Doug Henwood on Fri, 1 Mar 2002 16:39:50 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Zizek interview


Bad Subjects #59 - February 2002

"I am a Fighting Atheist: Interview with Slavoj Zizek"
Interview by Doug Henwood, Intro by Charlie Bertsch

Doug Henwood, interview; Charlie Bertsch, introduction

It's hard to become a superstar in the world of scholarly publishing. 
Most of the people who read its products can also write them. To 
stand out in a crowd this smart requires both luck and perseverance. 
Slavoj Zizek has demonstrated plenty of both. When Yugoslavia started 
to break up in the aftermath of the Cold War in 1990, pristine 
Slovenia was the first of its republics to declare independence. We 
were thrilled to be witnessing the rebirth of "nations" that had 
disappeared into Germany, the Soviet Union, or, in the case of 
Slovenia, first the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then Yugoslavia. .As 
this little-known land's leading thinker, Zizek basked in an aura of 
novelty. His work, simultaneously light-hearted and deep, invoked the 
dream of a post-Cold War world in which free thinking would transcend 
all borders.

A decade later, we know how quickly that hope turned to despair. But 
Zizek's star hasn't dimmed. If anything, it has grown brighter. 
People who started reading Zizek because they couldn't believe that 
Communist Europe could produce such a supple thinker read him now for 
the simple reason that he is Zizek. For anyone who has tired of the 
dumbing down of mainstream political discourse in the West, who finds 
it hard to believe that the bone-dry American leftism of a Noam 
Chomsky represents the only possibility for resistance, who wants to 
critique global capitalism without falling back on faded Marxist 
slogans, Zizek's work flashes the promise of something better. From 
his ground-breaking 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology to his 
trenchant 1999 critique of Western governments' intervention in the 
former Yugoslavia, titled NATO as the Left Hand of God?, Zizek has 
never failed to stimulate thinking. And what more can we ask of an 
intellectual? As Zizek himself suggests in the interview here, 
philosophy helps us, not by "purifying" our thought, but by making it 
more complex.

What really sets Zizek apart from other major scholars is his 
willingness to take risks. If you were to read all of his books in 
rapid succession, you would see that they sometimes contradict one 
another. But you would also see how the tension between them reflects 
Zizek's real purpose: to make us see the world with fresh eyes. 
Unlike the vast majority of academic thinkers, Zizek is not worried 
about being "careless." He roots around in the realm of ideas looking 
for whatever will prove useful. It doesn't matter if his findings 
come from different intellectual traditions, if they are, in some 
sense, philosophically incompatible. Zizek's writing forces them to 
collaborate. Marx, Freud, Hegel, Kant, Lacan. . .and Alfred 
Hitchcock, David Lynch, and the Slovenian electronic agit-prop band 
Laibach all come together in a delightful mix. This delight, finally, 
is what seals the deal for Zizek's readers. It's one thing to 
illuminate contemporary political concerns with the help of dense 
philosophical points; it's another entirely to make that insight fun. 
Zizek does.

Left Business Observer editor and Wall Street author Doug Henwood 
talked with Zizek prior to the September 11th terrorist attack on the 
Pentagon and World Trade Center, then asked a few follow-up questions 
in its aftermath. In the days following the attack, Zizek's take on 
its significance - an incredibly moving essay titled "Welcome to the 
Desert of the Real" - circulated on e-mail lists worldwide. Unlike 
the vast majority of commentators, Zizek was not content to express 
disbelief and outrage. His words offered an antidote to the mindless 
drivel on the major networks, CNN, and Fox News. Reflecting on the 
many "previews" of the tragedy in American movies, Zizek refused to 
blunt his critical edge: "In a way, America got what it fantasized 

This interview is excerpted from BS editor Joel Schalit's anthology 
The Anti-Capitalism Reader, forthcoming from Akashic Books in the 
summer of 2002.


BS: In general, anarchism plays a big role in American radical 
politics and countercultures. Do you have any thoughts on this 

Zizek: I certainly can understand where the appeal of anarchism lies. 
Even though I am quite aware of the contradictory and ambiguous 
nature of Marx's relationship with anarchism, Marx was right when he 
drew attention to how anarchists who preach "no state no power" in 
order to realize their goals usually form their own society which 
obeys the most authoritarian rules. My first problem with anarchism 
is always, "Yeah, I agree with your goals, but tell me how you are 
organized." For me, the tragedy of anarchism is that you end up 
having an authoritarian secret society trying to achieve anarchist 
goals. The second point is that I have problems with how anarchism is 
appropriate to today's problems. I think if anything, we need more 
global organization. I think that the left should disrupt this 
equation that more global organization means more totalitarian 

BS: When you speak of a global organization, are you thinking of some 
kind of global state, or do you have non-state organizations in mind?

Zizek: I don't have any prejudices here whatever. For example, a lot 
of left-wingers dismissed talk of universal human rights as just 
another tool of American imperialism, to exert pressure on Third 
World countries or other countries America doesn't like, so it can 
bomb them. But it's not that simple. As we all know, following the 
same logic, Pinochet was arrested. Even if he was set free, this 
provoked a tremendous psychological change in Chile. When he left 
Chile, he was a universally feared, grey eminence. He returned as an 
old man whom nobody was afraid of. So, instead of dismissing the 
rules, it's well worth it to play the game. One should at least 
strategically support the idea of some kind of international court 
and then try to put it to a more progressive use.

America is already concerned about this. A few months ago, when the 
Senate was still under Republican control, it adopted a measure 
prohibiting any international court to have any jurisdiction over 
American citizens. You know they weren't talking about some Third 
World anti-imperialist court. They were talking about the Hague 
court, which is dominated by Western Europeans. The same goes for 
many of these international agencies. I think we should take it all. 
If it's outside the domain of state power, OK. But sometimes, even if 
it's part of state power. I think the left should overcome this 
primordial fear of state power, that because it's some form of 
control, it's bad.

BS: You describe the internal structure of anarchist groups as being 
authoritarian. Yet, the model popular with younger activists today is 
explicitly anti-hierarchical and consensus-oriented. Do you think 
there's something furtively authoritarian about such apparently 
freewheeling structures?

Zizek: Absolutely. And I'm not bluffing here; I'm talking from 
personal experience. Maybe my experience is too narrow, but it's not 
limited to some mysterious Balkan region. I have contacts in England, 
France, Germany, and more - and all the time, beneath the mask of 
this consensus, there was one person accepted by some unwritten rules 
as the secret master. The totalitarianism was absolute in the sense 
that people pretended that they were equal, but they all obeyed him. 
The catch was that it was prohibited to state clearly that he was the 
boss. You had to fake some kind of equality. The real state of 
affairs couldn't be articulated. Which is why I'm deeply distrustful 
of this "let's just coordinate this in an egalitarian fashion." I'm 
more of a pessimist. In order to safeguard this equality, you have a 
more sinister figure of the master, who puts pressure on the others 
to safeguard the purity of the non-hierarchic principle. This is not 
just theory. I would be happy to hear of groups that are not caught 
in this strange dialectic.

BS: We've seen over the last few years the growth of a broad 
anti-capitalist - or as we say in the U.S., anti-corporate or 
anti-globalization - movement, a lot of it organized according to 
anarchist principles. Do you think these demonstrations are a sign of 
any left revival, a new movement?

Zizek: Mixed. Not in the sense of being partly good and partly bad 
but because the situation is undecided - maybe even undecidable. What 
will come out of the Seattle movement is the terrain of the struggle. 
I think it is PRECISELY NOW - after the attack on the World Trade 
Center - that the "Seattle" task will regain its full urgency! After 
a period of enthusiasm for retaliation, there will be a new 
(ideological) depression, and THAT point will be our chance!!!

BS: Much of this will depend on progressives' ability to get the word out.

Zizek: I'm well aware of the big media's censorship here. For 
example, even in the European big media, which are supposed to be 
more open, you will never see a detailed examination of the 
movement's agenda. You get some ominous things. There is something 
dark about it. According to the normal rules of the liberal game, you 
would expect some of these people to be invited on some TV talk 
shows, confronted with their adversaries, placed in a vigorous 
polemic, but no. Their agenda is ignored. Usually they're mocked as 
advocating some old-fashioned left-wing politics or some 
particularism, like saving local conditions against globalism. My 
conclusion is that the big powers must be at least in some kind of a 
panic. This is a good sign.

BS: But lots of the movement has no explicit agenda to offer. Why is 
the elite in such a panic?

Zizek: It's not like these are some kind of old-fashioned left-wing 
idiots, or some kind of local traditionalists. I am well aware that 
Seattle etc. is still a movement finding its shape, but I think it 
has potential. (Even though) there is no explicit agenda, there is 
nonetheless an outlook reproaching this globalization for being too 
exclusionary, not a true globalization but only a capitalist 

BS: At the same time this movement was growing, there was a string of 
electoral victories for the right - Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia 
in Italy, Jorg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria, our own Bush. What 
do you make of these?

Zizek: They're not to be underestimated. I'll put it in my 
old-fashioned Stalinist terms: there are two deviations to be avoided 
here, left and right. The right-wing deviation is to fully endorse 
their liberal opponents, to say, "OK, we have our problems with Gore 
or Blair but they're basically our guys, and we should support them 
against the true right." We should also avoid the opposite mistake, 
which is that they're all the same. It doesn't really matter if it's 
Gore or Bush. From this position it's only one step to the position 
that says, "so it's even better we have Bush, because then we see the 
true enemy."

We should steer the right middle course: while maintaining our 
critical distance towards the moderate left, one shouldn't be afraid 
when certain issues are at stake, to support them. What is at stake 
is the following: it looked in the 1990s that after the 
disintegration of socialism, the Third Way left represents the 
universal interests of capital as such, to put it in the old Marxist 
way, and the right-wing parties represent only particular interests. 
In the U.S., the Republicans target certain types of rich people, and 
even certain parts of the lower classes-flirting with the Moral 
Majority, for example. The problem is that right-wing politicians 
such as Haider are playing the global game. Not only do we have a 
Third Way left; we now have a Third Way right too, which tries to 
combine unrestrained global capitalism with a more conservative 
cultural politics.

Here is where I see the long-term danger of these right wingers. I 
think that sooner or later the existing power structure will be 
forced more and more to directly violate its own formal democratic 
rules. For example, in Europe, the tendency behind all these 
movements like Holocaust revisionism and so on, is an attempt to 
dismantle the post-World War II ideological consensus around 
anti-fascism, with a social solidarity built around the welfare 
state. It's an open question as to what will replace it.

[*Ed Note: Such as the new emergency powers granted the U.S. 
government for domestic surveillance purposes following the 
WTC/Pentagon attacks, which suspend habeas corpus rights for 
immigrants, allow security services to monitor your 
telecommunications activities, and review your student and bank 
records without permission from a judge]

BS: What about the transition from Clinton to Bush? What's 
significant about this from your point of view?

Zizek: The sad thing is that Clinton left behind him a devastated, 
disoriented Democratic Party. There are people who say that his 
departure leaves some room for a resurgence of the party's left wing, 
but that will be difficult. The true problem of Clinton is his 
legacy; there is none. He didn't survive as a movement, in the sense 
that he left a long-term imprint. He was just an opportunist and now 
he's simply out. He didn't emerge as a figure like Thatcher or Reagan 
who left a certain legacy. OK, you can say that he left a legacy of 
compromise or triangulation, but the big failure is at this 
ideological level. He didn't leave behind a platform with which the 
moderate liberals could identify.

BS: A lot of readers of American underground publications read Noam 
Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and the stuff coming out of small anarchist 
presses. What would they get from reading your work that they might 
be missing?

Zizek: Martin Heidegger said that philosophy doesn't make things 
easier, it makes them harder and more complicated. What they can 
learn is the ambiguity of so many situations, in the sense that 
whenever we are presented by the big media with a simple opposition, 
like multicultural tolerance vs. ethnic fundamentalism, the 
opposition is never so clear-cut. The idea is that things are always 
more complex. For example, multiculturalist tolerance, or at least a 
certain type of it, generates or involves a much deeper racism. As a 
rule, this type of tolerance relies on the distinction between us 
multiculturalists, and intolerant ethnic others, with the paradoxical 
result that anti-racism itself is used to dismiss IN A RACIST WAY the 
other as a racist. Not to mention the fact that this kind of 
"tolerance" is as a rule patronizing. Its respect for the other 
cannot but remind us of the respect for naive children's beliefs: we 
leave them in their blessed ignorance so as not to hurt them...

Or take Chomsky. There are two problematic features in his work - 
though it goes without saying that I admire him very much. One is his 
anti-theorism. A friend who had lunch with him recently told me that 
Chomsky announced that he'd concluded that social theory and economic 
theory are of no use - that things are simply evident, like American 
state terror, and that all we need to know are the facts. I disagree 
with this. And the second point is that with all his criticism of the 
U.S., Chomsky retains a certain commitment to what is the most 
elemental ingredient of American ideology, individualism, a 
fundamental belief that America is the land of free individuals, and 
so on. So in that way he is deeply and problematically American.

You can see some of these problems in the famous Faurisson scandal in 
France. As many readers may know, Chomsky wrote the preface for a 
book by Robert Faurisson, which was threatened with being banned 
because it denied the reality of the Holocaust. Chomsky claimed that 
though he opposes the book's content, the book should still be 
published for free speech reasons. I can see the argument, but I 
can't support him here. The argument is that freedom of the press is 
freedom for all, even for those whom we find disgusting and totally 
unacceptable; otherwise, today it is them, tomorrow it is us. It 
sounds logical, but I think that it avoids the true paradox of 
freedom: that some limitations have to guarantee it.

So to understand what goes on today - to understand how we experience 
ourselves, to understand the structures of social authority, to 
understand whether we really live in a "permissive" society, and how 
prohibitions function today - for these we need social theory. That's 
the difference between me and the names you mentioned.

BS: Chomsky and people like him seem to think that if we just got the 
facts out there, things would almost take care of themselves. Why is 
this wrong? Why aren't "the facts" enough?

Zizek: Let me give you a very naive answer. I think that basically 
the facts are already known. Let's take Chomsky's analyses of how the 
CIA intervened in Nicaragua. OK, (he provides) a lot of details, yes, 
but did I learn anything fundamentally new? It's exactly what I'd 
expected: the CIA was playing a very dirty game. Of course it's more 
convincing if you learn the dirty details. But I don't think that we 
really learned anything dramatically new there. I don't think that 
merely "knowing the facts" can really change people's perceptions.

To put it another way: Chomsky's own position on Kosovo, on the 
Yugoslav war, shows some of his limitations, because of a lack of a 
proper historical context. With all his facts, he got the picture 
wrong. As far as I can judge, Chomsky bought a certain narrative - 
that we shouldn't put all the blame on Milosevic, that all parties 
were more or less to blame, and the West supported or incited this 
explosion because of its own geopolitical goals. All are not the 
same. I'm not saying that the Serbs are guilty. I just repeat my old 
point that Yugoslavia was not over with the secession of Slovenia. It 
was over the moment Milosevic took over Serbia. This triggered a 
totally different dynamic. It is also not true that the 
disintegration of Yugoslavia was supported by the West. On the 
contrary, the West exerted enormous pressure, at least until 1991, 
for ethnic groups to remain in Yugoslavia. I saw [former Secretary of 
State] James Baker on Yugoslav TV supporting the Yugoslav army's 
attempts to prevent Slovenia's secession.

The ultimate paradox for me is that because he lacks a theoretical 
framework, Chomsky even gets the facts wrong sometimes.

BS: Years ago, you were involved with the band Laibach and its 
proto-state, NSK (Neue Slovenische Kunst). Why did you get involved 
with them?

Zizek: The reason I liked them at a certain moment (which was during 
the last years of "really existing socialism") was that they were a 
third voice, a disturbing voice, not fitting into the opposition 
between the old Communists and the new liberal democrats. For me, 
their message was that there were fundamental mechanisms of power 
which we couldn't get rid of with the simple passage to democracy. 
This was a disturbing message, which was why they got on everyone's 
nerves. This was no abstract theoretical construct. In the late 
1980s, people got this message instinctively - which is why Laibach 
were more strongly repressed by the new democratic, nationalist 
powers in Slovenia than previously by the Communists. In the early 
1980s, they had some trouble with the Communists, but from the 
mid-1980s onward, they didn't have any trouble. But they did again 
with the transition of power. With their mocking rituals of 
totalitarian power, they transmitted a certain message about the 
functioning of power that didn't fit the naive belief in liberal 
democracy. The miracle was that they did it through certain stage 
rituals. Later, they tried to change their image (to put it in 
marketing terms) and they failed.

BS: You talk and write a lot about popular culture, particularly 
movies. How does your thinking about pop culture relate to your 
thinking about politics?

Zizek: We can no longer, as we did in the good old times, (if they 
were really good) oppose the economy and culture. They are so 
intertwined not only through the commercialization of culture but 
also the culturalization of the economy. Political analysis today 
cannot bypass mass culture. For me, the basic ideological attitudes 
are not found in big picture philosophical statements, but instead in 
lifeworld practices - how do you behave, how do you react - which 
aren't only reflected in mass culture, but which are, up to a point, 
even generated in mass culture. Mass culture is the central 
ideological battlefield today.

BS: You have recently been speaking about reviving Lenin. To a lot of 
politically active young people, Lenin is a devil figure. What do you 
find valuable in Lenin, or the Leninist tradition?

Zizek: I am careful to speak about not repeating Lenin. I am not an 
idiot. It wouldn't mean anything to return to the Leninist working 
class party today. What interests me about Lenin is precisely that 
after World War I broke out in 1914, he found himself in a total 
deadlock. Everything went wrong. All of the social democratic parties 
outside Russia supported the war, and there was a mass outbreak of 
patriotism. After this, Lenin had to think about how to reinvent a 
radical, revolutionary politics in this situation of total breakdown. 
This is the Lenin I like. Lenin is usually presented as a great 
follower of Marx, but it is impressive how often you read in Lenin 
the ironic line that "about this there isn't anything in Marx." It's 
this purely negative parallel. Just as Lenin was forced to 
reformulate the entire socialist project, we are in a similar 
situation. What Lenin did, we should do today, at an even more 
radical level.

For example, at the most elementary level, Marx's concept of 
exploitation presupposes a certain labor theory of value. If you take 
this away from Marx, the whole edifice of his model disintegrates. 
What do we do with this today, given the importance of intellectual 
labor? Both standard solutions are too easy - to claim that there is 
still real physical production going on in the Third World, or that 
today's programmers are a new proletariat? Like Lenin, we're 
deadlocked. What I like in Lenin is precisely what scares people 
about him - the ruthless will to discard all prejudices. Why not 
violence? Horrible as it may sound, I think it's a useful antidote to 
all the aseptic, frustrating, politically correct pacifism.

Let's take the campaign against smoking in the U.S. I think this is a 
much more suspicious phenomenon than it appears to be. First, deeply 
inscribed into it is an idea of absolute narcissism, that whenever 
you are in contact with another person, somehow he or she can infect 
you. Second, there is an envy of the intense enjoyment of smoking. 
There is a certain vision of subjectivity, a certain falseness in 
liberalism, that comes down to "I want to be left alone by others; I 
don't want to get too close to the others." Also, in this fight 
against the tobacco companies, you have a certain kind of politically 
correct yuppie who is doing very well financially, but who wants to 
retain a certain anti-capitalist aura. What better way to focus on 
the obvious bad guy, Big Tobacco? It functions as an ersatz enemy. 
You can still claim your stock market gains, but you can say, "I'm 
against tobacco companies." Now I should make it clear that I don't 
smoke. And I don't like tobacco companies. But this obsession with 
the danger of smoking isn't as simple as it might appear.

BS: You've also left some of your readers scratching their heads over 
the positive things you've been writing about Christianity lately. 
What is it in Christianity you find worthy?

Zizek: I'm tempted to say, "The Leninist part." I am a fighting 
atheist. My leanings are almost Maoist ones. Churches should be 
turned into grain silos or palaces of culture. What Christianity did, 
in a religiously mystified version, is give us the idea of rebirth. 
Against the pagan notion of destiny, Christianity offered the 
possibility of a radical opening, that we can find a zero point and 
clear the table. It introduced a new kind of ethics: not that each of 
us should do our duty according to our place in society - a good King 
should be a good King, a good servant a good servant - but instead 
that irrespective of who I am, I have direct access to universality. 
This is explosive. What interests me is only this dimension. Of 
course it was later taken over by secular philosophers and 
progressive thinkers. I am not in any way defending the Church as an 
institution, not even in a minimal way.

For an example, let's take Judith Butler, and her thesis that our 
sexual identity isn't part of our nature but is socially constructed. 
Such a statement, such a feminist position, could only occur against 
a background of a Christian space.

BS: Several times you've used the word "universalism." For 
trafficking in such concepts, people you'd identify as forces of 
political correctness have indicted you for Eurocentrism. You've even 
written a radical leftist plea for Eurocentrism. How do you respond 
to the PC camp's charges against you?

Zizek: I think that we should accept that universalism is a 
Eurocentrist notion. This may sound racist, but I don't think it is. 
Even when Third World countries appeal to freedom and democracy, when 
they formulate their struggle against European imperialism, they are 
at a more radical level endorsing the European premise of 
universalism. You may remember that in the struggle against apartheid 
in South Africa, the ANC always appealed to universal Enlightenment 
values, and it was Buthelezi, the regime's black supporter in the pay 
of the CIA, who appealed to special African values.

My opponent here is the widely accepted position that we should leave 
behind the quest for universal truth - that what we have instead are 
just different narratives about who we are, the stories we tell about 
ourselves. So, in that view, the highest ethical injunction is to 
respect the other story. All the stories should be told, each ethnic, 
political, or sexual group should be given the right to tell its 
story, as if this kind of tolerance towards the plurality of stories 
with no universal truth value is the ultimate ethical horizon.

I oppose this radically. This ethics of storytelling is usually 
accompanied by a right to narrate, as if the highest act you can do 
today is to narrate your own story, as if only a black lesbian mother 
can know what it's like to be a black lesbian mother, and so on. Now 
this may sound very emancipatory. But the moment we accept this 
logic, we enter a kind of apartheid. In a situation of social 
domination, all narratives are not the same. For example, in Germany 
in the 1930s, the narrative of the Jews wasn't just one among many. 
This was the narrative that explained the truth about the entire 
situation. Or today, take the gay struggle. It's not enough for gays 
to say, "we want our story to be heard." No, the gay narrative must 
contain a universal dimension, in the sense that their implicit claim 
must be that what happens to us is not something that concerns only 
us. What is happening to us is a symptom or signal that tells us 
something about what's wrong with the entirety of society today. We 
have to insist on this universal dimension.

Slavoj Zizek, philosopher and psychoanalyst, is currently Senior 
Researcher at Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut, in Essen, Germany. 
His latest publications are On Belief, (Routledge, 2001) and Did 
Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (Verso, 2001).

Doug Henwood is the editor of the Left Business Observer and author 
of Wall Street: How It Works and for Whom (Verso, 1997), and the 
forthcoming A New Economy? He was once a teenage reactionary, but 
outgrew it.

Charlie Bertsch is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team and 
an assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona.

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