There are certain characters and figures who make up the fundamental fabric of the internet. They’re so load-bearing to online culture—in ways both subtle and explicit—that to imagine our increasingly expansive content universe without their looming, phantasmal presence verges on impossible. One of them is Shrek. Another is Slovenian post-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
Long a favourite of the millennial left, Žižek lingers at the periphery of our digital lives—an honour rarely, if ever, bestowed on any other contemporary philosopher. He’s part of the mimetic furniture.
TikToks featuring the man himself or Zoomers doing pitch-perfect impressions of his famous slushy lisp, sniffles and tics regularly rack up hundreds of thousands of views. Tweets parodying his particular cadence and pop cultural fixations go viral more often than you would expect for an ageing European academic with a penchant for Lacanian psychoanalysis. His famous 2019 debate with Jordan Peterson on Marxism is still cited in reverent tones (and has its very own page on Know Your Meme).
It remains, in other words, one of the internet’s most enduringly weird cults of personality. So what is it about Žižek that has kept him enduringly popular, and kept him relevant in the dislocating transition from Gen Y to Gen Z?
First, the elephant in the room: part of Žižek’s charm is no doubt the fact that he cuts a very comical figure. Bearded, unkempt and prone to picking at 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 academic you’d care to name. He’s a funny and engaging speaker, in no small part because of how obviously oddball he is.
But the key thing that propelled Žižek into a remarkable public profile for a philosopher concerned with Hegel and Lacan—two of the most inscrutably difficult thinkers in history—is undoubtedly the fact he is able and willing to link his relatively heavy continental philosophy with concepts more relevant to contemporary human life. He talks freely about modern pop culture and cinema, and links his thought to modern ideas about politics, society and sex. (One of his books contains a digression on ideology in Kung Fu Panda.)
Indeed, it was his appearances at Occupy Wall Street and in a series of documentaries, including The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, which really propelled him into the consciousness of a younger generation searching for deeper answers. His popular work is accessible without being simplistic. Anyone who has tackled his “pop” philosophical works will find they are often much denser and weirder than most books for a mass audience.
He has also long been far more attuned to the demands of the attention economy than your average expert on psychoanalytic philosophy. He’s always willing to offer a provocative view that will seize headlines—often in more simplistic terms than he would in his books. (Such as his argument he would Marxistly vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, which still comes up.) His position as a reasonably cantankerous Hegelian leftist who also sounds off on identity politics and multiculturalism tends to win him support (and criticism) from both sides of the aisle.
But I do genuinely think that it was that 2019 debate with Jordan Peterson which solidified his position as a permanent fixture of internet culture, as well as permanently shifting the general perception of Peterson as a thinker. (It was kind of like the Rumble in the Jungle for internet losers.) Peterson, despite being a psychologist, is easily one of the most widely popular philosophical thinkers of the 21st century, and has laid the bedrock for a particular brand of right-wing thought popular largely among young men.
The debate, rightly or wrongly, permanently situated Žižek as Peterson’s opposite in the war for young minds. It didn’t help Peterson’s case that he came into a debate about Marxism with an extremely undergraduate understanding of the subject, even if what Žižek said was also opaque at points. It might be too much of a stretch to point Peterson’s debate appearance as the starting gun of a phase that took him through an addiction to benzos, a stay in a medical facility in Russia, and getting cancelled for saying a Sports Illustrated cover model was too fat to be beautiful—but I’m saying it anyway.
Regardless of what followed, the debate has obtained a strangely prominent position in the political web—far beyond most other political and philosophical debates—and has locked in Žižek’s position as the philosopher du jour for a young, meme-hungry milieu. Tour the comments section of the YouTube uploads of the debate and you’ll see the politics version of kids commenting “I was born in the wrong generation” on Led Zeppelin videos.
But it’s a remarkable feat for Slavoj. He has managed to parlay a rich understanding of Hegelian dialectics into ongoing TikTok fame in 2022. For that, we salute him.
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