With intellectual influences ranging from Karl Marx to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the Matrix trilogy, Slavoj Zizek has emerged over the past two decades as a modern rarity: a celebrity philosopher, appearing everywhere from op-ed pages to cable-news debates to your local art-house movie theater. At a time of capitalism in crisis, Zizek has proved that the hard left can still offer valuable critiques of current events and contemporary culture -- even as the left itself has often been the subject of his withering criticism.
Zizek, who holds professorships at the University of Ljubljana and the European Graduate School in Switzerland, is an almost absurdly prolific writer of dozens of books, including four just this year on subjects ranging from the global financial crisis to Hegel. He's perhaps better known, however, for his agitated, rapid-fire public speeches. He's a favorite on the university speaking circuit, not to mention the star of several feature-length documentaries, including Zizek! and The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. It doesn't hurt that he laces his arguments with frequent allusions to pop culture. Zizek is a self-described communist but is probably a bit too misanthropic ("Humanity? Yes, it's OK -- some great talks, some great arts. Concrete people? No, 99 percent are boring idiots.") to neatly fit into any particular ideology. He spoke at Occupy Wall Street in its early days but later lost enthusiasm for the movement, describing the New York Police Department's clearing of Zuccotti Park as a "blessing in disguise."
With his flair for self-promotion and penchant for the deliberately outrageous -- he has written that "the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough" -- Zizek has led some critics to wonder whether he is more performance artist than philosopher, a "Borat of philosophy," as he has been called. But in an ever-more-absurd world, that might be just what we need.
Reading list: Logiques des Mondes, by Alain Badiou; Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution, by Rebecca Comay; Hegel's Rabble, by Frank Ruda. Best idea: The big revolution the left is waiting for will never come. Worst idea: The nation-state is back. We should support it against the global market. American decline or American renewal? Neither, things just dragging on. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not, loss of time.
In a year when an anti-Islam video sparked deadly protests across the Arab world and a spate of violent incidents targeted minority groups in the United States, Martha Nussbaum's new book offered a thoughtful, timely corrective to the divisive dangers of religious intolerance, particularly Islamophobia. Charting its rise and evolution in Europe and the United States since the 9/11 attacks -- from European laws prohibiting burqas in public to the uproar over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York -- Nussbaum's The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age forcefully defends those whose religious freedoms have recently been circumscribed or attacked.
An author and editor of dozens of books ranging over the big ideas of everything from the Greek classics to feminism, Nussbaum brings a philosopher's mind to an explosive political topic, pinpointing the roots of religious fear as a fundamentally "narcissistic" emotion that dovetails with a "visceral reaction against strangeness." Nussbaum, who converted to Judaism in the 1960s and is the daughter of a Southern Protestant she admits was anti-Semitic and racist, knows religious hatred firsthand. "When it's a minority that dresses differently, that has different customs, people are afraid of that," she explained in an interview this year. "It's easy for them to swallow some paranoid fantasy."
Reading list: Sailing on the Sea of Love, by Charles Capwell; Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton; The Counterlife, by Philip Roth. Best idea: For me, the best ideas are always subtle and complicated ideas, and not always new, so: John Rawls's idea of "political liberalism," Peter Strawson's idea of the importance of the "reactive attitudes" in human freedom, Rabindranath Tagore's proposal for a global culture of imagination, emotion, and justice. American decline or American renewal? In the area of religious toleration, I hope for renewal; in the area of social justice, I hope for renewal but predict decline; in the area of education, similarly, I hope for renewal but am skeptical about whether it will occur. More Europe or less? There never was a "Europe" in the sense of a unified political culture, and we are now seeing the fruits of premature economic union without political union. To tweet or not to tweet? I avoid all social media because they will devour all one's time if one uses them, and I am fond of writing.