America through the eyes of Zizek

By Erik Lopez, Red Pulse Contributor

Famed Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, who the press has called “the Elvis of cultural history,” performed at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco Sept. 4. In more than 30 years (and more than 50 books), it is easy to see why he has garnered much international acclaim and a wide readership, despite the fact that he engages in a broad, intellectually rigorous confrontation with such vast subject matter as film theory, Christianity, Barack Obama, Hegel, Marx and Lacan; it’s because, in this age of anti-intellectualism, he uses engaging examples from popular culture to illuminate his radical positions, which serve as exposés of irony. It doesn’t hurt that he has an immensely lovable lisp and enough endearing nervous ticks to make a kid with Tourette’s syndrome sweat.

The night’s theme centered around the distinction between the Moral and the Ethical. The Ethical, says Zizek, is the relation of yourself to yourself. The Moral, on the other hand, is your relation to the Other, to the people around you. As an example of this distinction, he tells a story (one among many) of a young man who, having caroused, gambled and been immoral his whole life, lay on his deathbed. A priest is called and asks the young man if he wants to repent and be saved. The young man, not hesitating, says no because if he were to repent at this point, he wouldn’t be true to himself. Zizek takes a moment to point out that the truly ethical person doesn’t make, as is assumed, the correct “moral” choice of a deathbed repentance, but instead, the truly ethical person is consistent in word and deed. Had the young man repented, he would have been inconsistent to what he had been his whole life and thus unethical. The Moral, then, would be that sort of consistency put onto the social landscape.

The distinction between the Ethical and the Moral grounded the discussion of his major topic that evening: the political contingency of the left (and by extension, the Democrats) in the face of the controlling political ideology/language of the right (Republicans). The main thrust of the argument isn’t so much the tried and tired difference between conservative versus progressive values, as much as the shifting linguistic battleground: the appropriation of the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. It is no longer viable to espouse ideas such as Progress, Hope, and Change because those words just don’t cut it anymore; the age of idealism is over. Instead, like the political right, there needs to be a steady ideological, reality-building apparatus set in place that goes beyond mere representations and materializes concepts. For African-Americans and homosexuals, this was akin to re-appropriating words like n***** and queer and turning them on their heads. For the left, this sort of action would entail taking such phrases as “family values” and performing the same operation. Zizek feels that the left isn’t doing enough to create, from the top down, their version of a new America. They are languishing behind the scenes instead of being visible and showing what this new America will look like. In contrast, Zizek explains, the right has modeled a stunning example of what it wants America to be, through the paradoxical (but now understandable) pick by Sen. John McCain of Gov. Sarah Palin: she has become, as a friend put so eloquently, “a custom-ordered wet dream of a pleasure-model replicant, a techno-phallic mother millions of Americans would love to submit to, and they are then announcing8212;proudly8212;that this freak is the new America, the new Nature, the new Reality.”

Through stunning twists and turns from “Kung-Fu Panda” to hard-core pornography (which Zizek calls the most revealing yet unrevealing gesture) he goes on to illustrate his growing agitation of the left’s flaccid political engagement. In his most telling quote, Zizek sums up his argument (and finishes his lecture with a grand flourish) like this; he says it would be better that Americans not be allowed to vote for their president but that a small, third-world country should vote for America’s president. The reason? Because the third-world country would pick a president based on what they think America is, not on what America has become.

Zizek’s latest book, “Violence,” was published in early September.

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