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 Zizek.


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 letter. 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, tri-gender, 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, + - 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 (UNCLEAR) 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 detonate? 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 here 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 is 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 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 it - ‘It'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 (UNCLEAR) 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. ’ 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.  Many people like to adopt the position of victimhood precisely to enhance, to strengthen, their position in power structures, and so on and so on This happened - I think it was, in a way, just for her to say - did you follow this 2/3 weeks ago? Elizabeth Warren - the American Democratic figure - played this game; ‘I have some Cherokee blood’, and so on and so on. It was ridiculous! Is she aware that she did the thing - although in a totally opposite political sense, but nonetheless - formally she was doing the same thing as the Nazis, my God; trying to re- establish her credential by her genetic or whatever DNA analysis, and so on and so on. The right answer to her came not from Donald Trump, who is disgusting; from the Cherokee. Some tribal elders group, who denounced her brutally as [a] manipulator and so on and so on. 

Now my next point; what kind of - this may hurt some of you - what kind of what kind of divinity would you associate with this notion of subject as questioning, and so on and so on? Again, I cannot go - no time for details now - but I would have said (and here comes another joke) a divinity which is - and I think this is the deepest insight of some radical trends in Christianity - a God who is not perfect. A God who is literally, because he is too good, a little bit retarded; imperfect. I will not go into it now; I will tell you another joke - so you will not think I’m a Zionist, my God; I'm a BDS supporter, I’m just waiting for when they will prohibit me to enter Israel - but nonetheless, they have excellent theological jokes. One is this one; it’s [a] very brutal joke, but I love them because true jokes are brutal. Do you know that there is a whole subculture of Holocaust jokes in Judaism? They are not perverts who make fun of themselves; it's a subtle admission that when things are really horrible, to play this tragic game with dignity is obscene. you can only do a joke. So the drug goes like this; to understand this joke, you have to know... You have to know that one of the theological reactions to [the] Holocaust is, God died in Auschwitz. Too horrible is what happened there; God couldn't have been there, he couldn't have allowed it, so God was absent. God died in Auschwitz; the joke goes like this. A couple of victims who died in Auschwitz (Jews) are now in paradise, of course, and they’re walking around. They sit on a bench on an nice field meadow in paradise, and amuse each other with jokes; jokes about their death in Auschwitz. One old Jew said to the other, “Do you remember, Jakob, how was it when they dragged you towards the gas chamber? You slipped already before and broke your head, so that you died before even you were touched by gas! ” And they all laugh, ‘that was funny’; then God himself takes a break from his work and drops by, and looks at them and says, ‘Listen, my friends, I don't understand this joke’ - and now comes the absolutely sublime humour. One of the Jews steps towards him, puts his hand over God's children and patronisingly tells him, “Don't worry; you were not there, so of course you cannot understand it”, and so on.

 You know what's so subversive here? That what God cannot understand is not the horror of it; it's the joke that we make out of it. I don't have time - maybe later - to go into it; just to allow me to finish - because I know that I have a very specific notion of temporality; very brief - I think that although I am very critical towards many aspects of Marxism, one thing we still should pursue today: critic of ideology. Not in the traditional Marxist sense, but in a new mode. Just to give you one of my slogans, you know Marx’s old definition of ‘Religion is the opium of the people? ’ I think today we should drop it and propose another version; there are today - maybe some of you heard this joke of mine, the answer is obvious - today there are two new opiums of the people, and you can guess what they are. Opium and the people. 

First, are you aware there is some American analysis - to what extent - at least in degenerate circles like ours, academia - that literally 70 to 80% of people, to retain the normal functioning of their mind, already rely on different forms of drugs? From ordinary daily drugs, to more serious psycho drugs, up to opium itself and so on and so on. It is as if without this resort to chemistry and biochemistry, we are so stabilised we cannot function normally. The other opium of the people is the people itself; this is not precisely we call populism today, and for this reason I cannot go - I’m concluding now, of course - this is why I find problematic the idea of so- called leftist, left populism; that we should answer the right by our own populism. You know why not? Because populism always has some feature; it defines populism. You simplify the situation by constructing a clear figure of the enemy, and you connect with so- called anxiety scares of ordinary people. I think that this no longer - I am a pessimist here - works today. Let's take the United States; okay, you will say the enemy's Trump. No; it is immediately. but the enemy, the true enemy cannot be personalised. The true enemy is the failure of the liberal consensus in the last decades in the United States. Trump didn't fall from the moon onto the earth; he emerged as a result of certain failures of this predominant form of consensus, because - never forget this - every functioning democracy is based on a consensus. You can skip all the debates, antagonisms, that they always had to take place against the background of a certain basic agreement, and then we can find about, ‘Is this debate the best way to help our society? ’ and so on and so on. That's why it's dangerous what is happening now, not only but also in the United States; literally this consensus is disintegrating, it's a kind of ideological civil war. The second reason that I doubt populism is and this will be the tragic point; with which, after a series of bad jokes, I will conclude - traditional Marxism still relies on the ideas that the unique trends of a revolutionary trend is to connect what Marx thought it was. The highest theoretical insight - historical materialism, the trends of revolution, deep understanding of history - with the concerns of the troubles of daily life of concrete people. What people experience as their deadlock resonates with the deepest insight; proletarian revolution and so on. I don't think we are at such a situation today, and I'm not saying people ordinary people don't know it but we theorists do know it no, we know even less - but what I'm saying is this.


 For example, my good friend - I admire him, we are very good friends - Yanis Varoufakis, his idea is we need real democracy in [the] European Union. Not this alienated Brussels bureaucracy, but people should listen to- okay. Then I asked him - and I never got, so I claim, I'm sorry, a good answer - I asked him, “But okay, do you know that if we were to ask ordinary people today in Europe ‘What do you think about immigrant threat’; refugees and so on , about 60- 70% would say ‘Fuck them?’” I mean, throw them out. So paradoxically, are you aware of this tragic situation that in spite of all blaming Brussels bureaucracy, they were more open towards refugees then the authentic popular opinion, and so on and so on. Varoufakis’ answer to me was ‘Because people are manipulated. We need last two weeks of open debate’. I told him ‘Are you crazy? That's the ultimate utopia’; that somehow we will clear the table, address the people with truth. No, that's why we need critique of ideology today; ideology is not some outside external force that washes the brains of the people, ideology is our daily experience. I will not repeat it because most of you know it, but in one of my old classic analysis, I even took the structure - you all know it, I know; I will be short and conclude - I took the typical structure of British, American, French and German toilets to make this point. You remember, British or American toilets are full of water; and shit after you produce it is floating there. German toilets have a hole but in front, so that your shit falls back and stays there - I'm not kidding, I saw them - then it's a ritual of inspecting, smelling your shit, you know; and French, the hole is in the back, so it disappears immediately, shit. But isn't this what was called already in late 18th century, the European Trinity? British, you're pragmatic, economy; ‘Let's do it, compromise, shit floats in water’. French are revolutionary, liquidate quickly the shit out; German are poets and metaphysicians - observe shit, analyse it - you think it's a bad joke, but I talked with architects and they confirm this to me. They say you cannot explain it with some rational pragmatic reasons; the only reason I ended up with this bad jokes, repeating myself, is to let you know how although people claim ‘Oh, ideological theory is behind us’; no, we are perhaps more in ideology than ever. That's why our first task of public intellectuals, intellectuals in general, is not to propose a solution; don't fall into this trap, this is what authorities want, ‘We have a problem, people are demonstrating’; no. Our first task is to raise the right questions; the problem today is not answers but how, when we see a problem, the way we formulate the problem, is the rule already part of the mystification? Just think about all the ideologies projected into ecology, beginning with this idea, Mother Earth and we humans distorted Mother Earth and so on and so on. Or even racism, the idea that the main problem with racism is lack of tolerance; no this is typical cultural left, which sees the problem as ‘We should more understand each other’ and so on and so on. I totally oppose to this, to provoke you; my idea of an open democratic society is not there is an Iranian friend and African friend, a Jewish friend, a Latin- American friend and we understand each other; no you resign yourself - ‘How can I understand them when I don't even understand myself? ’ The true task is tolerance precisely towards what you have to accept; that it remains an otherness. We need what my right- wing friend, who is not an idiot German, Peter Sloterdijkn says “A new culture of discretion” and I think this is the only way to retain sanity in our crazy global world. Now comes the biggest surprise; I’m finished, really. Thank you very much.

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