Getting a Grip on Slavoj Žižek (with Slavoj Žižek) – JSTOR Daily
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher, cultural critic, and Lacanian psychoanalyst. A prolific writer and speaker, he is best known for his seemingly endless supply of brilliant and provocative insights into contemporary politics and culture.
from his home in ljubljana, Žižek was kind enough to answer some of my questions about how we should better understand his ideas. In the broad style for which he has become known, I also learned why a dirty joke cannot be resisted, why the task of philosophy is to corrupt the youth, and why the man once dubbed “the most dangerous philosopher in the world.” world”. west” points to something much more modest.
mike bulajewski: what is the best text to read to understand your work?
slavoj Žižek: although there are a couple of candidates to understand the philosophical background, perhaps my colleague and friend alenka zupančič’s first book on lacan and kant, ethics of the real, comes quite close to that up.
but it depends on what type of writing you’re referring to because obviously in the last decade or so I’ve written two types of things: on the one hand, these more philosophical books, usually on hegel, post-hegelian thought, heidegger, the transcendental approach to philosophy, brain sciences, etc. on the other hand, a more politically committed work. First, I think my philosophical books are far superior. my more political writings like the courage of despair, against double blackmail, etc., are things that I myself do not fully trust. I think I write them just to say something that I always hope someone else has said. Like, why don’t others who are more professional do it?
of the philosophical books, I think it’s the one that comes after least of all: absolute regression. I think this is the last statement of my philosophical position so far. Now I’m trying to catch up with that because I’m always haunted by the idea that I missed the gist, that I didn’t get it. my great trauma was finishing that mega book less than nothing. It’s over 1000 pages long, but immediately after I finished it, I was afraid I hadn’t grasped the basic thought, so I tried to do it with full backtracking. but it is a more difficult book.
What do you think is the most misunderstood concept in your work? Do you think there is something that we, the readers, do not want to understand?
It’s not so much a concept as maybe a theme. I think that my philosophical books are not even read that much, and are generally misunderstood. what I intend is a very precise intervention. We are at a certain very interesting philosophical moment where the deconstructive approach, which in different versions was predominant in the last couple of centuries, is gradually disappearing. then we have, what should I call it, the new positivism, the brain sciences, even quantum physics, these scientific ways of answering philosophical questions. stephen hawking said in one of his last books that today philosophy is dead, science is getting even closer to basic philosophical questions, and in a sense he was right. Today, if you ask, “Is our universe finite or infinite? Do we have an immortal soul or not? are we free or not? people look for answers to these questions in evolutionary biology, brain science, quantum physics, not philosophy.
So, between these two extremes, is there a place for philosophy proper? not only that deconstructionist, historicist reflection that asks “what is the social context or the discursive context of a work?”, but also a non-naive realism, let’s look at reality as it is, etc. usually this basic impulse of my work is not understood. So, to me, it’s quite funny how often I get attacked for the same work from both sides, taking the opposite position. For some Habermasian discourse theorists, I am a naive psychoanalytic positivist. to brain scientists, i’m a still naive european metaphysician or whatever.
but now we come to the interesting part. in my political writings, I noticed, the same thing happens. remember? maybe you caught an echo of the ridiculous exchange i had a few months ago with jordan peterson. Do you know what I find so funny there? on the one hand, politically correct, transgender, #metoo people attacked me for being, I don’t know, anti-politically correct, anti-gay basically, even a trump supporter, a far-right guy or whatever. many of them, especially after my criticism of some aspects of #metoo and the transgender movement, see me as an enemy. but the vast majority of jordan peterson supporters who reacted to my two short pieces attacked me as a pure example of deconstruction, cultural marxism, etc. what was really interesting about their reactions to my work was how, for the same text, I am often attacked from both sides. my old political book, welcome to the desert of the real, i find it quite funny… my arab friends accused me of being too sympathetic to zionism and spreading some zionist lies there etc. an egyptian friend told me that there was an attack on my book in al achram, the main egyptian daily, almost two decades ago, attacking me as the most perfidious zionist propaganda. on the other hand, the jerusalem post, the main centre-right newspaper in israel, attacked me as the most dangerous version of the new antisemitism.
So this is what I find superficially interesting in the reactions to my work. I think it’s sad proof that people don’t really read it and follow the plot line, they just look for some short passages and quotes that can be read their way. but I’m not pessimistic for that. I’m following jean-paul sartre here, who said that if, for the same text, you’re attacked by both sides, it’s usually one of the few reliable signs that you’re right.
Is there anything symptomatic about that? in the sense that between two sides, pro-Zionist and anti-Zionist, there is an attempt to reaffirm the parameters of the discourse or debate. it’s okay. being anywhere at some level, but occupying some kind of third position is the most destructive or controversial position. Are we locked in these debates?
yes, these are bogus debates, that’s my thesis. for example, look at transgender political correctness and #metoo. you would have thought the only choice is morally conservative common sense critique of politically correct transgender “excesses” or outright support for transgenderism. my position here is, of course, not to criticize #metoo or the transgender position from the right-wing or conservative attitude, but from the progressive path. my reproach to the #metoo movement is not that they are too crazy, too self-righteous, no! it is that his puritanism and moral fanaticism is not radical enough.
To me, the advocates of political correctness are basically right. women are oppressed, there is racism, etc. but the way they approach it doesn’t work. I am not advocating a third compromise space. I’m saying that the way these issues are approached is, in its entirety, both poles is wrong. let me give you an example that is often considered problematic. there is a big debate right now, and it is a totally justified debate: how do you do dating, seduction, after #metoo? what are the new rules? as you probably know, I’ve written about it.
one of the rules that people try to emphasize is the right to say no at any time. like, let’s say you, as a woman, seduce yourself, you say yes. then in the middle of sexual activity you discover that your partner is rude, inconsiderate, has something vulgar or you realize that your yes was a forced yes. you have the right to withdraw. but a new form of extremely humiliating violence opens up, not physical but mental violence, if we simply follow this rule. let’s say a guy is seducing a girl. she says that she sincerely does; she is not a forced yes. and when she gets all excited and so on, all red face, the guy says: “sorry, i have the right to retire, i changed my mind”.
My point here is not that sometimes no means no. always means no. I’m just saying that sexuality is a complex domain with implicit meanings, ambiguities. it cannot be translated into rules. and that is my basic criticism of the way I read your proposals. the #metoo new seduction rules are precisely under the spell of a certain legalism. they think the solution is to explain the rules. the problem cannot be solved at this level. That’s all I wanted to say.
I’m not minimizing violence. My obsession, and I think it’s a great legacy of the ideology critique of the last few centuries, is how a certain rule, slogan, or practice that may seem to open up the space for a new freedom, emancipation, however, can be misused or has the potential. dangerous consequences. As I said viciously at some point, I do not bring clear answers; I like to complicate things in general, people say that a philosopher when he is confused must bring clarity. I say no! we think we see things clearly in daily life; I long to confuse things.
you mentioned jordan peterson, and he is influenced by carl jung. Do you have any comments on psychoanalysis in general? Because at least in the United States, we are probably primarily influenced by Anna Freud’s ego psychology. carl jung is influential in some way, partly through the new age movement…
don’t underestimate jung’s influence. In most countries, Freud is seriously debated, but more so in literary criticism, perhaps in psychology, philosophy, and theoretical circles. but jung’s work is much more popular. Her books are best sellers. for example after the fall of communism in russia ex soviet union forget about freud i was told jung was selling hundreds of thousands even millions of copies and so on. and, of course, here, okay, we don’t have time to go into details, but I claim that here I am an old-fashioned Stalinist. jung is a wrong path. jung is a new age obscurantist reinscription of freud. but, you know, in my debate with jordan peterson, i completely ignored the jungian aspect.
where i see red (as they say) is how peterson makes a sudden leap from critique of #metoo and transgender politics to his obsession with the terror of cultural marxism in a totally illegitimate way. suddenly mobilizes one of the basic ideological motives of the new conservatives in europe, which is that after the fall of stalin, after the revolution failed in western europe in the 1920s, some mysterious communist center decided that we cannot destroy the West directly, we first have to destroy it morally, its Christian ethical foundations, so through the Frankfurt School and others, they mobilized the cultural left. and they see all these phenomena (radical feminism, transgenderism, etc.) as the final results of the so-called cultural Marxism and its tendency to destroy the West. now, I consider this to be utter nonsense that is even factually inaccurate.
it is interesting to reread texts by horkheimer, adorno and other great names of the frankfurt school. For example, today one should reread Horkheimer’s late 1930s text “Authority and Family”, where Horkheimer does not simply condemn the patriarchal family, but emphasizes how in today’s capitalist society, patriarchal society is highly ambiguous. yes, it is the model of oppression, etc., but at the same time without parental authority, a child cannot develop an autonomous moral stance that allows them to gain some kind of ethical autonomy to critically oppose society. So, for Horkheimer and the subsequent adornment, the record is clear. A society without parental authority is a society of youth gangs, of young people who exalt the values of their peers, who are not capable of assuming a critical position towards society, etc. it’s ridiculous how inaccurate this picture of cultural marxism terror paints is.
my point of view here is the exact opposite. what people like jordan peterson call cultural marxism is precisely, as i put it a bit aggressively, one of the last bourgeois defenses against marxism. it is falsely radical. I am not saying that bernie sanders is a marxist. he is only a relative moderate by the standards of half a century ago, but he is perhaps the first serious American social democrat in decades. but did you notice how there were immediate clashes between him and transgender and #metoo people? He once famously said—that’s why I like Bernie Sanders—that it’s not enough for a woman to say: “I’m Latina, vote for me”. we should also ask, “okay, okay, but what’s your show?” just for saying he was attacked for white supremacism. That is why I believe that this so-called cultural left is one of the main culprits for the democratic defeat, the price that left-liberals paid for their obsession with these cultural issues. My god, do you remember a year and a half ago, if you opened the new york times, you would have thought that the main problem is what kind of bathroom we should have. then you get trump!
can you comment on your style? from several things that I have heard you say, it bothers you to be treated as an intellectual authority, as a kind of father figure. there are dirty jokes, he has said that he does not like the formal titles of “Professor Žižek?”
but I take my job seriously. I don’t want to be treated with respect because I think there is always a hidden aggression with respect. at least in my universe, and maybe i live in the wrong universe, this kind of respect always subtly implies that you don’t take someone’s job totally seriously. I don’t want to be respected as a person. I don’t care what you call me, slave or idiot, whatever. I want you to concentrate on my work.
Here, I’m a bit torn. Do you know where maybe you can catch me? On the one hand I say that I want you to concentrate on my work. but in my work, and perhaps even more so in my speech, there’s obviously some kind of compulsion to be funny and attention-grabbing. So yes, I have a problem. that is why every time I like to write more and not to speak and speak in public. Because when writing, you can focus on what it’s about. and I will tell you something that will surprise you. The best lesson I’ve had in the last few decades is how my philosophical books, which are considered illegible, too long, too difficult, often sell better than my political books. Isn’t that wonderful?
The lesson here is that we shouldn’t underestimate the public. It is not true what some pessimists say, that people are idiots, you have to write short books, only inform or give practical advice—no. there is still a serious intellectual audience around. that’s what gives me hope.
Often we expect intellectuals to conform to a certain image of seriousness when they appear in public, and you obviously don’t do that sort of thing, and perhaps even undermine this image. Does that limit your influence?
yes, I agree with you. it’s a very good idea. you can tell to some extent that some people take my supposed popularity basically as a subtle argument against me. People say, “It’s fun, go listen to it, but don’t take it too seriously.” and this sometimes hurts a little because people often ignore what I want to say. For example, the point of madness was reached here—maybe you’ll read it—John Gray’s less than nothing review in the New York Book Review. It is a complex book on Hegel. i did this test with my friends who had only read gray’s review. I asked them what their impression of the book was. what do i say in the book? they had no idea. the review only focuses on some details that are politically problematic, excesses, etc. but my god i wrote a book on hegel. What do I say in it? is totally ignored. but on the other hand, I think I shouldn’t complain too much here, because, you know, this happens to philosophers. It is happening with Heidegger, with the Frankfurt School, with Lacan, etc. one simply has to resign and accept it. philosophers are here mainly to be misunderstood.
Does the darkness of your job show through more in your movies, the pervert’s guide to…?
I never thought of that, but can I let you in on another secret here? Sophie Fiennes was very nice to me and we did both movies together, but you know I hated doing them? it is very traumatic for me to act in front of a camera, especially to be treated as an actor. once I was improvising something for 20 minutes, and then sophie fiennes told me: “it was excellent, slavoj, but there was something wrong with the sound. could you do it again? she is my friend but at that moment i was ready to kill her! You know, who cares about the damn sound, oh my god. he was successfully developing a line of thought; I was improvising; I wasn’t acting in the sense of following a script, and now let’s go back and do it again? it was a nightmare.
but the tone shines through. the movies have a certain sinister quality.
You are here and you know what is important here? this is perhaps one of the existential bets of my work, to use this fashionable term. to be a radical leftist, you don’t have to be some kind of stupid optimist, where you think that if it weren’t for capitalism and oppression, people would be happy, and we’re building a new society, and so on. not! In my latest theoretical book, Vacuum Incontinence, I openly discuss how, on another level, if there were to be something like communism, maybe people would be a lot more unhappy. life will be much more tragic. I don’t think we should confuse happiness and these psychological categories with progressive politics.
I wrote something published in Philosophical Salon attacking happiness studies, and I went all the way. I affirm that happiness is not an ethical category; is a category of compromise. to be happy you have to be hypocritical and stupid. I’m getting darker in here. I think, if I may use this grand category, creativity is something that doesn’t make you happy. It is something very traumatic and painful. It’s the same with love: there is no happy love, not in the sense that it always goes wrong, but if you remember what it’s like to be really passionately in love, oh my god! your peace of life is ruined; everything is unbalanced, and this intensity is what matters. there is nothing happy about it.
You write in the incontinence of the vacuum: “only hysteria produces new knowledge, in contrast to university discourse, which simply reproduces it”. how should we think about this statement in relation to what you are trying to achieve with your work?
I’m not new here. I am repeating Lacan here, and Freud. the goal there, if you remember correctly, is perversion. my old animosity towards may 68, where the idea is that perverts are radicals. They even quote Freud, who wrote that hysterics are ambiguous, since they only provoke the master with a secret call for a new, more authentic master, while perverts go all the way. and here I think we should totally change the coordinates. not! perverts are constitutive of power. All power needs an underground, rear secret pervert.
but now we have trump, and trump is on the side of perversion, right? seems to delight in breaking the rules.
up to a point, yes. who for me is the symptom of trump? steve bannon if you look at his economic proposals, he says something that is usually attributed to the left and that no social democracy today dares to do: raise taxes to 50% for the rich, big public works, and so on. and that is the general tragedy of our time, that the left moderates have become the cultural left and the new populist right is taking over even many of the old social democratic motifs. social democracy in europe, even more than in the united states, is disappearing. That’s why I think people like Bernie Sanders are important.
as some smart observers wrote, sanders succeeded in mobilizing many people who would otherwise have voted for trump to the left. but on the other hand, when you ask about trump as a perversion, yes, I agree with you, especially in this sense: here I am a classic moralist. for me the new motto of the left should be “we are the moral majority.” what i want to say is this: look at trump’s speech and how the level of public discourse has degraded. the things he says publicly were unthinkable two or three decades ago. And it’s not just the United States. we in europe are no better. I really believe that we live in a time of, let’s call it, ideological regression. history is not necessarily progressive. this is what hitler did with fascism. things that were already part of public life but strictly limited to crazy talk in some little coffee shop where all the obscenities are spoken becomes part of public discourse. again, it is also happening in europe.
okay, back to “only hysteria produces new knowledge…”
Do you remember what hysteria is? To simplify it, from a psychoanalytic point of view, society gives you a certain identity. you are a teacher, professor, woman, mother, feminist, whatever. the basic hysterical gesture is to ask a question and doubt his identity. “You are saying that I am this, but why am I this? what does this do to me? feminism begins with this hysterical question. patriarchal masculine ideology restricts women to a certain position and identity, and you begin to ask, “but am I really that?” or to use the old juliet question from romeo and juliet, “am i that name?” like, “why am I that?” then hysteria is this basic doubt of your identity.
People often identified me as hysterical about my outbursts. okay, why not? I’m hysterical but you know what gave me hope? Lacan beautifully designated Hegel as “le plus sublime des hysteriques”, the most sublime of all hysterics, because the dialectic is precisely this reflexive questioning of oneself, questioning of every position. That is why Hegel was aware of the feminine dimension. In his Antigone reading, he said that woman is the eternal irony of human history, precisely through these ironic questions. I’ve experienced this a few times, this is a primitive sexual difference, but I think there’s a moment of truth here: when I’m talking to a woman, I sometimes get involved in my musings and suddenly get caught up in my own game. of taking myself too seriously. and then I see on the woman, my conversation partner, a kind of silent, quizzical look, like, “what, are you kidding me?” no direct brutal irony, just a silent look that destroys you.
His work has sometimes been criticized for being inconsistent. is that intentional? You mentioned earlier that, as a philosopher, what you are trying to do is not clarify, but problematize.
at the same time, I have to say that although I like to use jokes and stories, I try to make things clear. but I’m here in good company. Take Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, perhaps the greatest philosophical work of all time, as an example. He was often reproached for the same reason: that it is not clear what Hegel’s position is, that he simply seems to jump from one position to another, ironically subverting it, etc. In a certain way, from the beginning, from the Socratic questioning, philosophy is this. without this hysterical questioning of authority, there is no philosophy, so as my friend alain badiou recently said, it is no coincidence that socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth. philosophy has done this from the beginning. Philosophy is best defined as “corrupting the young,” in the sense of awakening them from an existing dogmatic worldview. this corruption is more complex today, because insecurity, constant questioning and irony is the predominant attitude. today, the official ideology does not tell you “be a faithful Christian”, but a kind of postmodernist ideal, “be true to yourself, change yourself, renew yourself, doubt everything”. so now the way we corrupt the youth is getting more complex.
He is often described as a very provocative thinker, but this seems like an exaggeration to me. do you think that you are, in fact, not provocative at all?
That’s a really good idea. I like it a lot. I always tell people who say, “you know you’re talking crazy, you can’t mean it.” whenever they say something like that, I immediately explain it in a way that almost makes common sense, and I’m not saying anything big or revolutionary. I am saying that today we need a slightly more radical politics, but like social democracy. I am very much against all these Nietzschean ideas of “against good and evil”. I am in favor of a kind of common morality. there are no big provocations here.
even in philosophy, I’m not claiming that I’m bringing out something radically new. I’m just trying to explain what I already see in hegel. but I will tell you something else that I liked about what you said, and that is perhaps my silent hope. Did you know that all the great ruptures, or most of them, in the history of thought occurred as a return to some origins? I always quote Martin Luther. His goal was not to be a revolutionary; his objective was to return to the true Christian message, against the pope, etc. in this way he made one of the greatest intellectual revolutions where everything changed and so on. I think it is a necessary illusion, paradoxically. to do something really new, perhaps the illusion that you are really going back to a more authentic past is necessary. it must be mistakenly perceived as already being there. and i’ll take the last example here: as many people noted, it’s clear that when jacques lacan talks about going back to freud, well, this freud is very much something he rediscovered in freud, but it’s more that he filled in the gaps in freud and so on. We must never forget that Lacan, who confounded everything and revolutionized psychoanalysis, perceived himself as a return to Freud. that’s why I like this idea. to me, true revolutionaries always had a conservative side.
I’ll give you another example that you might like. at the beginning of modernity, all those apparent radicals, empiricists, whatever, didn’t really get it. one of the guys who really got what modernity is about is blaise pascal. but his problem was not “let us break with the past”, but precisely how to remain an orthodox Christian in the new conditions of science and modernity. as such, he understood much better what was coming up with modern science than all those enthusiastic scientific empiricists or whatever. what may seem like a conservative move is something that allows you to see things that others may not see.
Another example that has always fascinated me: the transition from silent to talkies. Those who resisted it spontaneously—from the Russian avant-garde to Charlie Chaplin—perceived much more clearly the sinister dimensions of what was happening there. As I developed in my books, for almost 10 years Chaplin was resistant to making a full sound movie, right? one of the first movies to use sound, city lights, only uses music. then in modern times you hear sounds and human speech, but it’s always the sound that’s part of the narrative. for example, listen to human speech if it is the voice of a radio shown in the movie. only with the great dictator do you have talking actors. but who is the agent of sound? hitler, with this wild cry. So Chaplin, as a conservative, saw this threatening, dead-on-life, destabilizing dimension of the voice, while those idiotic talkies were perceiving the situation in stupid realistic terms, “Well, now that we have sound too, we can reproduce reality.” in a more realistic and convincing way.”
That’s why I don’t like a guy like Ray Kurzweil. in the idea of uniqueness of him, something escapes him. it’s as simple as, yes, we will all be part of the singularity. he doesn’t even address the key questions: how will this change our identity? he children there. he thinks all these great things will happen, but somehow we’ll still be the same human beings, just with added abilities.