Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek packs house


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‘Truth is not inner peace. Truth is a traumatic, painful encounter.’ — Slavoj Žižek at the L.A. Public Library’s ALOUD reading series.

It might come as a surprise that Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher known for peppering his discourses on post-Marxism and Lacanian thought with pop-culture shout-outs, packed the house at the Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium last night.


But why not? With a daunting sea of 30-plus books and countless articles, Žižek has combined his thoughts on ideologies, religious belief and modern social warfare with strong doses of good old-fashioned contrarianism. In doing so, he’s achieved the rare summit of thinker/celebrity in a way that recalls Woody Allen’s deployment of Marshall McLuhan in ‘Annie Hall.’

Žižek was paired with Jack Miles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘God: A Biography.’ The two served as a kind of point/counterpoint, as the white-haired professor of religious studies spoke in careful, measured tones, while Žižek bubbled over at a rapid-fire pace throughout with the kind of nervous, propelling energy that characterizes his writing. He spoke like a man hungry for more breath, with a deeply thick accent that required nearly as much concentration to parse as his discourses.

The topic of the evening was violence, but the discussion skidded around to include Christian attitudes of tolerance, the poems of Radovan Karadžić and Heinrich Himmler’s reading habits (Žižek said Himmler kept a copy of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ with him wherever he went, all the better to maintain his emotional distance from the atrocities he carried out).

Quoting the last line from ‘Violence,’ Žižek’s latest book, Miles noted that “sometimes doing nothing is the most violent act of all.” Žižek illustrated this, to much laughter, describing his experiences with analysis. ...

‘Can you imagine what I was like?’ Žižek said. ‘I talked all the time. Because I knew that if I stopped talking for even one second that the psychologist might ask me important, unpleasant questions.’

Speaking about the current age of ‘interactivity,’ he noted that our actions have not increased but that, instead, we have made the other passive for us. Anyone who has found himself awash in techno-gadgetry and helpful widgets can certainly relate. ‘In this way, canned laughter is the single greatest American contribution of the 20th century,’ he growled. ‘You can come home, and the television set does the laughing for you. Why should I laugh when the TV set is laughing for me?’

Though keeping his film references to a minimum, Žižek still noted that the ending of ‘The Dark Knight’ was deeply flawed ethically and that the 1995 film ‘Underground’ was, with its Western attitudes toward the conflict in Yugoslavia, the ‘most racist film’ he could imagine.

But the topic of belief, and all the varying attitudes toward it, was never far from the discussion, nor was the idea that belief, no matter how strongly held, can still lend itself some malleability. Žižek summed this up, toward the very end of the evening, with the story of physicist Niels Bohr and a friend who came one day to visit. Noticing a horseshoe, which was thought to ward off evil spirits, above Bohr’s door, the friend asked him, ‘You don’t really believe in that superstition, do you?’

‘I heard that it works,’ Bohr is said to have replied, ‘even if you don’t believe in it.’

— George Ducker