Anja Steinbauer: So Professor Žižek –
Slavoj Žižek: Don’t call me professor if you don’t want me to kill you. I feel so uneasy when someone calls me professor. Where is the professor? I have a deep problem with any official titles and so on. I’m not proud of it. When someone calls me professor I take it automatically as an irony.
A most obvious fact about you is that you are not just a philosopher but a famous philosopher – a rare thing. What does it mean to you to be famous? Is fame important?
First of all, fame is very relative. I have, as you know, many enemies: people who think that I’m just a clown, people who think that beneath my amusing nature there is some evil protofascist or Stalinist dimension and so on. So I think my so-called fame is basically just a way to keep me at a distance and not engage seriously with what I am doing. What I’m really proud of is, you know my crazy book Less Than Nothing, the one that is almost the length of the Bible? It sold very well. That gives me hope that we nonetheless shouldn’t underestimate the public. The publishers put pressure on me to write a nice best seller on Donald Trump. But why should I? He’s not interesting as a person; he’s a boring idiot.
But are you worried about your books becoming coffee table books? You know, people buy them but don’t actually read them?
I am, but it isn’t just coffee table books that go unread. Take big best-sellers, classics; people buy them but nobody really reads them either. For example take John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice – I know in New York people who wrote a book on Rawls and privately they admitted to me they hadn’t read it. And I think they’re right because unfortunately with the way Rawls writes, you really can condense it into 50 pages and you don’t lose a lot. I have some suspicions that up to a point it is similar with Hegel. With his Logic I have doubts if people really read it but in a way I don’t think it matters. Did you read a wonderful book by French author Pierre Bayard, which is called How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read? In the best French style, it’s not just irony. He takes it seriously that the best books about certain authors are written by people who didn’t read all of it. He says you should focus on one feature and then let this one feature colour your entire approach. This is the only way to produce something really new. That’s the paradox of philosophy – you don’t have to read it all. If you know too much, you just get confused.
What do you think philosophy can or should do in our time, and is Hegel particularly significant?
Absolutely. Maybe today is not the time to try to change the world but instead to step back, precisely to think. What we need today is a materialist reversal of Marx back to Hegel. Hegel is in a subtle way much more materialist than Marx. You know which Hegel I like? When he says in his Philosophy of Right “the owl of Minerva takes flight only in the evening.” This simple sentence belies the usual claim that Hegel was a conservative whose Philosophy of Right advocated an almost protofascist type of society. When Hegel says a certain historical order can only be understood when its time is almost over, do you really think Hegel was such an idiot that he didn’t know the same must hold for his Philosophy of Right? He doesn’t paint a system of how our society should look. He paints a situation whose time had passed and he knew it. Our situation is much more like Hegel’s than Marx’s. Marx still believed in some kind of minimal teleology, that we are at the crucial point where there is a chance, if not necessity, of proletarian revolution or universal redemption, while Hegel perceived his situation as a post-revolutionary one. Take the French Revolution; in some sense it has gone wrong, but Hegel is here to repossess it. The whole problem of his thought is not to say that the French Revolution was bullshit, but how, in spite of catastrophic outcomes, to keep its legacy alive. And I think our situation is the same; 20th century attempts at radical emancipation have failed. We have to abandon the Marxist metaphor that we are riding the train of history. Marxists like to say that even if times are dark, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And ironically I like to say “yes, it is, but it is the light of another train coming.” So that’s our situation and Hegel knew it. It’s open; we cannot make any plans.
So what is the philosopher to do? Do you look at yourself mainly as a theorist? You’ve also talked about your activism; is there a connection between theory and practice?
You need theory to see where activism fails. Especially left wing political theory. Isn’t the whole story of the left in the last century one big history of catastrophic failures? Which is why I say the best Marxist books were usually analyses after the fact of why a revolution had to go wrong. Isn’t it sad that all we get are excellent analyses of why we lost? So why philosophy? Firstly because I don’t trust practice. Practice is blind without theory. We need theory today more than ever and by theory I don’t mean direct activist theory.
[Extract. Appeared on philosophynow.org in the October/November 2017 issue.]