Geert Lovink: You have been to Japan. What’s your opinion on the technological culture in this country?
Slavoj Zizek: First I must say that I don’t have my own positive theory about Japan. What I do have, as every Western intellectual, are the myths of reference. There is the old, right wing image of the Samurai code, fighting to death, the absolute, ethical Japan. Then there is the leftist image, from Eisenschtein already: the semiotic Japan. The empty signs, no Western metaphysics of presence. It’s a no less phantasmic Japan then the first one. We know that Eisenschtein for his montage of attractions used Japanese ideograms.
Then there is Bertolt Brecht as an exception. He took over elements like sacrifice and authority, and put it in a left wing context. Here in the West, Brecht was seen as someone introducing a fanatic eastern morality. But now there’s in Suhrkamp Verlag a detailed edition of his Jasager and his Lernstke [?]. They discovered that all those moments the Western critics perceived as remainders of this imperial and sacrificing Japan, were indeed edited by Brecht. What they perceived as Japanese was Brecht.
Than there is the capitalist Japan and it’s different stages. There is the myth of non-original Japan, taking over, but developing better: Philips for the rich and Sony for the poor. Twenty years later this was of course the other way round. Then there is the Kojevian Japan. First for Kojeve the end of history was Russia and America, the realization of the French Revolution. Then he noticed that something was missing. He found the answer in Japan, in the little surplus. If everything only functions, as in America, you would kill yourself. In the snobbism, drinking tea in a nice way, he found that live still had a meaning.
But there is another Japan, the psycho-analytic. Whenever you have the multi-culturalist approach, the almost standard example is Japan and its way of Verneinung, saying no. There are thirty ways to say no.
You say no to your wife in one way, no to a child in another way. There is not one negation. There exists a small Lacanian volume, La chose japonaise. They elaborate the borrowing of other languages, all these ambiguities. Didn’t Lacan say that Japanese do not have an unconscious?
For the West, Japan is the ambiguous Other: at the same time it fascinates you and repels you. Let’s not forget the psychological cliche of Japan: you smile, but you never know if it is sincere or if you are mocking us – the idea of Japan as the impenetrable Other. This ambiguous politeness. What do they really want? There’s also the idea of the Japanese as the ersatz Jews for the Americans. The Japanese governments together with two, three mega companies plotting. All this spleen, this palette of fantasies, is Japan for us. But what surprised me is that authors, whom I considered strictly European, are widely read in Japan, like for example George Lukacs.
Than there is a Japan, loved by those who criticize our Western, decadent way of liberal democracy and who look for a model that would combine the dynamic of capitalism, while maintaining some firm traditional structure of authority. And again, it can work both ways. What I like about fantasies is that they are always ambiguous. You can turn it in a negative way, Japanese pretending to play capitalism, while in reality being one big conspiracy and authority. On the positive side you see that there is a capitalism possible with moral values.
What I liked there, in restaurants and subway stations, is the absence of English. You don’t have this self-humiliating, disgusting, pleasing attitude. It’s up to the foreigners to find their way out. I liked tremendously those automatic vending machines. Did you see The Shining, based on Stephen King’s novel? This is America at it’s worst. Three people, a family, in a big hotel and still the space is too small for them and they start killing each other. In Japan, even when it is very crowded, you don’t feel the pressure, even if you are physically close. This art of ignoring. In the New York subway, even when it’s half full, you would have this horrifying experience of the absolute proximity of the Other. What I liked about the Foucault conference in Tokyo I attended, was that one would expect the Japanese to apply Foucault to their own notions. But all the Japanese interventions were about Flaubert. They didn’t accept this anthropological game of playing idiots for you. No, they tried to beat us at our own game. We know Flaubert better then you.
Every nation in Europe has this fanaticism, conceiving itself as the true, primordial nation. The Serbian myth for example is that they are the first nation of the world. The Croatians consider themselves as primordial Aryans. The Slovenes are not really slaves, but pretend to be of Etrurian origin. It would be nice to find a nation, which would accept the fact that they are not the first but the second. This might be a part of the Japanese identity, if you look at the way they borrow languages.
I recently read a book on Kurosawa. It is said that Rashomon was seen in the early fifties as the big discovery of the eastern spirit. But in Japan it was conceived as way too Western. My favorite Japanese film is Sansho by Mizoguchi because it offers itself for a nice, Lacanian reading, the problem of the lost mother, the mother’s voice reaching the son, etc. This is the Japanese advantage over America when the mother’s voice tries to reach the son. In America one would get madness, like Hitchcock’s Psycho, but in Japan you get a normal family.
The Balkans is now a region where the West is projecting its own fantasies upon, like Japan. And again, this can be very contradictory. The film The Rising Sun has this ambiguity that there is this Japanese plot of trying to take over and buy Hollywood. The idea is that they do not want our factories, our land, they even want our dreams. Behind this there’s the notion of the thought control. It’s the old Marxist notion of buying the whole chain, from the hardware until the movie theatres. What interests me in Japan is that it is a good argument against the vulgar, pseudo Marxist evolutionary notion that you have to go through certain evolutionary stages. Japan proves that you can make a direct short circuit. You retain certain elements of the old hierarchical superstructure and combine it very nicely with the most effective version of capitalism as it pretends to be. It’s a good experience in non-antropocentrism. It’s a mystery for Western sociologists who say that you need Protestant ethics for good capitalism.