06/29/2012 05:20 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

The Slavoj Zizek Show in Korea

When I first heard that Slavoj Zizek was coming to Korea to give a lecture at Kyung Hee University where I teach, I thought of the scene in "Stardust Memories" where Woody Allen is running after the aliens and they tell him, "We like your films [books], especially the early, funny ones."

A Korean organization, Art-n-Study, planned two separate events for Zizek, a lecture and a panel discussion, both of which were free to the public, but attendees needed to register for a ticket, and both events quickly sold out. The lecture at Kyung Hee was held in the Grand Peace Palace, a gorgeous Gothic building that has 5000 seats and frequently hosts pop concerts and celebrity awards' ceremonies.

As I was waiting to enter, I saw a student usher and asked her how she was doing, and she said she was nervous. I asked why, and she said because she heard Zizek was going to walk through this door. The image of an academic "star-system" in America doesn't even begin to describe the kind of pop celebrity status awaiting Zizek once he deplaned at Incheon International Airport.

Art-n-Study is energized by a desire to stimulate meaningful discussion and debate about the role of the humanities in Korean civil society. While humanities programs in the U.S. are being attacked, defunded and downsized, Kyung Hee University recently launched the Humanitas undergraduate core curriculum, the biggest in the country.

As an American, all this is quite shocking. I think the last time an intellectual spoke in the U.S. in front of such an enthusiastic general audience was in 1837 when Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered "The American Scholar" in Cambridge.

Despite the Korean government's efforts to anesthetize and infantilize the population with K pop and soap operas, there are strong, broad currents of intellectual inquiry and dissent floating around the country. And professors in Korea, unlike their American counterparts, are respected by the general public.

Zizek's first book in English, "The Sublime Object of Ideology" (1989), is a masterful synthesis of Marx and Lacan via Hegel (I rely on it in my book). For the past twenty years, the left Lacanianism associated with, but not reducible to Zizek, has produced a set of problems and problematics that have been integral to the development of women's studies and film studies. Recently, Zizek has turned himself into a bit of a spectacle, which unfortunately distracts from his rigorous and hotly debated theoretical and political work.

To be honest, I was caught off guard by Zizek's lecture. This supposed Lacanian madman spent the better part of two hours talking about a rather old-fashioned though still important New Left category: ideology. Zizek's basic argument was that ideology makes it impossible to imagine meaningful social change; it is on the level of ideology that limits to global capitalism are made unthinkable. He pointed out that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Zizek generously offered an abundance of accessible examples to help explain his points. For example, when discussing the meaning of dialectics and commodity fetishism, Zizek zeroed in on Apple Inc., which is euphorically celebrated as an avant-garde, progressive corporation; yet the success of Apple depends on a constitutive and deadly assembly-line discipline managed by Foxconn.

As I was hearing this, I thought that maybe I had dozed off, done a Rip Van Winkle in reverse, and gone back in time to the early 1990s and the work of Fredric Jameson. In fact, throughout the lecture, I thought Slavoj and Fred had pulled a fast one, and we were really listening to Jameson in Slovenian drag.

The middle part of the lecture was filled with oft-repeated, predictable moments in the Great Zizek Show. He criticized ethical consumption and those well intentioned yet deluded consumers who think buying organic apples or who diligently recycle are saving the planet. "This is a cheap way out," he declaims, "recycling won't save the world, changing capitalism will."

This is an important message, one that ought to be repeated loudly and frequently. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, this critique is in the process of becoming, or has the potential to become, common sense. Zizek isn't blazing any new trails here, but providing caustic, Franzenesque descriptions of contemporary consumer culture and upper middle class liberal hypocrisy.

Zizek appeared to be trying, in a dramatic way, to introduce a general audience to basic ideology critique. And I think he more or less succeeded. This is a populist, pedagogical Zizek I hadn't observed or read about before. Considering the fact that he proudly declares that 99% of people are "boring idiots," this populist Zizek is a little awkward, kind of like watching a horse try to carry a rifle.

The question and answer period revealed that the audience wasn't there simply to worship in a cult of personality. Koreans can very quickly and mercilessly dismantle a celebrity, just ask hip hop artist Tablo.

Zizek was asked about the large speaking fee he was to receive, and it was announced by the organizers that he waved the fee, and accepted simply a business class flight, which he was also questioned about.

The president of the Korean Lacan Society challenged Zizek about some negative comments he made about Buddhism. His response was muddled and embarrassing and symptomatic of a troubling trend in his work, as well as that of Alain Badiou and Jacques Ranciere, which at times perpetuates a theoretically forceful yet nonetheless vulgar form of Orientalism. I don't have space here to devote to this important topic, so I will simply recommend a timely new book by Daniel Vukovich, "China and Orientalism" (Routledge, 2012).

For most of the evening, Zizek played the role of a responsible, politically engaged and passionate critic. Yet the lecture ended with a long, unfortunate digression about sex that can only be described as creepy. Given the Leninish title of the lecture - "What is to be Done for Politics?" - do we really need to know that Zizek spoke with doctor who can split a penis in half so a man can have sex with two women?

In his recent interview with The Guardian, Zizek repeatedly declares, "I live as a madman!" and offers abundant evidence to convince readers of this fact (e.g., he keeps his clothes in kitchen cabinets). Reading this made me wonder what Zizek would say about someone who obsessively describes himself as mad. I think he might say that such a person is anxious about becoming banal, or even worse, a celebrity.