In the eyes of some critics, Slavoj Žižek’s freewheeling iconoclasm makes him a dangerous cult leader. Noam Chomsky has called Žižek’s dialectical style “theoretical posturing which has no content.” The New Republic has called him “the most despicable philosopher in the West.” Yet these attacks on Žižek only seem to increase his influence; he is now one of the most influential public intellectuals in the world. After hearing Žižek speak at Tufts on November 8th, I began to think that this hilarious yet deadly serious man deserves our attention—not because of the strength of his hyperbolic, contrarian arguments, but because he encourages the kind of lust for rebellion that our sense of postmodern irony tends to deride.
Here are some facts about Žižek: he is a film critic, he has written 75 books, and he is a communist. He ran for president of Slovenia in 1991, and a triumphal portrait of Stalin hangs in the anteroom of his apartment in Ljubljana. Most importantly for our purposes, however, Žižek uses psychoanalytic theory to analyze films and apply their meanings within an anti-capitalist framework. His approach—the cause of all the criticism—is often obscure, because he professes no single theory, and he often contradicts himself.
Žižek’s intrinsic confusion became apparent over the course of the question-and-answer session in Cohen Auditorium, which followed a screening of A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Žižek’s second film collaboration with director Sophie Fiennes. Hunched over the microphone, gesticulating wildly, Žižek electrified the normally uninspired venue. In only an hour or so, Žižek deconstructed (or at least appeared to deconstruct) an impossible array of topics: the NSA controversy, sexual harassment policies, Wagner’s interpretation of the myth of Orpheus, the psychology of hardcore pornography, the allure of Malcolm X, the necessity of gravity, the concept of “liberating masochism,” and many other apparently (or actually) unrelated things. At the end of the talk, I was at a loss for what I had just heard. In Žižek’s exuberant discourse, ideas spring from each other relentlessly, and he has no apparent ability to stop them. It’s hard to follow, but it’s a spectacular sight—even if you doubt Žižek’s confidence and find the pop culture references facile.
Some of that irrepressible energy is captured in A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, an extemporaneous film essay on the insidious nature and origins of ideology. Like Žižek himself, the film appears brilliant, but is also profoundly exhausting. It’s a lengthy catalog of the covert intrusions of ideology into our lives, and it quotes everything from Brief Encounter to Titanic to The Dark Knight. The quotations are surprising non sequiturs, but Sophie Fiennes somehow arranges them to illustrate Žižek’s amorphous thesis. In addition to his narration, Žižek appears in costume in elaborate reconstructions of the sets of the quoted films to hammer in his points. The device works because Žižek is funny and the sets are impeccable. The part of the film that reveals ideology is most illuminating, especially if you’ve never thought about the origins of ideology so deeply before, as I hadn’t. But the documentary is also a critique of the ways people try to escape ideology, and this is where Žižek’s arguments fly closest to the sun.
Žižek’s critique of ways to escape ideology is based on his concept of “liberating masochism”—the idea that in order to undermine the ideology that gives a master his power over you, you must force the master to act like a master and acknowledge his own power, undercutting the egalitarian pretenses of the modern boss. You do this, according to Žižek, by hurting yourself, like Ed Norton in Fight Club. In the question-and-answer session, Žižek said that “the good master kicks you out of your self-satisfied inertia”, and you can’t break out of that inertia by yourself. Žižek cited Mao Zedong as an example of a good master for his actions during student revolts at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Mao told the students that they had a right to rebel before mercilessly crushing them.
Some (most) would find this ideal confusing and paradoxical. But paradox, along with hyperbole, are Žižek’s preferred rhetorical devices. Like a true rhetorician, Žižek rivets his audiences and gives them the gift of fresh intellectual engagement. The very impenetrability of Žižek’s delivery is as essential to that purpose as whatever the message actually is. When Žižek claims in the film that Christianity is actually an “atheist religion” while standing in the set of the nunnery from The Sound of Music, he is clearly eschewing the role of a serious philosopher, or even one of his chief influences, star psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Instead, he’s taken the role of an intellectual jester, using humor and provocation to inspire serious thought. Whether that thought is profound or merely superficial is another question. While scholars continue to debate that, we can agree that Žižek is one of the clearer and more effective examples of Marshall McLuhan’s expression, “the medium is the message.”
And so we should not be quick to write off Žižek as a charlatan or a hack. As Žižek himself said in an interview with Charlie Rose during the Occupy movement, philosophers are important because they “allow us to ask the right questions.” Žižek does this well; he irritates as successfully and indiscriminately as Socrates. Furthermore, his dubious reputation and hyperbolic delivery compel us not only to ask those important questions, but to frame the questions ourselves—an operative distinction for our generation, which is not keen on accepting grand pronouncements. Žižek has found a way to communicate serious ideas to a generation accustomed to irony, and this is central to his influence. In offering us his twisted, often absurd analysis of modern culture, Žižek encourages us to think a little harder and a little differently, and to gain a healthy touch of revolutionary zeal and psychoanalytic fatalism. To call Žižek genuinely dangerous is to underestimate his audience.