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Photograph by Dixie Sheridan
BRIGHT LIGHT: Slavoj Zizek sent off intellectual sparks at his Bay Area appearance.

America Decoded

In the barracuda's wake, philosopher Slavoj Zizek spoke on civility and its discontents

By Richard von Busack

THE Sarah Palin phenomenon leaves a left-wing viewer speechless and helpless. The blogs offer an inchoate mix of lust, confusion, fury and despair. Palin's modest family is flaunted, yet the visually demonstrable failure of her abstinence policies cannot be mentioned—that's a personal attack. The governor's glow of health and sweetness masks the violence she intends for the women in the nation. She and her party plan to sentence them to less choice, more financial deprivation, more fear for their children's health.

Palin's appearance on the national stage came so suddenly, and now she may be here for years. One night after Palin gave her acceptance speech, philosopher Slavoj Zizek was lecturing in San Francisco at City Arts & Lectures in connection with his new book,In Defense of Lost Causes (published by Verso; his previous volume, Violence: Big Ideas/Small Books, just came out in paperback from Picador). America in decline was part of the foreigner's subject. As a provocation, Zizek had written that it would be better if the U.S. president was chosen by popular vote from the rest of the world. It would be a way of circumventing the current policy of what he called "thinking locally and acting globally."

The philosopher from Ljubljana, Slovenia, was dressed in a black T-shirt and beaten baggy jeans. He was paunchy, with a badger beard; if anyone were to play this cinema-loving intellectual, it should be Jeff Daniels. His voice featured a slurping, Roger Rabbit–like glottalness, apparently the result of a wicked summer cold. He wiped his nose with both hands and kept on gesticulating. Zizek threw off ideas like sparks, and the sparks continued past the time allotted. The house lights went up, and Zizek ignored them. Zizek's some three dozen books are rooted in Hegel, Marx, Freud and Jesus. Speaking to an audience of lay listeners, he was more than merely intelligible. And he addressed an imperative problem: civility and its discontents.

Using a cinematic metaphor, Zizek described John Carpenter's paranoid 1988 cult film They Live. It's the story of a homeless man who discovers magic glasses that allow the decoding of advertising and media. Without these glasses, the images that bombard us appear as just the familiar dreams of wealth, contentment and leisure. Wearing the glasses, you see the messages they conceal: "Obey," "Sleep," "Marry and Reproduce."

However, the repression itself is never quite that simple. Zizek had personal experience with ethnic cleansers—students he knew in Belgrade who joined in the violence. What drew these students into the war wasn't a desire to escape from Western freedom into patriotic discipline. Rather, it was an escape from discipline, a holiday of rape and murder: "all the transgressions you want," as Zizek put it.

So he asked us to be aware of "the obscene message that is the reverse of the official message." He cited examples: the charitable contributions we pay to make images of the world's poverty go away, the reuse of old anti-Semitic slurs against Jews who oppose Zionism and the official rules that are meant to be winked at. "Explicit prohibition solicits discretion," he suggested, and a "crisis of democracy" is the phrase often heard when democracy itself becomes uncontrollable from the top.

For the left, tolerance is the problem. With tolerance, the unthinkable becomes normal. The idea floated by a pundit ends up as a plank in a party platform. We permitted torture, in the sense that we didn't know it was going on. It was defended in the press. Finally, onstage at St. Paul, Palin smirked, Eastwood-wise, at the idea of reading terrorist punks their rights.

A philosopher who looks at social problems as "a collection of stupidities" has no clear answers. As my favorite Godard aphorism has it, he must look not at the key to a problem but at the lock itself. To his American listeners, Zizek emphasized not falling back on niceness and silence in a time of struggle. Palin has played the huntress—let's make her the game.

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