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.
THE BELIEVER: So your line of questioning is of the functioning of the system?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: 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.
THE BELIEVER: So your interest is not to forget Nazism, but to reexamine Stalinism.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: 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.
THE BELIEVER: Any conclusions?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: 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
THE BELIEVER: 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?