How did Slavoj Žižek become mainstream?

Certain people and personalities make up the basic structure of the Internet. They carry so much weight on online culture—both subtle and explicit—that it’s almost impossible to imagine our ever-expanding world of content without their looming, dreamlike presence. One of them is Shrek. The other is the Slovenian post-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

Žižek has long been a favorite of the millennial left, but he has lingered on the fringes of our digital lives—an accolade rarely, if ever, earned by any other contemporary philosopher. He is part of the imitation furniture.

TikToks featuring the man himself, or Zoomers, provide the perfect impression of his famous lisp, sniffles, and twitches, often garnering hundreds of thousands of views. Tweets that mimic his specific rhythm and pop culture For an elderly European scholar who favors Lacanian psychoanalysis, the virus spreads more frequently than you might think. His famous 2019 debate on Marxism with Jordan Peterson is still reverently quoted (and has its own page on Know Your Meme).

In other words, it remains one of the internet’s most enduringly weird personality cults. So what made Zizek enduring and relevant in the dislocated transition from Gen Y to Gen Z?

First, the elephant in the room: One of Zizek’s charms is undoubtedly the fact that he creates a very comical image. Bearded, unkempt, prone to picking at his T-shirt and sniffing, Zizek is striking to watch and listen. Some people found his speech insufferable, but it did set him apart from just about any scholar you want to name. He’s an interesting and engaging speaker, in large part because he’s obviously an oddball.

But what makes Zizek a philosopher who focuses on Hegel and Lacan—two of the most incomprehensible thinkers in history—is undoubtedly his ability and willingness to combine his relatively heavy continental philosophy with a more multiple concepts. It is closely related to contemporary human life. He speaks openly about modern pop culture and film, and connects his thinking with contemporary political, social and sexual concepts. (One of his books contains a digression on ideology kungfu Panda.)

In fact, it was his appearance in Occupy Wall Street and a series of documentaries, including Hentai Movie Guide and Pervert’s Ideological Guide, which really pushed him into the consciousness of the younger generation to find deeper answers. His popular works are easy to understand but not simple. Anyone who has been exposed to his “popular” philosophical writings will find them generally denser and weirder than most books for a general audience.

He has long been more attuned to the demands of the attention economy than the average expert in psychoanalytic philosophy. He’s always willing to offer a provocative point of view that grabs headlines—often simpler than his wording in the book. (Like his argument that he would have voted Marxist for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, which still holds.) His stance as a rather grumpy Hegelian left, in identity Political and multiculturalism aspects are also popular, which tends to win him support (and criticism) from both sides of the aisle.

But I do think that it was the 2019 debate with Jordan Peterson that cemented his status as a permanent fixture of internet culture and permanently changed the general perception of Peterson as a thinker. (A bit like Rumble in the Jungle Internet losers. ) Peterson, despite being a psychologist, is easily one of the most popular philosophical thinkers of the 21st century, and has laid the foundation for a particular brand of right-wing thought that has become popular among young people.

The debate, rightly or wrongly, permanently positions Zizek as Peterson’s opposite in the war on youth ideas. While what Žižek is saying is also opaque in some ways, his very undergraduate understanding of Marxism doesn’t help Peterson’s case. Taking Peterson’s debate as a stage starter might be too fat for beauty — but I’ll say it anyway.

Whatever happens next, the debate has gained an odd prominence in political networks — far above most other political and philosophical debates — and locked in Žižek as a young, meme-hungry environment the status of philosophers. Browse the comments section of the YouTube debate upload and you’ll see the political version of kids commenting “I was born into the wrong generation” on a Led Zeppelin video.

But it was a remarkable feat for Slavoy. He has successfully translated a rich understanding of Hegelian dialectics into continued TikTok popularity in 2022. For that, we salute him.

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