Zizek: Yes, but my point is that prohibition is masked as this kind of universal, objective, knowledge statement. This is for me today’s Spinozist world, especially in the United States. For example, every can, every package, is full of information. Of course this information is about what it contains and what it does not contain: no cholesterol, no fat. This for me is the practical side of Spinoza today. The inherent dimension is that there are hidden prohibitions. Low fat or low cholesterol means you can easily enjoy it, but the form of a command is absent. You can do whatever you want, but…
Question: So the word “but” comes instead of “thou shalt not,” implying we are not primitive anymore?
Zizek: Yes, but what you get after “but” is not the Master signifier, it’s not an order. It’s a kind of masked, objective, scientific knowledge, just information. I think this is perhaps one of the things that fundamentally characterizes late capitalist, consumer society. As we all know, psychoanalysis enables us to discern that behind this explicit commandment lies a hidden, superego commandment to enjoy, to enjoy properly, to succeed. Lacan says the same thing.
Question: So it’s actually “Don’t smoke because you won’t achieve what you want.”
Zizek: Yes, although the paradox I like here is that this kind of consumer society ideology illustrates nicely what Freud already knew were the paradoxes of the pleasure principle. You have a society which is ostensibly oriented toward pure pleasure, but you pay for it through a whole series of “you can’t.” The hidden prohibitions: eat whatever you want, but beware of fat and cholesterol; smoke, but beware of nicotine; sex, but safe sex. Yet the ultimate consequence of this pleasure principle is that everything is prohibited in a way; you can’t smoke: there’s nicotine; you can’t eat: there’s fat; you can’t have sex: you’ll get sick. So this is a kind of everyday confirmation of the Lacanian paradox.
We all know how Lacan reversed Dostoyevsky by saying “If God does not exist, everything is prohibited,” not “everything is permitted.” I think this is perfectly epitomized by today’s society of consumption. If God in the traditional sense as a universal model does not exist, then everything is allowed. You can get whatever you want but with the substance removed: coffee without caffeine, cigarettes without nicotine.
I like the dirty story that was in all the magazines about Richard Gere. This widely known scandal, for me, is the ultimate example of all this. This is the story: Gere was hospitalized because he realized — with one of the latest practices in Hollywood, the latest in sexual perversion — the fantasy of Freud’s Rat Man. You take a gerbil — not a rat but a gerbil — and a vet cuts off its teeth and nails. You put it in a bag, you attach a piece of string to its tail, and you put it in your anus. The animal suffocates of course and this is “it”: the pleasure. Finally it is up to you to pull the dead animal out. The problem with Richard Gere, allegedly, was that he pulled it out too quickly and was left only with the tail; the dead animal remained inside.
It’s the same paradox: the Rat Man fantasy, you get it, but without claws, without teeth, it is all cut off by a veterinarian. For me this is the ultimate of this same logic. Nothing is prohibited you can even realize the Rat Man fantasy but in a reduced version: the vet takes care of it, cuts off the claws, etc.
Again what is crucial here is the contemporary computer with its universal dimension — a kind of a Spinozist machine. We all know Lacan defines the lady in courtly love as a non-human partner. This is computers today.
Question: Is the computer a lady?
Zizek: Yes, it takes the place of the lady. Thinking the innermost of your being is in a way externalized. The machine thinks for you: just by observing it you can enjoy how the other does it for you — again this is the ultimate Spinozist vision, passive immersion. Lacan falsely attributes this experience to Hegel, to Hegelian absolute knowledge, but I think it is far more Spinozist: the reduction to a pure bare observer. This kind of universal symbolic machine functioning by itself totally relieves you of your responsibility.
Question: The pure passivity of an observer or of a voyeur?
Zizek: An amusing tendency of late capitalism is that the observer is gradually reduced to a purely passive role. We have nowadays home delivery of food, TV channels where you can shop, sex you can buy, and you can be connected to your work place through a modem.
There is a nice capitalist logic behind it. We return literally to Spinoza, why? Because capitalism in Spinoza’s time — before factories — was such that workers worked at home. Spinoza was well before Adam Smith and the division of labor and so forth came a little bit later, in the late 18th century. In Spinoza’s time, the typical form of capitalism was that workers worked at home in small villages. The capitalists came once a week, provided you with materials, took what you did and paid you. This functioned very well, why? Firstly, because you were pressured to work all the time, you didn’t have any difference between your life and your work. Secondly, it prevented what we would call in Marxist terms class consciousness. It was perfect, you never confronted the capitalist, the owner, because you only encountered him or her individually — he or his representative came to your home. In a factory, workers are all there, physically together, thus they can organize strikes, etc. Nowadays they are totally dispersed, each of them staying at home; the paradox is with computerization.
Question: So there is no chance for a conspiracy?
Zizek: Yes, and even at the level of the organization of production we are returning to this Spinozist form of capitalism. Now let’s take the ultimate point: sexuality. There again we return to Spinoza, the same paradox of how we can survive alone. In France they have what is called “minitel.” You have a choice when you get a phone: either a phone book or minitel, a small computer with a screen, and everybody takes the minitel. You can do all kinds of business through it, read the news, order things, make reservations, but the crucial point is sex. Now it is already a bit “out,” but a couple of years ago, when it was fashionable, everybody in France was having sex on the minitel. It is not the same as what you call adult phone sex, this is simply a refined form of semi-prostitution. No, the idea of minitel is “sex is an Other.” You type in your password but you do not communicate with a paid prostitute, you communicate with hundreds of people doing the same thing you are doing. So you pick up one of the messages and you do it: you send in your own message to him or to her — you don’t know to whom, that is the charm. You only have the family name: it may be a man or a woman. You send your message to someone you don’t know, you exchange dirty messages: “I will do this to you, you will do that to me.” The point is that people became obsessed by this. Lacan says — he even uses vulgar terms — that if I’m speaking now about fucking it’s the same as if I’m fucking. This is literally realized now in France; sex can be purely the matter of a signifier of exchanging dirt.
Question: Will massive immigration affect Western points of view, or will they be incorporated?
Zizek: People ask me what will happen now in this new universal field with new authentic Central European cultures, but I am very skeptical about it. This idea that there are uncontaminated central European cultures fighting against this Americanized, Japanized, universal horror is false on many levels. Furthermore I have a deep mistrust of this kind of “original “, “ethical” culture. We must recall that from the very beginning these cultures are usually false. In the case of my own country, Slovenia, our national costumes were copied from Austrian costumes, they were invented towards the end of the last century. The ultimate example is the Soviet Union. You may think that these nationalist revivals emerged in resistance to communism, but I think it was literally through antagonism toward communist rule itself that these national entities were created.
Let’s take the extreme case, India, which is very instructive. People often forget that in India the anticommunist Congress party was not only founded by Indians educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Oxford, but it was even instigated by some progressive liberal Englishmen. So this is a nice paradox how the very idea of “let’s get rid of English colonialism, let’s return to our autonomous India” was strictly a product of English colonialism.
I’m radically Eurocentric. It is fashionable today to be anti-Eurocentric to stress African, Asian, all other cultures, but what people usually do not grasp is that every idea of anti-Eurocentricism is only possible against an Eurocentric, Cartesian background. That is against the idea that the tradition into which we were born, Protestant, Catholic, Indian, whatever is something ultimately contingent. Basically we are this kind of abstract anti-subject, not pinned down to the particular tradition into which we were born. It is only against this background that you consider it as something not really binding you, that you can reason against Eurocentricism. One can say “We must be open to different cultures,” but this kind of pluralism is only possible against the notion that tradition is ultimately something contingent, against the background of an abstract empty Cartesian subject. My ultimate theoretical point is that Lacan is absolutely 100 per cent Cartesian, absolutely, he says it, people don’t listen. Lacan says the subject of psychoanalysis is the Cartesian subject.
[Extract from Flash Art, March 1992.]