Scott McLemee
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The Chronicle of Higher Education, February-July 2004

If, as Woody Allen once put it, half of life is just showing up, the case can be made that the other half is knowing how to quit when you are ahead. Zizek Watch turned out to be a very popular column in the Short Subjects page of The Chronicle of Higher Education, but I decided to wrap it up after four of them, before it got stale. Several people expressed disappointment when the last column appeared. At least it ended while still fun to do.
 
See also "The Zizek Zigzag" -- in hindsight, the prototype of ZW -- which appeared as a Hot Type column.
 
 

I.
 
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 seemingly everywhere.

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 know."

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.

 

II.

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."

 

III.

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.

But 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 e-mail.

"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.

 

IV.

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.