Few thinkers illustrate the contradictions of contemporary capitalism better than the Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek. The financial and economic crisis has demonstrated the fragility of the free market system that its defenders believed had triumphed in the cold war; but there is no sign of anything resembling the socialist project that in the past was seen by many as embodying capitalism’s successor. Žižek’s work, which reflects this paradoxical situation in a number of ways, has made him one of the world’s best-known public intellectuals.
Born and educated in Ljubljana, the capital of the People’s Republic of Slovenia in the former Yugoslav federation until the federal state began to break up and Slovenia declared independence in 1990, Žižek has held academic positions in Britain, America, and Western Europe as well as in Slovenia. His prodigious output (over sixty volumes since his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, was published in 1989), innumerable articles and interviews, together with films such as Žižek! (2005) and The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), have given him a presence that extends far beyond the academy. Well attuned to popular culture, particularly film, he has a following among young people in many countries, including those of post-Communist Europe. He has a journal dedicated to his work—International Journal of Žižek Studies, founded in 2007—whose readership is registered via Facebook, and in October 2011 he addressed members of the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park in New York, an event that was widely reported and can be viewed on YouTube.
Žižek’s wide influence does not mean that his philosophical and political standpoint can be easily defined. A member of the Communist Party of Slovenia until he resigned in 1988, Žižek had difficult relations with the Party authorities for many years owing to his interest in what they viewed as heterodox ideas. In 1990 he stood as a presidential candidate for Liberal Democracy of Slovenia, a party of the center left that was the dominant political force in the country for the rest of the decade; but liberal ideas, aside from serving as a reference point for positions he rejects, have never shaped his thinking.
Žižek was dismissed from his first university teaching post in the early 1970s, when the Slovenian authorities judged a thesis he had written on French structuralism—then an influential movement in anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, and philosophy claiming that human thought and behavior exemplify a universal system of interrelated principles—to be “non-Marxist.” The episode demonstrated the limited nature of the intellectual liberalization that was being promoted in the country at the time, but Žižek’s later work suggests that the authorities were right in judging that his intellectual orientation was not Marxian. Throughout the enormous corpus of work he has since built up, Marx is criticized for being insufficiently radical in his…
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