“This is so great,” I once heard a grad student suddenly exclaim at a coffee shop. “Žižek’s writing my paper for me!” One might wonder how an individual of such, shall we say, questionable productivity came into possession of the gleaming new MacBook on which she let her paper be written. One might also wonder what the stack of volumes on her table could possibly have contained that rendered her academic tasks so effortless. What textual magic could this author, a certain Slavoj Žižek, work? A Slovenian cultural critic and “academic rock star” who seems to have made his name by mashing up the ideas of Karl Marx and Jacques Lacan and applying the mixture to everything from terrorism to Christianity to Alfred Hitchcock, Žižek has attracted a robust following the world over. His frequent public appearances draw crowds, often of young-ish, politically engaged student and professor types, and as we see in Astra Taylor’s documentary Žižek!, that causes him no little anxiety.
The film, which critic A.O. Scott called “the second-best ever made about the Slovenian superstar theorist,” presents Žižek’s as both a controversial public intellectual — I can’t quite bring myself to that adjective often applied to high-profile European academics, “dangerous” — and delightedly vulgar man. Some know Žižek for his books and lectures, but more know him for the jarring contrast between his place in the intellectual sphere and his slovenly, “criminal” (as he himself puts it) manner and appearance. He claims to be not a human being but a “monster,” a “nothing who pretends to be something” who must speak rapidly, incessantly, and provocatively “just to fascinate people enough so they don’t notice there is nothing.” He admits to Taylor that his fans, filled with leftist zeal, come in search of political guidance he cannot offer. Yet he can make them consider “what these expectations should tell them about themselves,” and he can do it in plain language, at least by the standards of his field. (Don’t miss his parody of post-structuralist queer theorist and Bad Writing Contest winner Judith Butler.) Given that, I can see why someone deep in the labyrinth of graduate study might drift to him. But one Žižek may be plenty.
Get your your copy of Žižek! on DVD here.