"OMG some leftists would lynch me for that" — Part I
Slavoj Žižek on the 'last fortress of Europe', ties between God and erection and why everybody hates Slavoj Žižek
Interview: Armen Aramyan, Nastya Podorozhnya, Vladimir Mikheev, Gleb Golubkov
Photos: Aglae Gerasimova
Editing: Anastasia McAuliffe
Published: 16.11.2017
Before our interview, Slavoj Žižek asked us about our media and our attitude towards the conflict with Ukraine, so we started talking about international politics. At a certain point we began recording our discussion.
In chorus [everybody except Žižek]: Bandera.
Žižek: Yeah, yeah. But do you know where he mostly was in the 1930s?
Gleb: In prison.
Žižek: A Polish prison! He thought at that time that Poles were more of a danger [than Russians — Ed.]!
Nastya: I mean, he is from western Ukraine, which has always had a complicated relationship with Poland.
Žižek: Yeah, I know. But the problem is... I don't know what is true, but all my Polish friends deny this relationship problem. They claim something like: "No, Ukrainians are our friends, they want to be with us," and so on.
Nastya: This attitude has changed in recent years. I mean, I've been living in Poland for the last 4 years and they are becoming much more xenophobic towards Ukrainians.
Žižek: [Surprised] Really? But why? Is this this European arrogance, like they are the "real Europe"?
Nastya: Because more and more Ukrainians come to Poland as they run away from the east of Ukraine.
Žižek: Ah, this is the same story. It is quite comical how almost every nation in ex-Yugoslavia is presenting itself as the last frontier or the last fortress against the barbarian east, the "others".
For us Slovenes, we were part of the Austrian Empire, we are the European civilization, and the Croats are already the primitive Balkans. For the Croats, they are Catholics, civilized, and the Serbs are Orthodox, primitive. And it goes on! For Serbs, they are the last fortress of Europe and some Bosnians, Albanians — they're primitive and so on. But you know, the comedy goes on. For Austrians, we Slovenes are already barbarian and it's them who are the last frontier. For the Germans, the Austrians are already too mixed, they are the civilised ones. For the French, the Germans are barbarian, strange. Here I prefer the Englishmen, who think all the continental Europe is like big Balkans — ridiculous, full of confusions... They are the true ones. It is quite comical, this obsession of being the last frontier, like "we defend"...
Vladimir: Once you've said that Europe is the only place, where the enlightenment project is proceeding.
Žižek: No, I'm well aware of what shit Europe is now, I can see this. A series of fiascos has hit Europe. The first fiasco is the immigrants. I don't agree with those leftists who think we should just open ourselves to immigrants. No, I am very open, but I still think — oh my God, I will sound like a right-winger, some leftist could lynch me for that [Laughs] — that this wave of immigrants wasn't simply "one million people decided to go to Europe". You know, not all, but some of these immigrants, they do get a little bit possessively violent. [...]

But you know what really is a sad thing? I often go to Israel, to the West Bank, to Palestinians — and you have such Zionist Orthodoxy now in Israel! For example — I quote this in one of my books — recently the big rabbi of the Israeli army said that it says in the Ancient Talmud (or wherever) that when the Jewish army occupies a territory, their soldiers have the right to rape local women. It was a scandal, but he remained the top rabbi. Now, you know, if an Arab were to say this, they would say: "Ooh, ISIS, fundamentalism..." and so on. It is very weird to hear modern day Israelis arguing in a direct religious way that one would expect more from the Muslims. Like, if you ask them: "Why do you have the right to the West Bank? Okay, you did lose that territory, but that was 2 thousand years ago and the Romans did this, not Muslims," — they simply say: "No! The Bible says that the territory is ours. End of debate." It is very sad that this type of reasoning is permitted.

So I have no illusions, but what I do like in Europe is that it did try to build some kind of a transnational above nation-state political block which should take care of common subminimal human rights or whatever and so on. It is failing now, I admit. The first failure was the refugees, and the second is that Brussels authorities totally capitulate to what I call now the new axis of evil. You know, countries like Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, now also Austria — these new anti-immigrant racist populists who are taking over there up to Baltic countries. I didn't tell you a wonderful anecdote — it really happened about half a year ago. This is not a private rumor from some cafeteria. I think it was Latvia or Estonia maybe. To defend them from Putin or whatever, the USA symbolically sent 3 battalions of their soldiers as NATO help. Then the Ministry of Defense sent an official note to NATO to discover that some of these American soldiers are black. And when this aroused, it negatively excited the local population. So "could they please send soldiers who are not black" and so on.

These Baltic countries are interesting. Here's what some people admitted to me when I was in Vilnius: when they were in the Soviet Union, not only did they have a little bit higher standard of living as for the USSR but also even a little bit more intellectual freedom. For example, in social sciences (not in natural sciences, where it was different) the Soviet Union did not have a lot to offer, but they did have 2-3 things. One of them was that philosopher who's even now well-read, Ilyenkov — he is seriously taken even now — he was not just another apparatchik philosopher. He was very interesting. He was simply a Marxist, and this brought him so many troubles that he basically fell into alcoholism and killed himself in the 1970s. The other thing, you know, is the Semiotic School, Yuri Lotman, all of them. They were seriously read, but it was typical, it was not in Moscow, they wouldn't be tolerated there. It is the same with Parajanov in Georgia. The movies he was making there could be made because he was there...
Armen: On the outskirts.
Žižek: Yeah, and they were playing nice games. A friend of mine visited Tbilisi in the 70s and described a small provocation: while the big sleeping train was leaving for Moscow at Tbilisi station, the speakers announced: "The train for the Soviet Union is leaving the platform". It was silently tolerated, so it is not as simple as people claim "it was just a big Russian oppression". But that's also how your Russian Mikhail Bakhtin survived — he was moved to Kazan. He was there. And don't celebrate too much.
My friend Boris Groys, he is Russian, but now he works in Germany, and he tries to move to the USA, but it doesn't work... Anyway, he told me that he discovered now, you know, Bakhtin's famous work Rabelais and His World on François Rabelais where he developed his theory of carnival. Idiots, those western-leftists, celebrate this carnival freedom — slave is master, master is slave. No-no-no, he is much more ambiguous — it is discovered now by the manuscripts — you know what Bakhtin's secret model of carnival was? The Stalinist Purges. [...] His model was scandalous! That's why I always say: don't celebrate carnival too much.

This carnival is reversal. Every totalitarian system, even every racist system has it. For example, in the American South in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was a carnival. It meant for the white people: "Let's get together, get drunk, let's lynch some black boys, let's rape some black girls," and so on and so on. No! Like, if you want to be really critical, I don't care about carnivals, but I want to have a better order. You know, every idiot can do carnival explosion. Don't you think that democratic societies are usually much more organized? Much more! Listen! If you read good books about Brezhnev era economy, beneath the superficial order of planning and so on, it was very chaotic. You have to bribe, find your way and so on. Denmark, Norway, Sweden — are you aware of how tightly organized these countries are? This may horrify you; I am a partisan of order, I really want order.
Vladimir: I just want to ask you: in one of your interviews you said Trump is needed because he will shake the American system. Now you say that stability and order are better than carnival. So how—
Žižek: Ah, because I though that maybe I will be right. My idea is that America is so deeply rooted in this two-party system where nothing can happen and so on that he will trigger all the dangerous contradictions. It is even happening now. But of course, me supporting Trump — no way! You know, Trump is popular in Slovenia because his wife Melania is Slovene. And now they immediately discovered the small town from where she is, now you can buy Melania-wine, Melania-cake and whatever...

[Giggles] Maybe I was too optimistic that you need an idiot like Trump who is a trauma for the American establishment. What I was shocked with is this total unreadiness of the Democrats to confront the problem, "What did we do wrong to lose against Trump?" Yes, probably Russians did try to influence the American elections, but sorry, the US are doing this all the time! I'm not saying Putin is innocent, but do you remember how Yeltsin was elected? Sometime in the mid-90s the Communist Party with Zyuganov almost had a chance to win. There was a direct American intervention — they sent their specialists and so on.

That's the problem of Americans: if they do it, it is okay, they protect democracy, if another guy is doing it, it's totalitarian. I am not pro-Putin, I'm just claiming how absolutely clear it is that Democrats didn't lose because of the Russian intervention. They lost when they brutally got rid of Bernie Sanders. It's proven now by the opinion polls. Without Bernie Sanders they lost at least 5-6 million votes. And now they're just going on with these same polls, so no wonder that in her memoirs Hillary puts the blame on the Russians and Bernie Sanders. I am totally against Hillary, I'm disgusted!
Vladimir: So you said that Trump can revive American politics. But what you think can revive Russian politics?
Žižek: I don't know. I don't know. It is so difficult. I don't believe in these pro-Western liberal reformists to beat Putin. Because I think that what you have with Putin here is just a part of the general global movement, which is very sad — it's in China, in Turkey, even in America. Typical capitalist countries no longer need liberal democracy. It is much better for today's capitalism if you are in a slightly conservative authoritarian country. You know who is the father of this? Lee Kuan Yew — the father of modern Singapore. He got this! There is a certain type of patriotic authoritarianism which can work much better for modern countries... And do you know that Deng Xiaoping introducing his reforms literally looked on Singapore? In India Modi is doing the same.

That's why Putin is not just a Russian aberration. It is, unfortunately, a tendency of today's capitalism. It's very sad. Or look at China. I mean, once I had a debate (years ago) with Fukuyama. A small debate, we just met somewhere for a little bit. And I told him: "Okay, I agree with you, communism lost, but isn't it a paradox that the best administrators of this global capitalism are ex-communists?" Because if you go to China, you'll see that basically the Communist Party is the best manager of capitalism.

What I'm saying is even though we all, as leftists, know that this bourgeois welfare state democracy is false, now something even worse is gradually emerging. I always repeat this: it is not Muslim immigrants who are the threat to European identity. It's the inability of the European Union to have a firm stand. For example, this scandal — Catalonia. This inability of the European Union to impose its position. I don't even care what this stand would have been. And it is the same with Orban in Hungary. First, everybody was embarrassed by him — now he is in, he's been accepted and so on. If you ask me, I am more of a pessimist now. I think this is the end of Europe. This is simply the end of Europe.
After an hour of talking, we finally got to ask Žižek the questions we had prepared.
Vladimir: So, I think we can start to ask the questions from our list.
Žižek: Ok. Sorry, please, yes, but let's do it quickly, I talk too much, please do it.
Nastya: We would have stopped you before if it wasn't interesting! [Laughs]
Armen: Yeah, first I wanted to ask you, now that you count as one of the most popular contemporary thinkers—
Žižek: I'm losing a lot because of my position towards immigrants, LGBT and so on. You cannot imagine how much hatred I get! People say "popular", but at the same time I have no real academic power. Everybody in United States will tell you: academic power is — forget popularity! — is whether you influence who gets a job, whose book is published, who gets some research grant and so on...
Nastya: And you don't get that.
Žižek: No. I am hated so much. This detail will amuse you: some of my friends asked me for a recommendation letter and then didn't get a job because of it! No-no-no, it is very brutal. Of course, conservatives and liberals hate me, for them I am a crypto-Stalinist and so on. But now leftists also hate me because of my position on Trump, although I obviously emphasize that Trump is a nightmare! But they all say: "You are pro-Trump!" and so on. There was even a nice theory, I almost liked it: I'm supporting Trump counting on Melania, my compatriot, and I want to get an invitation to the White House, you know. [All laugh] No-no-no, it's absolutely incredible.
Armen: I just meant that you are well-known, if we ask a random person...
Žižek: Yeah, but a random person is not from academic circles.
Armen: ...not from the academic circle, and ask them to name the most well-known philosopher or thinker, they will name you.
Žižek: Okay, if I were to be cynical, I would have said: "This demonstrates in what low state we are today if an idiot like me can be the best...." But sorry, let's go on.
Armen: Yeah, the question is: do you have any idea why it is like that, why you've become this well-known?
Žižek: Most of it is a veiled attack on me. Those people for whom I'm popular usually argue: "He's crazy, don't take him seriously, but at the same it's amusing, go read him," so... okay, maybe I'm a little bit guilty of it, that I tell obscene jokes, I accept it. And now I'm getting old, I care less and less. The political stuff that I'm saying... I do it more as a citizen's duty, because I feel like I have things to say which should have been said by somebody else at a much higher level. And so it's just ersatz, my real home is philosophy. Until now, do you know that it's approaching 100 — the number of books published on me? So it's not all that social comedy. And again, more and more because my mega-book Less Than Nothing (it was my dream to write a book which is over 1000 pages, like the Bible) — that book, then after that another serious book, Absolute Recoil, then another one, Disparities, then another one and so on. I'm really working on that.
Vladimir: Once you said that philosophy starts from Kant and ends with Hegel, so do you think that progress in philosophy is possible?
Žižek: Yes! I do, I do! I'm very — my God, some leftist would lynch me for that — I think that philosophy is a strictly European invention. This is so unpopular to say today. Take the great Asian systems: buddhism, taoism and so on — it's not philosophy, it's a kind of old-fashioned wisdom, and so on. They're now rehabilitating. My Japanese friend Kojin Karatani wrote a wonderful book about the importance of this early ionian materialism, Democritus and so on. They're incredibly important.

This doesn't mean other nations don't have extremely important systems of thinking, art and so on. But I do count you as Europe: Russia, this may surprise you. And if you ask me about the absolute Russian writer of the 20th century — of course, Andrei Platonov. Absolute hit with all my friends. I think that what you find in his Chevengur and so on is something incredible! He saw the — let's call it dangerous — nihilist, especially his other book, The Foundation Pit, you know why it's breathtaking? He saw the destructive dimension of Bolshevism, but from within! He wasn't some kind of a liberal or external conservative opponent. And he gets this already in the 20s! It's fashionable to say by idiots that he was interesting only in the 20s, that later, in the 40s, he had to become more conformist... Even those novels are extremely interesting. The same with — okay, everybody laughs at him today — Malevich. But they even like his apparently more realist paintings a lot. Because he somehow survived [...] and in 1930-31 did some paintings of kolkhoz girls and so on. But if you look at the structure!
Vladimir: So, what about problems in philosophy?
Žižek: There absolutely are some! Maybe it would be problematic to call it "progress". But for example: I'm a big fan of Plato. I don't buy this liberal idea of "totalitarian Plato vs better, more open Aristotle". No, I'm for Plato! I will give you two examples. Whatever you say against Plato, totalitarianism and so on, read his Republic: there are no slaves there, while for Aristotle it was natural, for him slaves are speaking tools and so on. And even more interesting, in his Republic Plato emphasises that women are equal.
Armen: They can even be soldiers.
Žižek: Yeah. Aristotle ontologises sexual difference, you know, his basic couple "hyle-morphe" ("form-matter") is like "masculine form is screwing, fucking feminine matter [Giggles] to create everything".
So we have early materialism, the Ionian School — incredible achievement. The big one, Plato to Aristotle... Then Medieval times are bullshit. Here I agree with Hegel. I don't believe that Thomas Aquinas is of any interest. He's the worst systematiser. But then the one who really took it over — he was a genius, a follower of Descartes — was Nicolas Malebranche. He developed this up to the point of madness: he has this beautiful dualist theory, occasionalism: God is observing you all the time when you raise your hand. It's not that you directly influence your hand, because they are totally separated. God sees your intention and moves your hand. He [Malebranche] then again refers to erection. His idea is that men became too arrogant, people thought that they can directly dominate their body and, to punish them, God says: "You will have a penis, but you will not dominate its movement." It will rise up when you don't know. Not so much Spinoza, but Kant-Hegel, it's breathtaking.

What I like, even about Lenin, is when things were wrong for him, in 1914, World War I, he did what every leftist does — he withdrew to Switzerland and began to read Hegel. And you know what I like so much? He didn't read so much historical works of Hegel, religion history, phenomenology. No, he read logic, which for Hegel defines it ironically as thoughts of God before God created the world — isn't this beautiful, ironic? Okay, Hegel, then I have great problems with post-Hegelian philosophy.

19th century, Marx is interesting, but he is most interesting where he implicitly refers to Hegel in his critique of political economy and so on, I consider early Marx totally vulgar and unimportant: German ideology, all this aggressive materialism. Nietzsche... I was never a big fan. I still think Heidegger is a great philosopher, although he was a Nazi. I think all this is a tremendous progress. And here, for me, progress is not simply some linear line, "Oh, we go forward", the progress is when it becomes impossible to think the same way we were thinking before, just in this sense. For example, in music. The composers of this early modernism, they brought changes after which you can't simply compose in the old tonal way. And even if you write tonal stuff, you must somehow react to this atonality and so on. So this is progress for me, that some topic is introduced, and even if you try to think in the old way, you're already reacting.