Thursday, September 11, 2008


I went to see the philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, at Seattle Town Hall Monday night. The place was packed; must have been three hundred people at least, all there to see this guy, kind of a nut, rant about fundamentalism, civility, radical nationalism, and unwritten societal rules, all the while he sweated, sniffled, and tugged on his beard; it was kind of like having an audience with an Asberger syndrome kid with logorrhea; lots of times he was funny, though, and much of what he had to say—at least what I could make sense of—I agreed with.

What I recall best was an extended riff on the unwritten rules by which society functions. He pointed out that you don’t just have to know the rules, you also have to know the other set of unwritten rules that tell you how and when to follow that first set. For example, he said, people who wanted to move into society used to take these courses to learn the rules of etiquette, but then, when they would try to assimilate, they’d be ostracized because they followed the rules blindly, not knowing, essentially, the secret code that said when to break the rules.

Another example takes place on the level of international geopolitics. During the later Cold War era, for instance, the US tacitly agreed to treat Russia as a superpower, but only if Russia tacitly agreed not to act like one. Zizek said that the current crisis in Georgia can be traced to Russia’s desire to violate those unspoken norms and actually flex its superpower muscles.

He ended his speech with a sort of disjointed analysis of the Presidential campaign and pointed out that the Republicans have perfected the skill of saying that they stand for exactly the opposite—fiscal responsibility, smaller government, individual freedom, and so on—than what their policies promote.

It was a fairly commonplace observation, but somehow, coming from a sweaty Slovenian philosopher, it sounded especially profound.


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