There are very few self-proclaimed communists that can draw a crowd like Slavoj Žižek. There are even fewer Lacan and Hegel scholars who can do so. What is it about the Slovenian philosopher that draws them in?
In some ways, he’s like Trump. Perhaps it’s fairer to say he’s the negation of Trump. Long rambling, sometimes incomprehensible speeches (although to be fair I’m willing to assume the incomprehension is due to my failings rather than his) in which he leaps from topic to topic, striding between meta-physical philosophical concepts, never seemingly finishing his point but rather allowing you to link up the strands yourself, to take what you want.
While Trump says he could shoot someone in the centre of Fifth Avenue and not lose his support, Žižek can say he’d vote for Trump over Hilary while just off Park Street. He can then follow it up with a joke about Slovenian women and yet Bristol, one of the most liberal cities in the country, will laugh along and applaud him.
While Trump wants us to return to an imagined past when the West was great, Žižek wants to reveal the imagined present. He attempts to rip through the ideological matrix. To reveal the hollow centre within. The imagined Other. The wizard behind the curtain which despite its inexistence guides us nevertheless.
The difference between Žižek and the political class is his belief in a ‘radical uncertainty’ being the font of human creativity. Trump, for all his chaos and bluster, is just a traditional republican who says the quiet part loud. Hilary Clinton, Žižek claims, would likely have bombed North Korea or Iran by now. What Žižek highlights is the need to break from the predictable, empirical approach to politics which replaces choice with statistical certainty. Žižek advocates for us to embrace the unknown. Take the ‘great Leninist risk’ and embrace the emptiness and meaningless at the centre of it all. To say, as we careen towards an environmental apocalypse, anything must be better than this. British politics has been stagnated by technocratic certainties since the early ’90s.
Only certain politicians can win: Those politicians keep losing. Only certain policies can succeed: Those policies aren’t working. No other system can work: This system will kill us. We need radical change: Radical change is forbidden.
Trump gave desperate people certainty in an uncertain world. Žižek gives desperate people uncertainty in a world where the certainties are riddled with contradictions.
One of the more solid examples he draws upon to explain these contradictions is how we experience the extreme freedom of the web. We can search and purchase anything in the world and yet it is the height of unfreedom. A whole structure designed to draw us in and trap our attention, keeping us transfixed and aimlessly scrolling. The irony is that this world that proclaims itself to be false. Yet the Unreal so-called ‘Cyberspace’ is oppressing us. Drawing us away from life, numbing and manipulating us. What Žižek is calling for is, in fact, a retreat to the Real unreal world. By focussing on the Real Unreal rather than the Corporate Unreal of online space we can resist the logics of capitalism that enmesh it. We can resist the false positivity of Likes. The grimaced smiles of American service workers enforced on billions of people around the world. The digital equivalent of the band playing on as the Titanic sinks, the facile, shallow prancing encouraged by algorithms, the show going on while the world burns.
A central tenant of his thought is that quantum physics shows us that we live in an ‘unfinished universe’, one designed similarly to a video game in which the parts we are not supposed to play are left unfinished. He describes this as ‘finding God with his pants down’. His central question, then, is ‘how you understand an unfinished universe without God?’. I don’t have the answer but it certainly takes the pressure off. In an imperfect universe, any political project will reflect that. Even God takes short cuts.
The final question of the evening was from the chair of the event, Julian Baggini, who asked if the best way to read Žižek is to dip in and out and take the gems that you like. Given his sheer level of output, this seems to be the only possible way that most of us could read his work. The actual use of his work is difficult to put your finger on. A major criticism from the left is that he doesn’t engage in proper grassroots activism. So, what is the use of him? The use of such lofty theory, perhaps the reason why many find it attractive (for good or for bad) is that it allows a breath of fresh air within the oppressive Capitalist Realism we live under. A spark that, momentarily, allows us to escape, allows us to experience The Real, or at least something closer to it. He achieves this through sheer force of personality. A bizarre charisma that means that, even if you don’t know what he’s talking about, you are compelled to go along for the ride. Perhaps more than any theoretical or policy framework he may present this is what he has to teach. He teaches those who want to push forward a transformational agenda: You need to create the spark.