The Two Totalitarianisms
A small note – not the stuff of headlines, obviously – appeared in the newspapers on 3 February. In response to a call for the prohibition of the public display of the swastika and other Nazi symbols, a group of conservative members of the European Parliament, mostly from ex-Communist countries, demanded that the same apply to Communist symbols: not only the hammer and sickle, but even the red star. This proposal should not be dismissed lightly: it sests a deep change in Europe’s ideological identity.
Till now, to put it straightforwardly, Stalinism hasn’t been rejected in the same way as Nazism. We are fully aware of its monstrous aspects, but still find Ostalgie acceptable: you can make Goodbye Lenin!, but Goodbye Hitler! is unthinkable. Why? To take another example: in Germany, many CDs featuring old East German Revolutionary and Party songs, from ‘Stalin, Freund, Genosse’ to ‘Die Partei hat immer Recht’, are easy to find. You would have to look rather harder for a collection of Nazi songs. Even at this anecdotal level, the difference between the Nazi and Stalinist universes is clear, just as it is when we recall that in the Stalinist show trials, the accused had publicly to confess his crimes and give an account of how he came to commit them, whereas the Nazis would never have required a Jew to confess that he was involved in a Jewish plot against the German nation. The reason is clear. Stalinism conceived itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, according to which, truth being accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved, everyone must be regarded as responsible for his crimes. But for the Nazis the guilt of the Jews was a fact of their biological constitution: there was no need to prove they were guilty, since they were guilty by virtue of being Jews.
In the Stalinist ideological imaginary, universal reason is objectivised in the guise of the inexorable laws of historical progress, and we are all its servants, the leader included. A Nazi leader, having delivered a speech, stood and silently accepted the applause, but under Stalinism, when the obligatory applause exploded at the end of the leader’s speech, he stood up and joined in. In Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Hitler responds to the Nazi salute by raising his hand and saying: ‘Heil myself!’ This is pure humour because it could never have happened in reality, while Stalin effectively did ‘hail himself’ when he joined others in the applause. Consider the fact that, on Stalin’s birthday, prisoners would send him congratulatory telegrams from the darkest gulags: it isn’t possible to imagine a Jew in Auschwitz sending Hitler such a telegram. It is a tasteless distinction, but it supports the contention that under Stalin, the ruling ideology presupposed a space in which the leader and his subjects could meet as servants of Historical Reason. Under Stalin, all people were, theoretically, equal.
We do not find in Nazism any equivalent to the dissident Communists who risked their lives fighting what they perceived as the ‘bureaucratic deformation’ of socialism in the USSR and its empire: there was no one in Nazi Germany who advocated ‘Nazism with a human face’. Herein lies the flaw (and the bias) of all attempts, such as that of the conservative historian Ernst Nolte, to adopt a neutral position – i.e. to ask why we don’t apply the same standards to the Communists as we apply to the Nazis. If Heidegger cannot be pardoned for his flirtation with Nazism, why can Lukács and Brecht and others be pardoned for their much longer engagement with Stalinism? This position reduces Nazism to a reaction to, and repetition of, practices already found in Bolshevism – terror, concentration camps, the strle to the death against political enemies – so that the ‘original sin’ is that of Communism.
In the late 1980s, Nolte was Habermas’s principal opponent in the so-called Revisionismusstreit, arguing that Nazism should not be regarded as the incomparable evil of the 20th century. Not only did Nazism, reprehensible as it was, appear after Communism: it was an excessive reaction to the Communist threat, and all its horrors were merely copies of those already perpetrated under Soviet Communism. Nolte’s idea is that Communism and Nazism share the same totalitarian form, and the difference between them consists only in the difference between the empirical agents which fill their respective structural roles (‘Jews’ instead of ‘class enemy’). The usual liberal reaction to Nolte is that he relativises Nazism, reducing it to a secondary echo of the Communist evil. However, even if we leave aside the unhelpful comparison between Communism – a thwarted attempt at liberation – and the radical evil of Nazism, we should still concede Nolte’s central point. Nazism was effectively a reaction to the Communist threat; it did effectively replace class strle with the strle between Aryans and Jews. What we are dealing with here is displacement in the Freudian sense of the term (Verschiebung): Nazism displaces class strle onto racial strle and in doing so obfuscates its true nature. What changes in the passage from Communism to Nazism is a matter of form, and it is in this that the Nazi ideological mystification resides: the political strle is naturalised as racial conflict, the class antagonism inherent in the social structure reduced to the invasion of a foreign (Jewish) body which disturbs the harmony of the Aryan community. It is not, as Nolte claims, that there is in both cases the same formal antagonistic structure, but that the place of the enemy is filled by a different element (class, race). Class antagonism, unlike racial difference and conflict, is absolutely inherent to and constitutive of the social field; Fascism displaces this essential antagonism.
It’s appropriate, then, to recognise the tragedy of the October Revolution: both its unique emancipatory potential and the historical necessity of its Stalinist outcome. We should have the honesty to acknowledge that the Stalinist purges were in a way more ‘irrational’ than the Fascist violence: its excess is an unmistakable sign that, in contrast to Fascism, Stalinism was a case of an authentic revolution perverted. Under Fascism, even in Nazi Germany, it was possible to survive, to maintain the appearance of a ‘normal’ everyday life, if one did not involve oneself in any oppositional political activity (and, of course, if one were not Jewish). Under Stalin in the late 1930s, on the other hand, nobody was safe: anyone could be unexpectedly denounced, arrested and shot as a traitor. The irrationality of Nazism was ‘condensed’ in anti-semitism – in its belief in the Jewish plot – while the irrationality of Stalinism pervaded the entire social body. For that reason, Nazi police investigators looked for proofs and traces of active opposition to the regime, whereas Stalin’s investigators were happy to fabricate evidence, invent plots etc.
We should also admit that we still lack a satisfactory theory of Stalinism. It is, in this respect, a scandal that the Frankfurt School failed to produce a systematic and thorough analysis of the phenomenon. The exceptions are telling: Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1942), which sested that the three great world-systems – New Deal capitalism, Fascism and Stalinism – tended towards the same bureaucratic, globally organised, ‘administered’ society; Herbert Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism (1958), his least passionate book, a strangely neutral analysis of Soviet ideology with no clear commitments; and, finally, in the 1980s, the attempts by some Habermasians who, reflecting on the emerging dissident phenomena, endeavoured to elaborate the notion of civil society as a site of resistance to the Communist regime – interesting, but not a global theory of the specificity of Stalinist totalitarianism. How could a school of Marxist thought that claimed to focus on the conditions of the failure of the emancipatory project abstain from analysing the nightmare of ‘actually existing socialism’? And was its focus on Fascism not a silent admission of the failure to confront the real trauma?
It is here that one has to make a choice. The ‘pure’ liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist ‘totalitarianism’ – that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc – is a priori false. It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally ‘worse’ than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion – explicit or implicit – that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat. When, in September 2003, Silvio Berlusconi provoked a violent outcry with his observation that Mussolini, unlike Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, never killed anyone, the true scandal was that, far from being an expression of Berlusconi’s idiosyncrasy, his statement was part of an ongoing project to change the terms of a postwar European identity hitherto based on anti-Fascist unity. That is the proper context in which to understand the European conservatives’ call for the prohibition of Communist symbols.
“IDEOLOGY IS A CERTAIN UNIQUE EXPERIENCE OF THE UNIVERSE AND YOUR PLACE IN IT, TO PUT IT IN STANDARD TERMS, WHICH SERVES THE PRODUCTION OF THE EXISTING POWER RELATIONS AND BLAH BLAH BLAH.”
Modern ideas that only seem anticapitalist:
Radical human-rights liberalism
Slavoj Žižek is as paradoxical as his world-renowned work, as much a serious intellectual as a comedian. Were it not for his vivid examples drawn from popular culture, the tangential though insightful ideas in his many books would be lost on the world and limited to a select few. He is an expert in Lacan, Stalin, Hitchcock, and Christianity, and coming from Slovenia has a fresh, surprising response to Western consumer products. He is a favorite speaker in Ivy League academia and in the contemporary art world, though he attacks them both.
He is the Senior Researcher at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Ljubljana, as well as the author of a dozen books of criticism including Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, On Belief, The Ticklish Subject, The Plague of Fantasies, The Sublime Object of Ideology, and The Puppet and the Dwarf. His most recent book, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, is an analysis of the strange logic that was used to justify the attack on Iraq.
My interview was typical of a conversation with Žižek: a conflicting competition to stop his rapid speech and jump in with my own ideas versus the fascination of listening to how his mind unfolds. I am still not sure which side won.
I will just say that Žižek, though tough to describe on paper, can be perhaps best encapsulated by what he once told me of going to the movies in a Chicago multiplex. “It included half mainstream Hollywood theaters and half art theaters. It is beautiful; when my friends drop me off, I can play the intellectual and say that I am going to see the new independent film, and then when they are not looking, I will run to see the blockbuster.”
I. WHY STALINISM WAS MORE PERVERSE THAN NAZISM
THE BELIEVER: You have raised many eyebrows with your controversial rethinking of today’s accepted positions in philosophy. For example, you have said that Stalinism is worse than Nazism, despite the grand spectacle of the Holocaust. Can you describe your interest in Stalin here and why you think that his regime is a greater problem philosophically than Nazism?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: It was typical in philosophy after World War II to evoke Nazism and the Holocaust as the most radical evil. You cannot comprehend it with any rational strategy. The idea is also that the experience of the Holocaust is something which undermines the entire traditional philosophy, which was basically the divine regulation, the idea that even if things appear thwarted, failed, and so on, ultimately, in some kind of rational totality, all of these tragedies are relativized as part of a harmonious project. It can be a divine plan; it can also be the development of humanity or whatever. The idea is that the Holocaust cannot be rationalized philosophically here.
Of course, I think that the Holocaust was horrific (my god, it is gross to even have to say that), but for me, Stalinism was even a greater philosophical problem than Nazism. For example, there is a basic difference between Stalinist and Nazi victim status, from a simple phenomenological approach. Under Nazism, if you were a Jew, you were simply killed, no questions asked, you had nothing to prove. You are guilty for who you are, you are a Jew, you are killed, that’s it. Under Stalinism, of course, most [victims] were on trial for false accusations; most of them were not traitors. Nonetheless, there is one interesting feature: that they were tortured or through some kind of blackmail forced to confess to being traitors.
BLVR: So your line of questioning is of the functioning of the system?
SŽ: Yes. Why this strange need to make them confess? And why the total absence of this in Fascism? In Fascism, if you were a Jew, you were simply killed. Nobody had the idea of arresting Jews and torturing them to confess the Jewish plot. Because in Fascism, you are guilty for your whole being. The very fact that you had to confess makes Stalinism paradoxical and perverse. The idea is that, in a strange way, it admits that you are still a free human being, you had a choice. You are guilty, you have to confess. This does not make Stalinism cause any less suffering; nonetheless, this pure quarrel of radical objectivization, “You are a Jew, you are guilty for who you are,” was absent in Stalinism. In a totally perverted, thwarted, and twisted way, some margin of human freedom was acknowledged under Stalin. So the result is that in Stalinism, everybody was potentially a victim in a totally contingent way.
BLVR: So your interest is not to forget Nazism, but to reexamine Stalinism.
SŽ: To put it in simplistic terms, Fascism is relatively easy to explain. It is a reactionary phenomenon. Nazism was some bad guys having some bad ideas and unfortunately succeeding in realizing them. In Stalinism the tragedy is that its origin is some kind of radical emancipatory project. In the origins you had a kind of workers’ uprising; the true enigma is how this project of emancipation went so wrong. This is a much greater enigma. The most representative orientation of Marxism in the twentieth century—critical theory of the Frankfurt school—obsessed over Fascism, anti-Semitism, and so on, and simply ignored the topic of Stalinism. Sure, there are a couple of small books, but there is no systematic theory of what Stalinism is. So for me, the key phenomenon to be accounted for in the twentieth century is Stalinism. Because again, Fascism is simple, conservative reaction going wrong. The true enigma is why Stalinism or communism went wrong.
BLVR: Any conclusions?
SŽ: It is very difficult; I am still working on it. My conclusions are not some kind of conservative or liberal vision according to which Stalinism should be pointed out as kind of a logical demonstration of any project of our so-called post-political era: the idea that the time for projects is over, all we can do is accept capitalist world-market economy, globalism, and so on. Today, whenever somebody tries to risk something politically, you immediately get, “Oh, didn’t you learn the lesson from history, this will end up in Holocaust.” This is the eternal topic of modern liberal-conservative skeptics, that the lesson of the twentieth century is that every radical attempt at social change ends up in mass murder. Their idea is a return to pragmatism, “Let’s strictly distinguish politics from ethics, politics should be limited, pragmatic, only ethics can be absolute.” What I aim at in my rethinking of all of these problems is precisely not to draw this conclusion.
II: THE END OF LIBERAL MODESTY
BLVR: So you obviously strongly disagree with this liberal reading of the ideology behind World War II. This leads me to think about how in your work you are known to criticize liberalism, as it is manifested in political correctness, pragmatism, American academia, etc. So would this be your criticism of this way of thinking?
SŽ: First of all, I don’t have any big problems with liberalism. Originally, liberalism was quite a noble project if one looks at how it emerged. Today it is a quite fashionable criticism, with feminists, anti-Eurocentric thinkers, etc., to dismiss liberalism in principle for preaching the equality of all people, but in reality privileging the white males of certain property, addressing automatic limitations. The next usual accusation is that liberalism is ultimately founded in what the American moral-majority religious Right likes to call secular humanism: the idea is that there is no Supreme Being or mystery in the universe. Their criticism is that this idea—that the ultimate prospect of humankind is to take over as master of his own destiny—is man’s arrogance, criticizing that it always misfires and so on.
First, I don’t think it is as simple as that, for two reasons. It is a historic fact that at the beginning, the idea of human rights and all of those liberal notions, effectively in a coded way implied the exclusion of certain people. Nonetheless, in this tension between appearance and reality (appearance: everyone has human rights; reality: many, through an implicit set of sub-rules, are excluded), a certain tension is set in motion where you cannot simply say that appearance is just a mask of the reality of oppression. Appearance acquired a social emancipatory power of its own. For example, of course at the beginning, women were excluded, but then very early on, women said, “Sorry, why not also us?” Then blacks said, “Why not us?” And workers, and so on. My point being that all of these groups that criticize liberalism emerged out of these early bourgeois liberal traditions. It set certain rules—this tradition of universality of human rights and so on—and in this way it opened up the space. So that is the first thing to say for liberalism.
BLVR: So even though liberalism was started by a limited few, built inside of it is the ability for all others to use it to their benefit?
SŽ: Yes. The second thing to say for liberalism is that originally it was not an arrogant attitude, but it was quite a modest, honest attitude of confronting the problem of religious tolerance after the Thirty Years’ War. In the seventeenth century, all of Europe was in a shock, and then out of this traumatic experience, the liberal vision came. The idea was that each of us has some existential or religious beliefs, but even if these are our fundamental commitments, we will not be killing each other for them. To create a coexistent social structure, a space where these inherently different commitments can be practiced. Again, I don’t see anything inherently bad in this project.
BLVR: Neither do I. But last year I attended a lecture you gave in which you vehemently attacked liberalism. Can you help clarify this for me?
SŽ: The problem that I find today, with liberalism, not economic liberalism, but radical human-rights liberalism, is the philosophical approach. The saddest thing to happen in the last thirty years is the loss of the belief that we had in communism, and even in the social-democratic welfare states of the West, the accepted fact that the fate of humanity is not simply an anonymous fate. This belief that some blind fate does not control us, that it is possible, through human collective action, to steer development, is gone. I think what happened in recent years is that this logic of blind fate returned. Global capitalism is simply accepted as a fact that you cannot do anything about. The only question is, Will you accommodate yourself to it, or will you be dismissed and excluded? A certain type of question, and it needn’t be put in the old-fashioned Marxist way as class strle, but the general anticapitalist question, basically has disappeared.
BLVR: Generally speaking, yes. But I disagree, as would I think a number of others, that everyone accepts global capitalism. What about the antiglobalism movements that have been taking place all over the world in the last decade? Seattle, Genoa, etc. What do you think of these groups?
SŽ: Now with the antiglobalism movement, they are still, in a limited way, reemerging. But the idea is that the fundamental conflicting areas are no longer those of vertical up-vs.-down social strle, but more horizontal differences between me and you, between different social groups: the problem of tolerance; the problem of tolerance of other races, religious minorities, and so on. So then the basic problem becomes that of tolerating differences. I am not saying this is bad, of course we should fight for this, but I don’t think that this horizon—within which the ultimate ethical value is then that of tolerating difference—is the fundamental place for question. My problem with liberalism is in principle. This move of the new Left, or new radicals, towards a problem of identity politics (minority politics, gay rights, etc.) lacks a certain more radical insight into the basically antagonistic character of society. This radical questioning has simply disappeared.
For example, take my friend Judith Butler. Of course from time to time, she pays lip service to some kind of anticapitalism, but it’s totally abstract, what it’s basically saying is just how lesbians and other oppressed sexual minorities should perceive their situation not as the assertion of some kind of substantial sexual identity, but as constructing an identity which is contingent, which means that also the so-called straight normal sexuality is contingent, and everybody is constructed in a contingent way, and so on, and in this way, nobody should be excluded. There is no big line between normality identity and multiple roles. The problem I see here is that there is nothing inherently anticapitalist in this logic. But even worse is that what this kind of politically correct strling for tolerance and so on advocates is basically not only not in conflict with the modern tendencies of global capitalism, but it fits perfectly. What I think is that today’s capitalism thrives on differences. I mean even naďve positivist psychologists propose to describe today’s subjectivity in terms like multiple subject, fixed-identity subject, a subject who constantly reinvents itself, and so on. So my big problem with this is the painting of the enemy as some kind of self-identified stable substantial patriarch to which these multiple identities and constant reinventing should be opposed. I think that this is a false problem; I am not impressed by this problem. I think that this is a certain logic, totally within the framework of today’s capitalism, where again, capitalism, in order to reproduce itself, to function in today’s condition of consumption society, the crazy dynamics of the market, no longer needs or can function with the traditional fixed patriarchal subject. It needs a subject constantly reinventing himself.
III: ORGANIC FOOD, NEW-AGE SPIRITUALITY, AND NEW CARS
BLVR: OK, so you think that these antiglobalist movements aren’t asking the right questions and this can be really dangerous. I can see what you’re saying. This reminds me of the example that you gave in On Belief about the health-food market. How purchasing organic food, though seemingly good in intention, can really be a bad thing because of how it is appropriated. Can you explain what you meant by that?
SŽ: More and more crucial today are specialized markets, and in this sense, I think that it’s even more interesting to see how trends which were originally meant to be subversive or critical can be perfectly reappropriated and sold for consumption. Ecological food, organic food, green products, and so on—this is one of the key niche markets today. Let’s take a typical guy who buys organic food: he doesn’t really buy it in order to be healthy; he buys it to regain a kind of solidarity as the one who really cares about nature. He buys a certain ideological stance. It’s the same way as if you have stonewashed jeans, you don’t really buy it for the jeans, but you buy it to project a certain image of your social identity. So again, you are not buying a product, you are buying a certain social status, ideology, and so on.
BLVR: Does this also include your model of “Western Buddhism” as new-age philosophy being a product that can be purchased in capitalism (true Buddhism not being able to exist outside of the East)?
SŽ: Yes, you know why? Because this basic Buddhist insight that there is no permanent self, permanent subject, just events and so on, in an ironic way perfectly mirrors this idea that products are not essential, essential is this freedom of how you consume products and the idea that the market should no longer focus on the product. It is no longer: this car has this quality blah blah blah. No, it’s what you will do with the car. They are trying as directly as possible to sell you experiences, i.e. what you are able to do with the car, not the car as a product itself. An extreme example of this is this existing economic marketing concept, which basically evaluates the value of you as a potential consumer of your own life. Like how much are you worth, in the sense of all you will spend to buy back your own life as a certain quality life. You will spend so much in doctors, so much in beauty, so much in transcendental meditation, so much for music, and so on. What you are buying is a certain image and practice of your life. So what is your market potential, as a buyer of your own life in this sense?
BLVR: OK, so ironically, when Westerners buy into a Buddhist mentality, then they set themselves up to be perfect consumers in contemporary capitalism. It is kind of sad and funny at the same time. While looking for spirituality or God, they become ideal consumers to marketing executives. Sounds like science fiction.
IV: THE DANGERS OF EASTERN SPIRITUALITY IN THE WEST AND THE REVOLUTION OF ST. PAUL’S CHRISTIANITY, ALL THROUGH THE EYES OF AN ATHEIST.
BLVR: Do you believe in God?
SŽ: No, I am a complete atheist.
BLVR: Your book The Puppet and the Dwarf deals with St. Paul. In fact, it celebrates St. Paul’s Christianity in contrast to other forms of spirituality, i.e. gnosticism, new-age spiritualities, etc. So why would an atheist defend Christianity?
SŽ: Today, spirituality is fashionable. Either some pagan spirituality of tolerance, feminine principle, holistic approach against phallocentric Western imperialist logic or, within the Western tradition, we have a certain kind of rehabilitation of Judaism, respect for otherness, and so on. Or you are allowed to do Christianity, but you must do a couple of things which are permitted. One is to be for these repressed traditions, the early Gnostic gospels or some mystical sects where a different nonhegemonic/patriarchal line was discernible. Or you return to the original Christ, which is against St. Paul. The idea is that St. Paul was really bad, he changed Christianity into this patriarchal state, but Jesus, himself, was something different.
What I like is to see the emancipatory potential in institutionalized Christianity. Of course, I don’t mean state religion, but I mean the moment of St. Paul. I find a couple of things in it. The idea of the Gospel, or good news, was a totally different logic of emancipation, of justice, of freedom. For example, within a pagan attitude, injustice means a disturbance of the natural order. In ancient Hinduism, or even with Plato, justice was defined in what today we would call almost fascistic terms, each in his or her place in a just order. Man is the benevolent father of the family, women do their job taking care of the family, worker does his work and so on. Each at his post; then injustice means this hubris when one of the elements wants to be born, i.e. instead of in a paternal way, taking care of his population, the king just thinks about his power and how to exploit it. And then in a violent way, balance should be reestablished, or to put it in more abstract cosmological terms, you have cosmic principles like yin and yang. Again, it is the imbalance that needs to establish organic unities. Connected with this is the idea of justice as paying the price as the preexisting established order is balanced.
But the message that the Gospel sends is precisely the radical abandonment of this idea of some kind of natural balance; the idea of Gospels and the part of sins is that freedom is zero. We begin from the zero point, which is at least originally the point of radical equality. Look at what St. Paul is writing and the metaphors he used. It is messianic, the end of time, differences are suspended. It’s a totally different world whose formal structure is that of radical revolution. Even in ancient Greece, you don’t find that—this idea that the world can be turned on its head, that we are not irreducibly bound by the chains of our past. The past can be erased; we can start from the zero point and establish radical justice, so this logic is basically the logic of emancipation. Which is again why I find any flirting with so-called new-age spiritualities extremely dangerous. It is good to know the other side of the story, at least, when you speak about Buddhism and all of these spiritualities. I am sorry, but Nazis did it all. For Hitler, the Bhagavad Gita was a sacred book; he carried it in his pocket all the time. In Nazi Germany there were three institutes for Tibetan studies and five for the study of different sects of Buddhism.
BLVR: That is a really interesting point. I’m not religious at all, but when it comes to religions, I’ve always really distrusted new-age spiritualities.
SŽ: I agree. So let’s at least be clear of where in the West this fascination with Eastern spirituality originated. Of course when I advocate Christian legacy, I make it very clear that this legacy today is not alive in the Catholic or any Christian Church. Here I am kind of a vulgar Stalinist; churches should either be destroyed or turned into cultural homes or museums for religious horrors [laughs]. No no no, it’s not that, but nonetheless, a certain logic of radical emancipation exploded there. And all original emancipatory movements stopped there. This should be admitted. So the point is not to return to the Church, to rehabilitate Christianity, but to keep this certain revolutionary logic alive. I mean this is the good news that the Gospel means: you can do it, take the risk.
V: IDENTIFICATION WITH FICTIONAL MOVIES, WITH MURDERS
BLVR: So then is your problem with the rest of Christianity the ideology of institutionalized religion?
SŽ: This is not ideology. Ideology for me is a very specific term. Ideology, in a classical Marxist way, has nothing to do with what we usually take as an ideological project. The project of radically changing social orders, this is not, per se, ideology. The most conformist, modest empirical attitude can be ideology. Ideology is a certain unique experience of the universe and your place in it, to put it in standard terms, which serves the production of the existing power relations and blah blah blah. I claim that the minimum necessary structuring ingredient of every ideology is to distance itself from another ideology, to denounce its other as ideology. Every ideology does this. Which is why, the worst ideology today is post-ideology, where they claim we are entering a new pragmatic era, negotiations, plural interests, no longer time for big ideological projects.
BLVR: So even post-ideology is ideological?
SŽ: For me, ideology is defined only by how the coordinates of your meaningful experience of the world, and your place within society, relate to the basic tensions and antagonisms of social orders. Which is why for me no attitude is a priori ideological. You can be an extreme materialist, thinking that economic development ultimately determines everything; then you are truly ideological. You can be a fanatical millennialist religious mystic, and you are, in a certain way, not outside of ideology. Your position can be that of perfectly describing the data and nonetheless your point is ideological.
For example, I would like to use the wonderful model of Lacan. Let’s say that you are married and you are pathologically jealous, thinking that your wife is sleeping around with other men. And let’s say that you are totally right, she is cheating. Lacan says that your jealousy is still pathological. Even if everything is true it is pathological, because what makes it pathological is not the fact that is it true or not true, but why you invest so much in it—what needs does it fulfill? It’s the same with the Jews and the Nazis. It is not a question that they attributed false properties to the Jews; the point is why did the Nazis need the figure of the Jew as part of their ideological project? It is clear why: their project was to have capitalism without individualism, without tensions, capitalism which would magically maintain what they thought previous eras shared, a sense of organic community and so on, so in order to have this, you must locate the source of evil not in capitalism as such, but in some foreign intruder, that through its profiteering just introduces imbalance and disturbs the natural cooperation between productive capital and labor.
BLVR: So there is no escaping ideology? We are always participating in it?
SŽ: I would say that this just brings about a certain tendency that was here all the time. Like if I go to a more general phenomenon like reality TV, the lesson of it is much more ambiguous, because the charm of it is a certain hidden reflexivity. It is not that we are voyeurs looking at what people are really doing. The point is that we know that they know that they are being filmed. The true reality TV would be to plant cameras and really shoot people unaware of their being watched.
BLVR: That exists already.
SŽ: I wonder if they would be able to go beyond that level, because it’s basically the same as snuff movies. I claim that the way we identify with fictional movies, with murders, is not that we identify it, no: the awareness that it’s not true is part of our identification. Even when we cry and so on. Because, imagine watching a detective story, and someone is shot. If you were to learn that he was really shot, it would ruin your identification with the story. There was this Polish movie from the mid-sixties, a historical spectacle about a pharaoh that has a scene where they sacrifice a horse. And the way that it is shot, they throw lances at the horse, and you can see bleeding. It’s obvious that they are really killing the horse. And it was a dramatic point, people in Poland protested, people in the West didn’t want to see the movie. So you see how much more refined identification in the movie is.
BLVR: We have a strong identification with fiction.
SŽ: My point is this: the problem is that of acting. I think that there is only one radical conclusion here, with reality soaps, that we are seeing people acting themselves. And the conclusion that I would draw is that it is not so much that it is fake, but that in everyday lives, we act already, in the sense that we have a certain ideal image of ourselves and we act that persona.
VI: NOSTALGIA AND IRRATIONAL POWER
BLVR: What do you think of the fact that California has an actor for governor?
SŽ: What I would like to avoid here is precisely this cheap conservative cultural criticism that this shows the decadence of our times. As if at some point politicians were substantially better—I don’t believe that. The fact that Bush is president is worse for me, because he is not even a good actor, and probably not much more intelligent. You never know what will happen. Schwarzenegger has advisors around him and they may give him good advice. I never quite agreed with the simple dismissal that there is no substance; when was there substance in politicians? The duty of a politician for me is to be a representative: a politician is not an expert, experts are experts, hired for their expertise and so on. A politician is more of…
BLVR: An actor that mediates?
SŽ: Yes, there is a dimension of identification of a master figure and so on. And for all that, it doesn’t matter if an actor does it. The problem for me is not that Schwarzenegger is governor, but the extent to which even politicians who are not actors are functioning like actors. But even this I am tempted not to simply dismiss as a bad phenomenon. Here I agree with Habermas, who made a very intelligent remark. It’s not so much that times are worse today, but that imperceptibly our standards are higher. For example, we don’t have feminism today because women are exploited only today, but they became much more sensitive to it today. The paradox is the following one, if you look, for example, at the typical genesis of a revolution: the terror never became so bad that the people exploded. No, it was always a kind of spiritual revolution, which raised the standards. And then usually those in power began to lose their nerves and accept these new standards silently. Out of this loss of legitimization, it exploded.
For example, recently I read a wonderful text by Bernard Williams that deals with David Mamet’s Oleanna, the harassment play, that made a nice point. If you look closely, Mamet is a little more refined than people usually think. The point is not that the young student is complaining about harassment, but that what she is complaining about is that she came to him as a student, she wanted guidance from him and so on. And basically, he was too liberal, not giving her any authentic guidance as an authority, and precisely because he renounced his authority, his power which remained as a professor appeared as irrational power. So paradoxically, it is precisely when the professor renounces his standard authority and behaves like we are all the same that, between the lines, he keeps his power (he can grade you and so on). At the moment when he pretends to be tolerant, you experience his power in all of its irrationality.
BLVR: That’s like your example of the employee and the boss. You said that when the boss claims to be buddies with the employee, he is actually exploiting the employee more, in that he is covering up all of his power, though in actuality, it still exists.
SŽ: Yes, these are the problems for me. The fact that something appears as irrational unjustified power, it’s not simply that it’s horrible authority. It is precisely when authority declines and you have the first steps towards a more equal tolerant attitude. So again, my lesson here is kind of a pessimistic one, but not pessimistic in the sense that nothing can be done. Pessimistic in the sense that maybe the first step towards really opening up the space to change something is to admit the extent to which there is no easy way out, nothing can be simply changed. Often, the worst way to become prisoner of a system is to have a dream that things may turn better, there is always the possibility of change. Because it is precisely this secret dream that keeps you enslaved to the system. At this level, I quite liked a modest movie, The Shawshank Redemption. The guy who doesn’t accept that he is in prison and dreams to get out, when he is let out, he hangs himself. And the guys who accept that they are really there, they are the ones who can really break out. So there are alternatives and in alternatives, a certain sense of false opening, in that it’s not necessarily so bad, maybe luck is around the corner, we can change things; those are the ideal ideological tools to keep you enslaved. The system functions through the idea that it can be changed at any point. So maybe the first step is to see that it can’t be changed, that it’s pretty closed.
VII: LACAN AND FASHION CATALOGUES
BLVR: I would like to go back to the problem of people acting as personas of themselves. This sounds very Lacanian, in the sense that we do not experience the world directly, but by interpretation. The real is itself, mediated (in this case through acting as a persona). Could you describe for me your basic insight into Lacan’s work and what you think is his idea of philosophy?
SŽ: Lacan was a French psychoanalytic theorist, who despised philosophy officially. For Lacan, the discourse of philosophy is of a complete worldview which fills in all of the gaps and cracks. And Lacan’s idea is that precisely what we learn in psychoanalysis is how cracks and inconsistencies are constitutive of our lives. So officially he was against philosophy, but the paradox is that Lacan was constantly in dialogue with philosophy. In his work, there are even more references to Plato and Hegel than to Freud himself.
BLVR: So even though Lacan didn’t want to define the world concretely, he was a kind of philosopher himself?
SŽ: Obviously, Lacan was playing philosophy against itself. The idea being very simply that in our experience of the reality of the world, we always stumble upon some fundamental crack, incompleteness. What appears as an obstacle, the fact that we cannot ever really know things, is for Lacan itself a positive condition of meaning. There is a kernel of philosophy here, what philosophers call ontological difference; this is this experience of a rupture as a fundamental constituent of our lives. So to cut a long story short, for Lacan (and I try to further develop this idea, based on his insight), to properly grasp what Freud was aiming at with the death drive (the fundamental libidinal stance of the human individual for self-sabotaging; the basic idea of psychoanalysis is the pursuit of unhappiness, people do everything possible not to be happy), is to read it against the background of negativity, a gap as fundamental to human subjectivity, so in other words to philosophize psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis in this way is no longer just a psychiatric science which develops a theory of how we can cure certain diseases; it’s kind of a mental and philosophical theory of the utmost radical dimensions of human beings.
BLVR: So Lacan was reading Freud’s death drive, the desire to self-destruct, as a good thing, philosophically speaking. Incompleteness and cracks, themselves being the place where difference is created.
BLVR: You wrote some Lacanian-style quotations for last fall’s Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. How did that come about?
SŽ: Oh yes, I was helping someone who helped me once. It was easy, he sent me a series of provocative images, and I just wrote silly Lacanian statements about them. My critics have attacked me, saying how can you conscientiously accept money from such a company? I said, with less guilt than accepting money from the American university system.