Slavoj Žižek on Hegel at Birkbeck College

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I could not miss that event. I would go for Slavoj Žižek’s lectures (2-4 December, 2015) even if their topic was not Hegel, but Kinder Surprise egg. That is so because what is fascinating about Slovenian philosopher is his unmistakable mode of looking at reality – from awry, as says the title of one of his books – that enables him to draw dazzling conclusions on almost every topic.

University of London’s Birkbeck College is located on Malet Street, at the heart of Bloomsbury – a centre of London’s academic district. Next to it looms the Senate House Library tower (a somewhat social-realistic building). On the other side there is the University College London’s campus, and at the Torrington Square, in between, on every Thursday, hundreds or maybe thousands of students visit farmer’s market during lunch hours to eat delicious grilled meat. In couple of minutes you can reach the Russell Square and many excellent bookshops. It is very easy to spend hours in their basement, browsing through long shelves of books. So it is not a surprise that the walk through that part of town put me in a mood proper for the occasion.

Birkbeck College is Slavoj Žižek’s primary place of academic employment. His position there has a beautiful title – an International Director (one wonders if “Intergalactical” would not be more fitting). The truth is that Žižek spends most of the year lecturing abroad, visiting Birkbeck from time to time. It is then hardly surprising that one had to register for a seat a couple of months earlier.

First lecture: Full Žižek Experience

If one was afraid that Žižek steer us at once into deep waters of German idealism, at least on the first day must have felt a relief. As it turned out, the philosopher was going to change his programme and mentioned Hegel only one time, just at the beginning of the lecture. Professor Jacqueline Rose, who chaired the event, observed nevertheless that Žižek speaks about Hegel even when he does not speak about Hegel. And it is probably the only way to defend a 90-minute stream of thoughts and word that were articulated in an unmistakeable style and with accent that is as much a characteristic for Žižek as his casual t-shirt and unkempt beard.

It is pointless to paraphrase Žižek’s speech, full of digressions and at least a few observations that the philosopher considered “the most crucial”. His subjects – ISIS, terrorist attacks in Pars, Canadian racism, African feminism, Jewish-Palestinian relations and the leftist intolerance – accompanied by some Yugoslavian jokes and anecdotes formed a statement that could have been considered both brilliant or mad, depending on the attitude of the listener.

If it not been for an intervention  of Professor Rose, who interrupted the speech after 90 minutes, Žižek could talk until the exhaustion of the audience – surely not the exhaustion of his own material.

Second lecture: Not a complete idiot

The lecture next day was almost exactly an opposite of the previous one. Žižek, in his most orderly mode, for almost two hours was arguing with an interpretation of Hegel proposed by Robert Brandom. An ambition of the American is to present Hegel in a way that is accessible for the non-Continental philosopher (that is for the analytic ones). Praising his opponent –(“he’s not a complete idiot (as you know there are two kinds of people in the world: idiots and not complete idiots”) – Žižek nevertheless accused Brandom of oversimplifying Hegel’s thought.

But the essence of the lecture was of course Žižek’s own illuminating interpretation of the central concepts of Hegel’s philosophy. Using simple examples, not resigning completely from Yugoslavian jokes, the philosopher was explaining “Hegel’s ABC” in a stirring way. Even if he abandoned some details undiscussed, the overall result was a feeling that the listeners gained an understanding of the intricacies of Hegel’s dialectics. It has to be said that no lecturer is able to achieve much more than this.

Third lecture: Fuck life

Because on the second day Žižek spoke for so long that there was not enough time for question, the third meeting began with the discussion. Not only that – question and answers took the whole two hours. If the first lecture was an improvisation and the second a systematic argument, on the third day audience got something in between. Those who have read Absolute Recoil, one of Žižek’s latest books, had an obvious advantage, because the philosopher was frequently referring to the arguments presented there.

Žižek spend some time explaining a connection between his reading of Hegel’s dialectics and Derrida’s deconstruction. He characterised the French philosopher’s writings in a very amusing way, pointing out that the first 30 pages of Derrida’s text are usually “rhetorical pirouettes: am I writing this text or am I written by this text? Sometimes I am like: fuck off, go to the point!”.

And so on

Personally I could listen to Žižek for hours, regardless of his topic. The way he perceives the reality, constantly questioning the very categories of perception that are always vulnerable to being ideologised, is for me an exemplar of the philosophical activity that aims to sustain the state of continued amazement with the world. December’s lectures was a chance to glance into Žižek’s manner of thinking and maybe even to look at the world with his eyes.

Accidental listeners were probably surprised by the depth of Žižek’s philosophical erudition and his ability to present his thoughts in a very systematic way. These are not characteristics most obvious for those who know only his pop-cultural commentaries. But we should not be misled: even if Žižek may doubting it himself, he is a purebred philosophy professor. He just is not a bore.

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