Slavoj Zizek

Given the number of intellectual heavyweights who have been featured on Charlie Rose over the years, maybe Slavoj Žižek’s October 26th appearance shouldn’t have been a surprise. Yet the timing of his visit made it feel urgent, somehow, as if we were witnessing the repudiation of business as usual.

Rose’s introduction powerfully reinforced this impression. “Žižek is here. He is a philosopher who describes himself as ‘a complicated Communist,’” he began. “The New Republic once described him as ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the west.’ He has written on topics ranging from Karl Marx to the animated film Kung Fu Panda. Early this month he spoke at Occupy Wall Street.”

Rose’s soothing voice can make almost anything sound palatable to the show’s well-heeled audience. But there’s still enough negativity bound up with the word “Communist” in the United States that claiming it willingly seems transgressive.

Combine that with the coupling of Marx and Kung Fu Panda, the “kind of high-low frisson for which Žižek is celebrated,” and the invocation of the political establishment’s bête noire Occupy Wall Street, and most viewers were sure to feel their pulse speed up. Paradoxically, though, what made the actual interview exciting was the way this sensationalist teaser gave way to a sensible conversation.

Like Bill Moyers before him, Rose has a special talent for promoting reasonable discourse. Not everyone believes this to be a good thing. Rose has come under fire for being a fire extinguisher, finding ways to make some of his most passionate guests seem bland. But it’s precisely this quality that has made Charlie Rose a crucial stop for those seeking legitimacy in the intellectual mainstream. For quite a few of his viewers, being invited on the show is the same thing as being invited to be taken seriously.

Frequently, this logic extends to the topics that guests discuss. Rose had been covering Occupy Wall Street before Žižek’s appearance and continued to cover it afterwards. But by identifying the Slovenian thinker with the protest in his introduction, Rose seemed to be setting him up to serve as its philosophical guarantor. It was rather curious, then, that the two men ended up spending so little time on the subject.

After pondering everything from Santa Claus to the movie Titanic, Rose finally redirected the conversation to current events. “You went down to speak to the people at Occupy Wall Street,” he began, “And they all wanted to know. ‘Tell us, help us understand what to do.’ And you said ‘No.’”

The implication in this précis, one widely expressed in the mainstream media, is that the protesters were crying out for intellectual leadership. Although some people may find Charlie Rose boring, he isn’t stupid. Anyone who has paid attention to the ways in which participants in the movement represent themselves know that it’s decentralized, shape-shifting structure reflects a deep suspicion of the impulse to delegate authority. Rose was laying a trap for Žižek.

But the philosopher refused to take the bait. Asked what message he was trying to communicate in Zuccoti Park, he replied, “That it’s time to think.” In other words, while acknowledging how he urged the protesters “not to fall in love with themselves,” he didn’t set himself up as a potential savior. He declared that “the true problem is the day after,” but didn’t claim to have an answer ready.

Instead of offering suggestions on how Occupy Wall Street should proceed, Žižek decided to pick up a thread from earlier in the interview. At that point, while tracing the development of his career, he had stated that “ironically, gratitude goes to the Communist regime,” explaining how “a counter-offensive of hard-line Communists, the last Indian summer of hard-line Communism” back in 1973 had cost him the professorial position he had expected to take after graduate school. Now he wanted viewers to understand how he could still call himself a Communist.

“I want to make this very clear so that I will not be perceived as kind of a nostalgic idiot,” Žižek began, “I’m only a Communist in the sense that Communism is for me the name of these problems which are problems of the commons.” To be sure, this is an evasive formulation. But it also unlocks the passage back to an era free of the burdens of actually existing socialism, the tumultuous 1840s when the term “Communism” was a way of naming the future instead of indicting the past.

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, they were essentially producing political science fiction, a vision of how the world might be transformed. It’s that capacity to imagine a different social order that has atrophied in the wake of the Cold War. Asked later in the interview whether the Occupy movement has “the capacity to grow into something that has power,” Žižek remained cautious: “It’s not yet decided.”

Clarifying this point, he emphasized the importance of avoiding “the Utopian in the bad sense.” Now is not the time, he added, “to make plans for power or whatever. It’s time for reflection. It’s time to ask the basic questions.” In short, to return to something he said earlier in the interview, it’s “the time of philosophy.”

Rose’s rather clever attempt to trick Žižek into advocating a vanguardist position, a movement led by philosopher kings, ultimately ran aground on the Slovenian’s definition of philosophy. Because, for all of his history of button-pushing, Žižek has consistently articulated a rather modest vision of his occupation. As he told Rose, “I don`t think philosophers can bring ready-made answers.” Their job isn’t to provide solutions. “But philosophers can do something very important today. They can — and this is no less important the correct answers — they can allow us to ask the right questions.”

From a theoretical standpoint, this conception of philosophy’s role in society is intriguing because it mirrors the self-understanding of the post-structuralist thinkers with whom Žižek so often takes issue. Despite repeatedly insisting on the dangers of relativism, he still conceives of his task along the lines Michel Foucault sketches in defining the “specific intellectual.” Rather than champion a cause in the name of universal values, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously did, Žižek prefers to “problematize” the causes that others champion.

In declaring himself a “Communist,” then, Žižek is definitely not angling for a leadership role. He is, rather, asserting the importance of remembering what we all have in common. That is why, despite his differences with many Occupy Wall Street participants — he is no populist, certainly — he is so theoretically compatible with the movement.

Why did Žižek’s trip to Charlie Rose turn into a conversation about Communism? Maybe both he and his host understood that the first step towards understanding the Occupy movement is recognizing its potential to renew our political vocabulary. If the most successful capitalist economy is now “Communist” China — a savage irony for defenders of the free market — perhaps it’s time to dispense with our Cold War lexicon once and for all.

 

Photograph courtesy of Hendrik Speck. Published under a Creative Commons license.