Friday, January 30, 2009

Boggle with Zizek

If you like your Marxist cultural theory "Seinfeldian," then Slavoj Zizek is your man.

Violence is his latest volume of highbrow Lacanian philosophy, eastern European jokes, Hitchcock fandom, capitalist critique, and revolutionary yearning. The Zizek mode of writing is to identify the liberal democratic consensus position, turn it upside down playfully, let himself be reminded of a movie that he loves, and finally decide that the West has got it all wrong...maybe. There's enough obscurantism and slapstick comedy to have readers scratching their heads over whether the book is an earnest denunciation of the "systemic violence" of contemporary life, or just provocative schticking.

Take Zizek's arsenal of pop culture references. He calls The Sound of Music "one of the great achievements of Western civilization," and has a silly soft spot for The Matrix (Welcome to the Desert of the Real is named after a line in the Keanu Reeves film). Zizek is capable of illustrating American mores with a description of the TV show Nip/Tuck, then wandering into an exploration of the way that Europeans number the floors of buildings differently than Americans do. In Violence, Elton John is cited for his views on organized religion.

This is cheeky. These wanton departures from academic philosophy are attention-grabbing, and draw the ire of responsible liberals. But Zizek deserves credit for operating outside the cloisters of academe. His appeal beyond the philosophy department is the envy of his critics and rivals. The media needs more rigorous thinkers than this guy, even if what it gets is a slobbering Slovene who embraces buffoonery from time to time.

Violence is most astute when describing the 2005 violence in the Paris banlieue as a post-ideological attempt "to gain visibility." The rioters lacked a coherent program, evidence to Zizek of the death of our political imagination. Zizek's enthusiasm for Christianity, in conflict with his devout atheism, is also a sumptuous feast of contradiction. He stares into the abyss of the Israel-Palestine conflict and outrageously calls for Jerusalem to become a radical free zone, open to all, purged of religious affiliation:

Israel--officially representing Western liberal modernity in the area--legitimizes itself in terms of its ethnic-religious identity, while the Palestinians--decried as premodern "fundamentalists"--legitimize their demands in the terms of secular citizenship...the further irony is that according to some polls, Israelis are the most atheistic nation in the world: around 70 percent of them do not believe in any kind of divinity. Their reference to the land thus relies on a fetishist disavowal: "I know very well that God doesn't exist, but I nonetheless believe that he gave us the land of Greater Israel."...The U.S.-Israel alliance, this strange association of the most religious (developed) nation in the world insisting on the separation of religion and state, and the most irreligious people in the world existing on the religious nature of their state, can thus present itself as an axis of victims...

Love him or hate him, take him as a serious commentator or a comedian, Zizek is hard to put down.