With the Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek (pronounced SLA-voy ZHEE-zhek), you get it all: sex, politics,
theology, psychoanalytic interpretations of German philosophers, meditations on the cosmology of The Matrix....
As one audience member put it after a lecture by Mr. Zizek at an American university, "I have no idea where we just went,
but that was one wild trip."
Indeed, Mr. Zizek's stimulating concoctions appear to be addictive. In recent years, he has drawn huge audiences
at academic conferences, and editors at two scholarly presses are rumored to have purchased country houses with profits derived
from trafficking in Mr. Zizek's work.
Over the next few months, the Zizek Watch column will, in effect, plant a homing device on a thinker who is
Even Mr. Zizek's most devoted fans sometimes wonder if he would do them a favor by not writing a book this month.
Anyone feeling guilty for not yet having read Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, published by Routledge
in December, may instead want to consult Mr. Zizek's essay on Gilles Deleuze (the philosopher of "schizoanalysis") in the
winter issue of Critical Inquiry.
The sexual practice known as "fisting," Mr. Zizek informs the wide-eyed reader, "is the exemplary case of what
Deleuze called the 'expansion of the concept.'" The essay also considers the Zapatistas, Hegel's concept of the "beautiful
soul," the distinctly Californian art of surfboarding, and the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To judge from the February issue of Foreign Policy, Mr. Zizek is mounting a challenge to replace Thomas
L. Friedman as the pundit with the ear of the diplomatic elite. In his essay "Iraq's False Promises," the thinker deploys
psychoanalytic theory in an effort to track down those notorious "weapons of mass destruction," which are proving as elusive
as the meaning of a dream.
At one point in his essay, Mr. Zizek cites what could be an especially convoluted passage from the psychoanalytic
guru Jacques Lacan: "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that
is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns--the ones we don't know we don't
An epistemological conundrum, to be sure. But it may be worth remembering that Mr. Zizek is in fact quoting
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in a news conference in early 2003.
The world's leading cultural theorist has held exactly the same academic title for a quarter of a century. Slavoj
Zizek is a "researcher" at the Institute for Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana, in Slovenia. He attributes his
great intellectual vitality to the fact that he has no reason to work very hard. "I'm on a permanent sabbatical," he tells
Zizek Watch. "I have a pure research job, where I do nothing."
A strange claim, coming from a man who publishes two or three books a year. "OK," he says, "I work all the time.
But whatever I do counts for research. For the last two years, I was not even once at my job. I have a secretary who writes
reports for me and knows how to forge my signature."
And so in February, when BBC Radio broadcast a program called The Art of Laziness, Mr. Zizek appeared
on it as a uniquely qualified expert. He criticized programs that teach relaxation techniques. "If you look closely at their
leaflets," he said, "they tell you first that we are hyperactive and should learn to withdraw. But next, the second paragraph,
they always say: 'This way you will relax and be even more productive.'"
Alluding to the surrealist thinker Georges Bataille, Mr. Zizek denounced "the hidden economy of 'I am lazy a
little bit so that I will work better.'" Instead, he offered the example of residents of Montenegro, an earthquake-prone area
of the former Yugoslavia. The local ethnic stereotype is that inhabitants of the region are utterly shiftless.
"The zero-level standard joke about laziness is how a Montenegro guy masturbates," he said. "He digs a hole
in the earth, puts his penis in, and waits for the earthquake." The pleasure that Montenegrins take in telling the joke seems
to Mr. Zizek to be the correct attitude toward both laziness and political incorrectness. "Instead of being afraid of this
attitude," he said, "you freely, in a gesture of Bataillean autonomy and sovereignty, assume" the quality attributed to you.
It is not, however, an attitude that Mr. Zizek takes into the classroom. "I don't teach," he tells Zizek Watch.
"Why should I teach? I'm not crazy."
One source of Slavoj Zizek's lasting appeal as a cultural theorist is that he provides
a really good excuse to go to the video store. Readers work their way through any given book or essay by Mr. Zizek with a
sure sense that, sooner or later, he will interrupt his Lacanian interrogation of Hegel's critique of the categorical imperative
for an analysis of, say, an Alfred Hitchcock film. Last year Mr. Zizek suggested that the police state in Steven Spielberg's
film Minority Report -- in which sci-fi technology allows crimes to be solved before they are perpetrated -- followed
the same logic as the Bush administration's policy in Iraq.
Indeed, Mr. Zizek himself has indicated that a regular
viewing of preposterous Hollywood blockbusters is one of the secrets of his own productivity. The deep boredom induced by
watching Bruce Willis run from an exploding fireball encourages the scholar to reflect on questions of cultural theory.
soon, Mr. Zizek will go from watching movies to starring in one. Astra Taylor, who until this semester was an adjunct in sociology,
has just finished shooting a film about him.
Contacted by Zizek Watch in late March, Ms. Taylor was about to head
to Slovenia for a final round of interviews. "So far we have hung out with Zizek on the East Coast ... but gone also to Buenos
Aires, where the crowds were amazing -- over 2,000 people in the University Square, an electrified mob," she wrote by
"I am focusing on his philosophy and personality equally (his personality demands this!)," she said. Her ambition
is "to give the viewer a sense of Zizek's overarching project" -- which also involves explaining "who the hell Lacan
is." Ms. Taylor expects her film to be finished this year.
Not that the Zizek aficionado need wait that long for an
excuse to fire up the home entertainment system. Producing the documentary is Lawrence Konner, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter
whose credits include Mona Lisa Smile, the remake of Planet of the Apes, and three episodes of The Sopranos.
And if you really need a break from looking up Mr. Zizek's references to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, rent
Mr. Konner's big-screen adaptation of The Beverly Hillbillies.
After six months of tracking Slovenia's psychoanalytic sphinx, we here at Zizek Watch have entered a terminal crisis
of moral and epistemic reflexivity. (And yes, that's just as painful as it sounds.) The question has become unavoidable:
Why do we watch Slavoj Zizek?
Sure, it's fun to see him torment the Kantian neo-liberals. He knows a lot of
dirty jokes. And he can analyze an Alfred Hitchcock film like nobody's business. But after a while, a reader begins to notice
that Mr. Zizek repeats himself. A lot. He even recycles whole chunks of material from one work to the next. By the time Verso
published his latest book, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, in June, devotees had encountered some paragraphs in three
or four earlier incarnations.
The prospect of novelty, then, forms no part of his appeal. On the contrary, there is
something about reading Mr. Zizek that calls to mind certain remarks by Andy Warhol on the reassuring consistency of Coke
and Campbell's soup. No matter which can you open, it's going to be the same as the last one you tasted.
But might there be more to it than that? In search of an answer, we turn to an interview with Mr. Zizek in the July
issue of The Believer -- a literary magazine beloved by the twentysomething post-ironic hipster literati. (Readers
who are older, more earnest, and/or less cool may also want to track down this interview. It offers perhaps the single best
short introduction to Mr. Zizek's characteristic preoccupations.)
In a comment on the genre of reality TV, the theorist
notes that "the charm of it is a certain hidden reflexivity. It is not that we are voyeurs looking at what people are already
doing. The point is that we know that they know that they are being filmed." In other words, says Mr. Zizek, "we are seeing
people acting themselves. In everyday life, we act already, in the sense that we have a certain ideal image of ourselves,
and we act that persona."
So why is Slavoj Zizek so fascinating? Because no one else can do nearly so good a Zizek
impersonation. It makes perfect sense if you think about it, and even more if you don't.
And on that note, we here
at Zizek Watch feel it is time to enter Lacanian psychoanalysis.