Slavoj Zizek and the role of the philosopher

Zizek “disrupts” ideological structures, the underside of acceptable philosophical, religious and political discourses.

Zizek (left) is "what Jacques Derrida was to the 80s" - the thinker of our age [Getty]

There are many important and active philosophers today: Judith Butler in the United States, Simon Critchley in England, Victoria Camps in Spain, Jean-Luc Nancy in France, Chantal Mouffe in Belgium, Gianni Vattimo in Italy, Peter Sloterdijk in Germany and in Slovenia, Slavoj Zizek, not to mention others working in Brazil, Australia and China.

None is better than the others. All are simply different, pursue different philosophical traditions, write in different styles and, most of all, propose different interpretations. 

While all these philosophers have become points of references within the philosophical community, few have managed to overcome its boundaries and become public intellectuals intensely engaged in our cultural and political life as did Hannah Arendt (with the Eichmann trial), Jean-Paul Sartre (in the protests of May 1968) and Michel Foucault (with the Iranian revolution). 

These philosophers became public intellectuals not simply because of their original philosophical projects or the exceptional political events of their epochs, but rather because their thoughts were drawn by these events. But how can an intellectual respond to the events of his epoch in order to contribute in a productive manner? 

In order to respond, as Edward Said once said, the intellectual has to be “an outsider, living in self-imposed exile, and on the margins of society”, that is, free from academic, religious and political establishments; otherwise, he or she will simply submit to the inevitability of events.

He exposes himself to criticism

If Slavoj Zizek perfectly fits Said’s description, it is not because he is unemployed, in exile, and at the margins of society, but rather because he writes as if he were. His theoretical books, political positions and public appearances are a disruption not only of the common academic style, but also of the idea of the philosopher or intellectual as someone to be idealised and deferred to. 

 Talk to Al Jazeera – Slavoj Zizek

A perfect example of this is presented in a scene from a documentary where the Slovenian philosopher brilliantly explains (while half-naked in his bed) that philosophy “is a very modest discipline, it asks different questions from science, for example, how does the philosopher approach the problem of freedom? The problem is not whether we are free or not; it asks simpler questions which we call hermeneutic questions, hence, what it means to be free… philosophy does not ask whether there is truth, no, the question is what do you mean when you say this is true”. 

The surprise from seeing a thinker offer such a clear definition of philosophy does not come from the casual setting; rather, we have become too accustomed to elegant intellectuals hiding behind complicated definitions of philosophy in their university offices. Zizek instead prefers to be honest and expose himself to criticism in order to state clearly and dogmatically his philosophical and political positions. 

His ability to fuse together Martin Heidegger’s “fundamental ontology”, Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” in order to undermine our liberal and tolerant democratic structures is a practice few intellectuals are capable of. 

While many believe that globalisation made the Slovenian philosopher more popular than John Dewey, Herbert Marcuse, or Jurgen Habermas, it was actually his ability to disrupt our neoliberal democratic surety through the same events that characterise it. 

Zizek’s disruptions begin as soon as we watch him deliver a lecture (which always draws large crowds) where he decomposes our sense of reality (using material as diverse as Hegel’s dialectical materialism, Lacan’s psychoanalysis and David Lynch’s films) in order to reactualise the dialectical method in philosophy.

For example, against the realist, who conceives truth as a permanent content that serves as an infallible corrective for all our thoughts and actions, the Slovenian philosopher indicates how this access to reality is only possible through what remains unthought, that is, symbolisation, the parallax gap, or the struggle for truth. The status of reality “is purely parallactic and, as such, non-substantial: It is just a gap between two points of perspective, perceptible only in the shift from the one to the other”. 

The aim of Zizek’s philosophy (similar to hermeneutics) is to show that not only our understanding is dialectical but reality is as well: Every “field of ‘reality’ (every ‘world’) is always already enframed, seen through an invisible frame”. This dialectical stance allows the Slovenian thinker to call for changes through ideological reversals; that is, he shows that in order to overcome capitalism it is first necessary to abandon “all forms of resistance which help the system reproduce itself by ensuring our participation in it”. 

This is why events like the Arab Spring, the OWS protests and the protests in Greece should not be read as “part of the continuum of past and present” but rather as “fragments of a utopian future that lies dormant in the present as its hidden potential”. This future, according to Zizek, will be communist. 

The thinker of our age

Although Zizek has become a distinguished academic professor (in several European and American universities), the author of more than 70 books (such as The Sublime Object of Ideology, The Parallax View, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously), the editor of successful series (Insurrections, Sic, Short Circuits), a sharp cultural critic (in media articles and documentaries such as The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology) and a courageous political activist (in addition to having run for president in Slovenia’s first democratic election in 1990 and also a supporter of Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks organisation and the Palestinian cause), he is constantly criticised either for “endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision” or for releasing more books “than he can read“. 

“His ability to fuse together Heidegger’s ‘fundamental ontology’… to undermine our
liberal and tolerant democratic structures is a practice few intellectuals are capable of.”

Predictably, most of these criticisms are directed not against his theoretical project but his political views, that is, communism. After all, 1989 was not only the year the Soviet Union dissolved, but also when the Slovenian philosopher’s first book in English appeared; in other words, in the year communism ended, Zizek (and many other philosophers) began to endorse it. 

He still has not received an international prize, but not because he is not a serious or original philosopher, but rather because such prizes are given to the intellectuals who follow the predominant ideology, not those who disrupt it. 

Today, whether we like him or not, Zizek is, as the Observer points out, “what Jacques Derrida was to the 80s”, that is, the thinker of our age. While Derrida’s intellectual operation focused on “deconstructing” our linguistic frames of reference, Zizek instead “disrupts” our ideological structures, the underside of acceptable philosophical, religious and political discourses. 

Although it’s impossible to cover all the Slovenian philosophers’ meditations, which span from Schelling’s idealism through Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis and John Milbank’s theology, it is worth venturing into the political disruptions he has created (which I will comment upon in a later post) in order to further understand how he has changed the role of the philosopher, a role, as he writes in his two latest books (Less Than Nothing and Mapping Ideology) that must “articulate the space for a revolt” independently because when a revolutionary movement is denounced as ideological, “one can be sure that its inversion is no less ideological”. 

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, co-authored with G Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.