Slovenian superstar Slavoj Zizek is the "Elvis of cultural theory," one of the most famous and eminent philosophers alive and working today — second only, perhaps, to his arch-nemesis Noam Chomsky, with whom he spent the better part of 2013 in a highly publicized feud. His work is all but worshipped by his adherents. He is feted at conferences convened for no other reason than to celebrate him. He is also a grade-A, number-one, world-class jerk, who brings to life the worst caricature of the humanities eminence: someone who loves subjecting other people to his talks, but who loathes contact with students — who, being "like other people," are mostly "boring idiots."
At a recent Zizek conference in Ohio, the philosopher sat down for an interview about his early life. (Here's a big surprise: Slavoj Zizek had no childhood friends.) But the end of the conversation is where the real gems emerge. As the wonderful blog Critical Theory has noted, Zizek says aloud what the rest of us most fear when it comes to "superstar" research faculty.
"If you don't give me any of your (expletive) papers," Zizek says he told students at the New School in New York — who may have matriculated at that institution for the sole purpose of working with Slavoj Zizek — "you get an A. If you give me a paper, I may read it and not like it, and you can get a lower grade."
The only thing worse than having to actually teach classes, Zizek insists, is the indignity of holding office hours. "Here in the United States, students tend to be so open that sooner or later, if you are kind to them, they even start to ask you personal questions, (share their) private problems; could you help them, and so on. And what should I tell them? I don't care. Kill yourself. It's not my problem."
The Zizekophant doing the interview laughs at this, hard. I'm not laughing. It's one thing to lament the vicissitudes of college professordom when you are, say, a bottom-feeding adjunct, whose students come to you because you teach a required class — and who did not, in fact, move to a new city and go thousands of dollars into debt because they dreamed, for years, about studying under you. I don't mind if you gently make fun of students and criticize the college-teaching profession for the purpose of improving it — especially if your unadulterated passion for teaching and for your students (despite your usual pay of $18,000 per year) is the foundation for the criticism.
I have no idea what a superstar like Zizek gets paid, and I don't know if he actually fills his office-hours sign-up sheet with fake names so that none of the "boring idiots" come and bother him with their stupid problems, as one New School faculty member has apparently claimed. But I feel safe in guessing that he earns more to not-grade one "(expletive) paper" than many professors do in a semester.
The real problem with Zizek, in any case, isn't that he feels this way or that he says these things aloud. It's that he does so and people think it's hilarious. It's that his view is, believe it or not, a common "superstar" view of students — so common, in fact, that if you work at a research university and actually like teaching, you should maybe pretend you don't, lest you appear not "serious" enough about your research.
Many of his readers believe Slavoj Zizek to be the most important thinker of his time. Perhaps that's true. But let him sequester himself away in one of Ljubljana's beautiful towers, penning screeds and op-eds in peace. Stop hiring him to teach — and stop laughing when he says he doesn't care if students commit suicide.
The academy is in crisis. The humanities' relevance is questioned obnoxiously on a near-daily basis. Humanists need to think carefully about who our heroes are, and who should represent our disciplines to the public. Maybe, just maybe, this Zi-jerk has finally proved himself unsuited to the task.
Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.com.