In my head I can see speccy bishop, Anthony Grayling, leading Slavoj Zizek by the hand, like a bearded child, onto the stage at the Royal Festival Hall. I know this didn't happen. It's just how I remember it. Grayling stands spiny and silvery as a gun, while Zizek seems to be made out of paper and Pritt Stick and beard. He looks like hurried homework. His hands are for scratching his nose, scratching his beard, scratching his chest.
Zizek’s thing is to pull Western society apart and show you how he did it by using metaphors and references from varying crass elements of popular culture. Because of this, several smarty-pants have said that he is reductive, facile, publicity seeking, a clown, a charlatan, a fad, a showman. People who say those things are jealous meanies. Someone even wrote a paper about why Zizek isn’t really funny. I hate those people. They’re grinches. He is funny. And because he’s funny, his lectures are effective. And he’s famous because he’s good.
He’s in London publicising his book, Living in the End Times. The book identifies the economic goulash-wade in which we find ourselves as the game-changing catastrophe of the West and predicts that Western society will endure a sort of grieving process, out of which will be born ideas for how we can live without Capitalism.
Slavoj Zizek crumples up to the podium. He barely looks up from his notes. He drops in an anecdote or two from his own experiences of Communism, determinedly painting the Soviet empire as oafish rather than evil. He shows clips: the ‘Climb Every Mountain’ scene from The Sound of Music and ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ from Cabaret. He laces it all up by explaining how the whole system fits together.
We in the West are hamstrung in ropes of our own weaving. We are bound to ideology. We are bound to ideas of freedom that promise pornography and bananas. Fundamentalism is just another function of this hedonism. Worst of all is the narcoleptic Left. Vaguely resentful of American capitalism, but largely inarticulate, it denies the existence of the ropes, acting as the ethical sedative of the system. (Because it is all a system. Zizek loves Hegel. He wants to be his boyfriend.)
He’s good right? No matter what he says, you feel like you should believe him, because he’s so clever, so erudite, so (in the strangest possible way) cool.
And then, as soon as it all began, it’s over. Being told that Communism can work by a man with a beard is like being kissed by a man with a beard. It’s exciting and new at first and then all of a sudden, the whole thing feels ridiculous. Zizek is often styled as ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West’. (Cringe, right?) The reason why he isn’t dangerous at all is because he has never built any big buildings. When it comes to the point in his talk where he’s supposed to offer a solution to the problems he’s identified, you can hear the collective buttocks of the Festival Hall squeak. The curtain of the temple is rent in twain. We all know that Zizek is not for insipid Buddhist bullshit. Zizek is dangerous. Zizek has a real solution in mind. Zizek shows a clip from Bertollucci’s Marxist Gospel Novecento. It shows a worker cutting off his ears rather than listen to the capitalist fat cat. Then Zizek giggles: ‘Obviously I am not saying we should cut off our own ears. I like my ears.’
And all of a sudden there is nothing. And you feel like Wily. E Coyote, suspended in mid-air above a rust-inked canyon.
I’m no gunslinger, but just on an aesthetic level, it made the whole thing so unsatisfying. The tenor of the book is no different. Zizek identifies the sickness at the heart of Capitalism. He points to the architects. Then he demands that the intellectual Left come up with something as an alternative. Whatever it is had better incorporate elements of Marx, Pauline Christianity, Hegel, and potlatch ideas, modelled on the superhero community of Heroes. The man is a magpie. Against the charge that his ideas are impossible, Zizek simply says that we should “enforce the impossible on reality” in order to “change the co-ordinates of what is possible”. Suddenly you realise that no time soon is Zizek going to comb the cereal out of his beard, don epaulets and lead us, shashka aloft, through the streets of Waterloo.
Maybe it’s not fair to be disappointed. I just need a bit more carbohydrate in my belly. Even Hegel was prepared to identify a model for society. Admittedly it was Hohenzollern Prussia, but that’s not the point.
You know the way that the more wives the writers gave Ross, the more obvious it was, somehow, that he would end up with Rachel? I guess it’s the same with Zizek. The more strenuously he tries to prove he’s serious, the more defensive he is, the more adamant, the more obvious it becomes that he’s going to end up with Rachel.