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).
Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game