Zizek! is one of those documentaries centered around one really, really interesting person. For that reason it's more like Crumb or Bukowski - Born Into This than more famously philosophical movies like Waking Life. Zizek!'s structure is simple: The director and a small crew simply follow Slavoj Zizek as he goes about his daily business, which pretty much amounts to him walking around his apartment and traveling to lectures. It's an entertaining film about a figure of whom most philosophically minded people are aware without knowing much about him. For the people already familiar with him, don't worry, all of the "Zizek-tropes" are present: weird anecdotes, facial ticks, and self-deprecating humor, etc.
This is not an educational film. I probably know as much about Zizek's philosophy after watching this movie as before, and this is despite the fact that the director intends to be pedagogical. This is because the film's quick summaries of Zizek's work are basically just factoids, full of vague phrases that do not accomplish much illumination, like the statement that claims Lacan was considered "a return to Freud." I have no idea what this means and I feel 99 percent of the people who watch this film will feel the same. For the most part, Zizek himself struggles to communicate anything of philosophical depth and clarity in the shortish interviews. But this is forgivable because he might be one of the most interesting people alive to observe (he communicates plenty of his salty charisma and humor though). Throughout the film I watched his face, transfixed, asking myself what many people have asked about him: is he on coke? Does he have ADD? Why does he always have phlegm in his mouth?
There is one exception to the general vagueness of the (philosophically-centric) interviews. This is the not altogether expected scene where Zizek gives a spirited description of philosophy while laying shirtless in his bed. I don't really know what the director was going for, but it ended up being the clearest exposition of thought in the film. Zizek makes clear that, to him, philosophy is a method for asking questions, not solving problems.
So as an informative documentary about philosophy, Zizek! falls a little short of what I was hoping for. Luckily it succeeds on other levels: It informs us about Zizek the person. We see him in his austere apartment, complete with a postcard of Stalin attached to the wall, and get a sense of how meticulous he is. His library contains every thing he has ever written, all neatly arranged on tidy bookshelves. When he finds a journal out of place he actually stops talking for the camera and puts it back where it should go, saying that he "must have order." We also see his son, who stares at the camera with the type of fascination kids usually have for cameras. Zizek calls it: "narcissistic interest," which made me wonder what it would be like to have him as a dad. It's somehow nice to see that he goes to McDonald's with his son.
One of the things I got from the film is that Zizek is an extremely self-aware person who is at the same time ludicrously not-so-self-aware. On one hand he's aware that people come to his lectures to hear him "make dirty jokes" and "use examples from movies" just as much as they come to hear his philosophy. On the other hand, when watching a video of Lacan, Zizek makes his trademark erratic hand-gestures while he laments how insincere Lacan's much more restrained hand-gestures are. I couldn't tell if Zizek was consciously being hypocritical, or if he thinks his own hand gestures are more authentic (faster equals more authentic, maybe). It would have been interesting if he acknowledged this, because it's always curious when Zizek turns his critical eye inwards. Case in point is perhaps the most bizarre monologue he gives in the film: He, quite sincerely it seems, talks about how he feels that he isn't human, but pretends to be.
As you can probably tell, the greatest pleasures in Zizek! are when Zizek is not being philosophical. This is at least how I felt, and it's probably a symptom of how I watch movies; i.e., I'm not really watching movies to learn anything deep (if that's even possible with this movie). I just want diversion. Luckily, Zizek is a genuinely diverting character. There are many scenes sure to make people laugh. Two stick out in my mind: one is when a woman asks Zizek for an autograph. He obliges her, she smiles gratefully and walks away. Zizek shudders, telling the director how much he hates attention from his fans. She teases him: "You must like it a little bit." Zizek replies: "No, people are evil." Another scene that will be sure to please Zizek fans is one where he gives a detailed play-by-play of how he and his son play with the toys set-up on a big table. He explains the 'rules' of his son's game with as much energy as he explains his philosophy: flailing arms, talking fast, pointing, jumping around, etc
A quote on the DVD says that Zizek is "the Elvis of cultural theory." I'd rather say he's the Andy Warhol. Just like that artist, Zizek takes pop-cultural images (from Vertigo to The Dark Knight to Kung Fu Panda) and re-interprets them for a relatively wide audience (relative to the type of attention academics usually get). Even Zizek's audience reminds me of those people who were crazy for Warhol back in the sixties; i.e., I suspect they don't know what he's talking about half the time (the movie shows us a couple of his lectures and they're respectably full, which makes the cynic in me question whether that many people could really be into an obscure philosophy that mixes Lacan and Marx with a twist of Hegel). They do know he's popular, entertaining, and seemingly profound, which are admittedly good reasons to see somebody talk. It's the reason why I watched this movie, after all.
Wayne Schroeder says
What is most striking for me in the character of Zizek is that he presents himself as someone without inhibitions, who freely talks about anything he wants without stopping, and supporting a complete upheaval of society, but at the bottom of it he very much capitulates to social norms, like in the case with the fan.
I liked the bit towards the end where he talks about suicide. Not sure why, maybe because of the combination of the ease in which he talks about such a touchy subject, combined with his ridiculous proposition of a panel that decides if you are only undergoing a momentary crisis and should not be allowed to kill yourself, or if you are truly dealing with existential problems and should be allowed to…
Noah Dunn says
When you say that the “case with the fan” is Zizek capitulating to social norms, what do you exactly mean? Do you mean that despite his egalitarianism, Zizek still plays the role of celebrity (a powerful person) signing a book for a fan (an anonymous, perhaps powerless person)? Or do you mean the way he doesn’t like attention? (which some might take to mean he doesn’t like being bothered by ‘common’ people).
I would say that it’s almost impossible for anybody to exist in a society and not participate in at least some of that society’s practices. It doesn’t matter if you’re a communist, you still have to pay the bills and put food on the table; you need money, and if you’re like Zizek you’ll do it by lecturing / writing books.
But having seen the film, I would also say that Zizek actually resists a lot of the social norms for a man of his income. I mean, clearly he has made a lot of money over the last ten years with his lectures, books, film-projects, copy-writing, etc, but despite all of this, he still lives in a small apartment and dresses like he shops at the Salvation Army.
the idea is that one can ostensibly be a radical, but really be even more deeply a slave to the culture that puts premiums on status. Everyone runs the risk of doing this and since we cannot know Zizek from the inside out, we will never be able to know. You can only judge people based on their actions.
Frankly I think he is a fraud. Whenever I say that though I immediately get mobbed by fanboys who jerk off too Zizek.
I can read Heidegger and get something out of it, or Derrida, or whoever, but with Zizek I do get an extremely powerful impression that he is just an obscurantist that creates profundity by fiat.
I’d be more than happy to be convinced by somebody that he is a great thinker but for some reason it is very difficult. Maybe it’s just his style which I cannot stand. Dunno.
Noah Dunn says
I agree, we can never really know what Zizek thinks of all his success, but if I was forced to guess, I’d say he probably likes it. From a young age most people are taught that success is good, and I’m almost one hundred percent sure it was like this in communist Slovenia (financial success may have been downplayed). Plus, if I put myself in his position and imagine all these people telling me I write good books, I’d probably get a kick out of it.
With all that said, I think it’s possible to be part of a society, even a very prominent part, and still have legitimate issues with that society. I also think Zizek’s ‘radicalism’ is over-emphasized in the media. If you watch his interview on Charlie Rose, he even admits that no other historical phase has raised people’s standards of living like Capitalism. He just thinks It’s an unsustainable economic system, which is a lot of people’s opinions. It seems kind of unreasonable to demand that anybody who finds financial success in a capitalistic society should become a spokesperson for capitalism and do away with any ‘radical’ ideas they might have. People like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore and the guys from Rage Against the Machine have all been accused of hypocrisy because of this notion. I think what these people find most reprehensible about our economic system is not the ability to make a lot of money by inventing a new iPhone appl. or writing a successful book, but the way it encourages employers to exploit workers etc. Also, making a decent pile of money with a book critical of capitalism seems preferable to me over writing a book critical of capitalism that nobody reads.
As for him being a Fraud: I haven’t actually read enough of his books (in fact, I’ve read none; only interviews and his wikipedia page) to say whether this is true. I can say that a lot of people agree with you, and this further strengthens my perception that he is more like the Andy Warhol of philosophy than the Elvis. Warhol too was accused of being a fraud; and in some cases I agree with that accusation.
¡Zizek! and the Public Intellectual Craze:
“I have this terrible feeling that they expect something which they will not get. […] The question is not what I can give them. But, are these expectations legitimate? What do these expectations tell them about themselves?”
-Slavoj Zizek on his growing international celebrity
here is a more helpful interview:
I saw this film a while ago and while I enjoyed watching it, it didn’t add much depth to understanding Zizek. Anyone have suggestions for a Zizek book to start with?
if you have studied some philosophy than you might be well served by starting with him from the early years ( http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/cynicism-as-a-form-of-ideology/ ), I don’t enjoy his pop-crit work so can’t help with that, many Hegel scholars disagree with Zizek on differing aspects of his work but I don’t know of any who don’t consider him to be a serious reader/thinker.
Wayne Schroeder says
Give “The Sublime Object of Ideology” a look–perhaps Zizek’s most accessible text.
The difference between Lacan and Zizek is that Lacan had a certain academic self image that he retained and through which he’s ideas were developed and Zizek obviously constantly destroys his, at least partly. I do think Zizek’s approach is much more radical, although he is certainly somewhat repetitive. The radical aspect is not only in the violent elements of his thought, but even more so in the effect that his style might possibly have for future academic thinkers. Can the future political thinking remain in the lines of academic standards? I somewhat doubt it. The combination of this academic quality and constant destruction of it, is what makes Zizek unique character. And I do think he’s being rather honest and we do need him as a wake up call in the current crises of capitalism and the western lifestyle.
What’s this got to do with anything? What pills are you on?