Slavoj Žižek seems like he is on the brink of a nervous breakdown when he lectures. He waves his arms wildly. He pulls at the front of his unassuming gray T-shirt. He grabs at the hair on his forehead. He even scratches at the sides of his thickly bearded face. Žižek’s anxious mannerisms give his presentations a palpable sense of urgency: it is clear that he feels the need to be understood, as well as a sense of danger; he seems to be fighting to get his ideas across. His ultimate success or failure in this endeavor becomes the drama of his presentation.
To convey his earnestly expressed thoughts, Žižek relies on a curious didactic method. He makes references to high-brow Continental theory—his background is in Lacan and Marx—but just as easily drops in a joke or a reference to popular culture. He will begin to prove a point with a reference to Derrida, follow it with a joke about Moldavians, and then conclude with a critique of _The Sound of Music_, which he has made the subject of substantial analysis. No reference is too pretentious, too scandalous, or even, it seems, too inane for Žižek. At the reception following his recent lecture on campus he analyzed his son’s video gaming habits to make points about human nature, while drawing on his unseemly, encyclopedic knowledge of dirty stories to gossip about members of the Frankfurt School.
The intense Slovenian’s lecture in McCosh 50 last Tuesday was exemplary of Žižek’s presentational style, but was not as aptly suited to the Princeton environment as it could have been. His dirty stories were on display, as were his frantic gesticulations. But the sense of place Žižek’s work often has seemed to be missing. Žižek usually seems to fit his message to his environment or his environment to his message. In the documentary _Examined Life_, Žižek discusses ecology in a junkyard. In his film _The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema_, he talks about his understanding of movies at Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock’s _The Birds_ was filmed. More applicably, he has presented his atheistic take on Christianity at theological conferences. Žižek’s decision to present on that very theme in his lecture on campus, titled “Why Only an Atheist Can Be A True Christian,” seems curious, especially considering that much of Žižek’s other work applies to the relatively secular modern university environment in a much more pointed manner.
Namely, Žižek is known for his fierce criticism of liberal multiculturalism and pluralism. He challenges these cherished principles of the modern academy from the left, condemning them as fraudulent and misguided. A presentation by Žižek on these themes would likely have made broader waves on campus. His wandering style led him to address these issues indirectly, but his real focus was, for better or for worse, a rereading of Christianity. Žižek began his talk with an extensive analysis of the ways in which religion functions and concluded with a new interpretation of the Gospel in which Christ affirms a secular view of the world through his death on the cross.
Žižek’s treatment of Christianity seems to function better as a series of individual analyses rather than as a complete argument. The first major point made in his lecture was a refutation of the maxim, “If there is no God, then everything is permitted.” In classic form, Žižek turned this idea on his head: if there is no God, nothing is allowed. Atheist liberal hedonism, he argued, leads to the creation of endless rules of self-control that circumscribe the pursuit of pleasure. The fear of violating the rights of others or other ethical standards becomes paralyzing. On a campus where strict dietary codes such as vegetarianism and veganism propagate amongst secular rationalists and people who defend radical sexual freedom often have conservative sex lives, Žižek’s argument seems to ring true.
The real Carnival, Žižek argued, is not the celebration of liberal freedom, which leads to self-restraint, but rather the freedom brought by absolute certainty in one’s cause. Žižek cited an encounter he had with Serbian nationalists to support his point. The nationalists said that they were joining their traditionalist, conservative movement out of a desire for freedom—freedom that was denied in the modern world, which frowns on the wife-beating, rape, and killing which were justified by the nationalist cause.
For Žižek, religion operates in the same way—it can become a means for promoting transgression. Under the strictures of religion, the believer is compelled to rebel, to break the rules. These violations of principle become, in Žižek’s analysis, _necessary_ for true belief. Religion, rather than secularism, becomes the facilitator of true hedonism. Žižek is deep enough into his lecture at this point that a _Sound of Music_ reference seemed called for. He launched into an analysis of the scene where the Mother Abbess consoles Maria with the song “Climb Every Mountain,” concluding that the song is an exhortation for the conflicted lead to go back to the Baron and make passionate love to him. Fittingly, in Žižek’s eyes, a powerful symbol of religious chastity drives Maria to indulge her lust.
Following his _Sound of Music_ reference, Žižek’s talk was about as fun as a public lecture can be—his audience laughed frequently throughout, and intensely at this point. The laughter he evoked, however, was not altogether an affirmation of agreement with Žižek; it represented a nuanced response to his thought. On some level, it is a criticism of Žižek that so much of what he says comes across as so outlandish and inherently comical. His jokes evoked laughter, but so did points of analysis that his arguments depended upon.
Almost as soon as Žižek came to rest on a particular analysis of religion, he leapt to another. Listening to a recording of his lecture after the fact, his train of thought becomes even more difficult to follow than it was in person. When first listening to him present, it is easy to assume that each new point will be neatly linked back to previous thoughts, but upon second listening it becomes clear that many never are—a frustrating realization. With little explanation, Žižek moved to a discussion of the role of the Lacanian Big Other in religion. He described the Big Other by analogy, comparing it to the official reality enforced in the Soviet Union. That official reality, he said, was not something that everyone actually believed. On the contrary, everyone knew that it was false, but the Big Other was still able to provide comfort. He noted that a half-dozen or so Communist party officials suffered breakdowns, even heart attacks, during Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” not because its revelations about the horrors of Stalinism were inherently shocking to them, but because those truths had never been expressed as official reality. He made the interesting distinction between belief and practice: not the simplistic distinction that sometimes people act like they believe even when they do not, but the more nuanced position that people do not necessarily even know the degree to which they believe in what they appear to disregard or disbelieve in what they publically espouse.
One of Žižek’s signature characteristics is a willingness to criticize everyone, even to the point of contradiction, and this lecture was no exception. After analyzing believers for the better part of an hour, Žižek continued his analysis of unconscious belief by suggesting that atheists hold onto some vestiges of faith even when they think they have completely left it behind—an idea very much akin to Nietzsche’s conception of the “Shadows of God,” which haunt our society in the aftermath of God’s death. At the same time, though, Žižek also suggested that no believer actually believes; that religious institutions become a means by which people find someone else to believe _for_ them. Here Žižek’s willingness to engage in contradiction emerges. Are all atheists really believers? Or are all believers really atheists? Both cannot be true and yet Žižek advanced both theses.
After having covered an enormous amount of ground, Žižek reached the end of his lecture without being much nearer to proving his starting thesis. He swiftly returned to the explicit topic of his lecture and offered a new reading of Christianity, arguing that the death of Christ is like the loss of the Big Other for his followers, that it signals the very real death of God and the death of external meaning. In essence, he offered an existentialist rereading of Christianity: now that Christ is dead, religion must exist only among people condemned to freedom. This was, perhaps, the most underwhelming part of his lecture—it was neither particularly original nor relevant to his other work.
The conclusion of his talk, however, was swiftly followed by the moment that crystallized the absurdity as well as the genius of Žižek. Peter Singer rose to ask his brother philosopher a question. Singer pointed out that Žižek had expressed sympathy for animals in his talk and yet had recently published an article attacking the movement for animal rights, to which Singer had responded. Which position did Slavoj maintain, Singer inquired, the sympathy towards animals put forward in his presentation, or his previous dismissal of the people fighting for animal liberation? Žižek’s answer was roughly 15 minutes in length, covering many of the topics already discussed in his speech. Only at the end did he circle back to animal rights—yes, he said, I sympathize with animals, but no, I do not think you are doing any good trying to help them. If anyone in the audience thought Žižek would be cowed or abashed for being caught in an apparent contradiction by one of the giants of modern philosophy, he was swiftly disappointed. Žižek partly argued his way out of the contradiction, but mostly seemed not to care. Instead, he concluded with a flourish of profound bravado, blending praise with derision and topping it all off with incredible cockiness. Although I am not on your side, you are on my side, he told Singer, and so when I am in power and you are in the gulag, I will make sure you get two bowls of cabbage soup, instead of one. Žižek, the anxious madman, had the last laugh.