Žižek's unorthodox style, popular academic works, frequent magazine op-eds, and critical assimilation of high and low culture have gained him international influence and a substantial audience outside of academia in addition to controversy and criticism. In 2012, Foreign Policy listed Žižek on its list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, calling him "a celebrity philosopher," while elsewhere he has been dubbed the "Elvis of cultural theory" and "the most dangerous philosopher in the West." Žižek's work was chronicled in a 2005 documentary film entitled Zizek! A scholarly journal, the International Journal of Žižek Studies, was also founded to engage his work.
Žižek frequented the circles of dissident intellectuals, including the Heideggerian philosophers Tine Hribar and Ivo Urbančič, and published articles in alternative magazines, such as Praxis, Tribuna and Problemi, of which he was also an editor. In 1971, he was given employment at the University of Ljubljana as an assistant researcher with the promise of tenure, but was dismissed after his Master's thesis was explicitly accused of being "non-Marxist." He spent the next few years undertaking national service in the Yugoslav army in Karlovac.
In addition, he wrote the introduction to Slovene translations of G. K. Chesterton's and John Le Carré's detective novels. In 1988, he published his first book dedicated entirely to film theory. Žižek achieved international recognition as a social theorist with the 1989 publication of his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology.
Despite his activity in liberal democratic projects, Žižek remains committed to the communist ideal and is critical of right-wing circles, such as nationalists, conservatives, and classical liberals both in Slovenia and worldwide. He wrote that the convention center in which nationalist Slovene writers hold their conventions should be blown up, adding, "Since we live in the time without any sense of irony, I must add I don't mean it literally." Similarly, he jokingly made the following comment on May 2013, during Subversive Festival: "If they don't support SYRIZA, then, in my vision of the democratic future, all these people will get from me [is] a first-class one-way ticket to [a] gulag." In response, the right-wing New Democracy party claimed Žižek's comments should be understood literally, not ironically.
Žižek seen here signing books in 2009.
In a 2008 interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, he described himself as a "communist in a qualified sense," and in another appearance in October 2009 he described himself as a "radical leftist." The following year Žižek appeared in the Arte documentary Marx Reloaded in which he defended the idea of communism.
In 2003, Žižek wrote text to accompany Bruce Weber's photographs in a catalog for Abercrombie & Fitch. Questioned as to the seemliness of a major intellectual writing ad copy, Žižek told the Boston Globe, "If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!"
In developing a thesis of ideology and its function, Žižek makes two intertwined arguments:
He begins with a critique of Marx's concept of ideology (as described in The German Ideology) in which people are beholden to false consciousness that prevents them from seeing how things really are. Žižek argues, continuing Althusser, that ideology is thoroughly unconscious; and that ideology functions as a series of justifications and spontaneous socio-symbolic rituals which support virtual authorities.
However, the Real is not equivalent to the reality experienced by subjects as a meaningfully ordered totality. For Žižek, the Real names points within the ontological fabric, knitted by the hegemonic systems of representation and reproduction, that nevertheless resist full inscription into its terms and that may as such attempt to generate sites of active political resistance.
Drawing on Lacan's notion of the barred subject, for Žižek the subject is a purely negative entity, a void of negativity (in the Hegelian sense), which allows for the flexibility and reflexivity of the cartesian Cogito (Transcendental Subject). Žižek claims that though consciousness is opaque, following Hegel, that the epistemological gap between the In-itself and For-itself is immanent to reality itself; that the antinomies of Kant, quantum physics, and Badiou's 'materialist' principle that 'The One is Not', point towards an inconsistent ("Barred") Real itself that Lacan conceptualized prior.
Žižek speaking in 2011
Žižek argues that although there are multiple Symbolic interpretations of the Real, they are not all relatively "true". Žižek identifies two instances of the Real: the abject Real (or "real Real"), which cannot be wholly integrated into the symbolic order, and the symbolic Real, a set of signifiers that can never be properly integrated into the horizon of sense of a subject. The truth is revealed in the process of transiting the contradictions; or the real is a "minimal difference", the gap between the infinite judgement of a reductionist materialism and experience as lived, developing his thesis of the "Parallax" of dialectical antagonisms as inherent to reality itself, and developing Dialectical Materialism - contra Engels - as a new materialist Hegelianism, incorporating the insights of Lacanian psychoanalysis, set theory, quantum physics, and contemporary continental philosophy (most notably in his magnum opus "Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism" (2012), as well as "Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism" (2014)).
Political thought and the postmodern subject
Žižek argues that the state is a system of regulatory institutions that shape our behavior. Its power is purely symbolic and has no normative force outside of collective behavior. In this way, the term the law signifies society's basic principles, which enable interaction by prohibiting certain acts.
Political decisions for Žižek have become depoliticized and accepted as natural conclusions. For example, controversial policy decisions (such as reductions in social welfare spending) are presented as apparently "objective" necessities. Although governments make claims about increased citizen participation and democracy, the important decisions are still made in the interests of capital. The two-party system dominant in the United States and elsewhere produces a similar illusion. Žižek says that it is still necessary to engage in particular conflicts—such as labor disputes—but the trick is to relate these individual events to the larger struggle. Particular demands, if executed well, might serve as metaphorical condensation for the system and its injustices. The real political conflict for Žižek is between an ordered structure of society and those without a place in it.
In stark contrast to the intellectual tenets of the European "universalist Left" in general, and those Jürgen Habermas defined as postnational, in particular, Žižek spares no efforts in his clear and unequivocal defense of the pro-sovereignty and pro-independence processes opened in Europe.
Žižek argues that the postmodern subject is cynical toward official institutions, yet at the same time believes in conspiracies. When we lost our shared belief in a single power, we constructed another of the Other in order to escape the unbearable freedom that we faced. For Žižek, it is not enough to merely know that you are being lied to, particularly when continuing to live a normal life under capitalism. Although one may possess a self-awareness, Žižek argues, just because one understands what one is doing does not mean that one is doing the right thing.
Žižek has said that he considers religion not an enemy but rather one of the fields of struggle. In a 2006 New York Times op-ed he made the argument for atheism, arguing that religious fundamentalists are, in a way, no different from "godless Stalinist Communists." He argued that both value divine will and salvation over moral or ethical action.
Many hundreds of academics have addressed aspects of Žižek's work in professional papers, and in 2007, the International Journal of Žižek Studies was established for the discussion of his work. There are two main themes of critique of Žižek's ideas: his failure to articulate an alternative or program in the face of his denunciation of contemporary social, political, and economic arrangements, and his lack of rigor in argumentation.
Žižek's philosophical and political positions are not always clear, and critiques have called him out on his failure to take a consistent stance. He has claimed to stand by a revolutionary Marxist project, but his lack of vision or circumstance of revolution makes it unclear what that project consists of. According to some, his theoretical argument often lacks historical fact, which lends him more to provocation rather than insight.
Žižek's refusal to present an alternative vision has led critics to accuse him of using unsustainable Marxist categories of analysis and having a 19th-century understanding of class. For example, Ernesto Laclau argued that "Žižek uses class as a sort of deus ex machina to play the role of the good guy against the multicultural devils." The use of such analysis, however, is not systematic and draws on critical accounts of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as post-structuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis.
For some, Žižek represents one of two trajectories in contemporary thought of a progressive alternative. On the one side are those thinkers like Žižek and Alain Badiou who embrace communism as the only radical alternative to the current social, political, and economic arrangements. They draw their inspiration from the social theory of Marxism, and extend it to form a radical critique of capitalism, contemporary politics, and neoliberalism in general. They advocate a withdrawal from, in Žižek's words, "everyday material social life," and decry anyone who abandons the "hypothesis of communism" (Badiou) as resigning themselves to the market economy.
For Roberto Mangabeira Unger, an alternative path not trodden by thinkers like Žižek and Badiou is that of rethinking structural transformation and the construction of an alternative vision of social arrangements. Although Žižek and Unger have been compared for their mutual encounter with Hegel and Marx, as well as by their experience of engagement in the political life of their respective countries, for Unger, the lack of a clear vision of alternatives in contemporary thinkers like Žižek represents a betrayal of our most important attribute: our power to resist and to reshape the social and conceptual worlds in which we find ourselves.
Žižek does not agree with his critics who attribute to him a belief in necessitationism and has stated:
There is no such thing as the Communist big Other, there's no historical necessity or teleology directing and guiding our actions." (In Slovene: "Ni komunističnega velikega Drugega, nobene zgodovinske nujnosti ali teleologije, ki bi usmerjala in vodila naša dejanja".)
In his book "Living in the End Times" Žižek acknowledges part of his critics of being ambiguous and multilateral in his positions.:
[...] I am attacked for being anti-Semitic and for spreading Zionist lies, for being a covert Slovene nationalist and unpatriotic traitor to my nation, for being a crypto-Stalinist defending terror and for spreading Bourgeois lies about Communism... so maybe, just maybe I am on right path, the path of fidelity to freedom."
Critics complain of a theoretical chaos in which questions and answers are confused and in which Žižek constantly recycles old ideas which were scientifically refuted long ago or which in reality have quite a different meaning than Žižek gives to them. Harpham calls Žižek's style "a stream of nonconsecutive units arranged in arbitrary sequences that solicit a sporadic and discontinuous attention." O'Neill concurs: "a dizzying array of wildly entertaining and often quite maddening rhetorical strategies are deployed in order to beguile, browbeat, dumbfound, dazzle, confuse, mislead, overwhelm, and generally subdue the reader into acceptance."
Such presentation has laid him open to accusations of misreading other philosophers, particularly Jacques Lacan and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Žižek carries over many concepts from Lacan's teachings into the sphere of political and social theory, but has a tendency to do so in an extreme deviation from its psychoanalytic context. Similarly, according to some critics, Žižek's conflation of Lacan's unconscious with Hegel's unconscious is mistaken. Noah Horwitz, in an effort to dissociate Lacan from the more problematic Hegel, interprets the Lacanian unconscious and the Hegelian unconscious as two totally different mechanisms. Horwitz points out, in Lacan and Hegel's differing approaches to the topic of speech, that Lacan's unconscious reveals itself to us in parapraxis, or "slips-of-the-tongue." We are therefore, according to Lacan, alienated from language through the revelation of our desire (even if that desire originated with the Other, as he claims, it remains peculiar to us). In Hegel's unconscious, however, we are alienated from language whenever we attempt to articulate a particular and end up articulating a universal. For example, if I say 'the dog is with me', although I am trying to say something about this particular dog at this particular time, I actually produce the universal category 'dog,' and therefore express a generality, not the particularity I desire. Hegel's argument implies that, at the level of sense-certainty, we can never express the true nature of reality. Lacan's argument implies, to the contrary, that speech reveals the true structure of a particular unconscious mind.
Žižek's tendency to recycle portions of his own texts in subsequent works resulted in the accusation of self-plagiarism by The New York Times in 2014, after Žižek published an op-ed in the magazine which contained portions of his writing from an earlier book. In response, Žižek expressed perplexity at the harsh tone of the denunciation, emphasizing that the recycled passages in question only acted as references from his theoretical books to supplement otherwise original writing.
On 11 July 2014, leading American weekly newsmagazine Newsweek reported that in an article published in 2006 Žižek plagiarized substantial passages from an earlier review that first appeared in the White Nationalist journal American Renaissance, a publication condemned by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the organ of a "white nationalist hate group." However, in response to the allegations, Žižek stated:
When I was writing the text on Derrida which contains the problematic passages, a friend told me about Kevin Macdonald's theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send [sic] it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another's line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend's resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck's review of Macdonald's book. [...] As any reader can quickly establish, the problematic passages are purely informative, a report on another's theory for which I have no affinity whatsoever; all I do after this brief resume is quickly dismissing Macdonald's theory as a new chapter in the long process of the destruction of Reason. In no way can I thus be accused of plagiarizing another's line of thought, of "stealing ideas." I nonetheless deeply regret the incident.
^Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989.
^Sinnerbrink, Robert (2008). "The Hegelian 'Night of the World': Žižek on Subjectivity, Negativity, and Universality". International Journal of Žižek Studies2 (2). ISSN1751-8229. Retrieved 17 August 2012. This extraordinary analysis of the transcendental imagination, critique of Heidegger, and rereading of Hegelian 'night of the world,' together contribute to Žižek's reassertion of the radicality of the 'Cartesian subject'—that thoroughly repudiated theoretical spectre which nonetheless continues to 'haunt Western academia' (1999: 1–5). This unorthodox reading of the Hegelian 'night of the world'—the radical negativity that haunts subjectivity—is developed further in an explicitly political direction, which helps explain Žižek's recent critique of the 'Fukuyamaian' consensus, shared both by moral-religious conservatives and libertarian 'postmodernists', that global capitalism remains the 'unsurpassable horizon of our times'.
^Eyers, Tom; Harman, Graham; Johnston, Adrian; Gaufey, Guy Le; McGowan, Todd; Rousselle, Duane; Riha, Jelica Šumič; Riha, Rado (2013-01-01). Umbr(a): The Object. Umbr(a) Journal. ISBN9780979953965.
^Žižek, Looking Awry: an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture
^Žižek, Slavoj (18 March 1999). "You May!". London Review of Books21 (6). Retrieved 20 August 2012. But the notion is undermined by the rise of what might be called 'Post-Modern racism', the surprising characteristic of which is its insensitivity to reflection – a neo-Nazi skinhead who beats up black people knows what he's doing, but does it anyway. Reflexivisation has transformed the structure of social dominance. Take the public image of Bill Gates....
^Holbo, John (1 January 2004). "On Žižek and Trilling". Philosophy and Literature28 (2): 430–440. doi:10.1353/phl.2004.0029. ...an unhealthy anti-liberal is one, like Z+iz=ek, who ticks and tocks in unreflective revulsion at liberalism, pantomiming that he is de Maistre (or Abraham) or Robespierre (or Lenin) by turns, lest he look like Mill.
^Holbo, John (17 December 2010). "Zizek on the Financial Collapse – and Liberalism". Crooked Timbers. Retrieved 21 August 2012. To review: Zizek does this liberal = neoliberal thing. Which is no good. And he doesn't even have much to say about economics. And Zizek does this liberal = self-hating pc white intellectuals thing. Which is no good.
^Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek "Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left". Verso. London, New York City 2000. pp. 202–206
^See e.g. David Bordwell, "Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything", DavidBordwell.net blog, April 2005.; Philipp Oehmke, "Welcome to the Slavoj Zizek Show". Der Spiegel Online (International edition), 7 August 2010 ; Jonathan Rée, "Less Than Nothing by Slavoj Žižek – review. A march through Slavoj Žižek's 'masterwork'". The Guardian, 27 June 2012.
^Ian Parker, Slavoj Žižek: A Critical Introduction (Pluto Press: London and Sterling, 2004) p.78-80. For example, Žižek's appropriation of Lacan's discussion of Antigone in his 1959/1960 seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. In this seminar, Lacan uses Antigone to defend the claim that "the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one's desire" (Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, Verso: London, 1994; p. 69). However, as Parker notes, Antigone's act (burying her dead brother in the knowledge that she will be buried alive) was never intended to effect a revolutionary change in the political status quo; yet, despite this, Žižek frequently cites Antigone as a paradigm of ethico-political action.
^Noah Horwitz, "Contra the Slovenians: Returning to Lacan and away from Hegel" (Philosophy Today, Spring 2005, pp. 24–32.