On the Banality of Slavoj Zizek
In this interview with the Guardian, Slavoj Zizek comes across as at once charming and revolting. On the one hand, he is delightfully eccentric, storing laundry in his kitchen cupboards and spending time with his son in swimming pools built on the top of 50 story skyscrapers. Also endearing is the tender side he reveals through his romantic idealism and compassion for the vulnerable. As for the revolting side, Zizek goes on at length about how much he dislikes people–especially students. In his more offensive moments, Zizek says things like this:
I’m really more and more becoming Stalinist. Liberals always say about totalitarians that they like humanity, as such, but they have no empathy for concrete people, no? OK, that fits me perfectly. Humanity? Yes, it’s OK – some great talks, some great arts. Concrete people? No, 99% are boring idiots.
As usual, it is difficult to tell whether or not Zizek is serious here. Much of what Zizek says is deliberately offensive, so it seems plausible that he is going for shock value. Moreover, later in the interview he advocates social activism that takes place on a global scale “without regressing to some authoritarian rule.” Apparently authoritarianism is not such a great thing.
As if to keep us guessing, Zizek states that he is indeed to be taken seriously:
Most people think I’m making jokes, exaggerating – but no, I’m not. It’s not that. First I tell jokes, then I’m serious. No, the art is to bring the serious message into the forum of jokes.
While some might be inclined to further inquire at this point, I must confess that I begin to lose interest. Partly, this is because I am not genuinely worried that Zizek’s influence will spread beyond a small cadre of starry eyed graduate students and would-be intellectuals. But is also due to the fact that, for all his showmanship, Zizek doesn’t seem to have all that much to say. Peel away the veneer of Zizek’s revolutionary rhetoric and what you find is mere truism (as holds true for many of Zizek’s peers in academia, incidentally).
Let me take a simple example from the interview. As summarized by his interviewer, Zizek sounds bold and insightful:
In essence, he argues that nothing is ever what it appears, and contradiction is encoded in almost everything. Most of what we think of as radical or subversive – or even simply ethical – doesn’t actually change anything.
Notice, however, the triteness of the Zizek quote that follows:
“Like when you buy an organic apple, you’re doing it for ideological reasons, it makes you feel good: ‘I’m doing something for Mother Earth,’ and so on. But in what sense are we engaged? It’s a false engagement. Paradoxically, we do these things to avoid really doing things. It makes you feel good. You recycle, you send £5 a month to some Somali orphan, and you did your duty.”
This is the kind of wisdom one would expect from a youth pastor or high school guidance counselor. It is on par with saying, “not everyone who goes to church is truly a Christian” or “not everyone who gets good grades or has a high paying job is happy on the inside.” And yet, coming from Zizek, it is taken to be a profound insight.
One of Zizek’s critics has apparently labeled him the “Borat of philosophy” due to his penchant for scandalous remarks. I think it would be truer to describe him as the Ozzy Osborne or the Kiss of philosophy, due to his reliance on the rhetorical equivalent of fake blood, pyrotechnics, and face paint to mask the banality underlying most of what he says.