How did Slavoj Žižek become mainstream?
Certain characters and figures constitute the fundamental fabric of the Internet. They are so powerful for online culture – both in subtle and explicit ways – that imagining our ever-expanding universe of content without their looming and fantastical presence is nigh impossible. One of them is Shrek. Another is Slovenian post-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
Long a favorite of the millennial left, Žižek dwells on the periphery of our digital lives — an honor rarely, if ever, given to another contemporary philosopher. It is part of the mimetic furniture.
TikToks featuring the man himself or Zoomers doing perfect impressions of his famous lisp, sniffles and twitches regularly rack up hundreds of thousands of views. Tweets parodying his peculiar cadence and pop cultural fixations go viral more often than you would expect for an aging European scholar with a penchant for Lacanian psychoanalysis. His famous 2019 debate with Jordan Peterson on Marxism is still quoted in a respectful tone (and has its own page on Know Your Meme).
It remains, in other words, one of the weirdest personality cults on the internet. So what is it about Žižek that has kept him enduringly popular and that has kept him relevant in the disruptive transition from Millennials to Gen Z?
First, the elephant in the room: part of Žižek’s charm is undoubtedly that he has a very comical figure. Bearded, unkempt and prone to ripping off his t-shirt and sniffling, Žižek is very compelling to watch and listen to. Some find his presentation insufferable, but it certainly sets him apart from almost any other scholar you would want to name. He’s a funny and engaging speaker, largely because of his obvious eccentricity.
But the key element that propelled Žižek into a remarkable public profile for a philosopher preoccupied with Hegel and Lacan – two of the most difficult thinkers in history to understand – is undoubtedly the fact that he is able and willing to link its relatively heavy continental philosophy to concepts more relevant to contemporary human life. He speaks freely about modern pop culture and cinema and connects his thinking to modern ideas about politics, society and sex. (One of his books contains a digression on ideology in kung fu panda.)
Indeed, these are his appearances on Occupy Wall Street and in a series of documentaries, including The guide to perverse cinema and The pervert’s ideology guide, which really propelled him into the consciousness of a younger generation looking for deeper answers. His popular work is accessible without being simplistic. Anyone who has tackled his “pop” philosophical works will find that they are often much denser and stranger than most books aimed at a mass audience.
He has also long been much more sensitive to the demands of the attention economy than your average expert in psychoanalytic philosophy. He is always ready to offer a provocative vision that will make headlines, often in more simplistic terms than in his books. (Like his argument, he would vote Marxist for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, who always comes back.) His stance as a reasonably cantankerous Hegelian leftist who also talks about identity politics and multiculturalism tends to win him favor. support (and criticism) from both sides of the aisle.
But I sincerely believe it was that 2019 debate with Jordan Peterson that cemented his position as a permanent fixture of internet culture, while permanently altering the general perception of Peterson as a thinker. (It was a bit like the Rumble in the Jungle for internet losers.) Peterson, despite being a psychologist, is easily one of the most popular philosophical thinkers of the 21st century and laid the foundation for a particular form of right-wing thought popular largely among young men.
The debate, rightly or wrongly, has definitively placed Žižek as Peterson’s opposite in the war of young minds. It did not help Peterson’s case that he entered a debate on Marxism with an extremely deep understanding of the subject, even though what Žižek said was also opaque at times. It might be an overstatement to point to Peterson’s appearance in the debate as the start of a phase that saw him go through addiction to benzos, a stay in a medical facility in Russia, and being canceled for saying a Sports Illustrated cover model was too big to look good, but I’m saying it anyway.
Regardless of what followed, the debate achieved an oddly prominent position in the political web – far beyond most other political and philosophical debates – and locked in Žižek’s position as a philosopher du jour for a medium. young and hungry for memes. Visit the comments section of the YouTube uploads of the debate and you’ll see the political version of the kids commenting “I was born in the wrong generation” on the Led Zeppelin videos.
But it’s a remarkable feat for Slavoj. He managed to turn a rich understanding of the Hegelian dialectic into continued TikTok fame in 2022. For that, we salute him.
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