Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has built up a cult following for his blunt delivery and crude language—both of which were on display in a lecture at the International Affairs Building’s Altschul Auditorium on Wednesday night.
Zizek rose to prominence in his native Yugoslavia, where he said he was “a mid-level dissident, enough to be jobless but not enough to be arrested.” His popular anti-capitalist cultural philosophy attracted an overflowing crowd, some who had come from outside the University just to see him speak.
Zizek was at Columbia to talk about his new book, “2011: The Year of Dreaming Dangerously,” but he touched on a wide array of other topics. Moderator Stathis Gourgouris, professor of classics at Columbia, started this panel on “one of the most provocative thinkers of our time” by noting that “moderating Zizek is an impossible event.” Gourgouris, along with Lydia Liu of East Asian Languages and Bruce Robbins of English, admitted that they found it difficult to put up arguments against Zizek or stop him once he got going.
Building on the arguments in his book, which sold out at the door, Zizek cited many philosophers from the Core Curriculum, including Marx, Rousseau and his “big love,” Hegel. Paraphrasing one of Hegel’s central ideas in reference to the crises of 2011, Zizek said, “Before the Fall, paradise was stupid animality. Only retroactively can we generate the specter of what we have fallen from.” “2012: The Year of Dreaming Dangerously” is Zizek’s take on the revolutions and upheavals of 2011, which he said he views as key turning points in the questioning of capitalism.
Before these revolutions, he argued, capitalism was a dogma, de-politicized because it was such an unquestionable part of our society. “Here, there are more people who believe that Armageddon is coming than that capitalism should be adjusted,” Zizek said. But the global economic collapse began to rip a hole in the fabric of these dogmas, Zizek said.
“Bankers were always greedy. Capitalism as it is today cannot be regulated,” he said. “It simply gave them the tools to realize that greed.” This financial crisis, Zizek argued, led to Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the upheavals in Europe. In this new multi-centric world, countries like China, which subscribe to ‘communist,’ non-traditional models of capitalism, are swiftly gaining the upper hand, he added. The world should start to question just what it means to go beyond the constraints of capitalism.
During the question and answer period, Zizek was confronted by a Maoist who wanted a debate. Instead of dismissing him, Zizek called out his arguments and set a date for the contest to thunderous applause and laughter.
Zizek also got a lot of laughs tearing down the case of environmentalism, noting that “the myth of Mother Nature is a dangerous abstraction. Any return to ‘pre-modern harmony’ is madness,” Zizek said. “Now, linking it to the indifference of capitalism I am okay with.”