21 March 1949 |
Ljubljana, SR Slovenia, Yugoslavia
|Era||20th- / 21st-century philosophy|
|Main interests||Cultural Studies
Slavoj Žižek (Slovene: [ˈslavoj ˈʒiʒɛk] ( listen); born 21 March 1949) is a Slovene philosopher and cultural critic. He is a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and a professor of philosophy and psychoanalysis at the European Graduate School. He writes widely on a diverse range of topics, including political theory, film theory, cultural studies, theology and psychoanalysis.
Žižek achieved international recognition as a social theorist after the 1989 publication of his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, which disputed a Marxist interpretation of ideology as false consciousness and argued for ideology as an unconscious fantasy that structures reality. Politically, Žižek advocates communism as the only alternative to the contemporary institutional arrangements. Although he considers himself a political radical and critic of neoliberalism, his political thought represents only one of two trajectories of a progressive alternative--either a return to the program of socialism, which Žižek advocates, or the proposal of an alternative vision of social arrangements, which is taken up by some of his contemporaries.
His unorthodox style, frequent newspaper op-eds, and popular academic books have gained Žižek a wide following and international influence. He has been labelled by some the "Elvis of cultural theory," and Foreign Policy listed him on its 2012 list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, calling him "a celebrity philosopher." Zizek'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 was born in Ljubljana, People's Republic of Slovenia, Yugoslavia, to a middle-class family. His parents were both atheists. His father Jože Žižek was an economist and civil servant from the region of Prekmurje in eastern Slovenia. His mother Vesna, native of the Brda region in the Slovenian Littoral, was an accountant in a state enterprise. He spent most of his childhood in the coastal town of Portorož. The family moved back to Ljubljana when Slavoj was a teenager. Žižek attended the prestigious Bežigrad High School. In 1967, he enrolled at the University of Ljubljana, where he studied philosophy and sociology. He received a Doctor of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Ljubljana and studied psychoanalysis at the University of Paris VIII with Jacques-Alain Miller and François Regnault.
Žižek was formerly married to Renata Salecl, another notable Slovene philosopher, and to fashion model Analia Houniea, daughter of an Argentine Lacanian psychoanalyst. He is a fluent speaker of Slovene, Serbo-Croatian, French, German, and speaks English with a heavy Slovene-language accent. He also has basic knowledge of Italian.
In the late 1980s, Žižek came to public attention as a columnist for the alternative youth magazine Mladina, which assumed a critical stance towards the Titoist regime, criticizing several aspects of Yugoslav politics, especially the militarization of society. He was member of the Communist Party of Slovenia until October 1988, when he quit in protest against the JBTZ-trial together with 32 other Slovenian public intellectuals. Between 1988 and 1990, he was actively involved in several political and civil society movements which fought for the democratization of Slovenia, most notably the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights. In the first free elections in 1990, he ran as candidate for Presidency of the Republic of Slovenia (an auxiliary institution abolished in the constitution of 1991) for the Liberal Democratic Party.
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 to it that "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 (Coalition of the Radical Left) then, in my vision of the democratic future, all these people will get from me a first class one-way ticket to [a] gulag." Trying to politically discredit SYRIZA as endorsing totalitarian past, its right-wing opponent which itself made a controversial decision to allow someone who was described in Guardian as an "axe-wielding fascist" in his youth to be a minister in its government, claimed Žižek should be understood literally, not ironically.
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.
Žižek started his studies in an era of liberalization of the Titoist Yugoslavia. Already prior to his enrollment to university, he began reading French structuralists. In 1967, he published the first translation of a text by Jacques Derrida to Slovene. Among his early influences was the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Božidar Debenjak who introduced the thought of the Frankfurt School to Slovenia. Debenjak taught the philosophy of German idealism at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ljubljana, and his reading of Marx's Das Kapital from the perspective of Hegel's Phenomenology of the Mind influenced many future Slovenian philosophers, including Žižek.
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 tenured, 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.
Žižek's early work used Lacan to interpret Hegelian and Marxist philosophy. During this time in the 1980s he also edited and translated into Slovene Lacan, Sigmund Freud, and Althusser. 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.
Žižek has been publishing on a regular basis in journals such as Lacanian Ink and In These Times in the United States, the New Left Review and The London Review of Books in the United Kingdom, and with the Slovenian left liberal magazine Mladina and newspapers Dnevnik and Delo. He also co-operates with the Polish leftist magazine Krytyka Polityczna, regional South-East European left-wing journal Novi Plamen, and serves on the editorial board of the psychoanalytical journal Problemi.
In 2003, Žižek wrote text to accompany Bruce Weber photos 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!"
Žižek and his thought have been the subject of several documentaries. In The Reality of the Virtual (2004), Žižek gives an hour lecture on his interpretation of Lacan's tripartite thesis of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. Zizek! is a 2005 documentary by Astra Taylor on his philosophy. Liebe Dein Symptom wie Dich selbst! (1996) is a German documentary on him. The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (2006) and The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (2012) also portray Žižek's ideas and cultural criticism. Examined Life (2008) features Žižek speaking about aesthetics at a garbage dump. He was also featured in Marx Reloaded (2011) directed by Jason Barker.
Although often accused of being inconsistent and non-systematic, Žižek's work and thought aims to provoke and think anew about ourselves and the world. Rather than create a theory, the philosopher, for Žižek, is more someone engaged in critique than someone who tries to answer questions.
In developing a thesis of ideology and its function Žižek makes two intertwined arguments:
Žižek's ontology gives primacy to the creative subject who can manipulate discourse even while he is shaped by it. This is illustrated with the fact that although biological psychology might one day be able to completely model a person's brain, there would still be something left over that could not be explained. Žižek suggests that consciousness is opaque. He says that one cannot ever know if an apparently conscious being is truly conscious or a mime—and furthermore, that this confusion is fundamental to consciousness itself.
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, which cannot be symbolized, 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.
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 big 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 US 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 all of its injustices. The real political conflict for Žižek is between an ordered structure of society and those without a place in it.
Žižek argues that the postmodern subject is cynical towards 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 he might be doing doesn't mean they're doing the right thing.
Žižek has said that he does not consider religion an enemy but rather one of the fields of struggle. In a 2006 New York Times op-ed he made the argument for atheism, where he said that religion values the afterlife over this life.
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. Žižek is seen as representing one of two trajectories in contemporary thought of a progressive alternative--that of communism rather than institutional imagination. In addition, 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 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 withdraw from, in Žižek's words, "everyday material social life," and decry anyone who abandons the "hypothesis of communism" (Badiou) as resigning himself to the market economy.
The other path not tread by thinkers like Žižek and Badiou is that of rethinking structural transformation and the construction of an alternative vision of social arrangements. This path is best represented by philosopher and social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger. 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, they have tread different paths. They both regard themselves as leftist and as revolutionaries determined to reinvent for our time the meaning of the progressive cause, but engage in vastly different ways. For example, as a radical alternative to both Marx and Hegel, Unger offers a way of thinking about how the formative institutional and ideological structures of a society are established, and about how to reshape them. He proposes alternatives to the economic and political arrangements of contemporary societies, and argues that programmatic argument, rather than blueprints, should explore both the direction and the first steps of such changes. 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:
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 is unclear what that project consists of. Overall, his theoretical argument often lacks historical fact, which lends himself more to provocation rather than insight.
The failure of Zizek to present an alternative vision has lead critics to accuse him of using unsustainable Marxist categories of analysis and having a nineteenth-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.
Žižek's presentation and argumentative style is forceful and often entertaining, but not lucid. 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 G. W. F. 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, in his understanding of Hegel, Žižek mistakenly conflates Lacan's unconscious with Hegel's unconscious. Critics like Noah Horwitz point out that the Lacanian unconscious and the Hegelian unconscious are two totally different mechanisms. If we take speech, Lacan's unconscious reveals itself to us in the slip-of-the-tongue or parapraxis we are therefore alienated from language through the revelation of our desire (even if that desire originated with the Other, as Lacan 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 (so 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').
Žižek has written on topics including subjectivity, ideology, capitalism, fundamentalism, racism, tolerance, multiculturalism, human rights, ecology, globalization, the Iraq War, revolution, utopianism, totalitarianism, postmodernism, pop culture, opera, cinema, political theology, and religion.
See also the International Journal of Žižek Studies.
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