This afternoon Slavoj Zizek spoke to an overflow crowd at UIC. He was the fourth speaker to be invited as part of the semiannual Stanley Fish Lecture, sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the institute for the Humanities.
Zizek spoke in his characteristically passionate, digressive , and anecdotal style. His constant refrain was “if I only had more time.” With the time he had, Zizek managed to demonstrate for his listeners the necessity of looking for what is not there in our current discourse. This absence, he asserted, was a “determinate absence” that allowed the status quo to flourish. It was like “asking for coffee without cream,” he said, and instead being offered “coffee without milk.” When we become aware of the absence that rules our lives, only then, he argued, could meaningful change become possible.
The majority of what Zizek had to say about our current politics was a review of what he has said before. Perhaps the most provocative thing he had to say this afternoon was his comment to academics in the Humanities on their apologetic sense of status. Referring to Stanley Fish’s comment to an interviewer years ago that he was a “Milton Scholar,” Zizek exhorted academics to say such things publicly and with pride. For it is only through the efforts of the Humanities scholar to cultivate the imagination, he claimed, that the possible can be disentangled from all the things currently dismissed as impossible.
Even though most people already assumed as much, Zizek’s statement that “Communism as we knew it in the 20th century is dead..the movement is gone but the problem it addressed remains” is the final coffin nail for those looking to it for a strategic solution to the spread of Global Capital. If the world’s one-time preeminent supporter of Communism no longer believes in it, then Lenin has finally died. He did, however, call for us to take action on behalf of the “commons” which is currently under the relentless assault of neoliberals anxious to privatize the water we drink and the air we breathe. How exactly we do that remains to him as well as his listeners today a mystery. The possible it seems exists now in the small gesture–embodied by groups of disaffected, ordinary people standing outside banks with cardboard signs announcing their displeasure.
Zizek is a mesmerizing speaker and I could have listened to him speak for much longer than the hour and a half he was alloted. My only regret was the lack of preparation by UIC for the crowds who attended the lecture. The main hall was already full thirty-five minutes before the lecture and a small overflow room with a projector screen was all that was available for late arrivals. Even that space, however, was soon denied to listeners as fire marshalls declared the space over crowded and refused entry to the top floor of the student center to further spectators around ten minutes before the talk. It was not until I arrived and was directed to the overflow room that I was made aware of the live webcast of the talk that was available. In all honesty, if I had known about the webcast in advance, I would have watched the lecture from home. The image and sound quality on my computer is far superior to that of the projector screen that was made available to the overflow crowd. Clearly the Institute for the Humanities was caught of guard with the massive public response to this event. It showed in the lack of information provided to those arriving. Unless you asked, it was possible to mill about in the crowds out in the hall for hours without knowing what was going on. I only learned about the webcast and overflow room by directly asking a staff member from the institute whom I know from previous events. Apparently it was assumed that only UIC affiliates would attend. In this assumption, they misjudged.
C’est la vie. It all worked out in the end. Thanks Zizek for being you. A meaty fisted slayer of bullshit. If only more professors were like that.