Rock and roll is now spelt with double z

December 1, 2006

What is it about Slavoj Žižek that fires the imagination? Harriet Swain investigates the industry that has sprung up around the philosopher.

First came the books - more than 50 of them, translated into 20 languages, covering topics ranging from philosophy and psychoanalysis to theology, film, opera and politics. Then came the sell-out lectures, in which the author of the books, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, wowed fans with provocative philosophical contentions, un-PC witticisms and plenty of popular culture. Then came the films. Žižek! , a documentary trailing its subject as he crossed the world discussing ideology, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. The Pervert's Guide to Cinema , which shows Žižek discussing Psycho in Norman Bates's basement and discussing Hitchcock in the setting for The Birds , was shown in UK cinemas in October. A Time Out review of the film described Žižek as "one of contemporary thought's most distinctively maverick public intellectuals".

Now comes the journal. The International Journal of Žižek Studies is due to launch officially in January but, in the spirit of the man who inspired it, it is challenging conventional journal practice by publishing articles online as soon as peer review is complete. And the T-shirt comes as part of the journal, including one for the dog. "In keeping with Žižek's own irreverent style" (and not making a profit), journal founder Paul Taylor, senior lecturer in communications studies at Leeds University, has linked up with a specialist American customising site to provide a series of " IJZS objets de kitsch ". These objects, tongue-in-cheek examples of the theme of Žižek's most successful book, The Sublime Object of Ideology , range from a Žižek mousepad to a Tex barbecue apron. There was also supposed to be a thong but the company had second thoughts.

What is it about Žižek, whose work draws principally on the philosophy of the French psychoanalyst Lacan, as well as on Kant, Hegel, Marx and Heidegger, that would make readers of an academic journal want to wear his initial around intimate parts of their anatomy?

Well, there's his charisma. Anyone who has heard him speak testifies to his extraordinary presence, despite the distorted English accent, the nose-wiping ticks, the rapid delivery. He's charismatic in print, too, employing a persuasive style illustrated with provocative images, from the different lavatory designs of European countries as an example of the way ideology affects every human function, to a sphincter used as a comparison to the elasticity of a concept.

There's also his willingness to tackle contemporary issues. He's written about 9/11 - and about Oliver Stone's film on the atrocity. He's become involved in debates about multiculturalism and has written articles about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Taylor praises him for avoiding "the beautiful souls syndrome of thinkers who shirk direct engagement with the exigencies of politics".

Taylor also praises him for making academia fun. "One of the key reasons for his appeal is how dull, dreary and depressing academic life is." In the face of increasingly mind-numbing bureaucracy, "his work stands out for the way it exudes the sheer fun and humour to be found in theorising".

Then there's the promise of ideas leading to action - an appealing concept both to those wrestling with nebulous theory in a university library and to those outside the academy in search of a political ideology.

Part of Žižek's appeal is that he "wants to put the politics back into politics", says Simon Glendinning, director of the Forum for European Philosophy. He says Žižek has made "clever and compelling" contributions to discussions about future political development in Europe. "There is an attempt at a deep theoretical understanding of our contemporary situation, in which he is hostile to current hegemonic powers," Glendinning says, although he adds that concern with politics is one thing that alienates him from some other philosophers.

How far Žižek goes beyond political ideology to offer practical solutions is unclear. Tony Brown, professor at the Institute of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University, remembers approaching him after a lecture with a friend, who asked Zizek about an education issue. The philosopher replied that he did not do practical questions - he was a philosopher. But Žižek has always done more than just think. He was active in the alternative movement in Slovenia in the 1980s and ran for presidency of the Republic of Slovenia in the first multiparty elections in 1990, in which he was narrowly defeated.

The question "Why Žižek?" is one the new journal addresses in more depth in its first issue. In the two articles already published, Bulent Somay, a lecturer in the comparative literature department of Bosphorus University, Istanbul, looks at Žižek's significance in combining Marxism and psychoanalysis, while David Gunkel, associate professor of communication at Northern Illinois University, tackles the questions "why Žižek" and "why online?" While Gunkel's conclusion with regard to the latter is "not a definitive and satisfactory answer to the question" but rather "an argument for the serious consideration of and engagement with this matter", Taylor offers a few ideas. For him, the format suits the "topical and accessible nature" of Žižek's output, and he has made radical use of what the web offers, not only making the journal open to all but also introducing a rolling programme of publication, with one volume a year expected and a variable number of issues per volume depending on the number and quality of submissions and the speed of peer review. He wants the Žižek journal "to provide the sustained consideration his work merits while still appreciating its inimitable style".

While it is highly unusual for a living scholar to find himself the subject of a journal dedicated to his thought, it is not unprecedented. Taylor also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Baudrillard Studies , a similar online not-for-profit publication that, although following conventional copy deadlines and publication dates, offered for Taylor "a constructive solution to the ironic situation of scholars studying radical thinkers, but exhibiting conservative attitudes to the practicalities of discussing and disseminating their work".

These conservative attitudes, which include the fact that the radical thinker concerned is dead, have meant avoiding the practicalities of a subject who can answer back. Žižek sits on the editorial board of his journal, has approved the prototype design of the website, engages in e-mail correspondence with Taylor and is the author of a paper in the second issue. But Taylor stresses that he has never met Žižek and does not want to. "One of the key Lacanian themes is how you shouldn't get too close to the object of your desire," he says. Nor will he be sending him articles for approval or avoiding papers that say bad things about him. "I don't want a fanzine."

This is always going to be a risk. While Taylor has been careful to select a varied editorial board of senior figures such as American cultural theorist Fredric Jameson and Ian Parker, professor of psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, as well as younger academics, the fan count is high.

"Žižek throws things up in the air," says Colin Cremer, a board member and lecturer in sociology at Sunderland University. "He makes you question things you have taken for granted."

Glyn Daly, senior lecturer in politics and sociology at Northampton University, who describes Žižek as "a real force of nature" acknowledges that "the danger is to create something that's all about idol worship", though he argues that having Žižek on board will open new lines of inquiry that may point to a "beyond" and even "against" Žižek.

It helps that Žižek himself invites criticism as a way of stimulating thought - and often gets it. Glendinning says no philosopher is well regarded by all philosophers. "It's integral to philosophy that what counts as doing good philosophy is deeply contested," he says. "The fact that there would be many philosophers who would have no interest in him at all isn't a sign of his awfulness... but he isn't well regarded generally."

One regular criticism is that it is sometimes difficult to know exactly what he is talking about. But this, says Brown, is what keeps his fans hungry. "I always find myself being slightly left behind but as a result feeling the desire to catch up," he says. For him, there always appears to be something deeper to grasp behind the surface jokes and stories, a promise of something never revealed.

The breadth of Žižek's interests has contributed to some of this mystery, suggests Calum Neill, lecturer in social psychology at Napier University.

With the various Žižeks made available through live performances, popular texts, philosophical texts, discussion groups and journalism, "maybe we have to first inquire which Žižek is, or is going to be, on the editorial board". "There does seem to be a perfectly Žižekian perversity in sitting on the editorial board of the journal dedicated to the study of your ideas," he says. "This, after all, is the man who has a picture of Stalin in his hallway."

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