Zizek!: The Method and the Madness

Up Close and Impersonal: A Portrait of The Manic Intellectual at The End of Time:

Your correspondent, sent with a very modest stipend to report on the premiere of Zizek! the movie, encountered a flash mob at the same day first show ticket sale line, and did contemplate scalping a ticket or two, partly for the novelty of it and partly to defray the cost of getting into the screening.

And quite the flash mob it was; the Roxie staff the day before did not even know who the hell that guy with the Z name was, and there was no advertising; the show sold out. You don’t really know who the hell Z is at the end of the movie either and that is I think something of the point. In fact, I would wager that one of the biggest sources of his appeal as a speaker as much as a writer is his very impersonality, his dis-concern with the trappings of what is supposed to pass for a thinker addressing a public.

It’s not the jokes or even the pop culture references, but what he does with them, how he uses them to try to understand or to short circuit his own and others understandings of the contemporary condition that marks him. His willingness to turn insights into one-liners and to see if they stick is a part of his method. At the talks I’ve attended in San Francisco, his engagement with and concern for the questions and not the personalities is telling of his interest in dialogue. Perhaps I’m partial to him through some familiarity, but I do find his efforts to articulate and test or prove thoughts with little fanfare and in bare form if need be to be exactly the kind of public thinking that I want to engage with. He is willing to think in public and say ridiculous things. But I don’t think he is just trying to be a buffoon. He makes terrible mistakes and he, for example, does not know enough about economics to not say ridiculous things at times, but he is always willing to engage others in dialogue.

As a passionately impersonal thinker, he is concerned more with common experience than pop culture per se. Although the pop culture references are what people most mention and remember about Ziz, his method is to use common experience to question.

Zizek! the movie is mostly just Z talking, about philosophy and about himself from the perspective of philosophy or of analysis or what have you. Why would a crowd of people pack uncomfortably into a theater to stare at a monstrous mug on the screen telling us that he is a monster?

He riffs on his ideas and remixes familiar, signature Ziz tropes, that gain a certain charm with repetition. He is a jolt of meth-spiked coffee in the tedium of the talking head genre. I was not bored; I laughed, I squirmed, I felt as if Zizek were jumping up and down on my chest in a cramped seat, boxed in. And I walked out of a couple of hours of rapid fire Zizek-chiasmus exhilarated.

Classical writers had a name for this, mania, and it is this in its classical sense more than a psychoanalytic sense, that sums up Slavoj Zizek. His is an erotics more than a polemic, and that is where an emphasis only on the pop culture references and the jokes would miss the heart of a genuine encounter with Zizek. Eros is passionate and impersonal, ruthless and earnest. The jokes would be so much less without that earnest searching.

The very disavowal of attention, of the conventional trappings of “thinker” can draw attention. Not unlike Foucault who attempted to disappear in his writings and all the more drew attention, Zizek pulls people in with his oddly, earnestly impersonal manner. It may be a clever move. But it also requires a willingness to prove and test ideas; to attempt to make them understandable to oneself and to others. It is disingenuous of Zizek to say that this aims are modest (as he did during the q&a); to attempt to read so many things and to attempt to make them understandable is not modest.

He fails. So, he repeats himself. He shows the failure. He stages the impossibility of thought. He stages the deadlock. The payback is modest; but, the attempt is ambitious. If there are short-circuits enough for you, the benefit is modest.

Zizek is honestly trying to say something. As even he says, utopia is what he is driven to. And driven he is. Beyond the tics, beyond the constant pulling on his nose, beyond the wild gesticulations, the ideas are of value, the ideas and the impersonal searching eros.

Update: His latest books (at the time) contained confrontations with cognitive science, with the philosophical and political problems confronting the pharmaceutical and genetic science industries and the political subject of the late “empire” of “affiliated nations.” End of time. End of history. But no end to slogans. Zizek is the fool who points at the moon here. Ignore the fool. Try to study the moon.

About Ed Phillips

Rigor in whimsy
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