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The raw and the flushed

POTTY HUMOR HAS no place in a family newspaper, but what about an analysis of geopolitics by a leading European intellectual that places toilet design at the heart of the argument?

This month in the London Review of Books, the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, in the course of evaluating "Free World: Why a Crisis of the West Reveals the Opportunity of Our Time" (Allen Lane), the new book by Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash, subjects European hygienic habits to the kind of close attention more typically directed at subjects in poor, remote villages. The result is a fresh (if that's the word) twist on the debate over the rift between the United States (and Britain) and "Old Europe," in particular France and Germany.

Zizek, who has been dubbed "the Elvis of cultural theory" by The Chronicle of Higher Education because of his cult status on college campuses -- earned by a fizzy (some would say fuzzy), free-associative speaking and writing style that blends dense theory, psychoanalysis, politics, and obscene jokes -- is hardly the first to argue that the different "existential attitudes" of the French, Germans, and Anglo-Americans lie at the heart of recent tensions. Indeed, that's one of the themes of Garton Ash's new book, which explores the political and cultural fault lines dividing different subgroups within Europe.

But Zizek goes where few chin-stroking, international-affairs pundits dare to venture. He begins with a nod toward Claude Levi-Strauss's famous anthropological "triangle" of "the raw, the cooked, and the rotten," metaphors he used to describe the natural, the cultured, and the taboo. Then he's off and running, with what he calls an "excremental correlative-counterpoint" to the great French anthropologist.

"In a traditional German toilet," writes Zizek, "the hole into which [excrement] disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that [it] is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect for traces of illness. In the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is at the back, i.e. [excrement] is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible. Finally, the American (Anglo-Saxon) toilet presents a synthesis, a mediation between these opposites: the toilet basin is full of water, so that the [excrement] floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected."

Are these observations beneath the dignity of the London Review? As it happens, Zizek's scatological metaphor is a reflection, "in the most intimate domain," as he puts it, of a famous "triad" that has long shaped European politics. Hegel, among many others, noted that the chief German attitude toward life was "reflective thoroughness," while the predominant French attitude is "revolutionary hastiness," and the English is "utilitarian pragmatism." In politics, these play out as "German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism, and English liberalism."

"It is easy for an academic at a round table to claim that we live in a post-ideological universe" where everyone embraces the free market and a liberal political order, Zizek concludes with a flourish, "but the moment he visits the lavatory after the heated discussion, he is again knee-deep in ideology."

Is Zizek serious? As The New Yorker's Rebecca Mead wrote in a profile last year, "always to take Zizek seriously would be a category mistake." And yet one begins to see why The Chronicle of Higher Education ran, from February through July, a "Zizek Watch," keeping tabs on his aperus, as well as his astonishing output. (The most recent of his several dozen books is "Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle," from Verso Books, an analysis of the shifting rationales for toppling Saddam Hussein.)

As Zizek approaches academic stardom on the order of Jacques Derrida and Noam Chomsky, he is about to follow in their footsteps in another way, too: A feature-length documentary, tentatively titled "Zizek," is currently in the works, in which cameras trail the impish theorist on a speaking tour of Boston, Amherst, Buenos Aires (where 2,000 enraptured fans turned out to see him), and his home town of Ljubljana. (Astra Taylor, the film's director -- a one-time publicist at Verso -- says it's on track to be screened at festivals in January.)

MIT Press stands to gain from whatever publicity the movie garners for Zizek, since it signed him up as a writer and series editor last year.

Although Timothy Garton Ash did not respond to an e-mail asking how he liked having his work viewed through this particular lens, the peripatetic Zizek, reached by phone in Buenos Aires, all but shouted into the phone when asked if his toilet riff was meant as parody.

"Nooooo," he said. "That's the whole point. I like to do it the other way round. The usual way to do it is you pretend to be serious, and really you mean it as a parody. I like to do what Mozart is doing in his best operas: It appears to be a comedy. But the trick is you have to take seriously what appears to be a parody."

Christopher Shea's column appears in Ideas biweekly. E-mail: 

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