My current relationship with the thought of Slavoj Zizek is complicated. A few months ago, I would have been far more enthusiastic about him than I am now. After saturating myself with his heavy accented English lectures, as well as reading many of his books, I have concluded, along with many others, that he is the intellectual clown of the petit-bourgeois left. That’s not to say that I don’t find much of what he writes useful or even compelling. I think he engages popular culture far more effectively than any other voice on the left. More “orthodox” Marxists have a much more ossified view of the world, as if we are still trapped in 1968, 1917, or even worse, 1848. Zizek by no means has this problem. While I may not be able to take his views on Kung Fu Panda seriously, I can at least admire the audacity of someone who tries to draw theory out of something so ridiculous and banal.
All the same, I think his books and various engagements with aspects of modern culture are obscurantist and border on intellectual titillation. At times, his random engagements with popular culture and modern capitalism seem to be akin to a dope addict trying to kick his addiction by describing what a particular high feels like. I know that I am brainwashed by ideology, and am often most brainwashed when I try to rid myself of ideology. I also know that capitalism has a lot to do with it, and even I share his pessimism regarding being able to change all of this. At the same time, when you have a young family, and children facing a bleak future at least on the societal level, you cannot afford such pessimism. One could argue that pessimism is just realism with the rose-colored glasses taken off, but one could also argue that being a pessimist and choosing to have children is the worst barbarism of all. Hope, like reason, is something that separates us from beasts and monsters.
What I gained again from reading Zizek is an appreciation for Hegel and Marx. Reading his books, I encountered certain passages from both of these authors, and recalled the false divisions between society and freedom that even I fell for until very recently. Let us turn to Zizek’s critique of ideology and say that one is not free by escaping ideology. Or rather, one is not free by escaping the realm of historical necessity. Until recently, especially in my Neoplatonic musings, that is what I believed. One had to oppose oneself to the institution, to societal change, one has to create a niche of “tradition” in the midst of late capitalist chaos, etc. In other words, a sort of nostalgic, localist, crypto-anarchism.
All of that is a pipe dream, and I know it well now. The dichotomy that postmodern man cannot get over, no matter how anti-ideological he thinks himself to be, is the false dichotomy between freedom and collectivity. In Hegel, the Absolute is human cognition going full circle: one is both object of thought and the thinker. One is freed within the context of history, and through history, and not from it. This is not guaranteed, however, as Hegel’s successor, Marx, points out. Freedom is a goal of human effort, and not the default position of humanity. It is also a collective and not a purely individual good.
All of this is what I gleamed from Zizek, however obliquely. There is no use trying to recover a past that is long gone, or seek refuge in a present that is ever changing. Both of these issues bothered me a great deal over the past five years or so. It took reading Slavoj Zizek to finally begin a search for Truth in the here and now, and not in some strange dark corner of the periphery of human thought. There is no dark place of the sacred in our society, and perhaps there never was one. The Secular is the Sacred; whatever enchantment the Old World had is also in the present under a different guise. Reading Zizek began my effort to think with humanity and not apart from it. We shall see where this leads.