Happy Birthday to Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek

Today, March 21, is the birthday of perhaps the most talked-about figure in academia today, Slavoj Žižek. Žižek, born in Slovenia and now a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana (among many other positions), is famous for his incisive and often biting cultural critiques as well as his rambling, insightful, endlessly entertaining writing and speaking style. Columbia University Press publishes the Insurrections series, which is edited by Žižek, along with Clayton Crockett, Creston Davis, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. On the occasion of Žižek’s birthday, we wanted to take a quick look at the questions of religion, politics, and culture that he has found so fascinating.

Žižek himself is known for his use of Lacan’s psychoanalysis in interpreting German idealism and Marxist political thought, and for his application of this interpretation to modern cultural phenomena. Of particular interest to him has been the role that religion plays in the private lives of individuals and the public sphere. Žižek has been one of the leading academic voices bringing attention to the ways in which ostensibly secular aspects of the modern world are incorporating religious ideas.

In the Insurrections series, Žižek and his coeditors seek to understand the modern “turn to religion” in political philosophy, modern politics, and modern culture. The series contains a necessarily wide range of books that trace the turn to religion using a variety of approaches . Theoretical works of political philosophy such as Radical Democracy and Political Theology and Radical Political Theology: Religion and Politics After Liberalism, by series coeditors Jeffrey W. Robbins and Clayton Crockett respectively, provide a picture of how the political and the religious have become increasingly intertwined. Works like Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Strange Wonder and Richard Kearney’s Anatheism take a more philosophical approach to modern religion. And translations of classic works like Stanislas Breton’s A Radical Philosophy of Saint Paul and the forthcoming play by Alain Badiou, The Incident at Antioch, help readers trace the modern religious turn in continental philosophy to its roots.

However, the two works to which Žižek himself contributed may serve as the best encapsulation of the mission of the Insurrection series as well as representing Žižek’s own diverse interests. The first, Hegel and the Infinite, is a collection of essays (edited by Žižek, Crockett, and Creston Davis) attempting to apply Hegelian thought to modern philosophical issues, an effort that Žižek has been making his entire career as an intellectual. In his preface to the collection, Žižek acknowledges the difficulties to Hegelian thought posed by the post-Hegelian break, the rejection of metaphysics that created the popular conception of Hegel as the last of the idealist metaphysicians (and often as the “absolute idealist”). However, he also claims that the chaotic history of the twentieth century demands a Hegelian reading, and ends with the dramatic statement (Žižek undeniably has a gift for the dramatic statement) that “the time of Hegel still lies ahead—Hegel’s century will be the twenty-first.”

With essays ranging from a contemplation of the perverse in Hegel to a comparison of madness in the work of Hegel and Van Gogh, Hegel and the Infinite is a perfect representation of Žižek’s love of applying traditional philosophical thought to oft-overlooked aspects of culture. Žižek’s own essay, the last in the collection, is entitled “Hegel and Shitting,” and argues against what he calls “the pseudo-Freudian dismissal of Hegel” as a thinker whose Idea is a “voracious eater that ‘swallows’ every object upon which it stumbles” by looking at excreting, the opposite process of consumption, in Hegelian thought. The use of such universal but taboo subjects in coming to terms with complex theoretical models is one of Žižek’s most effective explanatory techniques.

While Hegel and the Infinite is an excellent example of Žižek’s academic thought applied to culture, his contribution to Udi Aloni’s What Does a Jew Want? shows his application of religious thought to political issues through the medium of culture. In his essay “The Jew is Within You, But You, You Are in the Jew,” Žižek places quotes from movies and political officials side by side in an attempt to understand how popular conceptions of what it means to be a Jew inform the political actions taken historically against Jews in Europe and currently by Jews in Israel. There can be no doubt when one reads What Does a Jew Want? that he is perfectly at home working with the filmmaker Aloni; Žižek seems to take particular delight in extracting Marxist and Hegelian insights from Aloni’s film Forgiveness. In its essence, though, his message in his essays in Aloni’s book is quite serious, and is much the same as the theme of the Insurrections series. Modernization does not simply involve a “phasing out” of religion from society; instead, many of the most important aspects of religion have been adopted by parts of society that are commonly seen to be wholly secular. Žižek’s concluding sentence to his introduction of What Does a Jew Want? could well apply to his own sizeable collection of works: “So, if you want to dwell in your blessed secular ignorance, then do not read this book—at your own risk!”

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