They say that the tickets to Slavoj Žižek ‘s lectures sell out almost as quickly as those to the pop stars’ concerts. The lecture at the University of Leeds on 18th of March was free, and the temptation to go and see and listen to one of the leading philosophers of today was too strong to resist. As a result, I know now that I can arrange an ad hoc trip from Manchester to Leeds (with an overnight stay) in less than half a day.
Thankfully, this knowledge wasn’t the only outcome of my trip to Leeds. I saw Prof Žižek on TV previously, but this was a different experience. It’s been a long while since I attended a proper University lecture, the “full house” one where you have to look for a seat (consider that I came directly from work, with a small suitcase) and where the staff, students and members of the public all sit together, occupying every available space – including the steps. In this sense going to Žižek’s lecture was like getting back to the old times when I was a student. But more than that, it was a wonderful intellectual stimulation. Slavoj Žižek’s current “tour of the North” of England (as aptly described by the “tour manager” Dr Paul A. Taylor, ICS, University of Leeds and Editor of the International Journal of Žižek Studies) serves to introduce his new book, Violence. The reviews of it that you may find on the web (The Independent’s Simon Critchley being perhaps the kindest) criticise Žižek, on the one hand, for calling for no action as the response to the “systemic” violence of the socio-economic order (the counterargument is how can someone be inactive in the face of injustice or war, etc.), and, on the other, for never taking the extra step to act himself. So, as he acknowledged from the start of his talk, this lecture is what he would add to his book, if he were to prepare a new edition.
The three-hour “performance” (and I’m not being ironic) included a short demonstration from the film Žižek!, and I’m embedding three short extracts from the lecture itself. The choice is purely personal, in that I chose the topics that I found most interesting. The first extract is about the problem of explicit and implicit ideological injunctions. Žižek starts by alluding to John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) as the story of how ideology works and of what it takes to liberate oneself from its throes. Liberation hurts, concludes Žižek, and there is hidden agenda underneath every ideological appeal. When he illustrates this with the examples from the Fascist past, it’s hard to disagree. Even when he says that the Catholic appeals to be a priest conceal a promise of paedophile pleasures, one can not only agree, but even bring in a supportive example: The Bad Education (2004) by Pedro Almodovar. It gets more contentious when he argues that behind appeals for humanitarian help there is, in fact, an urge to act without thinking, to contribute money rather than to treat the problem itself. As a result, people become indifferent to humanitarian problems. It is tempting to disagree, but again, I recall Andrew Marr’s deploring in his book My Trade the overflow of sentiments in modern journalism, which makes little more but decrease the tabloid sales. At the same time, the audience grows dispassionate, and – I can add – the phone-in scandals hardly help the matter.
Another extract is about appearances and freedom. The modern relationships between the master and subjects, Žižek claims, are much more oppressive. We simply don’t have the freedom of choice, even though it feels like we’ve never been freer than today. Elsewhere in his lecture Žižek underlined the fact that we’re often left without an alternative. We expect to choose between fundamentalism and liberal democracy, for instance, as if there is no other form of social organisation. I suppose this is what could be called the “unknown knowns” – exactly what Donald Rumsfeld has omitted in his (in)famous speech and to what Prof Žižek alluded a few times. The price for ignoring the “unknown knowns” is usually high, as Žižek didn’t fail to demonstrate. The potential aim of the war in Iraq, apart from freeing the world of Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction, was to create a secular state. The result is that the Iraqi state is now much less secular and more fundamentalist than it was under Hussein: the so-called intelligentsia has fled the country, whereas it is with the help of precisely this social group that the secular state can be built.
In the third extract Žižek speaks of the problem of the Big Other. He is preoccupied with the importance of such notion or object (the “chicken”), especially because it relates to the problem of trauma, as recently discussed by Catherine Malabou in her book The Newly Wounded (Les Nouveaux Blessés). What happens when the Big Other is erased? – is the question Žižek attempts to answer here. Trauma is evidently connected to violence, but he also made a point during his talk that Malabou concentrated too much on the “Western” type of trauma, a momentary trauma, whereas in impoverished deprived African states trauma is literally a state of existence.
Perhaps, many a critique of Žižek’s work could be dismissed by his own statement that, as a philosopher, he isn’t there to help us solve problems or to realise the expectations. His job is actually far more complex: he needs to explain to us whether or not our expectations are sustainable. It is possibly because of this that he prefers to retreat to the back bench. Maybe, instead of supplying us with the facts, he wants us to go and do the job ourselves. The question is not whether Žižek is right; the question is whether we are really ready for this. Already in a 2001 interview (following the 9/11 in America) he stated that there is something wrong with one group of people increasingly “moving” to live in the virtual space while another group of people (which he called “cutters”) maintain that they need to cut themselves in order to feel alive. Seven years later some pundits admit that, in spite of its universally binding force, the Internet (and social media, in particular) leaves you feel extremely lonely – perhaps to the point when you do start cutting your own flesh.
I find one particular thesis very engaging. Žižek repeatedly blazes his critique against the modern multiculturalism, which, in his opinion, is just a new form of racism. Sounds odd, doesn’t it, especially when I’m writing this sitting in a city that prides itself on being diverse and multicultural? But I have only to think of some Mancunians’ attitude to homosexuality. They say there’s nothing wrong about being gay. They say it’s great that a person can be different. They accept and respect homosexuality – as long as they don’t have to visit the Gay Village, to mesh in the Gay Parade, to watch queer films, or to have a gay son or a lesbian daughter. Multiculturalism disguises indifference, which very likely conceals the deeply hidden disgust or fear. On the same note, it’s OK to respect the Hindus, Žižek said in 2001, but does this “respect” extend onto the Hindu custom of a wife burning herself following the husband’s death?
“What is it to be a human?” Žižek asks in his Leeds Lecture, answering: it is perhaps not what we can do, but something that is beyond our reach which we nonetheless are trying to grasp. To be human is to be driven, and indeed, “we endlessly care about things we cannot change”. Furthermore, he states, our innermost narrative (what we tell ourselves about ourselves) is a fundamental lie; we need, in fact, to concentrate on what undermines us. In simple terms, instead of looking at what is familiar to ourselves in ourselves, we should face the “unknown knowns”, things that exist within us but of which we are not immediately aware.
So, the thesis I find extremely interesting is that the true solidarity is not a solidarity in understanding – it is a solidarity in struggle, which manifests itself as the political universality, the only true universality (I guess we may need to retreat to George Orwell once again and his pondering on the political purpose of a writer). “Political”, however, is external, whereas what interests me is the application of Žižek’s thesis to the story of one’s self. I agree with those who say that one must first learn to solve their own problems before they attempt to solve the problems of the others. This is not an advocacy or apology for doing nothing but rather the understanding that the common insight (of which Žižek spoke in 2001) is hardly a matter of divine providence. It has to come from somewhere, and very likely the “somewhere” is within us. Learning to accept one’s personal hidden depths instead of alienating, pitying or victimising oneself in one’s own eyes is for me exactly the lesson of solidarity in struggle. It also exemplifies, powerfully and convincingly, that this struggle never ends, instead it takes on new forms and new dimensions.
The final thesis of Prof Žižek’s lecture that I also found interesting touches on the modern forms of proletarisation. In the modern capitalist world we’re deprived, he argues, of our ecological habitat (because the environment is overpolluted), of our genetic “identity” (through experiments with genome), and even of our intellectual property. The true utopia, however, is that capitalism can extend and reinvent itself forever. A clash is inevitable, but Žižek believes it is possible to do something about it.
Žižek! (a film by Astra Taylor)
Details of Prof Žižek’s lecture at the University of Leeds
Žižek on Violence (Video) – the video of the Leeds lecture uploaded by Kishore Budha to Subaltern Studies – An Inter-Disciplinary Study of Media and Communications portal.
I’m grateful to Mark Thwaite from ReadySteadyBook for publicising Žižek’s talk.