The Philosopher's Moan

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Interviews with Slavoj Žižek

It was the second time I had met Slavoj Zizek, and in a way, the first was better. That was in Bayreuth three years ago, when we were both attending the Ring cycle and staying in the same hotel. I didn't know who he was and got talking to the bushy-bearded, denim-clad Zizek, so out of place as he bustled around, head down, bumping into men in dinner jackets. He explained the Ring to me - something to do with the frigidity of Wotan's love - and tried to convince me that Tristan und Isolde was a comedy about death deferred. I was richly entertained for a week.

Now we are meeting in London, at a coffee shop in Soho, where he expounds on an impossible range of subjects - the anti-imperialist message of the film 300, the earthquake in Kent (an appropriately Zizekian event), the unnatural nature of nature, the revolutionary potential of slums, why violence is good (the subject of a forthcoming book). This time I know who he is - Slovenian philosopher, cineaste, professional contrarian. He is feted as an "academic rock star", lectures to large audiences, writes books (33 at the last count), has explained the psychosexual essence of film in his three-part series of Pervert's Guides, and is even the star of a documentary, simply called Zizek!, that tracks him across continents and attempts (not always successfully) to explain what he stands for.

He is on a private visit to London and expressly not here to boost Zizek!, which is showing this month at the ICA. "It's nicely done," he says, "but what I don't like is that it's about me. I hate myself." This is a common theme - he claims to be a reluctant star, performing only to hide his insecurity and self-loathing. He also resents the way people now expect a constant flow of jokes and paradoxes from him. "The way some people celebrate me is really a disguised form of an attack. 'He's a funny provocateur,' they say. 'He just likes to provoke.' I don't provoke. I'm very naive; I mean what I say."

How, then, does he see himself? "As an American preacher. I read somewhere that these evangelical preachers in the wild west had a strategy to convert the cowboys. They were very good magicians - these classical tricks, rabbits, hats, blah blah. The idea is, first, through magical tricks, attract the attention, then the message. Maybe I'm going to do the same." But what is the message? "Pessimistic leftism." Capitalism is doomed; classical leftist solutions are naive; we're screwed, basically, and he doesn't have an easy answer. Which, he says, is why he is a philosopher rather than a political theorist.

Describing Zizek would test a Flaubert. The words flow unceasingly, delivered in rapid, strongly accented English, accompanied by a sniff after every phrase. He runs his hand through his unkempt hair, squeezes his nose, gets carried away by the sheer velocity and manysidedness of his thought. Zizek the magician, always with a new trick. But I worry about him - this perpetual performance. What about the man behind the mask? He says he has no friends, only academic contacts; is on to his third wife ("an Argentinian beauty"); is "too connected" to his seven-year-old son, with whom he has come to London. "I'm a bad father; I haven't learned just to live with him; I all the time worry, 'Is he enough amused?' It make you very tired." Another performance; more magic.

Zizek says the only time he feels truly relaxed and free is when he misses a connection and has to spend a night in an airport hotel. "That's pretty close to happiness for me - I do nothing. If I'm in the US, I always watch the Weather Channel. I watch it for hours. It's ideal for obsessional neurotics: 'This storm is over, but look, look, another front is gathering up there.' I love it. There is always something to worry about, but at the same time you think you have it under control."

· Zizek! is showing at the ICA, London, from today