Žižek and toilets

The video is apparently pretty old but I’ve just come across it myself. If you play the video be prepared to watch a hip philosopher talk about the structure of toilets in America, France and Germany and how this structure relates to their respective ideologies. I think Žižek is making a false assumption in this claim. It isn’t that we see evidence of American, French and German ideologies by looking at their toilets – it is that we finally have evidence pointing to toilet engineers as the most influential thinkers of our time. The ideologies are not found in the toilet, the toilet creates the ideologies.

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more Žižek…

The talk from Zizek last night lasted over two hours and the discussion this morning also lasted over two hours. The man is a ball of energy who would go on talking without pause unless politely interrupted. The thing I liked best about these two discussions was how excited Zizek was – he is not like many tired academics who have spent their lives repeating the samezizek2 theories in talks on different campuses. He approaches subjects and his audience like a freshman approaches a new subject they find interesting. This hypothetical “freshman” is struck by something perplexing, researches the hell out of this topic for two weeks and then writes a mediocre paper that he or she wants everyone to read because of its ingenuity and depth (I’ve played the part of this freshman many times throughout my long haul at university). The energy this freshman brings to the topic, although naive, is a reminder that philosophy is studied because it is interesting and can be inspiring.

The excitement from Zizek, in contrast to this freshman, is neither naive nor is the product mediocre. It seems to be the case with some academics that they become so serious and encyclopedic that the initial excitement and interest of their topic is lost – the goal transforming into a repetitive collecting of information. Zizek is a man that does a lot of sweating, that bounces back and forth in his chair to look from one respective audience member to another – he shouts, speaks faster than his ideas coalesce and engages his audience as if to prevent himself (and fellow speakers) from becoming lost in academic obscurity. At the end of the talk he encouraged our group of about 25 to go out and revolutionize how Hegel is thought of, thus theoretically involving ourselves in a “direction” of philosophy that currently has little support and little adherence. I wanted to run out and do just what he said, as if he had drawn out the battlefield and told us young bucks to go fight for this prospectively beneficial interpretation. Then I remembered that the project I have in mind is such that I could hardly consider myself to be fighting on the designated battlefield. I’m still too Nietzschean for current philosophical trends, I still secretly want to do a Nietzschean critique of Heidegger, using Löwith as my vessel and mask. I should maybe rethink what I’m “doing” in philosophy if I ever want to claim to myself or anyone else that this “doing” itself is interesting. My continuing problem is that I am still trying to gracefully come out of 19th Century philosophy, making talk of 21st Century philosophy foreign to my ears. Looking for the reasonable continuation or philosophy that survived Nietzsche’s hammer left me in a kind of philosophical nihilism with respect to philosophy itself. This “disenchantment” found support in reading Richard Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism where he discusses the fall of philosophy in the 20th Century as being akin tozizek3 the fall of theology (as an academic subject, form of inquiry) in the 19th Century. This decay of philosophy as a Fach (the German word that Rorty himself employs which can be translated, in this case, as “academic subject”) justifies his move to Comparative Literature and Theory.

But who knows – Zizek seems to be of the mind that philosophy is still quite alive and that useful conclusions can be pulled from a “metaphysic” (through a reinterpretation of Hegel?). This usefulness is not, however, the “usefulness” that American or analytic philosophy sees in philosophy; namely, philosophy as a science but is “useful” in the traditional continental sense of being able to win a life that is worthy. Needless to say, I am more than pleased that I took this opportunity to educate and introduce myself to Zizek. Last night I had planned on today’s post being a further explanation of Zizek’s interpretation of Hegel – instead the talk left me thinking about philosophy and my relationship to it, thus birthing what is here written.

Slavoj Žižek

zizekThe philosophy department here in Heidelberg is hosting at the moment Slavoj Žižek. Professor Žižek (as his Wikipedia article will tell you) “is a Slovenian sociologist, philosopher, and cultural critic”. In anticipation of his coming I watched this documentary film in order to familiarize myself with the kind of thinker he is and the kind of things he thinks about. He is one of those rockstar philosophers who has people following him around and asking him to sign their books. He is a cult favorite because he doesn’t limit his philosophizing to what is accepted as “philosophy” within the academic realm – some of which he includes that is “outside” of academia is film (although this is gaining more and more popularity), cyberspace and science fiction. In the film he makes reference to how he is a little annoyed to be thought of as a “cultural critic” and is a little disappointed that he is mostly asked to talk on this subject. He also bemoans in the film that his more serious philosophical works have been overlooked because they do not fit the image the world has of him. He himself describes this image (again in the film) as the fuzzy bearded man who tells jokes; such that his publisher gives him a hard time if his newest book doesn’t promise, from the title, laughter.

This evening he gave a talk on a very serious academic subject, especially so in Germany – namely, Hegel. Zizek himself said how happy he was to be in the presence of serious philosophers as he was flanked by Professor Halfwassen and Dr. Gabriel of Heidelberg. I imagine he was also happy to be giving a talk on Hegel in front of some pretty serious students/professors of Hegel. He presented his ideas of Hegel in an untraditional manner, a manner that made him so popular, by pulling examples from Hitchcock’s movies Vertigo and Psycho. He also used an article from the Weekly World News about the “discovery” of more commandments and so on and so on (weekly world news is one of those joke newspapers that claims to have reports on contact with aliens/world’s fattest baby/batboy/etc).

Now that all that introductory crap is out of the way I think I can write about my impressions. I liked it. This man speaks many languages but it was hard, at times, to understand his German. He apologized for his German many times at the talk but he was able to elucidate most of his points, if not gracefully. I’m not complaining though, I would be too frightened to stand in front of so many people and speak in German and German is only my 2nd language whereas it is most likely the 4th or 5th for Zizek. His use of examples from Hitchcock’s films, Weekly World News, Kafka, Hemmingway, etc. (he was anything but short of examples) were slightly more than necessary. Sifting the idea through one or two other bodies of work would have been enough to get his point across but his examples were not doing the work he wanted them to do. It was as if the examples themselves progressed in complexity as he was not able to completely say what he wanted to in his previous jaunt. I’ll follow his lead, however, and use his example from Psycho to explain away what I got out of the talk.

psychoWhen a story is created or a thesis “thought-out” it brings with it, its opposite. Hitchcock’s film Psycho has a man stab a woman while she is in the shower. Because we are given this particular scenario it is made possible to think of its opposite. To imagine the film where the woman is left harmless in the shower is to imagine something dependent on the original story but at the same time its antithesis (that is if we are to take this murder as the climax or defining point of the film). This example (which I dumbed down because I didn’t remember everything he said – I think the point of the example was preserved though) and the many others he used were all leading up to a point concerning Hegel. The juicy conclusion is that Hegel’s philosophy, in its system building, made possible the theorizing that would later attack it – i.e.; Hegelianism made anti-Hegelianism. Or, to go back to the topic of the discussion, we could say that Hegel’s “reconciliation” of philosophy and religion, or science and God, was a decisive point in the “death” of God and split between science and religion. Once Hegel’s oeuvre exists as such one has the freedom to take and leave the theories/ideas as one chooses. These ideas and conclusions can then be used to challenge other ideas and conclusions that belong to the same longer train of thought. Such was supposedly done with Hegel’s phenomenology, the part his followers liked, for the purpose of attacking not only his theology but theology as such. If the film Psycho is analogous to Hegel’s oeuvre than changing the climax of the film is analogous to changing the climax of Hegel’s philosophy; namely, the reconciliation of science and religion. In both cases, Hegel and Psycho, the main body of the work stays the same but is “used” against itself to form a new conclusion. Such was done with Hegel’s philosophy in the nineteenth century. What’s important is clarifying exactly what it is in Hegel’s philosophy that lead to this turn and how this what influenced and continues to influence philosophy. Zizek referred to “it” at the start of the talk as a ‘new way of thinking’ but exactly what “it” is will be discussed tomorrow at a philosophy roundtable in the department.

This post was created mostly so I could think about what was said at the talk and to try and exercise these thoughts so I’m prepared for the much smaller and more open discussion that will happen tomorrow morning. After tomorrow I’ll finish writing my own impressions and try to finish the story Zizek was creating as he himself promised to finish it tomorrow.