Slavoj Žižek at His Home in Ljubljana

Agreeing to Disagree

On November 2nd Blackwell’s Bookshop (possibly, the best bookshop in Oxford and the world) hosted a talk with Slavoj Žižek and Nigel Warburton, which Sam and I were lucky enough to attend.

Although formally dedicated to the launch of Žižek’s latest book (Disparities, 2016), the talk proved to be about a number of topics — freedom of will and freedom of choice, economic models, American presidential elections, and anecdotes about Soviet Jews — which all relate to philosophy as a discipline describing society and its norms. A self-proclaimed Marxist, Žižek disregards the 20th century’s applications of socialism and communism and tries to pick up the discourse where Marx and Hegel left it.

That is, on one hand, curious, as seems a return to outdated theories which have been actively proven wrong when applied. On the other hand, it is not like there is much choice: 20th-century philosophy was preoccupied with linguistics (Wittgenstein) and the individual (in the spectrum from Sartre to Ayn Rand). If one is to philosophise about the movement of the masses, the relationship between the state and the people, if one is to return to the concept of social contract — well, you do have to go at least as far as the 19th century.

The talk had been originally meant to take place in the Norrington Room at Blackwell’s, but the tickets sold out so quickly and the waiting list grew so long, that the event was moved to the Sheldonian Theatre. And got sold out again.

The public largely consisted of University students and was remarkably responsive to Žižek and his jokes, of which there were plenty (‘I am Eurocentric — to provoke my enemies’). Altogether, he proved a charming and rambling speaker who gesticulates a lot and uses examples, oftentimes anecdotal, to illustrate his point. I was also under the impression that, should Nigel Warburton have chosen to do so, he could have stirred the conversation in any direction. Why, with a nudge here and a right word there we could have learned about Žižek’s favourite bands and how their lyrics correspond with the socio-economical state as experienced by the public.

Disparities and Debating

The conversation was followed by a short Q & A session, and a member of audience asked Slavoj Žižek whether the latter saw Donald Trump’s rise to popularity as a reaction to political correctness. Žižek did not give a direct answer to that question, but he answered a couple which had not been raised. Namely: ‘There is a rumour that I support Trump. Because his wife is Slovenian and, if he won, I would be invited to the dinner. That is not true.’

Proceeding to name Trump a ‘catastrophe’, Žižek was not endorsing Hillary Clinton either, pointing out that she had created a bubble that is slightly to the left, but not expressing the interests of, for example, Bernie Sanders’s supporters. ‘Hillary is doing incredibly well. She has managed to gain the support of both LGBT and Saudi Arabia.’

Nigel Warburton, the host, wrapped up the night by thanking Blackwell’s, his favourite bookshop in the world. Žižek agreed with that description, sharing a memory of how he had first encountered the shop, one that looks like a common narrow house on the outside but goes much deeper that you can imagine. ‘It’s like Mary Poppins’ bag, and it stretches on and on, and contains endless fascination.’

I suppose the same is true of conversation and philosophy.

Lectures and Talks: Slavoj Žižek in conversation with Nigel Warburton: Disparities and Debating. Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. Heard on November 2nd, 2016.

Current album: Lady Gaga, Joanne
Current book: Paul Beatty, The Sellout
Current TV series: Stranger Things, Series 1 (2016)

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