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<nettime> Interview with Slavoj Zizek (published in Haaretz)
geert lovink on Thu, 16 Jan 2003 11:25:59 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Interview with Slavoj Zizek (published in Haaretz)


(via the philosophy list of alexander bard /geert)

Wednesday, January 15, 2003 Shvat 12, 5763
Israel Time: 17:01 (GMT+2)

 Disaster movies as the last remnants of Utopia

Philosopher and cultural gadfly Slavoj Zizek, on a mini-lecture tour, talks
to Ha'aretz

By Noam Yuran

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek: "I have the hat, but I
still don't have the rabbit."

When one of the organizers of Slavoj Zizek's lecture at Tel Aviv
Cinematheque told the Slovenian philosopher that he could speak as long as
he wanted, Zizek said it was dangerous to give him such leeway. "You know,
my friends call me Fidel," he said, and his oratory is quite capable of
matching the Cuban leader's.

In speaking, as in his writings, Zizek glides between diverse topics and
spheres with blinding speed. In the blink of an eye the Slovenian
philosopher can move from decaffeinated coffee to war without casualties,
and politics without politicians. He whizzes from film to opera to
philosophy to psychoanalysis.

His oratory is heightened by a burning desire to make himself understood, to
share novel insights, and to present provocative ideas. Zizek is currently
visiting Israel as a guest of Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute. On Sunday, he
lectured at Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem; yesterday he spoke at Tel
Aviv Cinematheque; today he is at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem; tomorrow he
speaks at the Van Leer Institute itself.

His latest book "Welcome to the Desert of the Real" includes five essays
written after September 11, 2001, has some discussion of the
Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and was recently translated into Hebrew. This
new publication, along with Zizek's penultimate book "Revolution at the
Gates," which includes articles written by Lenin in the months before the
October revolution, and a long introduction written by Zizek, are his most
political works.

Zizek's prose style has a rebellious and highly compelling side that brushes
up against the most critical intellectual trends of our day like cultural
studies, contemporary feminism, post-colonialism, and post-modernism.

His distinctiveness begins with his iconoclastic and innovative choice of
examples - incisive political claims are presented with examples taken from
Hollywood, and prosaic tidbits from everyday life are analyzed as
ideological events that form the bedrock of our social reality.

The title of one of Zizek's better known books, "Everything You Always
Wanted to Know about Lacan, but Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock" (1992)
illustrates his approach, blending high cultural theory with pop cultural
icons. (Jacques Lacan was a 20th century thinker who reinterpreted Freud in
linguistic and literary terms).

After September 11, comparisons between the Twin Towers attack and Hollywood
action movies rapidly became the cliches of a blurred distinction between
reality and fantasy. In his new book, Zizek also refers to disaster films in
connection to the World Trade Center attacks, yet his use of this reference
seems distinctive.

Celluloid reality

Zizek's point is not to isolate a dimension of fantasy in reality - on the
contrary, Zizek poses the question of where reality is to be found in a
universe of film and fiction. Direct, unmediated use of films is one
characteristic of his iconoclastic academic style.

Zizek refers to films as though they were reality, or at least vehicles for
the secret essence of reality. "I believe that films of the 20th century
were the most significant, direct dramatization of social fantasies," he
said in his interview with Ha'aretz.

What are disaster films really about? Why do Americans fantasize about the
destruction of life?

I don't have a simple answer to that. I can try to give a few answers. Isn't
the same thing true of love affairs - in order to really enjoy them, they
have to be conducted under a threat that they might disappear? In
psychological language we can hypothesize that deep down the Americans feel
some sort of guilt - about being on the top, and enjoying life so much.

One other thing interests me. Unlike other peoples who have long-standing
traditions and with whom there is a suspicion that if you scratch below the
surface, you will discover the old traditions, [people] who face the problem
of having to deal with these traditions. The American vision is completely
different - this is a vision in which order is not something with deep
roots. It is instead superficial and fragile. Something is liable to happen
at any moment; a small disaster might dismantle the social order.

But is there something intrinsic to American abundance that creates images
of destruction?

That's another possibility - the idea that American daily life is
constructed so clearly as artificial experience, as with the American
suburb, where grass is sometimes artificial. In such an artificial world we
lack connection with reality - actual reality can penetrate only as
something violent and extreme. In the film "Matrix" daily reality is
produced by computers and "real" reality comes across as a threatening,
ruined place. Americans are increasingly cognizant not only of the gap that
separates the U.S. and the Third World, but also of ghetto enclaves within
their own country, of life on the edge of chaos, of life in a comfortable,
secure place that is likely to blow up.

When relating to film, you frequently use the term fantasy, and it seems to
present a new type of criticism, or even an alternative to criticism.

It is very important to stress the contrast between fantasy and
interpretation. Symptoms, not fantasies, are interpreted in psychology. On
the most basic level, fantasy enters exactly at the place where
interpretation fails. When you can't interpret something, that's when
fantasy comes in. When I say a film is a fantasy, I'm not saying that it
indulges in our desires - instead, I'm saying that fantasy is where the
political element comes in. Political space is always rife with riddles and
inconsistency. Thus, politics itself is, in the final analysis, always the
politics of fantasy. It needs to imagine answers to antagonisms. Hence, my
idea is that rather than interpreting films, and searching for keys to
interpretation, we should view movies as direct participants in political
reality.

So what role does the image of destruction play in reality?

There is another meaning which we haven't emphasized. Apparently it's so
hard for us to imagine a new global utopian project based on work and
cooperation, that the only way we can entertain the thought is to pay a
mental price of extreme catastrophe. What fascinates me about disaster films
is how circumstances of vast catastrophe suddenly bring about social
cooperation. Even racial tensions vanish. It's important at the end of
Independence Day that

everyone pulls together - Jews, Arabs, blacks. Disaster films might be the
only optimistic social genre that remains today, and that's a sad reflection
of our desperate state. The only way to imagine a Utopia of social
cooperation is to conjure a situation of absolute catastrophe. Disaster
films might be all that's left of the utopian genre.

Beria straights

Zizek's major theoretical project, which was inaugurated in his book "The
Sublime Object of Ideology" (1989), was to integrate psychoanalytic
perceptions in a Marxist critique of ideology. A large number of the topics
developed elsewhere in Zizek's work are presented systematically in this
one.

Zizek fuses Lacanian psychoanalytic theory with perceptions about the
ideological apparatus taken from the French Marxist Louis Althusser. The use
of psychoanalytic terminology enabled Zizek to propose a theory of how
ideology operates, and how people are mobilized by it.

In a famous example, Zizek explains that in 1954, after the execution of the
Stalinist secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, all possessors of the Great
Soviet Encyclopedia were sent revised pages. They were instructed to rip out
the page with the entry "Beria" and replace it with an item about the Bering
Straits.

What interested Zizek about this example was not the obvious point of how
history was falsified in the Soviet Union. Instead, the peculiar logistics
of the falsification piqued his interest - after all, the same people who
read the revised encyclopedia were the ones who themselves replaced the
Beria pages.

Using such examples, Zizek relocates conceptions of society and politics.
Ostensibly subjective concepts such as faith, knowledge and even pleasure
and fantasy become, in Zizek's work, palpable social phenomena. There is no
such thing as sheer belief - instead, there is belief that the other
believes. Knowledge, similarly, is knowledge of what the other knows.

Bitter as the memories might be of Communism, it appears you look back to
those days in a bemused, almost nostalgic fashion.

That's true, but I'm also completely aware of this. It's an ambivalent
nostalgia, a kind of defense mechanism. Of course, I wouldn't want those
days to return. With hindsight, one can measure the paradox of Stalin, and
not just what anti-Communist books tell us about the crazed dictatorship
that ruled in that period. Such rule definitely happened, of course, but it
operated in a very paradoxical fashion.

Examination of communist regimes seems to have a special place in your work,
almost as though things under such systems can be seen more clearly.

I think that in Communist regimes, things which aren't manifest in liberal
democracies have become evident. I believe that liberal democracies are
paradoxical in the sense that they contain a fundamental blindness about the
ideological mechanisms which operate within them. Take, for instance, the
liberal principle of free choice. Choices made by people in democratic
states are not necessarily less compulsory, and yet they experience these
choices as though they are free. In this connection, I believe I was
fortunate regarding my theory to live through a transition period in which
socialism began to collapse and became gradually transformed into what is
called liberal democracy.

Confession obsession

For instance, one thing that fascinates me about Stalinism is the role
played by the irrational. What bothers me is the cause of all the madness -
the accusations, political trials - what purpose did it serve? These things
cannot be explained as though they were part of a rational strategy. I have
always been interested in the major difference that separates Nazi
anti-Semitism and Stalinist persecution of enemies of the state.

Why did Stalinism always seek to extract confessions from its victims? Under
Nazism, such confessions were meaningless - nobody tried to torture a Jew to
extract from him a confession about being involved in a Jewish conspiracy.

The paradoxical reason for this difference is that this [obsession about
confessions] was a vestige of enlightenment in Stalinism. The atrocity of
Nazism is that it didn't need to prove anything - you are a Jew; so you are
guilty. Under Stalinism, seemingly free confessions were made, this being a
remnant of the belief that since people are free, confessions have to be
obtained. Of course, they had to use torture to secure the confessions - the
process was a total fraud. But I have always objected to the facile
comparison that brands Stalinism and Nazism as two versions of the same
totalitarian regime.

Does that mean you are saying liberal democracy should be viewed through the
prism of Stalinism?

Definitely. But I am not saying that simply to reject liberal democracy.
After all, it's far more pleasant to be in a society in which you can live
and think and write. I think what's going on today in the name of a war on
terrorism shows that liberal democracy is not the transparent, simple
political system is it often understood to be. As Adorno and Horkheimer
tried to show in the "Dialectic of Enlightenment," 20th century
totalitarianism is not exactly a deviation from the enlightenment project.
The seeds of totalitarianism are to be found in the project itself.

Your new book contains your most direct critique on liberal democracy.

This new book, and the one on Lenin.

Why now?

I believe it's the thing to do now. We should summon our courage and ask the
fundamental question - `what is democracy today?' What are we really
deciding? You in Israel, perhaps you are lucky in that on some level you
still have a real choice to make. Perhaps a more radical version of a
solution for the Palestinian problem would have meaning [as an expression of
choice]. But in Europe?

Let's put it this way. The most important event of the past 20 or 30 years
is the transition to a global economy, along with the dismantling of the
social welfare state. People forget that when Communism collapsed, social
democracy was dismantled in the West. What disappeared with these [systems]
is the idea that social process isn't blind fate. Humanity, or a people, can
somehow guide the process, and influence it. The sad result of this collapse
is that we have returned to the concept of history as fate. Globalization is
fate. You join it, or you're out of the game. In any event, there's no way
to influence it.

So what do you propose as an alternative?

There's the puzzle. I would say, a new version of what was once called
socialism. I think about this in modest terms. I like to portray myself as a
fake magician - I have the hat, but I still don't have the rabbit. I'm not
saying that there are answers - I'm just saying there will be huge problems



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