Grant Bartley! investigates the film as a distillation of the man.
In contrast to its surface appearance of merely being clips strung together, this documentary about the eponymous Slovenian philosopher not only allows him to voice his philosophy, but also seeks to be an illustration of this philosophy in its own construction. In this sense the film aspires to perfect art, by mirroring its own philosophical principles in its form, and it somewhat succeeds. The exclamation carefully placed against his name in the title is a case in point. It’s more than a punctuation mark of the usual post-modern ironic sensationalism: it knowingly and holographically illustrates Zizek’s philosophy – and hence the philosophy through which the film is constructed.
Allow me to explain…
The film starts with Creation: the existence of the Universe. In typical brash style, Zizek explains to us that “there is nothing – literally,” that the Universe is a “positively charged void.” Of course, this is meaningless metaphysical nonsense – if one were to take him seriously. It is a hallmark of Zizek’s style that he says everything seriously, even his most provocative statements, such as that Joseph Stalin was “an honest man.” There is something court-jesterish in his constant self-assured proclamations, as if by his implausible seriousness he invites you precisely not to take him seriously; but this is all part of the plot. As he explains his thoughts, we can begin to understand how his constant challenging through uncensored ideas perfectly fits in with his overall theory. It is because he takes thought seriously that there is all this provocation and bluster. It is just the working and living-out of his thinking.
Through the film we see Zizek giving interviews – one on a NY chat show; one in bed; one while playing with his son. To accentuate Zizek’s eccentricity we are shown around his flat: his poster of Stalin, which he put on the wall to shock whoever would be shocked into leaving; his kitchen draws and cabinets where he keeps his clothes alongside his cutlery (another exclamation mark implied here); his bookshelves where he has two copies of the foreign-language books he owns, for reasons which are never adequately explained. Zizek says things like, “Love is a cosmic imbalance,” “Reality is stupid!” “Love is evil – in the formal sense.” But even the addition of the phrase “in the formal sense” hints that behind the motor-mouth crouches a serious academic, ready to pounce. Rather than just another dumb statement, it is possibly true.
To back up his intellectual credentials the film is scattered with quotes from Zizek’s books, of which I thought “We feel free because we lack the language to articulate our unfreedom” to be one of the most pithily perspicacious. The impression I got, a fact unfortunately confirmed through perusing one of his books, was that he’s a far more effective and clear communicator verbally than through the written word. It is no easy thing to be as continuously spontaneously expressive of profound ideas as the film makes Zizek appear to be; but it’s a shame that his writing suffers from the common philosopher’s disease of confusing simplicity of expression with stupidity of thought.
Early on, after being autograph-hunted on campus, he claims to hate fame and says “I like philosophy as an anonymous job.” Yeah, right! The only plausible sense of this man is as someone who relishes attention – in the refined sense of being affirmed through the act of communicating his important ideas. Zizek is lucid, if forever pushing his self-expression beyond what the censor of reasonableness would enjoin. He says his worry is not to be ignored but to be accepted. He also says he fears stopping talking, in case people notice there is really nothing there. But what is there is far from nothing.
Zizek is a Lacanian Marxist. This is a way of looking at society in terms of its psychological dynamics. For him this is the way we can understand aspects of society such as modern fundamentalist racism (his example). His theories are difficult and complex – a nuanced psychoanalysis of the impulses and psychological mechanisms through which ‘late global capitalism’ operates and by which it is shored up. But as he says in the last words of the film, the presentation of such ideas as difficult is “Class propaganda by the enemy.” He eventually offers us an incisive analysis of his own socioeconomic situation.
In 1990 Zizek was a candidate for the Slovenian Presidency. (Where in the ‘highly-developed’ anglophone West would it even be considered that a professional intellectual should run for prime office? The risibility of this possibility illuminates our own civilisation and culture very well, I think.) Zizek was declared by a rival candidate to be more intelligent than any of them, but he unfortunately didn’t win – itself a telling comment on the democratic process.
His ‘Rock Star Academic’ status is confirmed by the sight of hundreds, maybe a thousand people, attending one of his lectures in Buenos Aires. Here he talks about reinventing utopia – “But in what sense?” he asks. He explains that out of a need for survival we must invent an intellectual space where new utopias are envisioned. As he says later, the modern problem of the left is that they want a revolution without the revolution. The progressives want to change the world, but at the same time maintain their rich and comfortable lifestyles. I think this is a very clear expression of one of the central problems of 21st Century liberal metaphysical angst. We want to prevent climate catastrophe, but we don’t want to cut out cheap flights or personal car ownership, for example. But as Zizek says, he doesn’t see his role as providing the grand solution, the big answer which will tell the revolutionaries exactly what to do: as he says, “I don’t know the formula!” Instead, as a ‘card-carrying Lacanian’ with a background in psychoanalysis, he sees his role in a psychoanalytical manner: to provoke the ‘revolutionaries’ into becoming aware of themselves and the contemporary psychological problems ensnaring progressive politics in particular, as well as the (different) problems generally ensnaring human minds within the operating of the present economic order.
One of these general problems is apparently that now, rather than everything being permitted, everything is prohibited: we fear so much in life that we cannot spontaneously enjoy ourselves without checking all the time that we’re not upsetting our health. At the same time there is a command from our society to enjoy ourselves – which command also saps our enjoyment, because our pleasure is therefore now no longer a natural, free enthusiasm for life. I got the feeling that this is an area where Zizek most stolidly refuses to conform. Instead he has resolved to spontaneously enjoy himself, by being himself. He is certainly excited by his own ideas. He is constantly agitating to explain himself: you can almost see sparks flying off his fingertips. It seems as if he’s astounded that he’s having all these amazing thoughts – every statement seems a spontaneous reaction. If you’re not excited by ideas, this film offers you little more than a cross-section from the life of a curious individual whose belief in his own thinking has distorted him out of our ‘normal’ human passivity to ideas. But this abnormal behaviour is also part of the general theory, for as he expresses his agreement with Freud, ‘normal’ behaviour is a “pathological distortion” of natural humanity. So in fact, his irrepressible excitability by his thinking shows how Zizek’s life illustrates his thinking. As we see him watching a video of Lacan and disparaging him, he explains how true ideology is to be human, and that the worst distortion of ideology is to totally denigrate a person by pressurising them through social, cultural or media manipulation to act a part, become what is false to them, to portray themselves as if they are something they are not. This is a socially-pervasive pressure to bad faith to which Zizek doggedly refuses to pay thought- or lip-service, and a conspiracy for conformity that the film will not collude in either.
Of philosophy itself, Zizek sides with the language squad. He says the purpose of philosophy is “not to solve problems, but to redefine problems.” True problems don’t need philosophy, but practical solutions. If a comet was heading for Earth, you wouldn’t need philosophers, you’d need nukes. Philosophy doesn’t provide answers, but asks the ‘What does it mean?’ question: for example, “What does it mean to be free?” The way Zizek phrases this mandate is that philosophy explores “the implicit horizons of understanding.”
Over the horizons of our first assumptions, the madman is not mad, the comic is not a comedian. Late in the film, after we have been manipulated to form a slightly condescending view of this man of loud opinions deliberately transgressive of the delicate edges of reason, Zizek asks of himself, “Why do I provoke unnecessarily?” The answer: “Purely to get the message across!” He has abandoned himself to getting a reaction. He is living his conclusions.
This is how the film itself applies Zizek’s thinking – by showing him as he is, but in a way which reveals our cultured preconceptions. Seen first in the ‘normal’ light by which we usually automatically analyse or understand, he is shown as eccentric in his free expression of extreme, sometimes whacky thoughts, and therefore someone whose thinking is not to be taken seriously. But by the end of the film it has been demonstrated to us that this reaction is the working of our cultural norms upon our expectations and perspectives. It shows us that in ‘normal thinking’ (sic), ideas, thoughtfulness, profundity and fully free expression wither away thanks to a culturally-nourished expectation that these things are not worth considering. The message of the subtext is, our economics and its attendant global culture encourages us to be stupid, or at least passively intellectually conformist: but Zizek is living out his own thinking against this mental stagnation by stubbornly refusing to fit the mould of what we think normal thinking and behaviour should be. The film stimulates this realization subtly but admirably, by eventually making us reconsider our manipulated first impressions of this man. The exclamation mark in the title fits the theory perfectly because its ironic sensationalisation of the thinker is in the context of laying open the hidden assumptions of the stimulation culture against which the thinker is thinking. The mark is a key for those who know how to decipher it precisely because it is emblematic of the dubious need to popularise by sensation. But by the exclamation mark being there, it draws attention to the question of why it is there.
© Grant Bartley 2007
Grant Bartley is Assistant Editor at Philosophy Now. Some of his short stories can be found at authortrek.com.