Friday, June 01, 2007

Who is Slavoj ZIZEK!?

I noticed, I’m idiot at some level, by idiot I mean psychotic, I take things literallyZIZEK! is a short (70 minute) but intense documentary that serves to answer the question: who is Slavoj Zizek?

Slavoj Zizek began his public life as a Slovenian dissident in the 1980s. He was blacklisted, unable to find work in academia, and finally forced to take a job for the Central Committee. But after the fall of Communism his career blossomed - ironic seeing as he remains a convinced Marxist philosopher. He even stood for the Slovenian presidency and nearly won. However, he is not a politician so much as a political and cultural theorist.

Zizek is not any old Marxist: he is also a Lacanian. Not that he agrees with Lacan's apparently pompous style of delivery - as demonstrated in the documentary with clips from a lecture broadcast on French state TV. But Zizek agrees with the substance of Lacan's theory of psychoanalysis. The difference is that Zizek applies psychoanalytical theory not just to the relationship between private individuals, but to the influence of the anonymous social whole on private individual's conscious and unconscious desires. In practical terms, how do social phenomena - movies, adverts, terrorist attacks - impinge on our individual make-up?

Within certain circles, Zizek has achieved the status of a rock-star philosopher. He gives sell-out lectures in crammed auditoriums. Young students clamber over each other just to touch him or to get his autograph. No doubt part of his appeal lies in his memorable oratorical style: the thick Slovenian accent, the lisp, the intense eyes, the manic hand gestures, the slightly clown-ish aspect to his love of the extreme phrase. It is this TV friendly package, as well as Zizek's willingness to apply his highly developed theories to movies we've seen, that have given him a certain visibility.

In the documentary, Zizek says he hates his notoriety. He fears that by indulging his clown-like nature, his opponents have made a straw man. If the public sees Zizek as a shocking, funny posturer, they won't take him seriously as a philosopher. He argues that he almost needs to commit public suicide - to kill off the persona that has made a documentary like this inevitable - in order to get back to his roots. Then again, his willingness to mock up a suicide for the closing shot of the film, suggests that his love of mischief will always get the better of him.

I think it would be a shame if Zizek lost his ability to shock and amuse. He is one of the few philosophers who is able to speak to a wide audience in clear English and to convey interesting, thought-provoking ideas. If he needs to clown around to get our attention and tell us about the modern relevance of Marx' theory of commodity fetishism, then so be it. I'd rather have the complete Zizek than either dry theory or empty pop cinema. Still, this dilemma - how the artist can retain his integrity while also remaining popular - is interesting. It's the same issue we saw debated, albeit under a different guise, in JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN. So for all those interested in philosophy, psychology or the nature of fame in the modern era, ZIZEK! is essential viewing.

ZIZEK! was released in Germany earlier this year and is currently on release in the UK. It is available on Region 1 DVD.

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