Reviews

Zizek! (2005)

Marc Acherman

Following both one of the most entertaining and intellectually stimulating philosophers in recent memory, Zizek! serves as a suitable introduction to an eccentric and erudite cultural theorist that defies easy categorization.


Zizek!

Director: Astra Taylor
Cast: Slavoj Zizek
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2006-07-25

“He’s coming.”

“Who’s coming?”

“Zizek.”

“Oh no, not him…”

The hallways of the English department are buzzing. Graduate students excitedly confer with colleagues in their offices. Whispers proliferate as the information is spreading: Zizek will soon speak in Vancouver.

And who exactly is Zizek then?

An academic rock star; a one man philosophical army; he is simply ZIZEK, or, as the documentary of his speaking tour claims, “The Elvis of Cultural Theory”. Perhaps the punctuation in the title, Zizek!, might seem hyperbolic to the uninitiated, but its namesake spends the entire documentary earning that exclamation point.

Zizek begins the film unassumingly enough: he simply declares that love, in the way it values one life over another, is the ultimate evil.

It is for this type of shocking but subtly persuasive argument that Zizek has become famous within academic circles. Yet, his niche popularity has as much to do with his persona as his ideas. For those who have had the pleasure to see Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek speak, the man is an abomination, or as he aptly states in the documentary, recently put out on DVD by Zeitgeist, he is a ‘monster'; hairy, unkempt, his shirt drenched in perspiration. He works himself into the sweat as he makes his brilliant observations about everything from popular culture to the war on terror, and, in the process, he seems almost unable to control his own intellectual momentum, saliva flying from his rapidly moving lips. His fans, or the ‘idiots’, as he calls them through his heavy French accent, cannot resist him.

A self-fashioned disciple of French psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan, Zizek has stirred both imagination and indignation with provocatively titled books such as The Plague of Fantasies, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, and Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. Whether he compares North American culture to ‘virtual reality’, or ideology to how societies dispose of their excrement, Zizek displays an intellectual dexterity that allows him to go from James Bond to Stalinist politics and finally to Hegel within a single sentence. His adroit use of pop culture references has earned him a young academic following, yet his dynamic but notoriously opaque prose challenges them to untangle his complex web of historical, cultural, and philosophical examples.

What unites these seemingly disparate threads is the conviction of his writing, its unique and energetic application of Lacanian theory (with a little Freud and Marx thrown in) to our contemporary world. The no frills documentary, directed by Astra Taylor, attempts to capture this energy; it points the camera at Zizek and steps out of the way, resisting any claim to linear progression, and interjecting only to punctuate scenes with relevant samples of his prose. The strategy allows Zizek’s magnetic presence to carry the film through its intellectual vignettes as the philosopher travels from city to city, delivering speeches to packed university lecture halls. Although he has been twice previously featured on film, those two documentaries simply captured his delivery of individual lectures. Zizek!, for the first time, attempts to show more of the man himself during, but also between, such events.

His lecture style proves irresistibly dynamic as he defends the waning popularity of psychoanalytic criticism, and attacks the deconstruction amongst the culprits who have placed him at the periphery of the academy. Some of his most light-hearted moments, as well as snarling invectives, come at the expense of such detractors. In one scene, he verbally flagellates an audience member who characterizes Lacan’s philosophy as antiquated. In another, picking up a bottle of iced tea, he mocks the inability of critics like Judith Butler, with whom he has a playfully adversarial relationship, to make a direct statement (‘this is a bottle of iced tea’) without appending a myriad of convoluted qualifications, qualifications he states are givens in philosophy and need not be explained in every sentence.

Many have interpreted his unwillingness to get bogged down in such details as intellectual laziness, but it actually contributes to his ability to actively think out-loud, say what he needs to say (however he needs to say it), and move on. It is of little wonder he publishes books with such frequency.

However, while reading Zizek is a difficult but rewarding pleasure, listening to him speak, let alone understanding what he says, can be a true challenge. Zizek often moves on to a new subject before you have processed the previous one, leaving you exhausted just as he gets his second intellectual wind. The subtitles included on the DVD offer a welcome relief to the anxiety involved in following his ever-protean subject, and the ‘pause’ button will become your greatest ally.

Zizek covers amazing amounts of ground: politics, capitalism, consumerism, ideology/fantasy, and reality, just to name a few platforms from which he leaps. In the process, he often disarms his observations, delivering some of his heaviest philosophical aphorisms while sitting-up shirtless in his hotel-room bed, or meditating upon his son’s toy collection, or talking while amongst one of his favorite recurrent tropes, toilets. Zizek’s wicked humor often shines through the dense philosophy; that's part of his mission to confound categories of intellectual and cultural discourse and thus confirm his own paradoxical ‘monstrousness’. His power to shock represents one of his favorite weapons. Where else will you hear a serious philosopher call vegetarians ‘degenerates’? or hear him explain the not so obvious value of hanging a portrait of Stalin in his apartment?

He chooses not to resolve the contradictions of his persona, and it is precisely what academics have perceived as a lack of intellectual rigor for which Zizek has incurred his sharpest criticism. Zizek!, however, shows him as nothing if not rigorous -- even if not overly concerned with making obvious revolutionary statements or playing political games. His attempted resistance to ideological constructions precludes him from providing a progressive model for social change; the conclusion of his Vancouver lecture simply advised both the political right and the left to be deeply suspicious of not only neo-conservatism but the deflection of attention from pressing political issues by leftist calls for tolerance. He advised them to do nothing except ‘learn, learn, learn’ rather than simply ‘do’.

Considering Zizek’s reluctance towards his own popularity, both his jet-setting lifestyle and central role in a documentary seem curiously contradictory to his sense of the philosopher’s need to resist the polite public persona. According to this film’s star, philosophy should be an anonymous job, engaged with ideas, not the ideological reduction of his discipline to the emptiness of the public image. He appears genuinely perturbed when watching an old broadcast of Lacan, in which he tries to explain his intricate theories to the French people, as if he was any run-of-the-mill television personality. To Zizek, Lacan is bluffing.

Is, then Zizek himself bluffing, too?

As Zizek states, "Making me popular is a resistance against taking me seriously." Yet, to be ‘taken seriously’ would mean acquiescence to the demands of his critics that he provide concrete answers when he prefers to raise provocative questions and encourage his audience to step back and consider the less obvious implications of their actions.

Perhaps, then, the refusal to offer easy answers results from the resistance to his popular persona, his attempt to avoid reduction of his work to a reified public image so that he may be taken more seriously. Zizek! reveals the self-awareness of its star who proves more willing to feed the humorous paradox than resolve it -- beds, toilets, and all. Perhaps then he also recognizes the value of the joke of his persona; the ridiculousness of a popular philosopher caught in the media gaze, but also the freedom that that ridiculousness affords him to discuss his ideas unfettered by the proscriptive expectations of seriousness.

Zizek cannot avoid the fact that his persona, however manipulated, carries this documentary through its brief 71-minute running time. The copious deleted scenes demonstrate how the makers of Zizek! recognize this fact. Wisely pruning down the film to a digestible length, the choice seems to have been made to excise the more difficult philosophy in favor of highlighting Zizek’s zanier, occasionally vulgar, but always insightful, outbursts. The half hour of deleted scenes, along with the extra interviews and television appearances included, restore some fascinating lost moments and help to give a more comprehensive sense of Zizek’s difficult to distill philosophical meandering.

Zizek often speaks in his books of the ‘desubstantialization’ of culture, the loss of the essential content of the thing. Instead of war in its traditional definition, we have the promise of a war of pushing buttons from afar, ‘war without casualties’, or, in other words, ‘war without war’. Similarly, his documentary might seem to gives us ‘Zizek without Zizek’. Yet, Zizek, as both his writing and speaking attests, makes himself difficult to pigeonhole -- always a moving target --and the documentary that emphatically bears his name defies attempts to reduce him to a single perspective.

It is more shocking to be a monstrous mixture.

Zizek! is then his bluff, but not one that favors a single side of the perceived opposition between the serious philosopher and the popular intellectual. It is the means by which he challenges the public persona of an academic rock star, without forfeiting its advantages, but also the means by which he problematizes the rigidly defined stereotype of the serious philosopher, without losing the essence of philosophy. Both the construction of the 'popular philosopher' and of the ‘authentic philosopher’ leaves us with only a distorted sense of the ‘real’ Zizek: he turns himself into the nagging inconsistency that challenges the hegemony of either interpretation. Following both one of the most entertaining and intellectually stimulating philosophers in recent memory, Zizek! serves as a suitable introduction to an eccentric and erudite cultural theorist that defies easy categorization.

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