The Mirror Sage

The subject of a new documentary, Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues for self-mockery as the ultimate form of seriousness

The exclamation point marks a broad joke about cheesy biopix, or perhaps a more specific anxiety about the film's own place in the millennial raft of theoryporn, including the Pierre Bourdieu epic Sociology Is a Combat Sport and not one but two Derrida flicks. Or maybe it's just about subject Slavoj Zizek's tendency to take things to extremes, sometimes at high volume. "I try to go a little bit over the edge," he tells me on the phone from his home in Ljubljana, Slovenia. "I try to be funny blah blah, but then, you know, a little bit too much in being tasteless or telling a joke without a point, that doesn't fit."

And he is funny blah blah: the least you could ask from a revered and reviled intellectual, a "card-carrying Lacanian" who speaks more excitedly about politics than Jacques Lacan's revolutionary psychoanalytic ideas. "I am a mastodon," he says. "I still believe in the big theories popular back in the '70s. This distrust in big universal theory is the most dangerous ideology today. Look at all totalitarians, the really bad guys, Hitler, Stalin. Sorry, but none of them believed in big theory. Hitler was a historicist-relativist and so was Stalin! Often a reference to some absolute truth is necessary to resist totalitarian political power, so you can not lose hope."

Insight, nonsense, provocation? Zizek! director Astra Taylor frames the film as an attempt to bring the passion of ideas themselves into the public sphere. "I'm not a Zizekian, whatever that would be," she says. "I'm 26. Him attacking cynicism and apathy, these things I saw all around me, as ideological—I found his critique compelling, addressing things that seemed very palpable in everyday life. Whether Zizek's ideas are useful or not doesn't matter to me as a filmmaker. It does matter to me as a human being, but I think Zizek truly doesn't care."

Theory itself: Slavoj Zizek
photo: Kate Milford
Theory itself: Slavoj Zizek

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Perhaps. On one hand, Zizek feels bedeviled by his own waxing fame (the film shows him speaking to huge audiences in various countries, always a bit uncomfortably). He looks a little like Castro, though the story climaxes, like so many tales of immigrants and rock stars, with a voyage to America): "Making me popular is a resistance to taking me seriously," he says. And yet, here he is basking in the lens glare, admitting his fear that "if I stopped talking, the whole spectacular appearance would disintegrate."

Zizek, theory itself, approaches and withdraws, a dialectical drama suggestive both of the child's "fort-da" game that entranced Freud and Lacan, and of the endless motion of history. "The politics of multiple identity, each of us telling our story," he says, turning on the gospel of multiculturalism, "is precisely how global capitalism functions at the level of ideology. I totally disagree with everyone who says that global capitalism is culturally uniforming. No! Global capitalism is strictly, infinitely multicultural. It's niche markets." In the film, noting public fascination with apocalyptic scenarios, he suggests bluntly that "today it's much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest change in capitalism."

The movie is an attempt to disseminate serious social philosophy, haunted by the threat one might be selling it out. Jokes mask ambitious investigations; serious gestures withdraw into self-negation; the specter of historical violence is omnipresent (he refers to his critical confreres as "a cell, the theoretical Al Qaeda"). Zizek, who finished fifth in Slovenia's 1990 election of a four-person presidency, says he was offered various governmental positions: "Minister of education, health, I almost died laughing. There are only two posts I want: minister of interior, or secret police." The certainty that he's both making fun and utterly serious crackles through the international phone line. "The only way to signal you are serious is, at the level of form, to make fun of yourself. This pseudo-Heideggerian jargon, we live in fateful times, the destiny of humanity is threatened blah blah blah—I think you cannot talk like that."

So how can you talk; what is philosophy for? "It's not to provide answers, it's to correct the questions," says Zizek. "Terrorism, freedom, democracy: The duty of philosophy is not to explain what would be true democracy, how to beat terrorism, but to ask, is this truly the question? This is the only thing a philosopher can do. Other questions are for politicians—I mean, what do I know? Fuck it, who am I, what do I know how to fight terrorism? Every secret policeman, I give him moral right to know more than me."

 
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