Challenging Times and Intellectual Pleasures: My Talk with Slavoj Žižek

Photograph Source: Slavoj Žižek – CC BY 2.0

We sat down last Sunday evening around 5:30 in Ljubljana time, which was 8:30 in the evening here in Colombo. The purpose was not to delve into deep philosophical realms but rather to listen to Slavoj Žižek’s thoughts on a few prevailing social issues. It had been a longstanding dream of mine to convey his ideas to the general public, which is tired of jargon and seeks great ideas in simple language. I first started communicating with Slavoj Žižek, the intellectual superstar known for his unstoppable yet profound talks in any public gathering. I owe this opportunity to David J. Gunkel of Northern Illinois University, with whom I had my very first discussion about this eminent philosopher approximately seven years ago. This Slovenian philosopher, armed with a humorous sense, expertly deconstructs the most serious challenges and profound ideologies, and he needs no introduction. 

However, meeting Slavoj was challenging as he is currently facing health issues, including panic attacks. Being aware of this made me cautious not to tire him during our conversation. Nevertheless, as the night was still young, he passionately talked, and most of the time, I found it hard to interrupt him. However, as he jokingly suggested, I might have to use “Stalinist freedom” to condense the insights from our hour-long discussion. Slavoj displayed patience and skillfully identified points where we had to pause due to technical issues.

Stopping Slavoj when he is engrossed in conversation is quite inconvenient, and as a moderator, one might even forget their role. I shared with him that after years of communicating via email, it was my first time being in a live discussion with him, just the two of us. I jokingly remarked, “Slavoj, you are the most dangerous philosopher in the West. Oh God, you don’t look dangerous,” especially after hearing his brief observation on Sri Lanka during a time when its economic and political crisis dominated world headlines.

To this, Slavoj responded, “The branding of me as dangerous is a critique against my ideas. People who call me dangerous may also label me as despicable. I believe that such descriptions, whether politically dangerous, Stalinist, fascist, or merely as a joker, are used to undermine the seriousness of my work. Despite my jokes and provocations, I genuinely enjoy writing them. I’ll let you in on a secret: recently, New Statesman published three of my film reviews on Indiana Jones, Barbie, and Oppenheimer. Interestingly, I hadn’t seen any of these movies when I wrote the reviews. Instead, I read many reviews on them and then wrote my own. However, upon watching the films later, I realized that my initial assessments were accurate.”

This is Slavoj Žižek—timeless, ever-engaging, and ensuring you won’t be bored when listening to him. Instead, he invites you to dive deep into the dizzying world of intellectual discourse.

I decided to limit this conversation to eight major questions and twelve key words at the end. Stopping Slavoj from answering any question was challenging; he has a natural inclination to talk, but I believe that’s the nature of this profoundly honest philosopher who attracts minds from across the globe. In Sri Lanka, some social groups embraced Slavoj’s ideological perspectives, but I don’t think they penetrated deeply enough among the youth and other social segments thirsty for real structural change. These groups not only indulge in political vulgarity but also shy away from much-needed ideological-based social discourse. Meanwhile, certain groups and individuals confine themselves to their comfort zones, avoiding engagement with the pressing social and economic issues in society.

During our intriguing conversation, my interlocutor expressed an initial assurance of what he humorously referred to as ‘Stalinist freedom.’ He playfully remarked, ‘I will allow you to exercise Stalinist freedom, where I talk without hesitation, and you can sharply censor my words.’ This prompted my first question, wherein I inquired what Slavoj Žižek’s opening lines would be if he had the opportunity to confront Joseph Stalin during his era. To my surprise, he responded, ‘I think he’s not personally a bad guy, but he caused an irreversible catastrophe for the left. While so-called Stalinism is discredited as a serious idea in new socialist borders, I’m not sure if I’d have enough courage to do it, but if invited to meet him somehow, even at the risk of being liquidated instantly, I’d like to take the chance to kill him. Yes, I will kill him,’ he declared.

However, what interests him the most is the opportunity to meet Vladimir Lenin at the end of his life and ask him, “Was he still aware of what a monster he was creating?” Slavoj says that while Stalin isn’t stupid, he lacks a profound decree. People often expect that someone as super powerful as a dictator is possess some deep metaphysical wisdom. For instance, during the Khmer Rouge’s dominance in Cambodia (Kampuchea), they claimed that Pol Pot was highly educated in Buddhism and even attained Nirvana, arguing that it explained how he could be a monstrous leader yet appear kind in person. Slavoj rejects this argument, stating, “I don’t buy into this. I don’t think we should look for some deep, even diabolic wisdom in brutal dictators.”

This leads me to my next question, as Slavoj has not only spoken about Western philosophy but also expressed his understandings of Buddhism and how it influences both itself and society, including the West. I asked him how Buddhist monks can effectively navigate involvement in politics while addressing societal challenges and avoiding ideological pitfalls.

“It is no less different for them than for others. Having studied a bit of the history and presence of Buddhism and being aware of the danger of speaking from my European standpoint, I have examined what is gaining popularity now, not only in the East but also in the West—Buddhist economists. One in the West, I believe, is E. F. Schumacher, who wrote ‘Small Is Beautiful’ along those lines. I am skeptical here. It is easy to see the insights propagated by Buddhist economists, although I don’t consider it a closed teaching. Some of their advice is pragmatically interesting, offering non-violent, utopian claims on how to radically change society. However, I always look at this with a critical eye. For instance, when their ideas were challenged and asked to prove their effectiveness, they often mentioned Bhutan, a country known for maintaining Gross National Happiness. Yet, in the early nineties, didn’t they conduct a fairly sharp ethnic cleansing? They expelled the Lhotshampa or Nepalese minority, which is precisely contrary to Gross National Happiness. It’s always a problem,” he observed.

Slavoj believes that a serious problem emerged right after Buddha’s death, where tendencies arose to seek accommodation with those in power. “Even in the case of Sri Lanka, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, as I don’t buy into most of the Western media narratives. There were certain ways in which the Buddhist majority could have acted differently when it came to minority issues. The irony is that true Buddhists understand this and never take things at face value. Buddhism cannot be conceived as a religion in the Western sense. We must remember that Buddha was explicitly agnostic about suffering, seeing it as a fundamental aspect of life, and his focus was on how to alleviate suffering rather than delving into great metaphysical questions,” he said.

“I would say that, in my references to Zen Buddhism in Japan most of the time, which defended Japanese colonization, there is much to learn from Buddhism today to address certain issues like ecological catastrophe—not just by advocating “not to kill worms,” but by taking individual responsibility to address the consequences of capitalism and its dynamics. Buddhism, in its original forms—not some kind of fanatical view on renouncing life to potentially become monks and seek Nirvana—is a wonderful pragmatic and agnostic view. From its very inception, Buddhism detected the falsity of excessive social engagements not driven by progressive causes but by expansionism and the like. Buddhism should do more in this regard. I would say that it’s not just for monks; even ordinary people who follow Buddhism can contribute. You don’t have to act like a perfect monk, but maintaining common decency is essential. What saddens me today is that this fundamental aspect is disappearing more and more from society,” he asserted. 

“Today, we witness new forms of evil that present themselves as good, but in challenging situations like war and social upheaval, the greatest danger lies in abandoning our fundamental human kindness. In such circumstances, the idea of being brutal becomes prominent. This is where Buddhism can help, as Buddhism has never endorsed this approach,” Slavoj stated.

My next question was whether there is such a thing as a “just society,” or if it’s merely a collective myth we fool ourselves with. However, for Slavoj, the problem lies in defining what we mean by a just society. The traditional idea, originating not in the West but from Buddha, viewed justice as everyone having their designated place, such as workers being good workers, mothers being good mothers, and so on. But both in Buddhism and later in Christianity, in their original forms, there emerged a more radical egalitarian space advocating the idea of equality, where everyone has a social space. The most crucial aspect is expanding this egalitarian space without resorting to violence, as any attempt at violence only reinforces brutal hierarchies. Therefore, the first step towards a just society is to clarify the meaning of justice by understanding what justice truly is, he argued.

In our increasingly AI-shaped world, the question arises: should we fear the rise of “Artificial Idiocy”? Will machines not only surpass humans in intelligence but also in their ability to make absurd mistakes? According to Slavoj, these machines are indeed making mistakes, but what matters is how we define “Absurd Mistakes.” As he tried to develop in his book “Hegel in A Wired Brain,” human intelligence is not simply about quick calculations and solving certain complex issues; it excels when it comes to making productive mistakes that lead to something new and higher. For instance, French cuisine’s most celebrated dishes often originated from something going wrong, like French cheese that started to smell. Instead of discarding it, they embraced the new form. The same happened with wines. This capacity to use mistakes productively and elevate from them is something he doubts AI can achieve. Machines can make mistakes, but they lack the ability to utilize those mistakes to create something better. He takes a more vulgar example, like seduction, where he believes machines can’t seduce as humans do, not because of intelligence, but because of the ability to make interesting mistakes. Progress, Slavoj says, occurs only through the productive use of mistakes.

Based on perhaps my superficial phobia of AI, my next question revolved around the possibility of advanced AI engaging in philosophical debates like Slavoj Žižek, while robotic comedians mock human foibles, and AI-driven revolutionary movements fight for workers’ rights and robot liberation. Slavoj dismisses this possibility, explaining that when humans make decisions, they always do so through subjective engagement. He cites his favorite Christian theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote that claiming to be Christian, Buddhist, Jew, or anything else because you compare different religions and find Christian arguments the best is sinful. True understanding of religious arguments can only occur when you believe in something expediently. Similarly, when it comes to love, you cannot say you compare different individuals and selected the best. Love doesn’t work that way; it’s based on finding adorable qualities that others might not even recognize. He believes that, at least for now, as nobody knows what the future holds, machines are incapable of engaging in proper subjective engagement where they discover reasons rather than merely comparing them because they are searching for the right reason.

In this sense, I don’t believe machines can fight for workers’ rights and similar causes. Engaging in workers’ rights requires an existential understanding of suffering, such as exploitation and manipulation, which cannot be reduced to objective scientific insights. I admit I may not be overly optimistic, but that’s my view,” he asserted.

Many discussions revolve around the loss of privacy due to the latest surveillance technology and social media. I asked Slavoj about the danger of governments and corporations gathering vast amounts of personal data, leading us to sacrifice privacy for convenience. He responded, “I’m unlike many others who fear losing privacy. I don’t mind if some machines know my personal details, but what worries me most is the privatization of our data. We don’t know what they know or what they do with that data. Our focus should not be solely on defending privacy, as more and more machines will gather data and analyze our needs, such as health. What concerns me is the privatization of our data and shrinking public space.”

As virtual reality becomes more prevalent in our lives, I asked Slavoj about the safeguards needed to prevent the distortion of reality and preserve authentic human experiences. He explained, “What we experience as social reality is already, in some sense, virtual. I’m not denying the existence of reality, but what we perceive as reality is already mediated through a virtual symbolic system. Take the recent movie Oppenheimer, for example. The horror of a nuclear explosion is something that exceeds our notion of everyday reality. The distortion in virtual media doesn’t target some pure, innocent reality; it affects the authentic virtual reality of the system in which we live. Authenticity, for me, is not merely looking into oneself; it involves identifying with a certain heroic engagement. The problem with digital media is that they are becoming less and less virtual. Instead of offering metaphors, alluded meanings, and ambiguity, they strive for a perfect copy of reality itself. Take video games as an example—they immerse you in another reality, but in doing so, they lose this authentic virtual quality.”

As we near the conclusion of this intriguing conversation, I asked Slavoj about escaping consumerist culture and finding authentic freedom, as discussed in his critiques of capitalism. He replied, “I’m more pessimistic about this. We live in a global capitalist society where we appear to be increasingly free. On one hand, we are treated as free, but at the same time, we are part of a social world that is obscured and non-transparent. So, we need to clarify what we mean by freedom. I don’t believe we should oppose freedom, discipline, and social order. Abstractly, freedom might mean doing whatever we want, but I wouldn’t want to live in such a society because it would be a horrible world if we couldn’t trust each other to respect basic rules of decency. True freedom requires explicit and implicit rules to be in operation.”

Regarding consumerism, he added, “When you talk about the upper middle-class, the problem might be consumerism, but for a poor person, the issue is getting new clothes and adequate food. We shouldn’t criticize poor people for consumerism when they finally get a bit of money to buy something they need. Let them have a bit of pleasure. For me, the crucial aspect, in a Hegelian sense, is that freedom has to be concrete. Freedom means being free within a certain space, which is why we should strive for socialist democracy as leftists. We must understand that freedom has material conditions. I’m not advocating for a totalitarian state regulating every aspect of life. I like the form of freedom, but to achieve it, a full concrete network of state regulations, unwritten rules, and customs must be well established. Unfortunately, this is something people tend to forget today.

During the final part of our conversation, we delved into several issues, including multiculturalism, the idea of a multi-polar world, the hypocritical behavior of Western hegemony, and the brutal sexual exploitation faced by some Muslim women who are forced to cover their faces to protect their privacy, yet suffer abuse within their homes, rendering their privacy futile. Slavoj expressed his belief in the universality as a driving force to promote respect for each culture. “There must be freedom for me to come over there when I have a problem, and you must have the freedom to come over here when you have a problem in the place where you live. That’s how the idea of this multi-polar world or multiculturalism is possible,” he emphasized. “No the way by romanticizing and pleasing each other’s oppressions in the country they control.”








I almost like more and more marriage as, at least in developing parts of the world, marriage is no longer about distorting economic funds but more about giving a slap to societal vulgarity, which is very beautiful.




Like justice the problem lies in the interpretation; if it’s understood as mere legal equality, as Marx has convincingly shown, it can result in a new form of oppression, and I believe true emancipation requires a continuous struggle to redefine it due to the historical atrocities committed in its name, such as John Locke’s justification for the annihilation of native Indians.





I cannot agree with much of what people in the Global South say, but we have to go through it.





One must remember that fantasy is not the opposite of reality, as fantasies already decide how we perceive reality.





Almost the same view I have had on Joseph Stalin; I think he is a mega catastrophe for Russia. If his intentions win, we are entering a neo-feudalism.





In principle, I agree that the Global South is a victim of colonialism and neo-colonization, but it has its own issues far greater than the consequences of colonial masters, and they will not be solved simply by getting rid of neo-colonialism.





I like love in its exclusive violent aspect, where love is a catastrophe—you may lose everything, but you still love it.










The problem is not just the fear of losing jobs for writers and actresses, but also what kind of machine Hollywood will allow and what kind of stories it will demand.





It is something that can only come about through a radical change in society, and our society has no future, but it needs a new beginning.






The worst of all possible worlds.





Although we are mortal beings, I like to speculate in vampire movies called ‘undeathness’ or living death, which captures our struggle for emancipation, similar to what we see in terminators.






I would like to dream of peacefully dying where I’m really dying.










Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a Sri Lankan born author. He was the-editor of Sri Lanka Guardian, an online daily newspaper. He was also the editor of the Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, bi-monthly print magazine, co-published by the Danish Institute Against Torture ( DIGNITY) based in Copenhagen, Denmark.