Zizek in Korea?
South Korea is perhaps an unlikely destination for one of the world's foremost leftist intellectuals, Slavoj Zizek. This is a man who gives lectures in ratty white t-shirts and baggy pants, who routinely mixes dense critical theory with obscene bathroom jokes, and who has been criticized for provocative comments such as "Hitler was not violent enough". South Korea, meanwhile, is a country known for its wondrously successful embrace of high-tech capitalism, consumer culture, and high fashion.
On a cold winter Monday, Zizek began a week-long "intensive course" as a visiting eminent scholar at Kyunghee University in Seoul. Last year, he gave a lecture to a packed auditorium of 5,000 people on the school's campus. At the recent lecture, Zizek talked mostly about classical philosophers like Kant and Hegel, occasionally touching on contemporary issues in Korea.
Slavoj Zizek gained wider attention (outside the leftist intellectual-sphere) back in 2011 when he appeared at Occupy Wall Street's protests in New York. He had already become a prominent theorist over the past decades, diligently churning out books on topics most adults, let alone college students, would be hard-pressed to understand: treatises on the work of the relatively obscure French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the relationship between psychoanalysis and Marxism, and increasingly, contemporary global politics and social movements.
Why has Zizek suddenly gained an interest in South Korea? Zizek has often made remarks on "capitalism with Asian characteristics" believing it to be a true challenge to western liberal democratic capitalism. But perhaps more perspicacious then other Western critics, Zizek is also right to note that this capitalism with Asian values has little to do with actual "Asian values", taking a problematic view of such a simplistic and essentialized idea of Asia. Rather, he says, "it has everything to do with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism as such to suspend democracy". This happens to be clearly represented by the success of countries like China and Singapore, but it is also the case in the U.S. and Europe, where the power of special interests and lobbying has gradually eroded democracy.
Korea, still divided into a Communist-North and a Capitalist South, is also a living capsule of the Cold War. The Korean peninsula has both a Communist regime and a prime example of successful capitalism, yet one that is increasingly a technocratic capitalist country, drawing ever closer to China's orbit, and still controlled by a handful of family-run conglomerates, or chaebols. Korea's dichotomous political situation, home to both a neo-Stalinist family-run state as well as a successful liberal democracy, provides a unique place in which to analyze our contemporary moment.
Zizek has also remarked on the success of viral videos such as Gangnam Style, comparing it to a kind of ritualistic "quasi-sacred" phenomenon. Korea's popular culture, ranging from music that incorporates the best of materialism with a unique aesthetic that has appealed largely to pan-Asian audiences, to family TV dramas, Korea's pop culture is ripe for analysis. For a theorist like Zizek who has already produced two films exploring the hidden ideology of popular cinema, the ideology of Korean pop culture remains unexplored terrain for Lacanian psychoanalysis.
I was most interested in Zizek's reception by an audience of Korean college students. Zizek's most colorful language and rhetorical flourishes may just lose some of their punch when translated into Korean. And despite the fact that most students know English, the majority still listened to the talk via simultaneous Korean translation. I had no idea if the translator had accurately rendered Zizek's ten minute digression on the distinction between fantasizing about daily tasks while having sex and fantasizing about sex in the midst of quotidian tasks. There were a few awkward smiles in the room. But Zizek's work, having been translated into Korean and other languages, has actually been more warmly received here than one might imagine. Kyunghee University, in efforts to expand its reputation as a center for international intellectual thought, has actively invited global theorists to talk at the university.
Perhaps, contrary to conventional wisdom, the greatest hope for the liberal values of humanism and intellectual inquiry that are supposedly trademarks of the West is in Asia, where professors and the larger enterprise of learning in general are still respected as such, and given proper deference. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., we continue to cut social sciences and humanities, and college education is increasingly viewed narrowly as "investment in the workforce" or in obtaining skills for the 21st century workplace, a utilitarian idea of education that has already strayed far from the liberal notion of humanistic learning for the sake of learning, and the development of character.
The values of humanism and intellectual inquiry are also values that Zizek, despite being an affirmed Marxist and universalist, often trumpets as the unique patrimony of European culture that must be retained even as Europe itself continues to wither economically and politically. But perhaps these values, like capitalism itself, may prove more universal than some would like to believe.