Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalysis advocate, public intellectual, cultural critic, at least somewhat Marxist, sometime politician (once ran for president of Slovenia). He is a passionate fellow, with just enough of a mischievous twinkle in his eye to indicate maybe he realizes he’s not quite the know-it-all he comes across as.
This documentary pretty much just follows him around, recording him exuberantly declaiming on this, that and the other thing, mostly extemporaneously. There’s not much organization to it, and only minimal other content (such as responses from people critical of his ideas); it’s just sound bites of him doing his thing.
So is he a brilliant and innovative thinker and communicator, worthy of this idolatrous documentary? Or is he the epitome of the windbag Continental philosopher, spinning together aphorisms and empty technical-sounding verbiage in a way that a certain type of academic assumes must be brilliant since it’s so obscure?
My first thought was that he’s a lot closer to the second, that he draws people in with his forceful and blustery delivery and evident confidence in what he’s saying, but that the actual substance is more bluff than not.
What’s interesting is that a critique he offers of Lacan mid-movie is very close to what I was already thinking of Zizek himself. He notes how much of Lacan—his speaking style, his gestures, his attention-grabbing assertions, etc.—is a performance, maybe or maybe not justified in getting attention and getting people to listen to his ideas, but certainly not an honest, rational presentation of his ideas so they can stand or fall on their merits. He contrasts himself with Lacan in this respect, but frankly I don’t see a whole lot of contrast.
By the end my impression was that he tosses out all kinds of ideas, deep and superficial alike, especially if he has a colorful anecdote or metaphor with which to accompany them, and that some of them are pretty interesting and insightful, and some go nowhere. I wasn’t impressed enough to be inspired to go out and buy his books, but I didn’t come away thinking he’s some total fraud either.
Compare him to a public intellectual like Noam Chomsky. With Chomsky (as a political thinker and commentator on current events, not as a specialist in linguistics), I agree with the bulk of what he says, and when I disagree I nearly always understand what he’s saying, I just think there are certain things to be said against it. I have at least a decent grasp of how his positions are supported, and how he intends them to relate to each other.
With someone like Zizek, it’s all so much more obscure. He’ll say something about politics, or about the relations between individual psychology and social psychology, and I’ll have one of those “I wish I had said that!” moments where I recognize it as consistent with something I’ve vaguely concluded but never managed to articulate, then he’ll follow it up with overstated grand pronouncements about what “real” philosophy is or the like, and then he’ll drop in some witty example about paradoxical human behavior that he seems to think is quite profound and ties together what he’s been saying, and it strikes me as neither witty, relevant, nor profound.
Certainly some of what he’s saying I don’t understand and so can’t assess, but rather than assume that it therefore must be really brilliant stuff that goes over my head, I think it’s equally or more likely that this particular emperor has no clothes.
But anyway, Zizek! as a movie does a good job of presenting this individual and his ideas to the audience, so it’s functional in that bare bones way, but there’s nothing very creative or interesting about how it’s put together.