The Books Interview: The giant of Ljubljana

Slavoj Zizek, Slovenia's superstar philosopher, backs the war against his ex-bosses. Guy Mannes-Abbott met him
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The Independent Culture
I had read Slavoj Zizek's distinctive work before I saw him speak about - or rather, perform - it in public. To witness a lecture by Zizek is rather like watching matter exploding in space. He has enormous energy and reach, stages a dazzling display of ideas, and makes the phrase "miracles do happen!" ring with a new truth. Zizek's appearances generate adulatory laughter and cheers. They embody what Terry Eagleton describes as his "enviable knack of making Kant" (among other thinkers) "sound riotously exciting."

Zizek is a bundle of unlikely elements. He's arguably the brightest and most significant star in Europe's philosophical cosmos, throwing out light by way of an infectious plundering of popular culture and an interest in the tabloid domain of Viagra and virtual pets. Crucially, he is a theorist of the whole when the perceived wisdom is that grand philosophical theory is now neither credible nor possible. Worse, that theory is rooted in Freud and Marx, and fuses the notoriously opaque thinking of Jacques Lacan with the founding figures of German Idealism from Kant to Hegel.

However, Zizek - like any original - is re-writing the rules. His cultish popularity since the collapse of Eastern European socialism a decade ago has made him a lot hipper than the legions of philosophical cynics. More than that, his thinking restores life to the possibility of a radical political project and so rejects the notion that the state we're in is a paradise-like "end of history". It does so with the piquancy of his direct involvement in real change in his native Slovenia, when the republic was forced to opt out of Serb-controlled former Yugoslavia and declare independence in 1990.

The Slovenians were the first to be attacked by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, in the three-day war of 1990. That conflict revealed the extent of international apathy towards Milosevic's aggressive nationalism, which has culminated in the Kosovan war. Today, Zizek lambasts "the interminable procrastination" of Western governments and says that "I definitely support the bombing" of Milosevic's regime by Nato. But he argues that Milosevic is also symptomatic of the New World Order, and that our real focus should be on creating "transnational political movements" to counter it.

An American critic famously described Zizek as "the giant of Ljubljana". That charmed city, untouched by the wars of former Yugoslavia, remains his home. It is dominated by a hill topped by a castle and looped by bridges - the central feature in a redesign by the proto-postmodernist architect Josef Plecnik. His grandly eccentric parliament was never built on the hill, but his incongruous monument to Napoleon is visible among the medley of styles down below. The perspective reminds me of the bird's-eye view of the town in Hitchcock's The Birds - one of Zizek's favourite references. The philosopher's home is just east of the centre as it reaches towards a kind of Slovenian Shoreditch of warehouses.

Zizek lives in a modern apartment building which has an expensively elegant air. Inside, it feels the opposite of lived-in: cool and tidy. Zizek tells me he is "obsessed with it; how everything must be in its proper place". He works nearby in another tidy apartment: the obverse of his writing, with its speculative freedom, its promiscuous appetites and astonishing urgency.

Zizek is a blur of animation, huge frowns and life-saving gestures at perpetual odds with a subversive smile in his beard. He is a symposium of philosophers. But this insistent vitality is a faithful embodiment of the substance of his ideas, which are uncompromising in their desire to breach the limits of what we think.

Zizek has two books out in Britain this spring. The Zizek Reader (edited by Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright; Blackwell, pounds 15.99) is an excellent introduction to his thinking and contains the first systematic criticism of his work, in editorial introductions to each essay. In his own preface, Zizek makes his gambit explicit by his categorical rejection of the "hegemonic trends of today's academia".

In The Ticklish Subject: the absent centre of political ontology (Verso, pounds 20), he lays out the substance to this philosophical gambit. We live in an age defined by digitalisation and biogenetics, which has produced the first map of the universe. And in Slavoj Zizek we have a philosopher to match. The Ticklish Subject is a massive work of critical intelligence and philosophical rigour. It attempts to "reassert the dimension of universality as the true opposite of capitalist globalism". Zizek is positioning himself against the notion that all we can do now is deepen our democratic foundations, or that the once-liberating proliferation of cultural, sexual, regional identities is subversive any more. He argues that these are merely postmodern supplements to global capitalism. The task is to break out of it.

Zizek tells me that he agrees with Lacan's dictum that "you must not compromise your desire". He adds, however, that "my focus is not Lacan", but Descartes and German Idealism, especially Hegel. Ultimately, Zizek wants "to defend philosophically the dimension of modern Cartesian subjectivity", and this is the very complex subject of his new book.

In a sentence, Zizek's subjectivity is not the old notion of the self but something contingent, created in a void, in place of the Nothingness which is in turn the "traumatic core of the modern subject". Relatedly, epoch-making change in history occurs only when "a negative gesture" shatters a symbolic social order and in this new "night of the world", a "higher order" is founded.

This is the focus of The Ticklish Subject, which devours all serious thought from the Bible through to Heidegger and the Frankfurt School, German Idealism, Marx, Freud and Lacan. It goes through Parisian theory from Louis Althusser to the current star Alain Badiou, across several disciplines, and up to sociologists such as the Reith Lecturer, Anthony Giddens. This scrupulous breadth is "not some inherent honesty", he says, but a neurotic obsession motored by the fear: "What if the guy is right?"

Zizek was a precocious youth who published a book on Heidegger when he was 22. His first PhD and earliest writings made the connections which develop through his many books to cohere definitively in The Ticklish Subject. However, his passage has not been smooth or conventional. Although his significant role in the Slovenian protest movement has left him close to the country's social democratic government, his philosophical dissidence is profound. He says "I must have been about 17 when it became clear to me that I would become a philosopher. But then it took some time."

He leapt at the ideas emerging from Paris in the late Sixties, but his forceful advocacy of them in Tito's Yugoslavia nearly ruined him. When the moment came to take up a promised job at his university to complete his PhD, he was ostracised. This was the period in the mid Seventies of "the last counter-attack by hard liners in the Communist Party," Zizek says, in which a clampdown was cemented in a new constitution.

In Yugoslavia, awkward figures were not imprisoned but removed from influence. The unnaturally promising Zizek - already married with a child - was suddenly unemployed. "Throughout all of the mid-Seventies I was jobless. It was very humiliating." Eventually, although he was considered "too dissident to teach", he was "employed by the Central Committee of the Party". He describes this as "a nice paradox", one which led to a job as researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology in 1979. At the time, this was a further humiliation, but now he says "How shall I put it in Michael Fox terms? You saw that movie? It's The Secret of My Success."

The "secret" is that he has been able to do pure research ever since without constraint. "I'm even tempted to say that it was in those four years of unemployment that all the elements of what is now identified as the Slovenian School were established," he says, referring to a group of like-minded critics in Ljubljana. Implicitly, his total estrangement, combined with workaholism, have also shaped his thinking. Zizek is equally scathing about the old left's attachment to outmoded formulae and the Blairite embrace of "economic realities". Both are signs of failure, he argues.

Crucially for Zizek, "real politics" is not the art of the possible but of the impossible. "A political act proper" is one that has no utilitarian supports but which dissolves its context. He instances the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, the 36-year-old schoolteacher imprisoned in Seattle last year for a passionate love affair with her 14-year-old pupil. Her case proves that it is still possible to commit an act of liberating decisiveness, which involves acting on compulsion against all rational odds. Zizek argues that "we need more people with Mary Kay's stance in today's politics".

The surprising accessibility of his work - which typically contains as much Star Wars as subjectivity - is reflected in his cult following, but these two new titles deserve recognition for their substance. While the ruthless logic of globalisation elsewhere draws a chorus of resigned sighs, Slavoj Zizek remains determined to ask fundamental questions of it. The cliche that "everybody knows there's nothing to believe in anymore" gets a tough and exhilarating ride, as Zizek's ideas burn through the limits of the present consensus.

Slavoj Zizek, a biography

Slavoj Zizek was born in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia in the former Yugoslavia, in 1949. He obtained doctorates in philosophy and psychoanalysis from Ljubljana and Paris respectively, and retains the humble post of Senior Researcher at the Institute for Social Studies in Ljubljana that he has held since the 1970s, when the Yugoslavian authorities prevented him from teaching students. His many books include The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), Looking Awry (1991), Tarrying with the Negative (1993), The Indivisible Remainder (1996) and The Plague of Fantasies (1997), as well as several edited volumes including Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (but were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) in 1992. He has taught in various American universities and given lectures all over the world, but pointedly remains in Ljubljana with his second wife, the critic Renata Salecl.