It is quite a complex thing to describe a Slavoj Zizek lecture. I went to two of his Moscow lectures- listened and laughed at one and listened, laughed and took copious notes at the second one. It seems such a long time since I attended the lectures that all I have are my notes on his second lecture and very vague memories of his first lecture. The problem with describing a Zizek lecture is in trying not to give a simple recapitulation of all the jokes and the serious philosophical or psychoanalytical points that these jokes or quotes from films are said to represent. As Zizek himself acknowledged many of the jokes and anecdotes have already appeared and are probably already well known to the Zizek fan. So his quotation from Ninotchka about a waiter telling a client at a restaurant that there was no cream but there was milk so instead of having coffee without cream perhaps the customer would like coffee without milk was one I had already come across a couple of times. His jokes and anecdotes about the Communist era also came thick and fast – the wonderful conspiracy theory in the Soviet period where people imagined a secret KGB cell that was dedicated only to producing anti-Soviet jokes which would be repeated in kitchens throughout the country has since become my favourite conspiracy theory. Yet as Zizek had argued it, too, only reproduced the Stalinist paranoia that it was supposed to be conspiratorial about.
In any case the Hegel lecture was genuinely quite a fascinating one. As the person who presented Zizek argued, Zizek himself embodied a kind of truly Hegelian contradiction as was Hegel the embodiment of contradictions in his day. Zizek tried to develop this idea as to how Hegel could become both the philosopher of the Prussian State and of the French Revolution and of how Hegel went further in accepting the totality of the French Revolution, understanding that 1789 without 1793 was impossible. This led Zizek into a number of Hegelian concepts which he illustrated with the usual jokes and anecdotes. For Zizek, the contradiction of Hegel was embodied in being the end of the line in metaphysical philosophers and the first philosopher of modernity. Zizek also tried to show how the idea of great opening was embodied in the very moment of total closure and how the proclamation of an end (end of history, end of art, end of literature) is at the same time the proclamation of a beginning. (He went to hint at some of the errors of Kojeve who Lacan was greatly influenced by having said that Kojeve was the freest person he (Lacan) had ever met.
Zizek took up Hegel as a cudgel in the criticism of the totalitarianism approach. The Popperian idea of philosophers such as Hegel and Platon as represnting a threat of totalitarianism was denounced. Philosophy for Hegel was “time seized in thought”, in the sense that only when philosophy is totally immersed in a certain historical moment can it find any opening to a total or absolute knowledge. For Zizek, Lenin’s study of Hegel Logic must fully embodied Hegelian thought amongst Marxists (and that for the past 50 years no Marxist has been able to properly read Das Kapital was precisely because of their lack of knowledge of Hegel’s text). Zizek then took us on the detour regarding Lacan and Kojeve mentioned above.
Zizek also spoke about what he saw as the trinity of fundamental philosophers: Plato, Descartes and Hegel arguing that all philosophy has only ever been anti-Platonism, anti-Cartesianism or anti-Hegelianism. Zizek wanted to challenge the screen image of Hegel being interested in absolute knowledge and the philosophical madman at his purest. He argued that there was another Hegel and then used some illustrations about Hegelian concepts such as Hegel’s idea of differentiality. Here Zizek spoke of Russian formalism and the Lotman school. He illustrated the absence of a characteristic feature as a positive feature in Hegelian thought illustrating this by the Sherlock Holmes curious incident about the dog last night story (ie the curious incident was that there was no incident).
Zizek went on to add in a number of theological ideas in his next section. Beginning with G.K. Chesterton’s idea of the philosopher policemen who tour philosophy conferences to see if crimes will be committed in the future he related this to Popper’s accusation/denunciation of Plato where Popper tries to prove that a totalitarian crime will be committed in the future because of Plato’s world view. Zizek then further elucidated Chesterton’s notion of the morality of the criminal but says that Chesterton doesn’t go far enough in discovering how morality itself is essentially criminal. The idea of Universal Law being crime elevated to the Absolute takes Zizek on a path from Proudhon, Wagner and Ilyenkov to Pussy Riot who Zizek called true Hegelians. Zizek, then, introduces us to ways in which certain religious ideas and holistic truths become unbearable. Hegelianism is not, Zizek is saying, telling us to look at the bigger picture but truth for Hegelians is a kind of unilateral fact and here Zizek attacks the the lie, or the deception of the middle path or the centrist (which was symbolised by Stalin and here we had yet another Stalin joke/anecdote about Stalin telling Bukharin -who believed that a future socialist society would still use money and Trotsky – who thought that socialist society would abolish money by telling them there was a centrist- for some there would be money and for others there would be none).
After this theology was discussed at some length- the book of Job (the first acknowledgment of the Death of God and the visit of the three ideologists), Chesterton (again) who accuses God of blasphemy, some Norwegian theologist (Krampfel?) who believed that God was all powerful but totally stupid and Levinas who argued that the injunction ‘Don’t Kill’ for example was addressed to God himself (Zizek argues that the first theology of God being dead is to be found in Judaism and not Nietzsche). He then argues about the difference between the death of God and the need for the death of Christ and that the message of this is that there is no one left to trust in. (Here he talks of Paul Claudel’s belief that we should not trust God but that God should trust us).
Zizek, then, talks about how the choices made during revolutionary times are always wrong choices at first but that the wrong choice needs to be taken in order to get to the right choice and here Zizek links this to Hegel’s understanding of the Prussian State and the French revolution.
Finally Zizek returns to totality as being only a retroactive truth – that is, every totality is only possible after the event. Here he relates it to Borges’s essay on Kafka creating his own predecessors as well as Eliot’s view in Tradition and the Individual Talent relating all this to the Hegelian view of contingency and arguing that Hegel is really more of a materialist than Marx. Hegel is more open to the ontological incompleteness of knowledge. Zizek, interestingly relates this to a Tarkovsky film where reality is not yet fully and completely formed. Reality itself, Zizek seems to be saying, is incomplete.
The exchanges after the talk were interesting and Zizek was definitely not brief in his answers. Zizek insisted that Hegel was no organicist and was not a thinker of proto harmony. Moreover he also mentioned the views of Boehme and the idea that Boehme was the first to point out the demonic side of God himself (that is, if mankind fell from God something terrible must have happened within God himself). Freud and sexuality came up in questioning too (sex not as an animalistic experience as the Church insisted but the first metaphysical experience and on this he spoke more at length during the first lecture).
Well there is no way of denying that listening to Zizek is an extraordinary experience, rather a whirlwind experience which it is difficult to pick at critically. Some comments that I have read from the Russian left are rather sceptical (both Boris Kagarlitsky and Maxim Kantor seem to think that Zizek is either rather insane or an idle chatterbox- Волван). How, in general, Zizek was understood in Moscow by those attending his lectures is hard to tell. The lectures nonetheless seemed to have generated quite a significant interest though how his ideas are interpreted still remains to be seen.