Key Takeaway:

Slavoj Žižek, a philosopher and cultural theorist, has written numerous books on various topics, including philosophy, psychoanalysis, pop culture, and commentary on recent events. He is known for his controversial debate with Jordan Peterson in 2019 about the connection between Marxism, capitalism, and happiness. Žižek’s work often critiques political ideologies, which can explain why societies don’t always improve or avoid crises. He believes that political systems grow without peaceful support and external forces.

You could say that Slavoj Žižek’s books end, but they don’t really end. In fact, no matter which of his many books you open, you’ll find philosophy, psychoanalysis, pop culture, a few off-key jokes, and commentary on recent events, often in a way that is hard to follow.

Many people today know Žižek as the philosopher and cultural theorist who got into a fight in 2019 with Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor and culture warrior. This debate took place in Toronto, Canada, and was about how Marxism, capitalism, and happiness are connected.

It was said that Žižek was the leftist alternative to Peterson’s reactionary ideas. They didn’t agree on everything, but they did agree on some things, like how they felt about identity politics. But it could be said that this debate also ended instead of coming to a conclusion.

Žižek first came to the attention of English-speaking academics more than 30 years ago with a series of groundbreaking books, beginning with The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989). Then there were great looks at Hollywood films in Enjoy Your Symptom! and Not Looking Right.

Foreign Policy called him a “celebrity philosopher” at one point. Since then, he’s written books about guns, the GFC, September 11, Christianity, and the pandemic. In his most recent book, he writes about freedom.

The criticism of ideas

The Sublime Object of Ideology, the title of Žižek’s book from 1989, hints at a major aspect of his huge amount of written work. From the beginning, Žižek was interested in what makes people do the things they do. He is especially interested in why people feel so strongly about political ideas and causes that might not be good for them.

Any political doctrine that promises to tell people how to run the government and where they fit in the bigger picture is called an ideology. One such idea is Marxism–Leninism. Another is liberalism. And a third is fascism. An ideology can give people a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.

For Žižek, political ideologies also explain to their followers why societies don’t always get smarter, better, more fair, and less likely to go through rolling crises over time. (Just since 2000, we’ve had 9/11, the wars on terror and in Iraq, the Global Financial Crisis, the sovereign debt crises, the rise of authoritarian strongmen, Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and now the conflict between Israel and Hamas.)

It is impossible for political systems to grow without the peaceful support of most of the people who live in them. Ideologies externalise the causes of problems like war, economic failure, and terrorism, says Žižek. It’s not us, it’s them, or forces beyond our control, so we can’t be blamed. If only these outside or dishonest sources of disorder can be taken away, everything will be fine.

The unconscious mind of politics

Žižek uses ideas from Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst, to look at the contradictory sides of ideologies. He backs this up with ideas from Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and Friedrich Schelling, who were German idealist philosophers.

Lacan said that a lot of what people do is driven by irrational wants and needs that they are not aware of. That’s why the title of one of Žižek’s early books sounds like a Bible verse: “For They Know Not What They Do.”

Lacan used the linguistics and anthropology of his time to try to figure out these “unconscious” drives. This led to writings that are almost legendary for how hard they were. One of Žižek’s great strengths is that he can help Lacan make sense to us by using jokes, pop culture, and politics as examples.

As an example, Žižek uses the monsters from the Alien movies to show how Lacanian ideas about the Real that can’t be symbolised work.

Lacanian claim that Žižek is making with his “critique of ideology” is that people don’t always support political causes because they make sense. They become deeply attached to causes and leaders, sometimes without any conditions, because of how they were raised by their parents. In this way, they identify with what Žižek calls the “sublime objects” of ideologies, like a “charismatic” leader or an idea that makes people feel better, like “human freedom” or “the revolution.”

It is not necessary for anyone to know what the cause is or what their “beloved leader” really stands for in order to identify with it. It is enough for each of us to know that other people around us support the ideological cause and give it a lot of weight. After that, we “believe through the Other,” as Žižek often puts it.

He writes that most people in mediaeval churches would not have been able to understand the Latin mass. It didn’t matter, though. The ritual was still helpful. It was thought that people “believed through their priests” who knew what the words meant.

It’s said that when we identify with ideologies, we get a sense of “ideological enjoyment”—that we’re “all in this together” and share everything from big events and festivals to small customs that make up daily life, like a cultural sense of humour.

On the other hand, Žižek’s research shows that people who believe certain ideologies dislike “out-groups” (i.e. outsiders) the most because they don’t seem to enjoy the same things that “we” do. They talk, eat, worship, and even play in different ways. Because of this, it is a common way to push an ideology to say that these other people are trying to take away our fun by taking away our jobs, our tax money, our “way of life”…

Where is Žižek?

In his early writings, Žižek seemed to be saying that his Lacanian rethinking of ideology was meant to help people get rid of “ideological fantasies,” such as the idea of a perfect “end of history” or a “purified” fascist community of the People. It would lead to a kind of political democracy with more knowledge.

But since the early 2000s, Žižek has been back and forth on whether any political system can last without relying on such irrational political myths. Žižek has become known as a “defender of lost causes” since this time, often using parody to do so. This is similar to the title of what is probably his most controversial book.

Some of these causes look like they include the Jacobin Terror during the French Revolution or Stalinism. Martin Heidegger’s support for Nazism was also called a “right step in the wrong direction” by him.

While this was going on, critics such as the political theorist Ernesto Laclau called Žižek’s “Marxism” into question. Some people are curious about whether his well-known radical poses are based on a progressive view of what is best for politics.

Some say that his political views in Slovenia in the late 1980s—where he backed “more privatisations” because “if it works, why not try a dose of it?”—do not match up well with his Marxist views in the West since the mid-1990s.

Gabriel Rockhill, a philosopher, recently said that Žižek is like an unlikely “court jester” in today’s highly market-driven societies: he is a radical anti-capitalist who is a commercial success, and his scattered writings are perfect for people who live in a fast-paced world.

It can be hard to tell how seriously we should take Žižek because he seems to enjoy turning expectations on their heads and making proposals that are so shockingly controversial. Žižek has fought back against these accusations by saying he wants to question the “post-political” idea that social change is impossible now that the iron curtain is down.

Beyond his brilliant interpretations and applications of some incredibly hard theories, Žižek may be most generously read as someone who makes you think.

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