First, I would like to point out that in no way am I offering any sort of diagnosis of Slavoj Zizek’s speech impediment. This article/essay is a simple exercise in perception, and yes, a Zizekian analysis. What do we get when we apply Zizek’s theories to Zizek himself? The answer may or may not be surprising, depending on whether you are a Zizek follower or an anti-Zizek propagandist.
In an analysis of The King’s Speech, Zizek points out that the king’s stuttering makes the king self-conscious and in a way embarrassed. As a divine ruler, the king of England should be a confident authority figure perfectly capable of assuming the role of the head of state. Delivering messages to the masses through oratory on the radio is just one of the ways that the king’s authority is projected to the public and if the people hear that in the voice of the king is a slight imperfection, this may be read as a fault that might preclude the king from carrying out his divine duty, for if god is on the side of the king, surely he would make the king a perfect human specimen. Enter a speech therapist. Not only is the therapist’s role one of fixing the king’s speech impediment and boosting his confidence, thus propping up his ego, Zizek points out that by doing this tedious, behind-the-scenes work, he is rendering the king stupid enough so that he may accept his position as the head of state. Zizek points this out during a scene when Geoffrey Rush playing the speech therapist sits on the king’s throne. When the king gets agitated and tells Rush to get off his throne, the question comes back, ‘why?’ To Zizek only the appropriate answer can come: ‘because that is my throne and I am the king.’ Rush gets off the throne, his work seemingly coming to a successful end. He’s rendered the king able to rule by eliminating any obstacles to any notion of self-doubt. It was self-doubt in the first place that created the stutter which in turn made the king self-conscious and question the authority given to the king. Only by becoming ‘stupid enough’ can the king become a king.
What are we to make of Zizek’s own speech impediment and his notorious shirt and nose pulling? In light of the above argument, if we subject Zizek’s own ‘nervous tics’, as he calls them, to the same analysis his gives to The King’s Speech, we may arrive at a notion that Zizek is himself either a self-doubting subject uncomfortable in his position of authority or that in some sense Zizek is himself aware that by creating a series of nervous gestures he is actively resisting his descent into mere grey stupidity. Can we imagine what the world of philosophy and cultural critique would be like if Zizek spoke fluently and eloquently, without a thick East European accent supported by a lisp, given away to an array of jerky actions? I’m going to venture a guess and say that Zizek, not being Zizek, would have a detrimental effect on our image of Zizek himself, his ideas aside entirely. Should a speech therapist enter the picture and give Zizek coaching in ‘proper’ public speaking, the resultant confidence might actually become a detriment by creating a virtual Zizek, one that is outwardly confident, stylish and pleasant to listen to in public, but one that when the lights go off betrays this image by reverting to his true self in private.
David Graeber’s analysis of nervous tics might also be helpful here. In his own experience, Graeber, an anthropologist and former Yale professor, identifies gestures like nose scratching as a signal of inferiority when confronted by people in a higher position. Graeber who comes from a working-class background points out that these nervous gestures serve an actual purpose. In grade school, nervous tics can be used as a tactic to deflect the aggressive behavior of physically stronger alpha males, in college these same nervous behaviors may be perceived by professors and superiors as a sign that their authority is well met and thus not undermined by someone that may in fact be smarter than they are. Graeber gives the example of Columbo, the working-class detective whose intelligence is superior than the upper-class clientele he serves. Columbo’s hand gestures signal that he accepts the apparent superiority of his clients’ social class while undermining it with his sharp wit and insight. Zizek’s own hand gestures and nervous tics perhaps betray his working-class background, perhaps they do not. Coming from the Balkans, Zizek may be subject to a cultural inferiority complex. His small nation of Slovenia borders Austria, Hungary and Italy, historically expansionist empires who subjugated their Slavic neighbors and attempted to assimilate them into their culture. I write this as a Czech whose culture was similarly absorbed by various empires over the past several centuries. Though this is not an excuse and one cannot say with any certainty that cultural inferiority exists, Zizek does play a big role as a Slav and a Slovenian in a culture dominated by the French and the German schools of continental philosophy, carving out a niche of pessimist prescience and historical cultural analysis. If there is one thing that French and German continental philosophy cannot be accused of, it is of an inferiority complex. The lot of the small nation is that it will forever be bound up with the customs, fashions and trends of the large nations that endlessly compete for dominance on the world stage, taking their smaller and weaker neighbors for the ride. Such is the case of Czech Republic and I can only surmise that such is the case of Slovenia in relationship even to their Slavic neighbors Croatia. At any rate, Zizek’s speech patterns and odd gesticulations in no way undermine what he says and in fact play into his own character, building up the persona that is Zizek. Some may find this irritating, I find a comfort in knowing that there is substance beyond the flat veneer of appearances.