March 8th marked the last day the MFA screened the fabulous documentary Zizek!. With an addictive speech pattern where the Slovenian thinker seems to literally breathe Lacan and Marx, Slavoj Zizek has acquired a major following in the academic and intellectual lecture circuits, making him an “academic rock star” as the trailer indicates. The film follows Zizek around as he shops for films, to his home in Ljublijana where we meet his child, to New York, Boston, and Buenos Aires for various lectures. With the documentary Derrida produced only a few years ago, it is perhaps too early to call documenting philosophers a genre, however, comparing these two very interesting films provides some insightful observations on how each of these important contemporary thinkers responds to the camera and themselves as a film subject.
Both Derrida and Zizek seem to have a full awareness of themselves and the artifice of film. Throughout Derrida the philosopher continually throws his hands in the air exclaiming he doesn’t wish to “naturalize” the situation. He refuses to be totally complicit in film’s uncanny ability to make the camera invisible, to portray, in this instance at least, the allusion that he is simply talking casually with the director in a living room, making the viewer a “real” part of the conversation. Yet, while Derrida points to the artificiality of the whole exchange, he does it only by saying it. This amounts to a certain “authentic” portrayal of Derrida. In essence, by his exclamatory remarks we see the man behind the books and his “natural” response to being filmed. Thus, despite his orations the film still presents a “real” portrayal of Derrida, or at least holds out for the possibility of such.
Zizek, to a different degree, emphasizes film’s inclination, or rather, penchant for “reality.” However, he does not exclaim “This is not natural!” but rather exploits that sometimes forgotten fact. Throughout the film Zizek poses with various props: his child’s elaborate toys, lying shirtless in a bed casually pondering Lacan, in-between a pair of toilets. These carefully choreographed sets that Zizek fits himself into both acknowledge film’s artificiality but go further and manufactures Zizek into a prop himself. By presenting himself as a comic figure or prop, Zizek not only emphasizes and exploits film’s stage quality, but embodies something far more sinister- that this artificial quality is the “real” self.
It is worth noting that Zizek revels as this comic figure; it is intentional. Throughout all of his books there are jokes and passages that embody this persona. At one point in the film he explains that a joke is effective only when you realize that it has quite serious implications, that, in essence, truth arrives only through misrecognition. He tells a well-known joke in The Sublime Object of Ideology:
At the beginning of the century, a Pole and a Jew were sitting in a train, facing each other. The Pole was shifting nervously, watching the Jew all the time; something was irritating him; finally, unable to restrain himself the Pole explodes: ‘Tell me, how do you Jews succeed in extracting from people the last small coin and in this way accumulate your wealth.’ The Jew replied: ‘Okay I will tell you, but not for nothing; first, you give me five zloty (Polish money).’ After receiving the required amount, the Jew began: “First, you take a dead fish; you cut off her head and put her entrails in a glass of water. Then, around midnight, when the moon is full, you must bury this glass in a churchyard…’ ‘And,’ the Pole interrupted him greedily, ‘if I do all this, will I also become rich?’ ‘Not too quickly,’ replied the Jew; ‘this is not all you must do; but if you want to hear the rest, you must pay me another five zloty!’ After receiving the money again, the Jew continued his story: soon afterwards, he again demanded more money, and so on, until finally the Pole exploded in a fury: ‘you dirty rascal, do you really think I did not notice what you were aiming at? There is no secret at all, you simply want to extract the last small coin from me! The Jew answered him calmly and with resignation: ‘Well, now you see how we, the Jews…’
As Zizek points out, the very beginning of this joke begins with a relationship of transference. From the curious, mistrustful way the Pole gazes at the Jew, who represents for him, the “subject presumed to know” the secret of how to extract money from people. Of course, in the end the Jew does not deceive the Pole, but gives him exactly what he paid for. What is lost for the Pole, especially when he explodes, “there is no secret at all!” is that he has the wrong perspective, he is looking for the secret to be revealed at the end of the Jew’s narration, not through his narration.
I quote this long joke to emphasize perhaps the most poignant moment in Zizek!. After a lecture at a New York City gallery a young fan approaches Zizek and is exuding how important he is, how much he looks for him to be his political guide. In a rather inappropriate, but nonetheless sincere gesture he bear hugs Zizek, at which point Zizek turns cold and aghast, then scurries out of the gallery. What is both endearing and illuminating is that Zizek is indeed huggable. Through his comic persona and addictive personality it seems logical to hug him. However, the young man’s transference to Zizek was misguided. He approached this philosopher in much the same way the Pole approached the Jew. This young man presumed Zizek had his answers, that he possessed the secret to his queries.
To look for Zizek to be the political leader he is not is the true misrecognition. The young man who hugs does not understand he is complicit in the same political problems Zizek so enigmatically iterates. Yet what is also amazing in this very brief encounter is how the comic prop figure of Zizek momentarily disappears and is replaced by a man who is simply horrified that he is being hugged. In this awkward moment of misrecognition truth is surely revealed.
"Zizek!" was screened between March 1st and March 8th at the Museum of Fine Arts.
All images are courtesy of the MFA and Documentary Campaign.