Calling Zizek’s Bluff

On November 19 Slavoj Zizek gave a talk in Hamburg’s Schauspielhaus next to the central station and across from a small refugee camp. The talk was on Mandela, and in a typical Zizekian fashion the lecture he gave wasn’t on Mandela but on the refugee crisis in Europe. His talk was provocative, as they usually are, and his Eurocentrism in regards to accepting questionable Middle Eastern norms unsettled the sold-out audience. My short reflection here isn’t to talk about Zizek, to criticize or defend, nor to try to understand or seek to clarify his at time opaque and glaringly controversial points. Rather I’d like to note an interesting observation I had about his performance. It does tie in with a controversial point of democracy that he makes, and I’d like to put it down on paper. To tease out the idea to see where it goes.

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Now, I’ve followed Zizek’s writings and lectures, to an extent, for some years. I’ve even studied him in courses and I have a rough understanding of discourse analysis, its ontology and Lacanian psycoanalytics, to some extent. I in no way consider myself to be authoritative on the issue, so I’ll try keep my thoughts on the matter to a minimum. These are just observations and subsequent speculations on his talk from the expressed date.

Zizek is known for disapproving of democracies. He claims that, typically, masses vote against their general interests. As a cultural/social critic with a Marxist/Lacanian perspective it follows. The ubiquity in which cultural capitalism infects the general populace’s view of the world is unrivaled by anything world history has ever seen. Stalin envied the US’s propaganda machine. Why? Well  because the populace bought it. Under the guise of democracy and liberty the populace functions as cogs to a neo-imperialist, hegemonic power in the world. The US has over a 100 bases with over a million soldiers all over the world. Foreign countries must abide to US economic policy, because, if they don’t, democratically elected or not, they will be overthrown, economically isolated or worse. He aptly uses a joke of two friends from East Berlin to demonstrate how, although the old failed communist states were horrible, oppressive places to live in, they at least knew it. Whereas on the other hand, the west remains blind to the role of ideological oppression.  Because of this Zizek claims to be a pessimist. He has very little, if any hope, for a world free from this ideological stranglehold. What I find curious is that although this is his view — although he thinks democracy isn’t a solution, and we (generally speaking) are too ideologically entrenched — why work? Why does he engage in his constant ideological dissection of cultural capitalism? After seeing his performance I think I know why.

One thing that surprised me about Thursday night’s lecture was how many ideas he recycled in his lecture. Not only did he recycle old notions and jokes from previous talks, but he even recycled the most banal of quips, such as calling the moderator a fascist and saying he’ll be the first one sent to the Gulag because he wanted to move on the discussion. (Which is still funny no matter how many times he says it). As someone who works in public speaking well knows, if it works don’t change it. He continues to give talks using old material, and my guess is that he sees the popularization of his ideas and philosophy generally as part of a push to move, however marginal it may be, the scale ideologically.  Zizek is a philosophic performer who claims little hope for the ideological break from cultural capitalism but engages in the project nonetheless. He loves the attention, he loves when people laugh at his jokes, as anyone would, but he also still sees a role in the organic intellectual.

Through repetition Zizek has honed his talks to not only be able to popularize them and reach a wider audience but also to pack more of a punch. I claim he sees an important part of struggle to be mainly in the realm of the superstructure, the realm in which people’s cultural lens are formed, the lens we use to interact and make sense of the world we constantly engage in. Antonio Gramsci also felt this way. For Gramsci there were two kinds of war. The war of position and the war of movement. The latter was done when the forces were organized and ready to ‘storm the palace gates’. But as a requisite the actors who do the storming must be in position. The war of position stipulates that before anyone storms the gates we need the to be ideologically prepared and organized in masses to then be able to ‘storm the gates’ . The subject (the movement) must first be created, and, with the ubiquity and depth cultural capitalism plays today, this position is not only a distant place, it is a utopia. So is Zizek a Gramscian? Does he see himself as an organic intellectual helping in the dissemination of ideas and tools which can help us dissect cultural capitalism. To position us for a future ‘war of movement’. I think so. He seemingly does this in hopes of achieving a society run by a committee of enlightened philosopher kings. If it is possible to ideologically push the public towards a critical gaze in regards to cultural capitalism, then my question is, “Couldn’t we push further?”

He claims we don’t like making our own decisions. We like it when others make decisions for us, maybe not only because it saves us the time of thinking and concerning ourselves over it but also because we save face. If they fuck up, we can call them out on it, but if we fuck up, we’re responsible. And who wants more responsibilities. Making choices is an extra burden and life is already filled with burdens and pain. Why would we want more of them? To quote Uncle Ben from Spider Man, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. We want more power and we strive for it. To put it in positive terms, we seek the greater evolution of ourselves. Isn’t this the enlightenment project? We are beings which seek development, which seek to get better. To appeal to our baser instincts is against the human project. And I believe we should continue; as impossible as it may seem to break through cultural capitalism, we have to continue pushing forward to get to a state where we as a people goad in making decisions for ourselves and communities, we enjoy helping our neighbors, not because we would be forced to ‘enjoy’ it but because we really do enjoy it. This is possible not only by practicing it and trying to convince ourselves that somehow we know it’s better for us, but by engaging in real activities which develop us psychically. For example there are mental practices we can engage in which physically change the brain’s activity patterns in forms which make us more compassionate, caring, concentrated, disciplined and so on.

Zizek doesn’t believe more democracy is a solution. He doesn’t want to make decisions about his community he says because he wants to stay home, write and watch movies. And I sympathize with his view. But we’re settling for our baser instincts by doing this. We’re settling for a mode of being dictated by our selfishness, an ideological imposition. I propose we go for the gold. Social revolution requires personal evolution but the latter is not a requisite of the former rather evolution is only possible during the revolution and the revolution must be lived with the day to day, the play by play with every interaction.

Anthony Tummo