Wizard of Unknown Knowns

Page 1 of 1
There is a reason that Slavoj Zizek has been described as the most dangerous philosopher in the West. To grasp the danger, listen up, and listen close.

My seven-year-old nephew, a collector, accompanied me to the bookstore and checked if they had “the unabridged Wizard of Oz”. Yes, we do. “Wijard of Oj nikalo,” the owner yelled at his invisible assistant on the sidelines. The book was being wrapped. It was my turn.

“Do you carry books by Slavoj Zizek?”

“Slav oj, who?”

I produced a web printout. The owner stared at the mysterious consonants and the photo.

“A Russian?” he guessed. “This man, too, looks like a wijard.”

Slavoj Zizek, my Google search had enlightened me, is from Slovenia (not Russia), is a senior researcher in a tiny city called Ljubljana, and a visiting professor at more than a dozen universities in the US and Europe, where he packs auditoriums like a rock star. Many consider him ‘the Elvis of cultural theory’ or ‘the master of counterintuitive observation’. He speaks six languages and has authored more than 40 books, translated into 20 languages. His thought is heavily influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis,
Marx and Hegel. There is nothing under the sun he has not written or talked about—opera, Hollywood, racism, terrorism, Japanese toilets, religious fundamentalism in Kansas, Antigone, Kafka, totalitarian laughter…However, his wizardry has made him unpopular in several circles. He has been called ‘the most
dangerous philosopher in the West’.

“I can’t stand too much reality,” he told me last week, when I met him in Delhi at the India International Centre. It was a bright January afternoon. Slavoj Zizek had just started lunch at the restaurant there.

“Goulash! They have it here! Very strange,” he said. “Goulash soup reminds me of Europe. I order it everyday. And chicken with peanut sauce. Always the same thing. I am very conservative at this level… When I eat at Indian restaurants in the West, I always order chicken tikka and saag-paneer. Not rice. I hate rice. Some bread like garlic naan. And, of course, mango lassi. I like stability. So that I don’t have to think about it.”

Zizek writes two types of books. “On one hand, shorter, more engaged political books, and on the other hand, big fat theoretical books. My heart is with big fat theoretical books… I am now finishing a very long 700-page book on Hegel. Pure philosophy. My heart is there, I don’t like so much of this political work of mine. If somebody is new to my work, maybe they should read my first book, The Sublime Work of Ideology. It has many examples from popular culture as well.”

The philosopher’s latest book is called First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. “I refer to this famous passage by Marx. History repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce. My point is the point already made by others. Sometimes farce can be more terrible than tragedy. Basically it is diagnoses of our times, the result of the first decade of the 21st century. The tragedy is the 9/11 bombing, and the farce is the financial crisis. I read these two events as the double death of Fukuyama’s utopia of the 90s. The so-called ‘end of history’. Politically it is not the solution for the world. Capitalism the way we know it doesn’t work well.”

Zizek is in India (Delhi-Hyderabad-Kochi) to promote his new book. “External causes, invitations brought me here. The trip was decided by my friend and publisher, S Anand [of Navayana Press], but in reality [the reason I am here] is that I totally neglected India until now. Globalisation interests me… computer programming, cyberspace, manual scavengers, social invisibility, political inequality, Ambedkar (a fascinating figure, I am reading his books and speeches), Gandhi and the Maoists… Violence is a topic that is very much mystified today. One of the key questions to ask is how the global liberal capitalist system produces the very fundamentalism(s) it is horrified by.”

The man is in a sweaty black T-shirt: ‘J’aime le cinema’ on front, ‘J’aime Sarajevo’ on its back. The best thing about interviewing Zizek, I say to myself, is that the man loves to talk. Long unstoppable monologues. An abundance of gestures. But, how does one make him pause?

Bollywood films? “Not yet.” But he is curious. He would like to understand Indian jokes as well. Obscenity. How women in India respond to sexism. He doesn’t tweet. He doesn’t like big monuments. During this trip, he will not visit the Taj or follow tourist trails. “I relate to reality differently.” He supports strongly the Safai Karmachari Andolan’s campaign to eradicate manual scavenging in India. “How fundamental the question of toilets is… In India especially, this question is not in the shadow as it is in the West. The religious background, the caste system, the problem of untouchability… who cleans the
toilets? Jacques Lacan, one of my big teachers, claimed in a very nice way: one of the ways to distinguish humans from animals is the moment shit becomes a problem. These days I am also reading the Laws of Manu and it is really ideology at its most elementary level. Ideology is not deep metaphysical questions—no, it is how you touch; how you eat; who eats; who shits; who makes shit disappear; how you move; how you make love... Ideologies more than ever control our daily lives.”

My time is up. He finishes his vanilla ice-cream (sugar-free), and hurries back to his room.

Later in Lodhi Garden, I walk past my favourite trees (alone), and sit down on a bench. I hear the whistle of a train passing by. Then I walk to a bookstore in Khan Market. Yes, they have heard of Zizek. But his books are sold out. I order a strong latte at Café Turtle, ignore the background noise and sift through the web printouts. Zizek on Donald Rumsfeld: ‘In March 2003, none other than Rumsfeld engaged in amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: ‘there are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.’ What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the unknown knowns, things we don’t know that we know… These are the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we enact but don’t allow ourselves to see… the Abu Ghraib scandal… outsourcing torture… the logic of the pre-emptive strike… Again we see the significance of Nineteen Eighty Four: the power that presents itself as being all the time under threat, living in mortal danger, and thus merely defending itself, is the most dangerous kind of power.’ And then, ‘To unearth these unknown knowns is the task of an intellectual.’

At 7 pm Slavoj Zizek delivered a lecture at the India Habitat Centre. The hall was packed. The young and the old. Electrified. Shocked. Entertained. But so many events get publicised heavily and despite that no one shows up. What is his appeal to so many in this city? I asked myself. Several remained glued to their seats for almost three hours, without intermission.

“Bhopal is your 9/11,” he said from somewhere over the rainbow. “Bhopal is your 9/11, no?” One might agree or disagree with Slavoj Zizek, but it would be dangerous not to take him seriously.

Jaspreet Singh’s book Chef, shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Caribbean and Canada region), will be brought out in India by Penguin later this year.