žižek on kafka & the typology of stupidity

There are two contrasting figures of idiocy in our lives. The first is the (occasionally) hyper-intelligent subject who “doesn’t get it,” who understands a situation “logically,” missing its hidden contextual rules. For example, when I visited New York for the first time, a café waiter asked me: “How was your day?” Misunderstanding the remark as a real question, I answered him truthfully (“I’m dead tired, I’ve got jetlag ..”), and of course he looked at me as if I were a complete idiot. One exemplary case of such idiocy was Alan Turing, a man of extraordinary intelligence, but also a proto-psychotic unable to follow implicit contextual rules. In literature, it is hard to ignore Jaroslav Hasek’s good soldier Schwejk, who, when he saw his comrades shooting from their trenches at the enemy soldiers, ran into no man’s land shouting: “Stop shooting, there are people on the other side!” The archetype of such idiocy is, however, the naive child from Andersen’s tale who points out that the emperor is naked —thereby missing the fact that, as Alphonse Allais put it, we are all naked underneath our clothes.

The second and inverse form of idiocy is that of those who fully identify with commonsense, who are wholly in favor of the “big Other” of appearance. In a long series of figures —beginning with the Greek Chorus in the role of canned laughter or canned crying, always ready to comment on the action with some commonplace wisdom — one at least should mention the classic “stupid” partners of the great detectives: Holmes’s Watson, Poirot’s Hastings. These figures do not only serve as a foil for the detective’s greatness; indeed, in one of the novels, Poirot tells Hastings that he is indispensable to the detective work: immersed in common sense, Hastings reacts to the scene of a crime the way the murderer who wanted to erase the traces of his act expected the public to react; it is then only by including in his analysis this expected reaction of the “big Other” that the great detective can solve the crime. The greatness of Kafka resides (among other things) in his unique ability to present the first figure of idiocy in the guise of the second figure, as something entirely normal and conventional (recall the extravagantly “idiotic” reasoning in the long debate between the priest and Josef K. which follows the parable on the Door of the Law*). 

 —from Slavoj Žižek, Living In The End Times (Verso, 2010)

happiness studies with slavoj žižek!


When were you happiest?

A few times when I looked forward to a happy moment or remembered it never

when it was happening.

What is your greatest fear?

To awaken after death – that’s why I want to be burned immediately.

What is your earliest memory?

My mother naked. Disgusting.

Which living person do you most admire, and why?

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-deposed president of Haiti. He is a model of what can be done for the people even in a desperate situation.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Indifference to the plights of others.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Their sleazy readiness to offer me help when I don’t need or want it.

What was your most embarrassing moment?

Standing naked in front of a woman before making love.

Aside from a property, what’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought?

The new German edition of the collected works of Hegel.

What is your most treasured possession?

See the previous answer.

What makes you depressed?

Seeing stupid people happy.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

That it makes me appear the way I really am.

What is your most unappealing habit?

The ridiculously excessive tics of my hands while I talk.

What would be your fancy dress costume of choice?

A mask of myself on my face, so people would think I am not myself but someone pretending to be me.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Watching embarrassingly pathetic movies such as The Sound Of Music.

What do you owe your parents?

Nothing, I hope. I didn’t spend a minute bemoaning their death.

To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?

To my sons, for not being a good enough father.

What does love feel like?

Like a great misfortune, a monstrous parasite, a permanent state of emergency that ruins all small pleasures.

What or who is the love of your life?

Philosophy. I secretly think reality exists so we can speculate about it.

What is your favourite smell?

Nature in decay, like rotten trees.

Have you ever said ‘I love you’ and not meant it?

All the time. When I really love someone, I can only show it by making aggressive and bad-taste remarks.

Which living person do you most despise, and why?

Medical doctors who assist torturers.

What is the worst job you’ve done?

Teaching. I hate students, they are (as all people) mostly stupid and boring.

What has been your biggest disappointment?

What Alain Badiou calls the ‘obscure disaster’ of the 20th century: the catastrophic failure of communism.

If you could edit your past, what would you change?

My birth. I agree with Sophocles: the greatest luck is not to have been born but, as the joke goes on, very few people succeed in it.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

To Germany in the early 19th century, to follow a university course by Hegel.

How do you relax?

Listening again and again to Wagner.

How often do you have sex?

It depends what one means by sex. If it’s the usual masturbation with a living partner, I try not to have it at all.

What is the closest you’ve come to death?

When I had a mild heart attack. I started to hate my body: it refused to do its duty to serve me blindly.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

To avoid senility.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

The chapters where I develop what I think is a good interpretation of Hegel.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

That life is a stupid, meaningless thing that has nothing to teach you.

Tell us a secret.

Communism will win.

— Interview with Slavoj Žižek by Rosanna Greenstreet, The Guardian, Saturday August 9 2008