I’ve been wanting to interview the famous Slovenian philosopher for the last seven years and now I finally have.
I discovered Slavoj Žižek’s work quite by accident when, wanting to check out Loren Singer’s novel The Parallax View from my local library I put Žižek’s book with the same title on hold instead. Looking back on this incident now, after having finally gotten the chance to talk to him directly, the mistake seems like an act of fate. It seems like fate precisely because seeing it as an act of fate fits well within Žižek’s philosophical system. For Žižek, fate is something chosen retrospectively and retroactively. That is, our life is full of random accidents, stuff goes wrong this way and that way, but at certain moments we can stop, think it over, and say to ourselves “Ah ha, that one time when I read Žižek’s book by accident, that was fate.” Or, to use a different example, Žižek agrees with Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Kafka and His Precursors.”
Borges said that it is only possible to discover the true antecedents of Kafka, to find the common themes and techniques in various earlier works, the themes and techniques that Kafka adopted and adapted into his own projects, if we first know Kafka. That is, Kafka created his precursors through his own work. It is only after Kafka that Kierkegaard, Zeno, Browning, and others can be found to relate to each other at all.
The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. –Borges
In any case, I’d been wanting to interview Slavoj for years, I was even fated to do so, but for a long time I was turned down, either by his publicist or directly by the philosopher himself. Even when I could offer him some money in the form of future royalties from a small-press book that could be published based on the interview, the answer was still no.
And then, about six months ago, Slavoj Žižek’s stock started plummeting.
The philosopher has always faced charges of sexism and of Eurocentrism from a certain type of liberal critic, but during the months leading up our fateful encounter the criticism and attacks have been intensifying.
In April of 2016 he was on Channel 4 to discuss the refugee crisis and he argued that the crisis shouldn’t be understood merely as the tragic consequence of Western intervention, but also as the consequence of an active fundamentalist political project in Syria. This turned out to be too much for many to bear and in May, at the Left Forum, Žižek faced an organized band of protesters who insisted that the Forum had made a mistake when they invited a racist like Žižek to the conference.
But Žižek didn’t stop there. His next scandal was born of the US debate around transgenderism and bathrooms. Žižek published an essay in the LA Review of Books wherein he wrote,
…we can safely predict that new anti-discriminatory demands will emerge: why not marriages among multiple persons? What justifies the limitation to the binary form of marriage? Why not even marriage with animals? After all we already know about the finesse of animal emotions. Is to exclude marriage with an animal not a clear case of 'speciesism,’ an unjust privileging of the human species?
Lifted out of context this reads like the ranting of a pure homophobe, but Žižek fanboys like me know to only read his provocative prose in context. If you read the whole essay it really is clear that Žižek is aware of the absurdity of equating homosexuality with bestiality. What he was really arguing with was a certain utopian postmodern ideology that seeks to eliminate all limits, to eliminate all binaries, to go beyond norms because the imposition of a limit is patriarchal and oppressive. For Žižek, today’s gender politics is false and utopian or, as he would put it, pulled from the trashcan of ideology and so on.
It was not the case that Žižek opposed the struggle of LGBTQ people, but only that he opposed what he saw as a phony liberal ideology that set up the terms of the LGBTQ struggle.
Could Žižek really have been only pretending to be some sort of radical leftist all along?
Some of us could accept this even as we saw that he’d waded into a terrain that was full of landmines and that he’d done so in a self-destructive way. After all, Žižek is a provocateur. We knew that already, and even as Žižek was falling out of favor with many, there were also many who carried on defending him.
Then, in November of last year, once again on Channel 4, Žižek was asked who he would vote for in the upcoming election if he could vote in America. Žižek answered quickly with one word:
And with this answer I realized two things. First, this answer meant I could probably get Žižek to come onto my podcast, and second, I was no longer sure that I wanted Žižek on my podcast. After all, was it worth the risk to my own small reputation and the reputation of the small press I worked for?
I decide that yes, it was worth the risk. The question I needed to ask him, the reason the interview was worth having, was basically this one:
Could Žižek really have been only pretending to be some sort of radical leftist all along? Was his endorsement of Trump to be taken at face value, or was there, yet again, some more subtle point he was making? When he went on Al Jazeera to face off against Mehdi Hasan, Žižek said that he didn’t like Trump, but only thought that Clinton would maintain the status quo while Trump, by being really bad, would “shake up the system and reorganize the coordinates of our politics.”
I wanted to know if he had a better answer than that. I wanted to see if he had a deeper insight into the moment and if his call was something more than a rephrasing of the cliché “Things have to get worse before they can get better.”
I sent out a standard invitation form letter to Slavoj and, as I predicted, he accepted. We set up a time to talk.
What you’ll find if you listen to the interview is that the “Elvis of cultural theory” is mega-polite and very likable. He is precisely the same as you’d expect him to be, in fact. He is not racist (as far as I can tell), not transphobic, and not really a Trump supporter.
But he is a man without a fate I think. As old as he is, it seems to me that Žižek, like everyone else on the left, is reeling. More than that, he is still waiting for something to happen, something that will, when it arrives, force him to say. “Ah ha, that one time when I made those LGBTQ people mad and endorsed Trump, that was fate. Of course! It was meant to go that way all along.”
He is still waiting for Kafka. Perhaps we all are.
Zero Squared #95: Žižek and the Double Blackmail
Douglas Lain is the publisher of Zero Books, a novelist (Billy Moon and After the Saucers Landed), and a sometimes pop philosopher for the Partially Examined Life Blog and Thought Catalog. He is also the voice behind the Zero Squared Podcast.
Jim Stiles says
The academic left deserves Zizek. When they decided to forgo the Enlightenment, it put them on a path towards saying goodbye to all reason and logic. This old libertarian is pointing and laughing.
Fitting for someone of such a juvenile political persuasion as libertarianism.
What’s juvenile about it?
Kevin Driscoll says
He means libertarian in the European sense, not in the right-wing Ayn Rand American flavor. Zizek calls himself a Marxist after all.
the fate of such philosophy/philosophers in the public realm reminds me of how terrible most science/health reporting is, what makes a lot of experimental work radical is often very technical/complex and to make such works easy to grasp by lay folks is to lose what makes them what they were…
Jennifer Tejada says
This is fascinating. It’s certainly someone I am interested in reading. It seems like he’s one of those people that, either he really has an independent insight ala Nietzsche or he is a wretched human being.
he’s very bright, and a wide and deep reader, who has good critical/rhetorical reasons for most of his outrages but also is someone who by all appearances just enjoys them,
I’m really not sure why he became as popular as he did his academic books are as difficult as they are often long (man needs a new editor) and assume that readers have read nearly as much as he has (not unlike Derrida) but folks who judge him just on his pop writings and editorial jags are missing much of what he projects.
Nick Burbidge says
I’ve been very severe on Zizek in the past, including here on the PEL website. Yet, as his stock falls, I find him more in the right. The turning point for me was an article in Jan 2015 he wrote on the New Statesman website following the Charlie Hebo killings. Compare it against Mehdi Hasan’s idiotic article written around the same time.
The demands of certain strands of political correctness, ISIS, Trump, Brexit, and the anxiety-inducing jargonising of business and politics all have at least one thing in common: they are an appeal to the superego.
Good manners are different from political correctness. The first thinks of the other person. The second is set of courtly rules, and woe betide you if you are on the wrong side. The Breitbart Nazi boys understand this perfectly and, in the most cynical move, set themselves up as freedom fighters.
Evan Hadkins says
Some of us on ‘the left’ aren’t reeling. We see that some of those badly affected by neo-liberalism want the system changed. The anger might be misdirected but it’s origin is fairly clear.
And to accept the analysis doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing the proposed solutions.
Kevin Driscoll says
Zizek explicitly agrees with this in the podcast.
He declared “Trump!” because he was afraid that Clinton would be a continuation of destructive neoliberalism. Trump will (and has–look at the turnout for the Women’s March) galavanise the left and force the Left to return to its non-neoliberal roots in order to survive and offer a true alternative. Quite logical and a bold assessment IMO
Wayne Schroeder says
The philosophical/psychological intelligence of Zizek is amazingly underscored by his critics who have no idea what he is saying including the brilliant ignorance of Chomsky. At least Chomsky was “honest” enough to say he had no idea of Zizek’s meaning. That is always the IQ test-ability to respond to what he really means. Yeah, Trump is the Great White Big Other!
I like how the mention of Kafka is supposed to a salvationist notion in all of this. When he couldn’t stand up to his own father. you know, Kafka the novelist, for he was never a philosopher.
I don’t know why but this post is so sad — especially the last part.
I really loved how you weaved the theme of retro-activity and fate throughout this essay.
Thank you for this article.