Slavoj Zizek, a furry and fiery "rockstar philosopher" from Slovenia who calls himself a Communist and rages at the hypocrisy of wealthy American liberals, appeared in a raucous debate at the New York Public Library last night. Zizek's opposite partner was French activist and intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, who typically argues for idealistic solutions and pragmatic steps towards a more peaceful world.
Bernard-Henri Levy can usually command a stage by himself (he made a strong impression on me earlier this year in a presentation about Darfur with Mia Farrow). But Slavoj Zizek was the bigger draw for last night's crowd, and Zizek's loud, passionate arguments frequently threw Levy into the role of straight man. Bounding with energy, sputtering, shouting and pointing fingers in a way that is not often seen at polite literary panel discussions, Zizek kept the conversation so riveting and fast-moving that moderator Paul Holdengraber could not bear to break in to attend to questions from the crowd.
Holdengraber opened the talk by asking Levy to speak about the meaning of recent youth riots in Paris, which inspired to Levy to wax sentimental about the greater Paris riots of May 1968 (a recent topic here on LitKicks) where he felt the thrill of possible true societal change. This was an opening, of course, for Zizek to mock Levy's hopeful positivism. It's not clear what practical steps Zizek supports to improve our disappointing world, but it's clear that he feels utter contempt for those who satisfy themselves with easy answers, or who do not agree with him that western-style capitalism is too rotten to be saved.
Zizek's new book Violence opens with a rather startling attack on the pretensions of idealistic Americans (the newly philanthropic Bill Gates is frequently mentioned) who believe they can improve the world through charity. This is an old theme but Zizek argues it with a new vehemence in this chapter, padding his points with deft pop-culture references from M. Night Shyamalan to P. D. James, and concluding with some quoted verses that suggest the depth of Zizek's anger: he truly seems to wish to see Bill Gates strung up for his sins (personally, I've occasionally wished to see Bill Gates strung up for creating the mediocre Microsoft Windows platform, but I'd never blame him for his charitable efforts).
I have only begun reading Zizek, but I am intrigued enough to read more. If the world of intellectual/progressive political thought is divided into Zizek-ians and Levy-ians, I am certainly in the Bernard-Henri Levy camp rather than the Slavoj Zizek camp. I believe real social change is not only possible but is present in our current world (Levy made this point several times during last night's talk), and I believe that problems from Israel/Palestine to Darfur/Sudan can and should be improved through a variety of pragmatic steps.
At the same time that I agree with Levy more than with Zizek, I can't deny that Zizek is a thrilling speaker, while Levy struggles to keep his expressions of righteous optimism from slipping into cliche or naivete. It's tough out there for a Leftist/moderate idealist, so maybe Bernard-Henri Levy deserves some applause just for keeping up his side of the debate last night.
Ultimately, Zizek says, liberalism is a failure because it keeps losing ground to its opposite: fundamentalism. This painful fact, well known to Americans who watched Al Gore lose an election to George W. Bush in 2000 and then watched John Kerry lose an election to George W. Bush in 2004, hit home with the liberal New York audience last night. "You will have Sarah Palin as President!" Zizek cackled as last night's conversation wore to an end. I didn't think all of Zizek's arguments were effective, but this particular one really hurt.
The New York Public Library's literary events sure are good this year! Tonight I'm heading right back to the same room for a session with critics James Wood and Daniel Mendelsohn, moderated by Pico Iyer. Not bad for two nights in a row.