A Brief Survey of Slavoj Žižek’s Best Cultural Criticism

By
Share:

Irreverent, provocative, and one of the most prominent thinkers of our time, Slavoj Žižek is the subject of a new documentary by Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. The film, which opened in theaters this weekend, is a sequel to Fiennes’s 2006 much-loved documentary, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, and examines “the collective fantasies that shape our beliefs and practices.” Despite international recognition, the Slovene philosopher and cultural critic’s complex theories remain an enigma to many (and many of his fans, even). Curious audiences looking for a quick Žižek primer can head past the break where we offer 10 different entry points to the eccentric academic’s work.

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

Director Sophie Fiennes’ focus on Žižek began with her 2006 documentary, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema — essential and fascinating viewing for cinephiles. Taking on the role of narrator and subject, Žižek discusses the complexities and language of cinema from reconstructed film sets (and sometimes on location) modeled after the movies he discusses — an uncanny, but brilliant tactic. The work of Hitchcock (The Birds is filled with “raw, incestuous energy”) and David Lynch (much of the director’s work centers on the “enigma of feminine desire and subjectivity”) receive extra attention, and Žižek’s asides reveal his sardonic and salacious sense of humor.

The Reality of the Virtual

Ben Wright’s 2004 documentary, Manufacturing Reality: Slavoj Zizek and the Reality of the Virtual, is an hour-long lecture drawing on the Lacanian model of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. “Virtual reality is a rather miserable idea,” Žižek states. The film skims the surface of these concepts, but there’s plenty of Jacques Lacan to go around in these in-depth essays penned by the philosopher.

Capitalism (First as Tragedy, Then as Farce)

Žižek considers himself a “radical leftist,” but he has been critical of the left when it comes to the recent financial crisis and capitalism. “There is a real possibility that the primary victim of the ongoing crisis will not be capitalism but the left itself, insofar as its inability to offer a viable global alternative was again made visible to everyone,” he explained in Harper’s. This animated lecture from the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA), where Žižek was the keynote lecturer in 2009, delves into some of Žižek’s views on capitalism — in this case, “the surprising ethical implications of charitable giving.” Žižek uses Starbucks as an example of a way people “buy redemption from being a consumerist.” He expounds on society’s “blank, pragmatic activism” in this Big Think talk.

The Sublime Object of Ideology

The cornerstone of Žižek’s work is his first English language text, The Sublime Object of Ideology, which explores ideological constraints and “fantasies of wholeness and exclusion which make up human society.” Here, you get the full Žižek. Throw Marx, Freud, Hegel, Lacan, Derrida, and Althusser into a blender. Add science fiction, Wagner, Hitchcock, Alien, and rants on deconstruction and postmodernism.

Religion and Atheism

Žižek relates the canned laughter heard on our favorite television shows (“my most intimate feelings can be radically externalized, I can literally ‘laugh and cry through another,’ or “[The TV] literally laughs for you”) to religious beliefs and the notion that we transfer our beliefs onto another. In the second clip, a two-hour lecture, Žižek explores the “complicated relationship between belief, or what we take to be belief, and our desire to see all” in a post-9/11 world. “Gangnam Style,” Buddhism, and Justin Bieber also get a shout out.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement

Žižek held court at Zuccotti Park, addressing the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. “Don’t fall in love with yourselves. Carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?” he warned protestors. You can read the full transcript of his speech over here, or watch a brief clip from his interview with Charlie Rose for a glimpse at several of his talking points (communism and capitalism).

The Government Shutdown

Žižek’s thoughts on freedom and the “twisted ideology” of the radical right regarding the government shutdown and ObamaCare debates were summarized in an article at the Guardian. “A lot of things have to be regulated if we are to enjoy our non-regulated freedom,” he states. Defending Obama, he writes: “In situations of deep crisis, an authentic division is urgently needed: a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the need for radical change. This, not opportunistic compromise, is the only path to true unity.”

Happiness and Desire

Žižek believes happiness is hypocritical, because “we don’t really want what we think we desire.” And when we actually obtain our desires, it’s “the worst thing that can happen to us.” It’s a simplified explanation of Lacan’s module on desire, which essentially states that fantasy and the absence of desire is necessary for desire to persist.

Zizek!

Žižek himself is the subject of Astra Taylor’s 2005 documentary produced by Zeitgeist Films, revealing why he’s earned the title of “the Elvis of cultural theory.” Watch Žižek talk the nature of philosophy from bed, browse movies at Kim’s in New York City, and other day-in-the-life shenanigans.

Sex

Dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! In this clip, Žižek recognizes our culture’s shifting views about sex. Sex is no longer transgressive — it’s falling in love that’s the problem. (Starts around the 2:57 mark.)