Zizek Thinks Out Loud on Ethics and Ideology


Slavoj Zizek is a bear of a man. Sitting before a packed Langdell North on March 14, his ironic t-shirt could barely contain his girth, wild hair – or energy. Zizek, a philosopher at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, is an intellectual superstar – he is the author of countless books and the subject of no fewer than three documentaries about his life and work. His academic background consists mainly in his fusion of Marx with the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, portending a heady mix for a room more used to playing host to Secured Transactions.

Zizek is best known, however, for his radical critiques of political orthodoxy, pop culture, and capitalism, which likely drew the standing-room-only crowd who came to marvel at his feisty presence. In the course of an hour, he will typically riff – sans notes – on subjects ranging from “the ontology of Donald Rumsfeld” to the “the depraved heroes of [the TV show] 24,” whom he calls “the Himmlers of Hollywood”. The crowd in Langdell North waited patiently through a sleepy talk by opening act Mladen Dolar, on “Freud and the Political”: a discussion which may have been theoretically provocative, but was delivered with little of the flair that has made Dolar’s colleague, the histrionic Zizek, famous. When Slavoj did begin to speak, one felt the contrast immediately.

While Dolar read dryly from prepared remarks, Zizek appeared to do little but think out loud. He began by instantaneously changing the title of his address to “the law and its obscene underside,” admitting he was “flirting” with the topic while “not really knowing” about the study of law. The “obscene underside” turned out to be contemporary ethics, more specifically, the ideals of tolerance and civility.

Zizek’s first claim was that real problems, such as ideological pressure and economic injustice, had been “culturized” – that there was a greater pressure in ethics on understanding others’ experiences and perspectives. In other words, rather than being concerned with the maxim “love your neighbor as yourself”, there exists a greater obligation not to objectify others, or, as Zizek put it, “to listen to your shitty story.” The problem with this, he observed, was that it led people to ask questions about whether, for example “Hitler is the enemy because we haven’t heard his story.”

“If you were to use this model under my dictatorship,” Zizek intoned, “you would get ten years of gulag before you finished [speaking a] sentence.” He noted that others’ “stories” were often lies masking more sinister truths, and that this made a mockery of the attempt to “understand others”. In this vein, he invoked the examples of the brutal French Cardinal Richelieu writing beautiful poetry, or the Zen Buddhist monks who supported Japanese imperialism.

More urgent than understanding others, Zizek claimed, was being able to get along with them without knowing much about them at all – to have a code of discretion which covered all one’s bases. “I want to be able to hate people,” he added.

Zizek then turned to customs and habits, other forms of rules on the “underside” of law. He observed that what was more important than learning rules themselves was learning what customs and habits violated those rules in order to, paradoxically, maintain them. He pointed to sexual abuse in the army and pedophilia in the church as examples. The hypocrisy implicit in these phenomena demonstrated, he said, that there was no longer any such direct thing as open, direct authority; while obeying authority, one had to act as if one were doing what one naturally would do, or want. Thus, he claimed, ideology was a natural state. There is a bedrock beneath the veneer of rules, laws, and the dogma of political correctness that is far more difficult to dislodge than the veneer itself.

The Slovene philosopher did take the time to address one piece of legal scholarship – Alan Dershowitz’s position that torture could be permissible if it were regulated. Zizek claimed that, even if torture were necessary, there was a danger inherent in not elevating the argument against torture to more universal application. He said that legitimating torture, even by debating it, was wrong – there should, he claimed, be some sort of positive dogma opposing it. One would not, he noted, want to live in a world without such dogmas, where people were continually forced to debate things such as the prohibition on rape or the intelligence of races.

At the end of his lecture, Zizek applauded himself. This, he said, illustrated the contrast between fascist leaders, who allowed crowds to adore them alone, and Stalinists, who were actually applauding the truth which their speeches were designed to drag people toward.

Zizek had begun by saying that he merely intended to show how formulating certain questions contributed to political problems. Yet his discussion ultimately focused on the need for clear rules and boundaries for both morality and the law, acting against subconscious psychological influences which permitted the maintenance of moral fa├žades. Like his adversaries, the acolytes of the deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, Zizek champions the unmasking functions of philosophy and psychology. Unlike them, however, he appears far more motivated to do so by the search for some fundamental.

Wherever Zizek stands, he appears, at least, incapable of not having fun. He ended by pointing out that the quiescent, subtle Dolar, had not, in fact, applauded himself. The joke’s implication was clear. Along with everyone else in the room, Dolar laughed.

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