Thursday 21 September 2017

Breakfast With Zizek

zizek

 
By Benjamin Cunningham for B O D Y

Ljubljana is the greatest city you have never been to. It sits at the intersection of two historic trade routes, one running from Munich to Istanbul and the other between Vienna and Rome. Franz Josef would approve of the architecture, Fellini the street-side cafes, and the fast food burek would be at home in Bosnia.

The frosted Dinaric Alps loom high on the horizon, and bartering a late night ride from the airport in an otherwise dormant shuttle bus is possible for a rock bottom €15 (cash only). It’s a genocide free Austro-Balkan fusion paradise with fresh seafood — stately and Hapsburg with an anarchist squatter village called Metelkova occupying the emperor’s old army barracks in the middle of town. But if Slovenes borrow much from cultures of the near abroad — Polish heavy metal in the case of the squatters — they also export a significant cultural commodity of their own, philosophy generally, and the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis specifically.

The influence of the so-called Ljubljana School stretches well beyond its Central European roots and its Franco-German seed long predates the planetary notoriety of its most prominent member, Slavoj Žižek. Somehow metaphysically appropriate, it is neither a school nor an official entity of any type, and its members insist the name is something that the outside world imposed on them. There is no building, but there is a unique blend of German Idealism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marx, the amalgam of which is used to probe everything from film and music to politics, economics, violence and even tickling.

Jokes too play a big role in the Ljubljana School’s popularity, but small as Slovenia and its population of 2 million may be, Žižek is not so easy to find. Like Hegel, the man is hard to get a hold of. On any given day he (Žižek, not Hegel) is as likely to be giving a lecture in Montana as South Korea, exchanging letters with the members of Pussy Riot or Skyping with Julian Assange. London’s Royal Opera House has commissioned four operas inspired by his writings.

An attempt to track down the Slovenian thinker meant a personal detour through a botched e-mail address, a Labor Day holiday in Venice, one missed flight, a Metelkova late night, a flat bicycle tire and just a taste of duty-free Glenlivet. Suddenly it was Sunday evening before an early morning flight, and my hopes for a meeting Žižek were going the way of Yugoslavia. Then, the phone rang.

“Oh, hi, yes, this is Slavoj… Slavoj Žižek.”

The next morning at the Union Cafe, he enters sporting a Lacoste golf shirt and a book by philosopher and “friend” Alain Badiou. Žižek places his cell phone on the table, since he is waiting for a call from “some idiot at DHL” about a delivery. We order coffee and begin talking. The cafe’s business model doesn’t quite work. Žižek was recently married. He just got back from a weekend in Venice. The Slovenian prime minister is to resign that very day. How does he, a Lacanian-Hegelian-Marxist philosopher from little Ljubljana, account for his global success?

“Communist oppression,” he says.

OLD SCHOOL

 

A few days earlier in the same cafe I met fellow Ljubljana School thinker Mladen Dolar, whom Žižek calls his “best friend”.

“Slavoj and me, this friendship has been going on for, shit, 44 years,” Dolar says. Have I contacted Slavoj, he asks, noting that he just spoke with Slavoj and that he has no idea who I am, that I am in town, or what I am doing. “He was surprised. If you want to do this properly you absolutely need to speak with Slavoj,” he says. I agree.

Žižek began studying philosophy at the University of Ljubljana in 1967, and Dolar two years later. They would meet in 1970 near the end of a string of epochal international events. There were the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Che Guevara. The Vietnam War raged on. In Europe, the Warsaw Pact had invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring, the student movement in West Germany was morphing into something a little more Baader-Meinhof, and the aftermath of the May 1968 demonstrations in Paris saw Charles de Gaulle, not street protests, triumph.

Though a pseudo-attempt at political revolution had failed in France, philosophy was being turned upside down by the Structuralists, and then the Post-Structuralists — Althusser, Barthes, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Levi Strauss and, most relevant in Ljubljana School’s case, Lacan. Nearly taken as conventional wisdom today, in very varied ways structuralists all argued that understanding culture requires an examination of the underlying assumptions inherent in the prevailing system — the structure — and the hold this has on the things people think and do.

“We started to read everything out of France with huge enthusiasm,” Dolar says of his student days. “We formed a group in the ‘70s, meeting for dinner once a week. It was hard to make sense of what went on in France at that time. Foucault is a historian, Althusser a Marxist, Lacan a psychoanalyst, Levi Strauss is an anthropologist, what the hell do they have in common?”

The then-Yugoslavia was communist, but in 1948 its leader Josip Broz Tito had broken from Stalin. By the 1960s citizens were allowed to travel abroad, and Western books and films were readily accessible. Not only was Yugoslavia an outlier among communist states, but Slovenia was also an outlier among Yugoslav republics, sharing borders with both Italy and Austria. “When I was a student one could buy anything at the book shop in Ljubljana,” Dolar says. “Heidegger, Wittgenstein, the whole Structuralism thing, anything.”

Life was no walk in the park to be sure, including a notable lack of political opposition and a Titoist cult of personality, but as far as existence in 20th century Eastern Europe goes, things could have been worse. The functioning of purported “self-management socialism” in Yugoslavia was different than anything at work in the rest of the region and the Soviet Union. Private property was not abolished. After World War II, major industry had been nationalized, but so it was in the United Kingdom. Economically speaking, it was a sort of mixed model that author Ian Parker and others describe as a “bureaucratically regulated market system.”

“I don’t buy that bullshit that Yugoslav socialism was something special. It wasn’t,” Žižek tells me later. “Nonetheless, superficially, the degree of freedom was much greater.” Freedom to travel meant that “at the same time we did not have illusions about the West. For us it was not a paradise.”

Internationally, Tito considered himself the leader of the non-aligned movement, a group of countries including India, Egypt, Indonesia, Burma and Ghana, that fancied themselves autonomous from both the Soviet-allied east and the U.S.-led west. In the late 1960s a further thaw occurred, as secret police Chief Aleksandar Ranković was caught bugging Tito’s bedroom and then put out to pasture. Still, studying philosophy at a state university meant that the curriculum kept close to the official line, and Frankfurt School thinkers like Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Fromm were as cutting edge as it got. As the Frankfurters were grounded heavily in Marx and Hegel, this meant that both Dolar and Žižek were also drilled on some of the densest texts in the philosophical cannon.

“Our professors were completely lost,” Dolar says. “They saw this thing in France as terrible, as some passing vogue.” The Hegelian and Structuralist lines of thought were said to be incompatible. “We never accepted this,” Dolar says.

Reforms in 1971 and a new constitution in 1974 decentralized governance in Yugoslavia, granting greater powers to the republics themselves. However, it also saw authorities tighten the screws on free expression. In 1975, Žižek finished his master’s degree and was denied a lecturing job by state authorities. “We somehow intellectually survived in this period by getting this group and starting this journal which we still have today,” Dolar says, referencing Problemi. “We could publish.”

The period saw Dolar and Žižek more distant from politics and diving deep into theory, using French Structuralism to read into German Idealism — and vice versa. Reconciling the two was more than slightly complicated and took years. “By the end of the ‘70s we thought the Lacanian narrative was the one that goes the furthest,” Dolar says “It was the one, for a number of reasons, that can be read as the most radical.”

Jacques Lacan gave annual seminars in Paris for nearly 30 years before his death in 1980. He is noted for, among other things, returning to the original texts of Sigmund Freud, as well as reinterpreting many of the key concepts. “What is distinctive about Lacan is the way he relativized Freud’s concepts,” says Japhy Wilson, a professor at the University of Manchester who harnesses Ljubljana School thinking in his own work. “All Freud’s concepts become applicable beyond individuals. It gives you a much richer understanding of ideology.”

In 1980 Tito died, and soon enough Dolar and Žižek were traveling abroad even more. “I had very good fortune to get a stipend from the French government, Slavoj as well,” Dolar says. “He started to go to Paris and even published a book in France with some obscure publisher. It did not have any immediate effect, but it was not for lack of trying.”

The travel coincided with a new period in Yugoslavia, as state authority eased and the regime lost its grip. This meant more scholars from abroad began stopping in for visits to Ljubljana, leading to a further cross-pollination of ideas. Dolar took on a promising young student named Alenka Zupančič, now a key member of the Ljubljana School.

Communism was teetering in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. “This is historically rare that you have a crack between two regimes,” Dolar says. “It was very strange, there was a moment of freedom very rarely given to people. You don’t have an established discourse. You are between discourses and when things re-solidify you get into another kind of trouble.”

In the fortuitous year of 1989, Žižek published The Supreme Object of Ideology, his first book in English. “It was the breakthrough, and Slavoj became immediately known,” Dolar says. “This was an immediate object of fascination and suddenly it became a flying circus kind of thing.”

As the rest of Yugoslavia set about tearing itself apart in a bloody civil war, Slovenia dodged the worst of the bloodshed and after a 10-day skirmish with Serbia in 1991, became independent. Žižek was about to take the show on the road, but Ljubljana School as a concept did not yet exist.

NEW SCHOOL

 

“There are three and a half of us,” Žižek says. “The half doesn’t mean he isn’t a good guy, it means he doesn’t do Lacanian psychoanalysis. All others are out and there are ferocious disagreements. There are conflicts that in some cases have been going on 30 years. We are practically on non-speaking terms.”

The three core members of the Ljubljana School are Žižek, Dolar and Zupančič. The half is Miran Božovič, a shy, gracious type who runs the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. I later tell Božovič that Žižek has counted him as a half-member of the Ljubljana School. “That’s just Slavoj being polite,” he says.

Zupančič works out of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and is the one not tied to the university. She says the members of the group share an “affinity for a specific way of thinking, a specific way of asking questions, and sensitivity for specific types of paradoxes and problems.”

Generally speaking, the group uses psychoanalysis to reinterpret German Idealism — especially Kant, and Hegel, though Zupančič is also dabbles in Nietzsche — and the inverse. “There is something in German Idealism that makes it possible to perceive some conceptually extremely productive dimension of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis,” Zupančič says. “This way they both gain a lot, and do not settle down into concluded conceptual systems, but provoke and force each other further.”

These reinterpretations also produce provocative analyses of contemporary culture and politics, and though it seems apparent that some of the aforementioned historical circumstances contributed to the formation of the Ljubljana School, not everyone agrees this is so important. “As Marx put it very nicely, the anatomy of man is a key to the anatomy of the ape, and not the other way around,” Zupančič says. “In this case, the Ljubljana School is the key to the understanding of the circumstances that have led to it.”

For Žižek, provocation is a way of life and in one way or another his primary preoccupation is ideology. “Ideology is not a matter of belief,” he says when we eventually meet. “It’s a matter of rituals that you follow even if you don’t believe in them.”

If rituals are something like a reflex, much of academia makes a ritual of criticizing Žižek and his friends. He is himself accused of inconsistency, a lack of methodological rigor, general ambiguity and failing to offer alternatives to the systems he critiques. It is often difficult to separate legitimate intellectual disagreements and debate from things that look and sound a lot like jealousy and ill temper.

Among the ex-Ljubljana School adherents who appear to be on the outs is Rastko Močnik, a sociologist who is often cited as one of the group’s founders. Though it was hard to pin down exactly what went sour, it felt as if I had stepped into a family feud when I wrote him to propose a meeting.

“As you may know,” he wrote via e-mail, and I did not, “I moved away from ‘theoretical psychoanalysis’” — ironic quotes his — “quite some time ago. The main reason was that psychoanalysis is a theory of a practice – and there is no practice in ‘theoretical’ psychoanalysis; consequently, it is no theory at all.”

At the risk of being pulled into what passes for civil war in Slovenia, I relayed the cryptic message to Zupančič, and asked for her reaction. After noting that she found Močnik’s comments “abstract,” “sophist” and “strange,” she said: “From the very outset, this was a philosophical movement or orientation, and never pretended to be anything else.”

There are more content-specific critiques too. As the aforementioned Ian Parker writes in his Slavoj Žižek: A Critical Introduction: “You think you are being told one thing, and then it changes into the opposite. Such sudden shifts from one frame to another often make the underlying structure of his argument difficult to grasp.”

Even confessed fans of Žižek’s work express some frustration with his seemingly haphazard style.

“Žižek’s political engagement does not do justice to the potential his theory has,” says Wilson, author of Jeffrey Sachs: The Strange Case of Dr. Shock and Mr. Aid, a book that seeks to analyze the eponymous shock therapy theorist through a Žižekian prism.

“He kind of forgets to draw a whole lot of lessons from his own philosophy,” Wilson says, adding that much of Žižek’s work remains a sort of rehashing of key themes from The Supreme Object of Ideology.

“I would love him to shut up for two or three years and then come back with something new,” Wilson says. “A lot of it now is cutting and pasting from old material. His earliest work is his best work.”

For better or worse for the Ljubljana School, attention and the accompanying critiques, reasoned and less so, are the norm. “I always say Slavoj is a kind of Rorscach test,” Dolar says. “Tell me what you see and it tells a lot about you, but it does not say so much about him.”

Still, it seems strange that one guy and the Ljubljana School, with just three and a half members, can illicit such strong reactions from so many people in such far off places. How to account for this outsized influence? It’s simple, Zupančič says: “The name and force of Slavoj Žižek.”

Indeed, Žižek publishes at a breakneck pace in a number of languages. His use of films, especially mainstream blockbusters, to exemplify complicated philosophical theory brings the group a more mainstream following. Dolar notes that Žižek has a special “knack” for this sort of communication. “He explains the most difficult things by giving popular examples, by endless digressions and jokes, but which nevertheless shed light on this whole thing that is going on,” Dolar says. “This is kind of illuminating. It may seem as a series of lighthearted remarks, but it is not.”

By the turn of 21st century the Ljubljana School had become a global phenomenon. In 2003, Žižek wrote the text for an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. In 2005, he was the subject of the documentary Žižek! He has made two of his own films, The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema (2006) and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012). Even if you haven’t read them, you probably have heard of at least a few of his more recent books: Violence (2008), First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009), Living in the End Times (2010), Less Than Nothing (2012). In addition Žižek regularly contributes to The Guardian, The London Review of Books and elsewhere. In short, he is everywhere, up to and including my table at the Union Cafe.

BREAKFAST WITH ŽIŽEK

 

“Every idiot can be a socialist. Hitler was a socialist,” Žižek says. “I am a communist.”

The waitress returns. I have finished my coffee and we order some cake. But you are not really a communist, I say. What does the word mean? Brezhnev, bread lines and factories making things nobody wants or needs — like tanks. Didn’t Rocky knock out Ivan Drago and end the whole thing?

“The 20th century is over, this means all forms of the left,” Žižek says. “Stalinism, state socialism, the social democratic welfare state and at the same time, what is really at the heart of leftists — some kind of local participatory democracy — this is nice for local measures, but it doesn’t really work. We are only Marxists in the sense that we see potential problems or antagonisms, to use the old fashioned term, in global capitalism.”

Žižek looks a lot like the Žižek you know, but calmer. There is a beard, familiar mannerisms and a little something called metabolism. As for those so-called antagonisms, what say you, Žižek? “We are saying that liberal democracy is not strong enough to cope, within its own coordinates, with these new problems: ecology, bio-genetics, new forms of apartheid and so on.” He goes on, “Something more radical at the level of the commons — this old term Marx used to designate what should be our shared legacy — is needed.”

Still, at least part of Marx is very much rooted in this concept of class struggle, workers, capitalists, controlling the means of production, labor theory of value and so forth. Even granting that Žižek and his friends are reinterpreting Marx, are all these categories still relevant now? Why not just start from something new?

“I see it again and again in Hollywood blockbusters, The Hunger Games, Elysium and so on,” he says. “These are all visions of extreme class societies and in a way, they are right.”

Fair enough, but they have been making dystopian films about the future for a while. It seems like you could say something similar during any historical period. There have always been rich and poor, no? “In the past, someone has a permanent job, okay they are exploited, but exploited in a stable way within a welfare state,” he says. “I don’t think global capitalism can still afford this. So, more and more it needs exceptions.”

His phone rings, and Žižek apologizes profusely for having to take the call. Perhaps it’s those bastards at DHL, but I can’t understand the conversation that follows in Slovenian, though numbers are involved. Our talk turns to other numbers and policy in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse. Žižek brings up the notable irony that it was billions in taxpayer money, through state intervention, that saved the capitalist system.

Within just a few years, and after a bit of tinkering here or there, much of that structure remains, it would seem. “I am not a communist out of optimism. I am a communist out of despair,” he says. “I am saying, yes probably we are doomed, we are approaching a new apartheid society.”

The words are depressing but the spirit is nonetheless positive. Some of Žižek’s lines sound like things you see on YouTube or hear him spout from atop some dais. In conversation, you even recognize some anecdotes from his books or copious op-eds. The volume and velocity at which he speaks, writes and publishes — in 2014, seven books — makes it hard to separate one from the other. His pace and frequent digressions imply spontaneity, but the underlying themes, and the examples, are well-rehearsed. Still, face-to-face he is no less impassioned or engaging for it. Breakfast with Žižek is not bad; it’s fun trying to keep up. There is much nodding.

He continues, “Until now, let’s be honest, there was some kind of marriage between capitalism and democracy.”

And now there is not, I say. You are referring to so-called capitalism with Asian values? “I don’t think it’s Asian, it’s an idea of capitalism that is even more wide and dynamic than our western capitalism, but fits perfectly in a more authoritarian political structure,” he says.

The waitress comes and Žižek orders a krajnska klobasa and a Coca-Cola. His freewheeling nature is risky PR-wise, but he doesn’t really care. Žižek is alternately branded anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, sexist and so forth. He speaks loose and shrugs off the labels by noting that he jokes about everybody. No one could accuse him of self-censorship or dishonesty, it just spills out.

“Habermas, for me, was somebody who came to teach the young communists at the University of Ljubljana,” he says. “When they were in power, he was their guy.”

A few other names come up during the course of our 90 minute talk. Richard Nixon, Chuck Norris, Francis Fukayama, Alexis Tsipras, Toni Morrison, the Marx Brothers, Bill Gates and Amy Goodman are among them. Apparently a lengthy debate between Žižek and Cornell West about the male anatomy led the latter to grant the former the right to use the N-word in perpetuity. I would love to stay longer, but alas am about to miss my second flight in as many days.

It’s hard to keep focused amid the deluge and I forget to bring it up, but according to Parker, Žižek’s parents were themselves hard-line official communists. Nonetheless, well into middle age his unorthodox intellectual interests caused him trouble and prevented him from advancing in academia. By the 1980s he and Dolar were off and running with the dissident crowd, but Žižek was intermittently unemployed for much of the 1970s, four consecutive years at one point, and was blocked from taking up teaching positions. In 1977, he got a job taking minutes at speeches of the Slovenian League of Communists. He used the job to tap money for travel abroad. “Then I got this post at a marginal institute as a researcher and I discovered it was a blessing in disguise,” he says.

Žižek, you might guess, is not a fan of supervising graduate study seminars or filling out grant applications. He is still technically a researcher today. I sense a punchline coming, but cannot resist. How was it a blessing?

“Researcher means I have absolutely no obligations — nothing,” he says. “I mean you know when you say you have a job and you do nothing, it really means a couple of hours per day. No, for me, nothing means like nada.”

I am glad I asked. He continues, “In the last five years I don’t think I was once at my job. I run the big research project on philosophy. What is the title of this project? I don’t know.”
The program is actually run by that more than 50-percent of a good guy Miran Božovič. “Once, by mistake, I signed an official document,” Žižek says. “Miran told me, ‘Just once you should sign.’ It was rejected by the bank. They were so used to the fake signature.”

“I bring them money and they give me peace. It’s a pure marriage of convenience,” he says. “Now, what would have happened without communist oppression? I am sure I would be an unknown stupid professor here in Ljubljana. This was the greatest thing for me. My thanks goes to communist oppression.” I smile.

“I am not joking,” he says.

Žižek is not joking. A few days later, I contact Božovič by telephone to have a follow up chat and check on a few details. I ask him what role Žižek plays in the alleged official research project. “He is the head of the research program group,” Božovič says. “I have a chair and I have a desk. He does not have a chair or desk — and the mail is piling up.”

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Read more work by Benjamin Cunningham:

 
“On Ukraine: Sense & Sensibility,” in B O D Y.
“Where a Budweiser Isn’t Allowed to Be a Budweiser,” in Time Magazine.

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