Civil Society, Fanaticism, and Digital Reality: A Conversation with Slavoj
Editors' Note: Slavoj Zizek, a leading intellectual in the new
social movements of Eastern and Central Europe, is a researcher at the Institute
of Sociology at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is the author of
numerous books including Looking Away: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan
Through Popular Culture. Zizek also ran as a pro-reform candidate for the
presidency of the republic of Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia, in 1990.
CTHEORY: Let's speak about the role of intellectuals. Before 1989,
there was a strange relationship among intellectuals and those in power in
Eastern Europe. Both bureaucrats and dissidents had some sort of relationship
with politics. Even now, this is partly the case. In Western Europe this
phenomenon disappeared and it is hard to see any relationship or even dialogue.
What should be the role of intellectuals?
Zizek: Partially this is true. For me what was partially so
attractive, so sympathetic about real socialism, despite being a corrupt,
cynical system, was the belief in the power of the spoken word. Some twenty
years ago, I was editor of a small art-theoretical journal with a circulation of
3,400. Once we published a small, obscure poem, incomprehensibly modern, but
between the lines there was a dissident message. If the power would have ignored
the poem, nothing would have happened. But there was an extraordinary session of
the Central Committee. Okay, this is repression, but what I like about it is
that the communist power took the potential, detonating force of the spoken word
very seriously. They were always interested in arguing with intellectuals. Let's
take an artist like Tarkovski, who was half dissident. He was half allowed to
work, even if they suppressed some of his films. They were impressed, they
bothered. Fredric Jameson made a nice point about this: we are only now becoming
aware that what we liked about East-European dissidents like Havel is only
possible within a socialist system.
Our influence, beginning in the mid-eighties, was at that time incredibly
large, especially the philosophers, sociologists, literary theoreticians. But
this was a very limited conjunction. Now there is the pure ignorance of the
regime, which is simply not interested in ideological questions. I feel sorry
for those countries in which writers nowadays play an important role. Take
Serbia, where this nationalist madness was fabricated by writers. Even in
Slovenia it's the same with the nationalist writers, although they do not have
CTHEORY: But you are involved in politics yourself, up until this
moment. There are a lot of controversies in Ljubljiana about your involvement in
the governing party and the fact that you write speeches for them.
Zizek: There is a messianic complex with intellectuals in Eastern
Europe. Nothing against it, but it becomes extremely dangerous in Slovenia when
this messianic vision of intellectuals is combined with a vulgar
anti-Americanism, which is a very popular political attitude of right wingers.
America for them means no national solidarity, filthy liberalism,
multi-culturalism, individualism, the market. They are afraid of a pluralistic
democracy and there is a proto-fascistic potential in it. This combination of
nationalist writers, whose obsession is how to retain national identity, and an
anti-capitalist right-wing movement is very dangerous.
I did something for which I lost almost all my friends, what no good leftist
ever does: I fully supported the ruling party in Slovenia. For this all my
leftist friends hate me and of course the whole right wing. What the liberal
democratic party did was a miracle. Five years ago we were the remainder of the
new social movements, like feminist and ecological groups. At that time
everybody thought that we would be vanishing mediators. We made some slyly
corrupted, but good moves and now we are the strongest party. I think it was our
party that saved Slovenia from the fate of the other former Yugoslav republics,
where they have the one-party model. Either right wing like in Croatia or left
wing like in Serbia, which hegemonized in the name of the national interest.
With us it's a really diverse, pluralist scene, open towards foreigners (of
course there are some critical cases). But the changes of a genuine pluralist
society are not yet lost.
It's typical that this position triggers an enormous hatred against me.
Slovene media absolutely ignore me, there is never an article about me. On the
other hand, if some nationalist poet publishes a small poem in some obscure
Austrian journal, it's a big success in Slovenia. I am rather perceived as some
dark, ominous, plotting, political manipulator, a role I enjoy immensely and
like very much.
CTHEORY: You have not become cynical about the current power struggles
you are involved in?
Zizek: You do not hear me not saying that it is so disgusting. It's a
simple, professional choice. Now politics is becoming business-as-usual in
Slovenia. It's no longer that once a week you write a heroic article and you are
a hero. It means intrigues and meetings. I simply had to choose. Do I do serious
theory or politics? What I hate most are the beautiful souls of the left wing
who complain about their losses, that everything is corrupted, where are the
good old days of the original, left-wing dissidence? No, you must accept the
rules of the game. Svetlana Slapzak (from Belgrade, now Ljubljana - GL) and the
group around her present themselves as marginalized victims. But her groups
control two departments and the most powerful publishing house. They get the
most money from the ministry of science. And via the Soros Foundation they are
selling the story of being surrounded by nationalism.
Let's take me. I was blocked from the university before; I was only teaching
abroad, in France and in America. I never taught at any university in Slovenia,
I am absolutely alone, without any research assistant. They just give me enough
money in order to survive. My answer to Svetlana Slapzak would be: why did she
become a Slovenian citizen? Her very position is a contradiction of what she
says. In a state of less than 2 million we offered 100,000 non-Slovenians
permanent citizenship, against terrible nationalistic resistance. There were no
dirty tricks involved, like a test if you knew Slovenian. We are still in an
intermediate stage. When a new political logic imposes itself, the
Sittlichkeit, the unwritten rules are still unsure, people are still
searching for a model. The question is: will we become just another small,
stupid, nationalistic state or maintain this elementary, pluralistic opening?
And all compromises are worth it for this goal.
CTHEORY: What is your view on the work of the Soros Foundation and the
concept of an "open society"?
Zizek: If you look into my heart, you'll see I am an old-fashioned
left-winger. In the short term I support it, but I don't have Popper notions
about it. Soros is doing good work in the field of education, refugees and
keeping the theoretical and social sciences spirit alive. These countries are
not only impoverished, but the sphere of social sciences is hegemonized by
Heideggerian nationalists. But the Soros people have this ethic of the bad state
vs. good civic, independent structures. But sorry, in Slovenia I am for the
state and against civil society! In Slovenia, civil society is equal to the
right wingers. In America, after the Oklahoma bombing, they suddenly discovered
that madmen are everywhere. Civil society is not this nice, social movement, but
a network of moral majority, conservatives and nationalist pressure groups,
against abortion, [for] religious education in schools. A real pressure from
For me the open society means something very practical: the unwritten rules
of the political space. For example, if you oppose the present government or the
hegemonic party, are you then still accepted or is there an unwritten, unspoken
stigma that you are a half-nationalist traitor and so on? Up to what extent can
you make a career without making political compromises? I don't have any
fundamental hopes in a socialist revolution or whatever. We have several big
crises coming: the ecological, the developed against the underdeveloped world
and the loss of the sense of reality in the face of all the rapid changes. I
don't underestimate the social impact of the loss of stability. Is the frame of
liberal capitalism able to solve this antagonism? Unfortunately my answer is no.
Here I am the old-fashioned left-wing pessimist. I think that ghettoisation,
like half of L.A., is far stronger than the Marxist class struggle. At least
both workers and capitalists still participated in legality and the state,
whereas liberal capitalism simply doesn't integrate the new ghettoes. Liberal
democracy has no answer to these problems.
A lot of times, this Soros approach of openness indulges in its own species
of covered racism. Recently at a conference in Amsterdam, Press Now asked
whether it was possible to find a universal language so that intellectuals from
various parts of the former Yugoslavia could start a dialogue. I find this
cliché extremely dangerous, because it comes from an idea of the Balkans as the
phantasmatic space of nationalistic madness. This phantasy is very well
manipulated and expressed in some popular works of art, like Kusturica's film
Underground. He said himself, in Cahiers du Cinema,
that in the Balkans, war is a natural phenomenon, nobody knows when it will
emerge, it just comes, it's in our genes. This naturalisation of the Balkans
into an apolitical, primordial theatre of passions is cliché and I find it very
suspicious. I would like to quote Hegel here: "The true evil is an attitude
which perceives evil everywhere." I am very suspicious about this apparent
multi-cultural, neutral, liberal attitude, which only sees nationalistic madness
around itself. It posits itself in a witness role. The post-Yugoslav war is
strictly the result of European cultural dynamics. We don't need this simplistic
liberal deploring of "why don't people speak to each other?" Nobody is doing
A common Western cliché is the so-called complexity of the Balkans. This
specifically allows the West to maintain its position as an excluded observer.
What you should do is what I call a phenomenological reduction a
l'envers. You should not try to understand it. Like TV, the funny effect
when you disconnect the voice, you only have these stupid gestures. Cut off the
meaning and then you'll get the pure power battle. The Balkans are a symptom of
Europe in the sense that it embodies all that is wrong in the light of the
utopian notion of the European Community itself. What is the dream? A kind of
neutral, purely technocratic Brussels bureaucracy. They project their mirror
image on the Balkans. What they both have in common is the exclusion of the
proper political antagonisms.
CTHEORY: The campaign in Holland, Press Now, supports so-called
independent media in the former Yugoslavia. One of its premises is the idea that
the war started with propaganda from above through state-controlled media.
Seeing that any Western intervention already came too late, it states that, for
example, through independent media, one could work on a long-term solution. Do
you agree with this analysis?
Zizek: Up to a point I agree with this, but I have always been in
favour of military intervention from the West. Around 1992, with a little bit of
pressure, the war would have been over. But they missed the moment. Now, with
the shift of balance and the stronger Russia, this is no longer possible. At
that time, Croatians and Slovenians were in favour of independence, and the
Bosnians were much more ambiguous and they are paying the price for it. The
Bosnians didn't want to prepare for war, they were slower, more careful and
that's why they are now so mad at the West. There was no protection of Bosnia
from the Yugoslav army, despite all the guarantees. And then, after the attack,
the West suddenly started talking about ethnic struggles, all sides must be
guilty, and primordial passions.
I don't cry too much for Yugoslavia. The moment Milosevic took over and
annexed Kosovo and Vojvodina, the balance of power shifted. There was the choice
between a more federal Yugoslavia and a new, centralist one. Do not overestimate
the role of the media in the late eighties. Media were allowed to play this role
in order for local communist bureaucracies to survive. The key to the Yugoslav
crisis is Milosevic's strategy to maintain the power of the old
nomenclatura by raking up this national question. The media did their
dirty work. It was horrible to watch day by day the stories in Slovenia about
Serbs raping us and in Serbia about Albanians raping them. All the news was
filtered through this poisoning hatred, from everyday crime to economics. But
this was not the origin of the conflict. That was the calculation from the power
elite to maintain power.
If you define independence in terms of not being supported or controlled by
the state, then the worst right-wing weekly is an independent medium and should
be supported by Soros. I do admit that in Serbia and Croatia there is absolute
control over the media. What they allow are really small, marginalized media.
Impartial, independent information can help a lot, but don't expect too much of
CTHEORY: In your speech during the Ars Electronica conference, you
emphasized the fact that after a phase of introduction, the seduction of the new
media will be over and so will "virtual sex." So the desire to be wired will be
Zizek: The so-called "virtual communities" are not such a great
revolution as it might appear. What impresses me is the extent to which these
virtual phenomena retroactively enable us to discover to what extent our self
has always been virtual. Even the most physical self-experience has a symbolic,
virtual element in it. For example playing sex games. What fascinates me is that
the possibility of satisfaction already counts as an actual satisfaction. A lot
of my friends used to play sex games on Minitel in France. They told me that the
point is not really to meet a person, not even to masturbate, but that just
typing your phantasies is the fascination itself. In the symbolic order the
potentiality already gives actual satisfaction. In psychoanalytic theory the
notion of symbolic castration is often misunderstood. The threat of castration
as to its effects, acts as a castration. Or in power relations, where the
potential authority forms the actual threat. Take Margaret Thatcher. Her point
was that if you don't rely on state support but on your individual resources,
luck is around the corner. The majority didn't believe this, they knew very well
that most of them would remain poor. But it was enough to be in a position where
they might succeed.
The idea that you were able to do something, but didn't, gives you more
satisfaction than actually doing it. In Italy, it is said to be very popular
during the sexual act that a woman tells a man some dirty phantasies. It is not
enough that you are actually doing it, you need some phantasmatic, virtual
support. "You are good, but yesterday I fucked another one and he was better..."
What interests me are the so-called sado-masochistic, ritualised, sexual
practices. You never go to the end, you just repeat a certain foreplay. Virtual
in the sense that you announce it, but never do it. Some write a contract. Even
when you are doing it, you never lose control, all the time you behave as the
director of your own game. What fascinates me is this Spaltung, this gap
in order to remain a certain distance. This distance, far from spoiling
enjoyment makes it even more intense. Here I see great possibilities for the VR
In the computer I see virtuality, in the sense of symbolic fiction,
collapsing. This notion has a long tradition. In Bentham's panopticon we find
virtuality at its purest. You never know if somebody is there in the centre. If
you knew someone was there, it would have been less horrifying. Now's it's just
an "utterly dark spot," as Bentham calls it. If someone is following you and
you're not sure, it is more horrible than if you know that there is somebody. A
CTHEORY: You are famous for your film analyses. But can you imagine
also using examples from computer networks, analyzing the storyline of a CD-ROM
or using television material?
Zizek: The British Film Institute proposed to me to choose my own six,
seven films and to do a couple of lectures there, since I use so many film
examples. They came up with the idea to do a CD-ROM, because I write in the same
manner: click here, go there, use this fragment, that story or scene. My books
are already failed CD-ROMs, as someone told me. But because of copyright, it is
extremely difficult to realize and dirty capitalism will destroy this plan.
Don't they realize that if you use an excerpt of theirs, you create propaganda
for them? But it is my dream to do something like this. In my favorite book,
Tarrying with the Negative, I use some fragments of Hitchcock. How
nice it would be to have it included in the text. But concerning film, I am
indeed rather conservative. At this moment I am working on the theme of the role
of music in cinema. The idea is that in the mid-thirties, when the classical
Hollywood code was established, it was strictly Wagnerian, pure accompanying
music, radical underscoring, determining your subjective perspective. It's a
classical case of a conservative revolution. As Wagner said about his
Gesamtkunstwerk: if we allow music to develop by itself, it will become
atonal and inimitable.
What I also study are the soundtracks in the films of Lynch and Altman and
the shift from the landscape to the soundscape. With Altman and Dolby stereo,
you no longer need the soundtrack as a general frame, as if you have
inconsistent fragments. The unity is no longer established at the visual level.
I want to connect this with Altman's Short Cuts, with its series of
faiths, contingently hitting each other. Very Deleuzean: global nonsense where
contingence encounters produce local effects of sense in order to understand
what subjective in our late capitalist society means. Or let's take Lynch's
biggest failure, Dune. Did you notice the use of multiple inner
monologues? Reality is something very fragile for Lynch. If you get too close to
it you discover Leni Riefenstahl. I am not interested in direct content
analysis, but the kind of purely formal changes in how we relate to the
physicality of the film and the shifts in the notions of subjectivity. Of course
all of this is done in a kindly anti-Derridian swing. For us, it is the sound
that is the traumatic point, the cry or even the song. The point where you lose
your unity and the ways the self enjoying voice always gets controlled. What
interests me at the political level is how the discourse machinery, in order to
function, has to rely on the obscene voice. What appears to be a carnivalesque
subversion, this eruption of obscene freedom, really serves the power. But these
are my B-productions, if you want to put it in Hollywood terms. The A-production
of the last two years was a book on Schelling that I just finished.
CTHEORY: We recently celebrated the centenary of cinema. What's the
condition of current film theory? What will come after the critical,
semiological and gender approaches? It is still useful to see film as a unity or
should we surf through the media, like the users do and use a variety of
Zizek: Fredric Jameson has already made this point. What goes on in
cinema is determined by what happens in other media. Concerning theory, there
are a lot of others, the whole domain of cultural criticism in America is
basically cinema theory. What attracts me, is the axis between gaze and voice
and nowhere will you find this tension better than in cinema. This still is for
me the principal axis. Cinema is for me a kind of condensation. On the one hand
you have the problem of voice, on the other the narrativisation.
The only change I can think of is that up until twenty years ago, going to
the cinema was a totally different social experience. It was a Saturday or
Sunday afternoon, and this changed. But what still appears in ordinary
commercial films is the shift in the notion of subjectivity. You can detect what
goes on at the profoundest, most radical level of our symbolic identities and
how we experience ourselves. Cinema is still the easiest way, like for Freud
dreams were the royal way to the unconscious.
Maybe I am part of a nostalgic movement. Nowadays, because of all these new
media, cinema is in a crisis. It becomes popular as a nostalgic medium. And what
is modern film theory really about? Its ultimate object are nostalgic films from
the thirties and forties. It is as if you need the theory in order to enjoy
them. It's incredible how even Marxists enjoy this game. They have seen every
film, I'm not joking. It's not only this paternalising notion that it is good to
use examples from cinema. I would still claim that there is an inherent logic of
the theory itself, as if there is a privileged relationship, like the role
literature played in the nineteenth century.
CTHEORY: You have been to Japan. What's your opinion on the
technological culture in that country?
Zizek: First I must say that I don't have my own positive theory about
Japan. What I do have, as every Western intellectual, are the myths of
reference. There is the old, right-wing image of the Samurai code, fighting to
death, the absolute, ethical Japan. Then there is the leftist image, from
Eisenstein: the semiotic Japan. The empty signs, no Western metaphysics of
presence. It's a no less phantasmatic Japan then the first one. We know that
Eisenstein for his montage of attractions used Japanese ideograms.
Then there is Bertolt Brecht as an exception. He took over elements like
sacrifice and authority and put them in a left-wing context. Here in the West,
Brecht was seen as someone introducing a fanatic Eastern morality. But now
there's in Suhrkamp Verlag a detailed edition of his "Jasager" and his
"Lernstcke". They discovered that all those moments the Western critics
perceived as remainders of this imperial and sacrificing Japan were indeed
edited by Brecht. What they perceived as Japanese was Brecht.
Then there is the capitalist Japan and its different stages. There is the
myth of non-original Japan taking over, but developing better: Philips for the
rich and Sony for the poor. Twenty years later this was of course the other way
round. Then there is the Kojevian Japan. First, for Kojeve the end of history
was Russia and America, the realisation of the French Revolution. Then he
noticed that something was missing. He found the answer in Japan, in the little
surplus. If everything only functions, as in America, you would kill yourself.
In the snobbism, drinking tea in a nice way, he found that life still had a
But there is another Japan, the psycho-analytic. For the multi-culturalist
approach, the almost standard example is Japan and its way of Verneinung,
saying no. There are thirty ways to say no. You say no to your wife in one way,
no to a child in another way. There is not one negation. There is a small
Lacanian volume, La chose japonaise. They elaborate the borrowing
of other languages, all these ambiguities. Didn't Lacan say that Japanese do not
have an unconscious?
For the West, Japan is the ambiguous Other: at the same time it fascinates
you and repels you. Let's not forget the psychological cliche of Japan: you
smile, but you never know if it is sincere or if you are mocking us - the idea
of Japan as the impenetrable Other. This ambiguous politeness. What do they
really want? There's also the idea of the Japanese as the "ersatz" Jews for the
Americans. The Japanese governments together with two or three mega companies,
plotting. All this spleen, this palette of phantasies, is Japan for us. But what
surprised me is that authors, whom I considered strictly European, are widely
read in Japan, as for example George Lukacs.
Then there is a Japan, loved by those who criticize our Western, decadent way
of liberal democracy and who look for a model that would combine the dynamics of
capitalism, while maintaining some firm traditional structure of authority. And
again, it can work both ways. What I like about phantasies is that they are
always ambiguous. You can turn it in a negative way, Japanese pretending to play
capitalism, while in reality what you have is conspiracy and authority. On the
positive side you see that there is a capitalism possible with moral values.
What I liked there, in restaurants and subway stations, is the absence of
English. You don't have this self-humiliating, disgusting, pleasing attitude.
It's up to the foreigners to find their way out. I liked tremendously those
automatic vending machines. Did you see The Shining, based on
Stephen King's novel? This is America at its worst. Three people, a family, in a
big hotel and still the space is too small for them and they start killing each
other. In Japan, even when it is very crowded, you don't feel the pressure, even
if you are physically close. The art of ignoring. In the New York subway, even
when it's half full, you would have this horrifying experience of the absolute
proximity of the Other. What I liked about the Foucault conference in Tokyo I
attended was that one would expect the Japanese to apply Foucault to their own
notions. But all the Japanese interventions were about Flaubert. They didn't
accept this anthropological game of playing idiots for you. No, they tried to
beat us at our own game. We know Flaubert better than you.
Every nation in Europe has this fanaticism, conceiving itself as the true,
primordial nation. The Serbian myth, for example, is that they are the first
nation of the world. The Croatians consider themselves as primordial Aryans. The
Slovenians are not really Slavs, but pretend to be of Etrurian origin. It would
be nice to find a nation that accepts the fact of being the second and not the
first. This might be a part of the Japanese identity, if you look at the way
they borrow languages.
I recently read a book on Kurosawa. It is said that Rashomon was
seen in the early fifties as the big discovery of the Eastern spirit. But in
Japan it was perceived as way too Western. My favorite Japanese film is
Sansho by Michoguchi because it offers itself for a nice, Lacanian
reading, the problem of the lost mother, the mother's voice reaching the son,
etc. This is the Japanese advantage over America when the mother's voice tries
to reach the son. In America one would get madness, like Hitchcock's
Psycho, but in Japan you get a normal family.
The Balkans is now a region where the West is projecting its own phantasies,
like Japan. And again, this can be very contradictory. The film Rising
Suns ambiguously suggests that there is a Japanese plot to take over and
buy Hollywood. The idea is that they do not just want our factories, our land,
they even want our dreams. Behind this there's the notion of thought control.
It's the old Marxist notion of buying the whole chain, from the hardware until
the movie theatres. What interests me in Japan is that it is a good argument
against the vulgar, pseudo-Marxist evolutionary notion that you have to go
through certain evolutionary stages. Japan proves that you can make a direct
short circuit. You retain certain elements of the old hierarchical
superstructure and combine it very nicely with the most effective version of
capitalism it pretends to be. It's a good experience in non-anthropocentrism.
It's a mystery for Western sociologists who say that you need Protestant ethics
for good capitalism.
What I see in Japan, and maybe this is my own myth, is that behind all these
notions of politeness, snobbism etc. the Japanese are well aware that something
which may appear superficial and unnecessary has a much deeper structural
function. A Western approach would be: who needs this? But a totally ridiculous
thing at a deeper level might play a stabilizing function we are not aware of.
Everybody laughs at the English monarchy, but you'll never know.
There is another notion that is popular now amongst American sociologists,
the civilizations of guilt versus civilizations of shame. The Jews and their
inner guilt and the Greeks with their culture of shame. The usual cliche now is
that Japan is the ultimate civilization of shame. What I despise in America is
the studio actors' logic, as if there is something good in self-expression: do
not be oppressed, open yourself, even if you shout and kick the others,
everything in order to express and liberate yourself. This is a stupid idea,
that behind the mask there is some truth. In Japan, and I hope that this is not
only a myth, even if something is merely an appearance, politeness is not simply
insincere. There is a difference between saying "Hello, how are you?" and the
New York taxi drivers who swear at you. Surfaces do matter. If you disturb the
surfaces you may lose a lot more than you think. You shouldn't play with
rituals. Masks are never simply mere masks. Perhaps that's why Brecht became
close to Japan. He also liked this notion that there is nothing really
liberating in this typical Western gesture of stealing the masks and showing the
true face. What you discover is something absolutely disgusting. Let's maintain
the appearances, that's my own phantasy of Japan.
Geert Lovink is a Dutch media theorist and a member of
"Adilkno". He is also involved with the Digital City project in Amsterdam and
most recently has worked in Eastern Europe as an advisor for media art and
independent media. This interview took place in Linz, Austria, on June 20, 1995.
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