Feature interview for Groove Korea, October 2013. [PDF.]

Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was gaining international momentum when Slavoj Zizek and his 12-year-old son walked through the wealthy district with a healthy level of curiosity. The boy was won over by the futuristic skyscrapers and blinding neon lights, but the elder Zizek, who is one of the world’s leading leftist philosophers and an outspoken critic of capitalism, was less impressed.

He later joked that it was no coincidence that the YouTube hit by “that idiot, Psy” broke 1 billion views on Dec. 21, 2012 — the same day the Mayans predicted the world would end. “Maybe the Mayans were right,” he told his friends. “Maybe this is the end of the cultural world, with such bullshit.”

But something about Gangnam gave him pause. Throughout the day, Zizek was recognized four or five times; normally he hates signing autographs, but this time was different. Zizek doesn’t usually get recognized in East Asia. Suddenly, being stopped by a Korean fan was not some inane celebrity worship, but a signifier of the country’s intellectual curiosity. “The degree of intense interaction and understanding of my work is incredibly higher than usual (in Korea),” he tells Groove Korea in an interview. “Especially, for example, if I take the two big neighbors of Korea, Japan and China, where I get much more naive questions … They are, in my experience, much more racist and arrogant.”

Two caveats validate the bluntness of his statement. First, Zizek’s worldliness: Dozens of his books have been translated into 20 languages (six of which he speaks fluently); on his bookshelf at home sit two translated copies for every book he’s ever written. And, having only modest responsibilities to his employers at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, he has been able to travel the world and lecture in front of sold-out audiences.

The second caveat is Zizek’s unparalleled penchant for insulting in plain-speak. One might say this is what made him famous: Listening to him rail against the failure of American politics with his lispy, staccato Slovene accent is like hearing Borat recite George Carlin.

“The problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough.”

“Humanity? Yes, it’s okay. Concrete people? No, 99 percent are boring idiots.”

And the personally worrisome: “I hate journalists!”

But one of his most useful quotes comes from his 2002 book, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real.” In it, he says, “We ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” The take-home message — if you choose to avoid his Marxist reinterpretations, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Hegelian influence — is that our lives are dictated by ideology, which Zizek defines as a “fantasy structuring our social reality itself.”

Zizek is arguably the only living philosopher who matters to people who don’t care about philosophy. He has achieved a level of international fame that is unprecedented for today’s philosophers, through his blunt criticism of culture and politics on TV news, at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street and in documentaries — “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema” (2006) and “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” (2012), which he wrote and narrated; or “Zizek!” (2005), of which he is the subject.

Zizek took to the world stage in 1989 with the release of his first English-language book, “The Sublime Object of Ideology.” After a brief run at politics in Slovenia’s first open presidential election in 1990, the perennially unkempt thinker bore down into a prodigious publishing career. Over the next two decades, he would write most of the 70-plus books he has in circulation, including complex analyses of Hitchcock, Lacan, opera and global terrorism.

He describes himself as a Marxist, but “not one of those crazy leftists” who believes we can effectively overhaul the system in any foreseeable generation. He loves to publicly decry capitalism, but also realizes its inevitability — and even appreciates its successes. Case in point: South Korea. “In capitalist terms, it’s a remarkable success story,” he says. “I’m not this old type of Marxist who, whenever you see an economic success, you just see more exploitation and laugh at it.”

If all this sounds contradictory, that’s because it is. Zizek thinks in paradoxes, building walls only to later destroy them. He enjoys contradictions and hates being pigeonholed by fans or summarized by journalists. He should despise Samsung as a capitalist company, but cheers them on against Apple (“I simply like the smaller nation succeeding against the bigger nations”); in film, he hates Kim Ki-duk’s art house award-winner “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring” (2003) (“It’s total Orientalist ideology,” he says), but loves Korean detective films.

“I know everything is true, what you said — that I should, in some sense, hate (the country),” he says. “I’m not idealizing in any way Korea. I’m well aware of all its nationalism, political problems and so on.” But he has nonetheless taken an odd liking to the country. This is why, from Sept. 27 to 29, he will visit Seoul for the second time in two years as part of a conference at Kyung Hee University called “The Idea of Communism,” alongside French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou and Wang Hui, a Chinese professor of literature and history.

Ahead of his visit, Groove Korea talked to Zizek by telephone from his home in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Groove Korea: When you visited last year, one of the things you criticized Koreans for was not asking the “big questions.” What questions should South Koreans be asking?

Slavoj Zizek: First, I didn’t mean it specifically with regards to South Korea. By big questions, I mean this: Although I am, in the short term, very pragmatic, I think that there are enough — how you put it? — writings on the wall, which tell us clearly that the global capitalist system is approaching a certain limit. It cannot go on indefinitely like this.

Now, I am the first one who is fully aware that the 20th century’s over. We cannot even dream — it’s so ridiculous! — about the return of communism the way that we had it in the 20th century. But nonetheless, the big question is the limits of global capitalism. I think it is reaching its limits.

If you look at what is happening with financial capital here, Korea interests me. The truly successful capitalist countries today are not really neoliberal free-market. They found a right balance between freedom of the market and state regulation. I mean, it’s bullshit; neoliberalism doesn’t exist. Or it exists as an ideology.

The fact that Psy took over in a global way, do you see that as a breaking of Western hegemony or as a reinforcement — the way the West appropriated it? 

Both, at the same time. I think that the truth is, as with any hegemony, you truly win when you become universal, but by virtue of becoming universal you also lose your monopoly on it. For example, I recently read an interesting text on the English language by an American conservative who says that, okay, English language won. But the English which is effectively now becoming a universal lingua franca is more the English spoken by Singapore bankers, by Indian merchants. The other side of English hegemony is that English is taken away from its native speakers.

So in this sense, of course, I find it disgusting, even “Gangnam Style,” but on the other hand, the sacred is returning here.

What do you mean by “sacred?”

I mean this kind of ecstatic communal feeling. I hate it. This is as sacred as an old religious ritual. My point is not to claim this is not sacred, but to suspect, to announce, the very experience of the sacred. I think there is nothing sublime, really great in sacred; Nazi parades were also sacred.

South Korea is defined by these things, things you’ve spoken out against: manufactured K-pop music, big capitalist companies like Samsung or LG, a richly homogenous ideology. What interests you most about the country?

What interests me is that Korea is a place where, as it were, it is facing the challenges of today’s world in a pure state. On the one hand, you have extremely successful capitalist dynamics. On the other hand, you have nationalist reactions. And the danger for me is the combination of extremely successful market economy with some more authoritarian political, cultural, ideological system … You have elements of this in Korea; at the same time, I do see traces of new emancipatory movements, some kind of a left, precisely because the Korean left knows precisely what is the madness of 20th-century communism. You just have to look towards the North.

Let’s segue to North Korea. It’s sometimes described as a communist state. What would you call it?

It’s a very good question. I think there is no clear answer. On the one hand, it’s clear that in no meaningful way is it effectively a communist state. It is simply some, I would say, extremely militarized nationalist dictatorship. And what interests me is how ideology functions there. Somebody even told me — if one can trust the public media — that North Koreans even erased from their latest constitution all references to communism. They no longer even call themselves a communist state.

But on the other hand, you know, we cannot avoid the fact that, as perverted as it is, it developed out of a communistic ideology. I think that crazy nations like North Korea do force us to look back critically at the origins themselves — Marx, Lenin and so on — and ask the simple but crucial question: What was wrong already in the original theory so that it was possible for it to develop in this terrifying direction?

Some of your more famously contentious quotes deal with how Hitler and the Khmer Rouge were not able to replace their current realities with a new collective state — which is entirely what North Korea did. 

No, it didn’t! I claim, from what I read about it, that this is the terrorist solution. You destroy the old order. What is North Korea now? A mixture of totally state-controlled economy with some self-initiative like markets: people desperately searching for food in the forests, selling it. Why? Because they are aware that without this low-level, self-inventive activity people would starve even more.

These types of brutal solutions are seldom new. They did not really invent something that could be considered a germ of a new society. It’s just an abstract negation of the old. This was always the case with Stalinism and so on, even today in Cuba — these totally regulated states, their secret is always that, beneath the surface, they are extremely chaotic.

Do you plan to visit North Korea?

I would like to. Why not? Just to see it. Although, you know, with my brutal manners and obscenities, heh … My friends, when in South Korea, heard about my desire to visit the North, they told me they will open some — what do you call it — like for horse bets? They will bet, you know, like: Would they throw me out immediately on landing? Will they allow me just to approach one of those big statues of Kim Il-sung? Will they throw me out at that point?

But on the other hand, I know this is not very kind because I am well aware that people really suffer there. But this fascinates me: How does the regime function when, over the last 10 years, hunger and so on, over 10 percent of the people died without any great unrest or rebellions or whatever?

How could they rebel?

It’s a good point, yes, but the lesson of this is a very sad one: Rebellions don’t happen when things are at their most desperate. Rebellions, as a rule, happen when things are getting a little bit better, and then you have expectations that explode and, of course, the reality then doesn’t meet expectations. It’s a very sad lesson. Because the message to dictators is: No compromises! Be brutal! The moment you start to make compromises, people will demand more and more.

I have one more question, and it’s a light one but possibly interesting. Are you familiar with the game “StarCraft?”

No, but my son is. Do you know what happened to me when I was with my son in Gangnam? We went into some of those — what do you call them? PC bangs? Those places where people collectively play games, no? And I must tell you I didn’t see this only as some sort of addiction to commercialized pop culture. I was really fascinated by this absolute dedication, people sitting there for 24 hours, even more, fanatically playing with great discipline. I see a redemptive, almost emancipatory dimension in this absolute dedication. I’m not against it.

What is redemptive in a video game that the rest of pop culture, say Psy or K-pop, lack?

No! First, video games, they’re a pretty complex activity. It’s not just boom-boom-boom. You have to coordinate your movements, plan ahead, and so on. And I can, well, see how this brings even a certain intellectual satisfaction. Isn’t this what — almost, I’m ready to say pathetically — life is about? That you discipline yourself, do something with full dedication, and then find a certain satisfaction in it? What’s bad about it? I’m for it.