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120 Minutes With Slavoj Žižek

Interrogating cinema, pornography, and the surveillance state with the pervert philosopher.

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International jet-set philosopher Slavoj Žižek—a Rasputin beard, a bundle of somatic motor tics and twitches including nose rubbing, mouth rubbing, jeans smoothing, and clutching at the black T-shirt that bears his monogram, Ž—wasn’t just staying at the Strand Hotel; he was bunkering there. Not only did he refuse to leave the hotel for our talk; he also chose to meet in what has to be the single least interesting room in New York: a windowless conference box in the basement, furnished with an ovular cherryish table and faux-Bauhaus swivelers, each place set with Strand leather blotter, Strand stationery, Strand pen. Between us was a bottle of tepid water.

This served to make an already fake situation even faker, by which, of course, I mean “Real”—this was Žižek, after all, the ­Yugoslav-born, Ljubljana-based academic and Hegelian; mascot of the Occupy movement, critic of the Occupy movement; and former Slovenian presidential candidate, whose most infamous contribution to intellectual history remains his redefinition of ideology from a Marxist false consciousness to a Freudian-Lacanian projection of the unconscious. Translation: To Žižek, all politics—from communist to social-democratic—are formed not by deliberate principles of freedom, or equality, but by expressions of repressed desires—shame, guilt, sexual insecurity. We’re convinced we’re drawing conclusions from an interpretable world when we’re actually just suffering involuntary psychic fantasies.

Žižek was here to promote the new movie The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, a lecture on film, and in film, while his new wife, Slovenian journalist Jela Krecic, three decades younger and twenty floors upstairs, chain-smoked on her balcony (promotional tours make cheap honeymoons). Krecic is Žižek’s third wife, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology the sequel to 2006’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema—I wondered how he felt about franchises: What would be different this time around?

“I haven’t seen the movie,” he said.

So I told him about it. In this one, as in its predecessor, he stands around on the re-created sets of Hollywood classics and, between concussively edited clips, proceeds to desublimate their meanings: Jaws is not a shark but a semantic void, a free-floating signifier-as-threat, much like the Mittel­european conception of “Jewry”; it’s lucky that the Titanic hit the iceberg, because if it hadn’t, Kate would’ve left her rich fiancé for penniless Leo—death, then, spared her the ultimate fate: living poor.

Žižek, listening for the exact amount of time it took to recline his chair and cross his legs, exploded—with memories of his earliest Western-media consumption, Perry Mason novels and Columbo in Slovene and Serbo-Croatian, which led, obviously, to a seminar on Hitchcock, his TV show and movies: “a true work of art, the definition of it is that it survives decontextualization.” About to make another jump, he stopped. “How do you call this rule that the actor shouldn’t look directly into the camera?”

“The fourth wall,” I said. “Don’t break the fourth wall.”

“Yes. Yes. But what interests me is that there is one genre where it breaks—hard-core pornography.” He tore away the page he’d been scribbling on—stacked squares—and began scribbling triangles on the next. “Friends told me that the latest trend, at least in Europe, is public sex. They showed me some clips, and they’re terrifying. A couple enters a streetcar, half-full, simply takes a seat, undresses, and starts to do it. You can see from surprised faces that it’s not staged. It’s pure working-class suburb. But what’s fascinating is that the people all look, and then they politely ignore it. The message is that even if you’re together in public with people, it still counts as private space.”

Žižek’s style in person is the same as in the Guide and in his books: verbose, associative, dissociative, obscene (“Fuck realism!”), anecdotal (“I was just in ­Istanbul …”), enjargoned (“jouissance”). He went on to analyze Angela Merkel, Joschka Fischer, Robert Redford and The Company You Keep, then transitioned to a recap of the Kantian categoricals: Government surveillance was “private,” Žižek insisted, not “public,” “precisely in the sense that we’re all embarrassed by it when it goes public.”

He gripped his beard. “It’s bad if we are controlled, but if we’re not, it can be even worse.” A theory of religions followed; Malevich and formalism, why Prokofiev was better than Shostakovich, the importance of racism to foreign relations. The closest analogue to Žižek’s indefatigable critique is the very subject he’s always critiquing: global capital. It didn’t matter whether any of his “product” or “programming” cohered or was consistent; it didn’t even matter whether any of the thoughts he spewed for this interview—let alone the thoughts of his approximately 50 books to date—would ever be consumed: Instead, all that concerned him was production.

“What do others see in me?” Žižek finally asked, though it was unclear whether he was summarizing Freud, or summarizing Lacan summarizing Freud, or asking my opinion. “You say you love me, but why?” But I’d never said that, so it had to be rhetorical. “It’s absolutely my idea that the state is an agent of what Lacan called ‘the gaze of the Other.’ The gaze is always minimally erotic.” Then he looked at me for a moment, before going on to explain something else.

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