Slavoj Žižek

(b. 1949)

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Slovenian*Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst. Known for his uncanny ability to connect critical theory and popular culture in a way that is both humorous and thought-provoking, Žižek is one of the most high profile intellectuals in the world. An incredibly prolific and wide-ranging author, his work is much in demand and he writes for a variety of publications, from newspapers like The Guardian (UK) and London Review of Books, to blogs and academic journals. Working in several languages, it is one of Žižek's great gifts that he is almost always able to give near instantaneous counter-intuitive critical responses to world events. Having made the perverse counter-claim into something of a personal trademark, he can be relied on to say the opposite of what everyone else is saying. Žižek is not without his critics or his faults, but is widely regarded as an essential voice of dissidence.

Žižek was born in Ljubljana in what was Communist Yugoslavia but is now the capital of Slovenia, into a middle-class family. He studied philosophy and sociology at the University of Ljubljana and in 1971 gained a position there as an assistant researcher. Although Yugoslavia was comparatively liberal for a socialist country, it still had its hard-line elements and Žižek was fired in 1973 because his MA dissertation was deemed to be ‘non-Marxist’. He spent the next four years in the Yugoslav national army, completing his obligatory national service. In the late 1970s he was hired as a researcher at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Ljubljana, enabling him to complete a PhD on German idealism in 1981. He then studied psychoanalysis in Paris with Jacques Lacan's son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller, and completed his habilitation thesis (on Lacan, Hegel, and Marx). Outside of academia, Žižek co-founded the Slovenian Liberal Democratic Party and in 1990 stood for a seat in the four-member collective Slovenian presidency and only narrowly missed gaining office.

The publication of The Sublime Object of Ideology in 1989, Žižek's first work in English, was the major launching point of his career. It set the pattern for his numerous future publications by applying a mixture of Lacan and Hegel to a basically Marxist problematic: what is ideology and how does it work? Žižek defines ideology as the set of beliefs which glue society together—these beliefs are often false, inconsistent and irrational, but no less necessary for being so. For example, money requires our belief in its value—it is literally a promissory note—to function, in spite of the fact that our senses tell us it is intrinsically worthless. The point is, even though we know better, even though we know the truth, we act as though the truth were otherwise, and this leads Žižek to propose the provocative thesis that it is fantasy that supports reality (and not the other way round). Fantasy is a conscious disavowal of a known truth coupled with an unconscious (and therefore stronger) belief in an alternate truth. Fantasy is faced constantly by the threat of dissolution should it come into contact with the real, therefore culture must find ways of staving off that eventuality. Žižek's best work details how this process works and fails at the same time.


Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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