The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has gained something of a cult following for his many writings – including The Ticklish Subject, a playful critique of the intellectual assault upon human subjectivity.
At the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2001, he talked to Sabine Reul and Thomas Deichmann about subjectivity, multiculturalism, sex and unfreedom after 11 September.
Question: Has 11 September thrown new light on your diagnosis of what is happening to the world?
Slavoj Zizek: One of the endlessly repeated phrases we heard in recent weeks is that nothing will be the same after 11 September. I wonder if there really is such a substantial change. Certainly, there is change at the level of perception or publicity, but I don’t think we can yet speak of some fundamental break. Existing attitudes and fears were confirmed, and what the media were telling us about terrorism has now really happened.
In my work, I place strong emphasis on what is usually referred to as the virtualisation or digitalisation of our environment. We know that 60 percent of the people on this Earth have not even made a phone call in their life. But still, 30 percent of us live in a digitalised universe that is artificially constructed, manipulated and no longer some natural or traditional one. At all levels of our life we seem to live more and more with the thing deprived of its substance. You get beer without alcohol, meat without fat, coffee without caffeine…and even virtual sex without sex.
Virtual reality to me is the climax of this process: you now get reality without reality…or a totally regulated reality. But there is another side to this. Throughout the entire twentieth century, I see a counter-tendency, for which my good philosopher friend Alain Badiou invented a nice name: ‘La passion du rel‘, the passion of the real. That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life.
Question: Do you think that is what we are seeing now?
Slavoj Zizek: I think this may be what defined the twentieth century, which really began with the First World War. We all remember the war reports by Ernst Jnger, in which he praises this eye-to-eye combat experience as the authentic one. Or at the level of sex, the archetypal film of the twentieth century would be Nagisa Oshima’s Ai No Corrida (In The Realm Of The Senses), where the idea again is that you become truly radical, and go to the end in a sexual encounter, when you practically torture each other to death. There must be extreme violence for that encounter to be authentic.
Another emblematic figure in this sense to me is the so-called ‘cutter’ –a widespread pathological phenomenon in the USA. There are two million of them, mostly women, but also men, who cut themselves with razors. Why? It has nothing to do with masochism or suicide. It’s simply that they don’t feel real as persons and the idea is: it’s only through this pain and when you feel warm blood that you feel reconnected again. So I think that this tension is the background against which one should appreciate the effect of the act.
Question: Does that relate to your observations about the demise of subjectivity in The Ticklish Subject? You say the problem is what you call ‘foreclosure’ – that the real or the articulation of the subject is foreclosed by the way society has evolved in recent years.
Slavoj Zizek: The starting point of my book on the subject is that almost all philosophical orientations today, even if they strongly oppose each other, agree on some kind of basic anti-subjectivist stance. For example, Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida would both agree that the Cartesian subject had to be deconstructed, or, in the case of Habermas, embedded in a larger inter-subjective dialectics. Cognitivists, Hegelians – everybody is in agreement here.
I am tempted to say that we must return to the subject – though not a purely rational Cartesian one. My idea is that the subject is inherently political, in the sense that ‘subject’, to me, denotes a piece of freedom – where you are no longer rooted in some firm substance, you are in an open situation. Today we can no longer simply apply old rules. We are engaged in paradoxes, which offer no immediate way out. In this sense, subjectivity is political.
Question: But this kind of political subjectivity seems to have disappeared. In your books you speak of a post-political world.
Slavoj Zizek: When I say we live in a post-political world, I refer to a wrong ideological impression. We don’t really live in such a world, but the existing universe presents itself as post-political in the sense that there is some kind of a basic social pact that elementary social decisions are no longer discussed as political decisions. They are turned into simple decisions of gesture and of administration. And the remaining conflicts are mostly conflicts about different cultures. We have the present form of global capitalism plus some kind of tolerant democracy as the ultimate form of that idea. And, paradoxically, only very few are ready to question this world.
Question: So, what’s wrong with that?
Slavoj Zizek: This post-political world still seems to retain the tension between what we usually refer to as tolerant liberalism versus multiculturalism. But for me – though I never liked Friedrich Nietzsche – if there is a definition that really fits, it is Nietzsche’s old opposition between active and passive nihilism. Active nihilism, in the sense of wanting nothing itself, is this active self-destruction which would be precisely the passion of the real – the idea that, in order to live fully and authentically, you must engage in self-destruction. On the other hand, there is passive nihilism, what Nietzsche called ‘The last man’ – just living a stupid, self-satisfied life without great passions.