Liberation Hurts: An Interview with Slavoj Žižek
Liberation Hurts: An Interview with Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek addresses the situation of post-9/11 global politics - and his own, controversial, theories of the political - in this interview with Eric Dean Rasmussen.
The following interview with Slavoj Žižek took place on the morning of September 29, 2003 in the Palmer House Hilton, a Gilded Age-era hotel in downtown Chicago. In the hotel’s opulent lobby, it was easy to spot the bearded Žižek amongst the nattily dressed businesspeople and well-healed tourists. As befits a self-described “old-fashioned left winger,” See Geert Lovink, “Civil Society, Fanaticism, and Digital Reality: An Interview with Slavoj Žižek” in Uncanny Networks (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002) p. 39. Žižek seemed dressed down for our meeting. Yet when he lectured at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute later that night, Žižek wore the same striped velour shirt and casual pants and looked even more disheveled. With his comfortable attire and unassuming demeanor Žižek lacked the authority and panache of an academostar such as, say, Edward Said (whose elegant and opulent fashions even The Nation remarked upon favorably) but he instantaneously grew in stature once he began to philosophize. He spoke extemporaneously with an arresting verve and displayed the theoretical prowess and outrageous sense of humor that have established him as one of the world’s foremost intellectuals.
Not that such academic accolades probably mean much to Žižek, who described himself to me as a philosopher with “a very technical, modest project” - to reactualize the legacy of German Idealism. After determining that it was too noisy in the bustling lobby to conduct the interview, we headed to Žižek’s room. “So, what’s your agenda?” he asked me conspiratorially as we entered his room, which appeared almost ascetically empty. Žižek was on the road for several weeks, yet he apparently traveled with only a single duffel bag, a laptop computer, and some novels by Henning Mankell, the Swedish detective novelist. See Slavoj Žižek, “Parallax,” in the London Review of Books 25.22. (Nov. 20, 2003). Žižek’s review of Mankell’s The Return of the Dancing Master discusses the effects of globalization on the locale of recent detective novels. Žižek was coming down with a bad cold, and apologized for his sniffling. While I readied my recorder, he climbed into bed, pulled up the covers, and in an comfortably reclined position, cracked a joke about waxing philosophical from his sickbed. Žižek’s self-deprecating humor helped me to relax, not least because his posture reminded me of the provocative author’s photo adorning the back cover of The Puppet and the Dwarf . Shot at the Sigmund Freud museum, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jacques Lacan, the photo features an intense-looking Žižek lounging on a canopied couch covered with a Southwestern-style rug. Immediately above Žižek’s outstretched legs, affixed to the back of the couch, is a framed picture of the bottom half of a woman’s torso, her hairy vagina prominently displayed. I half expected to see the picture hanging above Žižek’s hotel bed, but in the interest of professionalism refrained from telling him so and launched into the interview, which lasted just under two hours.
Despite being under the weather, it didn’t take long for Žižek to display the vigor and loquaciousness for which he is famous. As he launched into a polemic against the Other as posited in Levinasian-Derridean theory, Žižek lurched up from the bed and began gesticulating with his arms, his strength increasing with each idea that rapidly came to mind. For the remainder of our interview Žižek was extremely animated, and the rapidity of his speech increased with each passing minute. It quickly became clear that I would be unable to ask all of the questions I had diligently prepared. In retrospect, I wish I’d more thoroughly interrogated him about his animosity towards “so-called deconstructionism “: did Žižek intentionally use this term instead of deconstruction? That is, was Žižek rejecting the theory of Otherness advanced by Levinas outright, or simply the way it has been deployed by ‘post-secular’ academics? My sense was that, had I asked only one question, Žižek would’ve continued to talk for the remainder of the interview. In order to get my questions in, I had to speak quickly and risk interrupting the verbose Žižek, who was understanding of my desire to direct the interview but clearly wanted to insure that he was able to elaborate upon and clarify his points. Not surprisingly, then, the interview ran over its allotted time by almost an hour. After all, two books on Deleuze and Iraq were forthcoming, and Žižek enjoyed joking with Irina Rasmussen Goloubeva, my Russian-born wife, about Western misconceptions regarding Soviet-era life behind the Iron Curtain. As he apologetically escorted me and Ira out the door, Žižek was still theorizing at a machine-gun rate. “When does he get the time to write?” we wondered, in awe of our encounter with this sublime, yet humble, Slovenian philosopher.
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.” See Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), p. 5. Hereafter all citations from The Puppet and the Dwarf will be cited parenthetically as (PD) followed by the page number. 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 exemplary case of an unwritten prohibited position, at least in academia. Do you really think that expressing sincere religious belief is so taboo in public discourse, at least in the United States? In fact, aren’t we witnessing a resurgence of fundamentalism? Under the Bush Administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” for example, fundamentalist Christian organizations are beginning to receive government funds to manage social services, etc. Should concerned academics not speak out against the erosion of the separation between church and state, or do you think that they “secretly believe much more than they are willing to admit” (PD 8) and it would be hypocritical for them to do so?
Slavoj Žižek: 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 spiritually is again `in’ - even in academic circles. For example, in one of the predominant orientations, so-called deconstructionism, with its Levinasian ethico-religious turn, the motto is that traditional onto-theology - 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 as if the form of spirituality, the ultimate, I am almost tempted to say, iconoclastic spirituality (which it is no wonder that the central representative is a Jewish thinker like Levinas, no?) is a kind of spiritual commitment which shouldn’t be positivized in a set of beliefs and so on.
It is amusing sometimes 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 a pagan spirituality is in. Of course, as you hinted at, these are in clear contrast to `mainstream’ America, the Bible Belt, where you find more orthodox belief. But even there, that 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 Rumsfeld, 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 Bakker, or Jimmy Swaggart, with all their complaints against liberal decadence, and so on, the way they relate to religion is a kind of narcissistic ego trip. The way they deliver their message undermines the message. You don’t need an external criticism.
I’m willing to go even further here. For example, take family values. I disagree with my leftist friends who immediately cry wolf, “Oh family values, they want to reimpose the patriarchal family, what about gay marriages, new forms? blah, blah, blah.” No, let’s look at what effectively happened. I don’t think there was an era that did more to undermine so-called family and community values than the Reagan era, with Reaganomics, all these shifts to a new economy, the end of fixed employment, mobility, etc. So, my response to conservatives is not that we need to defend plurality and different lifestyles, but look who is taking! Your policies undermined the family, and you don’t have any right to even speak about family values.
To return to the fundamentals of your questions, one of my theses is that belief is a complex phenomenon. I don’t mean this in a superficial way, “Ha, ha, they are fakes; they don’t really believe; they are cynical manipulators, and so on.” In a more serious way, what does belief mean? What does it mean when you say people believe in something? For example, I had very interesting conversation with a priest during the Turin shroud controversy, and he told me kind of a half-public secret - the French have this nice expression, le secret de Polichinelle, a secret which everybody knows about - that the Church really does not want, and is secretly absolutely afraid for, 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 its status shouldn’t be directly proven. It would complicate things if you proved the shroud was really from year zero in Palestine with, say, a DNA profile of Christ. [Chuckles] 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? See Leap of Faith, dir. Richard Pierce, Paramount, 1992. It’s naïve, and I don’t like Steve Martin in it, he’s playing a stupid role politically, but it’s a nice movie about a fake faith healer/preacher with Martin and Debra Winger.
Rasmussen: No, I haven’t seen Leap of Faith, but the film illuminates the Kierkegaardian distinction between belief as faith versus knowledge as objective, scientifically verifiable fact?
Žižek: It’s the story of one of these swindlers who goes around the Bible Belt, selling 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 Martin wants to get to bed, to seduce, publicly approaches him to perform a miracle. So he does, and it works. It totally ruins him! He immediately runs away, dropping everything. This is how belief functions.
Interestingly, the last time I was in Israel, I spoke with some specialists over in Ramallah who told me that they know people from the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. They told me that even those people who are usually portrayed to us [Westerners] as true believers, their belief is more complex that it appears. First, there are much more secular motivations at work. This is our Western racism, when we imbue them with motives like, “I blow myself up, and then I awaken with those famous forty virgins at my disposal.” No, no, no, it’s more like, “This sacrifice is for my nation.” Even more importantly, it’s a strange logic in which the bombers themselves have doubts, and their suicide becomes a way of confirming their belief. “If I kill myself in this way, I can calm my doubts and prove, even to me, that I do believe.” So, even here, the issue of belief is more complex that it might seem.
You may be aware of an almost repetitive motif in my work, how not only those people whom we perceive as fundamentalists, but how we enlightened 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 literally believe through the Other. It’s a wonderful topic. For example, Paul Veyne’s book, Did the Ancient Greeks Believe in Their Myths? - I don’t agree with its conclusions, but it sets forth a wonderful problematic - demonstrates that the notion of belief we have today, this fully subjectivized belief (here I am, I literally mean it, I stand behind it) is a modern phenomenon. For example, the ancient Greeks, they believed, but they believed in an anonymous way. One believes, not me. The Greeks didn’t believe that if you climbed to the top of Mount Olympus that you would encounter God, or Zeus there. No, their belief is something more paradoxical. Do you remember how we greeted each other the first time? Let’s say we said, “Hello, how are you? Nice to meet you.” Such greetings are usually fake, in the sense that, if we’ve just met for the first time, and I were to ask, “How do you feel? How are you?” and you were to suspect that my questions were meant literally, 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 [chuckles] or whatever. So, again, belief is a much, much more complex phenomenon than is generally acknowledged.
Rasmussen: Let’s follow up on your suicide bomber reference. In both Welcome to the Desert of the Real and The Puppet and the Dwarf you seem to 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, the American solider waging war before a computer screen, and the New York yuppie jogging along the Hudson River. 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?
Žižek: Such charges may be a below-the-belt blow. 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 the 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, etc., because, through all these mystical tricks, it’s not me who is acting, rather it is God who is acting through me.
I was shocked recently when I read some speeches by Commandant Marcos of the Zapatistas, Behind a mask, Marcos says, “I am nobody. Through me, you have this poetic explosion. Through me, dispossessed peasants in Brazil, poor drug addicts and homeless people in New York, sweatshop workers in Indonesia, all of them speak, but I am nobody.” See how ambiguous this position is? It appears modest, but this self-erasure conceals an extreme arrogance. It means all these people speak through me, so the silent conclusion is if you attack me, I am untouchable, because you attack all those others.
What interests me is the following paradox: of 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 - like, 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: so many prohibitions, regulations. 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, which interests me even more: how this applies at all levels, not only at the personal level. Namely, how false is the official position that we live in a permissive society of consumption where you just consume until you drop, and so on. No, I think that if there is something which is paradigmatic for today’s society, it’s phenomena like decaffeinated 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. And the way this interests me is not only at this personal level. What is safe sex, but another name for sex without? It makes me almost sympathetic to that famous racist notion in Europe, where they ask an African guy, “With such a high rate of AIDS, why don’t you use more condoms?” and he responds, “It’s like taking a shower with a raincoat on.” But I tend to agree with it [chuckling], I’m sorry. 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. And I could go on. The emblematic product of all these phenomena is a chocolate laxative, laxative in the form of chocolate. Chocolate is perceived, at least in the popular imagination, as the main cause of constipation. So, advertisers devised a wonderful publicity slogan: still constipated, no problem, have another portion of chocolate. 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 a full assertion of life, life’s pleasures, you pay a price.
Now I come to truly answering you. What if this sounds 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, I like them, Leftists - published an essay of mine apropos Leni Riefenstahl in which I ferociously attack a typical liberal reaction against fascism. See Slavoj Žižek, “Learning to Love Leni Riefenstahl,” In These Times Sept. 10, 2003), http://inthesetimes.com/comments.php?id=359_0_4_0_M. You don’t really have a theory of fascism. So you look a little bit into history, encounter something which superficially reminds you of fascism, and then you claim that it’s proto-fascist already. Before making her famous Nazi movies, Riefenstahl did so-called bergfilms, “mountain movies,” filled with this heroic, extreme danger, climbing mountains, passionate love stories up there. Everybody automatically assumes these films must already be proto-Nazi. Sorry, but the guy who co-wrote the scenario for her best known early film, Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), Béla Balézs was a Communist. [Chuckles]. Now, liberals have an answer to this one, which is [spoken in a half-whisper] “this only proves how the entire society was already penetrated by the spirit of Nazism.” No, I violently disagree. 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 forms were Leftist. The liberal point would be, “Oh, this only proves how totalitarianism was in the air.” I am totally opposed to this line of argument. 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 here, we are in deep critical waters - very refined, 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, it’s proto-fascist, 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, I think, is a much more tragic awareness. If there is a great lesson of the 20th-century history, it’s the lesson of psychoanalysis: The lesson of totalitarian subordination is not “renounce, suffer,” but this subordination offers you a kind of perverted excess of enjoyment and pleasure. To get rid of that enjoyment is painful. Liberation hurts.
In the first act of liberation, as I develop it already in The Fragile Absolute, where I provide lots of violent examples - from Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, who kills his family (which I’ll admit, got me into lots of trouble) to a more correct example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But, of course, now, I’m not saying what Elizabeth Wright, who edited a reader about me, thought. I love her, an English old lady. I had tea with her once, and she 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 naïveté. Of course not! My point was to address the problem of totalitarian control. The problem is: how does a totalitarian power keep you in check? Precisely by offering you some perverse enjoyment, and you have to renounce that, and it hurts. So, I don’t mean physical violence, or a kind of fetishization of violence. I just mean simply that liberation hurts. What I don’t buy from liberals is this idea of, as Robespierre would have put it, “revolution without revolution,” the idea that somehow, everything will change, but nobody will be really hurt. No, sorry, it hurts.
Rasmussen: You just critiqued the misrecognition of fascism, in which liberals rush to denounce a cluster of phenomena as fascist or proto-fascist without first formulating or advancing a rigorous definition of fascism. 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,” or “the United States government is moving rightward, in the direction of fascism?”
Žižek: This is wrong, but it’s not that the Left is too harsh on Bush. It’s that they are, in a way, not harsh enough. In Organs Without Bodies , I have a chapter where I try to prove that - it’s a totally crazy book, the wager of the book is double - Deleuze is the best theorist of Oedipus and castration and he is Hegelian. To explain these points I have a chapter on the underlying Hegelian structure, of the paradoxes, those famous stupidities and slips, uttered by Dan Quayle and George W. Bush. I compare them as two kinds of self-relating negativity tricks. I don’t recall if it was Bush or Quayle who said, “Tomorrow the future will look brighter,” but this is wonderful, totally Hegelian. And the title of the chapter is “Dumb and Dumber,” a reference to the movie. [Laughs] Don’t you also have the feeling that all this crying wolf, all this “Fascism! Fascism!” is a kind of admission of impotence signaling the lack of a true analysis of what actually is going on now. If I say that the Bush Administration’s agenda is not fascist, 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.” They’re simply taking recourse to this old notion of fascism, which is a catastrophe.
I do admire thinkers like Giorgio Agamben, with his theory of homo sacer, which is a much more refined analysis. See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, 1998). Agamben’s basic insight is the following one: 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, whatever, all these theories articulated by Foucault and later by Agamben. 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.” You know, where whatever you do -like, I look at you now and [smacks his hand on the table] ha, ha, ha, rape already or harassment - is construed as oppressive. Incidentally, the only way to react to excessive political correctness, I claim, is 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. On the other hand, I hate the term “African-Americans.” I prefer black, and they do too. I think African-American as a term is the worst example of apparent political correctness. My best example of this was in Minneapolis, one of the capitals of political correctness [chuckles]. On TV, I saw a debate involving Native Americans, and they referred to themselves as “Indians,” and this white, PC liberal said, “No, no, no, don’t use that colonialist term. You are Native Americans.” And at the end, one of the poor Indians exploded. He said, “Sorry, I hate that term! Please, give me at least the right to call myself what I want. `Native American’ means that you’re making me a part of nature! You are reducing me! What’s the opposite of nature? It’s culture! You Europeans are culture, then you have horses and us, `Native Americans,’ here, with foxes or whatever.” So whenever I meet blacks in this kind of situation, I immediately try to break these racist barriers. And what’s my measure that we truly broke the barrier? Ok, at one level it’s political correctness, but it’s absolutely clear that if you play this game, only politically correct terms and ooooh, this fake interest, “ooooh, how interesting, your culture, what a wealth,” and blah, blah, blah, it will backfire. Blacks confess to me that they secretly despise this kind of white liberalism. What’s the trick? Humor. It’s a kind of dialectical double reversal. And this is when they really admit you. That somehow you can return to the worst starting point, racist jokes and so on, but they function no longer as racist, but as a kind of obscene solidarity. To give you an extremely vulgar example, I met a big, black guy, and when we became friends, I went into it like, [assuming a naïve, awe-filled whisper] “Is it true that you have, you know [makes gesture signifying a gigantic penis]?” and (this is a racist myth I heard in Europe) “Is it true that you blacks can control your muscles so that when you walk with a half erection and there is a fly here you can BAM! [slaps thigh] snap it with your penis?” We became terribly close friends! Now, I’m well aware of how risky these waters are, because if you do it in the wrong context, in the wrong way, I’m well aware that this is racism.
What bothers me about 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! [chuckles]. Because, often, the fear beneath harassment is one of proximity. Don’t get too close to me, emotionally or physically. We have here, again, the same chocolate-laxative logic, the Other yes, but not too close, deprived of its substance.
I don’t think these two levels are opposed. One the one hand, the state wants to control you via biopolitics, and, on the other hand, the state allows this extreme narcissism. I think they are two sides of the same coin. Both have in common this logic of pure - how should I put it? biopolitical levels, pure life, pleasures, sensitivity, 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. The first counterargument that I mentioned is “Wait a minute; are these really fundamentalists?” It’s an affront to fundamentalism to call people like Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart [chuckles] fundamentalists. I had once a conversation with my good friend, one of the last Marxist dinosaurs, Fred Jameson, who told me, “True fundamentalists are people like the army theologians who were against the Vietnam War.” In Israel, it’s the same. As all my Jewish friends are telling me, 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.
Increasingly, I’m convinced that we must problematize the way the mass media present us the big opposition: liberating, multiculturalist tolerance versus some crazy fundamentalism. Let me be precise here. I know the danger here is the old temptation to become fascinated with the - old Georges Sorel stuff - liberating aspect of violence. See Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000). 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 17th-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 from the very beginnings of Liberalism there was 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?” Then, human rights triggered the first big political rebellion of the blacks, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti. The demand was not “let’s return to our tribe.” The Haitian Revolution was explicitly linked to the French Revolution and the Jacobins - I still love them - 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 dialectical 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 [authentic] logic. For example, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the black Madonna. It’s clear that Catholicism is first imposed on the natives - ok, here I cannot think of another term for the people who lived in Mexico before the Spaniards arrived - but the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe marks precisely the moment when Catholicism was no longer simply a tool of oppression, but had become a site from which to articulate grievances, a site of struggle. So, things are here much more open.
To be quite frank, especially after doing that book on Lenin, See Slavoj Žižek, Repeating Lenin (Small Press Distribution 2002), “Can Lenin Tell Us About Freedom Today?” in Rethinking Marxism, 13.2 (Summer, 2001), and “Seize the day: Lenin’s legacy, London Review of Books, 24. 14 (25 July 2002). Žižek edited and wrote the introduction and a substantial afterword to Lenin’s Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917 (New York: Verso, 2002). people laugh at me saying “oh, oh, oh you want Leninism.” But no, sorry, I am not totally crazy [chuckles]. I’m just saying that - as you hinted at also - I don’t think the Left is ready to draw all the consequences of the deep shit it is in. The phenomena you invoked - calling Bush a fascist, and so on, display the Left’s disorientation. In Europe, you have this nostalgic reaction, which explains the Left’s irrational hatred of people like Tony Blair or Gerhardt 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 to me that his dream is that of Adlai Stevenson; his solution is that we should return to a socially active role for the Democratic Party. I wonder if it’s as simple as that? I don’t think it’s simply that some bad guys around Tony Blair in England, for example, betrayed the old Labour Party. No, the problem is 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, it’s not this typical Leftist, fascist way of thinking, “oh it’s not spectacular enough; we need radical measures.” No, it’s that maybe we should start to ask questions like”What does democracy effectively mean, and how does it function today? What do we really decide?” For example, let’s 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?
For example, it’s interesting to note the big shift within the thinking of the postmodern Left, who believe that we can no longer change the functioning in the economy. The economy is a certain objective problem, to be left to experts - don’t mess with that. One of Tony Blair’s advisors said frankly, “Regarding the economy, we are all Margaret Thatcher’s pupils.” All we can do, then, is exercise a bit more tolerance here and there, and so on. I’m not saying that the answer to this is simply that we should return to our old welfare state project, but that there are still tough questions to be asked.
Rasmussen: In a recent issue of The Nation (29 Sept. 2003), William Greider - repeating the thesis of his book, The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy - 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. See William Greider, “The Soul of Capitalism,” The Nation 277. (Sept. 29, 2003). http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030929&s=greider 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?
Žižek: Maybe, but such reforms have already been tried. When the 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. Another option to pursue. Robin Blackburn published a book on retirement funds. See Robin Blackburn, Banking on Death: Or, Investing in Life: The History and Future of Pension Funds, (New York: Verso, 2002). It isn’t talked about, but there are tremendous amounts of money there, possibilities for popular control, and so on. Another option - which I wouldn’t underestimate, at least in some underdeveloped countries - is a more risky strategy: of not just playing this liberal identity politics game for the media. What if we risk, and this doesn’t mean violence, alternative communities? For example, I am fascinated with the favelas in Latin America. Favelas are the squatter settlements, illegally established on vacant land by the poor, that lie on the margins of Brazilian cities. Don’t romanticize them, it’s desperate! In many of them, you have, ultimately, mafia control, and the State simply doesn’t care about the people living there. It might care a little bit about hygienic conditions when it appears that there might be an outbreak of a disease. What interests me is that the residents of the favelas were pushed into self-organizing. These different forms of self-organization, we need to think more about them.
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, it’s nothing new, 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. They elevate into a self-contained entity something which can function only as a part of a larger society. 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 I have a small son. Go to a toy store; 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 of the way 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 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 radically enough 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. Screw them - not that I don’t care about them. 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. That guarantee of noninterference, I maintain, is absolutely crucial. One way it is done is by this famous outsourcing.
Outsourcing is not only an economic phenomenon. Take this flirting with torture - as proposed by Alan Dershowitz and Jonathan Alter. Their true message is not so much that the United States should practice torture, but that torture should be outsourced. “We cannot [torture suspected terrorists] so let’s give them back to Pakistan. They will do it.” Again, although people accuse me of being some arrogant Hegelian, Leninist, I’ll admit - very honestly, that I don’t have answers. At this state of the revolutionary process [chuckling] I see my function as introducing more trouble, if anything, to force confrontations. As a friend put it, the standard Leftist stance is that we basically know what’s going on, and we just need to find a way to mobilize people. I don’t think we really know what’s going on. By this, I don’t mean anything mystical. I simply mean that the Left still doesn’t have a representative theory. I see elements here and there. For example, although I violently disagree with the second half of the book, the first half of Jeremy Rifkin’s The Age of Access, offers a nice description of the whole change in the commodity structure. See Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where all of Life is a Paid-For Experience, (New York: J. P Tarcher, 2001). Basically, your life itself is now the ultimate commodity. What you are buying is not an object, but the `time of your life.’ You know, you go to a therapist, you buy your quality life.
Rasmussen: You buy - or access - experiences.
Žižek: Yeah, exactly. So there are elements here and there, but I don’t think we have a theory. Here, I am even more pessimistic. It’s not that the Left knows what’s going on and just doesn’t know how to mobilize people. This view is the last, and maybe the most dangerous illusion, of the Left.
Rasmussen: I want to return to your earlier allusion to Kierkegaard. 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?” (94) you seem to be advocating a sort of Kierkegaardian passionate commitment. See also Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (New York: Verso, 2002), p. 88. In “From Homo Sucker to Homo Sacer,” the Kierkegaardian resonances of Žižek’s claim are even more explicit, because in his original formulation Žižek uses the verb “commit” rather than “engage.” For Kierkegaard, of course, this commitment entailed 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. As Derrida stresses, the gift must remain secret.
Žižek: 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 that 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 you read Kierkegaard’s most wonderful, enigmatic text, Works of Love (I don’t like big Kierkegaard, Either/Or) you find the wonderful formula - that to love your neighbor means you must love him as you love death; a good neighbor is a dead neighbor, and all these paradoxes. Or, that wonderful short text on the difference between an apostle and a genius, in which he has wonderful formulas on authority. If there is anything totally strange to Kierkegaard it is this simple opposition - external, institutional authority versus inner.
Here, Kierkegaard is effectively close to Kafka. For Kafka, bureaucracy is an innermost, metaphysical phenomenon, and I tend to agree with him. This is the theological dimension today. A year ago, the wife of a friend of mine, living in France, was informed by the local authorities that her carte d’identit», her ID card, was stolen. So, she went to the authorities and told them, “I have my card here; it hasn’t been stolen. There’s been a mistake.” The authorities told her that, “You may have it there, but officially, it’s stolen. So, what you have there, is officially a fake, a forged ID card. You should destroy it and then request a new one.” This is, for me, everyday life theology, metaphysics.
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” (PD 95) you seem to be pushing for a different sort of existential commitment, something, perhaps, along the lines of Judas’s betrayal of Christ?
Žižek: Ok, I think there are only two heroes there, Judas and St. Paul.
Rasmussen: 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?
Žižek: Well, I don’t think we can repeat the formula of Judas’s betrayal today. It’s a different logic. It’s no longer this heroic logic of “I sacrifice my life, but I will count in posterity, and will be recognized as a hero.” Now, you must also risk your second death. This would be for me the new logic. I’m looking for a non-heroic logic of activity. Even the term “sacrifice,” I don’t quite like. I have very elaborate criticisms of the notion of sacrifice. Did you see that wonderful melodrama, Stella Dallas, with Barbara Stanwyck? She has a daughter who wants to marry into the upper class, but she is an embarrassment to her daughter. So, the mother - on purpose - plays an extremely vulgar, promiscuous mother in front of her daughter’s lover, so that the daughter can drop her without guilt. The daughter can 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, in making the sacrifice, 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 this trap - the typical pedagogical trap, which is, apparently you want to help your son, but the real goal is to remain the ideal figure for your son - you must sacrifice your parental authority. But, to go on very naïvely, in art, in science - this is, for me, the site of 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. You do it. There are people doing this, but very few of them. People who are committed to a certain project. Really, it’s tragic.
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 - this is one of the old partisan myths in Yugoslavia - 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. This is what I mean by sacrifice. There’s nothing pathetic about it. This honest German soldier, his point was not, “Oooooh, 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 sacrificial situation 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: Ok, so you’re not advocating a sacrificial ethos. 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?”
Žižek: I’m trying to avoid two extremes. One extreme 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. Then you have the other extreme which says, “Ok, you have to do something.” I think both are wrong. I hate those pseudo radicals who dismiss every concrete action by saying, “This will all be co-opted.” Of course, everything can be co-opted [chuckles] but this is just a nice excuse to do absolutely nothing. Of course, there is a danger that “the long march through institutions” - to use the old Maoist term, popular in European student movements thirty-some years ago - will last so long that you’ll end up part of the institution. 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 - the ultimate wager in the almost Pascalian sense - that 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 at the Dwarf, you explain the inversion as follows: “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” (164). Then you suggest that Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory provides a “a supreme case of the reversal of positive into negative destiny” (164). How does Dupey’s strategy of confronting the catastrophe specifically relate to the outlook adopted by the Adorno and Horkheimer of the 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. See Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1972). Did Adorno and Horkheimer neglect to imagine a sufficiently catastrophic or dystopian future?
Žižek: 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. Although all is not as bad as it might appear. 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[ric] 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. 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 - they 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 and 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. For example, in Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky - alright now he’s a clown, but… If there is a civil society phenomenon, it’s Zhirinovsky. Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky is one of the founders of Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) which emerged in 1989 and advances a far-right, nationalist platform that has included promises to reclaim territory in Finland and Alaska from Russia’s imperial empire and to use nuclear weapons. Although Zhirinovksy has been dismissed as a fascist, a xenophobe, and an anti-Semite whose extremist views threaten democracy in Russia, he and the LDPR have attracted popular support. The LDPR won the largest share–23%–of the popular vote and 15% of the seats in the 1993 federal assembly election. Zhirinovsky placed fifth in the 2000 presidential election. It’s the same in Slovenia. Quite often, if I were to choose between the state and civil society, I’m on the side of the state.
Then you have in Adorno and Horkheimer, in their private letters, these kind of aggressive statements, but with no theory. Now isn’t this an incredible thing - the dialectic of Aufkl 0rung - the idea being the project of Aufkl 0rung, of emancipation. The supreme question should be why did Marxism go wrong? But the Frankfurt School was too focused on anti-Semitism and Nazism to ask this question. How could they have ignored this? Even Habermas, he only has this totally boring, unsatisfying theory of belated modernization. The idea being that we don’t have anything to learn from the East; it was a deadlock; 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. Habermas explicitly rejects any notion that any positive could emerge from the reunification of the two Germanys as being potentially right-wing revisionism. The idea being that such thought can be functionalized, used by a right-wing, anti-American, anti-liberal, anti-Western-democracy rhetoric. So, again, 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 terms, “repressive tolerance,” “repressive desublimation,” 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 Aufkl 0rung, this basic idea of instrumental reason, domination over nature, and so on.” Something wrong there. The analysis is not strong, not concrete enough. If the problem was “how did the dialectic of Aufkl 0rung 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 bad guy who wanted to do some bad things, and really did many bad things. So, ok, with all the complexity, how did it function? 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 explosion 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 [line of argument]. No, the problem is how, as a result of first the socialist revolution, you get a system that at a certain level was, in naïve 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. First, 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 know, you didn’t have this minimal safety of, you know, if I duck down, if I don’t stick out, I may survive. Ha, Ha! No, under Comrade Stalin, no way, no way! [Chuckles] So, isn’t this, my god, calling, calling for a kind of refined analysis? And, shit, you don’t find it there. 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. East Germany didn’t exist for him. 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, in a horrible sense - Everyday Stalinism. See Shelia Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). It doesn’t go into excessively big topics. She limits herself to Moscow. It asks a simple question: what did Stalinism mean? Not if you were a top nomenklatura and caught in the purges. 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 of the extremely chaotic nature of life under Stalin.
Everybody emphasizes how there was a big purge in 1936-37, when one-and-a-half million people were thrown out of the Communist party. Yes, but one year later one million, two-hundred thousand people were readmitted. Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t so bad. I’m just saying that the process was much more chaotic. There is one ingenious insight by Fitzpatrick. The game Stalin played was the pure superego game; Stalinism was Kafkaesque in the sense that it wasn’t totalitarian. Ok, it was, ultra -totalitarian, but not in the superficial sense, where you get clear orders that must be obeyed. Stalin played a much more tricky game. Take collectivization. From the top, you received an order, say, “Cossacks should be liquidated as a class.” It was not stated clearly what this order meant - dispossess them, kill them etc. That ambiguity was part of Stalin’s logic. Being afraid of being denounced as too soft, local cadres went to extremes, and then, the interesting irony is that the only positive concrete intervention of Stalin was his famous dizziness with success. Here, he would say, “No, comrades, we should respect legalities.” Stalin’s obscenity was that he put in this kind of abstract, superego injunction which threw you into a panic, and then he appeared as a moderate.
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 dialectical theory of subjectivity to the Lacanian model of the barred subject and the nonexistence of the Big Other?
Žižek: Ok, ha, ha! I will give you a punchline. If you were to ask me at gunpoint, like Hollywood producers who are too stupid to read books and say, “give me the punchline,” and were to demand, “Three sentences. What are you really trying to do?” 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, it’s properly read death drive - this idea of beyond the pleasure principle, self-sabotaging, etc. - 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 - the problematic of radical evil and so on - is philosophy, and all the rest is a footnote. [Chuckles]. I think that philosophy is something for which Spinoza laid the ground, but Spinoza’s edifice must be kicked out. Then it’s Kant 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, with 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. Deleuze 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 [chuckles] so that you get monstrous Hegel, which is, for me, precisely the underlying radical dimension of subjectivity which then, I think, was missed by Heidegger. But again, the basic idea being this mutual reading, this mutual buggering [Chuckles] of this focal point, radical negativity and so on, of German Idealism with the very fundamental (Germans have this nice term, grundeswig) insight of psychoanalysis.
It’s a very technical, modest project, but I believe in it. All other things are negotiable. I don’t care about them. You can take movies from me, you can take everything. You cannot take this from me. And let me go even further. This is horrible. If you will say, ok, but even here no let’s go over binary logic. Do you ultimately use Hegel to reactualize Lacan, or the other way around? I would say the other way around. 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 you cannot understand Marx’s Capital, its critique of the political economy, without detailed knowledge of Hegelian categories. But ultimately if I am to choose just one thinker, it’s Hegel. He’s the one for me. And here I’m totally and unabashedly naïve. He may be a white, dead, man or whatever the wrong positions are today, but that’s where I stand.
– September 29, 2003, Chicago, Illinois