The large lecture hall of the French Institute in Barcelona is full to overflowing. People line the walls, sit in the aisles and stand three-deep at the back. There are a few middle-aged, smartly dressed people in attendance as well as a handful of old leftists with long hair and caps, but the majority of the audience are young and stylishly dishevelled, the kind of people one would expect to see at a Hot Chip or Vampire Weekend gig.
They have gathered here to listen to a 61-year-old Slovenian philosopher called Slavoj Žižek, whose critique of global capitalism now stretches to more than 50 books translated into more than 20 languages. Žižek describes himself as “a complicated communist” and, as if to complicate things further, he deploys the psychoanalytical theories of the late French thinker Jacques Lacan to illustrate the ways in which capitalist ideology works on the collective imagination. “I don’t give clear answers to even the simplest, most direct questions,” Žižek says. “I like to complicate issues. I hate simple narratives. I suspect them. This is my automatic reaction.”
Žižek’s book titles reflect his playful and often self-contradictory theoretical thrust. They include: [amazon asin=1844673014&text=The Ticklish Subject], which deals with “the spectre of the Cartesian subject in western thought”; [amazon asin=1844673030&text=The Plague of Fantasies], which analyses the ways in which “audiovisual media clouds the ability to reason and understand the world”; and the wonderfully titled [amazon asin=1844677133&text=Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?], a fierce critique of “the liberal-democratic consensus”.
He seems drawn to taking unfashionable stances that make him unpopular with traditionalists of whatever political hue. A recent book, [amazon asin=1844674290&text=In Defence of Lost Causes], argued that, in philosophical-political terms, Heidegger’s fascist sympathies and Foucault’s support of the Iranian revolution were “right steps in the wrong direction”. Rebecca Mead, writing in the New Yorker, dubbed him “the Marx Brother” and described his approach thus: “His favoured form of argument is paradox, and his favoured mode of delivery is a kind of vaudevillian overstatement, buttressed by the appearance of utter conviction.” That just about nails it – except that it overlooks the seriousness of Žižek’s thinking and the way he has managed to bring dialectics into the mainstream.
“Slavoj is unique in that he operates between two different and, for the most part, exclusive, places,” says the film-maker Sophie Fiennes, who directed him in [amazon asin=B00G6K0TJA&text=The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema], a documentary that is as provocative as its title suggests, but in a strictly intellectual way. “He has been incredibly successful in taking theory out of the ivory tower of academia and into the world. He challenges the current fear of words like ‘ideology’ and, correctly in my view, sees this fear as a product of our information culture. It is also, he argues, a fear of what real, deep political thinking might generate in terms of unrest and discontent.”
[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on June 27th 2010.]