In 2014, Slavoj Žižek famously said “I like universities without students.” He appeared to be willing to put this prejudice aside as he addressed a packed GMB chamber on Monday afternoon. The Slovenian philosopher was in Trinity to receive the Honorary Patronage of the University Philosophical Society (the Phil).
Žižek began his address by professing his love for Ireland and in particular, Irish writers. “But not Joyce,” he made clear. The philosopher then turned to the main topic he wanted to discuss: the “three apocalypses” facing humanity today.
The first apocalypse, he said, was migration. For those on the right: “immigrants themselves are the crisis”, whereas for leftists like him, the fear stems from the backlash. He emphasised that he had little to no sympathy for those who espouse anti-immigrant sentiment, that it was not always necessary to try to see the other side of an issue.
In his trademark, somewhat rambling style, the philosopher segued into a more general critique of nationalism. The real danger on this issue, according to Žižek, is “soldiers with poems”. He made reference to the violence that occurred during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, where he grew up, a consequence of what he called a “poetic-military complex”. He blamed religion, poetry, and nationalism for their use in “anaesthetising people against their base empathy” and inspiring acts of violence.
The second great crisis, he said, was that of the environment. He expressed worry about humanity’s potential “collective suicide”, but also feared that ecological anxiety could be used to “install an unquestionable authority”, making reference to his trademark conception of ideology as a powerful force.
Nevertheless, he went on to castigate those who try to ignore climate change, those who put their faith in technological or market solutions, and the conception that a “return to nature” for humanity is necessary. He emphasised that he trusted neither climate scientists nor the voting public to create the solution. “Things are catastrophic”, and he is “fundamentally pessimistic”.
Žižek’s third and final apocalypse is “digital”. He is not, like Shoshana Zuboff, primarily worried about surveillance capitalism, as important a concern as he agreed it is. Instead, his digital apocalypse concerns the direct connection of human brains to computers. He believes such technology will be available in the next few years, and will serve to destroy the difference between the outer self and inner self.
Turning back to the subject of pessimism, Žižek said that in the face of such crises, humanity may be “beyond tragedy”. Some things, according to him, are so catastrophically terrible that the only possible reaction is to find solace in “obscene jokes”. He finished his lecture by musing that perhaps his laughter in the face of such existential horror is “like the laughter of Joker from film.”
With Žižek’s address finished, the event moved to the question and answer section. Asked about his publicly expressed preference for Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton in 2016, the philosopher stood firm. “He disturbed the hegemony of the ruling class”, Žižek believes there would be “no democratic socialism without Trump”, citing the role his election played in the radicalisation of the American left. Nevertheless, he didn’t mince words about the president – “he’s disgusting,” – and reaffirmed his hope that Bernie Sanders would be elected in 2020. However, once again taking the pessimistic view he said he believed Trump would win a second term.
Next, Phil president Ryan Grunwell asked how Žižek felt about past public accusations from other leftists that he was “racist” and a “reactionary”. He said he believed that such accusations were being orchestrated by Noam Chomsky, and that though he was often criticised as Islamophobic, he rarely heard these claims from Muslims. He asserted that his only real enemy was “political correctness” and the “western liberal guilt complex”, and that it was “necessary to talk openly” about “differences in cultural values” across the world.
Finally, it was declared that time was running out and that the Q&A would have to end. As the audience applauded, Žižek turned to the Phil president in mock frustration and quipped “f**k you, I should get some medal or something”. Grunwell motioned towards the door, presumably in assurance that a Gold Medal of Honorary Patronage awaited the Philosopher in the Phil council room.