The Last Hegelian: An Interview with Slavoj Zizek
Abstract (Document Summary)
Rasmussen interviews writer Slavoj Zizek on his works and writings. In his early works, he linked Lacan and popular culture in such books as Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture and Enjoy the Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. Additionally, among his later books that dealt more with moral and political issues are Tarrying With the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and Critique of Ideology and The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. Full Text (7518 words) Copyright Minnesota Review Spring 2004
One of the most prolific thinkers alive, Slavoj Zizek has written over two-dozen books ranging from Lacan, Kant, Hegel, and Deleuze, to Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Krzystof Kieslowski. Born in 1949 in Slovenia, then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Zizek was educated at the University of Ljubljana (BA, philosophy and sociology, 1971; MA, philosophy, 1975; OA, philosophy, 1981) and at the Université Paris-VIII (DA, philosophy, 1985). Zizek ran as pro-reform candidate for the presidency of Slovenia in the first democratic election in 1990 and served as the Republic's ambassador of science in 1991 following Slovenia's declaration of independence. Since 1979, he has been on the faculty at the University of Ljubljana.
Zizek burst on the U.S. critical scene with The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, 1989). In his early works, he linked Lacan and popular culture in such books as Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (MIT P, 1991); For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (Verso, 1991); Enjoy the Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (Routledge, 1992); Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) (Verso 1992; 1996). Among his later books that have dealt more with moral and political issues are Tarrying With the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Duke, 1993); The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (Verso, 1999); The Fragile Absolute: Or Why the Christian Legacy is Worth Fighting For (Verso, 2000); Did Someone Say Totalitarianism?: Four Interventions in the Misuse of a Notion (Verso, 2001); On Belief (Routledge, 2001); Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Wooster P, 2001); The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (MIT P, 2002). 2003 saw two single-volume books dedicated to Zizek: Tony Myers' Slavoj Zizek (Routledge) and Sarah Kay's Zizek: A Critical Introduction (Blackwell). The Zizek Reader (Blackwell) was published in 1999 and Conversations with Zizek (Blackwell) appeared in 2004.
Eric Dean Rasmussen: In The Puppet and the Dwarf, one of your theoretical maxims is that "in our politically correct times, it is always advisable to start with the set of unwritten prohibitions that define the positions one is allowed to adopt." You argue that, although proclamations for various forms of multiculturalist spirituality are currently in vogue, professing "serious" religious beliefs-that is, proclaiming one's faith devoutly and unironically-is an unwritten prohibition, at least in academia. Do you really think that expressing sincere belief is so taboo in public discourse, at least in the United States? In fact, aren't we witnessing a resurgence of fundamentalism?
Slavoj Zizek: No, no I don't think this is any longer the unwritten rule. I think that what we usually refer to as the "post-secular turn" really designates not quite the opposite tendency, but that some kind of spirituality is again "in," even in academic circles. For example, in one of the predominant orientations, so-called deconstructionism, with it's traditional ontotheology-where you assert God as a supreme being and so on-is over. But then you play all of these games-there is no God, but there is some absence, a void, calling us, confronting us with our finitude. There is, as Levinas would put it, a radical Otherness confronting us with the absolute responsibility, ethical injunction, all that. So, what interests me is precisely this kind of-how should I put it?-disavowed spirituality.
It is amusing to follow the more detailed ramifications of these rules-what is prohibited, what is not. For example, this abstract Jewish spirituality is in; in other circles, some kind of pagan spirituality is in. Of course these are in clear contrast to "mainstream" America, the Bible Belt, where you get more orthodox belief. But even there, belief already functions in a different way. The so-called moral majority fundamentalism is-to put it in slightly speculative Hegelian terms-the form of the appearance of its opposite. Let's be serious: Nobody will convince me that people like Donald kumsfeld, John Ashcroft, and George W. Bush believe. They may even be sincere, but . . . From Hegel we learned how to undermine a position, not through comparing it directly with reality to assert its truth status, but seeing how the very subjective stance from which you announce a certain position undermines this position. A classic, simplified Hegelian example would be asceticism. The message of asceticism is "I despise my body," but all the focus is on the body, so the very message of the practice is the opposite of the official message. Along the same lines, if you look closely at, to take the most extreme example, televangelists, figures we all love like Jim Baker or Jimmy Swaggart, with all their complaints against liberal decadence, the way they relate to religion is a kind of narcissistic ego trip. The way they deliver their message undermines the message.
What does it mean when you say people believe in something? For example, I had a very interesting conversation with a priest during the Turin shroud controversy, and he told me a half-public secret that the Church really does not want that shroud to be proven to be the real thing, the blood of Christ from that time. The idea is that the shroud should remain an object of belief, and it would complicate things-you know, let's do the DNA profile of Christ. But at the more fundamental level, intelligent theologians like Kierkegaard knew that belief should not be knowledge, it must be a leap of faith. Often, when you believe in something, the utmost shattering experience or shock can be an immediate, brutal confirmation of your belief. For example, did you see the movie Leap of Faith! I don't like Steve Martin, he's playing a stupid role politically, but it's a nice movie about a fake faith healer/preacher with Martin and Debra Winger. It's a story of one of these swindlers who goes around the Bible Belt, sells miracles, healing cripples and so on, it's all a fake. Then, at some point, a young guy, who is the younger brother of a woman whom he wants to get in bed, publicly approaches him to perform a miracle. So he does, and it works. It totally ruins him! This is how belief functions.
You may know an almost repetitive motif in my work, how not only those people whom we perceive as fundamentalists, but also how we enlightened, cynical Westerners believe more than it may appear. The usual strategy is displaced belief, what in Lacanian theory is referred to as "the subject supposed to believe," in which we literally believe through the Other. Do you remember how we greeted each other the first time? Let's say we said, "Hello, how are you? Nice to meet you." It's fake in the sense that, if we've just met for the first time, you would have the right to say, "Sorry, it's none of your business!" But it's wrong to say it's hypocrisy. That's the paradox of culture: It's not to be taken literally, but it's totally wrong to say it's hypocritical. Small children haven't assumed the paradox of culture fully. My small son, for example, plays this game of taking things too literally. When I say, "Could you pass me the salt?," he says "Yes I can," and then looks at me before saying, "You didn't tell me to pass the salt." There's a certain paradoxical level of thought, you cannot but call it sincere lying. If I ask you, "how are you?" literally I lie, but it's a sincere lie, because at the metalevel the message is to establish, to use old hippie terminology, positive vibrations or whatever. So, again, belief is a much, much more complex phenomenon than is generally acknowledged.
Rasmussen: In both Welcome to the Desert of the Real and The Puppet and the Dwarf you come close to endorsing "hysterical" violence as a preferable alternative to an "obsessional," micromanaged, life-in-death. I'm thinking of the contrast you make between the Palestinian suicide bomber and the American solider waging war before a computer screen and the New York yuppie jogging along the Hudson. In the moment before the bomber kills himself and others, you suggest he is more alive than either the soldier or the yuppie. How would you defend yourself against charges that you are promoting terrorism or romanticizing revolutionary violence?
Zizek: Believe me, from my personal experience coming from an ex-socialist country, I know very well the misery of living in a post-revolutionary society. Let me first state my basic position, which is the fundamental paradox that I repeat again and again in my works and which is basically a paraphrase of that reversal by Jacques Lacan where he says, against Dostoevsky, that if God doesn't exist, not everything is permitted, but everything is prohibited. Lacan was right, and so-called fundamentalist terrorists are exactly the proof of his claim. With them, it's inverted: God exists so everything is permitted. If you act as a divine instrument, you can kill, rape, because through all these mystical tricks, it's not me who is acting, it is God who is acting through me.
What interests me is the following paradox: how, precisely in our liberal societies, where no one can even imagine a transcendental cause for which to die, we are allowed to adopt a hedonistic, utilitarian, or even more spiritually egotistical stance-the goal of my life is the realization of all my potential, fulfillment of my innermost desires, whatever you want. The result is not that you can do everything you want, but a paradoxical situation: you can enjoy your life, but in order to do it, no fat, no sexual harassment, no this, no that. Probably never in human history did we live in a society in which, at the microlevel of personal behavior, our lives were so strongly regulated.
To this paradox, I like to link another. Namely, how false is the official position that we live in a permissive society of consumption where you just consume until you drop. I think that if there is something which is paradigmatic for today's society, it's phenomena like decaf coffee. You can consume coffee, but it should be decaf. Have beer, but without alcohol. Have dessert, but without sugar. Get the thing deprived of its substance. Even war follows this logic. What's Colin Powell's doctrine if not war without war? War, but with no casualties on our side, of course. No wonder, then, that there is such a movement for, among some so-called radicals, to liberate the consumption of marijuana. Marijuana is precisely kind of a decaf coffee-opium, without opium. You can have it, but not fully. The paradox for me, in this sense, is that precisely by dedicating your life to full assertion of life, life's pleasures, you pay a price.
Now I come to truly answering you. What if my remarks sound almost proto-fascist, a celebration of violence and such? I will give you a horrible answer. "Why not?" This line of questioning is the typical liberal trap. In These Times-those crazy loonies, they are my friends-they published an essay of mine apropos Leni Riefenstahl in which I ferociously attack a typical liberal reaction against fascism. You don't really have a theory of fascism, so what you do is look a little bit into history, encounter something which superficially reminds you of fascism, and then claim that's proto-fascist already. Before making her famous Nazi movies, Riefenstahl did so-called "mountain movies" [bergfilms]-this heroic, extreme danger, climbing mountains, passionate love stories up there. Everybody automatically assumes it must already be proto-Nazi. Sorry, but Bêla Balázs, the guy who co-wrote the scenario for her best known early film, Das Blaue Licht, was a Communist. Now, liberals have an answer to this one, which is "this only proves how the entire society was already penetrated by the spirit of Nazism." No, I violently disagree. Let's take the most popular example used again and again by Susan Sontag in her famous text on Leni Riefenstahl: mass public spectacles, crowds, gymnastics, thousands of bodies. I'm very sorry, but it's an historical fact that the Nazis took these forms from the Social Democrats. Originally, these were Leftist. We should not oppose something just because it was appropriated by the wrong guys; rather, we should think about how to reappropriate it. And I think that the limit is here-I admit it, we are in deep critical waters-between engaging in redemptive violence and what is truly fascist, the fetishizing of violence for its own sake.
A kind of litmus test is-this always works on all my friends-"How do you stand toward Fight Club, the movie?" All the liberals claim, "Ah, protofascist, violent, blah, blah, blah." No, I am for it. I think the message of Fight Club is not so much liberating violence but that liberation hurts. What may falsely appear as my celebration of violence is a much more tragic awareness. The lesson of psychoanalysis is that the lesson of totalitarian subordination is not "renounce, suffer," but that subordination offers you a kind of perverted excess of enjoyment and pleasure. To get rid of that enjoyment, it hurts. Liberation hurts.
I develop the first act of liberation in The Fragile Absolute, where I provide lots of violent examples-from Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, who kills his family (which, I admit it, got me into lots of trouble) to a more correct example, Toni Morrison's Beloved. Elizabeth Wright, who edited a reader about me, said, "I liked your book, The Fragile Absolute, but something bothered me. Do I really have to kill my son to be ethical?" I love this total naivete. Of course not! The problem is: how does a totalitarian power keep you in check, hold you? Precisely by offering you some perverse enjoyment, and you have to renounce that, and it hurts. So, in this sense, I don't mean physical violence. I just mean simply that liberation hurts. What I don't buy from liberals is this idea of that somehow, everything will change, but nobody will be really hurt. No, sorry, it hurts.
Rasmussen: Do you think that the Left, in the United States, is wrong to use the rhetoric of fascism to critique the Bush Administration? Does the Left err when it makes claims like "the Bush Administration is an incipient fascist regime?"
Zizek: This is wrong, but for another reason. It's not that the Left is too harsh on Bush. It's that they are, in a way, not harsh enough. In my book on Deleuze, I have a chapter on the Hegelian structure underlying those famous stupidities and slips uttered by Dan Quayle and Bush. I compare them as two kinds of self-relating negativity tricks. I don't know if it was Bush or Quayle who said "Tomorrow the future will look brighter." This is wonderful. Totally Hegelian. And the title of the chapter is "Dumb and Dumber," a reference to the movie. If I say that Bush is not fascism, I am not saying that it's not so bad; what I'm saying is that these are different structures of domination. I hate it when Leftists say we're returning to fascism! My reply to them is, "You don't know what you are talking about! You don't have a conceptual apparatus."
I admire thinkers like Giorgio Agamben and his theory of homo sacer, which offers a much more refined analysis. Agamben's basic insight is the following: it's not "democracy will be abolished and we will return to some emergency state"; it's that we have two apparently opposed tendencies today. On the one hand, we have so-called biopolitics, that is to say, more and more our lives are controlled through state mechanisms. On the other hand, we have what right wingers usually refer to as a liberal, extreme narcissism, this "culture of complaint" or "culture of victimization." Everything can be construed as harassment, which is why, incidentally, the only way to react to it, I claim, is by propagating dirty jokes. Dirty jokes are ambiguous. On the one hand, of course, I'm well aware they can be racist, sexist, and so on and so on. It's a kind of dialectical double reversal. That somehow you can return to the worst starting point, racist jokes and so on, but that they function no longer as racist, but as a kind of obscene solidarity. To give you an extremely vulgar example, there was a big, black guy, and you can imagine, when we became friends, I went into it like "Is it true that you have, you know, a gigantic penis?" Now, I'm well aware of how risky these waters are, because if you do it in the wrong context, in the wrong way, this is racism.
What bothers me with so-called tolerance is that, if you combine tolerance with opposition to harassment, what do you get? You get tolerance that effectively functions as its opposite. Tolerance means we should tolerate each other, which practically means that we shouldn't harass each other, which means I tolerate you on the condition that you don't get too close to me! We have here, again, the same decaffeinated coffee. The Other yes, but not too close.
I don't think these two levels are opposed. On the one hand, the state wants to control you via biopolitics, and on the other hand, the state condones this extreme narcissism. I think they are two sides of the same coin. Both have in common this logic of pure life, pure pleasures, whatever. Simply falling back to this old position of "oooh, we are returning to fascism, and so on," doesn't work. And while I despise so-called fundamentalists, we should not knock, or buy too simply, this liberal opposition between us, good liberal guys, versus them, bad fundamentalists. It's an affront to fundamentalism to call people like Jim Baker or Jimmy Swaggart fundamentalists. I had once a nice conversation with my good friend, one of the last Marxist dinosaurs, Fred Jameson who told me, "Wait a minute, true fundamentalists are people like some army theologians who were against the Vietnam War." In Israel, it's the same. It's not some stupid, fanatic rabbis in Jerusalem versus tolerant Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is worse, if anything! In Tel Aviv, you know, it's ethnically cleansed. There are almost no Palestinians. So, the most radical proponents of dialogue with the Palestinians are some very orthodox Jewish theologians.
How should I put it? We should problematize the way the media presents an opposition between liberating, multiculturalist tolerance and some crazy fundamentalism. I am well aware of-and I'm not afraid to use this term-the "inner greatness" of liberalism, because usually religious fundamentalists approach liberalism as a kind of "humanist arrogance." However, the origin of authentic liberalism is something much more tragic and sincere. Liberalism emerged after the Thirty Years War in seventeenth-century Europe. It was a desperate answer to a very pressing problem: we have here groups of people with mutually exclusive religious commitments, how can we build a governable space? There is an initial modesty in Liberalism. Liberalism was not originally a doctrine of "man is the king." No, it was a very modest attempt to build a space where people could live together without slaughtering one another. As I repeat again and again in my books, I don't buy the simplistic, Marxist reductive decoding, "human rights, screw them, they are really just rights for white men of property." The problem is that there was from the very beginnings of Liberalism the tension between content and form. The properly political dialectic is that the form, even if it is just a fake appearance, has its own symbolic efficiency and sets in motion a certain process.
Even before the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft said, "Why not also we women?" Human rights triggered the first big political rebellion of the blacks, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti. The Haitian Revolution was explicitly linked to the French Revolution, and the Jacobins invited the black delegation from Haiti to Paris. They were applauded there. It's only Napoleon, then, who turns it around. But this is the properly dialectic process that fascinates me. It's not only the story of degeneration-something is authentic and then it's co-opted-what interests me much more is how something can start as a fake, but then acquire its own logic.
To be quite frank, especially after doing that book on Lenin, people laugh at me saying "oh, you want Leninism." But no, sorry, I am not totally crazy, I'm just saying that I don't think the Left is ready to draw all the consequences of the deep shit it is in. In Europe, you have this nostalgic reaction, which explains the Left's irrational hatred of people like Tony Blair or Schroeder in Germany. Not that I love them, but the way they are often criticized is that they betrayed the old welfare states. Ok, but what was the choice? It is not as if everything would be ok if we would just remain faithful to the old social democratic logic. Or, to give you another example, once I had dinner with Richard Rorty, and he admitted that his dream is that of Adlai Stevenson; his solution is we should return to a socially active role for the Democratic Party. I wonder if it's as simple as that? What is the alternative here? To be quite honest, I am at the state of just asking questions.
So, again, when I problematize even democracy, again, it's not this typical Leftist, fascist way of, oh it's not spectacular enough; we need radical measures. No, it's that we should start to ask questions like "What does democracy effectively mean, and how does it function today? What do we really decide?" Take the last twenty or thirty years of history. There was a tremendous shift, as we all know, in the entire social functioning of the State, the way the economy changed with globalization, the way social services and health care are perceived. There was a global shift, but we never voted about that. So, the biggest change, the biggest structural shift in the entire logic of capitalistic, democratic states is something that we, the citizens, never decided. Now, I'm not saying we should abandon democracy. I'm just saying that we should start asking these elementary questions: What do we decide today? Why are some things simply perceived as necessity?
Rasmussen: In a recent issue of The Nation (29 Sept. 2003), William Greider suggests that through a "transformation of Wall Street's core values," American capitalism might be reformed so as to eliminate the gross inequalities that are structured into the system. Greider suggests, for example, that organized labor, which controls billions of dollars in the form of workers' pension funds, could exert influence and improve capitalism by insisting that the money it manages be placed in investment funds that are more socially and environmentally responsible. Do such reforms sound promising?
Zizek: Maybe, but such reforms have already been tried. When Swedish Social Democracy was at its high point in the 1960s, there already was a timeline-they set a limit of thirty years-established for how trade unions and pension funds should buy, to put it simply, private property, setting the way for a kind of radical people's capitalism. But it failed. But maybe this is one option.
Again, I don't have great positive answers. I just think that something is effectively happening with today's capitalism and that both standard positions-on the one hand, the standard Leftist view, that it's just the old financial capitalism, on the other hand, the opposite view, all the "post-" theories (information society, post-industrial society, whatever)-at some level misfire. The argument that we are living in this post-industrial, information society, service society, with no blue-collar workers, is a fiction. I know, because when I go to a toy store with my small son, ninety percent of the toys are made in China. The rest are made in Guatemala, Indonesia, and so on. This is one of my standard jokes from my early books. It always fascinated me that the only place where you see the old-fashioned production process is where? Hollywood. In James Bond movies. It's a formula: two-thirds into the film, Bond is captured by the big, bad guy and, then-this is the kind of structural stupidity that enables the final victory of James Bond-instead of immediately shooting Bond, the villain gives Bond kind of an old Soviet Union socialist tour, showing him the plant and how it works. Of course it's some kind of criminal activity, like processing drugs, or manufacturing gold. But there you see it, and the result you know-Bond escapes and destroys it all. It's as if Bond is a kind of agent of Anthony Giddens and other sociologists who claim that there is no working class.
But you see my point, what these "post"-theories don't take into account is that this split is structural. In order for the United States to function the way it functions today, you need China as the ultimate communist-capitalist country. What do I mean by this? Everything hinges on this symbiosis between the United States and China. China is an ingenious solution. It's a country where, yes, you have political control by the communists, but everyone in the West focuses their attention on those persecuted religious sects or dissidents. For me, the true news about China is that there are now desperate attempts by millions of jobless workers to organize themselves into trade unions. There lies the true repression. So China, as long as you don't mess with politics, is the ultimate capitalist country, because capitalists can do whatever they want in the economy, and the state guarantees them total control over the working class-no interference by trade unions or whatever.
Rasmussen: When I read The Puppet and the Dwarf, I was struck by your appeals to a sort of passionate commitment. For example, when you ask, "What if we are 'really alive' only if and when we engage ourselves with an excessive intensity which puts us beyond 'mere life?'" you seem to be advocating a sort of Kierkegaardian passionate commitment. For Kierkegaard, of course, this commitment was to developing one's relationship with God, and he stressed that such an inward, existential, relationship should not and could not be externally visible to others.
Zizek: It's very complex with Kierkegaard. It's inward, but this inwardness is externalized in that it's a traumatic inwardness. People usually only take one side of Kierkegaard, that he's against Christendom as institution. Yes, but at the same time, Kierkegaard was the most ferocious opponent of liberal Christianity, which asserted that external institutions don't matter, and what matters is the sincerity of one's inner belief. Let's take the ultimate case, Abraham. His faith is inner in that he's unable to communicate his predicament-that he must sacrifice Isaac, his son. He cannot turn to the community to explain why he must do it. At the same time, it's a totally crazy order that Abraham must obey. It's not that Abraham in his insight knows why he must kill his son. It's not a New Age narrative; it's not an inner enlightenment. With Kierkegaard, things are more ambiguous. If there is anything totally strange to Kierkegaard it is this simple opposition-external, institutional authority versus inner.
Rasmussen: When you suggest that "what makes life 'worth living' is the very excess of life: the awareness that there is something for which we are ready to risk our life (we may call this excess 'freedom,' 'honor,' 'dignity,' 'autonomy,' etc.) Only when we are ready to take this risk are we really alive," you seem to be pushing for a different sort of existential commitment. For what excessive causes or projects are you passionately committed? Are there any existential causes for which you would be willing, if necessary, to sacrifice your life, or to commit a heroic betrayal?
Zizek: It's no longer this heroic logic of "I sacrifice my life," but that I will count in posterity. I'm just looking for a non-heroic logic of activity. Did you see that wonderful melodrama, Stella Dallas with Barbara Stanwyck? She has a daughter who wants to marry into the upper class, but the mother is an embarrassment to her. And the mother-on purpose-acted extremely vulgar and promiscuous in front of her daughter's lover, so that the daughter could drop her without guilt. The daughter could be furious with her and marry the rich guy. That's a more difficult sacrifice. It's not "I will make a big sacrifice and remain deep in their heart." No, you risk your reputation itself. Is this an extreme case? No, I think every good parent should do this.
The true temptation of education is how to raise your child by sacrificing your reputation. It's not my son who should admire me as a role model and so on. I'm not saying you should, to be vulgar, masturbate in front of your son in order to appear as an idiot. But to avoid the typical pedagogical trap, which is that you want to help your son, but the real goal is to remain the ideal figure for your son. You must sacrifice that. But, to go on very naively, in art, in science-this is, for me, the actual sacrifice, not some spectacular sacrifice. You are obsessed with the idea of a work of art, and you risk everything, just to do it. There are very few people who are committed to a certain project.
Let me put it this way. Bernard Williams, the English moral philosopher develops, in a wonderful way, the difference between "must" and "have to." He opposes the logic of positive injunction-in the sense of "you should do this"- with another logic of injunction, a more fundamental sense, of "I just cannot do it otherwise." The first logic is simply that of the ideal. You should do it, but never can do it. You never can live up to your ideal. But, the more shattering, radical, ethical experience is that of "I cannot do it otherwise." For example, Yugoslavian rebels killed some Germans, so the Germans did the usual thing. They encircled the village and decided to shoot all the civilians. But one ordinary German soldier stood up and said, "Sorry, I just cannot do it." The officer in charge said, "No problem, you can join them," and the German soldier did. You see, it's not that you try to follow some ideal. It's simply that you're cornered; you cannot do it otherwise. This is what I mean by sacrifice. There's nothing pathetic about it. This honest German soldier, his point was not, "what a nice, ideal role for me." He was just ethically cornered. You cannot do it otherwise. Politically it's the same. It's not a sacrifice where you're secretly in love with your role of being sacrificed and you're seeking to be admired. It's a terrible, ethical, existential deadlock; you find yourself in a position in which you say, "I cannot do it otherwise."
Rasmussen: In fact, the logic of the heroism you've described doesn't necessarily posit the need to make an existential choice; rather, one is compelled to "do the right thing."
Zizek: What I'm trying to avoid is the traditional pseudo-radical position which says, "If you engage in politics-helping trade unions or combating sexual harassment, whatever-you've been co-opted and so on." I hate those pseudo-radicals who dismiss every concrete action by saying that "This will all be co-opted." Of course, everything can be co-opted. This is just a nice excuse to do absolutely nothing. Of course, there is a danger that, to use the old Maoist term popular in European student movements thirty some years ago, "the long march through institutions" will last so long that you'll end up part of the institution. But we need, more than ever, a parallax view, a double perspective. You engage in acts, being aware of their limitations. This does not mean that you act with your fingers crossed. No, you fully engage, but with the awareness that-the ultimate wager in the almost Pascalian sense-is not simply that this act will succeed, but that the very failure of this act will trigger a much more radical process.
Rasmussen: Let's shift gears a bit. I'd like you to comment about the idea of "confronting the catastrophe," which you present as a strategy for problem solving that inverts the existential premise that, at a particular historical juncture, we must choose to act from a range of possibilities, even though in retrospect the choices will appear to us as being fully determined. In The Puppet and the Dwarf, you explain the inversion as such, "Jean-Pierre Dupey suggests that we should confront the catastrophe: we should first perceive it as our fate, as unavoidable, and then projecting ourselves into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities... upon which we then act today." You then suggest that Adorno and Horkheimer's critical theory provides "a supreme case of the reversal of positive into negative destiny." How does Dupey's strategy of confronting the catastrophe relate to the outlook adopted by the Adorno and Horkheimer of Dialectic of Enlightenment? When one reads "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" today, its diagnosis appears strikingly prescient, yet at times uncannily naïve in its implicit conviction that the hegemony of the culture industry had nearly reached a crescendo point back in the 1940s. Did Adorno and Horkheimer neglect to imagine a sufficiently catastrophic or dystopian future?
Zizek: I can only give you an extremely unsatisfying and naïve answer, which is that Adorno and Horkheimer's formal logic was correct. The whole project in The Dialectic of Enlightenment is "let's paint the ultimate outcome of the administered world as unavoidable, as catastrophe, for this is the only way to effectively counteract it." Adorno and Horkheimer had the right insight; I agree with their formal procedure, but as for the positive content, I think it's a little bit too light. Let me give you an interesting anecdote, which may amuse you. Officially, for the youth generation, the standard position is "Adorno is bad; he hated jazz. Marcuse is good; solidarity with the students and so on." I know people in Germany who knew Adorno and I know people, such as Fred Jameson, who knew Marcuse. Marcuse was much nastier. To make a long story short, Marcuse was a conscious manipulator. Marcuse wanted to be popular with students, so he superficially flirted with them. Privately, he despised them. Fred Jameson was Marcuse's student in San Diego, and he told me how he brought Marcuse a Rolling Stones album. Marcuse's reaction: Total aggressive dismissal. He despised it. With Adorno, interestingly enough, you always have this margin of curiosity. He was tempted, but how does something become a hit? Is it really true that the hitmaking process is totally manipulated? For example, if you look in the Introduction to Music Sociology, in the chapter on popular music, Adorno argues that a hit cannot be totally planned. There are some magic explosions of quality here and there. Adorno was much more refined and much more open at this level.
My answer, then, would be this vulgar one. Adorno and Horkheimer's formal strategy was the correct one, but my main counterargument, which I develop a bit further in my Deleuze book, is that the key enigma concerning the failure of critical theory was their total ignorance and avoidance of the phenomena of Stalinism. I know, I did my homework; you have this general theory, which was very fashionable in the 1930s, of how all big systems-fascism, Stalinism-approach the same model of total state control, blah, blah, blah, end of liberal capitalism. Then you have Marcuse's very strange book, Soviet Marxism, which is totally dispassionate, very strange. Then you have some of the neo-Habermasians, like Andrew Arato, and so on, but they don't so much advance a positive theory of Stalinism. What they do instead is this civil society stuff, which I think is of very limited usefulness. Of course, civil society was a big motto in the last years of real socialism as a site of resistance. But from the very beginning, it was ambiguous. It's the same in the Slovenia as in Russia. Quite often, if I were to choose between the state and civil society, I'm on the side of the state.
The supreme question should be, why did Marxism go wrong? The Frankfurt School was too focused on anti-Semitism and Nazism to ask this question. How could they have ignored this? Habermas has this totally boring, unsatisfying theory of belated modernization, the idea being that we don't have anything to learn from the East; the East has to catch up with us. It's not surprising, then, that Habermas is very unpopular in ex-East Germany, because basically his lesson is the worst West European appropriation: we don't have anything to learn from you, you have to join us. This is my big problem with this idea of the dialectic of enlightenment. Although there is, of course, an element of truth in this basic insight that so-called permissive societies can also have forms of domination, what was later expressed by Marcuse's term, "repressive tolerance," nonetheless they do it via a kind of false shortcut. The way they do it is basically, "Oh, there is something wrong there. The apparatus of the dialectic of Aufklärung, this basic idea of instrumental reason, domination over nature, and so on." Something is wrong there. The analysis is not strong, not concrete enough. If the problem was "how did the dialectic of Aufklärung go wrong?" the focus should've been on Stalinism.
I say this, and people accuse me of Leninist-Stalinism, but no, sorry, I am from the East, I know what shit it was. I have no nostalgia for Stalinism. In simplistic terms, the paradox is that it's a relatively easy game to assess fascism. Hitler was a bad guy who wanted to do some bad things, and really did many bad things. The situation in Nazi Germany is fairly clear. But, my god, with, the October Revolution, with Lenin, it's more complicated. Sorry, but if you read the reports, how did Lenin succeed, against even the majority of the politburo? There was a tremendous low-level explosion. People down below wanted more. However the revolution was twisted, there was an emancipatory explosion. The difficulty is thinking this together with what happened later and not playing any of the easy, Trotskyite games. If only Lenin were to live two years longer, were to make the pact with Trotsky, blah, blah, blah. I don't buy this. No, the problem is how, as a result of first the socialist revolution, you get a system that at a certain level was, in naive terms, much more irrational.
For example, take my mental experiment. Compare two ordinary guys, in Germany and the Soviet Union, in 1937, let's say. First the German. Ok, a couple of provisos are necessary, I know. Let's say you are not a Jew, not a communist, and you don't have accidental enemies in the Nazi apparatus. Now, with these conditions met, if you didn't meddle with politics, of course, you could live a relatively safe life. Incidentally, to give you some proof, there is a biography of Adorno that came out. Did you know that Adorno was going back to Germany until 1937? This gives you a slightly different image of Germany. But not in the Soviet Union. Wasn't it the case that 1937 was the high point of the purges? I mean, the fear was universal, literally anybody could be exterminated. You didn't have this minimal safety of, if I duck down, if I don't stick out, I may survive. Ha, ha! No, under Comrade Stalin, no way, no way! So, my god, isn't this calling for a kind of refined analysis? And, shit, you don't find it. That's, for me, the tragedy of critical theory.
Again, it's even more ridiculous, with Habermas, living in West Germany. It was across the street from the GDR, but he simply treated it as a non-existent country. Now, isn't this a symptom of some serious theoretical flaw? And this is why I think Habermas is fundamentally a failure. He has this model of enlightened, modernity as an unfinished project-we should go on, it's not yet fully realized, blah, blah, blah. Sorry, I don't think this is a strong enough analytic apparatus to equate fascism with Stalinism, because they didn't fully realize the enlightenment project. Again, we still lack an adequate theory of Stalinism.
You know who comes closest to my position here? The so-called revisionist scholars of the Soviet Era, like Shelia Fitzpatrick. Some of the more radical anti-communist historians try to dismiss them, saying they try to whitewash the horror, but I don't think so. They paint the horror. I've read Fitzpatrick's book-it's wonderful, and horrible-Everyday Stalinism. It doesn't go into an excessively big topics. She limits herself to Moscow. It asks a simple question: what did it mean? How did Stalinism function at an everyday level? What movies did you watch? Where did you go shopping? What kind of apartment did you live in? How did it function? Historians are starting to ask the right questions. You know, you get a pretty horrible image.
Rasmussen: My final question might be impossibly broad, but it is one that I know interests many of your readers. Can you provide a concise account of the relationship that you see between Hegel and Lacan's thought? Do you see a direct historical progression from Hegel's theory of subjectivity to the Lacanian model of the barred subject and the nonexistence of the Big Other?
Zizek: Ok, ha, ha! I will give you a punchline. If you were to ask me at gunpoint, or, like Hollywood producers too stupid to read books who say "give me the punchline," to demand three sentences, I would say: Screw ideology. Screw movie analyses. What really interests me is the following insight: if you look at the very core of psychoanalytic theory, of which even Freud was not aware, its properly read death drive-this idea of beyond the pleasure principle-the only way to read this properly is to read it against the background of the notion of subjectivity as self-relating negativity in German Idealism. That is to say, I just take literally Lacan's indication that the subject of psychoanalysis is the Cartesian cogito-of course, I would add, as reread by Kant, Schelling, and Hegel. I am here very old fashioned. I still think that basically this is philosophy, and all the other is a footnote. I think that philosophy is something for which Spinoza laid the ground, but then Spinoza made an edifice to be kicked out. Then, it's Kant's transcendentalism, which is, I think, a much more radical notion than people are aware, because it totally turns around the relationship between infinity and finitude. Kant's fundamental idea, which was correctly addressed by Heidegger, is that infinity itself is a category of finitude. It's something which can only be understood from the horizon of our finitude. Then you get Schelling, this tremendous idea of historicity, the fall, temporality, of this tension within God. Schelling, I think, provided the only consistent answer to the question of how you could have, at the same time, evil and so on-not this cheap theodicy-and how to account for evil without dualism. Then, of course, you get Hegel. Of course, things are more complex; Hegel didn't know what he was doing. You have to interpret him.
Let me give you a metaphoric formula. You know the term Deleuze uses for reading philosophers-anal interpretation, buggering them. He says that, in contrast to other interpreters, he anally penetrates the philosopher, because it's immaculate conception. You produce a monster. I'm trying to do what Deleuze forgot to do-to bugger Hegel with Lacan, so that you get monstrous Hegel, which is, for me, precisely the underlying radical dimension of subjectivity which was missed by Heidegger. But again, the basic idea being this mutual reading, this mutual buggering of the radical negativity of German Idealism with the very fundamental insight of psychoanalysis.
It's a very technical, modest project, but I believe in it. You can take movies from me, you cannot take this from me. And let me go even further. What really interests me is philosophy, and, for me, psychoanalysis is ultimately a tool to reactualize, to render actual for today's time, the legacy of German Idealism. And here, with all of my Marxist flirtings, I'm pretty arrogant. I think that you cannot understand Marx's Capital, its critique of the political economy, without detailed knowledge of Hegelian categories. Ultimately if I am to choose just one thinker, it's Hegel.
A longer version of this interview is available online at the electronic book review: www.electronicbookreview.com.