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<nettime> Zizek interviewed

for the philosopher's admirers, detractors, and the zizek-curious.

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'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

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,
Jrgen 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

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 civilisation.

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 reductionism.

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 exploitation.

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 disgusting.

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 terms

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 that?

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

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

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 choice.

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 here.'

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 world.

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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