Slavoj Žižek: Events and Encounters Explain Our Fear of Falling in Love

The renowned philosopher discusses his new book on events, detailing how they retroactively create their causes and why they explain the 21st century fear of falling in love.

Slavoj Žižek: What’s an event. It’s a difficult question not because we lack definitions but because there are too many definitions. In my book I focus on event in the sense of something extraordinary takes place. But with all this wide span of what we call an event I think an elementary structure can be described in formal terms. Within a certain field of phenomena where things go on the normal flow of things, from time to time something happens which as it were retroactively changes the rules of what is possible in the sense that something happens. It is generated by that situation. Of course it’s causally produced by that situation but in a way it changes interactively the whole situation. It’s a miracle in the sense of the event would have been an effect which is stronger than its own costs. For example, now come a couple of examples that I hope you will all like.

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In literature why is Kafka, Franz Kafka, the one that we all know and love an event? Of course he has predecessors. We can say that Kafka implicitly or explicitly relied on a whole series of other artists like Edgar Allan Poe, Dostoevsky, William Blake and so on. But it’s not as simple as that because when you try to isolate in those earlier orders what makes them predecessors of Kafka, you can see that that dimension, Kafka, before Kafka, is perceptive and only once Kafka is already here. Or as Borges the Argentinian writer, as he put it in a wonderful concise way, truly all authors, writers have predecessors. A truly great writer in a way creates his own past, his own predecessors so that yes, there are people who influenced him but you can see this influence only once he is here. And now let me jump to a totally different domain. Love. Love in the good old fashioned sense which is today more and more rare. Love is an encounter. This is why in English and also in some other languages, not all like French, you use the term fall. We fall in love. This is the event that I mentioned. In what sense? Let’s say you lead a happy life. You are lucky. You have a job. You meet regularly with friends.

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You are not in love, you just make one night stands maybe here and there. You meet every evening with friends. You drink. You go to blah, blah. Then all of a sudden in a totally contingent way let’s say you stumble on the street, somebody helps you to stand up. It’s a young girl or boy blah, blah. And, of course, it’s the love of your life. A totally contingent encounter but the result can be that your whole life changes. Nothing is the same as they say. You even spontaneously perceive your entire past life as leading towards this unique moment, you know, the illusion of love is oh my God, I was waiting all my life for you. This – something like this would have been the love event. And I think it’s getting more and more rare today. Many intelligent cultural critics notice how we are almost returning to preromantic, premodern times when marriage or love connections were a matter of relatives, counselors and so on. Your uncle, your aunt, they selected whom you will marry and so on. Today it’s similar only instead of all those old wise uncles and so on its dating agencies marriage agencies and so on and so on.

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What they offer us is precisely love without the fall, without falling in love, without this totally unpredictable dramatic encounter. And that’s what I find very sad. I think that today we are simply more and more afraid of this event or encounters. You encounter something which is totally contingent but the result of it if you accept it as an event is that your entire life changes. It’s a different story. This is why I think that this avoiding falling in love is the same phenomenon as a standard joke that I use in all my, almost all my books, you know. How we want today to think without the bet aspect of it, without the price we have to pay for it. We want – I don’t know, we want sugar without calories so we have sweeteners. We want beer without alcohol. We want – and so on and so on. And I claim it’s the same thing in sexuality. We want brief safe sex sexual encounters without the fall, without this fatal attachment. And I think this is the most sad thing here that even what is slowly emerging is maybe deeper dominant ideology today. What I ironically refer to as Western Buddhism. Life is just a play of appearances. Don’t take it too seriously. Maintain a proper distance. Don’t get too attached to worldly objects. It fits perfectly this superficial consumerist attitude. So again events are rare. An event is a dramatic encounter which to put it in more learned philosophical terms retroactively creates its own causes.

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Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

Slavoj Žižek takes us through some of the concepts presented in his newest book, "Event." The philosopher and social critic explains what events are, how they necessarily create their own causes, and why they explain the 21st century fear of falling in love.

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  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.