I am a Fighting Atheist: Interview with Slavoj Zizek
Issue #59, February 2002
It's hard to become a superstar in the world of scholarly publishing. Most of the people who read its products can also write them. To stand out in a crowd this smart requires both luck and perseverance. Slavoj Zizek has demonstrated plenty of both. When Yugoslavia started to break up in the aftermath of the Cold War in 1990, pristine Slovenia was the first of its republics to declare independence. We were thrilled to be witnessing the rebirth of "nations" that had disappeared into Germany, the Soviet Union, or, in the case of Slovenia, first the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then Yugoslavia. .As this little-known land's leading thinker, Zizek basked in an aura of novelty. His work, simultaneously light-hearted and deep, invoked the dream of a post-Cold War world in which free thinking would transcend all borders.
A decade later, we know how quickly that hope turned to despair. But Zizek's star hasn't dimmed. If anything, it has grown brighter. People who started reading Zizek because they couldn't believe that Communist Europe could produce such a supple thinker read him now for the simple reason that he is Zizek. For anyone who has tired of the dumbing down of mainstream political discourse in the West, who finds it hard to believe that the bone-dry American leftism of a Noam Chomsky represents the only possibility for resistance, who wants to critique global capitalism without falling back on faded Marxist slogans, Zizek's work flashes the promise of something better. From his ground-breaking 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology to his trenchant 1999 critique of Western governments' intervention in the former Yugoslavia, titled NATO as the Left Hand of God?, Zizek has never failed to stimulate thinking. And what more can we ask of an intellectual? As Zizek himself suggests in the interview here, philosophy helps us, not by "purifying" our thought, but by making it more complex.
What really sets Zizek apart from other major scholars is his willingness to take risks. If you were to read all of his books in rapid succession, you would see that they sometimes contradict one another. But you would also see how the tension between them reflects Zizek's real purpose: to make us see the world with fresh eyes. Unlike the vast majority of academic thinkers, Zizek is not worried about being "careless." He roots around in the realm of ideas looking for whatever will prove useful. It doesn't matter if his findings come from different intellectual traditions, if they are, in some sense, philosophically incompatible. Zizek's writing forces them to collaborate. Marx, Freud, Hegel, Kant, Lacan...and Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and the Slovenian electronic agit-prop band Laibach all come together in a delightful mix. This delight, finally, is what seals the deal for Zizek's readers. It's one thing to illuminate contemporary political concerns with the help of dense philosophical points; it's another entirely to make that insight fun. Zizek does.
Left Business Observer editor and Wall Street author Doug Henwood talked with Zizek prior to the September 11th terrorist attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, then asked a few follow-up questions in its aftermath. In the days following the attack, Zizek's take on its significance — an incredibly moving essay titled "Welcome to the Desert of the Real" circulated on e-mail lists worldwide. Unlike the vast majority of commentators, Zizek was not content to express disbelief and outrage. His words offered an antidote to the mindless drivel on the major networks, CNN, and Fox News. Reflecting on the many "previews" of the tragedy in American movies, Zizek refused to blunt his critical edge: "In a way, America got what it fantasized about."
This interview is excerpted from BS editor Joel Schalit's anthology The Anti-Capitalism Reader, forthcoming from Akashic Books in the summer of 2002.
BS: In general, anarchism plays a big role in American radical politics and countercultures. Do you have any thoughts on this influence?
Zizek: I certainly can understand where the appeal of anarchism lies. Even though I am quite aware of the contradictory and ambiguous nature of Marx's relationship with anarchism, Marx was right when he drew attention to how anarchists who preach "no state no power" in order to realize their goals usually form their own society which obeys the most authoritarian rules. My first problem with anarchism is always, "Yeah, I agree with your goals, but tell me how you are organized." For me, the tragedy of anarchism is that you end up having an authoritarian secret society trying to achieve anarchist goals. The second point is that I have problems with how anarchism is appropriate to today's problems. I think if anything, we need more global organization. I think that the left should disrupt this equation that more global organization means more totalitarian control.
BS: When you speak of a global organization, are you thinking of some kind of global state, or do you have non-state organizations in mind?
Zizek: I don't have any prejudices here whatever. For example, a lot of left-wingers dismissed talk of universal human rights as just another tool of American imperialism, to exert pressure on Third World countries or other countries America doesn't like, so it can bomb them. But it's not that simple. As we all know, following the same logic, Pinochet was arrested. Even if he was set free, this provoked a tremendous psychological change in Chile. When he left Chile, he was a universally feared, grey eminence. He returned as an old man whom nobody was afraid of. So, instead of dismissing the rules, it's well worth it to play the game. One should at least strategically support the idea of some kind of international court and then try to put it to a more progressive use.
America is already concerned about this. A few months ago, when the Senate was still under Republican control, it adopted a measure prohibiting any international court to have any jurisdiction over American citizens. You know they weren't talking about some Third World anti-imperialist court. They were talking about the Hague court, which is dominated by Western Europeans. The same goes for many of these international agencies. I think we should take it all. If it's outside the domain of state power, OK. But sometimes, even if it's part of state power. I think the left should overcome this primordial fear of state power, that because it's some form of control, it's bad.
BS: You describe the internal structure of anarchist groups as being authoritarian. Yet, the model popular with younger activists today is explicitly anti-hierarchical and consensus-oriented. Do you think there's something furtively authoritarian about such apparently freewheeling structures?
Zizek: Absolutely. And I'm not bluffing here; I'm talking from personal experience. Maybe my experience is too narrow, but it's not limited to some mysterious Balkan region. I have contacts in England, France, Germany, and more — and all the time, beneath the mask of this consensus, there was one person accepted by some unwritten rules as the secret master. The totalitarianism was absolute in the sense that people pretended that they were equal, but they all obeyed him. The catch was that it was prohibited to state clearly that he was the boss. You had to fake some kind of equality. The real state of affairs couldn't be articulated. Which is why I'm deeply distrustful of this "let's just coordinate this in an egalitarian fashion." I'm more of a pessimist. In order to safeguard this equality, you have a more sinister figure of the master, who puts pressure on the others to safeguard the purity of the non-hierarchic principle. This is not just theory. I would be happy to hear of groups that are not caught in this strange dialectic.
BS: We've seen over the last few years the growth of a broad anti-capitalist — or as we say in the U.S., anti-corporate or anti-globalization — movement, a lot of it organized according to anarchist principles. Do you think these demonstrations are a sign of any left revival, a new movement?
Zizek: Mixed. Not in the sense of being partly good and partly bad but because the situation is undecided — maybe even undecidable. What will come out of the Seattle movement is the terrain of the struggle. I think it is PRECISELY NOW — after the attack on the World Trade Center — that the "Seattle" task will regain its full urgency! After a period of enthusiasm for retaliation, there will be a new (ideological) depression, and THAT point will be our chance!!!
BS: Much of this will depend on progressives' ability to get the word out.
Zizek: I'm well aware of the big media's censorship here. For example, even in the European big media, which are supposed to be more open, you will never see a detailed examination of the movement's agenda. You get some ominous things. There is something dark about it. According to the normal rules of the liberal game, you would expect some of these people to be invited on some TV talk shows, confronted with their adversaries, placed in a vigorous polemic, but no. Their agenda is ignored. Usually they're mocked as advocating some old-fashioned left-wing politics or some particularism, like saving local conditions against globalism. My conclusion is that the big powers must be at least in some kind of a panic. This is a good sign.
BS: But lots of the movement has no explicit agenda to offer. Why is the elite in such a panic?
Zizek: It's not like these are some kind of old-fashioned left-wing idiots, or some kind of local traditionalists. I am well aware that Seattle etc. is still a movement finding its shape, but I think it has potential. (Even though) there is no explicit agenda, there is nonetheless an outlook reproaching this globalization for being too exclusionary, not a true globalization but only a capitalist globalization.
BS: At the same time this movement was growing, there was a string of electoral victories for the right — Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia in Italy, Jorg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria, our own Bush. What do you make of these?
Zizek: They're not to be underestimated. I'll put it in my old-fashioned Stalinist terms: there are two deviations to be avoided here, left and right. The right-wing deviation is to fully endorse their liberal opponents, to say, "OK, we have our problems with Gore or Blair but they're basically our guys, and we should support them against the true right." We should also avoid the opposite mistake, which is that they're all the same. It doesn't really matter if it's Gore or Bush. From this position it's only one step to the position that says, "so it's even better we have Bush, because then we see the true enemy."
We should steer the right middle course: while maintaining our critical distance towards the moderate left, one shouldn't be afraid when certain issues are at stake, to support them. What is at stake is the following: it looked in the 1990s that after the disintegration of socialism, the Third Way left represents the universal interests of capital as such, to put it in the old Marxist way, and the right-wing parties represent only particular interests. In the U.S., the Republicans target certain types of rich people, and even certain parts of the lower classes — flirting with the Moral Majority, for example. The problem is that right-wing politicians such as Haider are playing the global game. Not only do we have a Third Way left; we now have a Third Way right too, which tries to combine unrestrained global capitalism with a more conservative cultural politics.
Here is where I see the long-term danger of these right wingers. I think that sooner or later the existing power structure will be forced more and more to directly violate its own formal democratic rules. For example, in Europe, the tendency behind all these movements like Holocaust revisionism and so on, is an attempt to dismantle the post-World War II ideological consensus around anti-fascism, with a social solidarity built around the welfare state. It's an open question as to what will replace it.
[*Ed Note: Such as the new emergency powers granted the U.S. government for domestic surveillance purposes following the WTC/Pentagon attacks, which suspend habeas corpus rights for immigrants, allow security services to monitor your telecommunications activities, and review your student and bank records without permission from a judge]
BS: What about the transition from Clinton to Bush? What's significant about this from your point of view?
Zizek: The sad thing is that Clinton left behind him a devastated, disoriented Democratic Party. There are people who say that his departure leaves some room for a resurgence of the party's left wing, but that will be difficult. The true problem of Clinton is his legacy; there is none. He didn't survive as a movement, in the sense that he left a long-term imprint. He was just an opportunist and now he's simply out. He didn't emerge as a figure like Thatcher or Reagan who left a certain legacy. OK, you can say that he left a legacy of compromise or triangulation, but the big failure is at this ideological level. He didn't leave behind a platform with which the moderate liberals could identify.
BS: A lot of readers of American underground publications read Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and the stuff coming out of small anarchist presses. What would they get from reading your work that they might be missing?
Zizek: Martin Heidegger said that philosophy doesn't make things easier, it makes them harder and more complicated. What they can learn is the ambiguity of so many situations, in the sense that whenever we are presented by the big media with a simple opposition, like multicultural tolerance vs. ethnic fundamentalism, the opposition is never so clear-cut. The idea is that things are always more complex. For example, multiculturalist tolerance, or at least a certain type of it, generates or involves a much deeper racism. As a rule, this type of tolerance relies on the distinction between us multiculturalists, and intolerant ethnic others, with the paradoxical result that anti-racism itself is used to dismiss IN A RACIST WAY the other as a racist. Not to mention the fact that this kind of "tolerance" is as a rule patronizing. Its respect for the other cannot but remind us of the respect for naive children's beliefs: we leave them in their blessed ignorance so as not to hurt them...
Or take Chomsky. There are two problematic features in his work — though it goes without saying that I admire him very much. One is his anti-theorism. A friend who had lunch with him recently told me that Chomsky announced that he'd concluded that social theory and economic theory are of no use — that things are simply evident, like American state terror, and that all we need to know are the facts. I disagree with this. And the second point is that with all his criticism of the U.S., Chomsky retains a certain commitment to what is the most elemental ingredient of American ideology, individualism, a fundamental belief that America is the land of free individuals, and so on. So in that way he is deeply and problematically American.
You can see some of these problems in the famous Faurisson scandal in France. As many readers may know, Chomsky wrote the preface for a book by Robert Faurisson, which was threatened with being banned because it denied the reality of the Holocaust. Chomsky claimed that though he opposes the book's content, the book should still be published for free speech reasons. I can see the argument, but I can't support him here. The argument is that freedom of the press is freedom for all, even for those whom we find disgusting and totally unacceptable; otherwise, today it is them, tomorrow it is us. It sounds logical, but I think that it avoids the true paradox of freedom: that some limitations have to guarantee it.
So to understand what goes on today — to understand how we experience ourselves, to understand the structures of social authority, to understand whether we really live in a "permissive" society, and how prohibitions function today — for these we need social theory. That's the difference between me and the names you mentioned.
BS: Chomsky and people like him seem to think that if we just got the facts out there, things would almost take care of themselves. Why is this wrong? Why aren't "the facts" enough?
Zizek: Let me give you a very naive answer. I think that basically the facts are already known. Let's take Chomsky's analyses of how the CIA intervened in Nicaragua. OK, (he provides) a lot of details, yes, but did I learn anything fundamentally new? It's exactly what I'd expected: the CIA was playing a very dirty game. Of course it's more convincing if you learn the dirty details. But I don't think that we really learned anything dramatically new there. I don't think that merely "knowing the facts" can really change people's perceptions.
To put it another way: Chomsky's own position on Kosovo, on the Yugoslav war, shows some of his limitations, because of a lack of a proper historical context. With all his facts, he got the picture wrong. As far as I can judge, Chomsky bought a certain narrative — that we shouldn't put all the blame on Milosevic, that all parties were more or less to blame, and the West supported or incited this explosion because of its own geopolitical goals. All are not the same. I'm not saying that the Serbs are guilty. I just repeat my old point that Yugoslavia was not over with the secession of Slovenia. It was over the moment Milosevic took over Serbia. This triggered a totally different dynamic. It is also not true that the disintegration of Yugoslavia was supported by the West. On the contrary, the West exerted enormous pressure, at least until 1991, for ethnic groups to remain in Yugoslavia. I saw [former Secretary of State] James Baker on Yugoslav TV supporting the Yugoslav army's attempts to prevent Slovenia's secession.
The ultimate paradox for me is that because he lacks a theoretical framework, Chomsky even gets the facts wrong sometimes.
BS: Years ago, you were involved with the band Laibach and its proto-state, NSK (Neue Slovenische Kunst). Why did you get involved with them?
Zizek: The reason I liked them at a certain moment (which was during the last years of "really existing socialism") was that they were a third voice, a disturbing voice, not fitting into the opposition between the old Communists and the new liberal democrats. For me, their message was that there were fundamental mechanisms of power which we couldn't get rid of with the simple passage to democracy. This was a disturbing message, which was why they got on everyone's nerves. This was no abstract theoretical construct. In the late 1980s, people got this message instinctively — which is why Laibach were more strongly repressed by the new democratic, nationalist powers in Slovenia than previously by the Communists. In the early 1980s, they had some trouble with the Communists, but from the mid-1980s onward, they didn't have any trouble. But they did again with the transition of power. With their mocking rituals of totalitarian power, they transmitted a certain message about the functioning of power that didn't fit the naive belief in liberal democracy. The miracle was that they did it through certain stage rituals. Later, they tried to change their image (to put it in marketing terms) and they failed.
BS: You talk and write a lot about popular culture, particularly movies. How does your thinking about pop culture relate to your thinking about politics?
Zizek: We can no longer, as we did in the good old times, (if they were really good) oppose the economy and culture. They are so intertwined not only through the commercialization of culture but also the culturalization of the economy. Political analysis today cannot bypass mass culture. For me, the basic ideological attitudes are not found in big picture philosophical statements, but instead in lifeworld practices — how do you behave, how do you react — which aren't only reflected in mass culture, but which are, up to a point, even generated in mass culture. Mass culture is the central ideological battlefield today.
BS: You have recently been speaking about reviving Lenin. To a lot of politically active young people, Lenin is a devil figure. What do you find valuable in Lenin, or the Leninist tradition?
Zizek: I am careful to speak about not repeating Lenin. I am not an idiot. It wouldn't mean anything to return to the Leninist working class party today. What interests me about Lenin is precisely that after World War I broke out in 1914, he found himself in a total deadlock. Everything went wrong. All of the social democratic parties outside Russia supported the war, and there was a mass outbreak of patriotism. After this, Lenin had to think about how to reinvent a radical, revolutionary politics in this situation of total breakdown. This is the Lenin I like. Lenin is usually presented as a great follower of Marx, but it is impressive how often you read in Lenin the ironic line that "about this there isn't anything in Marx." It's this purely negative parallel. Just as Lenin was forced to reformulate the entire socialist project, we are in a similar situation. What Lenin did, we should do today, at an even more radical level.
For example, at the most elementary level, Marx's concept of exploitation presupposes a certain labor theory of value. If you take this away from Marx, the whole edifice of his model disintegrates. What do we do with this today, given the importance of intellectual labor? Both standard solutions are too easy — to claim that there is still real physical production going on in the Third World, or that today's programmers are a new proletariat? Like Lenin, we're deadlocked. What I like in Lenin is precisely what scares people about him — the ruthless will to discard all prejudices. Why not violence? Horrible as it may sound, I think it's a useful antidote to all the aseptic, frustrating, politically correct pacifism.
Let's take the campaign against smoking in the U.S. I think this is a much more suspicious phenomenon than it appears to be. First, deeply inscribed into it is an idea of absolute narcissism, that whenever you are in contact with another person, somehow he or she can infect you. Second, there is an envy of the intense enjoyment of smoking. There is a certain vision of subjectivity, a certain falseness in liberalism, that comes down to "I want to be left alone by others; I don't want to get too close to the others." Also, in this fight against the tobacco companies, you have a certain kind of politically correct yuppie who is doing very well financially, but who wants to retain a certain anti-capitalist aura. What better way to focus on the obvious bad guy, Big Tobacco? It functions as an ersatz enemy. You can still claim your stock market gains, but you can say, "I'm against tobacco companies." Now I should make it clear that I don't smoke. And I don't like tobacco companies. But this obsession with the danger of smoking isn't as simple as it might appear.
BS: You've also left some of your readers scratching their heads over the positive things you've been writing about Christianity lately. What is it in Christianity you find worthy?
Zizek: I'm tempted to say, "The Leninist part." I am a fighting atheist. My leanings are almost Maoist ones. Churches should be turned into grain silos or palaces of culture. What Christianity did, in a religiously mystified version, is give us the idea of rebirth. Against the pagan notion of destiny, Christianity offered the possibility of a radical opening, that we can find a zero point and clear the table. It introduced a new kind of ethics: not that each of us should do our duty according to our place in society — a good King should be a good King, a good servant a good servant — but instead that irrespective of who I am, I have direct access to universality. This is explosive. What interests me is only this dimension. Of course it was later taken over by secular philosophers and progressive thinkers. I am not in any way defending the Church as an institution, not even in a minimal way.
For an example, let's take Judith Butler, and her thesis that our sexual identity isn't part of our nature but is socially constructed. Such a statement, such a feminist position, could only occur against a background of a Christian space.
BS: Several times you've used the word "universalism." For trafficking in such concepts, people you'd identify as forces of political correctness have indicted you for Eurocentrism. You've even written a radical leftist plea for Eurocentrism. How do you respond to the PC camp's charges against you?
Zizek: I think that we should accept that universalism is a Eurocentrist notion. This may sound racist, but I don't think it is. Even when Third World countries appeal to freedom and democracy, when they formulate their struggle against European imperialism, they are at a more radical level endorsing the European premise of universalism. You may remember that in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the ANC always appealed to universal Enlightenment values, and it was Buthelezi, the regime's black supporter in the pay of the CIA, who appealed to special African values.
My opponent here is the widely accepted position that we should leave behind the quest for universal truth — that what we have instead are just different narratives about who we are, the stories we tell about ourselves. So, in that view, the highest ethical injunction is to respect the other story. All the stories should be told, each ethnic, political, or sexual group should be given the right to tell its story, as if this kind of tolerance towards the plurality of stories with no universal truth value is the ultimate ethical horizon.
I oppose this radically. This ethics of storytelling is usually accompanied by a right to narrate, as if the highest act you can do today is to narrate your own story, as if only a black lesbian mother can know what it's like to be a black lesbian mother, and so on. Now this may sound very emancipatory. But the moment we accept this logic, we enter a kind of apartheid. In a situation of social domination, all narratives are not the same. For example, in Germany in the 1930s, the narrative of the Jews wasn't just one among many. This was the narrative that explained the truth about the entire situation. Or today, take the gay struggle. It's not enough for gays to say, "we want our story to be heard." No, the gay narrative must contain a universal dimension, in the sense that their implicit claim must be that what happens to us is not something that concerns only us. What is happening to us is a symptom or signal that tells us something about what's wrong with the entirety of society today. We have to insist on this universal dimension.
Slavoj Zizek, philosopher and psychoanalyst, is currently Senior Researcher at Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut, in Essen, Germany. His latest publications are On Belief, (Routledge, 2001) and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (Verso, 2001).
Doug Henwood is the editor of the Left Business Observer and author of Wall Street: How It Works and for Whom (Verso, 1997), and the forthcoming A New Economy? He was once a teenage reactionary, but outgrew it.
Charlie Bertsch is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team and an assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona.