Slavoj Zizek is the most popular philosopher of our day. In his work, we primarily find the influence of Jacques Lacan, Karl Marx, and Georg Hegel. We also find many references to the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and the writer Gilbert Chesterton. We also find that almost nothing on earth is alien to his mind. Everything can be grasped and processed by his muscular theory machine.
Zizek looks like a bear.
The philosopher was born in what was then (1949) a part of a strange complex called Yugoslavia, and is now a simple and small country called Slovenia. Because his country was once committed to realizing on earth a people's paradise, Zizek still has strong feelings for the specter that once haunted all of Europe—communism. Shortly after his country became independent in 1991, he revived Plato's dream of the philosopher king and ran for the highest office in his country. Unsurprisingly, he lost.
To the question of his private life, judging from his very many books (and the repetitions in those books) and the recent documentary about him, ZIZEK!, one has to answer that the public Zizek is surely not that different from the private one. Indeed, the most brilliant scene in the documentary is of the philosopher in his bed, naked, blanket up to the bottom of his hairy chest, back on the headboard, theorizing to the camera on some difficult matter concerning 19th-century German thinking.
When Zizek speaks, his tongue slicks and slides many of the words that exit his mouth into a near panic. But let's not get into that. Let's turn instead to his new book, Violence, which is a part of Picador's paperback series called Big Ideas/Small Books. Those who are familiar with Zizek's work will find nothing new in this brief and fast examination of violence. There are lots of jokes, lots of references to Hollywood flicks (World Trade Center, The Fugitive, Children of Men, and so on), lots of digressions and ideas that are dropped as quickly as they are picked up. Some chapters are brilliant (particularly "Divine Violence"—in itself a masterpiece of contemporary thought), some are very messy, and the whole book is readable. Not once does he descend into the depths of difficult theorizing. Indeed, if you have never read this philosopher, this is a great book with which to enter his comic/cosmic/communistic world.
Also in the book are some of Zizek's favorite commodities—products that are repeatedly caught in the web of his philosophy. I must list three:
On page 21: "chocolate laxative." It's available in the U.S. and advertised in this manner: "Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate." What he finds fascinating about this product is that it makes you eat "the very thing that causes constipation in order to be cured from it." Like Diet Coke and decaffeinated coffee, the "logic of chocolate laxative" is a product that undoes itself. And Zizek believes that this kind of commodity ("one through which we get the desired result without having to suffer unpleasant side effects") is the ultimate commodity of our age. The products of the 21st century are more and more becoming nothing.
On page 130: "Tuscany fries." These are available at a restaurant near the University of Illinois in Champaign. This is how Zizek discovered them:
This commodity is related to the "rose of Muhammad," the name the Irani government picked for "Danish pastry," in response to the offensive Muhammad cartoon that was published in the Danish daily.
Finally, on page 167: "wind-free beans." This product, which may not yet be on the market, was developed by scientists in Venezuela. "Through genetic manipulations," writes Zizek, "the [scientists] succeeded in growing beans which, upon consumption, do not generate bad-smelling and socially embarrassing wind." This type of bean is, of course, related to the "chocolate laxative"—it's a product that undoes itself.
With all of his digressions, jokes, knowledge of junk/popular culture, is Zizek precisely not like these products that negate themselves? Isn't he a philosopher who undoes himself? He is a philosopher without the unpleasant side effects of philosophy.
Slavoj Zizek reads Mon Sept 8, Town Hall, 7:30 pm, $5.