By Michael Posner, Globe and Mail, October 22, 2011
Financier George Soros has conferred his benediction. So have filmmaker Michael Moore, author Chris Hedges, actor Susan Sarandon and other luminaries. But if the burgeoning, still inchoate Occupy Wall Street movement can claim any sort of messiah, it is a bearded, slightly rotund 62-year-old Slovenian academic named Slavoj Zizek.
Mr. Zizek (pronounced Zheezhek) – a veritable rock star of philosophy and cultural theory – may be the modern Western world's most dangerous adversary.
He turned up recently at the OWS epicentre in New York's Zuccotti Park, appropriately clad in a bright red T-shirt. The authorities had banned the use of microphones, lest the protest disturb the neighbourhood's peace (although as he spoke, a raucous Hispanic Day parade was snaking up Fifth Avenue). So Mr. Zizek's speech had to be declaimed, sentence by sentence, then echoed by the standing choir in cascading waves. Idea surfing in the mosh pit of lower Manhattan.
His core message, perfectly calibrated to our distressed zeitgeist, is not new. In fact, it is the same subversive sermon Mr. Zizek has been preaching for two decades, disseminated in more than 50 books, several documentary films and scores of personal appearances. Its essence is this: Global, liberal, democratic capitalism as we know it is experiencing its death spiral, choking on its own excess. The only serious question is what will ensue.
“They tell you we are dreamers,” he declared in New York, reminiscent of Vladimir Lenin addressing socialist comrades in Berne, 1916. “The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare. We're not destroying anything. We're watching the system destroy itself.”...
What's disarming about Mr. Zizek, however, is the current of cold realism that courses through his work. He freely acknowledges that communism, wherever practised and under any name, has been a near-total disaster. He watched the train wreck unfold, growing up in Ljubljana under Kremlin rule. Identified early as a dissident, he spent several years in socialist limbo, functionally unemployed.
He knows, too, how easy it is to surrender to the euphoric esprit of revolution. “Carnivals come cheap,” he told the protesters. “What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. … There is a long road ahead. … We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism?”
He often invokes Winston Churchill's coy aphorism, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms,” yet points out that the most efficient form of capitalism is today practised by regimes that are neither liberal nor democratic – namely, China and Singapore.
Now a visiting professor at New York University and other American campuses, Mr. Zizek spends half the year at the University of Ljubljana, lectures each summer at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and is international director of the University of London's Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities....
His voluminous writings testify to the catholic range of Mr. Zizek's scholarship – dense tomes devoted to his ideological mentors, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx and Jacques Lacan, as well as more accessible books on Alfred Hitchcock, fantasy, terror and a dozen other subjects. The Zizekian archive of articles is equally vast, encompassing the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, the Pope, Hollywood films, even the hit TV series 24. His latest book, Living in the End Times, devotes five pages to analyzing the animated children's film Kung Fu Panda through a Lacanian lens.
There is scarcely a subject on which Mr. Zizek has no considered opinion – even if, as with James Cameron's Avatar, he has not yet seen the film. “I like what Oscar Wilde said about book reviewing,” he explains. “Better to not read the book beforehand. It will only cloud your judgment.”
A sit-down session with Mr. Zizek, who is functional in eight languages, is more audience than interview. Forever tugging at his beard or nose, he stirs restlessly in his chair, ideas exploding from his brain, volcanically. In a single minute, he migrates from Samuel Beckett (“my hero”) to psychoanalytic theory to natural science to ideology to Wagner.
Although he once ran for president in Slovenia under a Liberal Democratic banner, he insists he was simply seeking to impede the ascent of right-wing nationalists – the very kind, he laments, who are now gaining power in several former Soviet republics.
British psychoanalyst Ian Parker, author of a key study of Mr. Zizek's writings, calls him “a radical force in the academic world, mobilizing a new generation against capitalism. For all of my criticisms, his work has been progressive and useful.”..
I am not celebrating violence. On the contrary.” Mahatma Gandhi, the maharishi of civil disobedience, was actually more violent than Adolf Hitler, he says, because his goal was to sabotage Britain's colonial state. Hitler, on the other hand, wanted to change nothing systemically. “He wanted the German state to function more efficiently. He was afraid of real change. That's the best definition of fascism.”
Violence that actually kills people, he says, quoting his friend, French philosopher Alain Badiou, “is meant to keep things the way they are.” The violence of the Wall Street protesters, on the other hand, is purely ideological. “We want to change the order. That is the violence I am for – real change.”