The superstar messiah of the New Left

"Don't underestimate how far ideology has penetrated our daily lives," says Slavoj Žižek.

Speaking at Cadogan Hall on Friday, the self-proclaimed "radical leftist" philosopher Slavoj Žižek gave a remarkably ebullient lecture on pessimism. The Marxist intellectual sought to convince his audience in Knightsbridge that "ideology is still alive and kicking" and that history has not ended.

This year has seen a serious academic reappraisal of Marx, with Terry Eagleton and Eric Hobsbawm both publishing books on the continuing relevance of capitalism's fiercest opponent. Introduced to the 500-strong audience as "The superstar messiah of the New Left", Žižek was received with reverence. No-one was there by mistake.

A consummate performer, Žižek treated the crowd to a series of entertaining anecdotes, using references to popular culture to show how ideology is sewn throughout the fabric of our lives. "The film Black Swan", he said, "resuscitates one of the most unpleasant myths of anti-femininity. If as a woman you are to follow your career path, you will pay the price of death." Laughter rumbled through the auditorium, but Žižek was serious. "Do not concede to the enemy too much."

His analysis of contemporary ideological trends emphasises our ability to accept profound contradictions in society. What he terms the "fetishist function of ideology", the focus on a singular component of life, is explanation for our ideological delusions. Žižek cites the managers of big businesses in the US who take Buddhist meditation classes in their lunch break, before playing the stock market in the afternoon. The fetish is the delusional belief in one's "good" inner-self, despite the evidence of one's actions. "This", he said, "explains why and how most of us believe scientists, that something catastrophic is going to happen, but we are not prepared to act upon it."

Žižek is at his most urgent in his denunciation of capitalism and the dangers of allowing market forces into diverse areas of society. "We are living in a strange time, when public space for debate is becoming more privatised . . . The education and legal systems are the hegemonic organisations as the state presents itself more and more as a market oriented operation," he said. "Just as in voting we are consumers looking for the best deals."

Reflecting on the decline of sex in Hollywood movies, Žižek atttributes it to the perception of love as a dangerous ungovernable force that doesn't sit comfortably in the market. "We want love without drama." And he believes we are being sold it.

Nevertheless, "change is in the air," he said. "Greece, Spain, here a little bit." Many in the audience shifted uneasily. "It's wonderful. Spain depressed me though. Making demands of democracy from above rather than saying 'we will do it.' We live in hopeful times, but very dangerous times... But it's not the revolution, it is the day after. The left does not have one idea."

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution