In certain areas of northern Vietnam the phone signal leaves something to be desired, namely, its presence. Of course, this seemed immaterial when I heard that Slavoj Žižek was available to interview on the day of my departure. And so it was that I was at Hanoi International Airport, taxiing down the runway, writing frantic notes on loose sheets of paper as Slavoj Žižek shouted at me down the phone about Donald Trump. “The signal is very bad”, Slavoj observed, as an airhostess tapped aggressively on the no-mobile sign in front of my face; “Yes, it is”, I agreed in a suitably breezy manner. Slavoj, it is worth pointing out, once gave an entire interview while sat on the toilet, a strategy I myself briefly considered as the plane gained speed, before agreeing with him that it was probably best to resume speaking the next day.
It seems that you can’t believe, or even coherently imagine, everything you hear about Slavoj Žižek. He is the Elvis of cultural studies, some say; according to others, he is the Borat of philosophy; at any rate, he is the “most dangerous philosopher in the west.” A forbidding combination, then. Such comparisons fail because they are hardly large enough to contain Žižek’s own trade in the self-parodic and bizarre. He is a writer, critic, and quite arguably the most influential philosopher living today, certainly the most famous — a Lacanian in his psychoanalysis and a Hegelian in his Marxism. He delights in collapsing the divide between high and low culture, and revealing what is ideological in the every day. He can appear a contrarian and controversialist, but in the ends seeks more than just these titles. His critiques bring with them an ambition and theoretical sweep that is quite overwhelming—a circus of disparate concepts and unanticipated allusions, all delivered at a speed designed to kill, like oncoming traffic hurtling towards us, the sleepwalkers of late-capitalism.
There is something vertiginous in the vision Žižek presents of contemporary life. His impression is that we are approaching a precipice of sorts, a kind of “apocalyptic zero-point”. As the title of one of his recent books puts it: we are “living in the end times”. However, at a moment when many may be willing to share in this pessimism, Žižek prefers to occupy a position of qualified dissatisfaction.
He finds Jeremy Corbyn uninspiring, seeing the internecine politics of the PLP as yet another sign of “the deadlock of the left”. We cannot retreat into the shadow of the monolithic welfare state off the 50s. What about the Brexiteers, were they self-serving or just misguided? Žižek sees it in starker terms: the substance of the entire debate is evidence of a pervasive “false consciousness”.
What about Trump? He is merely sound and fury representing nothing. To Žižek Trump is a “centrist liberal” disguised as a radical. He is more appalled by the Republican grandees dislodged and disempowered in the volcanic rise of the Donald. “Ted Cruz!” He exclaims, “I wonder if he is a human being!” Of course Trump is “disgusting”, a “provoking clown”, but fundamentally his recourse to “public vulgarity” is just “a mask of the fact that there is nothing special about him.”
Žižek is in his element now: “It’s theatre! you know, a wall with Mexico, bullshit, up and down, and so on.” What explains, then, the appetite for such a meretricious show? “All the spectacle is here for us not to notice that there is nothing new, that it is just the same old politics…Look at his complete economic proposals, like what to do with healthcare … He is oscillating, inconsistent, but basically playing well within the field.
“I don’t even think, apart from aesthetic points like a little bit more anti-immigrant [talk] and so on, that there is economically a considerable difference between Hillary and him.” I press him on this: surely there is a difference: one of image. Trump’s ambition to remake the American statesman in the mould of a reality TV-star makes him qualitatively different to candidates of the past. “It does!” Žižek exclaims, and “of course it matters. Form always matters for a philosopher. Of course it’s horrible, this vulgarisation of public discourse, but I think again that this masks the fact that he is the candidate of continuity, contrary to appearances.”
Žižek occupies a strangely insecure cultural position. He is embraced by a system that he finds to be depraved and confused. Does he worry about his own popularity within a world ravaged by a perpetual decline? “I was afraid of it”, he agrees. “But bearing in mind what is happening now lately, I have stopped worrying”, he laughs. “I am no longer the popular guy.” He tells of provoking a “tremendous reaction” and being practically “lynched” by student activists at recent public appearances. He recalls facing accusations of “class essentialism” following attempts to broaden public debates on race and gender inequality, and tells one particularly unrepeatable story involving a puerile joke, shared on stage with a sign-language assistant at one of his lectures in London that triggered formal complaints.
He finds the practice of no-platforming “horrible”— scratch a Marxist and you find an old liberal, one might think. To oppose expression in this way is a form of “pseudo-engagement”. Trigger warnings too are really a method of avoiding the real meat of debate. We live in a violent world, Žižek exclaims: in order to fight violence we have to describe it. How can the ideology of pseudo-engagement be defended against? Žižek admits that the solution is to “fight slowly”, after all, “I’m not an optimist”, nor am I “one of the old-fashioned Marxists who believes in automatic progress.”
I wonder what he thinks of the emergence of the Rhodes Must Fall movement in Oxford last year: is this the shape that political emancipation will take? “In principle I am for it”, he starts; but where does the process end? “At the end of the road are attempts, which were seriously proposed, to digitally delete smoking scenes from old Hollywood classics.” His own Marxism is another example: “I could tell you dirty racist outbursts from Marx as many as you want!” he declares proudly. Should these be filleted from his life’s work? Should this alter our opinion of him? “We should just be aware of what doors we are opening here. The problem is the same as with the church. It pisses me off when I hear how the catholic church presents itself, especially in post-communist countries, as the defender of democracy and human rights.
“Imagine our civilisation without all the writers who were at some point on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum”, Žižek suggests. “All modern culture, everyone: Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Sartre … practically everyone disappears. And it’s the same danger if you bring political correctness to its end and claim that all who make racist remarks should be censored. What remains? My god.” In the case of Marx, the irony for Žižek is particularly acute. “Yes, he was a dirty man making bad-taste jokes, but are we aware that the very conceptual apparatus that allows us today to criticize racism, sexism, and so on, comes from these guys?”
If the future of human solidarity doesn’t reside in a form of historical iconoclasm, then where is it to be found? Žižek doesn’t know. He shouts that he would be “willing to sell his mother into slavery” if it meant he could see the scenes following the final moments of the film V for Vendetta, once the people’s power has taken hold. I remind him that he once stood for election in his home country as president of a collective. Could he envisage a return to the front line of poltics? “Never!”, the reply is shouted and repeated. “Politics is a dirty job. In dissident times it was easy to be politically active… but [since] communism collapsed it means you lose time and not for a noble cause.”
Another carrier Žižek has voiced disdain for is that of the professional academic, speaking jokingly of his “hatred” for students. I wonder how he views Oxford, and the considerable influence its graduates still exert on the public life of this country. He sympathises with the view that this is unhealthy, but is more keen to ridicule “a certain kind of right-wing populism, flirting with lower-class origins.” He sees this as closely bound up with the Thatcherite celebration of the self-made man, and concomitant dislike of educational privilege. “I am always suspicious of this complaint about elitism.” He relates a story of the late Historian, Eric Hobsbawm, addressing an audience of factory workers. “He tried rhetorically to sell them this anti-elitist bullshit, you know? In the sense of ‘I’m not here to teach you’, ‘I’m also here to learn from you’, ‘Blah blah’ all that Bullshit, you know”, Slavoj continues, “[A] worker interrupted him, telling him “Don’t’ give us bullshit, you are paid to know more than us! Of course you are here to teach us”. Žižek chuckles mischievously to himself—“an absolutely ingenious correct answer!”
Much of Žižek’s rhetorical prowess comes from driving concepts to their natural extremes: tying ideas in knots and illustrating the comedy and the confusion that results. The comic element is important. Žižek sees humour as deeply dialectical. Hegel made plenty of jokes, “many of them quite vulgar”, “dirty sexual innuendos.” “There is no dialectic without humour. All these dialectic reversals, this is the practice of jokes.” He acknowledges that his fondness for the lewd and absurd are a ploy of a kind. Like a preacher, who entices a crowd with his showmanship so that they may receive the real message thereafter. Yet more significant still, “in good jokes what appears as a natural counter argument becomes the very argument proper, there is something genuinely dialectical about it.”
He relates a story told by Isaac Asimov in which God turned apes into the first men on earth by telling them a joke: “I think it’s the correct theory!” Žižek laughs. It is this very serious belief in the power of the comic that compels Žižek to disagree with those critics of his who accuse him of dumbing down, playing to the crowd. In his experience comedy allows access to an aspect of human experience that mere sobriety prohibits. “When things are really desperate you cannot play this pathetic [seriousness]. No, its only through jokes that you can cope with it.”
Curiously, Žižek holds that the vulgarity of the ‘no-nonsense’ approach championed by figures such as Trump and Farage is closely twinned with the fervent anti-liberalism of some factions on the left. Both are possessed of a certain humourlessness: “That is what they share—politically correct people and stupid conservatives. Irony is missing.” For Žižek, though, such an attack on humour is no laughing matter. He cites recent oppressive measures in North Korea. “Now the big enemy is irony there… People mockingly repeat the official formula. Like for example, when something is wrong, the bus is late, they say ‘Oh, American imperialism is to blame for everything.’ Then some guys says if you make fun of the government you are arrested. It is prohibited. [Now] if you repeat the government slogans you can be accused of irony. So what remains? The answer was ‘Just shut up’. The irony of course is that at some point if you just shut up and say nothing it can also be read as a resistance.” (Žižek draws breath.) “No way out!”
It is this inescapably oppressive logic that turns Žižek away from contemporary ‘pseudo-struggles’. “Fundamentalism and permissive liberalism”, he says, are just “two sides of the same coin for me…We should reject this choice.”
Slavoj Žižek will be in conversation with Nigel Warburton at Blackwell’s on Wednesday 2nd November at 6.30pm. Tickets cost £5 and are available here.