Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian graphomaniac who infuriates some of the world’s most annoying people, and might for this reason alone be cherished. He once enjoyed a high degree of pop-philosophical notoriety, being blamed by pundits who had clearly never read his books for the scourge of pomo relativism that threatened to undermine the ‘moral clarity’ of those who deemed it an excellent wheeze to invade Iraq. Such was his leftish celebrity a decade ago that he shared a stage with Julian Assange and was forced to deny rumours that he was having an affair with Lady Gaga. ‘My friends said, “You’re stupid. You should have said: No comment”.’
Since then his fame has somewhat waned, perhaps because he doesn’t do social media (which is a shame, since he would be a Trumpian master of the form). But that hasn’t prevented him from continuing to emit an obscene (a favourite word of his) quantity of books. The long-term Zizek observer already knows that one doesn’t exactly ‘read’ a new book by him so much as tune in again to the ceaselessly babbling stream of his comic-philosophical free association. And so it is here: the bracing mash-up of his beloved Hegel with Marx, perverse yet enjoyably plausible interpretations of Hollywood movies and disquisitions on contemporary politics and culture wars.
There is also the usual amount of Lacanian theory, which to some might seem like a version of Scientology for continental philosophers, a sort of intellectual Ponzi scheme in which adepts prove their belonging via the repetition of absurdities, though the psychoanalytic framework more generally does issue in pungent diagnoses of modern sacred cows. ‘Does the predominant ecological discourse,’ he asks, ‘not address us as a priori guilty, indebted to Mother Nature, under the constant pressure of the ecological superego?’
In any case, Zizek’s value as a thinker and gadfly lies precisely in his refusal to submit to boring (another favourite word) empiricism and his joy in insulting the left as well as the right. To those who claim to be on the right side of history he counterposes a gloomy poetry: ‘History is not on our side, it tends towards our collective suicide.’ As an old-fashioned Marxian materialist, he pounces on the curious contradictions of modern leftist nostrums:
The basic characteristic of today’s subjectivity is the weird combination of the free subject who experiences himself as ultimately responsible for his fate and the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status of a victim of circumstances beyond his control… The notion of subject as a victim involves the extreme narcissistic perspective: every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance.
Indeed, to the extent that he is a communist, he is one with a notably conservative pessimism about the human animal, its ‘envy’ and its ‘perversions’. Glossing Oedipus at Colonus, he concludes with miserable glee: ‘Our being born is already a kind of failure.’
What does Zizek enjoy? He likes anarchic challenges to the status quo, such as the ‘Wall Street Bets’ online forum of amateur investors that caused a massive bubble and then crash in the share price of the ailing US retailer Gamestop in 2021. He even finds something to enjoy in the ‘carnival’ atmosphere of the storming of the Capitol by Trumpists – because the liberals who were outraged, or so he argues mischievously, were outraged only because the wrong kind of people were doing it. Our philosopher thrills to such events because they ‘subvert the system by over-identifying with it or, rather, by universalising it and thereby bringing out its latent absurdity’.
This, too, is what Zizek aims to do with modern ideological conflicts. From Hegel he takes the ‘basic lesson’ that ‘a critique should always be a critique of critique itself’, proceeding dialectically to a sort of plague-on-both-your-houses synthesis. This is, for example, how he proceeds in an interestingly tortured chapter on modern gender identities. Meanwhile, he sees the resurgent Taliban and the Covid vaccine ‘sceptics’ as twin poles of a dead-end reaction to modernity, which can only be overcome by protecting a space for the public exercise of reason. Fans will wonder in alarm: is Zizek turning into Habermas?
Well, he could never be as dull a writer. He is a great caller of things stupid, which is a skill too little practised in a world dedicated to avoiding offence. But he also has genuine enthusiasms that constantly surprise the reader, such as a brilliant few pages on Shostakovich and, later, on the film Joker. As with many of the high priests of postmodernism (e.g. Derrida), Zizek is at heart really a close reader and a seriously inventive one.