First, it is necessary to define (in a rather pretentious way) contemporary philosophy. Contemporary philosophy, to me, not only is a heterogeneous category, but also defies any easy generalization. I would loosely define it as any kind of philosophy (continental, analytic, orthodox, heterodox, occidental, oriental, psychoanalytic, etc.) put forth in the last 100 years or so.
Also, Mr. Weissman did not specify as to what school of philosophy (I know it is a futile dichotomy, but I cannot restrain myself from making the analytic-continental distinction, especially because the question concerns contemporary philosophy). However, from the context of his question (e.g. ""big thought" is once again everywhere"), I hereto presumptuously assume that he had in mind a specific offshoot of contemporary philosophy: namely, the politico-ideological school, most closely associated with the works of "continental" philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Alain Badiou, Carl Schmitt, etc. You get the idea.
[[So, if you think that I totally misconstrued the question, you can ignore this.]]
I want to first challenge Mr. Weissman's view that there exists an accessible primary text in contemporary philosophy. I can already hear the moans and tribulations of students who are trying to get through even the easiest text (text, not seminar) by Derrida or Deleuze (I'm not even going to Lacan). Okay. I'll say it.
Contemporary philosophy is difficult.
And if this is a surprise, I will remind you of the simplest fact that virtually every discipline (mathematics, physics, literature, you name it) has become increasingly and radically more difficult, specialized and professionalized in the twentieth century. Philosophy is no exception. Although Kant and Hegel are indeed impenetrable to an ordinary Joe, reading Jacques Rancière and Fredric Jameson is nothing like it (some might argue that Hegel is the ultimate philosopher of impenetrability, but that's another topic of discussion).
I guess what I'm trying to say is, to paraphrase Robespierre (as Žižek would), you want an introduction without introduction. I think that introductions are necessary for first-timers. However, since Mr. Weissman insists, I will try my best to provide him with one. My best shot would be:
Okay. You know the guy; you've heard of the guy. I really think Žižek's books are the most eclectic--in the sense that they incorporate almost all contemporary philosophical ideas (Giorgio Agamben, Badiou...). And his writing style is also riveting, which helps. The more accessible books could be:
- The Sublime Object of Ideology
- How to Read Lacan
- Welcome to the Desert of the Real
- Looking Awry
And I know that Badiou's In Praise of Love and some of Foucault's writings and interviews of various philosophers are also very accessible, but they are not as comprehensive as most of Žižek's works are.
If you are not yet convinced, Žižek is funny. Literally.
*P.S. Although the question did not ask for this, I'll answer it anyway. I recommend David West's Continental Philosophy: An Introduction because, yes, it is an introduction, but I sincerely believe that anyone who has no or very little familiarity with the contemporary thought would have a lot of troubles when trying to get through a primary text.