Slavoj Žižek: "Most of the idiots I know are academics"

Luke Massey talks to the cultural theorist and ideas machine about Obama, stupidity and his favourite quasi-fascist industrial metal outfit - Rammstein.

Slavoj Žižek is brimming with thought. Each idea sprays out of the controversial Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist in a jet of words. He is like a water balloon, perforated in so many areas that its content gushes out in all directions.

The result is that, as an interviewer, trying to give direction to the tide is a joyfully hopeless enterprise. Perhaps more significantly, the same seems to be true for Žižek himself.

We meet in a room with one glass wall - an apt setting for a discussion of freedom, ideology, surveillance and ‘80s dystopias on film. Picturehouse HQ is playing host to our discussion, on the launch of Žižek’s new film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.

Before I even ask my first question, Slavoj is off: he tells me that I’m better than some interviewers he’s met. The fact that I’ve barely spoken yet doesn’t seem a barrier to that.

"You know, I hate it so much, when I was in Korea, I gave a couple of interviews, and they ask me 'What do you think we should do in Korea? What’s our situation here?' F*ck you! What do I know?! You know? This crazy idea…"

Žižek’s demeanor is rabidly energetic. He delivers his responses with an acerbic wit and a gloriously foul mouth, which has earned him the moniker "the Elvis of cultural theory", though something like "the Richard Pryor of radical philosophy" strikes me as more appropriate.

I haven’t seen the film yet, I tell him, though I’m going to the premiere at The Ritzy in Brixton, where he’ll be doing a Q&A. Then he drops a bomb: he hasn’t seen it either. It dawns on me: what are we both doing here? Two guys in a room discussing a film neither of us has seen.

"I’m serious," he says. "People think that this is my extravagant postmodern joke. No, I just, with all my nervous ticks and so on I hate seeing myself on screen: I cannot."

In an effort to get us back on track, I joke "well, hopefully you know what you said in it!" Another brick wall:

"No I don’t, because many things were not used, I was just improvising. I don’t in all honesty." I start thinking that this could be a long half hour.

"I mean I was just blah blah improvising there. And then, Sophie [Director - Sophie Fiennes], I mock her - she was like Leni Riefenstahl - you know after she shot Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl had some 200 hours of stuff and she spent one year just going through all of it and selecting. So, Sophie was our leftist Leni Riefenstahl."

Thankfully I know that Slavoj covers Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, and happily it’s one of my favourite films, so I push us onto that. It’s a bonding point:

Oh my god that’s the best British movie of all time. It really shows in advance how the new authoritarianism will be full of these jokes, self-irony: it will no longer be this dignified fascism, or whatever, you know? So many detailed tricks, like - I quoted it at least some ten times - it’s wonderful, you remember when they go to a restaurant and you get the photo of the meal and then some sh*tty stuff [is put out] and you look at it.

Žižek pulls a face I never thought I’d see a philosopher pull. Somewhere between throwing up and the dull-eyed facial sag of someone suffering a stroke. "This is worth a Nobel prize", he says. Another moment in this scene, where a terrorist bomb goes off in the restaurant - following which a screen is drawn up to preserve the dining experience of those unharmed is "really the work of a genius."

As an unashamed proponent of the importance of theory, Žižek has previously said that while the concept of "humanity" is fine by him, that "99 per cent of people are idiots". I ask him if The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is in some way an attempt to communicate theory to "idiots".

"Yeah, but who are the idiots? I didn’t mean so-called poor, uneducated, ordinary people. If anything, most of the idiots that I know are academics. That’s why I don’t have any interest in communicating too much with academics."

I suggest that 99 per cent of people would probably include both. Žižek seems unfazed and moves on: "I do feel some kind of stupid responsibility, as a public intellectual, and then I ask myself, sincerely, what can I do? It would be bluffing to claim that I can give answers. As I always repeat, what we philosophers can do is just correct the questions."

So what are the questions that Žižek is trying to correct? Well the first is the way in which we conceive of ideology. It’s not some "big social, political, project" which "died in 1990" with the fall of the USSR: ideology, he says, "still well and alive - not as a big system - but precisely in [a] most self-evident, normal everyday form."

"The way we, everyday people are addressed by social authority, whatever we call it - it’s no longer telling us 'sacrifice your life' for British empire, for socialism, whatever. It’s not. It’s some kind of permissive bullsh*t basically. Society is telling us, like, be true to yourself, authentic, develop your potential, be kind to others. It’s kind of what I ironically call a slightly enlightened Buddhist hedonism."

Žižek sees the controversy over Obama-aid in the US - and the Republican-forced government shutdown - as emblematic of Obama touching "the nerve of what is false in American everyday ideology of freedom."

"What Americans don’t want to admit… is that not only is there not a contradiction between state regulation and freedom, but in order for us to actually be free in our social interactions, there must be an extremely elaborated network of health, law, institutions, moral rules and so on."

"Ideology today", says Žižek, is "unfreedom which you sincerely personally experience as freedom."

That’s why, he claims, many Americans see universal healthcare as a restriction on their freedom to choose a doctor: "well f*ck it, I feel much more free if I simply don’t have to think about that. Like with electricity. I’m very glad to renounce the freedom to choose my water or electricity suppliers: because can you imagine having to make all these choices?"

I decide to force some choices out of Žižek.

Foucalt or Chomsky? "Er, you know this classical answer 'Coffee or Tea? Yes please.'" Foucault or Chomsky? "No thanks," he says with a cackle.

Joseph Stalin or Joe Strummer? "Is there even a choice here?!" laughs Žižek. As a self-proclaimed Stalinist I say that’s really for him to tell me.

"No nono - I would put it in this way. I would love to say Stalin, because that would be expected from me, you know … he was a nightmare."

On The Clash: "I like their activity … they were engaged [politically]. So I like everything about them … except their music."

"Basically, unfortunately I must tell you, I’m a ‘68 generation conservative. I secretly think that everything really interesting in pop music, rock, happened between ‘65 and ‘75. I’m sorry!" One contemporary band he does have time for, perhaps surprisingly, is German industrial metal outfit Rammstein.

"They’re very hard - I think they’re extremely progressive. It’s totally wrong to read them as almost a proto-fascist band. My god, they explicitly supported Die Linke, the leftists there, and so on. I like their extremely subversive from within, undermining of all this - you know? Like, it gives me pleasure. Psychologically I’m a fascist - everyone knows it, no? Who published this - Daily Telegraph? That jerk who pronounced me a leftist fascist, you know? Alan Johnson or who? So - I mean - I think we should take over these - all of these - authoritarian gestures, unity, leader, sacrifice, f*ck it! Why not? No? So, Rammstein are my guys."

I never imagined these would be the closing words of our discussion.

"Rammstein are my guys" - Žižek’s top tip. Image: BFI.
Luke Massey is a freelance journalist and Deputy Editor at Brixton Blog (and its sister print-paper Brixton Bugle).
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle