From Sept. 24 to Oct. 2, The Zizek / Badiou Event of Philosophy is happening throughout various venues in Seoul with a slew of conferences, discussions and lectures by a collection of academics and philosophers from around the international community. In the program pamphlet for the event, handed out at Platoon Kunsthalle’s opening lecture lead by Slavoj Zizek on Sept. 25, the manifesto for the Event of Philosophy is summated as follows: “Projecting the tomorrow of global capitalism that governs our today.”
The fourth stop on its global tour, the purpose of Badiou and Zizek’s sojourn in Seoul is stated to be in response to Asia’s dominant role in global capitalism and Seoul’s representation as a “city of development and status quo.” The Event of Philosophy program pamphlet quickly became venomous, noting that Seoul was a prime choice for the conference being a “city of desolate consumption” ready to “reform into an arena of reason and reflection.” Desolate consumption seems like a pretty heavy-handed assault on Seoul’s contemporary mode of capitalism. Indeed it is burgeoning with Western franchises, but to the threshold of desolate consumption feels hyperbolic. Zizek more aptly expressed, and without sarcasm, in a recent article from one of Korea’s English magazines, Groove, that Korea is a “capitalistic success story” and a “fascinating” nation for its conflation of “capitalistic dynamics and nationalist reactions.” Korea is noteworthy to Zizek for its fusion of the Western free-market system and its contradictory history of an “authoritarian ideological system.” It is a crossover of communism and capitalism, East and West.
Refraining from addressing the audience as “Ladies and Gentlemen” (to avoid being bourgeoisie) and using “comrades” instead, the introduction speech aptly set the platform for a lecture more focused on conceptual semantics and glib theoretical deconstruction than pinpointing Seoul or Korea’s place and future in global capitalism. Perhaps the only reference to these matters were expressed in the introductory speaker’s opening remarks when he rhetorically confronted the relevancy and seemingly contradictory coupling of a communist lecture in Gangnam. But in an astoundingly deflective, apathetic retort, he offered the most basic and vacant response: “why not?” It was evident that the audience would have to hear out Zizek’s hour-and-a-half lecture to gain some insight.
Zizek, true to form, instead spoke little on substantive topics, choosing instead to fill his lecture with quips of capitalistic countering: espousing witty, subversive paradoxes without offering an alternative. The lecture began with a rant on the structure of art bienalles around the world. Zizek was eager to expose the inherent hypocrisies of these global events: highly funded art shows that sermonize anti-capitalist sentiments through their exhibitions while simultaneously operating from a multimillion dollar budget. Zizek was prompt to point out how campaigns, advertising and a barrage of capitalist-affiliated assets and lobbyists contradict the moral stance of the artists on display at these events. Humorously lacking self-reflexivity, one of Zizek’s own famous projects in the past decade was collaborating on an advertisement with Abercrombie and Fitch. Is he himself but a commissioned pundit of anti-capitalist proselytizing? It would be equally interesting to know what monetary incentive Zizek is commissioned for the lectures he offers.
Zizek’s next shifted into an attack on ethical anti-capitalism and a critical denouncement of the cynics who morally attack capitalism for self-righteous ends. We are in what he calls as an era of cynicism. Cynics are “most naive,” Zizek pronounced. They neglect to understand the impetus of “illusion” as an “effective, powerful” force. Insightful, yet needing elaboration, these types of exclamations end abruptly, without much, if any, substantiation. It is quite a confounding supposition he presents here: that modern cynics are somehow ignorant of the illusory forces of the capitalism they dedicate themselves to exploiting. One of Zizek’s reoccurring catchphrases reiterates a similar line of thinking: that capitalist ideology dictates our life in a “fantasy, structuring social reality itself.” He seems to be impressed by the velocity of capitalism’s capacity to structure imaginative planes, illusory virtualities, projected fantasies for its constituency. And to Zizek, cynics waste their time revealing the illusions of capitalism in the same way a decoder of magic might unveil the strategic formula of a sleight-of-hand. In both situations, cynics of capitalism and magic debunk fantasies that are accepted for their fantastical essence and which both parties — the trickster and the tricked — willingly comply in the theatricality of the illusion itself. Presupposed and recognized as illusions in the first place, accepted for the effectiveness of their theatricality, illusions are not to be debunked but reformed, improved upon.
Zizek discusses the modern man as an “entertainer of the self;” a citizen free to invest in various accounts of life: health, education, fun (yes, he categorizes leisure / extracurricular expenses as fun). On an existential level, this definition of the modern capitalist individual is quite intriguing. It recalls Delezue’s “body of organs”: a self which is pre-distributed into organizations constructed by hegemonic political-cultural-capital semiotics. Zizek extends the multidimensional “body of organs” to the relation of a self distributed amongst numerous fiscal investments. But to Zizek, the autonomous liberty of the capitalist agent to invest freely is a precarious luxury. Entitled with the loaded “entertainer of the self,” Zizek’s description of the capitalistic individual plays on the hedonistic, decadent stereotypes of a free market. It appears that his notion of the modern concrete individual — 99 percent of which he infamously finds “boring idiots” — is a temperamental, volatile narcissist of amusements: erratic and too boorish to be given the economic liberty of pursuits. Zizek critique relies on the perceived risk of economic freedom outsourced from states to individuals: the danger of egotistical self-investment.
This argument neglects the economic nexus, the fiscal network of accounts all capital beings are intertwined within; the exchanges and trades which refine and discipline all fiscal investments. The modern capitalist, or “entertain of the self,” is not recklessly independent in fiscal matters. The investor instead operates with a vast collectivity of brokers, currencies; balancing interest rates and shares, conducting account transfers, joint ventures, negotiating exchange rates and trade unions. Zizik’s critique of capitalism’s autonomous investors — its entertainers of the self — is also critiqued without the proposition of any alternative. The audience is left to deliberate the hypothetical option of an oppositional system: a world without individual liberty to entertain one’s pursuits, without the agency to invest capital self according to a personal scale or hierarchy. The alternative is frightfully totalitarian: a society decreeing its subjects to invest according to ordinances. To stay with the extended metaphor of entertainment, the alternative would be a social media dictated solely by governmental programming. Later, in another hyper-conservative exposition, Zizek exalts the super-ego — what he defines as the antithesis to the voice saying to be yourself, to be authentic — as interpolating subjectivity into individuality, allowing for a distanced look at the self. Conscience, supposedly sanctioned via the impersonality of communism, helps thwart the tyranny of the authentic narcissism of the individual. It quite perplexing sentiments attacking the singular perversities, the aesthetics, the vanity projects of individual “investors” from someone as eccentrically opinionated and ideologically individualistic as Zizek himself is.
Zizek’s philosophical presentation, with a fluctuating platform of topics, is sporadic, spontaneous, vivacious, but ultimately obtuse. Manic, energetic, comical, Zizek’s charismatic personality is both his strongest asset and flaw. If he could be imagined as a musician, Zizek might be likened to Girl Talk or DJ Shadow. A connoisseur of taste in theoretical dialectics, he creates a bricolage of academic reiterations: a scholarly DJ sampling a vast array of philosophies into a cacophonous and excitable performance of postmodern hodgepodge. Minutes before taking the floor, he could be seen seated above the ground level gulping down an energy drink. A fitting nutritional complement to his style, the caffeinated stimulant seemed to have accentuated Zizek’s tics into a cataclysm of neurotic gesticulations. The lecture’s fluency was constantly interrupted by Zizek’s repeatedly sniffling, wiping, and pinching of his nose. Covering his mouth with each twitch, he completely disrupted the fluidity of his lecture, repeatedly blocking the microphone altogether. With a distinct Slovenian accent, and a tongue inflected by the seven languages he is fluent in, Zizek’s annunciations are already difficult to discern. Despite his communist slant, Zizek could be considered a pop philosopher. Like it or not, he is a paid figure of ideological capitalism: a salesman and a public icon of his thoughts. The garbled incoherency of his delivery not only made the ideas presented inaudible — only heard in communicable fragments and tidbits — they showcased a faulty product.
The sound bites salvaged between long incomprehensible lacunas covered trademark quotes, rehearsed from his public speaking tours. On his set list was a rant about ecological self-aggrandizement in which, paraphrasing his argument, “we not going to save the ecosystem by recycling a coca cola but by changing the structure and system of capitalism.” It is not a local act that creates ecological revolutions but conceptual reconfiguration. Zizek segued between a series of lengthy indictments: a critique on what he called “philanthropic colonialism” attacking the capitalistic hypocrisy of altruism and charity: in which those who “give aid with their left hand” affiliate with the same people who cause the inequality “with their right hand.” A critique on the ridiculous self-righteousness of insufficient hand-outs from the Bill Gates prototypes of the world. A critique on the pervasiveness of capitalistic governments conspiring with cheap buy-outs: all power has its digressions. A critique on that paradox of capitalism in creates the false notion of guilt and then reprimanding upon these false notions. Contrarily, Zizek shows usurps the guilt in thievery in situations of survival: that the poor have an innate right to steal bread. These paradoxes and hypocrisies, ages old but articulated anew, endorsing counter-culture twists on ideological frameworks create a strong rhythm section and theoretical groundwork of a skilled ingenuity.
Zizek’s philosophy slackens is in the melodic lines, the invention of an original musicality. Zealous, witty, known for vulgar tangents and a comedian’s knack for a well timed punch-line, Zizek’s disheveled, untidy appearance and infamous quotes have inspired analogies to Borat and George Carlin. With mangy hair, a scruffy beard, and a tendency to speak on topical agendas, he is a novelty, an outcast in his field, marginal to the common tranquil and stoic demeanors of stiff philosophers. He mixes a dense vocabulary of academic studies — quoting Lacan, Marx, Hegel, Deleuze — with the speaking style of a stand-up comic, and his lecture results in a meandering outburst of ideas very different from the deliberate, discreet linear argumentative style of traditional philosophy. But to be a modern pop philosopher, on lecture tours, conferences and press circuits, is similar to being a modern film director or musician. In post-modern re-iteration, re-invention of the medium itself at a structural level must be super-imposed upon the emergence of a specialized voice. As Gilles Deleuze invented a lexicon of rhizomes and bodies of organs out of the philology of philosophy, as Quentin Tarantino blends genres (such as grind-house and blaxploitation) into a new form, as The Avalanches sampled pop songs not merely in new variations but in an entirely novel ambience and tonality, the world of post-modern allusions is about discovering a creative voice within echoes. Zizek’s lecturing, filled with rambling quotes and a chorus responses, remains on a purely referential and critical scale. Never having forged a truly individualized lexicon, a groundbreaking conceptuality or a distinct philosophical voice, he cleverly excels on style and likeability: merely commenting and reacting to events, thinkers, and social phenomena without contributing to the catalogue with a new solo or refrain of singularity.
Midway through the lecture, comments on Deleuze’s concept of a “body without organs” stating that it presupposes the idea that we know the organism enough to exploit or mutate its organization into new becoming. Zizek points out that Deleuze’s “body without organs” neglects they biological realities of finitude, depression. This is a shared response to a radical concept, but like many of his tangents feels completely out of place, inserted with the haphazard and whimsical calculation of a Twitter post. Deleuze too is a prime example of heterogeneity in philosophical musings: funny, sporadic, sinuous. Deleuze succeeds though by recycling a cohesive refrain within his works and speeches. All his theories ricochet within such a unique and insular cosmos that he can vary the topic and remain coherent through a hyper specialized vocabulary: schizo-analysis, body of organs, rhizomes, faciality, white wall / black hole, etc. To be a sprawling, cacophonous philosopher, a pop artist of thought, one must not merely react to age old dialectics, but reappropriate language with stylistic / performative ingenuity. Zizek’s sparks of humor and charismatic every-man persona are likeable, flashy, and have catapulted him to fame, but his vocabulary and philosophical structure still needs to undergo fine tuning. Until then, his lecture feels more like a routine jam session than an actualized concert of improvisations.
Zizek will be at Platoon Kunsthalle again at 3pm, Sunday Sept. 29.
Words by Paul Keelan