Birkbeck’s Big Ideas: Slavoj Žižek

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, of Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Why do we so consistently act against our best collective interests? As the deleterious effects of climate change and the ecological disaster of unsustainable neoliberal models of economic growth become undeniable, why do so many of us take refuge in an affected cynicism, pouring scorn on plutocratic elites while allowing them to continue enriching themselves at the expense of the people and the planet? Why is our response to the democratic deficit evidenced by the crisis in the Eurozone and the global financial crisis one of weary resignation and sardonic inactiveness? In other words, how do we explain human passivity in the face of overwhelming provocation to organise, protest and affect change?

11004113_10155242752270634_1031773294_nBirkbeck’s Big Ideas events consider thought-provoking issues in history, politics, literature, education and philosophy. The current series of five lectures, delivered by Birkbeck and the Whitechapel Ideas Store, explore the work of the theorist Slavoj Žižek, wrestling with some of the philosophical challenges he has thrown at us and considering how he might help us interpret and change our contemporary moment.

Žižek is a something of a superstar and a ubiquitous presence, frequently publishing books (he currently has over 50 titles to his name), penning numerous articles, giving frequent lectures and interviews, and voicing his opinions on countless aspects of modern life. He is also the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Although popular, prolific and perspicacious, Žižek is also a famously abstruse thinker, melding German philosophy, Marxist politics and French psychoanalysis to produce idiosyncratic analyses of present-day woes that can be wilfully dense, confusingly complex, blistering and enraged, ludic, larky and purposefully perverse. He is a thinker derided as much as he is admired, starkly dividing opinion with his fiercely erudite approach, his shabby prankster media persona and his forceful, contrary pronouncements.

The first lecture in the series introduced Žižek and considered how he is an important and useful thinker. After a useful biographical sketch from Dane Pedro, a PhD law student at Birkbeck, Jeff Smith-Hayzer of the Whitechapel Ideas Store, a self-proclaimed Žižek fanboy, elucidated some of the key ideas of the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’.

Žižek grew up in communist Slovenia and studied philosophy in Ljubljana and psychoanalysis in Paris. He is unfashionably Marxist, foregrounding the class struggle and deriding capitalism and its politics of consumerist passivity. Although Žižek’s theoretical concerns align him with other ‘postmodern’ thinkers, he is scornful of the idea that we exist in a ‘post-ideological’ world or that we have reached the ‘End of History’, as Francis Fukuyama famously termed it, in which liberal democracy and economics have rightly triumphed as the only effective, logical and ‘natural’ structures for governing and living. Instead, Žižek urges, we must creatively refuse political ‘realities’.

Deploying psychoanalytic frames of reference, Žižek considers how our unconscious fantasies structure reality. For Žižek, modern subjectivity and politics are characterised by a disavowal or split in which we deny or refuse to believe those things that we know. Central to Žižek’s work is a persistent questioning, an unpicking, of the assumptions that shape how we live our lives and his insistence that we traverse the fantasies that shape the Symbolic, the social world of language, ideology, relationships and the law (which Žižek, following the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, calls ‘the big Other’). For Žižek, these psychic mechanisms are appropriated and exploited by ideology and our knowing cynicism actually signifies our thrall to the big Other. The imperative we most guiltily obey these days is ‘Enjoy!’, but, for Žižek, the constrained freedom we exercise within power structures – our ‘freedom’ to choose this or that product, holiday, house – contrasts with the actual freedom to ‘choose the impossible’ and intervene to alter the status quo.

Professor Bill Bowring

Professor Bill Bowring

In the second lecture, Birkbeck’s Professor Bill Bowring considered what Žižek means when he deploys the notoriously slippery and difficult term ‘ideology’. Starting from the OED definition of ideology as a ‘system of ideas and ideals’, Bowring considered how ideology presents society and its institutions as unified, unitary, fixed, unchangeable, rational, natural and universal. We know that our politicians make terrible decisions, but we believe that, ultimately, our governing structures tend towards the good, disavowing the truth of our social reality. Bowring also considered how Žižek has modified and expanded Marx’s notion of ‘commodity fetishism’, which describes the reduction of human worth and social relationships to the level of economic and monetary value. Žižek takes commodity fetishism, by which the oppressive social relations that structure capitalism are made opaque, and aligns it with the Lacanian observation that we disavow that which we know while the fetish conceals the lack around which the Symbolic order is orientated. Bowring also explained how Žižek has taken Lacan’s observation that Marx invented the psychoanalytic notion of the symptom and made this idea central to his work. In psychoanalysis, repressed desires find alternative modes of satisfaction and emerge as symptoms, which are usually debilitating or detrimental to the individual, such as anxiety or obsessive compulsions. For Žižek, the symptom is a universal condition of human life that can never be overcome, only enjoyed, so his work focuses on uncovering those symptoms in culture and politics. This gives his work an almost limitless field of analysis and partly explains his famous intellectual profligacy.

The next lecture in the series will be on Tuesday 24 March when Maria Aristodemou, Senior Lecturer from the Birkbeck School of Law, will discuss how Žižek marshals the psychoanalytic theories of Lacan to explore how consumerism extends and exploits our unconscious fantasies.


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