Foucault for our time

November 27, 1998

Slavoj Zizek was once asked to run Slovenia's MI5. Jennifer Wallace meets a radically chic philosopher with a taste for realpolitik.

Shit can serve as a matiere-a-penser," writes Slavoj Zizek in The Plague of Fantasies. "In a traditional German lavatory, the hole in which **** disappears after we flush water is way in front, so that the **** is first laid out for us to sniff at and inspect for traces of some illness; in the typical French lavatory, on the contrary, the hole is in the back, while the Anglo-Saxon lavatory presents a kind of synthesis - the basin is full of water, so that the **** floats in it - visible but not to be inspected."

These national variations in plumbing reveal the way in which even the most basic human functions are pervaded by psychological trauma and ideology. "The moment an academic visits the rest room after a heated discussion he is again knee-deep in ideology."

Writing like this has made Zizek, a philosopher from Slovenia, a cult figure across the United States. Funny, shocking and wittily non-PC, Zizek can analyse the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Immanuel Kant, the Bosnian crisis and the Freudian death-drive in the same breath, an intellectual collage that endears him to the Tarantino generation. His book, The Metastases of Enjoyment, which flaunts a cover picture of a female anatomical figure cut open to reveal her organs, was recently banned by the feminist bookshop Silver Moon.

Zizek's books (12 in nine years) are swapped like samizdat texts among trendy academics and his appearances attract flocks of devoted followers. When he spoke in Harvard in February, the audience was so large that the campus police had to control hysterical fans being turned away at the door.

But beneath all the razzmatazz and the international star status, has Zizek got something serious to say? Has he become the exotic toy of the American universities, the victim of his own success? Or is his one of the most important voices emerging from the collapse of the Soviet experiment, the release of countries like the former Yugoslavia from the Communist yoke?

We met in Zizek's flat, in a modern apartment block built since Slovenian independence in his home town of Ljubljana. Between visiting fellowships in the US, he stills holds a position as senior researcher at the town's institute for social sciences.

His work covers three main areas. He studies German idealist philosophy - Kant, Hegel and others. He analyses political mechanisms and how power functions; and he dissects popular culture, films in particular. His thinking is shaped by his lifelong commitment to the philosophy of Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst who combined the legacy of Sigmund Freud with structuralist ideas about language to explain the paradoxical workings of the unconscious, identity, fantasy and social relations. Zizek uses popular culture to explain Lacan's complicated ideas. But he also uses Lacan to critique popular culture. One of his most popular books is an edited collection of essays on Hitchcock's films, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid To Ask Hitchcock).

How do all these apparently divergent areas of interest relate? Is it in the notion of impossibility? Yes, he agrees, and explains what Lacan means by impossibility. Lacan believed that we all live in the realm of language and symbolic representation and that even the unconscious is "structured like a language". This means that just as language always tries to represent reality but can never quite capture it adequately, so, as human beings we can never know our real, inner feelings and fantasies but instead we fabricate them in a series of images or fetishistic substitutions. Zizek explains: "As we are symbolical animals living within the domain of language, we cannot say it all. There is a certain failure of language and it's there that you touch the Real". This does not mean that Lacan's Real, or Impossible, is a mythical Romantic notion, but it is rather grounded in politics and social mechanisms.

Zizek, typically, explains by talking about the film Titanic. "How is the catastrophe connected to the couple, the rich upper-class girl and the poor lower-class boy? At what exact moment does the iceberg hit the ship? After making love, they go up on the deck and embrace again and then she tells him: 'I will stay with you and abandon my people.' At that moment the iceberg hits the ship. What's the point? I claim the true catastrophe would have been for them really to stay together because it wouldn't work and they would split. To save that impossible dream the ship must sink. The impossibility, in Lacanian terms, is the impossibility of the sexual relationship. It is to conceal that impossibility that you must have this big tragedy."

According to Zizek, the lessons of Lacanian psychoanalysis are useful for understanding the way postmodern culture operates. Because we cannot get in touch with our real feelings we represent them by symbolic images and kid ourselves that these really are our fantasies, while secretly feeling relieved that some sort of control over our turbulent emotions has been established. "The prohibition of desire in order to be operative must be eroticised. The regulation of desire leads to the desire for regulation itself," says Zizek.

This paradox is central to Zizek's reading of contemporary postmodern culture. While we live in what is apparently a hugely permissive society, which allows sexual freedom, ethnic minority rights, freedom of speech, we are ordered by a hidden and eroticised set of prohibitions. In the old days one was compelled to do things by threats and legislation. Now "beneath the appearance of free choice, it's a much more severe order because it terrorises you from within".

Contemporary politics is similarly constrained by an unacknowledged impossibility. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton make minor changes to the style and presentation of public life but leave unanswered broader questions of how society should be governed. Zizek thinks that genuine political action is virtually impossible now because capitalism has won the ideological war and nobody is seriously questioning its values or rules. But he argues that, just as postmodern culture persuades itself that it lives in an age of freedom, so politicians mask their real limitations with a facade of energetic political activity.

"In the old days of essentialism (the naive belief that it was possible to impose one universal set of values), the left focused too much on simple economic issues and the primacy of the class struggle," Zizek argues. "Now the days of essentialism are over and instead of the one struggle, you have plurality, gay rights, ecology, ethnic identity, whatever. I nonetheless claim that the price paid for this apparent plurality is that something was excluded. Nobody on the left really thinks about a global alternative to capitalism."

Zizek devotes much of his work to uncovering the prohibitions and constraints of contemporary politics and postmodern culture. If we become aware of how prohibitions operate and of the paradoxical covert nature of pleasure and regulation in our society, we will become emancipated or at least less naively vulnerable and blind to ideology.

But beyond this consciousness-raising mission, he also thinks an authentic political act is still theoretically possible. This sets him apart from other international theoretical thinkers. "An authentic political act is never just an act within a set of rules. It's an act that retroactively changes and establishes the rules of its own possibility. You do something that appears crazy and impossible. But your very intervention changes the rules themselves." Nixon visiting China is one example. "My message is not a hopeless one like the Frankfurt School - we are apparently free but it's a total closure. No, no. My idea is that the optimistic lesson of psychoanalysis is that to function power must be self-inconsistent and it is the gap between what is said and implicit prohibitions - that opens up the space for change."

Zizek's "gap" can best be understood in the paradoxical Lacanian notion that real prohibitions and desires are camouflaged and expressed by licensed fantasies. In the days of Stalin, not only was it forbidden to criticise Stalin but it was also not possible to admit publicly that you were not allowed to criticise Stalin. The real rules were hidden by apparent freedom and by the expectation that you would not want to break them anyway.

Elizabeth Bronfen, leading feminist psychoanalytic critic, says it is Zizek's acute political analysis, reading "political events as part of the image repertoire of popular culture" and revealing "patterns of thinking" that span high politics and low culture, that makes his work so important. Unlike celebrity US theorists such as Judith Butler, Zizek is grounded in the urgent demands of practical politics. He is prepared to envisage the possibility of revolutionary activity but is also acutely sensitive to its devastating effects.

This awareness was shaped by recent Slovenian history. Zizek shows me a street near his flat where there was some shooting during the Slovenian breakaway from the Yugoslav federation. The ten-day war with Yugoslavia in June 1991 was rather a non-event as far as Zizek was concerned. He was completing the Hitchcock book, and found difficulty swapping proofs with his collaborators because of the blockades. Ljubljana main television station showed Twin Peaks every night for a week, a way, he thinks, of taking the public mind off the situation.

In fact Zizek is quite keen to play down the whole Slovenian-Yugoslav thing. His British publishers Verso wanted to package one of his books as "written from the heart of the Yugoslav conflict", but Zizek resisted. According to Miran Bozovic, another Slovenian Lacanian, a number of Yugoslav academics have taken advantage of their country's situation to grab attention for themselves. This annoys the Lacanian group. Indeed they are not enamoured of Slovenian culture at all - its poets and filmmakers are not interesting, they say - but are hungry for western ideas, British novels, American films.

And yet the urgency of Zizek and his group is directly related to Slovenian politics. They were initially attracted to Lacan precisely because his thinking worried the establishment. Zizek went to Paris in the early 1980s where he worked with Lacan and Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan's chief sidekick. Yugoslavia's communist politicians, who relied on knowing everything about people's lives, were troubled by the main tenets of Lacanian psychoanalysis - the unconscious is unknowable, the empty place of power.

The Slovenian Lacanians became the official ideologists for the Punk movement, writing lyrics for them, and organised a visit to Ljubljana of Jacques-Alain Miller, which pulled in record crowds. "I remember on television a public round table, a year or two before free elections, in 1987 or 1988. A big public political discussion, where one guy attacked another for not understanding that the phallus is a signifier of castration".

Zizek is still involved in politics. He helped to found Slovenia's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and in 1990 he was narrowly defeated for the presidency. He decided to concentrate on theory rather than full-time politics but continues to attend party conferences and write speeches. Over dinner at the Restaurant Marilyn Monroe (on the menu: Some Like It Hot foal), he reveals that he has the ear of the prime minister and was once approached to run the Slovenian equivalent of MI5. People think it odd that as a philosopher he should be interested in the realpolitik of public life but he loves the dirty backroom deals.

Zizek is an enigma. He plays on the image of the East European, eccentric philosopher figure he claims to disown. In the US he goes to great lengths to avoid seeing students, inventing appointments so it appears that his office hours are all booked up. An American, he says, would not get away with it.

He tells me of his various ploys in Ljubljana for avoiding work. He has always encouraged his PhD students to write their own appraisals, merely signing his name. But now he has even started getting students to forge his signature. In fact the amount of administrative or teaching work that Zizek has to do is minimal anyway. His post at the institute of social sciences, created during the communist regime and designed so he would have no subversive contact with students, only requires him to produce research publications. He appears about once a month.

But for all the eccentric philosopher tales, there is a serious side to Zizek. He possesses a passionate intellectual power which compels Terry Eagleton to call him "the most important cultural and psychoanalytic theorist now writing" and Elizabeth Bronfen to describe him as "leading the next wave" in international thinking, now that Foucault and others have died. He is also waking up to the way in which he is being packaged by publishers and is starting to resist. He refuses to move full-time to the US. And he is putting a stop to the stream of popular books with outrageous jokes and lurid covers. His next book, The Ticklish Subject, to be published in 1999, contains 400 pages of dense philosophical analysis. The cover will be a simple white feather on a black background. Not even Silver Moon can object to that.

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