Žižek!, a documentary by Astra Taylor which attempts to portray “the man and his ideas”, opened in NYC last night with an 8:00 PM screening at the IFC Theater and a “Q & A” with Žižek after the film. Žižek also lectured to an overflow crowd in Swayduck Auditorium at The New School where he has taught and lectured frequently over the last decade or so.
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek brings to the academic and cultural scene in the U.S. a phenomenon well-known in other parts of the world — the avant-garde intellectual as both provocateur and public figure. Some of the best known recent examples have come from France and include “authors” such as Jacques Lacan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze. In France and many other European countries where television, radio, and the media generally operate in a more critical and sophisticated environment than one finds in the U.S., such “public intellectuals” are often exposed to a large audience.
In this country, the circulation of philosophical ideas and the “buzz” surrounding those who offer novel and often surprising approaches to the ways in which we think about and conceptualize human experience and social relations are typically limited to artists, writers, designers, graduate students and junior faculty in the social sciences and humanities hungry for alternatives to what they perceive as a moribund intellectual climate resistant and irrelevant to contemporary experience. The “general public” is not exposed to such emerging trends in intellectual fashion. If anything, they get wind of highly mediated caricatures used by neoconservative critics to stir up public resentment and political opposition to a “liberal agenda” in the culture wars.
Given both his interest in popular culture and the hyperbolic commercial channels of PR in this country, Žižek has become “an intellectual rockstar”. The scene at The New School was a typical example of the response to a Žižek “appearance”. The lecture was sponsored by the philosophy department at the (recently re-branded) New School for Social Research (f/k/a the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science or, simply, “the GF”, and now affectionately referred to by insiders as the “NewSSR”). There was, for all intents and purposes, no publicity other than a few internal and very low-key announcements along with word of mouth. The lecture was scheduled to begin at 4:00. By 3:30, every seat in the auditorium was filled. Those who did not arrive in time for a seat were standing in the aisles from front to rear on both sides. A number were seated on the floor of the speaker’s platform and several curious onlookers were standing in the back in the sunken vestibule of the room occluded by a wall of chairs with no view to the front. There was a line outside hoping to get in and many others who were turned away.
Roughly four hours later, over on Sixth Avenue at the IFC Theater, the screening room was packed. After a brief introduction by the manager of the theater and the filmmaker, Astra Taylor, and a short by D. A. Pennebaker from 1958, Žižek was on the big screen.
(To be continued…)