The Best Time I Pretended I Hadn’t Heard of Slavoj Žižek
The other night, I pretended I didn’t know who Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian Hegelian Marxist and cultural critic, was. I’ve done this before, but never to such triumphant effect. This Marxist bro I was talking to made a reference to Žižek that he obviously assumed I would get, and my heart sank. He was a nice guy, actually, but I saw the conversation stretching out in front of us, and I saw myself having to say things about Žižek and listen to him say things about Žižek, and I saw that I really did not want this to happen. “This is a bar,” I wanted to say, the same way that my grandmother might have said “This is a church.” A bar is not the appropriate venue for a loud, show-offy conversation about The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.
At first, I thought I might be able to get away with ignoring the reference. Not so. He made another one, and then another one, and then said, sort of desperately, “Žižek argues that…” I saw the gap, and I took it. I asked him who that was, and he assumed I hadn’t heard him over the music. “ŽIŽEK” he shouted. “SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK.” I told him I’d never heard of such a person, and his eyes widened. His attempts to explain were met with the same denials. Celebrity philosopher? Nope. Lacan? Nope. Hegel? Nope. I stopped short of saying I had never heard of Karl Marx, but only just. This guy couldn’t believe it. How could I have never heard of Žižek?
He moved through the stages that everyone moves through when they have fallen prey to the Žižek Maneuver: disbelief, defiance, and finally, dizzy irritation. Maybe even a bit of actual anger. I could see that he thought I might be messing with him, but he could not prove it. He gave up on me shortly afterwards, and ignored me for the rest of the night. Later I saw him talking to his friends and pointing at me. I imagined what he was saying: “That girl over there, she doesn’t even know who Žižek is. ŽIŽEK.” I smiled at him and waved.
This is the Žižek game, and I am going to teach you how to play it. Think of these instructions as the opposite of the ones offered in “How to Be Polite,” Paul Ford’s beautiful essay about graciousness and its effects on other people. Ford’s advice is meant to be lived by. My advice is intended only for special occasions. It is for when you have an itch to scratch, and that itch is called, “a puerile desire to get on other people’s nerves.” All you do is stonily deny any knowledge of a person or cultural touchstone that you should, by virtue of your other cultural reference points, be aware of. These will of course be different for everyone, but my favorites include:
Žižek, John Updike, MORRISSEY (only for experts), Radiohead, Twin Peaks, David Lynch in general, Banksy (only for streetfighters), Withnail and I, Bauhaus (movement), Bauhaus (band), Afrika Burn, the expression “garbage person,” A Clockwork Orange, Steampunk (this one is really good), Jack Kerouac, “Gilmore Girls,” Woody Allen, the expression “grammar nerd,” the expression “grammar Nazi,” cocktails, bongs, magical realism, millennials, Cards Against Humanity, trance parties, bunting, many comedians, William Gibson, burlesque, the Beats, The God Delusion, sloths, anarchism, Joy Division, CrossFit, “The Mighty Boosh,” and Fight Club.
Find someone who is crazy about Morrissey, and pretend you have no idea who that is. It drives people nuts. I don’t know why, but it does. Just kidding, I know exactly why, because I myself have been on the receiving end of the Žižek Maneuver. This girl I had a bit of a crush on told me she had never watched “Twin Peaks,” and it damn near killed me. The reason I had a crush on her in the first place is because we liked so many of the same books, and movies, and music. How could she have never watched “Twin Peaks?” Was she messing with me? How? It did not for a second occur to me that she just hadn’t got round to it. My immediate response was to believe that she had deliberately not watched it in order to get on my nerves. When she told me later that of course she had watched “Twin Peaks,” my eye started twitching.
This is the beating heart of the Žižek Game: the disbelief that something you care about has failed to register on the consciousness of another. The agony of suspecting that someone has looked at Slavoj Žižek’s Wikipedia page and thought “I do not need to know about this man.”
The game has a few rules. They are there for your safety, as well as that of your opponent.
1. This game can only be played with people who don’t know you very well. Otherwise you will be out there lying to some bros about how you don’t know what Fight Club is, and your brother will just lean over and say “Bullshit. I’ve watched it with you twice.” Game over.
2. Choose your opponent carefully. It has to be someone who is cut from the same cloth, because they need to be stunned by your apparent ignorance. I live in Cape Town, which feels like one of the most cliquey cities in the world, so it’s easy for me to find people to play with. It might be harder where you are.
3. Choose your subject carefully, too. The game works best when you choose something that is normally the prompt for a great deal of intellectual posturing, of talking in a loud, bored voice.
4. Your success in this game depends on your ability to cope with people thinking you are dumb. This is so important. Adolescent conditioning—I grew up in a city with a strong surf/skate subculture of people who like to get extremely high—means that I am not only comfortable with people thinking I am dumb, I actually lean into it. I pretend I’ve never heard of Roman Polanski all the time. I do not falter, and neither must you. Your opponent must never have the satisfaction of looking down on you. When they begin to scoff and roll their eyes, because how could you have never heard of the Weimar Republic, you must simply smile and shrug your shoulders. If you look abashed, your opponent has won.
5. Please note: do not confuse this game with the phenomenon known as “performative dislike of something that other people love.” Saying that you hate the Beatles is not at all the same thing as saying that you have never heard of the Beatles.
6. Most importantly: Don’t do this to anyone who will be hurt by it, as opposed to merely irritated. If a nerd is holding forth enthusiastically on his chosen topic, it’s unkind to say that you don’t know what he’s talking about. He will be crushed. Similarly, if someone is very excited about something, it’s best just to go along with it. When I was about eleven, my dad got a new job and, with it, a company car. This was a big deal. My family had a long history of owning extremely shitty and/or impractical cars, so any departure from this tradition was cause for celebration. (That my dad’s new car was a Volvo station wagon should give some idea of how low the bar was.) I told this girl at my school about it, the day after the car arrived at our house. She was the first person I saw, and I just burst out with it: “My dad got a Volvo.” Don’t laugh — I was only eleven, and his previous car had been 1983 Renault sedan whose front doors didn’t close properly, so it let in a lot of rain. The interior was often damp and muggy as a result, like a greenhouse, and sometimes there were little mushrooms growing on the floor of the passenger side. The Volvo, with its Swedish engineering, and its doors that closed every time, was thrilling to me. The girl (she was very popular) looked at me with narrowed eyes and said “I don’t know what a Volvo even is.” Whether or not she was telling the truth is irrelevant. Maybe she really didn’t know what a Volvo is, or maybe she just wanted me to be quiet, but I remember a feeling of deflation far beyond what was reasonable. What was I supposed to say? “A Volvo is a kind of car?”
As I said, this really is only for special occasions, but up there are the rules for when you need them. And you will, one day, need them. You’ll be out, and someone will start to talk about Žižek. This is a bar, you will think, as you begin to panic about what the future holds. Now you know what to do. Go forth and conquer.