Rock star philosopher and critical theorist Slavoj Žižek takes on hypocrisy, cheap Hollywood Marxism and the final crisis of capitalism.
He’s run for president in his native Slovenia, has a soft spot for Jacques Lacan, and has been hailed as the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’. With grand gestures, penetrating ideas and an articulate, super cool Balkan voice, Slavoj Žižek has a larger-than-life presence.
In his new book, Living in the End Times, Žižek prophesises the final crisis of capitalism, criticises the hypocrisy of Western racial “tolerance” and points to a challenging future with no easy solutions. We spoke for almost an hour and a half about all manner of issues, from Wikileaks and ideology to the benefits of skateboarding and his dream of remaking Star Wars with Darth Vader as “an enlightenment ruler fighting reactionary feudals like the Jedis”.
What follows are some of the highlights.
Can you break down the thesis of Living in the End Times for us?
The book is very simple. We are approaching a whole series of critical points, and the question is: can the global liberal democratic system – the capitalist system – deal with them or not? […] There are a series of problems: social problems, new areas of apartheid, ecological problems, and then the problem of what to do with biogenetics, intellectual property and so on. In the long term, I think they are a threat in the sense that the existing system cannot deal with them. If we don’t do something we are approaching some kind of catastrophe.
I’m not saying it’s a kind of immediate catastrophe – I mean, I didn’t like the movie 2012. But, for example, take new forms of apartheid: worldwide, there is a clear tendency [for] some kind of limitation of democracy. Look at these new emerging Eastern powers – Singapore, China and so on. They combine a capitalism that is even more productive and dynamic than our Western capitalism with a social system that is definitely not democratic – it’s authoritarian, more or less, and it seems to function perfectly. I think this is a long-term tendency. Till now, the marriage of capitalism and democracy was maybe the best argument for capitalism: sooner or later, after years of dictatorship like in Chile, Spain, South Korea, when things started moving, capitalism generated the demand for democracy. I claim this era is out. Capitalism will be less and less able to provide and guarantee the human rights and freedoms that we have known until now.
Or take ecology. Let’s think about the recent catastrophe in Japan. I don’t think that long-term you can deal with threats of such catastrophes through market [solutions]. I think a much larger scope – international cooperation, whatever – will be needed. Biogenetics is the same thing: somebody has to regulate it – it absolutely cannot be the market. Not to mention intellectual property. […] I don’t think that so-called intellectual property really fits the institution of private property in the long term. The logic is totally different. [Take] a glass of water: if I drink it you will not drink it and vice-versa. That’s private property. [But] intellectual property says that the more it circulates, the richer it grows, as if it were almost in its nature communist. […]
So my point is a very simple one: all these elements concern communism, but not communism in the sense of a solution. Communism is for me the name of a problem, the problem of commons – the commons of nature, the commons of knowledge which we should share, the commons of the common space from which no one should be excluded. […] We are approaching a certain point where things will not be able to go on as they’ve done till now. […] The only true utopia is the utopia that things can simply go on as they’ve done till now.
Let me counter your pessimism a bit. How about Wikileaks – does it not signal the early stages of a radical shift in the public’s access to information?
I am basically for Wikileaks. But I think it’s a field of battle. Some people – maybe even [Julian] Assange himself – tried to re-inscribe it into this old liberal myth of free flow of information, investigative journalism etc. But I think it’s something more. This idea of just throwing the documents out disrupts the very way power is functioning today. There is a more radical dimension. Now, I am not saying there will be great consequences. But I think that, yes, it is an important field of study.
What’s important about it?
What is important is not to reduce it to this ideology of free flow of information – the right to know. It’s not a new case of all this Hollywood stuff, movies like All The President’s Men, The Pelican Brief. […] My God, The Pelican Brief, what does it mean? A top company connected with the president, part of the same plot and corruption – what can be more critical? Ideology comes when you suggest what a great country the United States is when two ordinary journalists can overthrow the entire system. I don’t like this moralisation that comes with these movies. You know, we are full of anti-capitalism today, maybe even too much […] but they always [focus] on personal corruption, greed. […] We should move from this simple moralistic anti-capitalism to more fundamental questions such as //why// people are pushed to act like that. I am not a naïve humanist. I agree with Bertolt Brecht: people are evil – you cannot change people. You can maybe change the system so that people are not pushed into doing evil things. It’s a very modest view.
What about the student protests in London, what’s their meaning?
It’s not just privatisation of higher education, what worries me [is this trend] that says, if you want to study this abstract, useless knowledge it should be your private stuff. What society needs is useful knowledge; experts to meet social needs. […] So that, for example, when you have a crisis, precisely like the demonstrations in London, you can call psychologists who tell you how people in demonstrations behave… you know, useful knowledge.
We need a more radical thinking. We need thinking which problematises problems themselves. Thinking is not to say, ‘We have a problem, help us fix it.’ Thinking is to see how weperceive the problem. Often the way we perceive a problem already in a way mystifies the problem. One example: when you mix ecology with this new age bullshit – you know, ‘We’re raping mother earth, mother earth is taking revenge,’ blah, blah, blah – all that new age bullshit means catastrophe to ecology if we approach it in this new age way.
And here I like movies. […] I simply use movies as the most subtle registration of where we stand ideologically. Take this year’s Oscars: the two big winners, The King’s Speech and Black Swan. It’s very interesting how they fit sexual difference and the problem of subjectivity today. What’s the problem of The King’s Speech? The king here is a subject who stutters, it’s clear why – because he finds it hard to identify with his symbolic title. Like, ‘My God, am I really a king? Can I be a king?’ Which is I think quite a healthy attitude, you know? It’s a sad story for me. The king is much wiser in the beginning; his stuttering means he knows that to be a king you need to believe in our kingness, which is madness, you know? So he’s rendered slowly stupid enough to believe that he can be a king. The other one is even worse. A really simplistic analysis, of course, butBlack Swan, I think, is a deeply reactionary film. The underlying premise is that a man, played by Vincent Cassell, the director of the ballet, can combine the ruthless total dedication to his profession with normal private life, but a woman has to choose. If you identify too much with your mission of being a perfect artist, you are punished with death. This is a radically anti-feminist idea; that a woman and her radical dedication to her art can’t go together. It’s a beautiful film, nicely shot, blah, blah – but maybe they could have got slightly better music than that Tchaikovsky bullshit. I’m here this conservative European high modernist. Tchaikovsky is out for me, no? It’s popular music.
On the topic of music, Slavoj, what do you like?
I love classical music; I’m a mega Wagnerian – Wagner, Shemberg, Mozart, Schubert, Schuman. I listen for hours every day. I work to loud music. […] Of the latest music, I like bands like the German one, Rammstein. I disagree with those who think they are some kind of proto-fascist band. They do this wonderful thing – deconstructing from within; the charm of fascism, overidentifying with it and making it ridiculous. […]
But listen, I am generally a kind of retarded guy. For example, whenHarry Potter exploded, with my best intentions I tried to read the novels. Sorry, I found them boring, I couldn’t.
What about the films? Were you able to watch them?
A little bit better for me. But of course, like my small son, I have the usual identification with the bad guy. Voldermort is my hero, of course. My dream is [for him to] take over and introduce a kind of people’s democracy dictatorship, like a soft Stalinism. Incidentally – this is my old dream, of course I will never get the money – [I would love to] remake Star Wars, with the emperor and Darth Vader as kind of progressive, enlightenment, absolutist rulers fighting reactionary feudals like the Jedis in a slightly totalitarian, leftist way, to change the perspective, you know?
While we’re still talking about film, Slavoj, Apocalypse Now is being re-released – what’s its relevance today?
The reason I like the film is that it confirms my theory of so-called inherent transgression. What is Kurtz, Marlon Brando? He is the excess of the system itself – what the military system pushes you to do. He just went too much to the end. It’s as if the military establishment has to fight its own excesses.
A bit like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yes, absolutely! Those prisons where they were tortured, Abu Ghraib – this is what always fascinates me: the obscene underside of institutions. For example, the Catholic Church, oops, you have all these priests committing paedophilia. It is clear by the sheer numbers that there must be something in the logic of the institutions pushing them to do it. And I think it’s the same in all these military excesses of the United States. This is all linked to this old culture in military communities, these hidden rituals of initiations where you are symbolically humiliated. And this is also my personal experience when I served in the army. [...] I went to serve the army in the naïve hope that I would find a body of order and discipline. But it’s not that – you have superficial discipline, but just beneath the surface are all the obscene rituals, dirty jokes. It’s really a field of hidden obscenities.
You often refer to Jacques Lacan’s theory of the Real – the idea that there is a natural state traumatically lost to us by our development of language. How do you apply that to your analysis of the world?
What is crucial for me is not to fetishise the Real into a kind of monstrous reality. It’s the inherent obstacle which, at the same time, sustains the system. This is why I greatly appreciate movies. I appreciate very much Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. I think it is totally vulgar and wrong to read it in the traditional leftist way, as a portrait of middle-class despair and a critique of suburban alienation. The form of the film itself – this matrix of eight or nine stories, parallel lines, contingent encounters – is about stumbling on something that could be a catastrophe but also something happy. The very ontology of the film – this vision of reality – is much more optimistic than the standard story. I think it’s wrong to read it as Hollywood Marxism.
This is why I am so opposed to James Cameron. […] It’s almost embarrassing to see Avatar or Titanic, you know, all the rich are bad, sympathy with the lower class, the natives on the planet and so on, no? But at an implicit level, you get a very reactionary need sustaining this. In both movies that need is best articulated by the ultimate imperialist writer, Rudyard Kipling. Avatar is The Man Who Would Be King – the miserable crippled guy who is nonetheless good enough to save the natives and marry their princess and so on. This is the ultimate White Man’s dream. And Titanic is Captains Courageous. It’s really the story of a spoiled upper-class girl who has a moment of crisis and then uses Leonardo DiCaprio to restore her ego. Literally, he paints her portrait, then he can fuck off – he can leave. When Leonardo DiCaprio is freezing in water, she notices that he’s dead, and starts to shout, ‘I will never let you go,’ but while she is shouting this, she is pushing him away. It’s not even a love story. Again, Captains Courageous: upper classes lose their life, passion, vitality and act like a vampire to suck vitality from a lower-class guy. Once they replenish their energy, he can fuck off.
So Titanic is a vampire film?!
Yeah! Absolutely! Cameron appears to be progressive, but the mythical coordinates of his universe are reactionary.
You mentioned Kipling earlier, and in my reading of your book, I thought it was really interesting how you broke down the word ‘tolerance’ – how it’s used in Western Europe to suggest some kind of pinnacle of human civilisation. Can you explain?
What makes me suspicious is this automatic translation of racism and sexism into a problem of tolerance. It buys perfectly into today’s depoliticisation of politics. You remember when Mel Gibson had an anti-Semitic outburst in front of a policeman when he was drunk? It was reported in the media that the deal he made with the Jewish community was that he would regularly visit a psychiatrist to cure him of this anti-Semitic tendency. This is horrible for me, how instead of a problem of economy, legal system, rights and racism, it becomes a psychological problem, like, ‘Why don’t I tolerate the Other? What deep traumas do I have in myself?’ Look at Martin Luther King – he never used tolerance. He never said, ‘We blacks, we want more tolerance.’ Tolerance is how racism and sexism are perceived in our post-political universe.
Also, the notion of tolerance suggests that I should merely put up with my neighbour instead of embracing the radical Other – anyone who breaks from the norm…
Yeah! That’s another point. The notion of tolerance effectively functions, in highly developed countries, almost as its opposite. Tolerance means don’t harass me. Don’t harass me means don’t come too close to me. Tolerance means precisely: I don’t tolerate your proximity.
What do you make of skateboarding and surfing, which are perhaps closer to a purely aesthetic expression than to your traditional mainstream sport. Do they mean anything to you?
Skateboarding, I think this is a great thing. […] I remember those kung fu films – did you notice the heroes were always working class? Rich people can have guards and arms, so they can afford to be lazy and consume; poor people have only their bodies and self-discipline. This is what I am for. I agree with my German friend Peter Sloterdijk: he came up with the idea that this is one of the hopes, these perfectionist disciplines, [like] a skateboarding guy who makes a mission out of [his] self-discipline. This is absolutely a positive thing.
Thanks so much, Slavoj.
You have the Orwellian freedom to do whatever you want with what I said. You are the boss. Rewrite it, make me say the opposite, I love it. As a journalist, don’t you hate guys who you interview, these fanatics who then write to you and say, ‘You changed one word there and you didn’t get it and ruined everything,’ and so on, no?