On Culture and Other Crimes: An Interview with Slavoj Zizek (Exchange)

Accessed October 28, 2014

By Kerry Chance
Anthropology
University of Chicago

Slavoj Zizek, psychoanalytic philosopher and cultural critic at the Institute of Sociology in Slovenia, has taught all over the world, most recently at the University of Chicago. His first public lecture at Chicago, entitled “The Ignorance of Chicken, or, Who Believes What Today”, looked every bit the rock show. Crowds stretched across the main campus quad, a ‘merch’ table featured his latest book The Parallax View, and as the lecture began with crowds still waiting outside, people climbed through the windows of the packed auditorium. While at Chicago, Zizek also taught a seminar as the Critical Inquiry Visiting Professor on topics ranging from Lacanian ethics, political correctness, habit in Hegel, the Big Other, Stalin, theology, politics and the role of the intellectual. Zizek has written innumerable articles and is the author of more than fifty books, including The Sublime Object of Ideology, The Ticklish Subject, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, On Belief andWelcome to the Desert of the RealÑto name just a few that have contributed to his widespread popularity in and outside the academy. Here, Zizek speaks to Exchange about culture, Lacan, cognitive science, neoliberalism and projects for contemporary anthropology.

I.

Chance: In class and in your public lectures here at Chicago, you’ve frequently talked about culture and have done so in two ways: first, in terms of belief as you have theorized it in your earlier work, and secondly in terms of Hegel’s notion of habit. How are you thinking culture in Lacanian terms?

Zizek: Traditionally, Lacanians like to identify culture simply as the symbolic system, within which there is a linguistically limited horizon of meaning, but I think two things should be added.

First, what is for me the zero-sum of culture, if I improvise, is what to do about embarrassing excesses. When somebody does something embarrassing, burps after eating for example, culture is how you react to it in a polite way. To be very vulgar, all seduction rituals are the cultured way of dealing with the fact that people would like to copulate with each other. Now, someone will say, “wait a minute, to feel something as embarrassment, culture must already be there.” No, I don’t think so. Somehow, embarrassment is first. In other words, we have to presuppose an excess, again, embarrassment apropos of something disgusting, non-social, or an excess of obscenity or enjoyment.

So again, this would be the first specification: to put it in bombastic Lacanian terms, first the excess of the real, embarrassment, shock – and culture is how you deal with it. This is why Lacan in a nice, tasteless way put it that one measure of the passage from the animal to the human kingdom is what to do with shit. He always liked this example, that an animal by definition just shits wherever, for humans shit is always an embarrassment. It always amused me when I was a boy that, at circuses, you have animals, horses and especially elephants that take a big shit and usually you see people hidden behind them ready to make the shit quickly disappear. Animals don’t care. The problem with humans is what to do with this embarrassment.

The second thing that interests me, which is a much more concrete historical analysis, is why there is such an obsession with culture today. Why is it that today not only do we have culture studies but everything – and by everything I mean at least the humanities and for some people even the hard sciences – has become a subspecies of cultural studies? In the hard sciences, people will say following Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, their history is the history of culture, of paradigm shifts and so on. Everything becomes culture.

Chance: How is this linked to your notion of belief?

Zizek: Again, this is linked to my notion of belief, to the idea that something is changing in the status of belief. Today, the predominant form is a belief that culture is the name of a belief, which is no longer taken seriously. Culture means, for example, I am a Jew, and although I don’t think there was a stupid god coming down and shouting some stupid things to people on Mount Sinai, I nonetheless say out of respect for my lifestyle or whatever, I don’t eat pork. This is culture.

To complicate things even further, I think two traps should be avoided here. Among other things, I have tried to focus my work on one of these traps in the last few years. First, it is too simple to say, “does this mean once before people were taking culture seriously.” No. Not only conservatives, but even progressives like to criticize the present, evoking, “oh, but once it was different, things were more authentic.” No, it wasn’t. It is not that before people did believe. If anything, they believe more today. It’s just that the modality of distance was different. Before, it wasn’t a matter of belief. Rather, it was a feeling of being more attached to, and having more respect for, the power of appearance of ritual as such. Something changed today at that level, I think. So paradoxically these external signs of belief – “nobody takes anything seriously” – if anything, points to how it’s more difficult today for us to trust the symbolic ritual, the symbolic institution. But again, there is no time when people ‘really meant it.’

What I know from anthropology, I may be wrong, is that all the great errors started with a phenomenological evolutionary illusion. I think when researchers found a certain gap between reality and beliefs or between form and content, they always thought, “ah, we have a later descendent state of evolution, there must have been some point earlier when people meant it.” The dream is that there was an original moment when people really ‘meant it.’ An example I know from my Marxist past, in anthropology you must know him from the 19th century, Lewis Henry Morgan. I remember from my youth that Engels among other classical Marxists relied on him. Morgan found that in some tribes all the men in one tribe referred to the women of the other tribe as their ‘sister wives.’ From this he deduced, that this is the linguistic remainder of some primordial form of marriage. The incest prohibition already in place, you were not allowed to have sex with women in your tribe, but only with the women in another tribe. The women were exchanged in a block, collectively. It was basic incest, but regulated. The way I heard it, anthropologists later proved that there never was this nice regulated collective orgy. That is to say, the wrong conclusion was that from this name ‘sister wives’ you conclude that there was a point when it was really meant. No, the gap is here from the very beginning.

What fascinates me in this example also is the logic of institution. By institution, I mean how, in order for something to function as a belief, you cannot simply say, “okay, let’s pretend.” In my book, I think the Ticklish Subject (Verso, 1999), I have a wonderful anecdote, which for me again tells about what culture is as an institution. It is a crazy story about elections some fifteen years ago in my country, Slovenia. An ex-friend of mine, who was a candidate told me – okay, he had to do these democratic games like kissing the asses of local constituents – an old lady came to him and said if he wanted her vote he would have to do her a favor. She was obsessed with the idea that something was wrong with her house number (number 24, not even 13), that this number brings misfortune. There was a burglary twice, lightning struck the house, and she’s convinced that it’s because of the number. She said, can she arrange with the city authorities to change the number, to 23a or something, just not 24. He said to her, “But lady, why even go through all this mess? Why don’t you simply paint a new number and change it yourself?” She said, “No, it must be done properly.” Though it was only superstition, to be effective it must be done properly through the institution. The must be a minimum reification to take the game seriously.

Chance: Is this a project for anthropology?

Zizek: This returns to another aspect of your question. That is, another lesson of all these notions of culture is the irreducibility of alienation. We should abandon this old phenomenological – and for some people, Marxist motive – that every institutionalization means reification in two directions, the past and the future. For the past, it is the idea that we should try to reconstitute a moment when it was not alienated, when it was ‘meant seriously.’ For the future, it is to isolate the moment, to dream or to work toward the moment when this transparency and authenticity of meaning will be reinstalled. No, we should also see the liberating aspect of it.

To return here to what I know of anthropology, when anthropology about half a century ago shifted from “let’s observe the mating rituals in Southern Samoa or South Pacific” or whatever, to focusing on our daily life rituals. You remember Florida, the scandal elections and the first Bush victory. A guy somewhere from Africa wrote an article imitating that sort of journalistic report, you know, an enlightened Western journalist goes to Africa, where they allegedly have some election and he mocks the election, “ha, ha, what corruption.” Well, this guy wrote about Florida in the same way, saying there are votes disappearing, the brother of the candidate is the local government, you know, describing Florida as a provincial Banana Republic case of cheating. It was a wonderful result. It was anthropology at its best.

I think this is what interests me, the anthropology of our lives. Not only is this a politically correct procedure – in this exceptional case, I use the term ‘politically correct’ in a positive way – but also I find it always a subversive procedure. The starting point is always the implicit racism of the anthropologist: you look at a foreign culture, you study them with this detachment, “oh what strange rituals” and so on. The phenomenological humanist temptation would be to say, “No, in this engaged participating fieldwork, we should immerse ourselves, become one of them to really understand them.” This series of presuppositions we should reject. What does it mean that we should be one of them to understand them? They usually don’t understand themselves – isn’t it the basic experience that people as a rule follow rituals that are just a part of tradition, which they themselves don’t get? I think the anthropology of our lives is the true breakthrough from this implicitly racist attitude of studying the eccentricity of others, to adopt the same view of ourselves. It is much better as a double alienation.

This is connected to another central motive of my work, this obsession with not only rules but also habits, which tell you how to obey or disobey rules. Especially social prohibitions never mean what they appear to mean. This is an incredibly wealthy topic of ideology for contemporary anthropology. Why is it so important? Precisely because we live in an era of so-called post-ideology. I claim that at precisely this level, ideology has survived.

My interest in anthropology, what always fascinated me was people never mean what they say and in order to be a part of a culture you have to get this gap. There is an important role of obscenities here. Let me tell you a comic adventure. This weekend, I was with Fred Jameson at Duke and there Fred invited an old, very distinguished Argentine gentleman – I will not tell you the name it’s too embarrassing – because of my wife, who is also Argentinean. This gentleman, you would be afraid of using the f-word in front of him, so I said to myself, okay, can I make him say something dirty? And I did seduce him, you know how? The specificities of Argentine Spanish are very different from say Venezuelan Spanish or Mexican Spanish. So, I told him how I tried to learn Spanish, and then I made my first step into obscenity. I told him I knew the word ‘cojo,’ which in Spanish simply means ‘to catch’ something, like “how do I catch a taxi?” Now, this word will be important because I told him I heard somewhere in Argentina there is a series of jokes, where a stupid Spaniard comes to Argentina and asks, “Where do I catch a taxi?” In Argentinean Spanish, ‘catch’ here means the f-word. Then, the distinguished gentleman smiled briefly and I saw that he knew a really dirty example. And I like it how he broke down. After two or three minutes, he broke down and said, “It’s against my nature but I must tell you Argentines have an even more dirty joke…” which is that a Spanish guy says, “How do you catch a cab?,” which means to fuck a taxi, and the Argentine says, “Well, the only practical way I can imagine is the exhaust pipe.” I was so glad that this distinguished gentleman, that I made him say this joke. For me, this is culture. For me, it is not a violation, but the closest you can get to authentic communication.

II.

Chance: I wanted to talk about Lacanian ethics and about Lacan’s injunction to be consistent with your desire –

Zizek: The thing about Lacan’s injunction is what if your desire is not consistent? In other words, the way I read Lacan is that more and more in his late work he devalues desire, desire itself as not an ethical category. The Lacan of the fifties and sixties, it is the ethics of desire to not compromise your desire. But later, more and more he emphasizes that desire is a priori something hypocritical, inconsistent. In this sense, desire mostly thinks with a secret code that you will not get, the whole economy is to avoid the realization of desire, which is why Lacan understood that fantasy is a realization of desire. He doesn’t mean realization of desire in the sense of getting what you desire, like I want to eat strawberry cakes and I in the fantasy imagine myself realizing it. For Lacan, it is to stage a scene where that desire as such emerges. What would be a nicer example, let’s say I have a desire to eat strawberries but as always with desires, you have this suspicion, what if I will be disappointed. A fantasy would be, for example, I am there sleeping and somebody brings me strawberries, then I taste one, then I stop and it goes on. This ‘going on’ – I never fully have the strawberries – is fantasy. You don’t realize desire – getting your dirty mouth full of strawberries – you just stage this scene on a pleasant, hopeful state of desire, on the verge of satisfaction but not yet there. There is a pleasant obstacle preventing it all the time. This is fantasy.

Chance: How does this ethical injunction, both in the early and late Lacan, play out in the political realm, specifically thinking about it in relation to the cartoon depictions of Mohammad, a debate that opposed unlimited freedom of the press to respect for the other?

Zizek: Do you see the piece I wrote – not in The New York Times, which was censored – but “Antinomies of Tolerant Reason”? (See HYPERLINK “http://www.lacan.com” http://www.lacan.com)

You know, many leftists were mad at me there. They thought I made too many compromises with Western liberals, too much anti-Muslim compromise. But the reason I did it was that I got a little bit sick and tired with these politically correct Western liberals – didn’t you notice this hypocrisy? I noticed it was the same people, who in the West are so sensitive – like I look at you and it already can be harassment – and all of sudden, they say it is a different culture, blah, blah, blah. I hate that even some feminists now are turning to culture as one of the standard defenses of Islam. In the West, we at least have formal equality of women. I am very sorry but there, you have a culture, at least in the predominant mode that is so openly anti-feminine. My god, but they are openly doing what we here are trying to unearth as the anti-feminism beneath the emancipated feminine. My god, are we now even prohibited from stating the obvious?

Do you know this famous, eternal politically correct example of clitoridechtomy? This example is not Islam – it is a ritual independent of Islam. But I remember some Muslim women claiming: isn’t it that in the West in order to be attractive to men, women have to remain slim, seductive; isn’t this a global clitoridechtomy; isn’t it much worse? There, it’s only the clitoris, here, it’s as if your entire body is clitoridechtomized. I hate this – I remember when I was a youth what the facts were about the Gulag. People would say: but at least here, you are in or out of the Gulag; isn’t it that the whole United States is one ideological Gulag? You know, this cheap counter universalization. I don’t buy it – this is what I try to say in that text. The first thing is to admit a genuine deadlock and to stop this hypocrisy.

In that text, I hope it is obvious this fury I have at this logic of respect. Sometimes, respect is the most disrespectful category. Respect here is like telling a child false things so not to hurt him. Here, respect means not taking him seriously. I think a lot of the people who preach, “you should show restraint, show respect to Islam,” are enacting the worst sort of patronization. Paradoxically, violent critics of Islam, on the most elementary level, show more respect for Islam than those who, out of respect, do not attack it. I am not saying we should turn to this, but at least those critics take people seriously as believers.

III.

Chance: What does it mean to return to big theory?

Zizek: You remember, years ago it was fashionable to say big theory overlooks its own historical, concrete, anthropological conditions and presuppositions. That it is na•ve. Foucault has this attitude in its utmost when he says, before asking what’s the meaning of the universe, you should ask in what historical context is it even possible to ask this question. So direct truth questions become questions about the concrete historical conditions in which one can raise such a question. I think this was a deadlock.

Today’s big theory is no longer a na•ve big theory. It’s not saying “let’s forget about historical context and again ask, does god exist, or are we free.” No, the point is that concrete theory – the idea that we cannot ask metaphysical questions, only historical questions – had a skeleton in the closet: it has its own big theory presuppositions. Usually, even some rather primitive historicist, relativist ideas, for example, everything depends on historical circumstances or interactions, there are no universalities, and so on. So for me, it’s about not forgetting from where one speaks. It’s about including into reflection, into historical reflection, the very historicism, which was unquestioned in this eternal, Foucauldian model. I find it so boring. It’s so boring to say, “no, you shouldn’t ask are we free, the only question is what does it mean in our society to ask the question are we free.”

Chance: The presence of cognitive science is increasingly felt in anthropology. What particular problems does cognitive science pose for social sciences?

Zizek: Big theory brings us nicely to cognitive science because what it so tickling about them is precisely this question of freedom – does it mean we are not free? It’s interesting that all the debates about cognitive sciences – the image of the human being emerging from all these interactions, from the brain sciences or more abstract mind sciences – is about are we free.

I don’t know about social sciences, but I know about my field, psychoanalysis. I dealt with cognitive sciences extensively in my last book (SeeThe Parallax View, MIT Press 2006). I think firstly, they should be taken seriously. They should not be dismissed as just another na•ve, naturalizing, positivist approach. The question should be seriously asked, how do they compel us to redefine the most basic notions of human dignity, freedom? That is to say, what we experience as dignity and freedom is it all just an illusion, as they put it in computer user terms, a user’s illusion. Meaning, for example, when you write a text on a computer, you have this user’s illusion scrolling up or down that there is text above or below. There is no text there. Is our freedom the same as a user’s illusion or is there a freedom?

The thing to do – and I’m not saying I did it, I’m saying I am trying to do it – is to take these sciences very seriously, and find a point in them where there is a need for an intervention of concepts developed by psychoanalysis. I think – I hope – that I isolated one such point. I noticed how, when they tried to account for consciousness, they all have to resort to almost always the same metaphor of this autopoesis, self-reflexive move, some kind of self-relating, self-referring closed circuit. They are only able to describe it metaphorically. What I claim is that this is what Freud meant by death drive and so on.

But it’s not that we psychoanalysts know it and can teach the idiots. I think this is also good for us – and by us I mean, my gang of psychoanalytically oriented people. It compels us also to formulate our terminology, to purify our technology as it were.

IV.

Chance: What, if anything, is neoliberalism?

Zizek: You must know, and it has often been noted, that the big shift in the study of the human mind from traditional approaches to modern cognitivism mirrors perfectly the shift from bureaucratic capitalism to neoliberal capitalism with its flexibility and plasticity. It’s so interesting to notice how many cognitivists that I’ve read even say this openly. They say that traditional science of mind was production oriented, organizing up and down, like traditional bureaucratic capitalism. Today, it’s like this digital, flexible capitalism – you don’t have one central deciding point, you have free interaction, nomadic plasticity and so on. I found this very interesting.

Catherine Malabou wrote a wonderful book called What to Do With the Human Brain. She develops, in a very nice way, that plasticity can have two meanings. One meaning is this neoliberal plasticity. Basically, it’s an accommodating plasticity: how to succeed on the market, how to adopt new identity. But there is a more radical plasticity, where the point is not just an adaptive plasticity. It’s a plasticity that not only adapts itself to existing circumstances but also tries to form a margin of freedom to intervene, to change the circumstances.

The same would go for me for neoliberalism. My point would be first, there obviously exists something like neoliberalism. That is to say, it is a fact that at the level of relations between the states, within singular economies new rules of capitalism are emerging today.

But my first doubt would be about the process of describing the fact that something new is emerging. I don’t think it is adequately described by the way neoliberalism describes itself. For example, saying “the rule is no longer state intervention, but free interaction, flexibility, the diminishing role of the state.” But wait a minute, is this really going on? I mean, take Reagan’s presidency and Bush’s presidency today. While bombasting against big spending Democrats – that is to say, big state – the state has never been as strong as it is today and there is an incredible explosion of state apparatuses. State control today is stronger than ever. That would be my automatic reaction: yes, there is something new but, when covered by the label neoliberalism, it is not adequately described. The self-perception of today’s era as neoliberal is a wrong self-perception.

Even leftist critics all too often accept this self-description on its own terms and then proceed to criticize it, saying, “no, we can’t leave everything to the market.” Wait a minute, who is leaving everything to the market? If we look at today’s American economy, how much support there is for American farmers, how much intervention, military contracts, where is there any free market? I mean, sorry, but I don’t see much free market here.

Just look at this paradox, which I think is the nicest icon of what goes on today. You know the problem of cotton in the state of Mali I think, which is the producer of cheap cotton far better than the United States’ cotton. The country is going to ruin because, as you know, the American cotton producers get more state support than the entire Gross Domestic Product of the state of Mali. And they say there, we don’t want American help, what we want is just when you preach about corrupt state intervention and the free market, you play by your own rules. You know, there’s so much cheating going on here.

So that would be the kind of anthropological study that’s needed: what neoliberalism really means. That’s what we have to do.

Zizek PicksMost important book published in the last six months: On Creaturely Life by Eric Santner

It will sound hypocritical but really, I would say On Creaturely Life. If you go further back to 2005, it would be The Persistence of Subjectivity by Robert Pippin.

Most important film released in the last six months: Manderlay directed by Lars Von Trier

My god, this is a tough question. My problem is, as much as I love even commercial Hollywood, I really don’t remember one in particular. It’s a weird film but I like it, the last Lars Von Trier, Manderlay. Need I add that I haven’t seen it, but a priori I don’t deal with empirical things.

Favorite obscure text: Sex and Character by Otto Weininger

Sex and Character. It’s obscure today but remember that this book was published in 1903 and was reprinted like fifty times. Then, it was a megabook. It’s vicious – radically anti-feminist, anti-Semitic, anti-whatever-you-want but I think it’s shattering.

Most underrated philosopher: Hegel

It will sound crazy because he is one of the most overrated philosophers, but I think, Hegel. Because for the last two hundred years, every philosopher defines himself as somehow wanting to go over Hegel. He’s this universal punching bag. Known as he is, he is still the most underrated.

Favorite politician of all time? Lenin and Cromwell

My answer is so boring. It’s boring, it’s stupid, it’s provocative, I’m ashamed to pronounce it: Lenin. You know, many na•ve leftists, who want to maintain their democratic credentials, would say some tragic victim like Allende. I think there is no perspective there. I have a cynical idea that Pinochet’s coup d’etat came at the right point. Imagine what would have happened if someone like Clinton and not that stupid Nixon-Kissinger gang were in power. Someone like Clinton would have gotten the formula: annoy him economically, wait for the true economic crisis to explode and then Allende would either have to opt for a three-way neoliberalism and play all those emancipatory welfare games. Or, he would have to turn Castro, get really tough and lose. Don’t you think they struck at the right point to redeem him? So I don’t respect this kind of person.

I would love to have somebody else – I have such traditional tastes. Okay, again, it’s traditional but if you go back further, Freud loved him: Oliver Cromwell. I like it the way he ruthlessly went from first using the Parliament to cut off the head of the king, to then disbanding Parliament.

What surprises me is this myth that Cromwell was this cruel Puritan. Not only did he have personal integrity, but contrary to royalist myth, he was not revengeful. To put it naively, he was even personally kind. It may also come as a surprise how religiously tolerant he was. This is a myth, you know, this pale-lips Puritan just killing all the Catholics and everybody else. No, he was striving very much, for his vision was a kind of secular plurality of religions. He was a genuine tragic, tragic figure, I think.

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