Not since post-modernism reached saturation point in the Eighties has theory (as opposed to the practice of tunnel-digging and tree-house building) been so fashionable. Youth and style magazines like Dazed and Confused and The Idler are stuffed with lengthy interviews with contemporary thinkers. But Zizek, recently voted "most entertaining speaker" by London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, is a rather different experience from the laid-back and frankly impenetrable intellectual stars of the Seventies and Eighties like Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida. His manic monologues, drawing on all aspects of culture from the operas of Wagner to the films of Jim Carrey, leave his fans in a state of excitement rarely associated with the world of philosophy. With his thick Slovenian accent and wonderfully Freudian speech impediment he sounds like a turbocharged Eastern European vacuum cleaner, sucking the debris of modern life into his hyperactive brain.
Finding "Adorno" next to "Alvin Stardust" in the index of yet another trendy treatise from post-modern academia has long provided students with harmless pleasure. The difference with Zizek is that his cultural ecleticism is bent to serious political purpose. Colin McCabe, head of research at the British Film Institute in London and himself one of the most influential writers on film and theory in this country, is overflowing with enthusiasm for the radical Slovenian philosopher: "What makes him so important is his ability to relate the most abstract theoretical language to the most concrete political facts. He uses contemporary films like Breaking the Waves and Leaving Las Vegas as a way of meditating on contemporary emotional and sexual relationships and manages to decode Lacan in the process. With his specific East European perspective, and unapologetic development of the ideas of Freud and Marx, Zizek is doing what no one else has done. He makes theory interesting and important again."
Born in 1949, Zizek studied philosophy at the University of Ljubljana during the years of Communism and then immersed himself in the teachings of the infamous and influential psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in Paris. Back in Slovenia he was politically active in the alternative movement during the Eighties, and later ran for the presidency of the Republic of Slovenia in the country's first multi-party elections. His English language conquest of the realms of film, politics and popular culture really began in the early Nineties, when he edited the seminal Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). Since then, he has produced eight more books, dozens of articles and been translated into twelve languages - all while holding down his day job as senior researcher at the Institute of Social Studies in his home town. His next The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, will consolidate his assault on the foundations of contemporary political thought.
Urgency, bordering on emergency, best describes Zizek's approach to philosophising. After a three-hour phone interview he is willing to talk in stream of consciousness mode for another two hours, "as long as I don't collapse". It's no surprise to find the superheated Zizek has recently been the victim of panic attacks. De Beauvoir to his Sartre, Zizek's wife Renata Salecl (herself an impressively eclectic cultural theorist) recently stood in for her beleaguered husband at a conference on feminism and psychoanalysis. While they have collaborated on the cosy-sounding title Gaze and Voice as Love Object, being married to Zizek could be a full-time job in its own right.
Impatient of his own frailty, Zizek rages against the trend to medicalise complex human emotions and is one of the few intellectuals prepared to speak out against the reduction of the psychological to the biological. On the delicate subject of the new impotence- curing wonder drug, Zizek (who habitually speaks in lecture-room mode) declares: "Does not changing erection into something that can be achieved through a direct medical intervention deny the man knowledge of his true attitude? In what form will his dissatisfaction find an outlet, when it is deprived of the simple sign of impotence?"
In Zizek's view we short-circuit the emotional at our peril. Problems arise not only when desires are denied expression, but, above all, when they are too easily attained. Most of us fantasise about doing a job we enjoy for a living instead of the daily drudge. But Zizek reminds us to be careful what we wish for, because it just might come true: "If anyone embodies the potential catch-22 in the future of work, it is the young hackers employed by companies like Microsoft. It's like a distorted realisation of Marx's dream of disalienation. Here one no longer faces the split between one's job and one's own private pleasures. The hired hacker is paid to indulge his `individuality'. The employer's demand is no longer 'Behave properly, wear grey suits' etc - it's 'Be as idiosyncratic as you can, indulge in your crazy ideas - you will lose your job if you don't.' You are paid not to slave away at a job you hate but, on the contrary, to enjoy yourself. Yet the pressure is much worse."
With a renaissance man's grasp of the world around him (as Slovenia "ambassador of science" he has developed an in-depth knowledge of quantum physics) and a journalist's eye for detail (he writes regularly in one of the national papers) Zizek's often contentious observations are usually rooted in hard evidence: "I spoke with a psychiatrist whose main customers are Microsoft people and she told me that they can take it for a couple of years then the job gets so suffocating they disappear. They move a little bit East, you know, towards those horrible states like Montana and Idaho and then become - how do you call them? - survivalists, extreme right-wing gangsters. They simply want to escape! They cannot stand it!"
Not content with comparing the almighty to a kind of technological terrapin (sadly, the constraints of space prevent us from reproducing his entirely cogent argument here), Zizek goes on to liken the rigours of tamagochi care to the ultimately false and sterile activity of contemporary politics. His key philosophical concern is with the distinction between "Act" and (mere) "activity"; "The most succinct definition of false activity is as follows; when I am frenetically active not to achieve something, but in order to prevent something from happening." For Zizek, identity politics, superficially dedicated to promoting concrete, practical ends (for example saving the rain forests or lowering the age of consent) nevertheless unconsciously avoids confronting the root of social problems. "Like the obsessional neurotic, the 'new political movements' are frantically active precisely in order to insure that something - that which really matters, the smooth functioning of the market - will not be disturbed."
This last phrase is the giveaway. Whilst Marx has become rather chic of late, with intellectuals falling over themselves to declare their debt to an abridged version of his ideas, Zizek is unusual in holding on to the most radical aspects of his legacy. This "terrible old Stalinist" (as he self-mockingly puts it) challenges the notion that there can be no alternative to the market. "Politics is a very recent thing, perhaps it will have been only a brief episode in human history. Maybe the situation is globally pessimistic, and political acts as such will soon no longer be possible. Until that time, we must try to locate the universal demand in any particular struggle and to repoliticise the economic."
So, when he's not contemplating the future prospects for human emancipation, how does Zizek relax? Does this populist polymath ever worry that, having made his cultural pleasures the stuff of his theoretical labour, he will end up like one of those deracinated microserfs? "You know the stereotype of the teenage boy who wraps up his copy of Playboy in The Principles of Mathematics or whatever? Well, for me the situation is reversed. I pretend to be reading popular literature, but inside it's some purely theoretical work by Hegel. That's what I really enjoy."
Slavoj Zizek is participating in 'Art and Psychoanalysis', a one-day conference at the Tate Gallery on 26 June. His latest book, 'The Plague of Fantasies', is published by VersoReuse content