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Slavoj Zizek, 2005


He's a superstar intellectual whose readers range from blue-chip academics to art kids riding the L train. The Slovenian philosopher fuses Hegel and Hitchcock, Lacan and Lynch to grapple with issues of sexuality, politics, and morality. Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans flew to Barcelona to meet the materialist philosopher, who was in town to give a lecture.

WOLFGANG: All subject matter has the potential to be important. We attribute value through interpretation.

SLAVOJ: I like trash culture tremendously. Whenever I go to the United States I buy the National Enquirer, People — all those shitty magazines. I love the idea of applying high theory to low and unworthy topics. It's not the topic, but what you do with it.

WOLFGANG: High art has featured risquŽ subject matter for centuries.
SLAVOJ: But I think shocking content often masks formal poverty. I agree with Robert Hughes, the Time magazine critic, who wrote that we shouldn't be deceived by Robert Mapplethorpe's extreme content — radical gay sex. Formally, Mapplethorpe was a very traditional photographer. Showing fists in asses, fucking — any idiot can do that. But the work must adhere to a certain inherent artistic logic. Then you can have shit, fisting, whatever you want.

WOLFGANG: I'm fascinated by the human holes — among others the mouth and ass. What is your relationship to your holes?
SLAVOJ: Phobic.

SLAVOJ: Absolutely. I will tell you a dirty, intimate detail about myself — I am not ashamed! After going to the toilet, I have to spend five minutes washing away all evidence of the act. If anybody were to inspect the toilet bowl, I should be able to deny what just happened.

WOLFGANG: Why do you think the image of two men kissing it is still so shocking to many people when pornography has become part of mainstream culture?
SLAVOJ: Why does heterosexual pornography often involve lesbian interplay, while prohibiting male interplay? The standard answer is that pornography caters to the male viewer. But half the people who watch hardcore pornography these days are women.

WOLFGANG: I don't believe that's true at all, but carry on.
SLAVOJ: This image of the lone masturbating male is no longer viable. There's a much deeper issue. I believe Lacan's basic point that sex is exhibitionistic by definition — it's never just you and me. There are always three in the sexual act. You imagine a gaze — you are always doing it for someone.

WOLFGANG: It's always a performance.
SLAVOJ: Pornography is a genre where you would think everything is permitted. No! It's the most codified of genres. But this, for me, is its ultimate charm. I spoke with a Hollywood pornography producer, who told me that he deliberately stages the action so that the male viewer doesn't identify with the guy doing the fucking. He's just a machine. You, the viewer, want to be convinced that the woman is addressing you. And the deepest fantasy is that the ultimate woman — the femme fatale — would be a drag queen, a dressed-up man.

WOLFGANG: Do you think Lacan was right when he made the paradoxical statement that lesbians are the only true heterosexuals?
SLAVOJ: I think the categorization of heterosexuality versus homosexuality is totally wrong. There is a radical asymmetry between male and female homosexuality. Paradoxically, lesbian sex fits the standard phallocentric logic much more neatly than gay sex. I think that lesbianism is enacted for an absent phallic presence. Even some radical lesbian thinkers — like Judith Butler — who otherwise hate me, concede this point. Whereas the third element in male homosexuality is feminine, so gay sex is the truly feminist thing to do — and, in turn, standard heterosexual sex is the most homosexual act. It seems to me that gay penetration realizes and confronts the phantasmic support of straight sex too directly — that's why it is so unbearable for many.

WOLFGANG: Is that why the idea of being penetrated is so traumatic for the straight male? Is it the dream that haunts them in the background?
SLAVOJ: Freud said beautifully that a dream-come-true is a nightmare. Whenever we make love, we have obscure fantasies sustaining us. But they have to remain in the unconscious. The most horrible thing that can happen is to have those fantasies realized.

WOLFGANG: The only contexts in which men are allowed to look at other men's bodies are sports and the army.
SLAVOJ: I served in my beloved Yugoslav Army. I was shocked how army life was a totally homophobic atmosphere, but at the same time it was penetrated by obscene, gay innuendoes. We didn't greet other soldiers with "Hello." We'd say, "I'll smoke yours," which was slang for fellatio.

WOLFGANG: Like, "I'll blow you," or something.
SLAVOJ: People thought I would find military service nightmarish. You know, they presumed I was a spoiled intellectual. But I loved it! I was a model soldier — I was awarded medals. In many ways I am a leftist fascist. I like order and discipline, and I hoped to find this in the army. But armies are so chaotic! Beneath the superficial appearance of discipline lies a lot of improvisation and confusion — at least in the Yugoslav Army. That was a shock.

WOLFGANG: Does your love of discipline extend to your work habits?
SLAVOJ: Absolutely. I write all the time. But I don't really write books. I write fragments, which I eventually montage into books. I can't believe I could survive before computers. I had to use scissors and Scotch tape all the time.

WOLFGANG: Cut-and-paste was invented for you!
SLAVOJ: I think mankind's most important inventions are the personal computer and the bed. I love to sleep. But ironically, the moment of falling asleep is very traumatic for me. I have this fear of losing control — transneurotica. I'm a Stalinist in that respect — you should always be ready for the enemy.

WOLFGANG: Perhaps you're a totalitarian at heart. [laughs]
SLAVOJ: The more I read about Stalinism, the more I'm fascinated by it. This is why I am mistrustful of the use of totalitarianism as a general term. We tend to think of Nazism and Stalinism together — one applied to race, one to the class enemy. But they are not the same. I think Nazism was worse. Stalinism, at its very heart, conceived itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition. In every gulag, all of the prisoners were forced to sign telegrams wishing Stalin all the best on his birthday. Can you imagine the guards gathering all the Jews in Auschwitz and making them sign a telegram to Hitler? So what did these telegrams represent? The Stalinists might have thought someone was a counter-revolutionary shit, but they still considered him capable of insight into universal logic. The Stalinist forced confessions implied that counter-revolutionaries could see their guilt.

WOLFGANG: They were a horrible show, but they implied that a person had made an intellectual choice.
SLAVOJ: There was an ontological closure in Nazism, a naturalization of guilt, which was much more terrifying. Jews were not guilty for what they did, but for what they were. Jews didn't need to confess — their crime was simply being Jewish.

WOLFGANG: And for Nazis, a crime against a Jew was meaningless.
SLAVOJ: But back to your question — this will give you a hint of my private totalitarian spirit. My five-year-old son and I play military games — with tanks, and so on. On one occasion, a soldier had to be shot. My son said to me, "Father, let's kill him so it looks like an accident." What a Stalinist — and only five years old! I particularly loved him at that moment.

WOLFGANG: What are your vanities?
SLAVOJ: My vanities are my secret narcissisms. I love owning all my books. I'll open one and think, "Oh my God, look what I've written!" It's absolutely disgusting self-satisfaction. But I also have a pathological compulsion to make fun of myself in public. I am unable to endure any symbolic ritual in which I'm honored.

WOLFGANG: Surely this self-effacement is also a type of vanity.
SLAVOJ: It is. My ultimate nightmare is to be available to others. Whenever I accept an invitation to speak, I always ask if I am expected to attend the reception afterwards. The social side is an obligation for me. I don't live a social life. I never go to parties. I will give people my cell phone number, but my phone is never on — I just check my messages a few times a day.

WOLFGANG: So your fame hasn't distorted your self-image?
SLAVOJ: I don't have any illusions of grandeur. I spend my time between Buenos Aires, where my fiancŽe lives, and Ljubljana in Slovenia, where nobody knows really knows me. My idea of paradise is missing a connecting flight and staying overnight in an anonymous hotel...

WOLFGANG: Éwhere nobody can contact you.
SLAVOJ: My dream is to not exist, to just be my work. I don't have even one photo of myself. I'm not kidding! My mother had a box of photos from my youth. She died six years ago. After the hospital called to inform me, I went to her home and burned all the pictures — even before going to the hospital to take care of the corpse.

WOLFGANG: How do you cope with having to do press?
SLAVOJ: If I have to play the game, I try to spoil it! That's my rule. You know what I really hate? Writers are expected to have a stupid two- or three-line biography. You know, "She wrote her first novel when she was eighteenÉ in her spare time she likes gardening." I've always wanted mine to read something like, "In his spare time, he spends many hours watching child pornography and enjoy shooting small birds with an air gun." I've tried, but all of my publishers are too afraid to use it.

WOLFGANG: As an author everything you say or do is attributed to you. You always have that responsibility.
SLAVOJ: Yes. Freedom for me is the idea of talking into a totally empty space. In a void, you can do whatever you please — it's not you. Many years ago, there was a particular moment when I felt really free. My phone rang one day. I picked it up, and somebody asked for Maria. It was a wrong number. In the days before digital telephones, there was practically no way the caller could check the number he had dialed if he made a mistake. My immediate temptation was to say, "I'm an emergency doctor. Maria just had a heart attack. She is dying," and then put the phone down.

SLAVOJ: I could have caused chaos and remained unidentifiable. I was in a situation of total freedom. Unfortunately, I am too good to actually have gone through with it.

WOLFGANG: Globalization and the war on terror have many people worried that global politics are the worst they've ever been.
SLAVOJ: I agree with Habermas, who said it is not so much that things are getting worse, but that we perceive them as worse because our ethical standards have risen. Ethnic slaughter has always gone on! It just wasn't perceived. The same is true of feminist issues. Women are no more exploited today than fifty years ago. But today, we are more aware of the injustice.

WOLFGANG: Look at how global corporations are ganging up on labor to force down prices. Recently, Nelson Mandela spoke in London and said that our increasing wealth in the West is an insult. He went so far as to call it a sin similar to slavery.
SLAVOJ: In most sociological theory, a globalized society is defined as a society in which about twenty percent of the people are truly globalized. I don't believe in the contemporary thinking that first China will become globalized, then India, and so on. I think new exclusions are emerging as well.

WOLFGANG: Slums are expanding throughout the developing world.
SLAVOJ: It is no longer just a favela here, a favela there. Over one billion people in the world live in slums. By slums, I mean something very specific — not simply poor parts of the city, but neighborhoods that are integrated into the economy through drugs and organized crime, and not governed by political citizenship and law and order. For me, this is the most interesting political phenomenon to come out if globalization. Will something new emerge there?

WOLFGANG: I am so enraged by the policies of George Bush.
SLAVOJ: I don't think Bush is a phenomenon — he is a sign of a deeper historical shift. Would everything be different if it hadn't been for that half a percent cheating in Florida? No. This is a historical trend. The fall of the Berlin Wall is often celebrated as the end of the big utopias. I think the decade of the '90s was the true utopia. The symbolic, historical meaning to September 11th is that it marked the end of this utopian period.

WOLFGANG: So Bush's election in 2000 also marks that shift.
SLAVOJ: In a strange way, Bush is revolutionary. You know why? If Kerry had won, things would only have blurred. I like clear positions. I think liberals are co-responsible for the current political situation. In the United States, so-called Bible Belt religious fundamentalism is a strange offspring of the old-leftist populist movements. Paradoxically, today the Christian fundamentalists are the only ones who are organized like the left once was.

WOLFGANG: They've adopted the tactics of grassroots activism.
SLAVOJ: When the American left redefined the main struggle as a matter of cultural tolerance — and no longer economic progress — it opened up that space for the religious fundamentalists.

WOLFGANG: With the rise of fundamentalism, secularism also seems on the decline.
SLAVOJ: Have you read Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas? He claims that religious fundamentalism is a blue-collar phenomenon, that there's a clear class distinction.

WOLFGANG: You think that the rich use religion to control the masses?
SLAVOJ: Absolutely. The rich don't take it seriously. The poorer an American state, the more fundamentalist it is likely to be. Take the example of Kansas, which historically was one of the most radically left-wing states. It is now one of the poorest, and most ardently Republican. It's as if its populist civil society was kidnapped by the new right wing.

WOLFGANG: I'm always amazed how the Christian right is able to distort the teaching of Jesus in such a crass way. Taking money from the poor is now called "love," and aiming for more social justice is "immoral."
SLAVOJ: Every religion is opportunistic. Religions are usually structured very intelligently — there are proverbs and maxims for every occasion.

WOLFGANG: Luther explicitly defined man as something that fell from God's hands, as the divine truth.
SLAVOJ: He then went a step further, and noted that Christ demonstrated his love for man by assuming the same role, the same excremental [physical/disposable/tangible] identification, as man. The joke was that Luther himself suffered from permanent medical constipation. What absolute irony! We are eternally indebted to Christ because paid the price for us, and he did it for free. I think this eternal blackmail is the worst aspect of Christianity. This is the Christian hypocrisy.

WOLFGANG: Do you admire religious writers?
SLAVOJ: I admire Kierkegaard — he was a genius. Do you know what he said about the idea of "love thy neighbor?" You should take it literally. You should love your neighbor as if he were already dead, because the only good neighbor is a dead neighbor. My God, he was the best. Lacan said that the most radical materialists are usually intelligent theologists. I think about that quite literally.

WOLFGANG: Did you ever meet Lacan?
SLAVOJ: Yeah, but he didn't meet me. We met one year before he died, but he was already totally senile. I'm absolutely sure that he didn't know to whom he was talking. I can claim I shook the great man's hand. I was once introduced to Wolfgang Wagner, the grandson of the composer. We shook hands, and I remember thinking, "My God. Hitler visited this guy regularly when he was young. I am only one handshake away from Hitler. I only need to meet some old communist to be one handshake away from Stalin, and then I've seen it all! Then I can die." [laughs]  

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Slavoj Zizek by Wolfgang Tillmans, 2005
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