Brief Zizek Interview
Posted by voidmanufacturing on September 30, 2008
Žižek: Did you hear the one about Hegel?
Kenneth Baker Chronicle Art Critic
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Slavoj Žižek’s several dozen books have made him an international celebrity among people who care about ideas. They delve into everything from pornography and the movies of Alfred Hitchcock to the Holocaust and the psychology of belief. His brazen, freewheeling intellectual style and joke-laden writing give him a following far wider than his erudition might suggest.
His latest book “Violence” (Picador; 262 pages; $14 paperback) addresses an educated mass audience presumably concerned about the topic, but possibly unprepared for Žižek’s characteristic provocations and hairpin turns of thought.
Born in 1949 in Ljubljana, Slovenia – then part of Yugoslavia – Žižek earned a doctorate in philosophy in his home country and a second in psychoanalytic theory in France. He has taught at universities in Europe and the United States and is a research fellow at the University of Ljubljana and director of the Institute of Humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London.
We spoke when he stopped in San Francisco recently on a book and lecture tour. He speaks perfectly precise English with a heavy, if hard to peg, Eastern European accent. He frequently prefaces remarks with “This may amuse you,” and usually it does.
Q: Did you or the publisher choose the topic of violence?
A: They chose it. It is an offspring of the big book, which is much harsher politically, “In Defense of Lost Causes.” I took out of that big manuscript some of the more popular, easy stuff. The two books really should be read together. … When you proclaim something violent it usually means that it violates the normal standard realm of things, but then, what if something very violent must go on in order for normality to reproduce itself? Just to make that visible is my point.
Q: What is your ambition as an author?
A: My true ambition is to write a really good book on German Idealism, especially Hegel. … I think the deepest insight into the human predicament is in German Idealism, and we haven’t yet exhausted all the possibilities of that. All the dilemmas and paradoxes we are encountering today, for example, biogenetics, confront us again with the most basic questions: “What is freedom?” “What is being human?” and so on … a very abstract scholarly book not just about the question “What can Hegel say to us?” … If you want really to see the dangers that go on today, the conflicts, but also the hope, you should ask the opposite question: “What are we in the eyes of Hegel?” Imagine Hegel analyzing us … And if you want my most secret personal desire, it would be to stage Wagner’s operas in a big opera house. … No doubt Wagner was disgusting as a person, but he’s a mega-great artist.
Q: What’s your favorite among your books?
A: “The Indivisible Remainder.” It’s a pure comparison of Schelling and others. … Then there is the one I really did from my heart, “Opera’s Second Death,” co-written with my friend Mladen Dolar. … Michael Nyman signaled through friends that maybe he would like to do an opera that I write. I have an idea, but I don’t think he’ll go for it, it’s too crazy – to re-do “Antigone” with three alternate endings.
Q: Can you comment on your use of humor?
A: I only tell jokes. I don’t think I have an inherent sense of humor. My sense of humor is pretty vulgar, basically. The main reason I like to use it is that the tradition with which I am identified, Jacques Lacan and so on, is usually considered pure jargon, so I am obsessed with clarity. Through humor, popular culture examples and so on, I make things clear not so much to the public as to myself.
Q: Did you watch the American political conventions?
A: The Republican convention, yes. It was one big orgy of refusal to know all the complexities we face. … Who is McCain’s Karl Rove? That would be my question. They know things are not as simple as that but they are playing on people’s refusal to know. … If the Republicans are saying “Country first,” are they aware that this directly undermines America’s role in the world? Do they understand how much Bush did to effectively undermine the United States? After 1989, even its enemies silently accepted that the world was a confused place and somebody has to play the role of world policeman. They would never have admitted it, but I think the United States was given a chance. Silently, it would have been tolerated. Now Bush stirred it up. It’s horrible the way they don’t obey their own rules. … To put it in Marxist terms, the Republicans now are a disaster even for the long-term interests of the ruling class…. The problem today is that we are entering a multi-centric global order, and that is where I see the potential for catastrophe. I see all these things from the situation with Georgia to the Iraq war as testing the limits, searching for new rules. I say this is as a radical leftist: It’s not always true that America is automatically the bad guy.
E-mail Kenneth Baker at email@example.com.