Superstar of cultural theory

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek's analysis of political and popular culture goes a long way in helping unravel social phenomena of our times.

Updated - October 18, 2016 12:49 pm IST

Published - January 14, 2012 07:08 pm IST

Slavoj Zizek: Combinig political praxis and academic activism. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Slavoj Zizek: Combinig political praxis and academic activism. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

At the current historical moment, we see global changes transforming the very foundations of the world order through changes in conventional forms of sovereign statehood, political community and international governance as are visible in the radical movements of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Contestation is basic in this highly complex world of interstate systems and the ongoing brawl between localism and the governance schema generated by the forces of globalisation. The free market dramatics, global transformist thought in areas of social justice, universal human rights, rule of law, global anti-war movements and transnational goodwill remains an aspiration of survival and a motivating force behind all liberatory movements.

One important location for the origin of such movements is the academy where social and cultural theory can advocate strategies for change. Unfortunately, the academic has fallen prey to the narrowness of his specialisation, lacking the long range of historical perspective so important to the understanding of social and political affairs. The university thus must develop in the field of liberal arts, in international affairs and social sciences a culture that acts as an imaginary public senate adjudicating on the deeper ethical and social concerns of the people. The loudest voice in such a senate at the moment is that of Slavoj Zizek.

Cult figure

Zizek's career and his large oeuvre of writings (13 books in 11 years) clearly show how political praxis combined with academic activism has defined his stand on the unquestioned foundations of knowledge and philosophy. The pressing issues of race, class and equality take him towards exploring the ‘ ideological fantasies of wholeness and exclusion that make up human society'. Between visiting fellowships and directorship of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck College, London, this Slovenian philosopher researches at the Institute for Social Sciences, Ljubljana, Slovenia. His gift for mixing his serious analysis with the comic, as well as a pedagogic clarity that runs through his works, have made him a cult figure around the world, especially in western universities which have witnessed stampedes at his lectures, especially the one at Harvard a few years ago.

Zizek took active part in forming the ruling Liberal Democratic Party but narrowly lost the election for presidency of Slovenia. His desire to reconceptualise cultural theory as an imaginative substitute to the empty theoretical position of the New Left gives a galvanising call to political leaders to engage the minds of academics in discussing political and social issues. It is for this reason that he has always been involved in politics. Nevertheless, he divides his time between attending party conferences and meetings as well as his academic pursuits.

Realpolitik and Lacanian thought remain his two prime occupations. Zizek has brought Lacanian thought to bear upon politics in Slovenia, a move that has worried authoritarian communists who believe in the rule of surveillance over people and their minds. Lacan's notion of the unknowable or the impossible that emphasise the ‘empty space of power' that lies in the unknowable unconscious remains a theoretical obsession of the Lacanian study circle that stands behind Slovenian politics.

A cultural struggle, Zizek has always believed, is needed at every level to fix the problem of tragedy and farce that face a world ridden by exploitation and exclusion. Economic life is pervaded by culture and is dependent on moral bonds of social trust. Only societies with a high degree of social trust can create the kind of flexible, large-scale business organisations needed for successful competition in the emerging global economy and international order. But where does this ‘trust' come from especially in a society where you have a new global class with ‘an Indian passport, a castle in Scotland, a pied-a-terre in Manhattan and a private Caribbean island?' These global citizens live a private life of seclusion, ‘whether trekking in Patagonia or swimming in the translucent waters of their private islands.' The farce lies in the very idea of ‘ fear' that haunts the superrich who endeavour to keep themselves away from disease, violence and crime. Zizek gives the interesting example of a village near Shanghai which has been skillfully transformed into an English village so that it even has a Sainsbury store. In such an abode there is the absence of the other less ‘fortunate' classes. This is the ‘the two extremes of a new class division.'

Harking back to Lacanian thought and its post-Freudian underpinnings, he connects the central ideas of structuralist views on language to the paradoxical nature of our conscience and identity. As language is inadequate in explaining reality, so is our mind which sees the real in terms of fantasies or symbols that merely approximate the ‘real'. Thus the Lacanian notion of ‘impossibility' becomes central to Zizek's philosophy of the failure of our symbolic gestures to really ‘say it all'.

Like the cultural anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, Zizek is inclined towards explication while taking surface meaning as deeply ‘ enigmatical'. The protean ‘real' for him is not imaginary, but grounded in the reality of social and psychological mechanism. Because it is not possible to know your real feelings you express them through symbols and experience a sense of joy at imagining that these are mere fantasizes. But paradoxically, humans feel a sense of satisfaction that there is some control or check on their volcanic feelings: ‘The prohibition of desire in order to be operative must be eroticized. The regulation of desire leads to the desire for regulation itself,' argues Zizek. This idea is taken up incisively in his book For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor . which further explores the interconnections within the triad Real-Imaginary-Symbolic.

What is imperative in such an approach through Lacanian theories of the unconscious is the need to ask relevant and interventionary questions that break down the narrow fiefdoms of institutions of knowledge production so as to enter a public conversation that helps to forge a more dynamic civil society. Underpinned by psychoanalysis, Hegelian philosophy and Marxist economic criticism, the works of Zizek, especially In Defense of Lost Causes and The Ticklish Subject , focus on popular culture and identity politics that go a long way to unravel social phenomena, including the current ongoing financial crisis of global capitalism.

Thus we see that in recent years Slavoj Zizek has stood tall behind the emergence of a radical critical project in the study of politics and cultures. This is the focus of his monumental book The Sublime Nature of Ideology that analyses the psychoanalytical theory of ideology as well as incisively and humorously deconstructs contemporary cultural formations from the film “Titanic” to Hitchcock's movies, from Wagner's operas to science fiction.

Evidence of importance

For instance he gives an original insightful interpretation of the “Titanic”: ‘How is the catastrophe connected to the couple, the rich upper-class girl and the poor lower-class boy? At what exact moment does the iceberg hit the ship? After making love, they go up on the deck and embrace and then she tell him: ‘I will stay with you and abandon my people.' At that moment the iceberg hits the ship. What's the point? I claim the true catastrophe would have been for them to really stay together because it wouldn't work and they would split. To save that impossible dream the ship must sink. The impossibility, in Lacanian terms, is the impossibility of the sexual relationship. It is to conceal that impossibility that you must have this big tragedy.'

The Journal of Zizek Studies itself is evidence of the rising importance of a thinker who has initiated an increasingly transnational sphere of public and academic discourse along with an increasing emphasis on the role of social theorists to make sense of politics and the discourse of theory. Though in practice journals are devoted to thinkers who are dead, this journal has Zizek on the editorial board and ‘since he is very alive he is able to kick back, interrupt encapsulations, celebrations, as well as criticisms.' For him it is crucial to bring in conditions of academic inquiry that take us closer to social and political reality. We thus have to be geared towards evolving a system that has behind it the mobilization of individuals and of the public at large to question and transform the reality of a very crass capitalist society that we are responsible for accepting and being complicit in as well as allowing the unfettered appetite of a new western imperialism that craves for military and economic dominance.

His impact on the students and teachers in the areas of cultural studies and political theory has been so enormous that Terry Eagleton considers him to be “the most important cultural and psychoanalytic theorist now writing”. Post Foucault, he remains the chief heir to a theoretical legacy of Nietzsche and Hegel. His analysis of political and popular culture brings out the acute intelligence of a philosopher who sees within diverse fields ‘patterns of thinking' that ‘span high politics and low culture.' He is of the firm opinion that if we were to be aware of large scale prohibitions in society and realise the paradoxical nature of regulations and pleasure, it would open up spaces of freedom making the public less vulnerable to ideology or the global cultural industry.

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