Slavoj Zizek | Cambridge Union


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THEO: Good afternoon, everybody. This afternoon we have the pleasure of welcoming: Hegelian philosopher; laconian psychoanalyst; a self-defined complicated communist, and a political activist. He's a professor at three universities; he's published over 50 books, which have been translated into 20 languages; he's been called “the Elvis of philosophy”, “an academic rock star”; and his personal favourite, “the most dangerous philosopher in the West”. His ability to critically engage with the most diverse range of topics - from Hollywood film to climate change - and to do so in such an incisive, uncompromising and humorous way, are just some of the reasons why - on a personal note - he is undoubtedly my favourite contemporary philosopher. With all that said, and without further ado, it is my great pleasure to introduce you all to Professor Slavoj Zisek. 

 

SLAVOJ: I feel such existential anxiety; like, you are there but I'm talking to a void. A little bit perplexing, but I will survive. Just a brief improvisation; because you know my anxiety/uncertainty is that often, I was invited to a philosophical debate; and then big philosophical questions were like ‘Do we need another referendum for Brexit?’, or whatever and so on. So what I will try to do to combine the two dimensions is precisely to begin with an abstract topic, and show how it relates to philosophical notions. Because I think, and that's my optimism - no, generally I'm a pessimist - optimism for philosophy. 

Today, with all the public debate even that we have - the role of artificial intelligence, ecology, abortion and so on - are we aware that these are all signs that traditional wisdoms no longer can help us? That ordinary people in our daily situation; we have somehow to address philosophical questions, which are by their nature philosophical. So let me give you two/three examples, one or two jokes in between, and then a political conclusion from this. 

People think I oppose LGBT+. I don’t. I think, properly understood, this is something tremendously important; but I want to draw your attention to one feature, to this plus (+). You know, the official formula is LGBT - or IQ… this dogmatic dispute, theological; you know, how many letters. Doesn’t matter - then you add the plus. Now, I'm a great admirer of English philosophy, but nonetheless I don't quite agree with the tradition of British empiricism; so I will say that the usual reading of this plus is the empiricist reading. The idea is we should break out of the binary of just two big gender roles, masculine/feminine; there are other multiple positions, they should be all equal. So then some people even try to legislate it, like the city of New York proposed a list of 32/3 sexual positions; butch, trigender, asexual and so on. But they always worry, ‘My god, what if we missed still some position? What if somebody will come, find something else; ‘Where is my place in it? ’’ So they simply - being aware that there is no perfect, full classifications - they add a plus as a sign of precaution; ‘let's be open if somebody else arrives.’ 

Now it may sound as a joke - I forgot her name, but it is in my book - an Australian feminist LGBT theorist proposed a wonderful idea - very Hegelian in my view - that what if we do not read the plus - LGBTQ, whatever, plus - as ‘And all others, maybe not yet discovered’? What is we take this plus as a position of its own; ‘I can be a plus’? And I think that, to make a long story short if you want to hear the detailed argumentation, read my book - that subjectivity at its most radical, what we call human subjectivity, is such a plus. 

When I am offered in ideology many- that's how ideology works for me basically in everyday life. You are offered - or as Louis Althusser put it, interpolated - into some identity. You are: a woman; a feminist; theorist; a Muslim; a Christian; whatever, a certain identity. The basic hysterical question is a question to the master figure, who gives you your identity or delineates it; why am I what you are telling me that I am? Or to quote Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, "why am I that name?" This self questioning is basic, and it can be shown nicely even in psychoanalytic practice, two things; that first, this questioning is constitutive of subjectivity. Subject is a plus at its most basic; the moment you identify with a certain position, to put it in clinical terms, you fall into what is called perverse position. 

A pervert does not question himself; a pervert is a perfect instrument. A pervert knows politically, that's why all totalitarians are perverts; not in the sense of horrors that they are doing, but in the sense of the basic subjective position. A pervert knows better than you what is good for you, like a Stalinist communist; 'we know better than people themselves what is good for the people', and so on. So I’m saying- I don't have time to go into this very interesting domain, of how the ’68 was full of anti-feminist biases. You know, they despised - I remember; I was young, I was there - they despised hysteria ‘Oh, this is just feminine; you know, just provoking a master. You don't really want to get rid of the master’ but perversion goes to the end, as even Freud once said; very wrongly, I think. Perverts actually do what hysterics also only dream about. 

I want to say that contrary to this, perversion is always the hidden face of domination. Every social power needs perverts to do the work, while this hysterical self-questioning again is the basic position of subjectivity; defines subjectivity as such. Okay, I have to move very fast; so with this ridiculous example, I will just try to illustrate to you my second point, how hysteria is basically feminine in its nature. If you were in love - sorry for my male chauvinist bias in a traditional way - a man in love with a woman; it happened to me always. Okay, ‘always’; I was in love two/three times, really not more - that the woman asked me this question that most of men hate; “Tell me, why do you love me? ” I think it's a very good question, because there is no answer to it; the moment you give reasons, it's not love, or it's much more delicate. There are reasons to love, but the only way to understand this reason is to already be in love; in love as in all existential engagements. 

Religion is the same; it's not that you look around, ‘Oh, there are different religions! I see here Islam, Buddhism, Christianity,’ whatever; and ‘Let's look around; that one has the better argumentation, or the best….; I will choose that one.’ This is not proper faith. Proper faith says, 'Only if you already believe, you understand the reasons for it.' So again, what I want to say - now I come to my first joke, it's an old one; maybe some of you know it, but now I discovered a new aspect of it - things are (unclear) complicated. Because as self-questioning, the subject is empty; empty in the sense of not rooted in a particular identity, by definition avoiding it. But this doesn't simply mean that subject is without object. The trick precisely with subjective positions which claim to be universal, above divisions - its weakest nonetheless, the particular bias there. 

So now comes the joke. I'm sure that you know it; I hope I will at least surprise you by my reading. It's a wonderful joke taught to me by a Jewish friend long ago; where on Sabbath Saturday, believers meet in a synagogue 'and first, the great rabbi addresses God there and says, “Oh my god, I am nobody; I'm not worthy of your attention”, and so on. Then a rich merchant stands up and says, “Oh God, I'm also nobody; I'm not worthy of your attention, you should despise me”, and so on. Then a poor ordinary Jew stands up and said modestly, “Dear God, I'm also nobody”; and then the rich merchant kicks the rabbi and says, “But who is this guy?” [LAUGHS] “Does he think that like us, he can simply say that he also nobody or what?

Now I will give you a surprising political example of this. We all know how white supremacists pretend to be universal, but really - this is a standard topic, how their universalism is false; they secretly privilege certain ways of life but I found the same thing quite often with this typical figure of today's liberal left. This radical anti-national stance of ‘We in the West are guilty of everything’, colonial crimes and so on; ‘Whenever there is something wrong in the world, it must be our guilt. It is the effect of colonialism’ and so on. That's why it's quite a comical detail; I’m sorry if you know the story, I will repeat it. I noticed how in the United States, if you are perceived as totally marginal you are allowed to assert your identity. If Native Americans insist on itit's wonderful; they resuscitate their dances and so on, wisdoms and so on. Then with black people, it's still okay. With Asians - Japan, China - eek; suspicions begin, and the more you approach the West the more problematic this becomes. If you are a WAP - White Protestant, whatever - if you say ‘I also want to assert my identity’, boom; you are a fascist, whatever. 

Now this is often true, I’m not simplifying the choice here. What I’m saying just is that quite often, white people who adopt the disposition ‘we did so much crime, we are the dominant; that's why we should not assert our identity’. This self-humiliation - renouncing your particular identity - obviously produced what Jacques Lacan calls a 'plus-de jouir'; a surplus enjoyment, a kind of libidinal profit, which is; precisely the fact that they renounced particular identity, gives them the position of universality from which they are allowed to judge others. Like in a debate with Native Americans, white guy - this happened to me years ago in Missoula, Montana - when an Indian person there- Indian not in the sense of India, in the sense of Native Americans; and incidentally, my Native American friends all prefer the term Indian. They claim Native American is racist, like natives; so we are natural in your culture, Americans, or what? As they told me - sorry for this old joke - ‘If our name is Indians, our name is at least a monument to white men’s stupidity who thought they are in India.’ [LAUGHS] 

So the white guy immediately corrected them ‘No, this is racist, don't do this’ and so on and so on - and it's the same a little bit, I think, in today's predominant role in our ideological space of victimhood.

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