Zizek! The Movie!!

Zizek! movie poster
On Friday (Jan. 13th), I got to see the Seattle premier of new documentary Zizek! at the Northwest Film Forum. The film is distributed by Zeitgeist Films, a company I became familiar with because they also distributed the somewhat life-changing The Corporation. I’ve know that they were working on a movie about Slavoj Zizek, my favorite philosopher/theorist, but I wasn’t sure when it was going to be released.

Lucky for me, one of my friends asked if I was going to see Zizek! when it opened at the Northwest Film Forum (I didn’t know about it before she mentioned it), so I was able to make sure I caught the premier. Following last night’s showing, two professors from UW (Henry Staten and Marek Wieczorek) lead a discussion about the film.

The film itself was pretty remarkable, if for no other reason than the fact it gave me the chance to see what Zizek is like in person (as much as a documentary can capture someone “in their essence”). In order to do a more in-depth analysis of the content, I would have to watch the film again (and with subtitles — Zizek talks faster than anyone I know and with a slight accent). To briefly summarize, the film shows Zizek giving some lectures; spouting his ideas on philosophy, politics, and psycho-anal-ysis (as he wrote it — get the Freudian joke about “anal”??); playing with his kid; showing off his kid’s toys; watching, then critiquing, a television special by his mentor Jacques Lacan; and sharing his thoughts about three types of suicide (physical, emotional, and metaphysical).

Other highlights I’ve remembered as I’ve been working on this:

  • He makes a point about the fact that nowadays are worried about the end of the world and that they see capitalism as the final organization of human society. He made a great joke that went something like, “People are more likely to believe that the world will end than they are to believe that capitalism can improve/change.”
  • He thinks the world is chaotic, and that love is the end of the chaotic disaster.
  • He keeps his clothing in drawers and cabinets in his kitchen.
  • He admits that he is narcissistic.

I’m not sure if the film is a good introduction to the philosophical ideas of Zizek. My friend Aurea, who had never been exposed to Zizek before, fell asleep during the movie and was, I think, rather lost. I couldn’t necessarily gauge if others in the audience felt the same way. If I were recommend Zizek! to someone, I would do so under the in order that the person gets a glimpse at the personality of a great philosophical mind — not to get a crash course in Zizek’s theory. While there were some selected quotations from his works (which appeared on the screen for a too short of time — I could tell they faded before people had a chance to digest the quotes) and there were even some cool animations that attempted to visually explain important ideas, the film is a biography more than anything else. Any philosophy that may be absorbed would be by osmosis.

Summary by Prof. Staten

Following the film, Staten started the discussion by asking for a show of hands of people who had read Zizek. I would estimate that only 20% of the people in the audience (of maybe 100 people??) raised their hands. I was quite surprised by this — but I guess, as Staten suggested, there must be “film forum junkies” who trust the Northwest Film Forum’s judgment in movies and went for that reason.

Staten then provided some biographical information about Zizek that the film (strangely) didn’t mention, such as the fact that Zizek was involved in the Slovenian Revolution to overthrow communism. Staten believes that Zizek’s experience with communism profoundly marked his world-view, especially when it comes to believing in an ideology since nobody really believed in the totalitarian communist regime and the ideology that it purported to stand for. Although the country was supposedly communist, nobody really believed that communism was the solution, and they found ways to work around the bureaucracy.

Zizek’s experiences with communism and revolution seem to have had two especially strong lasting impacts:

  1. He is able to see capitalism from an outsider’s standpoint since he didn’t grow up with it.
  2. He actually participated in a revolution and is part of political history (unlike most philosophers who mainly participate in the abstract). This gives him an authority as a commentator that not many contemporary thinkers have.

Zizek’s involvement with the revolution and seeing some of his philosophy in-action makes him feel that most theory has a certain impotence to it and that it isn’t practical and whatnot. Staten feels that these feelings gives Zizek an “agitated, barely controlled mania” and causes him to refuse to be appropriated by the mainstream liberal consensus — he doesn’t want his ideas to be watered down or tamed. He thinks that cultural studies is an academic façade and that it pretends to be doing something against the prevailing ideology, but since it has been appropriated, it probably supports the system that it critiques.

Communism also shaped Zizek’s ideas about (false) utopias, a point he touched on briefly during the film. Zizek said that in a false utopia (such as communism), the situation is so without issue that you need a new space to survive. For Zizek, the only way to create that space is to imagine a way out. Staten believes that this need to imagine a new way out also adds to Zizek’s intense nature and forced urgency.

Zizek’s lived experience, Staten feels, makes him the most authentic thinker on the theory stage.

In addition to that biographical information and how it probably influenced Zizek’s philosophy, Staten briefly explained what he thought was one of Zizek’s more important and controversial (more or less) ideas: the obscene superego injunction to enjoy.

Conventional Freudian psychology about the id, ego, and superego argues that the superego’s function is to tame the id — that is, to control and repress desire. The superego is the “good” influence from society and functions as a conscience.

Zizek, on the other hand, believes that the superego’s real command is not “repress,” but, rather, “enjoy!” The pressure to enjoy ourselves is the true oppression of the superego, not the pressure to repress. Staten used the phrase “repressive desublimation” to describe this situation where the more freedom we think we have (i.e. that we really should enjoy ourselves all the time), the more we feel limited in our choices and oppressed.

I must that when I first came across this idea in Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (I think?), I found it quite profound. If you think about it, the pressure to be happy and to give in to your desires and actually enjoy yourself is much more intimidating than to simply repress those desires and go on with life. I’m glad that Staten explained this idea more lucidly than the film managed to.

As for Staten’s overall thoughts on the film, he had two comments:

  1. Why didn’t we get any Zizek commentary/reflection on all the toys he bought for his son? What does that say about enjoyment and capitalism?
  2. There was a moment of unprecedented, naked revelation by Zizek when he made a comment about how he feels like he is nothing at the core and that talking all the time gives people an illusion that there is something inside of him.

I’m not sure I found that statement as profound as Staten did (it reminded me, in fact, of something Patrick Bateman says in American Psycho), so I’ll have to think some more on that.

Summary by Prof. Wieczorek

Wieczorek started by commenting that his favorite book by Zizek was The Invisible Remainder (which I cannot find on Amazon).

He also felt that the film showed the fact that Zizek obviously feels the need to do his work, but then withdraws a bit in order to avoid becoming appropriated to too mainstream or too predictable.

He thinks that Zizek is, in a way, playing with the idea of being an analyst. He invents a symptom (for himself, for other things), which is a form of self-representation coupled with evasion.

Wieczorek also explained, more than the film did, about Zizek’s interest in Jacques Lacan‘s triangle of the Real/Imaginary/Symbolic.

He noted that the Real is what cannot be represented with symbolic language and that the Real is invoked through sublime horror.

He also commented on the fact that Zizek once mentioned how he doesn’t like the idea of people expecting him to be “the voice to tell us what is next in theory.” Wieczorek suggested that Zizek is avoiding being the Big Other and becoming wrapped up in a system a la Stalinism or a la bureaucracy.

Finally, Wieczorek noted what he sees to be the “ethical drive” that possesses Zizek and that such a drive probably relates to the Real and that it should be a cause for the left.


What sort of criticism of Zizek exists?
There isn’t much serious critique, mostly because people (i.e. academics) treat Zizek as a clownish genius. They give him nicknames like “the Giant of Ljubljana” and call him an “academic rock star,” which belittles him (“a giant in a land of dwarves? who else is from Ljubljana??”).

There have been some more serious debates (apparently that took place around the turn-of-the-century), involving Zizek, Judith Butler, and Ernesto Laclau. Incidentally, Zizek and Butler are apparently friends (he calls her “Judy” in the film), but the debates (which continued on in journals [Staten could not remember the name of the journal at the time] and stuff) lead to a major calling out between Zizek and Laclau.

Another reason, one of the professors suggested, that there isn’t too much criticism of Zizek is because he is more of a moralist and existential thinker. He doesn’t do very substantive political theory, which leaves less room open for debate. He makes observations more than he tries to prescribe how the world should be.

Does the film represent Zizek as a clown (and thus reinforce the fact that he shouldn’t be taken seriously)?
The person who asked this question made a really keen observation: Zizek lived under a totalitarian system that nobody believed in. Then after the fall of communism, he found himself under capitalism, which everybody believed in. He sees parallels between the two ways of living, which throws him off balance.

As for the answer, Wieczorek seemed to believe that the film did portray Zizek as a clown.

Staten, however, thought that the representation was rather accurate, and that Zizek is somewhat eccentric. He wondered if Zizek behaved in such a way in order to expose the absurdity of the world and systems and whatnot.

Another audience member noted that the depiction of Zizek was very different from the depiction of Jacques Derrida in the movie about Derrida. While Zizek was eccentric and clownish and casual, Derrida commanded the audience’s attention and was very serious.

Staten noted that Zizek’s books are full of jokes and that as a writer, he is rather undisciplined and hard to follow. Some of his writing is crap, but some of it is good. This is a problem that Zizek creates for himself, and the film sort of points this out.

The question made me wonder if people viewing Zizek “from the outside” (i.e. haven’t read his work) might view Zizek! differently than those of us who are more familiar with him. We know he’s clownish and writes with a unique style, but that under all of that, he has some very important stuff going on. Those who haven’t read the book might only be able to see the clownish side of him. Maybe all of this concern about his representation as a “clown” or whatever is a convenient way of not talking about his ideas since they are somewhat radical?

Zizek’s self-representation
One of the main points of self-representation that people seemed to be interested in was the scene where Zizek critiques Lacan’s Psychoanalysis television special. Zizek claims to hate the special because Lacan seems to be too dramatic with his gestures and that everything appears too forced and deliberate.

This lead some people (there seemed to be agreement among lots of people about this — lots of nodding and people chiming in with their own observations) in the audience to wonder if Zizek was being a bit hypocritical since here he was, in a documentary about himself, being pretty dramatic with his talking and gestures.

Staten disagreed with this assessment of the film, and was convinced that Zizek’s gestures were more nervous and compulsive — not thought-out and dramatic, unlike Lacan.

As for Zizek’s critique of Lacan, Staten drew two things from that:

  • Zizek is not impressed with Lacan’s attempt to give importance to himself and his work.
  • Zizek feels the need to show his ability to critique Lacan.

This lead to some discussion of Derrida and how people who follow in Derrida’s footsteps tend to be very uncritical of Derrida’s work. This evidently really pisses Zizek off since people are always calling him a Lacanian and criticizing him for that fact. At one point in the film Zizek gives a rather angry response to an audience member who asks him if he might be following Lacan too closely and whether that limits his philosophy. Zizek vehemently points out that he is able to critique Lacan, unlike the Derrida people who basically worship him.

Zizek! vs. the film about Derrida
The guy who asked this question was, I thought, a bit of a PWM (presumptuous white male) of the academic variety. He pointed out that both the film about Zizek and the (aforementioned) film about Derrida both featured the subject’s name in the title, were made by grad students, were made by Canadians, and that these Canadian grad students were young female (a point which he seemed to be particularly proud of himself for noticing). He wondered if there was anything significant or telling about this.

He also noted that Derrida acted like Lacan did in the (aforementioned) television special on psychoanalysis.

I don’t recall how the professors answered this question (though I am pretty sure they dismissed any significance about personal details of the filmmakers). Basically, I thought the guy just wanted to hear himself do some amateur film criticism or something. Though he missed an important point: Derrida and Lacan share the same first name: Jacques! (sheesh, amateurs!)

“Buffoonery” disarms the audience? Is that a strategy for delivering his message?
Staten noted that living in communism in a totalitarian regime, there were tons and tons of jokes about the system and that those jokes were a way of saying something without really saying it. Thus, Zizek probably uses jokes as a type of cultural defense and that the “buffoonery” of the jokes always has an aspect of political allegory.

If Zizek is to be considered a moralist, how can he call himself a Stalinist? Can anyone connected with Stalin be moral?
I found it humorous that the guy who asked this question apologized for being an Aristotelian since it might make him too tied to the moral argument, or something.

In the film, when confronted with a similar question, Zizek notes that, though he seems to have a certain admiration for Stalin, he himself is indeed very pro-democracy. Further, he has written more about Stalin than pretty much anyone else. Staten reiterates this point, adding that Zizek’s analysis of the show trials in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is quite extraordinary and worth checking out. (Also, he mentioned that Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is one of Zizek’s best and most accessible works.)

He also cautioned us to critically wonder, “What does Zizek mean when he says he is a Stalinist?” Does that mean he really, genuinely believes in Stalin’s methods and philosophies, or does he say it for a different reason?

He recalled the scene in the movie where Zizek mentions the fact he doesn’t want to be absorbed into the mainstream, and wondered whether calling himself a Stalinist is a way of remaining dangerous to “moral”-minded thinkers.

Nonetheless, Staten believed this to be a dubious move and that by adopting such an association, Zizek definitely creates a shock factor.

That said, calling himself a Stalinist could also be Zizek’s way of explaining how an internalized Big Other could allow Stalinism to occur, and that maybe Stalinism isn’t unique to Russia or so difficult to occur.

Either way, Zizek is always provoking.

How would reading Zizek’s books differ from seeing Zizek in film?
For the final question, I am almost certain that the professors intended to call on someone sitting about two rows ahead of me (who had his hand up every time the floor opened for questions), but then some guy in the middle went ahead and barged in with his question. To be fair, the guy in the back waited a few seconds, as if he needed to be acknowledged more precisely (aww, what a polite guy!), so he did kind of blow his chance…

As for the similarities between Zizek in film and in writing: What makes him so frenetic and lively is his intelligence. This fact comes across in both mediums.

He produces a lot of thoughts and ideas and is very inventive, but not the most convincing, profound, etc. person. He would rather say something stupid than say nothing at all.

I think it was Wieczorek who said that reading Zizek was a cinematic experience that involved lots of vectors.

Overall Thoughts on the Discussion

I thought it was great to be around other people (even if it was just a slim portion of the audience) who knew who Zizek was and were interested in his work. The two professors from UW were obviously quite knowledgeable about Zizek, and I am glad I got to hear them speak. The discussion after the movie seemed to really focus on the filmmakers’ representation of Zizek as a clown/buffoon/whatever, which I got bored with, but then realized that the discussion probably should have focused on the film, anyway, and not Zizek’s philosophy. For people interested in filmmaking (which is a major focus of the Northwest Film Forum), the study of representation is much more valid and interesting.

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