Renowned Philosopher Speaks at HWS – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Renowned Philosopher Speaks at HWS

Internationally renowned philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek recently gave a talk, titled “2011: The Year of Dreaming Dangerously,” that attempted to answer whether UK suburban protests, Breivik’s ideological madness and recent social movements, including the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, have a common root.

During his introduction, Zizek outlined the functionality of ideology in a supposedly post-ideological world, noting that two levels of conversation exist to bridge this contradiction: what is explicitly said and what is implied.

“The healthcare debate aptly demonstrates this ideological contradiction,” noted Zizek. “On the one hand many Republicans say that universal coverage disturbs the American ideology of freedom of choice. However, you have to look at the implications of how supporting freedom of choice in this case means a lack of a universal safety net, thereby effectively diminishing your freedom of choice.”

Zizek then began addressing the shattering events that encapsulated 2011, emphasizing the role played by the economic problems that have plagued countries during the last several decades.  

“The ongoing financial crisis is not about reckless spending, ineffectual banking regulations or greed,” said Zizek. “Rather than imposing moralistic speculation on financial issues, it is important to note that bankers have always been greedy – that hasn’t changed. The problem is what has happened in society that it has allowed the banks to act like this.”

Zizek went on to note that the ongoing financial crises in the United States and Greece are the result of an economic cycle that began in the 1970s when the exportation of surplus to Europe and Asia halted and that surplus instead turned into deficit.

“In 1971, the U.S. government responded to this decline by boosting deficit,” said Zizek. “The U.S. deficit became an integral part of the world economy, with the rest of the world helping to finance this ongoing deficit. This deficit began to operate like a giant vacuum cleaner, absorbing other people’s surplus, goods and capital, which in turn gave rise to something resembling global balance.”

That economic cycle, explained Zizek, is now coming to an end. “The communist party in China is in a panic right now, which is evidenced by the most recent meeting of the People’s Republic of China government, where they made internal security a priority rather than defense,” said Zizek. “Skeptics have argued that China is the poster child for capitalism, with a booming economy. However, revolutions never happen when things are really bad. In fact, the people’s dreams for society really explode when the system is ready to make compromises and things are getting better.”

Crowded into the Geneva Room, the audience, which was comprised of a variety of disciplines from media and society and political science to art, enthusiastically responded to Zizek’s humor and commentary. 

“Zizek is a lively and unconventional academic, and offered some fascinating anecdotes about culture and political activity,” said Caitlin O’Brien ’12, a political science major with a minor in American studies. “He takes political analysis well outside the boundaries of traditional structure, and his theories build an expansive, remarkably interconnected web of political and social relations.”

“The talk was insightful, illuminating and fascinating for Zizek’s ability to reframe events and political trends and to open up new ways of considering what they might mean,” explained Professor of Art Michael Bogin.

Referred to as “the Elvis of cultural theory” by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Zizek is a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana’s Institute of Sociology in Slovenia and also serves as a professor of philosophy and psychoanalysis at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee in Switzerland. He has previously served as a visiting professor at Columbia, Princeton, New York University and the University of Michigan.

He is the author of more than 30 books, including “Living in the End Times,” “First as Tragedy,” and “In Defense of Lost Causes.” He is the subject of the documentary, “Zizek,” and his critically-acclaimed documentary, “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” was the subject of a film retrospective in 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art.

The founder and president of the Society for Theoretical Psychoanalyis in Ljubljana, Zizek received his Ph.D. in philosophy for the study of psychoanalysis from the University of Ljubljana.

This was Zizek’s second visit to Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He commended HWS, nothing that “it’s at colleges like these where the real exciting intellectual work is happening.”

The event was sponsored by the Department of Political Science, Provost’s Office, and the program in Critical Cultural Studies.