Philosophy Express

Slavoj Žižek
EVENT: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept
(Melville House, 2014)

“In an Event,” writes popular Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, “things not only change, what changes is the very parameter by which we measure the facts of change.” A natural interpreter of human civilization, Žižek lays a framework for thinking about important change with his new book, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept. He uses the tools of philosophy and intellectual history (logic, dialectics, and psychoanalysis) in an attempt to interpret and define Events (big E). As he ­writes:

An “Event” can refer to a devastating natural disaster or to the latest celebrity scandal, the triumph of the people or a brutal political change, an intense experience of a work of art or an intimate decision. Given all these variations, there is no other way to introduce order into the conundrum of definition than to take a risk, board the train and start our journey with an approximate definition of event.

Žižek’s book, a train ride through philosophical terrain, also asks the leading question: can we expect, in our frantic, information-confused society, further (big E) Events—occurrences which not only “change things” but change “the parameter by which we measure the facts of change”?

The first of our philosophical “stops” describes an event as a reframing. Using an example from the history of science, Žižek details a change-event in physics between Copernicus (who believed objects in motion required an impetus) and Galileo (whose updated conception of objects in motion innovated the concept of inertia). Explaining how this relates to the definition of an event, Žižek writes:

This shift in our understanding of motion, from impetus to inertia, changes the very basic mode of how we relate to reality. As such, it is an event: at its most elementary, event is not something that occurs within the world, but is a change of the very frame through which we perceive the world and engage in it.

Thus the first major definition of an event: event as reframing. As this “philosophical journey” moves from stop to stop (literally, each chapter is called a stop) Žižek shares a breadth of definitions for what occurrences might also be properly described as events. He draws on material ranging from theology (“the fall” as an event) to psychoanalysis. In a late chapter, he describes the psychological tradition of the “event as the real.” As he writes, in typical borderline-bawdy Žižek style, the real occurs where psychoanalysis and philosophical inquiry dovetail:

The Japanese expression bakku-shan means “a girl who looks as though she might be pretty when seen from behind, but isn’t when seen from the front.” One of the lessons of the history of religion—and even more of today’s experience of religion—is that the same holds for God himself: he may appear great when he is seen from behind and from a proper distance, but when he comes too close and we have to confront him face to face, spiritual bliss turns into horror. This destructive aspect of the divine, the brutal explosion of rage mixed with ecstatic bliss, is what Lacan aims at with his statement that gods belong to the Real. Such a traumatic encounter of a divine Thing is the Event as real.

The New York Times has called Žižek, a professor at The European Graduate School, “the Elvis of cultural theory.” Žižek operates on the page in a composite mode, that is, he uses multiple intellectual frameworks to arrive at his philosophical stance. His dense, witty, and often highly allusive writing works along two intellectual strands in particular: psychoanalysis as pioneered by Freud, and later, Lacan; and social critique, whose work is exemplified for Žižek by two German intellectuals: Hegel, and later, Marx.

Žižek’s body of work includes film reviews, in addition to his many books of “popular philosophy,” which have been as rich and rigorous as they are popular among general readers—that is to say, immensely. His task seems to be to develop a set of logical methods in which to best encounter this hyper, always-unfolding world, using the wealth of human culture as an echo chamber for examination and interpretation.

In large measure, Žižek’s work examines how, and by what means, ideology operates in today’s society. As he reminds us in Event, ideology pertains to the realm of acceptability—from our cinemas to our war-zones, from our trading-floors to our deathbeds—ideology operates discursively. Jokes and ribald anecdotes help reveal how ideology operates by pinning down the line of what is acceptable, politically or sexually, in “polite” conversation.

It is an intellectual lineage he shares with French philosopher Louis Althusser, whose theory of interpellation, or “hailing,” explains how signals from society give an individual a set of systemic relationships and responsibilities he shares in his role as citizen. Ideology, in Žižek, as in Althusser, aims to return individuals to certain prescribed roles, be it that of citizen, spouse, parent, or enemy combatant. The study of an event is, perhaps inevitably, the psychology of disruption and change. Žižek’s logic-driven approach to cultural studies is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in philosophy, in part because he so thoroughly recycles the tradition of philosophy and casts it against current trends and, as in this work, events. His witty voice helps render these difficult, often ineffable issues related to wisdom and knowledge all the more attractive, and thus all the more urgent.


Allen Guy Wilcox

ALLEN GUY WILCOX was born in Cooperstown, NY, and grew up on his parents’ farm in the Mohawk Valley. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2005.