A Conversation with Slavoj Zizek

FM sits down to discuss the Occupy movement, pop culture, and modern academia with Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek.

When Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek visited Harvard for a lecture on the ontology of sexual difference last October, FM staff writer Tara Raghuveer ’14 and contributing writer Bradley G. Bolman ’15 sat down to discuss the Occupy movement, pop culture, and modern academia.

Fifteen Minutes: What is the role of academia at an institution like Harvard in the current global crisis?

Slavoj Žižek: What is crucial and also I think—especially today, when we have some kind of re-emergence of at least some kind of practical spirit, protest, and so on—one of the dangers I see amongst some radical academia circles is this mistrust in theory, you know, saying, “Who needs fat books on Hegel and logic? My god, they have to act!”

No, I think quite on the contrary. More than ever, today it’s crucial to emphasize that on the one hand, yes, every empirical example undermines theory. There are no full examples. But, point two, this does not mean that we should turn the examples against theory. At the same time, there is no exception. There are no examples outside theories. Every example of a theory is an indication of the inner split dynamics of the theory itself, and here dialectics begins, and so on....

Don’t fall into the trap of feeling guilty, especially if you have the luck of studying in such a rich place. All this bullshit like, “Somalian children are starving....” No! Somalian children are not starving because you have a good time here. There are others who are much more guilty. Rather, use the opportunity. Society will need more and more intellectual work. It’s this topic of intellectuals being privileged—this is typical petty-bourgeois manipulation to make you feel guilty. You know who told me the best story? The British Marxist, Terry Eagleton. He told me that 20 or 30 years ago he saw a big British Marxist figure, Eric Hobsbawm, the historian, giving a talk to ordinary workers in a factory. Hobsbawm wanted to appear popular, not elitist, so he started by saying to the workers, “Listen, I’m not here to teach you. I am here to exchange experiences. I will probably learn more from you than you will from me.” Then he got the answer of a lifetime. One ordinary worker interrupted him and said, “Fuck off! You are privileged to study, to know. You are here to teach us! Yes, we should learn from you! Don’t give us this bullshit, ‘We all know the same.’ You are elite in the sense that you were privileged to learn and to know a lot. So of course we should learn from you. Don’t play this false egalitarianism.”

Again, I think there is a certain strategy today even more, and I speak so bitterly about it because in Europe they are approaching it. I think Europe is approaching some kind of intellectual suicide in the sense that higher education is becoming more and more streamlined. They are talking the same way communists were talking 40 years ago when they wanted to crush intellectual life. They claimed that intellectuals are too abstract in their ivory towers; they are not dealing with real problems; we need education so that it will help real people—real societies’ problems. And then, again, in a debate I had in France, some high politician made it clear what he thinks and he said...in that time in France there were those demonstrations in Paris, the car burnings. He said, “Look, cars are burning in the suburbs of Paris: We don’t need your abstract Marxist theories. We need psychologists to tell us how to control the mob. We need urban planners to tell us how to organize the suburbs to make demonstrations difficult.”

But this is a job for experts, and the whole point of being intellectual today is to be more than an expert. Experts are doing what? They are solving problems formulated by others. You know, if a politician comes to you, “Fuck it! Cars are burning! Tell me what’s the psychological mechanism, how do we dominate it?” No, an intellectual asks a totally different question: “What are the roots? Is the system guilty?” An intellectual, before answering a question, changes the question. He starts with, “But is this the right way to formulate the question?”

FM: You spoke at Occupy Wall Street a few months ago. What is your personal involvement with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and what do you think the protests signify?

SZ: None. My personal involvement was some guy who was connected with it, and he told me, “Would you go there, come there?” And I said, “Okay. Why not?” Then the same guy told me,“Be careful, because microphones are prohibited, you know, it’s this echoing, repeating.” So my friend told me, frankly, to be demagogic: “Just try to be as much as possible effective, short, slow,” and so on, and that was it. I didn’t even drop my work.

What does [Occupy] mean? Then they tell you, “Oh, Wall Street should work for the Main Street, not the opposite,” but the problem is not this. The problem is that the system stated that there is no Main Street without Wall Street. That is to say that banking and credits are absolutely crucial for the system to function today. That is why I understand Obama when—two years ago you know when the first, I think it was, $750 billion and a bit more—it was simply blackmail and it was not possible to say no because that’s how the system functions. If Wall Street were to break down, everything would break. We should think more radically. So again, the formula “Give money to Main Street and not to Wall Street” is ruined. That is to say, all these honest, hardworking people who do their jobs cannot find work now. Think how to change that. Think how to change [the] mechanisms of that. We are no longer dealing with short-term crises like in 2008.

FM: Why do you believe that the Right and the Left in America have failed to provide answers to the problems of inequality and the crises they predict?

SZ: It’s crazy but I’m convinced about it: look at the last two seasons of “24.” Look closely, something very interesting happens. It’s not only superficial, political correctness. In season seven, Jack Bauer investigates some Muslim attacks and then he discovers it’s not Muslims at all: it’s some American mega-security company who is manipulating these attacks. Something much more tragic happened in the last season, which I quite liked. It’s that, at the end, Jack Bauer breaks out of this authoritarian logic. Somebody has to do the dirty job, torturing, and so on. He says, “Maybe I should say it publicly, everything, I cannot live with it.” So this logic of “The true heroes are those who are ready to do the dirty job—torture for the country,”  it breaks down. His liberal counterpoint, the president, Allison Taylor, also breaks down and has to quit. So that, at the end, you get a very honest assessment of a deadlock and the message is: within the present global systemic coordinates, whatever you do, you end up in a deadlock. I think this honest confrontation with the ethical deadlock is much more valuable than the Hollywood Left “feel-good” attitude of movies like Pelican Brief or All the President’s Men, which may appear radical in their accusation: “Oh my god, even the President of the United States can be corrupted blah blah blah.” Nonetheless, these are all “feel-good” movies because at the end the final message is: “Wow, what a great country! Two ordinary guys can overthrow the mightiest man in the world!” If I were to choose between this Leftist, liberal All the President’s Men or Jack Bauer, I [would] choose Jack Bauer every day. I’m sorry to tell you. Because it does what honest conservatives want—not reactionaries: reactionaries are stupid, they think if we go back to lost values, it will work. Liberals are stupid progressives. What we can learn from honest conservatives is that they are ready to accept a deadlock.

For example, Marx said about Balzac: precisely as a conservative, Balzac depicted the deadlock of French society. Even [American political scientist] Francis Fukuyama, he no longer believes in this bullshit “end of history.” He told me that the very fact of the possibility of biogenetic manipulations makes his thesis on the “end of history” obsolete. And he thinks that to cope with this problem we need much stronger forms of social control, which liberal-democratic capitalism cannot provide. This is what I like and this is what we can learn from honest conservatives: they don’t bullshit you. And maybe this is the duty of us intellectuals. You know when people ask me on Wall Street, “What should we do?” I was so embarrassed because, fuck you, what do I know? I don’t. But what we should do is simply break the rules in the sense of opening new space. [The world is] confused as it is, always, from Wall Street to Egypt. Nonetheless, it is opening up space. People are becoming aware. It’s the first move, but nonetheless, we have to start to think about some kind of radical change. All these Leftist, liberal things—more gay rights, more abortion—of course we fight for that, but that’s not enough. Ironically, when I was young, we were dreaming about socialism with a human face; these guys are offering us global capitalism with a human face. It’s the same system but a little bit more.... We have to break this taboo, which was very strong until now: nobody even dared to imagine an alternative. Everyone was, in a way as I say, a Fukuyamist. Even radicals, we somehow accept that global capitalism and liberal democracy are here to stay, and the point is only to make the system a little bit more efficient. No, it is clear we have to start thinking.

And this is a great responsibility, because of course there is no way back to the glories of 20th century communism. No, but that’s our duty at this point, just to open up the field and, at the same time, to undermine, break. We have to be very destructive at this point, destructive in the sense of breaking false illusions....

Who would have expected the Arab Spring, or whatever you call it? It did happen. Who would have expected these big demonstrations in Europe that are occurring? They are happening. People at the beginning thought, “Oh this is something that will explode.” No, it goes on. There is a tremendous potential in dissatisfaction. But again, this is always a potential danger.

FM: It seems that a similar deadlock appears in the context of both the economic crisis and global warming—experts can’t seem to predict them, nor will politicians or society act to stop them.

SZ: I especially hate, from my own experience, when people say, “Oh, who could have predicted this [economic crisis]?” No. I know a couple of leftists and empiricists who exactly predicted this. These are not the kinds of cheap catastrophists who all of the time give bad predictions and then something happens so that they go awry. No, no. They were very precise and predicted this crisis. Paul Krugman said something deeply true. A guy asked him, “But now that we know, wouldn’t things be radically different if we were to know 10 years back what we know now?” He said, “No, no, it wouldn’t. The system pushes you to act in a certain way.” The illusion is much stronger. Like, you may know that there may be a catastrophe, but nonetheless, we would have done exactly the same thing. I mean, it’s no longer a question of knowledge. Today many, even sociologists, have this wonderful idea of how, although we live in a society of knowledge—even scientific knowledge—[it] is becoming more and more contingent, non-binding. I think it was the German theorist Ulrich Beck who drew attention to the simple fact: today we speak about expert opinions. Are we aware how paradoxical this term is? The idea is that we ordinary people have opinions. They tell you the truth. Now experts all of a sudden are telling us different opinions and we have to decide how, who knows, if even they don’t know. This is the tragedy of our predicament of freedom of choice. The problem is...we are often forced to choose without having serious cognitive coordinates of how or what to choose.... The price is that science is no longer a homogenous science but it’s turning into kind of a pluralistic field of opinions.

For example, I once had a debate with a quantum physicist. And he accused me, “You stupid guys with your French theory, total bullshit.” He made fun precisely of this: “You can just say whatever you want.” And I told him, “Fuck you! Look at quantum physics: literally anything goes. You can claim that there is a Big Bang, that there is no Big Bang, there were multiple Big Bangs…” It’s incredible how, when science approaches a certain limit, how open it becomes. It’s as if anything you can imagine, you find scientists who advocate. I’m not saying science is just laughable. It is real. I’m just saying how difficult it is to decide today without a proper cognitive base. We are more and more compelled to this.

Andre Depui said that the problem when people say, “Oh but we don’t know if it’s really global warming.” The problem is that if you want to wait until we really know, it will be, by definition, too late. Because we will really know when the catastrophe is here. This is maybe one of the great things that has to be decided as a specific problem—in Germany there were working with certain proponents of risk society—how to decide some basic rules of decision-making in situations that are cognitively non-transparent. You have to decide because not doing anything is also a decision. You have to decide, but you don’t know. The situation is not transparent.

FM: Thank you so much for the interview. Can we get a photo with you?

SZ: Okay, okay. But I hate my stupid face. Oh, this photo will look like something that should be titled “Dumb and Dumber.” Ugh, my stupid face. It’s horrible, just horrible. There’s a Slovenian saying. It looks like it’s been pulled out of a cow’s ass.