The Magician of Ljubljana

By Assaf Sagiv

The totalitarian dreams of Slavoj Žižek.

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ntellectuals possess a special kind of power. Unlike politicians, generals, or corporate bosses, they lack both the authority and the ability to impose their will directly on others. They must therefore rely on “symbolic capital,” a term the historian Shlomo Zand of Tel Aviv University explains this way:
The power of their presence in the consciousness of their colleagues, or in wider public circles, is what establishes their status. As an offshoot, their power source is predominantly the symbolic prestige capital they accumulate. This capital, in many ways similar to financial capital, is obviously not a “thing,” but an attitude. To a certain extent it may be said that the thought patterns of consumers of intellectual output are the banks in which this precious capital is accumulated. This symbolic power can be measured in academic degrees, in prizes, in the extent of mentions and attributions, in the number of publications, and in many other practices routinely employed in the stock exchange of respect and acclamation.1
By these standards, it is safe to say that a sizable quantity of “symbolic capital” is today concentrated in the hands of Slavoj Žižek, philosopher, cultural commentator, and abounding wordsmith. Since the 1989 publication of his first book in English, Žižek, a senior researcher in the faculty of social sciences at Ljubljana University, has become the hot name of the Western intellectual scene. His books, translated into dozens of languages, have earned near-unanimous acclaim: The New Yorker crowned him an “international star” and credited him with putting his mother country, Slovenia, on the world map of ideas.2 Sarah Kay, professor of French literature at the University of Cambridge and author of a critical introduction to Žižek’s work, maintains that his enormous influence on the humanities and social sciences is reminiscent of the profound impression made by French thinker Michel Foucault on these academic disciplines during the seventies and eighties.3 And Glyn Daly, a senior lecturer in politics at University College, Northampton, who published a book of conversations with Žižek, describes him as “the philosophical equivalent of a virulent plague.”4 For its part, The Chronicle of Higher Education employed a slightly less ominous metaphor to describe the unique status of the Slovenian theoretician: “Žižek,” it writes, “is the Elvis of cultural theory.”5
What is the secret of Žižek’s magic? It is not, as we might expect, his theoretical innovations—he himself, after all, shrinks from claims of originality. Rather, it must be traced to his unique, highly idiosyncratic style. Unlike philosophers and academics who are only too happy to ensconce themselves in an ivory tower, Žižek is a master at bridging the gap between sophisticated theoretical ideas and popular, “low” culture. Thus, one finds in his writings a psychoanalytical analysis of scenes from Hitchcock films or an erudite discussion of the philosophical significance behind the surprise in Kinder chocolate eggs. His stockpile of associations is both wide-ranging and inexhaustible; no cultural phenomenon, however vulgar or banal, escapes his theoretical scalpel. His essays are also awash in humor and irony—both of which he often directs against himself—and although it is often difficult to follow the convoluted course of his arguments, his books always make for rollicking good reads.
But Žižek’s cultural criticism is not merely an intellectual diversion. Rather, his thinking aims to make a political statement of practical significance. Žižek disdains intellectuals who renounce the ambition to alter reality; instead, he wholeheartedly adopts the old Marxist adage according to which it is not enough to interpret the world—one must also set it right.
In light of this pretension, and of Žižek’s celebrated status in intellectual discourse, some attempt should be made to clarify the political vision that guides him, and to determine how precisely he believes the world should be “set right.” The answer may be hard to swallow: Žižek is perhaps the most extreme and outspoken of those intellectuals who align themselves with what goes by the name of “radical” politics. He routinely defends repressive, totalitarian regimes, openly supports political terror tactics, and advocates the violent dismantlement of the existing order.
We should not make the mistake of dismissing these opinions as the inane provocations of an eccentric personality. After all, they are firmly rooted in Žižek’s theoretical beliefs, and derive from his interpretation of central concepts in philosophy and psychoanalysis. True, it is no simple matter to pin down Žižek’s political convictions, owing to his fondness for rhetorical pyrotechnics and intentional self-contradictions. Yet anyone who is held sway by the explosive power of ideas cannot ignore the arguments of the magician of Ljubljana, or remain indifferent in the face of the abyss to which he would lead us....

Assaf Sagiv is Associate Editor of AZURE. His last essay in AZURE was “Globalization: Just Do It” (AZURE 19, Winter 2005).

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