch the conceptual structure of nationalism,” he says. “Unfortunately, this “clarification’ has now gone on for two decades.”
The job was a blessing in disguise. Once Zizek made his peace with the social scientists, he discovered that he was free to write, with none of the bureaucratic and pedagogical burdens of a Western academic. In essence, he is on permanent sabbatical. ” Every three years I write a research proposal. Then I subdivide it into three one-sentence paragraphs, which I call my yearly projects. At the end of each year I change the research proposal’s future-tense verbs into the past tense and then call it my fin al report,” he explains. Because the institute’s budget depends on how much its members publish, Zizek–who publishes more work in international publications than everyone else combined–is left completely alone. “With total freedom, I am a total workaholic,” he says.
Total freedom also allowed Zizek to play a role in Slovenian politics. Although not a full-fledged activist, he was intimately involved in the movement that helped hasten the end of Yugoslavian socialism. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Zizek was a popular newspaper columnist for the weekly Mladina and helped found the Liberal Democratic Party, which opposes both communism and right-wing nationalism and has stressed feminist and environmental issues. In 1990, he even ran for a seat on the fou r-member collective Slovenian presidency (he finished fifth). As Slovenia achieved a mostly peaceful independence, Zizek wrote frequently about the bloody conflicts nearby. And when the Liberal Democrats came to power in 1992, he found himself in the odd position of being an intellectual who wasn’t marginalized. Zizek is quite proud of the “dirty deals” and compromises made by his party. “I despise abstract leftists who don’t want to touch power because it is corrupting,” he says. “No, power is there to b e grabbed. I don’t have any problem with that.”
THE DAY AFTER Zizek’s lecture, he and his wife, Renata Salecl, meet me for lunch at a cozy Greek cafÃ© just down the block from their London hotel. An attractive woman with a round face and short blond hair, Salecl is as calm an d deliberate as Zizek is nervous and neurotic. Zizek, who claims he lacks the social graces to attend cocktail parties or schmooze with scholars and politicians, says that he relies on her to navigate the shoals of the outside world. She buys his clothes (“For me, shopping is like masturbating in public,” he says), negotiates their teaching deals, and generally keeps him from having a nervous breakdown. Her first book, Discipline as a Condition of Freedom (which was recently staged as a ballet), was a Foucault-inspired analysis of communist Yugoslavia. “Nobody believed in the rules, but they nevertheless kept following them obediently, and I wanted to know why,” she explains. She has spent the morning at the offices of Verso, which will be publishing her book [Per]versions of Love & Hate this fall.
Together, she and Zizek have mastered the intricacies of American academic politics and established a congenial teaching ritual that keeps them in the United States for one semester every year. Recently, they have held positions at Columbia, Princeton, Tulane, University of Minnesota, Cardozo Law School, and the New School for Social Research; this fall, they are teaching at the University of Michigan. The duo has refined the process to a science. Each university must provide teaching positions, office s, and accommodations for both of them and agree that they will each teach one two-month course, consisting of one lecture per week on whatever subject they happen to be writing about. In addition to his U.S. pay, Zizek receives a full salary from his institute in Ljubljana. “When people ask me why I don’t teach permanently in the United States, I tell them that it is because American universities have this very strange, eccentric idea that you must work for your salary,” Zizek says. “I prefer to do the opposite and not work for my salary!”
Zizek has developed an elaborate set of psychological tricks to manipulate his American students and enable him to have as little contact with them as possible. At the first meeting of each course, he announces that all students will get an A and should write a final paper only if they want to. “I terrorize them by creating a situation where they have no excuse for giving me a paper unless they think it is really good. This scares them so much, that out of forty students, I will get only a few papers,” he says. “And I get away with this because they attribute it to my “European eccentricity.'”
Zizek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar spirit. “I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a whole set of strategies for how to block this,” he says with a smirk. “The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!” Initially, Zizek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). Zizek reserves what he calls “the nasty strategy” fo r large lecture classes in which the students often don’t know one another. “I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear,” he explains.
UNDERGRADUATES ARE APT to be tolerant of their professors’ idiosyncracies, but Zizek may have less luck hiding from critics when The Ticklish Subject is published this winter. Just as he once saw socialist Yugoslavia as a count ry that had been cynically depoliticized by its leaders, so Zizek now believes that conservatives, liberals, and radicals have effectively stamped out genuine politics in the West. The modern era, he argues, is decidedly “post-political.” Instead of politics, he writes, we have a largely conflict-free “collaboration of enlightened technocrats (economists, public opinion specialists…) and liberal multiculturalists” who negotiate a series of compromises that pose as–but fail to reflect–a “universal cons ensus.”
Blair’s New Labourites and Clinton’s New Democrats are only the most recent depoliticized political parties to have made “the art of the possible” their modest mantra. Zizek also charges that sexual and ethnic identity politics “fits perfectly the depoliticized notion of society in which every particular group is “accounted for,’ has its specific status (of a victim) acknowledged through affirmative action or other measures destined to guarantee social justice.” In satisfying grievances through pr ograms targeted to specific groups, such as affirmative action, the tolerant liberal establishment prevents the emergence of a genuinely universal–and in Zizek’s definition, properly political–impulse.
For Zizek, all successful ideologies function the same way. If American-style consumer capitalism has replaced Yugoslavian Marxism as the antagonist, the battle is still the same: to create the conditions for what he calls “politics proper,” a vaguely defined, but deeply heroic and inherently universalist impulse, in which a given social order and its power interests are destabilized and overthrown. “Authentic politics is the art of the impossible,” he writes. “It changes the very parameters of what is considered “possible’ in the existing constellation.”
This is a noble vision, but when Zizek turns to history, he finds only fleeting examples of genuine politics in action: in ancient Athens; in the proclamations of the Third Estate during the French Revolution; in the Polish Solidarity movement; and in the last, heady days of the East German Republic before the Wall came down and the crowds stopped chanting “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people!”) and began chanting “Wir sind ein Volk” (“We are a/one people!”). The shift from definite to indefinite article, writes Zizek, marked “the closure of the momentary authentic political opening, the reappropriation of the democratic impetus by the thrust towards reunification of Germany, which meant rejoining Western Germany’s liberal-capitalist police/political order.”
In articulating his political credo, Zizek attempts to synthesize three unlikely–perhaps incompatible–sources: Lacan’s notion of the subject as a “pure void” that is “radically out of joint” with the world, Marx’s political economy, and St. Paul’s conviction that universal truth is the only force capable of recognizing the needs of the particular. Zizek is fond of calling himself a “Pauline materialist,” and he admires St. Paul’s muscular vision. He believes that the post-political deadlock can be broken only by a gesture that undermines “capitalist globalization from the standpoint of universal truth in the same way that Pauline Christianity did to the Roman global empire.” He adds: “My dream is to combine an extremely dark, pessimistic belief that life is basically horrible and contingent, with a revolutionary social attitude.”
AS PHILOSOPHY, Zizek’s argument is breathtaking, but as social prescription, “dream” may be an apt word. The only way to combat the dominance of global capitalism, he argues, is through a “direct socialization of the productive process”–an agenda that is unlikely to play well in Slovenia, which is now enjoying many of the fruits of Western consumer capitalism. When pressed to specify what controlling the productive process might look like, Zizek admits he doesn’t know, although he fe els certain that an alternative to capitalism will emerge and that the public debate must be opened up to include subjects like control over genetic engineering. Like many who call for a return to the primacy of economics, Zizek has only the most tenuous grasp of the subject.
What then are we to make of Zizek’s eloquent plea for a return to politics? Is it just another self-undermining gesture? In part it is, but that may be the point. The blissful freedom of the utopian political moment is something, he believes, we all de sire. But so too, he would acknowledge, do we desire ideologies and institutions. And these contradictory impulses–toward liberation and constraint–are not only political. A central tenet of Lacanian psychoanalysis is that the push and pull of anarchic desires and inhibiting defense mechanisms structure the psychic life of the individual. And why shouldn’t this same dialectic characterize Zizek’s own intellectual life, which has been devoted to proclaiming the universal relevance of Lacan’s ideas?
“Do not forget that with me everything is the opposite of what it seems,” he says. “Deep down I am very conservative; I just play at this subversive stuff. My most secret dream is to write an old-fashioned, multivolume theological tract on Lacanian theory in the style of Aquinas. I would examine each of Lacan’s theories in a completely dogmatic way, considering the arguments for and against each statement and then offering a commentary. I would be happiest if I could be a monk in my cell, with nothing to do but write my Summa Lacaniana.”
But wouldn’t that be lonely? Once again, Zizek qualifies his qualification. “Okay, maybe not a solitary monk. I could be a monk with a woman.”