Krystian Woznicki on Sat, 15 Dec 2001 22:30:20 +0100 (CET)

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[rohrpost] 911 Zizek Interview


vielleicht von Interesse: Zizek ueber den 11.09.




'The one measure of true love is: you can insult the other'

by Sabine Reul and Thomas Deichmann

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has gained something of a cult
following for his many writings - including The Ticklish Subject, a
playful critique of the intellectual assault upon human subjectivity.

At the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2001, he talked to
Sabine Reul and Thomas Deichmann about subjectivity, multiculturalism,
sex and unfreedom after 11 September.


Has 11 September thrown new light on your diagnosis of what is
happening to the world?

Slavoj Zizek: One of the endlessly repeated phrases we heard in recent
weeks is that nothing will be the same after 11 September. I wonder if
there really is such a substantial change. Certainly, there is change
at the level of perception or publicity, but I don't think we can yet
speak of some fundamental break. Existing attitudes and fears were
confirmed, and what the media were telling us about terrorism has now
really happened.

In my work, I place strong emphasis on what is usually referred to as
the virtualisation or digitalisation of our environment. We know that
60 percent of the people on this Earth have not even made a phone call
in their life. But still, 30 percent of us live in a digitalised
universe that is artificially constructed, manipulated and no longer
some natural or traditional one. At all levels of our life we seem to
live more and more with the thing deprived of its substance. You get
beer without alcohol, meat without fat, coffee without caffeine...and
even virtual sex without sex.

Virtual reality to me is the climax of this process: you now get
reality without reality...or a totally regulated reality. But there is
another side to this. Throughout the entire twentieth century, I see a
counter-tendency, for which my good philosopher friend Alain Badiou
invented a nice name: 'La passion du rel', the passion of the real.
That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is
somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only
authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering
experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in
real life.

Do you think that is what we are seeing now?

Slavoj Zizek: I think this may be what defined the twentieth century,
which really began with the First World War. We all remember the war
reports by Ernst Jnger, in which he praises this eye-to-eye combat
experience as the authentic one. Or at the level of sex, the
archetypal film of the twentieth century would be Nagisa Oshima's Ai
No Corrida (In The Realm Of The Senses), where the idea again is that
you become truly radical, and go to the end in a sexual encounter,
when you practically torture each other to death. There must be
extreme violence for that encounter to be authentic.

Another emblematic figure in this sense to me is the so-called
'cutter'- a widespread pathological phenomenon in the USA. There are
two million of them, mostly women, but also men, who cut themselves
with razors. Why? It has nothing to do with masochism or suicide. It's
simply that they don't feel real as persons and the idea is: it's only
through this pain and when you feel warm blood that you feel
reconnected again. So I think that this tension is the background
against which one should appreciate the effect of the act.

Does that relate to your observations about the demise of subjectivity
in The Ticklish Subject? You say the problem is what you call
'foreclosure'- that the real or the articulation of the subject is
foreclosed by the way society has evolved in recent years.

Slavoj Zizek: The starting point of my book on the subject is that
almost all philosophical orientations today, even if they strongly
oppose each other, agree on some kind of basic anti-subjectivist
stance. For example, Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida would both
agree that the Cartesian subject had to be deconstructed, or, in the
case of Habermas, embedded in a larger inter-subjective dialectics.
Cognitivists, Hegelians - everybody is in agreement here.

I am tempted to say that we must return to the subject - though not a
purely rational Cartesian one. My idea is that the subject is
inherently political, in the sense that 'subject', to me, denotes a
piece of freedom - where you are no longer rooted in some firm
substance, you are in an open situation. Today we can no longer simply
apply old rules. We are engaged in paradoxes, which offer no immediate
way out. In this sense, subjectivity is political.

But this kind of political subjectivity seems to have disappeared. In
your books you speak of a post-political world.

Slavoj Zizek: When I say we live in a post-political world, I refer to
a wrong ideological impression. We don't really live in such a world,
but the existing universe presents itself as post-political in the
sense that there is some kind of a basic social pact that elementary
social decisions are no longer discussed as political decisions. They
are turned into simple decisions of gesture and of administration. And
the remaining conflicts are mostly conflicts about different cultures.
We have the present form of global capitalism plus some kind of
tolerant democracy as the ultimate form of that idea. And,
paradoxically, only very few are ready to question this world.

So, what's wrong with that?

Slavoj Zizek: This post-political world still seems to retain the
tension between what we usually refer to as tolerant liberalism versus
multiculturalism. But for me - though I never liked Friedrich
Nietzsche - if there is a definition that really fits, it is
Nietzsche's old opposition between active and passive nihilism. Active
nihilism, in the sense of wanting nothing itself, is this active
self-destruction which would be precisely the passion of the real -
the idea that, in order to live fully and authentically, you must
engage in self-destruction. On the other hand, there is passive
nihilism, what Nietzsche called 'The last man' - just living a stupid,
self-satisfied life without great passions.

The problem with a post-political universe is that we have these two
sides which are engaged in kind of mortal dialectics. My idea is that,
to break out of this vicious cycle, subjectivity must be reinvented.

You also say that the elites in our Western world are losing their
nerve. They want to throw out all old concepts like humanism or
subjectivity. Against that, you say it is important to look at what
there is in the old that may be worth retaining.

Slavoj Zizek: Of course, I am not against the new. I am, indeed,
almost tempted to repeat Virginia Woolf. I think it was in 1914 when
she said it was as though eternal human nature had changed. To be a
man no longer means the same thing. One should not, for example,
underestimate the inter-subjective social impact of cyberspace. What
we are witnessing today is a radical redefinition of what it means to
be a human being.

Almost all philosophical orientations today agree on some kind of
basic anti-subjectivist stance. Take strange phenomena, like what we
see on the internet. There are so-called 'cam' websites where people
expose to an anonymous public their innermost secrets down to the most
vulgar level. You have websites today - even I, with all my decadent
tastes, was shocked to learn this - where people put a video-camera in
their toilets, so you can observe them defecating. This a totally new
constellation. It is not private, but also it is also not public. It
is not the old exhibitionist gesture.

Be that as it may, something radical is happening. Now, a number of
new terms are proposed to us to describe that. The one most commonly
used is paradigm shift, denoting that we live in an epoch of shifting
paradigm. So New Age people tell us that we no longer have a
Cartesian, mechanistic individualism, but a new universal mind. In
sociology, the theorists of second modernity say similar things. And
psychoanalytical theorists tell us that we no longer have the Oedipus
complex, but live in an era of universalised perversion.

My point is not that we should stick to the old. But these answers are
wrong and do not really register the break that is taking place. If we
measure what is happening now by the standard of the old, we can grasp
the abyss of the new that is emerging.

Here I would refer to Blaise Pascal. Pascal's problem was also
confrontation with modernity and modern science. His difficulty was
that he wanted to remain an old, orthodox Christian in this new,
modern age. It is interesting that his results were much more radical
and interesting for us today than the results of superficial English
liberal philosophers, who simply accepted modernity.

You see the same thing in cinema history, if we look at the impact of
sound. Okay, 'what's the problem?', you might say. By adding the sound
to the image we simply get a more realistic rendering of reality. But
that is not at all true. Interestingly enough, the movie directors who
were most sensitive to what the introduction of sound really meant
were generally conservatives, those who looked at it with scepticism,
like Charlie Chaplin (up to a point), and Fritz Lang. Fritz Lang's Das
Testament des Dr Mabuse, in a wonderful way, rendered this spectral
ghost-like dimension of the voice, realising that voice never simply
belongs to the body. This is just another example of how a
conservative, as if he were afraid of the new medium, has a much
better grasp of its uncanny radical potentials.

The same applies today. Some people simply say: 'What's the problem?
Let's throw ourselves into the digital world, into the internet, or
whatever.' They really miss what is going on here.

So why do people want to declare a new epoch every five minutes?

Slavoj Zizek: It is precisely a desperate attempt to avoid the trauma
of the new. It is a deeply conservative gesture. The true
conservatives today are the people of new paradigms. They try
desperately to avoid confronting what is really changing.

Let me return to my example. In Charlie Chaplain's film The Great
Dictator, he satirises Hitler as Hinkel. The voice is perceived as
something obscene. There is a wonderful scene where Hinkel gives a big
speech and speaks totally meaningless, obscene words. Only from time
to time you recognise some everyday vulgar German word like
'Wienerschnitzel' or 'Kartoffelstrudel'. And this was an ingenious
insight; how voice is like a kind of a spectral ghost. All this became
apparent to those conservatives who were sensitive for the break of
the new.

The most dangerous thing today is just to flow with things

In fact, all big breaks were done in such a way. Nietzsche was in this
sense a conservative, and, indeed, I am ready to claim that Marx was a
conservative in this sense, too. Marx always emphasised that we can
learn more from intelligent conservatives than from simple liberals.
Today, more than ever, we should stick to this attitude. When you are
surprised and shocked, you don't simply accept it. You should not say:
'Okay, fine, let's play digital games.' We should not forget the
ability to be properly surprised. I think, the most dangerous thing
today is just to flow with things.

Then let's return to some of the things that have been surprising us.
In a recent article, you made the point that the terrorists mirror our
civilisation. They are not out there, but mirror our own Western
world. Can you elaborate on that some more?

Slavoj Zizek: This, of course, is my answer to this popular thesis by
Samuel P Huntington and others that there is a so-called clash of
civilisations. I don't buy this thesis, for a number of reasons.

Today's racism is precisely this racism of cultural difference. It no
longer says: 'I am more than you.' It says: 'I want my culture, you
can have yours.' Today, every right-winger says just that. These
people can be very postmodern. They acknowledge that there is no
natural tradition, that every culture is artificially constructed. In
France, for example, you have a neo-fascist right that refers to the
deconstructionists, saying: 'Yes, the lesson of deconstructionism
against universalism is that there are only particular identities. So,
if blacks can have their culture, why should we not have ours?'

We should also consider the first reaction of the American 'moral
majority', specifically Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to the 11
September attacks. Pat Robertson is a bit eccentric, but Jerry Falwell
is a mainstream figure, who endorsed Reagan and is part of the
mainstream, not an eccentric freak. Now, their reaction was the same
as the Arabs', though he did retract a couple of days later. Falwell
said the World Trade Centre bombings were a sign that God no longer
protects the USA, because the USA had chosen a path of evil,
homosexuality and promiscuity.

According to the FBI, there are now at least two million so-called
radical right-wingers in the USA. Some are quite violent, killing
abortion doctors, not to mention the Oklahoma City bombing. To me,
this shows that the same anti-liberal, violent attitude also grows in
our own civilisation. I see that as proof that this terrorism is an
aspect of our time. We cannot link it to a particular civilisation.

Regarding Islam, we should look at history. In fact, I think it is
very interesting in this regard to look at ex-Yugoslavia. Why was
Sarajevo and Bosnia the place of violent conflict? Because it was
ethnically the most mixed republic of ex-Yugoslavia. Why? Because it
was Muslim-dominated, and historically they were definitely the most
tolerant. We Slovenes, on the other hand, and the Croats, both
Catholics, threw them out several hundred years ago.

This proves that there is nothing inherently intolerant about Islam.
We must rather ask why this terrorist aspect of Islam arises now. The
tension between tolerance and fundamentalist violence is within a

Take another example: on CNN we saw President Bush present a letter of
a seven-year-old girl whose father is a pilot and now around
Afghanistan. In the letter she said that she loves her father, but if
her country needs his death, she is ready to give her father for her
country. President Bush described this as American patriotism. Now, do
a simple mental experiment - imagine the same event with an Afghan
girl saying that. We would immediately say: 'What cynicism, what
fundamentalism, what manipulation of small children.' So there is
already something in our perception. But what shocks us in others we
ourselves also do in a way.

So multiculturalism and fundamentalism could be two sides of the same

Slavoj Zizek: There is nothing to be said against tolerance. But when
you buy this multiculturalist tolerance, you buy many other things
with it. Isn't it symptomatic that multiculturalism exploded at the
very historic moment when the last traces of working-class politics
disappeared from political space? For many former leftists, this
multiculturalism is a kind of ersatz working-class politics. We don't
even know whether the working class still exists, so let's talk about
exploitation of others.

This notion of tolerance effectively masks its opposite: intolerance

There may be nothing wrong with that as such. But there is a danger
that issues of economic exploitation are converted into problems of
cultural tolerance. And then you have only to make one step further,
that of Julia Kristeva in her essay 'Etrangers nous mmes', and say we
cannot tolerate others because we cannot tolerate otherness in
ourselves. Here we have a pure pseudo-psychoanalytic cultural

Isn't it sad and tragic that the only relatively strong - not fringe -
political movement that still directly addresses the working class is
made up of right-wing populists? They are the only ones. Jean-Marie Le
Pen in France, for example. I was shocked when I saw him three years
ago at a congress of the Front National. He brought a black Frenchman,
an Algerian and a Jew on the podium, embraced them and said: 'They are
no less French than I am. Only the international cosmopolitan
companies who neglect French patriotic interests are my enemy.' So the
price is that only right-wingers still talk about economic

The second thing I find wrong with this multiculturalist tolerance is
that it is often hypocritical in the sense that the other whom they
tolerate is already a reduced other. The other is okay in so far as
this other is only a question of food, of culture, of dances. What
about clitoridectomy? What about my friends who say: 'We must respect
Hindus.' Okay, but what about one of the old Hindu customs which, as
we know, is that when a husband dies, the wife is burned. Now, do we
respect that? Problems arise here.

An even more important problem is that this notion of tolerance
effectively masks its opposite: intolerance. It is a recurring theme
in all my books that, from this liberal perspective, the basic
perception of another human being is always as something that may in
some way hurt you.

Are you referring to what we call victim culture?

Slavoj Zizek: The discourse of victimisation is almost the predominant
discourse today. You can be a victim of the environment, of smoking,
of sexual harassment. I find this reduction of the subject to a victim
sad. In what sense? There is an extremely narcissistic notion of
personality here. And, indeed, an intolerant one, insofar as what it
means is that we can no longer tolerate violent encounters with others
- and these encounters are always violent.

Let me briefly address sexual harassment for a moment. Of course I am
opposed to it, but let's be frank. Say I am passionately attached, in
love, or whatever, to another human being and I declare my love, my
passion for him or her. There is always something shocking, violent in
it. This may sound like a joke, but it isn't - you cannot do the game
of erotic seduction in politically correct terms. There is a moment of
violence, when you say: 'I love you, I want you.' In no way can you
bypass this violent aspect. So I even think that the fear of sexual
harassment in a way includes this aspect, a fear of a too violent, too
open encounter with another human being.

Another thing that bothers me about this multiculturalism is when
people ask me: 'How can you be sure that you are not a racist?' My
answer is that there is only one way. If I can exchange insults,
brutal jokes, dirty jokes, with a member of a different race and we
both know it's not meant in a racist way. If, on the other hand, we
play this politically correct game - 'Oh, I respect you, how
interesting your customs are' - this is inverted racism, and it is

In the Yugoslav army where we were all of mixed nationalities, how did
I become friends with Albanians? When we started to exchange
obscenities, sexual innuendo, jokes. This is why this politically
correct respect is just, as Freud put it, 'zielgehemmt'. You still
have the aggression towards the other.

You cannot do the game of erotic seduction in politically correct

For me there is one measure of true love: you can insult the other.
Like in that horrible German comedy film from 1943 where Marika Rck
treats her fianc very brutally. This fianc is a rich, important
person, so her father asks her why are you treating him like that. And
she gives the right answer. She says: 'But I love him, and since I
love him, I can do with him whatever I want.' That's the truth of it.
If there is true love, you can say horrible things and anything goes.

When multiculturalists tell you to respect the others, I always have
this uncanny association that this is dangerously close to how we
treat our children: the idea that we should respect them, even when we
know that what they believe is not true. We should not destroy their
illusions. No, I think that others deserve better - not to be treated
like children.

In your book on the subject you talk of a 'true universalism' as an
opposite of this false sense of global harmony. What do you mean by

Slavoj Zizek: Here I need to ask myself a simple Habermasian question:
how can we ground universality in our experience? Naturally, I don't
accept this postmodern game that each of us inhabits his or her
particular universe. I believe there is universality. But I don't
believe in some a priori universality of fundamental rules or
universal notions. The only true universality we have access to is
political universality. Which is not solidarity in some abstract
idealist sense, but solidarity in struggle.

If we are engaged in the same struggle, if we discover that - and this
for me is the authentic moment of solidarity - being feminists and
ecologists, or feminists and workers, we all of a sudden have this
insight: 'My God, but our struggle is ultimately the same!' This
political universality would be the only authentic universality. And
this, of course, is what is missing today, because politics today is
increasingly a politics of merely negotiating compromises between
different positions.

The post-political subverts the freedom that has been talked about so
much in recent weeks. Is that what you are saying?

Slavoj Zizek: I do claim that what is sold to us today as freedom is
something from which this more radical dimension of freedom and
democracy has been removed - in other words, the belief that basic
decisions about social development are discussed or brought about
involving as many as possible, a majority. In this sense, we do not
have an actual experience of freedom today. Our freedoms are
increasingly reduced to the freedom to choose your lifestyle. You can
even choose your ethnic identity up to a point.

But this new world of freedom described by people like Ulrich Beck,
who say everything is a matter of reflective negotiation, of choice,
can include new unfreedom. My favourite example is this, and here we
have ideology at its purest: we know that it is very difficult today
in more and more professional domains to get a long-term job.
Academics or journalists, for example, now often live on a two- or
three-year contract, that you then have to renegotiate. Of course,
most of us experience this as something traumatising, shocking, where
you can never be sure. But then, along comes the postmodern
ideologist: 'Oh, but this is just a new freedom, you can reinvent
yourself every two years!'

The problem for me is how unfreedom is hidden, concealed in precisely
what is presented to us as new freedoms. I think that the explosion of
these new freedoms, which fall under the domain of what Michel
Foucault called 'care of the self', involves greater social unfreedom.

Twenty or 30 years ago there was still discussion as to whether the
future would be fascist, socialist, communist or capitalist. Today,
nobody even discusses this. These fundamental social choices are
simply no longer perceived as a matter to decide. A certain domain of
radical social questions has simply been depoliticised.

I find it very sad that, precisely in an era in which tremendous
changes are taking place and, indeed entire social coordinates are
transformed, we don't experience this as something about which we
decided freely.

So, let's return to the aftermath of 11 September. We now experience a
strange kind of war that we are told will not end for a long time.
What do you think of this turn of events?

Slavoj Zizek: I don't quite agree with those who claim that this World
Trade Centre explosion was the start of the first war of the
twenty-first century. I think it was a war of the twentieth century,
in the sense that it was still a singular, spectacular event. The new
wars would be precisely as you mentioned - it will not even be clear
whether it is a war or not. Somehow life will go on and we will learn
that we are at war, as we are now.

The explosion of these new freedoms involves greater social unfreedom

What worries me is how many Americans perceived these bombings as
something that made them into innocents: as if to say, until now, we
had problems, Vietnam, and so on. Now we are victims, and this somehow
justifies us in fully identifying with American patriotism.

That's a risky gesture. The big choice for Americans is whether they
retreat into this patriotism - or, as my friend Ariel Dorfman wrote
recently: 'America has the chance to become a member of the community
of nations. America always behaves as though it were special. It
should use this attack as an opportunity to admit that it is not
special, but simply and truly part of this world.' That's the big

There is something so disturbingly tragic in this idea of the
wealthiest country in the world bombing one of the poorest countries.
It reminds me of the well-known joke about the idiot who loses a key
in the dark and looks for it beneath the light. When asked why, he
says: 'I know I lost it over there, but it's easier to look for it

But at the same time I must confess that the left also deeply
disappointed me. Falling back into this safe pacifist attitude -
violence never stops violence, give peace a chance - is abstract and
doesn't work here. First, because this is not a universal rule. I
always ask my leftist friends who repeat that mantra: What would you
have said in 1941 with Hitler. Would you also say: 'We shouldn't
resist, because violence never helps?' It is simply a fact that at
some point you have to fight. You have to return violence with
violence. The problem is not that for me, but that this war can never
be a solution.

It is also false and misleading to perceive these bombings as some
kind of third world working-class response to American imperialism. In
that case, the American fundamentalists we already discussed, are also
a working-class response, which they clearly are not. We face a
challenge to rethink our coordinates and I hope that this will be a
good result of this tragic event. That we will not just use it to do
more of the same but to think about what is really changing in our

Dr Slavoj Zizek is professor of philosophy at University Ljubljana,
Slovenia. He is currently a member of the Directors' Board at
Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut in Essen, Germany.

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