IJŽS Vol 2.3 - Žižek on Video

Paul A. Taylor, IJŽS General Editor


Vol 2.3 of IJŽS is centred upon 2 videos of Žižek both recorded on March 18th, 2008 at the University of Leeds as part of a week he spent in the North of England that also included talks in Liverpool and Manchester. The first video is a studio interview about his book Violence (Profile Books 2008), whilst the second is a public lecture attended by an audience of 600.

The Open Humanities Press initiative is an indication of the increasing prominence of online journals and the contribution they are making to scholarship in terms of free, non-exploitative access to high quality peer-reviewed material. The presentation of this issue of IJŽS using video material is additionally significant. It clearly demonstrates that the online format not only competes effectively with its dead-tree alternatives in terms of traditional textual scholarship, but it is also able to make full use of technology to provide scholars with other important aspects of intellectual thought - the interview and the public lecture.

The 2 videos of Zizek in this Issue represent a starting point for developing the online format beyond mere text - in due course more video responses will be added and **all IJZS readers are encouraged to consider submitting a video response of their own.**

When founding IJŽS, it was always my clear intention to avoid the journal becoming an outlet for mere hagiography and hero-worship. Within that context and IJŽS's on-going determination to engage with Žižek's work on a balanced view of its merits and faults, it is nevertheless worth making some brief comments about the experience of dealing with the man behind the public face. Until his visit to Leeds, I had never met Žižek and conscious of Lacanian-inspired doubts about getting too close to the object of one's desire (at least in an intellectual sense!) I was rather anxious that, to the extent that the personality of a writer matters over and above the value of their actual work, I would be disappointed. I am glad to say that my concerns proved groundless and, more than this, the patience and generosity of spirit with which Žižek dealt with an extremely tiring itinerary was inspiring.

I have two particular memories of Žižek's visit and his inimitable brand of jouissance-in-action.

  1. Before his talk in Liverpool - we found ourselves in a DVD store and I witnessed at first hand the definition of an adult "as happy as a kid in a candy store" as we both bought a huge pile of movies including the complete works of Laurel and Hardy.
  2. After his talk in Liverpool - needing to catch a train about to leave - Žižek had a sudden craving for a pork pie, and we found ourselves doing a passable imitation of the comic duo as we ran around the station's food store.
But my abiding memory of Žižek's visit will be: his unflagging enthusiasm for theory; a genuinely filthy sense of humour; and, an admirable openness of mind, devoid of the pomposity and narrowness of vision that many within academia appear to confuse with intellectual gravitas.

But without more ado, as Žižek says at the beginning of his lecture, "Let's do some theory" ...

The Interview

Diane Myers, of the Institute of Communications Studies, interviewed Žižek in a University of Leeds TV training studio. The interview was designed to produce some clarifications and further explanations of the key concepts and approach taken in Violence (Profile Books 2008). Žižek produced a series of typically wide-ranging and full explanations of the concepts and theoretical distinctions at work in Violence to the following questions:
  • What do you mean by violence?
  • Why has God been extracted from the concept of "divine violence"?
  • What is the violence inherent in multi-culturalism?
  • Has all ideology ended?
  • You don't provide solutions, so how do we move forwards?

The Public lecture

*Explanatory note - At the beginning of the video footage, Žižek refers to a traumatic movie he hasn't seen. This is Astra Taylor's documentary film Žižek! brief excerpts of which were shown whilst the audience was assembling before the talk. At one appropriately Lacanian moment of trauma, upon entering the darkened auditorium, Žižek looked up at his own figure on the large screen and shouted at it.

From rabbits that don't care about differential calculus, to the annoying hypocrisy of bosses who add insult to injury with their fake bonhomie, in the talk that followed, Žižek demonstrated his inimitable ability to apply a combination of complex conceptual scholarship with highly topical readings of the contemporary international political scene using a diverse range of concepts and themes.

The player will show in this paragraph

Below is a brief chronological summary of the lecture's main themes:

Marxism and psychoanalysis - They have a problematic relationship in so far as Marxism mis-uses psychoanalysis to fill in its theoretical gaps & shortcomings. The way forward is to open up a new domain that can be described by psychoanalysis but offers the grounds for a new revolutionary subjectivity.

The possibility of a radical/revolutionary new subjectivity - a purportedly post-traumatic subjectivity typical of the 21st Century - with reference to Catherine Malabou’s recent book - Les nouveaux blessés (The New Wounded).

Impossible objects - The core of humanity as the drive and fascination for things we cannot do or fully understand.

Freud & Lacan - The relationship between external traumatic events/stimuli and internal psychical traumas. Sexuality is less about content and more about the form of the fantasy through which sexuality is expressed. Trauma/fantasy sexualizes sexuality itself, only through trauma can sexuality occur. Sexuality only occurs through the distortion of trauma.

Catherine Malabou's critique of the Freudian/Lacanian position - our socio-political reality today has produced so many brutal external intrusions that our traditional symbolic structures have been destroyed.

Malabou's reproach - that Freud always looks for the psychic trauma at the expense of the overwhelmingly destructive external shocks of profoundly violent events that have no rational meaning to be processed. The post-traumatic subject that results is emptied of his/her substance - there is nowhere to regress in the Freudian sense because your entire identity has been erased, you become a pure subject deprived of the symbolic content that the hermeneutics of psychoanalysis depend upon. This creates a new form of the living dead. The big political and psychoanalytical problem of today is how to think through this new traumatized subject.

Žižek's Lacanian response - the underlying function of such Lacanian categories of castration etc. is to describe this manner in which the subject is deprived of his/her substance. Similarly, in German idealism we learn that the subject is substanceless.

Psychoanalytical theory's response - The Big Other is what are you deprived of when you are subjected to this destructive violence, not as an all-knowing figure of authority but rather the Big Other as appearance. The fool and the grain of seed story (the mentally ill man who thought he was a grain of corn, returns to the asylum and is told off because he has been cured - to which he replies "yes, but does the chicken know this" ... This reveals a central component of ideology - we all need a chicken not to know. E.g. the fact that whilst drawing to the end of his life, Tito was not informed of the parlous state of Yugoslavia's economy. So huge amounts of money was borrowed to keep Tito happy till his death. Economic crisis ensued with the subsequent outbreaks of genocidal nationalism - because the chicken was not allowed to know.

Culture today - we can afford to be as cynical as we want, but we still need a chicken that doesn't know. E.g. in today's greatest remaining taboo is paedophilia and the corruption of childhood innocence - we still need a chicken, unlike the post-traumatic subjects who have lost their chicken. In cultural politics - this means we need more not less distance from our cultural neighbours. We need more codes of discretion, not more understanding.

The rise of gonzo pornography - this marks the end of engagement as the ridiculous narratives of traditional pornography have been replaced by gonzo porn where all narrative has been removed.

The basic lesson of the post-traumatic subject - the stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves, our innermost narratives, are ultimately lies. Psychoanalysis helps us to understand this truth.

The rise of the detached subject & a new revolutionary perspective - there are a whole new series of antagonisms that capitalism cannot solve:

  1. ecological concerns
  2. intellectual property rights
  3. excluded populations - gated communities
These constitute 3 new forms of proletarianization in a basic philosophical sense in addition to the classic Marxist sense of exploitation. The common philosophical element of all three domains is the way in which the subject is deprived of his/her key substance. This is the grounds for the building of a new proletarianization e.g. Neo from The Matrix - deprived of his whole symbolic inner life.

The new Cartesian subjectivity - Descartes's conception of the subject is now more relevant than ever before. The conceptualization of the subject that survives his/her own death - maybe we can provide a frame that will provide us with a common denominator for the shared struggles that we have today. Proletarianization has not disappeared - it has extended its reach.

**For an independent account of the public talk please see Notebooks-Los Cuadernos de Julia


Many thanks to Diane Myers the questioner in the Žižek interview along with Patrick Titley who was responsible for the filming and sound recording.

Special thanks to Kishore Budha Editor of the Subaltern Studies collective: http://subalternstudies.com/.

Kishore was a key figure in the large amount of preparatory work that took place before the public lecture, the videoing of the actual event, and the editing and technical work necessary to produce the subsequent webcast.

©2008 IJŽS