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political philosphy

Slavoj Žižek, the viral philosopher

Controversial Slovenian made popular through his YouTube videos spoke to huge crowd in Madrid

Slavoj Zizek at Madrid's Círculo de Bellas Artes on Wednesday.
Slavoj Zizek at Madrid's Círculo de Bellas Artes on Wednesday.

To be able to put together a logical speech that combines porn with subjectivism, scatology with the refoundation of the political left, or French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan with German-American film director Ernst Lubitsch, and then to throw in a dose of regional jokes and Taylor Swift references – this is not something that just anyone can manage. But the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek, 68, has turned it into an art form. Or into a show, as his detractors like to say.

Žižek is a controversial philosopher, an agitator who thrives on political incorrectness. His erudition, command of theory and vast cultural knowledge have made him a modern-day Sartre of sorts, at least when it comes to his ability to penetrate the public sphere, say his supporters.

Simultaneously, his overwhelming communications skills, use of language (as far removed as one can imagine from that of academia) and familiarity with pop culture have helped Žižek take his message to twenty- and thirtysomethings who are angry at the current state of affairs and at the neoliberal paradigm. He has connected with them because of what he stands for.

Oh, and because of his YouTube videos.

Some people think that the character created by Žižek and its viral nature have overtaken Žižek the thinker

His viral speeches, including a hilarious one in which he explains the differences between French, English and German thought by analyzing toilet design in each of these countries, partly helps to explain the long lines on Wednesday outside the Círculo de Bellas Artes, a major cultural center in downtown Madrid, to hear Žižek’s A Plea for Bureaucratic Socialism. The venue was filled to capacity and around 500 people were left out, according to organizer estimates.

The case of Carlos Fulgado, an 18-year-old physics student, helps explain the phenomenon. He showed up shortly before 5pm to make sure he would get a good spot for an event due to start at 7.30pm. Fulgado says he found Žižek in a “mainstream” way: from hearsay and by watching snippets of his YouTube videos, most particularly extracts from The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, two documentaries which he hosted and wrote the script for.

Fulgado says he attempted to read In Defense of Lost Causes, but this was a little too hardcore for a reader who was 15 at the time. Since then, however, he has already made it through eight to 10 volumes by his favorite thinker.

Zizek's thoughts appeal to disaffected twenty and thirtysomethings.
Zizek's thoughts appeal to disaffected twenty and thirtysomethings. EL PAÍS

“He has subverted the classic way of accessing philosophy,” the 18-year-old says. “Instead of speaking from an ivory tower, he appeals to hipsters. He knows how to empathize with young people, through references to David Lynch and Starbucks.”

On Wednesday, Fulgado was the first attendee to rush to shake Žižek’s hand when the latter showed up at Círculo de Bellas Artes.

But there was someone who had arrived there before him. Pablo Castellano, a 24-year-old philosophy student, had been standing in line since 3.45pm. He confessed that he had not read Žižek’s most important work, but that he was very familiar with his YouTube material.

“He is very popular among philosophy school students, but academically he has no presence whatsoever; he is not studied,” he noted.

Death throes of capitalism

There is no question that Žižek can really draw crowds. Nearly 500 people had packed the room to hear his digression in favor of a socialist bureaucracy. His main idea: that following the rebellion in the public squares, we now need an invisible machinery to deal with the important things in our everyday lives, such as health and education.

Žižek proclaimed that we are witnessing the death throes of capitalism, attacked the vacuity of newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron, took aim at globalization, and called upon the Left to fight for a moral majority.

He has subverted the classic way of accessing philosophy. Instead of speaking from an ivory tower, he appeals to the hipsters

Carlos Fulgado, physics student

The whole thing was peppered with references to people like Malcolm X, and delivered in a style reminiscent of Italian comedy actor Roberto Benigni in terms of accent, seduction, and ability to make people laugh.

The audience watched a brilliant, chaotic, incisive monologist who displayed a full array of nervous tics that make him a Character with a capital C: he grabbed his nose, stuck his tongue out of the side of his mouth, pulled on his shirt and pushed his hair back compulsively while he gave rein to his counter-current thoughts.

At a meeting with the press at the Reina Sofía Museum, Žižek said that he finds it very hard to give a serious talk to more than 40 people at a time, but that it is essential to expand the limits of philosophy. “The time has come to revisit the major metaphysical questions. We do not live in the era of superficiality. There is an audience for great, serious theoretical work.”

Some people think that the character created by Žižek and its viral nature have overtaken Žižek the thinker. But the fact remains that there is a thinker indeed behind the character.

English version by Susana Urra.

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