Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (born 1949) is an academic star, the "Elvis of Cultural Studies," according to one often-quoted journalistic formulation. His lectures, dealing in ideas that are often dense to the point of impenetrability, draw crowds numbering in the hundreds, with their mix of philosophical theory and topical political ideas, both often illustrated by examples drawn from American popular culture.
Zizek talks as fast as he thinks, and writes nearly as fast as he can talk (he has published as many as three books in the course of a single year), often making things even more difficult for the reader with a style of argument in which he often seems to contradict himself. James Harkin, writing in the London Guardian, called him "a one-man heavy industry of cultural criticism." Yet Zizek's fame rests on more than sheer mental agility. Consistent with his origins in Communist-era Yugoslavia, Zizek has espoused Marxist-Leninist ideas, which have remained current in academic circles even as they have lost ground in the wider political sphere. Zizek has reinvigorated Marxist-Leninist thought with an approach that brings together philosophy, psychology, film studies, humor, and engaging prose. His writing encompasses both political philosopher Karl Marx and film comedian Groucho Marx. Documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor, who made a film about Zizek, told Reyhan Harmaci of the San Francisco Chronicle that Zizek seems "to make intellectualism exciting and fun and vital in a climate of anti-intellectualism." In Zizek's own biography on the website of the European Graduate School, where he is a faculty member, he indicated that he "uses popular culture to explain the theory of [French philosopher] Jacques Lacan and the theory of Jacques Lacan to explain politics and popular culture."
Grew Up Under Communism
A native and lifelong resident of Ljubljana, Slovenia, Slavoj Zizek (SLAH-voy ZHEE-zhek) was born on March 21, 1949, when the small Alpine capital was part of Communist Yugoslavia. An only child, he grew up in the household of professional parents. Like many other young people in the former satellite states of the Soviet Union, he consumed Western popular culture avidly in preference to officially approved domestic television, books, and films. Much of his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood cinema was acquired during his teenage years, when he spent long hours at an auditorium that specialized in showing foreign films. The "Prague spring" reform movement of 1968 in Czechoslovakia during which Czechs agitated for greater freedom but were repressed by the Soviet Union, had an important effect on Zizek, even though he was not one of the demonstrators agitating in favor of greater freedom.
Zizek was in the Czech capital when Soviet troops invaded, and he observed the collision of totalitarian power with the aspirations of ordinary people. "I found there, on the central square, a café that miraculously worked through this emergency," he told Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker. "I remember they had wonderful strawberry cakes, and I was sitting there eating strawberry cakes and watching Russian tanks against demonstrators. It was perfect."
Not that Zizek was a supporter of Communist orthodoxy. As an undergraduate at the University of Ljubljana he read widely, not sticking to approved course lists. He spoke six languages, and immersed himself in the works of Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and other philosophers, mostly French, whose writings had found little favor in socialist circles. In the case of Lacan, that philosopher's work relied on psychology—a suspect science from a collectivist point of view because of its preoccupation with the self and the individual mind. Zizek would, in time, set out to reconcile that seeming dichotomy.
Zizek earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and sociology in 1971, and then pursued a master's degree, also at the University of Ljubljana, writing his master's thesis on the French philosophers whose ideas he had been studying. The brilliance of his thesis stirred up interest among the university's philosophy faculty, but its ideologically suspect qualities were more troublesome. Finally, after being forced to add an appendix in which he outlined the divergences of his ideas from approved Marxist theory, Zizek was awarded a master's degree in philosophy in 1975. The taint on his reputation kept him from finding a teaching position. For several years Zizek depended on his work as a translator to pay his bills, but in 1977 he gave in to pressure and joined the Communist Party. This opened up government speechwriting jobs, as well as the chance to take a job as a researcher at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana in 1979. He retained that position for the next several decades, even after gaining international renown.
Worked as Speechwriter
In 1981 Zizek headed to Paris, where he studied with Lacan's son-in-law and was psychoanalyzed by him. He finished a dissertation and received his doctoral degree from the university that year. By that time Zizek had emerged as something of an expert on Lacan, and as the leader of a group of so-called Ljubljana Lacanians, contributing to a level of familiarity with Lacan in Slovenia that perhaps exceeded even that in France itself.
Zizek's playful side began to emerge during this period, when he wrote, under a pen name, a negative review of one of his own books. Sometimes during his career Zizek would seem to adopt one position and then switch to the exact opposite, but this tendency had roots in the dialectical tradition of philosophy in which his thought was rooted—the conviction that truth is ultimately obtained through the resolution of a series of opposites or conflicts. Zizek's first book published in the West was The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), which focused on the greatest of all the dialectical philosophers, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), through the prism of Lacan's thought. It was a daring combination; Zizek drew new links between philosophy and psychology by considering how these thinkers treated the idea of the Other—anything that is not part of the Self.
Zizek also cultivated his more public persona during the 1980s, a period during which Yugoslavia's Communist central government gradually began to lose control over the country's cultural life. He penned a popular newspaper column, and in 1990, when Slovenia was on the brink of independence from Yugoslavia (achieving it after a ten-day war in 1991), he entered the race to become part of the group of four leaders who would hold the country's joint presidency. Of the five candidates, he finished fifth, and was thus not elected. It was at this time that the impressive spurt in Zizek's productivity began. He was living alone; a marriage from the early 1970s, which produced a son, had ended, and his second and third marriages (the second produced another son) were still in the future. Zizek had few responsibilities other than to think and write. His post was that of researcher, and he rarely if ever taught classes.
Partly this kind of financial freedom for an academic was a holdover from the Communist system, in which intellectuals were considered an important part of the theoretical underpinning of the state, and were thus financially supported if they were seen to be making useful contributions. Zizek cherished this freedom. As his fame grew, he was frequently offered teaching positions in the United States, where he garnered a strong following in university cultural studies departments. He turned them all down, although he cheerfully accepted visiting scholar appointments and often spent much of the year traveling from one academic center to another. "When people ask me why I don't teach permanently in the United States," Zizek was quoted as saying in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I tell them that it is because American universities have this very strange, eccentric idea that you must work for your salary. I prefer to do the opposite and not work for my salary."
Used Film to Illustrate Ideas
In any event, Zizek repaid his university's investment by bringing international intellectual attention to tiny Slovenia. He turned out books quickly, and they were translated into some 20 languages; in the United States many were published by Verso in New York, which profited from its association with Zizek, for the books sold well. Zizek communicated and expanded upon Lacan's difficult ideas about perception, desire, and aggression by illustrating them with examples drawn from decades of popular films that students and general readers knew well. Zizek's own books, such as Looking Awry; An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (1991) and Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (1992), were joined on bookstore shelves by collections of articles he edited, including Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) (1992).
Zizek's international fame grew after a 1997 essay written by the influential British literary critic Terry Eagleton was published in the London Review of Books. The essay reviewed several of Zizek's books and concluded, as quoted in Contemporary Authors, that they "have an enviable knack of making [Continental philosophers] Kant or Kierkegaard sound riotously exciting; his writing bristles with difficulties but never serves up a turgid sentence." It was around this time that Zizek's lectures began to attract large crowds of young intellectuals. Police had to be called to a Zizek appearance at a Lower Manhattan art gallery after the shutout portion of an overflow crowd began banging on the building's windows, demanding admission. Nor was his fame confined to America and Europe; a documentary film, Zizek!, followed the philosopher to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where similar crowds awaited him.
Zizek's popularity was due partly to the dizzying virtuosity of his speeches, which were free form traversals of the history of philosophy, mixed with observations on anything from the Matrix film series to surfing, to world events, to theology (although an atheist, Zizek was fascinated by the figure of Saint Paul, seeing in him an analogue to early Soviet Communist leader Vladimir Lenin in terms of building an organization motivated by ideas). One audience member at a Zizek talk told Scott McLemee, author of the "Zizek Watch," a column published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "I have no idea where we just went, but that was one wild trip." Another explanation of Zizek's success came from McLemee, who noted the theorist's continuing enthusiasm for American films. "One source of Slavoj Zizek's lasting appeal as a cultural theorist is that he provides a really good excuse to go to the video store," McLemee wrote.
Zizek also showed a knack for keeping himself in the headlines, at least those of intellectual journals. He broadened the focus of his writing to include current events, and he even contributed an essay to the staid U.S. journal Foreign Policy that examined the psychological motivations behind the failed U.S. search for weapons of mass destruction during the Iraq war. The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's Lost Highway (2000) was one of several Zizek tomes on contemporary entertainment. With Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on 11 September and Related Dates, Zizek showed an uncharacteristic tendency to edit himself, recalling the book several times for revisions as it went through subsequent printings. Zizek's Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (2004) critiqued not only the rationale for war but also explored psychological factors involved in the restrictions placed on American civil liberties after the September 11 attacks.
Academic fashions come and go, but as of the mid-2000s the bearded Zizek had spent nearly a decade as what Carlin Romano of the Philadelphia Inquirer called "the ultimate hottie in recent years on the global intellectual circuit." In April of 2005 he married a 27-year-old Argentine model. He joined the faculty of the European Graduate School, an international institute of communications theory with locations in several countries, and he worked for an unusually long time on The Parallax View, a lengthy philosophical tract that attempted to redefine the dialectical idea itself, leaving room, as ever, for discussions of films, the war on terror, and hot topics such as neuroscience. By the time it was published, Zizek had moved on to a new book, In Defense of Lost Causes, in which he discussed the Christian legacy, class struggle, and problems in the world of theory itself. The book was slated for publication in the summer of 2007.
Artforum International, March 1993.
Chronicle of Higher Education, February 6, 2004; April 2, 2004; June 4, 2004.
Guardian (London, England), October 8, 2005.
New Yorker, May 5, 2003.
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 7, 2005.
Tikkun, January-February 2005.
World Literature Today, Spring 2002.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Thomson Gale, 2006, http://galenet/galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 31, 2006).
"Slavoj Zizek: Biography," The European Graduate School, http://www.egs.edu/faculty/zizek.html (December 31, 2006).