Slavoj Žižek on Synthetic Sex and 'Being Yourself'

Philosopher and social critic Slavoj Žižek dislikes the sense of self-commodification and self-manipulation innate in online dating.

Slavoj Žižek: The problem I see with online dating is that it always automatically involves this aspect of self-commodification or self-manipulation. When you date online, you have to present yourself there in a certain way putting forward certain qualities. You present an image of yourself. You focus on your idea of how other people should perceive you. But I think that’s not how love functions, even at the very simple level. And so called, I think the English term is "endearing foibles," elementary ingredient on love. You cannot ever fall in love with the perfect person. There must be some tiny small disturbing element and it is only through noticing this element that you say, but in spite of that imperfection I love him or her.

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A funny story: They made in Europe, not in the United States, some decades ago when the two big modeling stars were Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford. They made in France, I think, a big opinion poll like, "Whom would you prefer to live with?" Cindy Crawford won. You know why? Because of that birth, that particular small mole here, whatever, birthmark. The idea was Claudia Schiffer is too perfect. There must be some tiny element of imperfection.

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And now let me tell you a totally crazy personal experience, which happened to me. I was talking once in a faraway country somewhere in Latin America. Of course I will not say where. A still very attractive lady, sexually, late 30s, who told me of a strange thing that happened to her. She told me that when her last lover saw her naked before making love that he told her if you were just to lose three, four pounds, your body would have been perfect. And I told her just don’t lost three or four pounds. Because, you know, like if she were effectively to lose three or four pounds she wouldn’t be perfect. She would just be plain. The illusion of perfection is created precisely by this excess. It’s too much, but then you imagine or without this it would have been perfect. If you say — if you take away this excess you don’t get perfect, you know. This is what in psychoanalytic theory we call object cause of desire. Not object of desire, object of desire I think in this case is a woman or a man or whatever. But the cause of desire in the sense of what makes you fall in love is always a sign of imperfection. So that’s for me a big problem in I don’t, I’m not doing it so I don’t know enough of it how to include into online dating this element of contingency.

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I don’t find a problem with online dating in the idea that you are not spontaneous, et cetera. Listen, we are never spontaneous. If there is a big lesson of all those Big Brother and other reality shows, it’s that even when we are just ourselves in private life we always play being ourselves. And I think this is in a way a good thing. I mean when people say no, you know, all these actor studio methodology — express yourself, be who you really are. Well I think most people are monsters secretly. I think — I like to live in a society where you do whatever you want. Just please don’t express yourself too much, you know. I like people who know how to control themselves. I believe in proper manners. So this aspect of health controlling that you stage a certain image of yourself, this doesn’t bother me with online dating, no.

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I even think now, I mean, if you allow me to conclude with another paradox. It would be so interesting to demonstrate how precisely when we act in an apparently wild way, you know, like let’s say — it’s not true, but let’s say we are talking in a nice polite way. Then for whatever reason you get mad at me or I get mad at you. And I explode. I start to swear using all dirty words blah, blah, blah. Now one would have thought the situation is this one. In normal conversation we control ourselves. Then when I cannot any longer control myself, I explode. No, I claim precisely this moment of explosion are the most precisely trained structures, artificial, if you want.

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I notice this, you know how; it’s a beautiful anecdote, I like it. With my friends, I notice that when we meet in a group to discuss just to have fun, we have to go through a certain ritual of humiliating each other with extremely — it’s not for our viewers to know if you know like the usual way we characterize each other which what I — it’s the Balkans stuff; what I will do to your mother, your dead mother; I will dig her out of her grave and do things to her sexually. The most tasteless thing. Then after 10 minutes of talking dirty, we tell to each other okay, we paid our tribute to ugliness. We got rid of it. Now we can finally be what we are and talk in a nice polite way, you know. Again, what I like is that it is — we have a certain perverse superego duty to talk dirty. And after you get rid of that, we can believe what we are. This is why I have always had a deep sympathy — although I'm not practicing — for sadomasochist sexuality.

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I noticed especially 15, 20 years ago because they were close to my theory I met many sadomasochist lesbians. And I can tell you I never met nicer, more kind girls or women. It is as if they were able to enact all the dirty disgusting stuff out there so that then they could afford when you paid your tribute to your superego to be nice, kind, and so on and so on. So to do the lust joke in this series, maybe some viewers know it, but I love it. I think this is one of my otherwise in my series of boring repetitive jokes may be a better one. Where are we today with sexuality?

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The Guardian, the British newspaper, asked me, "Is romance still alive today?" And my idea, my answer to them was let’s imagine an ideal sexual situation today. Let’s say I meet a lady; we are attracted to each other; we say okay, you are — all the usual stuff — your place, my place, whatever we meet there. Then, what happens then? I come with, she comes with her plastic penis, electric dildo. I come with some horrible thing. I saw it. It’s called something like stimulating training unit, whatever. It’s basically a plastic vagina, a hole. But you can — it’s wonderful technologically. You can regulate everything. How much it squeezes you. How strongly it shakes and so on. So my idea of a perfect date is the following one.

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We met. Then I put, she puts her plastic penis dildo into my stimulating training unit is the name of this product. Into my plastic vagina. We plug them in and the machines are doing it for us. They’re buzzing in the background and I’m free to do whatever I want and she. We have a nice talk; we have tea; we talk about movies. What can be — we paid our superego full tribute. Machines are doing — now where would have been here a true romance. Let’s say I talk with a lady with the lady because we really like each other. And, you know, when I’m pouring her tea or she to me quite by chance our hands touch. We go on touching. Maybe we even end up in bed. But it’s not the usual oppressive sex where you worry about performance. No, all that is taken care of by the stupid machines. That would be ideal sex for me today.

Philosopher and social critic Slavoj Žižek dislikes the sense of self-commodification and self-manipulation innate in online dating. People strive for perfection when they set up dating profiles. Žižek believes love isn't about seeing someone as perfect, but rather appreciating them for the reasons they're not perfect. Perfection is an illusion, he says. "Perfection" is plainness. It's innocuous and generic. This isn't necessarily an endorsement of bold and honest self-expression, because as Žižek explains, it's important to maintain manners and structure. Instead, Žižek promotes the idea of paying tribute to a perverse superego in order to be able to maintain civility. He then describes what he thinks the ideal date and sexual scenario would be — complete with the aforementioned "tribute."

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As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

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While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

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Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


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