Last Tuesday, philosopher Slavoj Zizek graced our campus to discuss the sorts of high ideals that the average person doesn’t understand. Along with three other panelists, Zizek shared his thoughts with our community. Bwog’s fabulous philosophy student, Zach Hendrickson, was in attendance and brings you this report.

Tuesday night I found myself back Altschul auditorium, this time to hear from world renowned Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek. (That marks the first and last time I will ever spend looking through the “symbols” menu on the computer.)

When I arrived at 5:30 the auditorium was already abuzz and over half-full. I bought a copy of Zizek’s newest book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, and took my seat. The audience was comprised of mostly grad students or above. There was a lot of paper grading and beard stroking going on. Needless to say, I stroked my own and tried to fit in. As I sat there quietly observing, I realized that nearly all the conversation around me was of a deep philosophical nature. I felt afraid, unprepared, and in way over my head.

Before long, the panelists made their way on stage. They were seated in the following order from left to right: Bruce Robbins, Lydia Liu, Stathis Gourgouris , and Slavoj Zizek. Gourgouris gave a brief introduction, noting that part of what makes Zizek’s work so fascinating is that it deliberately evokes disagreement.

When Zizek began to speak it was entirely counter-intuitive to the notion of how a philosopher should behave. He is loud, energetic, dynamic, fun, and candid. For example, one of the first things that he told us was that his newest book was put together rather quickly – he wasn’t sure what all of what he was about to say was actually in the book – and that he hated the cover. The book and the lecture primarily focused around Zizek’s analysis of the numerous political and social movements that took place around the world. I attempted to boil everything down into the three following points.

First, society requires an extraneous “other” with which individuals can antagonistically classify themselves against. Zizek uses an example of his time spent in India to bridge this concept with his second point, an attack on multiculturalism. He talked of how he spent time speaking out against the caste system in India and how Indian people would often confront him on the basis of cultural relativism. One of their points against Zizek was to bring up how colonial practices and the invasion of the English language forced them to immediately degrade their culture even to have the conversation. Zizek was quick to note, however, that English wasn’t his first language either. Also, only through the addition of something radically different can one distinguish what their culture actually is. “The fall retroactively generates what there was to fall from,” says Zizek.

His third point was an attack on liberalism and a representative democracy. He denounces attempts for reform as being silly dreams and proclaims that all reform accomplishes is convinces people that a capitalist culture can be good. Zizek believes that it cannot. He also argues, however, that this age is one of undoing. His worry is that people have not thought long enough or hard enough to capitalize on the moment. He talks about his frustration with the seemingly endless political discussion. Thus, with the title of his book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Zizek asks us all to attempt to envision a world without capitalism. For he believes the days of capitalism as we know it are numbered – not to say that it will simply go away. Rather that capitalism is unsustainable and must be changed. Unfortunately, “It is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than it is for us to imagine the end of capitalism.”

When it came time for the other panelists to respond they seemed almost frightened to have to respond to Zizek. Both Bruce Robbins and Lydia Liu read strictly from their notes and their voices often faltered. Bruce pointed out inconsistencies within Zizek’s text about whether capitalism or democracy was the real issue, discussed the values of certain reformatory actions like Welfare, and attacked Zizek’s position that most forms of resistance only serve to keep the system alive. Robbins believes that Zizek was speaking from a more disconnected academic perspective and hopes that his words to not inform peoples’ daily consciousness. Liu mainly critiqued Zizek’s psychoanalytic approach for failing to recognize the symbolic value of state power in society as it relates to globalization, especially in regards to the US dollar.

Stathis Gourgouris was the last panelist to speak and was by far the most confident. He and Zizek appeared to be much closer than the other panelists were. He had three main critiques. First, that capitalism and democracy don’t naturally go together; they only appear to be compatible because of liberalism. This was a response to Zizek’s attacks in the book on representative democracy. Second, dogma v. doxa is an important debate, but because of the gravity of decisions that need to be made more voices should always be consulted. Plus, no position can be “right” on its own. It has to grow from contention. Third, revolution v. reform is a false dilemma because even in the most radical revolutionary moments there is a remainder that is left over and must be dealt with. Nothing is ever entirely new.

After this, Zizek took a little time to defend his positions in the book and then answer a few audience questions. The first question came from a man named Raymond Lotta, a member of the Revolutionary Communist party and a critic of Zizek. His question rambling really played out like a scene from an old Western movie with the classic line that, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us!” Essentially he challenged Zizek to a public debate, and Zizek said they could have it out in April when he iss back on campus for a few weeks. The next couple of questions were more straightforward, and Zizek was always very generous in his explanations – attempting to give the asker a full picture of the conflict rather than just a disconnected response.

This young Bwog contributor must admit that though I enjoyed this lecture, I feel as if I missed much of the subtleties in the panelists’ arguments. There were often introductory statements advising the audience to disregard, for the moment, certain rhetorical connotations attached to a specific word that they were about to use, or to think of this phrase in the Hegelian or Lacanian sense…this meant nothing to me. I would sit there and wait for their introductory clauses to wrap themselves up and knew to tune back in when I heard a phrase like, “… but I think…” I feel as though this is an important distinction to make between what was digestible to the average listener as opposed to a PhD philosophy student. Don’t get me wrong, there was great insight to be found here, but it’s impossible for me to know if the message I got was the intended one.

Existential angst via Wikimedia Commons.