Slavoj Žižek (1949-present) is a contemporary leftist intellectual involved in academia as well as popular culture. He is known for his academic publishing in continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, critique of politics and arts, and Marxism.

Žižek is remarkable for combining an esoteric life of abstract academic enjoyment with political activism and engagement with current affairs and culture. His political life goes back to the 1980s when he campaigned for the democratisation of his home country, Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia), and ran for the Slovenian presidency on the Liberal Democratic Party ticket in 1990. He has since become known as one of the world’s leading communist intellectuals, although he is far from dogmatic. Žižek has aroused controversy with his revisionary takes on Marxism, criticisms of political correctness and strategic support of Donald Trump in 2016.

Žižek is known as a provocateur, trigger-happy with an arsenal of dirty jokes, ethically challenging anecdotes, extreme statements, and stark inversions of glib platitudes. But his ‘intellectualism’ and provocations are neither nihilistic nor unprincipled.

Žižek’s oldest loves are cinema, opera and theory. He is sincerely committed to art and ideas, seeing them as both tools for sharpening up political struggle as well as part of what that struggle is ultimately all about. As he once put it: “we exist so that we can read Hegel.” That is, while philosophy may be useful, it’s also an end in itself, and needs no practical application to justify its existence or enjoyment.

As for his provocations, they are either the expression of a genuine, open-minded inquiry, or an effort to liberate us from the gravitational force of what he calls ‘ideology,’ a central target of his work.

Indeed, the revival of the Marxist notion and critique of ideology is one of Žižek’s most profound contributions to the contemporary conversation in this space and is a key part of his innovative synthesis of Lacanian and Marxist theory.

For Žižek, ideology is not primarily about our conscious political beliefs.

Instead, ideology is something that shapes our everyday behaviour, norms, habits of thought, architecture and art. It can be found everywhere from Starbucks coffee and toilet seat designs to Hollywood cinema. To engage with Žižek on ideology is therefore to engage with all aspects of life – culture, psychology, love, politics. 

Inspired by Karl Marx, Žižek sees ideology as part of what supports a given social, economic and political system. It keeps us doing the things that keep the wheels of the system turning, regardless of what we consciously think. Žižek’s role, as he sees it, is to help bring this ideology to our attention so that we may break free of it. This liberation is essential to the ultimate goal for Žižek: replacing the liberal-capitalist order we currently occupy. To do this, Žižek strives to break the spell of ideology through a kind of psychoanalytic shock therapy that cannot be co-opted by ideological discourse.

“For Žižek, jokes are amusing stories that offer a shortcut to philosophical insight.” (Žižek’s Jokes)

When Žižek affirms Stalinism or prescribes gulags, for example, he isn’t being purely ironic nor purely sincere. His intention is instead to evade the clutches of superficial platitudes that narrow our thinking. In doing so, Žižek wants to “rehabilitate notions of discipline, collective order, subordination, sacrifice” – values that are too easily either neutralised by a bland and inoffensive liberalism that preserves the current social order or demonised via the “standard opposition of freedom and totalitarianism.”

Žižek’s analysis of ideology provides us with some of the tools we need to do this sort of ‘shock-therapy’ for ourselves. He explores the ways in which ideology manages to preserve the system we occupy through such mechanisms as cynicism, “inherent transgression” and the rhetoric of neutrality.

That is, cynicism allows us to knowingly act contradictory to our beliefs with little or no mental anguish.

In this way, the problem is not, as Marx put it in Capital: “They do not know it, but they are doing it.” Rather, it is, to use Žižek’s reformulation:

“They know it, but they are doing it anyway.”

Criticism of capitalism, for example, can thus live quite happily and indefinitely within its inner sanctum, as Hollywood films repeatedly demonstrate. (Here Žižek sometimes likes to cite the 2008 animated film Wall-E).

Žižek continues to be an unpredictable and idiosyncratic voice in politics and culture, difficult to place in partisan terms. Armed with the ferocious joy that he takes in theory and inversion – a joy that opposes all that is easy and superficial – he calls upon us to reflect seriously and radically upon ourselves and our society.