Meeting Slavoj Žižek: Coffee, Chocolate, Coke, and Colonialism
He can make a lot of scratch out of one itch. And he can bring together Plato and Patanjali. And—even more characteristically—he can yoke together Hegel and Hitchcock, offering a Hegelian reading of Hitchcock and a Hitchcockian reading of Hegel, for instance. And he can go on and on telling you what Charlie Chaplin meant when he quipped: ‘The Method is a lot of nonsense.’
And he would probably prove Jean-Luc Godard wrong. And Godard told us in Rolling Stone quite some time ago: ‘If you go out of a James Bond film and I ask you if you can tell me what you’ve seen, you can’t. There are 20,000 things in James Bond. You can’t describe a mixed salad. Too many things in it.’
And he not only prepares a mixed salad, but also describes it. And 20,000 things in a film? He seems to be at least noticing all of them, characteristically ready as he is to catch the devil in the detail.
And his interests range widely. And they include not only film but also fashion, fantasies, perversions, lifestyle, media, multiculturalism, ideology, psychoanalysis, theology, political economy, political ontology, revolution, Kant, Hegel, Lenin, Lacan, Christianity, cyberspace, coffee, Coke, and colonialism. And the list itself—which already resembles a stubborn procession—can certainly be way longer, simply because I am far from exhausting the field of his possible interests.
And he could act like—to use a Salman-Rushdiean word—a ‘marxleninfreak,’ with varying effects of course, with his dazzling verbal pyrotechnics. And he has meanwhile attracted different labels and descriptions from different quarters. Google him—he loves to google himself, of course, in his attempts to theorize what I wish to call today’s ‘dotcom culture’—and you will find all kinds of stuff, including his colourful biographies, short and long. And you will find that Chronicle of Higher Education has already described him as the ‘Elvis of cultural theory,’ while Village Voice Literary Supplement eagerly takes him as a ‘one person culture mulcher. . .a fast-forward philosopher of culture for the post-cold war period.’ And there is by now a well-publicised feature documentary about him—about his ‘eccentric personality and his esoteric work,’ as a film reviewer once put it. And the documentary is called Zizek.
And, of course, he is none other than Slavoj Žižek (pronounced SLA-voy ZHEE-zhek)—a philosopher and an intellectual maverick and a cultural theorist and a filmfreak and a media analyst and a post-Lacanian psychoanalytic critic and a public intellectual and a profound joker who fashions an entire hermeneutic out of all those dirty jokes he keeps cracking in headlong succession and certainly a performative speaker who simply loves to talk.
So it was fun hearing Slavoj Žižek talk at the plenary session of Rethinking Marxism’s fifth international gala conference held at the University of Massachussetts-Amherst on November 6-9, 2003. And it was fun conversing with him for almost forty-five minutes at the lobby of the very hotel we happened to put up at. Although I am not a Žižekian, and although I cannot help noticing in his work at least sporadic traces of Eurocentrism accompanied by his relative inattention to the important theoretical and political questions of how racism and capitalism continue to affect and valence each other at the global level, I thought I should tabulate at least a few high points of Žižek’s own talk as well as narrate certain parts of my own conversation with him so as to be able to share them with those interested, or those who might be interested, in things and theories Žižekian.
There was a time when—admittedly—I used to have ‘what-the-hell-you’re-up-to-Dude?’-kinds of responses to Žižek’s elaborate psychoanalytic detours and pleasure-trips to the filmdom. But I found Žižek’s relatively recent ‘Leninism’ intriguing. Also, I found his highly charged, confrontational, and choreographic delivery against the American cultural theorist Michael Hardt simply superb and spectacular. (Parenthetically, I should drop at least this bit of information that Hardt—one of those Jameson-leaning Duke lefties—co-authored with Anthony Negri quite a sensational and controversial work called Empire, and that Hardt was another plenary speaker at the conference, who was sitting face-to-face with Žižek himself).
Žižek cracked us up with his jokes and his anecdotes, his bounce and his play, while I found his verbal energy simply phenomenal. In fact, in some ways, he reminded me of the verbal zest of Jacques Derrida, the French theorist who is regarded as the big daddy of the critical movement called ‘Deconstruction.’ I had heard Derrida speak—at the University of California-Davis—for long four hours uninterruptedly on the damn topic of the typewriter ribbon. Long four hours, yes! And the Prince of Deconstruction did not care to sip even a drop of water, as he kept talking. Žižek certainly evinced that kind of astonishing energy. But I must say that while Derrida contributed profusely to my headache, Žižek almost continuously made me laugh.
It is my impression that humour is probably the only way for Žižek to be serious about his world and his work; that Žižek tends to make you laugh and nervous at the same time; and that, if you are not nervous enough, you can make Žižek at least stammer in some funny ways. At one point, when he was full of quotes from Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel—the stuff that Žižek-the-lecturer sometimes seems made of—I could not resist the temptation of chanting a couple of Sanskrit slokas, while reproducing the cadences of the classical Anushtup meter. Žižek’s nervous response was: ‘Ah, cool sounds!’
Now, before I get to Žižek’s plenary talk, I think I would do well to say something at least briefly about his background and his work, although my purpose here is not to write an introductory essay on Žižek, or write something like ‘Žižek Made Easy.’ Born in 1949 in Ljublijana, Slovenia, Žižek received his formal academic training in sociology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. In fact, he obtained two doctorates—mark his stamina exemplified even in the machinic academic underworld!—his first doctorate being in philosophy, and the second one in psychoanalysis. (‘How about calling you Dr. Dr. Žižek then?’ I asked him at one point, while his response was an outburst of laughter. And, together, we made fun of those Dr.-loving folks who get mad at you if you forget to use the damn ‘Dr.’ before their names. Žižek continued to laugh. And laughter, rather loud laughter, surely characterizes his personality, his style of oral presentations, and his writing style all at once).
Compulsive writer as he is, Slavoj Žižek has by now produced more than 50 books—either written or edited by him—while his work has been translated into nearly 25 languages. Although he is usually—and arguably narrowly—called a ‘Lacanian’ (after the once-influential French psychoanalytic theorist and thinker Jacques Lacan [1901-81]), Žižek characteristically amplifies, even politicizes, and thus transforms some of the ideas and insights, including even certain tools, tropes, and analytical apparatuses, offered by Lacan. In other words, by no means can Žižek be reckoned as a slavish disciple of Lacan. In fact, Žižek’s creative attempts to politicize Western psychoanalysis itself; his sustained interest in, and fresh re-readings of, the works of Marx and Lenin; his unmistakably theoretical and activist accent falling sharply on the questions of political commitment and hard politics; and his predilection for even Revolution together come to distinguish Žižek from those run-of-the-mill Lacanians who are mostly politically pacifist, high as well on their own discourse fetishism.
Although Žižek’s work—given its range and rigor and richness—simply resists a quick summary or a reductionist account, one can safely note that Žižek’s work is predominantly, if by no means exclusively, concerned with examining, interrogating, and theorizing how ideologies function and re-function, either visibly or invisibly, at numerous interconnected levels of human activities, perceptions, and lived practices such that creative ways to get out of all sorts of fetishes, traps, and illusions—produced and reproduced, say, by global capitalism itself and its concomitant discursive practices—begin to open themselves up. To this end, then, Žižek sometimes blends psychoanalysis, Marxist dialectical materialism, and critiques of pop culture, but not in a liberal-eclectic manner.
And Žižek—even for one who is not apparently a Žižek aficionado—is a provocateur with a vengeance. Even his titles are not only catchy but also tellingly provocative. Mark, then, a few titles of his pieces, some of which are of course Freud-Lacan-inflected: ‘There is No Sexual Relationship’ or ‘Schelling-in-itself: The Orgasm of Forces’ or ‘A Hair of the Dog that Bit You.’ Some of Žižek’s major works in English include, to begin with, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989); by far one of the best and most stimulating introductory books on Lacan called Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (1991); Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (1992); Tarrying with the Negative (1993); The Plague of Fantasies (1997); The Ticklish Subject: A Treatise in Political Ontology (1998), and his sensational book on Iraq called Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (2004)—one that re-mobilizes Freudian jokes to track down the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and to ascertain the connections between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda which are themselves absences incarnate.
Žižek’s latest book is called The Parallax View, published in February this year—a book that Žižek himself reckons as his magnum opus. Again, this book is an example of Žižekianism itself, characterized as it is by his at once funny and serious insistence on the political at a conjuncture contaminated with all sorts of ‘diseases’; his own kind of verbal tricksterism and even tropesterism, exemplified in the ways in which he expands the interpretive horizon of the very metaphor of parallax, for instance; his restless erudition attesting to his unmistakable polymathic range; and, no less significantly, his never-ending search for the new.
Now let me get back to Žižek’s plenary talk. His topic was ‘Manufacturing Empire.’ Actually, the journal Rethinking Marxism came up with this topic for him and Michael Hardt. The assertion, then, with which Žižek makes his point of departure in his lecture is that the empire is not a matter of just manufacture or machinofacture as such, but that imperialism is real. He seems to be mobilizing some of the key Leninist analytics in order to underline the contemporary stage of imperialism—US imperialism, to be more specific. Thus, Žižek takes a firm stance against the Toni Negri and the Michael Hardt of Empire—Hardt himself was present when Žižek was speaking, as I have already indicated—vis-à-vis their book’s very proposition that the old term ‘imperialism’ should now be replaced by ‘Empire.’
And, for me, Žižek seems close to be saying to the Negris and Hardts of the world: How could you possibly play your damn flute when your ass is burning, eh? And I feel tempted to paraphrase Žižek this way: It ain’t just a faceless and nameless Empire, stupid! It’s imperialism—US imperialism itself.
As for the question of US imperialism, Žižek draws our attention to what he calls ‘the Trotsky-mentality in Bush’s cabinet.’ Re-citing and ridiculing what George W. Bush keeps saying—‘Freedom is God’s Gift to Humanity’— Žižek makes the point: ‘the US is hell-bent on naturalizing the idea that the US is the retailer of this gift and that if you fight the US you fight God’s gift to humanity.’ For Žižek, the contemporary conjuncture of US imperialism—which itself is the latest stage of US capitalism—is intimately implicated in the theologization of a gangster logic that finds almost relentless expression in ‘holy’ war.
Žižek also makes the point that the processes of imperialization, theologization, and financialization are all profoundly intertwined: Just mark how the US had already succeeded in inaugurating a fantastic but a real ‘dollar theology,’ if you will—one that continuously re-writes the Name-of-the-Father as the Name-of-God into those dollar-notes folks exchange and circulate. Invoking Eduardo Galeano, I feel like saying: yes, it is the US that can prove that its God, Gold, and Gun can be everywhere. Imperialism is ‘pan-US-theism.’ Funny? Yes. But it’s also dangerous, as Žižek suggests.
Then Žižek turns to certain mechanics of US imperialism: ‘the US acts globally but thinks locally.’ In other words, as Zizek maintains, the US acts like an empire but always thinks like a nation. I immediately find my own contention somewhat reinforced here, the contention being that US nationalism has already turned out to be the opium of the masses in many cases. Zizek then moves on to a particularly significant and signifying irony: ‘it’s ironic that the US also wants to be a secular nation and that’s exactly like what Saddam Hussein wants his nation to be.’ Zizek then offers a choice: now you decide if Saddam is the Real Enemy of Bush or an ideological mirror-image of the US ‘secular’ crusader.
In a quick but related move, Žižek then famously dwells on Donald Rumsfeld’s brand of epistemology. In fact, Žižek—funnily enough—contours Rumsfeldian epistemology by advancing three categorical enunciations: ‘1) There are things we know that we know; 2) there are things we know that we don’t know, and 3) then there are things we don’t know that we don’t know.’ According to Žižek, the ground assault against Iraq is itself the proof that the US knew Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction (if Saddam did, the US wouldn’t have had a ground war). Then Žižek poses the question—‘What about the unknown knowns?’—suggesting that this question constitutes a philosophical debate within the US now, while also indicating with his characteristic laugh that without Rumsfeldian epistemology there’s indeed no imperial war—no imperialism.
As for anti-imperial resistances in and outside the US, Žižek does not say much, although he emphasizes the role of the US left to an extent. At every chance he gets, however, Žižek seems to be ridiculing at least part of the US left. He asserts that the problem with the US left sometimes resides in fighting the false battles, and that ‘the left accepts too much commonsense middle-ground with the argument that Iraq wasn’t so bad off, for instance.’
‘Really?’ asks Žižek. Then he ends his talk by arguing that Negri’s and Hardt’s proposition that the apparently old-fashioned word ‘masses’ be replaced by the ‘multitude’ does not wash with him at all not only because—in Žižek reckoning—Negri and Hardt end up misreading Spinoza’s formulation of the ‘multitude,’ but also because the term ‘multitude’ runs the risk of being co-opted by neoliberal capitalism today.
Now, in my conversation with Žižek, he said a number of things that I found intriguing. One of the first things he told was: ‘Earlier I wasn’t Marxist enough. I was in fact more in psychoanalysis than in Marxism. But it’s different now. I think I’m moving in the direction of even Leninism.’ But why Lenin? ‘Oh yes, his acute analysis of imperialism!’ replied Žižek, while indicating that many of Lenin’s works have remained thoroughly unexplored even for those waxing lyrical on the need for things and theories Leninist.
And Žižek, in the conversation in question, advanced his by-now-familiar notion of ‘repeating Lenin’ whereby he continues to mean our re-invention of—not just a nostalgia for—Lenin through seizing the opportunities that Lenin himself missed, filling in the gaps that he left behind, and the possibilities he suggested. Žižek strongly emphasized the need for returning to Lenin, more than ever, while suggesting a la Lenin that, to quote Žižek, ‘economy is the key domain, the battle will be decided there, one has to break the spell of the global capitalism. But the intervention should be properly political, not economic.’
So those who have already celebrated the so-called ‘death of politics’ find Žižek not only on the other side of the conceptual and theoretical spectrum, but also amply politically threatening. No, politics is not dead.
What I also found intriguing was the ways in which he was re-reading (in every conversation—as many stories have it—Žižek appears as a stubborn re-reader!) Lenin to show how he was already developing a theory of a particularly strategic role of World Wide Web. What Zizek said that day in our conversation can also be found in his kick-ass essay called ‘Repeating Lenin.’
Then Žižek expressed his discontent with Verso, saying that it didn’t accept his edited collection of essays on Lenin. He added, ‘Do you think Verso is on the left? Left, my foot! But, you know, Duke has accepted my manuscript.’
Apart from Lenin, the issue of war came up in our conversation. Žižek spoke of ‘decaf war’—‘war without casualties on our side’—while at the same time he underlined today’s hedonism in the US thus: ‘drink as much coffee as you want, because it’s already decaf!’ Then he spoke of ‘chocolate laxatives’ that, according to him, coincide with their opposite, marijuana: ‘decaf opium.’ For Zizek, then, Rumsfeldian epistemology together with ‘decaf war’ or ‘chocolate laxative war’—among other things—come to characterize today’s US imperialism. See, Žižek is so capable of rambling about coffee, chocolate, Coke, colonialism, and Columbus—and, trust me, conundrums.
Dr Azfar Hussain taught English, cultural studies, and comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University and Bowling Green State University in the US before his recent move to North South University, Dhaka, where he teaches English.
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