On the encounter, or how I missed a flight because of Slavoj Žižek
I have experienced the full horror of an encounter with that which exists beyond the wall of language and beyond the limits of our comprehension, and it happened in the departure lounge of London Stansted airport, in a seating area between the Wetherspoons pub and a branch of Pret A Manger.
I was there to visit some friends in Edinburgh, and I was flying because it’s cheaper to get to Scotland by hurtling through the sky in a tin can full of burning kerosene than it is to take a train. I don’t like airports. I don’t think anyone does, apart from planespotters, executive bankers, Boris Johnson, and other such psychopaths. It’s not even the queuing, or the brusquely voyeuristic security measures, or the abolition of the indoor smoking areas; it’s the fact that airports seem to be the focal points of a very peculiar sort of regimented insanity. Why do the tannoy announcers in airports seem to be so ashamed of their humanity that they mimic the blank tone and halting cadence of a robotic voice? Why do most of the books sold at airports seem to concern a terrorist plot to kill hundreds of people in an airport? In 2009 Heathrow chose as a writer-in-residence for its newly opened terminal that blithering clunkhead Alain de Botton. He wrote a book about the experience. Sample sentence: In the cloudless dawn, a sequence of planes, each visible as a single diamond, had lined up at different heights, like pupils in a school photo, on their final approach to the north runway. I don’t think anyone capable of producing such artless imagery should be allowed near a rural bus stop, let alone an international air transit hub. But in a way it makes sense: de Botton’s banal quietism, vaguely inquisitive but ultimately more concerned with homilies than critique, is precisely the kind of attitude that our infernal masters in the airport system want to promote.
In Stansted, I was busy inadvertently scalding my tongue on coffee and trying to pummel my mind into a book by de Botton’s less platitudinous namesake, Alain Badiou. I’d managed to find a less crowded area, but there was still plenty of commotion. Kids gnawed at the edges of their seats. Clashing strains of cheery pop blared from various exciting retail spaces. Harassed-looking commuters played an endless series of computerised bloops through their iPads as they crushed candies or angered birds or did whatever it is we’re now required to do to stop us committing suicide whenever we have five minutes to ourselves. Badiou was trying to tell me about the universality of the truth-event, but I’d had three hours’ sleep the previous night and it was pretty hard to listen. I felt a faint shadow fall over me in the diffuse airport light, and looked up. Standing in front of me, meeting my gaze with his, was the Slovenian philosopher, critic, author of over seventy books, and ‘intellectual rock star,’ Slavoj Žižek. He was pale and haggard, his nose pulsing, his legs trembling. I might have imagined this, but he appeared to be wearing an illustrated Žižek alphabet t-shirt: A is for the Absolute, B is for the Big Other, C is for cocaine, and so on, and so on. And he was looking at me with pure, undisguised terror.
I’d come across Žižek before. In a talk at the Royal Festival Hall he’d accused the entire audience – myself included – of being ideologically incoherent for failing to properly understand the ‘tomorrow belongs to me’ scene in Cabaret. In these pages I’ve variously mocked his beard, parodied his writing and speaking style, and pointed to the dearth of censure for his outbursts of antiziganism. His publishers follow me on Twitter. This was different. I wasn’t facing the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’ or ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West,’ or even the author of over seventy books. With his sad grey eyes and his meline snuffling Slavoj Žižek looked like nothing so much as some reclusive woodland creature, something small and hunted and incredibly fragile. He was in shock. He’d been in London to promote his new film; he’d been surrounded by journalists and interviewers and, worst of all, his fans, who he famously can’t stand. Finally, he was in Stansted airport, protected by a wall of duty-free perfume and ruffled copies of the Daily Mail; he thought he was safe. No such luck. He was just looking for somewhere to sit before his flight, but then he saw me. He saw what I was reading. In a blurb, Žižek has said of Badiou that ‘a figure like Plato or Hegel walks here among us.’ I would know who he was. I would want to talk to him, or take a photo, or have him sign something; it would be unendurable. He had to leave before I noticed him. Too late. I looked at him and he looked at me. Or maybe the other way round: for a Lacanian, the Gaze is never your gaze, it’s the gaze of the Other, the anxious feeling that the object of our glance is looking back at us. In any case, he grunted and shuffled away as quickly as he could.
I was in shock too. My plans for that morning were to drink some coffee, try to read a book, and catch my flight to Edinburgh. I wasn’t expecting to be thrust into a miniature staring contest with Slavoj Žižek. Nobody had warned me that this was about to happen. Now I know how I’ll behave in a moment of crisis: as the sniper fire whooshes past my ears or the avalanche slowly descends or the inferno blazes around me I’ll just sit there, mute and stunned, an idiot smirk hovering on my lips. By the time I regained my senses he was gone. Quickly I hurried after him. I had to get something: a photo, an autograph, a blurb for my first novel, a response to my critique of his contribution to David Lynch scholarship, something to prove our encounter had actually happened. He had his role, and I had mine. He would flee, and I would hunt him.
I never did find him. By the time gave up my hunt my flight’s final call was imminent. In my panic I followed the wrong signs and found myself trapped on a slow-moving automated transit to a distant outpost of the terminal. When I eventually reached my gate the staff told me that the plane’s doors had been closed less than two minutes ago and that I couldn’t be allowed to board. Pleading had little effect. I had missed my flight, the next one wasn’t for seven hours, and it was all Slavoj Žižek’s fault.
This is what’s meant by an encounter. Most of the time when we see people we don’t really look at them, and for good reason. Walk down a crowded street and you’ll be confronted with countless gazes and subjectivities, an infinity of infinities of experience. You can’t approach all these people as other subjects; you’d go mad, end up as a street preacher or a serial killer. It’s much safer for everyone if you consider them as vaguely mobile obstacles. If you see someone you find particularly attractive or particularly objectionable you might go into a brief flailing panic, your eyes darting around them, your neck craning over to watch them walking away, but that’s over in a second. Sometimes, though, there’s an encounter; a point where you approach someone else in a manner that is entirely beyond the structures of signification and at the same time full of an incredible significance. We all leave a certain amount of turbulence in our wake. The encounter can result in grand leaps in human knowledge, or the ruin of cities, or me being stuck in Stansted airport for seven hours. For Badiou, though, the encounter is the fundamental basis of love. As a good Maoist, he rejects the banal cod-spiritualist view in which love is seen as a process by which two people become one: the essence of love is the properly dialectical formation of a Two. In an encounter – in a real encounter – a monadic subjectivity finds itself opened up to other people, to numerativity, and through this it gains access to the infinity of experience.
I’m not so sure about this. Badiou’s maths is probably better than mine, but I’ve yet to see a series of integers ever actually ending in infinity. Žižek is less positive about the whole thing; for him the paradigmatic form of the encounter is the encounter with the Real. He writes: ‘When do I actually encounter the Other ‘beyond the wall of language’, in the Real of his or her being? Not when I am able to describe her, not even when I learn her values, dreams, and so on, but only when I encounter the Other in her moment of jouissance: when I discern in her a tiny detail (a compulsive gesture, a facial expression, a tic) which signals the intensity of the real of jouissance. This encounter with the real is always traumatic; there is something at least minimally obscene about it; I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gulf separating me from it.‘
My encounter with Slavoj Žižek was an encounter of this kind. I looked at him and he looked at me; we saw each other beyond the wall of language. The sensation that accompanied this encounter wasn’t love: it was mutual horror. For a brief second before I set off to chase him down, the linguistic structure of my subjectivity was shattered. I saw myself from the outside. It was something like Kristeva’s formulation of abjection – the awareness of a subject as something other than a subject, the feeling you get when confronted with human shit or a corpse. The traumatic sense of my own finitude.
The encounter is unpleasant, but this doesn’t mean that it should be avoided. In a sense, Badiou is right: it opens up a pathway to the infinity of experience, not through numerativity but through a Deleuzian operation of minority and multiplicity. Deleuze claims that we never encounter another person directly. We encounter the Gaze, and this wordless gaze emanates from the Real where there is no lack and no insufficiency. It’s upsetting, but it’s a duty: in the end, it’s our duty towards our own deaths.
In the end, I caught the next flight. Edinburgh was very nice.