SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 26, 2013

Watson: Social critic Slavoj Zizek will rock you

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Last week I saw “The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology,” a new documentary film exploring the opinions and philosophy of Slavoj Zizek.

Zizek, 64, is a Slovenian cultural critic and sharp observer of society. He is internationally known, and his thinking and writings are mostly aimed broadly at the issues that transcend individual cultures or identities. He is a professor and researcher at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.

The film is wonderful, challenging, disturbing and heavy-duty intense — all at the same time. Much of the film consists of Zizek onscreen talking directly to us, but other parts contain archival footage of organized mankind’s worst moments.

Zizek’s primary message — which isn’t profound, but it is easily forgotten — is that we aren’t usually mindful enough about the seduction of ideology. By that, he means two things: that we’re not good at evaluating the relative merits of ideologies; and that we’re apt to embrace our chosen ideologies too uncritically.

And what is so honest and sort of disorienting about Zizek is that he constantly reminds us that almost anything and everything can serve as the basis for, or the focus of, an ideology. We can make anything — ideas, concepts, celebrities, material goods, even skepticism itself — into our god, that thing that we worship, that thing that we believe.

Zizek guides us through the most obvious examples of ideology gone out of control. We see the rise of fascism and Naziism and the horror of Stalinism and the Khmer Rouge. Here in America, with our bedrock traditions of liberty and freedom — the very reason for the existence of the country — it is not hard to be vigilant about and repelled by authoritarianism. Loss of our freedoms — to speak, worship, write, gather, invent — is unthinkable to us, yet those liberties do not exist in many nations today.

But can Americans bring that same savvy and awareness to other gods that beckon? What about more beguiling appeals, maybe those that court our emotions, desires, comfort and ego? Zizek challenges us to consider our posture toward consumption. How do our purchases and our identity meet? What arrangements exist behind our consumerism?

Zizek explores our guilt and our logic, or lack of both. In the film, you may recognize some of the ways that we think about the notion that we may have or incur responsibilities simply by participating in an organized society.

Furthermore, he points out, the dominant paradigms around us often demand an obedience to and an acceptance of all sorts of rules, norms, injustices, irrationalities and behavioral dictates.

He isn’t quite cynical, but close to it. His allegiances are to freedom, democracy, egalitarianism (i.e., each individual has standing, equally), mindfulness and seeing clearly. He believes that we should be more perceptive about our dreams and more aware of our fears, and then understand the deals and actions we take to manage them.

Zizek asks, how do we live a principled life? Can we live a principled life and exist and function in a society at all? Ideologies and cultures, usefully, do provide frames, filters, to steer us, but they can easily become corrupt, excessive, defensive, exclusive or destructive.

He comes close to saying that societal order itself is intrinsically corrupt, but he doesn’t say it. He does ask, can societies exist only if we base things on lies? And though he cautions about state power, he is very direct in declaring that it is delusional to think that even the best, most free state won’t require a strong, regulatory government.

He gives capitalism a mixed grade. In fact, he gives just about everything a mixed grade. But then, that is (again) his central message — that very little in life can remain pure and innocent in execution, and therefore, very little in life deserves our unwavering support. Living in reality inevitably leads both theories and men to yield somewhere, make compromises and maybe disappoint us.

That is why he continually, reflexively — like a contrarian — works to reduce our enthusiasm for objects of desire or reverence. He is ever-worried that our identities will become irreversibly invested in theories, practices, economies, technologies, objects, groups, or leaders who will betray us, or who are at odds with mindfulness.

Zizec is not like Orwell or Huxley, who warned us of the dangers of authoritarianism and hedonism, respectively. He is more like poster artist Shepard Fairey and social critic Neil Postman (deceased), who counsel skepticism against obliviousness, oversimplification and conformity. Fairey, Postman and Zizec all want to bring to the forefront of our consciousness that very thinking that does not come automatically or easily to us. And that thinking is usually anything that would cause us to question our gods or question the prevailing context in the cultural petri dish that is our society.

Zizec is garrulous, aggravating, argumentative, over-the-top, funny and sometimes wrong. But he is a total antidote to sloppy thinking — for everyone.

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Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at btwatson20@gmail.com.