JOSEFINA AYERZA: The contemporary political discourse, changed by events such as the altering of communist regular patterns, should be giving new meaning to the actual signifiers. What speech act is involved in this context?
SLAVOJ ZIZEK: "Work hard": a return to capitalist values. "Everybody might get rich, including you." Let's take Thatcherism in Great Britain: what is the Thatcherist dream? It is that by hard work you win; luck is around the corner. Now of course the leftist Labor Party counteroffensive said that this is an illusion, only a few of us might get rich; the majority of us won't get rich. But they missed the point, because the identification that Thatcher's discourse gave you was not that you would actually become rich, but, rather, the discourse gave you the opportunity to identify yourself as the one who might get rich next. Wealth was right around the corner...maybe.
JA: Identification is enough for you to work hard, compete, and so on, but is it enough to succeed?
SZ: Yes, that was enough; it was even proven by sociology polls. People actually answered that it was enough for them to live with the consciousness that maybe if- the sheer possibility that maybe if-"okay, this year my small business went bankrupt, but maybe next year if I work hard...maybe next year if I try again and again, I will succeed." To identify with this possibility is enough to succeed. For the possibility itself to bring its own gratification, you have already to be in the Spinozist universal field of the signifier.
JA: May we call it the possibility of a kind of jouissance, in the Lacanian sense of the term?
SZ: Yes, it is a kind of identification with jouissance. This signifier itself provides jouissance, the signifying machinery itself provides Jouissance.
JA: Why would the return to capitalist values entail the Spinozist field of the signifier?
SZ: It is only against a Spinozean background that you can have this kind of paradox, where the possibility of satisfaction already functions in itself as actual satisfaction, so that you don't need to pass into action. Let's say that the conditions of possibility are related to the field.
JA: If possibility stands for the field, what may stand for the impossible, or for the interfering element?
SZ: What we might call the Kantian revenge appears precisely in figures like Saddam Hussein. To put it naively, these figures of radical evil are for me the symptom. They are the return of the repressed. How is the enemy painted in the late capitalist fantasy? In today's ruling ideology-in other words, in the big media-constructing the enemy has two objectives. The first is fanatic, irrational fundamentalism, which is of course why the West always was and still is obsessed with Islamic fundamentalism. This fundamentalism is precisely the Kantian revenge of radical evil. By the way, I'm not saying this has really something to do with true Islam.
JA: What kind of evil is Saddam, releasing petroleum in the water and killing wildlife, killing nature?
SZ: It is a shock for the West. It was not rational what Saddam did during the Persian Gulf War. This was radical, almost ethical evil. In this fluid fantasy-universe of the West, the Japanese are also sometimes painted as a kind of fanatic demonic evil. But what bothers me is how quickly the layer of fanatic fundamentalism is deployed. I remember a few years ago when some ecologists in California started to prevent the cutting down of big sequoia trees. They discovered that putting long nails into the trees made them impossible to cut. Electric saws couldn't get through the nail and the trees were saved. The ecologists were labeled as eco-terrorists." This makes me very suspicious.
JA: And the second objective?
SZ: Now I come to my next thesis. It is no wonder that in philosophy, thinkers like Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, as well as Gilles Deleuze, were so obsessed with Spinoza! I don't see anything very revolutionary in this return to Spinoza. Contemporary philosophy is conscious of what we were just discussing, that is, of the Spinozist features of contemporary society. I'm very suspicious of the kind of ethics proposed by this universal field of the signifier. What kind of ethics does it imply? It is an ethics basically of non-identification. It says, let's stay free, don't identify too much, there are multiple subject positions and you must renew your personality, don't make any lasting commitments, don't overidentify, invent yourself anew," etc. This would be this late Spinozist ethics.
There is nothing subversive in this kind of ethics developed in the last two books of Foucault, proposed as a model (The Care of the Self, The Uses of Pleasure]. I think Foucault's ethics fit perfectly the late capitalist universal Spinozist signifier. Even in our everyday political experiences when we construct the enemy, we depict danger as the one who overidentifies. This is the usual way; even deconstructionists usually formulate it like that: "The enemy does not see how every identification is constructed."
JA: So the enemy is the one who overidentifies ?
SZ: It is a false enemy. Basically, fundamentalists are not the danger. The crucial question is, do we accept this narrow Spinozist universal signifying field? Is this the ultimate reality that we have to accept, or not? Yes, for me this is the ultimate question, the only true problem. I think the whole conflict of fundamentalism versus nonfundatnentalism is basically a false problem. Those whom we perceive as fundamentalists are not really it. For example, let's take the Moral Majority preachers, usually regarded here as fundamentalists. Did you notice how the same rule applies to them as to (Joan Copjec developed
this very nicely in October # 68) the problematic of the so-called "Teflon president," Ronald Reagan? You know how Reagan made a series of mistakes in his public appearances and speeches; each time, the journals mocked him, they made the whole list of-them. The real mystery is that not only it did not affect his popularity adversely, it
even helped it. In a way, the poor liberals thought that by proving how wrong Reagan was, by enumerating all the mistakes, all the gaffes, they would somehow hurt him. They did not hurt him; they helped him.
My point is that the same goes, at least up to a point, for the Moral Majority preachers. It is wrong to label them as fundamentalists. Those who follow them know that this is fake. For examples Jimmy Swaggart: again and again it is proven that he is involved in sexual scandals; yet he still functions. That is the so-called mystery. I would even say the same thing about David Duke. The problem is not one of, is he really a racist or, does he really believe in anti-Semitism? These are false questions; his position is a kind of imposture, but the point is he is even more dangerous because of it.
JA: Because of its being his ethics ?
SZ: Yes, he is not a serious anti-Semite. I'm not saying he's simply joking, but there is a much more refined dialectic at world there. Let's put it this way: it's his ethics. Fredric Jameson, in one of his articles on film, speaks of this. Fifteen years ago we had this wave of horror movies, like The Exorcists, Jaws, etc. The Exorcist did not rely on the simple belief in supernatural forces. Jameson's idea was that these movies expressed a kind of nostalgia for the lost world, where it was still naively possible to believe in devils. This is a more refined dialectic. This is the same game David Duke is playing. Of course, we cannot be really anti-Semitic today. Duke is a kind of nostalgic figure. His thing is, "Wasn't it nice when it was still possible, like in Hitler's good old days?" I'm not saying it is not dangerous; it is even more disgusting, even more dangerous. Do you know why?
JA: Is it the same, but with no sublime object?
SZ: There still is the symbolic in play, but again, the basic feature of today's ideology, in correspondence with this Spinozist universality of the signifier, is not a kind of fundamentalism, but a mixture of nostalgia and cynicism: cynical distance, nostalgia, etc. We, as theoreticians from a long-term political perspective, cannot accept this as the ultimate stage and say to it "Okay, now humanity will just float in the bliss of the universal signifier to the end." This is not the ultimate horizon; I cannot accept this.
JA: About the Russians emigrating to the United States and Occidental Europe, let's say that in their own country they have been actually living something else: masses of people working together in factories, in industries, are accustomed to have an enormous strength as a group. Yet the Spinozist world instead keeps people at home, dissolves the groups. What will happen when all these people have to deal with this being at home? Are they going to like it? Since you say this is not the ultimate stage, are we wanting to go back to the massive getting together, to the strength of the group?
SZ: No, no, no, of course you cannot go back. There is a crucial thing that is going around now on another level in Eastern Europe. In Russia they are also approaching it; it is already on the way in Poland and Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The democratic enthusiasm is over now and we have a total depoliticization, a cynical retreat into private life. This is the last stage of Eastern Europe now, as we saw in the latest elections.
JA: So it is beginning to he the same all around the world, this privacy?
SZ: Yes, but at another, far more dangerous level. The problem with Eastern Europe is that people there expected something else. This is why this depoliticized reaction now is dangerous. The basic background is that what people wanted of capitalism was strictly a contradictory desire. They wanted things. But what did the dissolution of communism and return to capitalism mean to the everyday Eastern European person? Eastern Europeans experienced communism as something that disintegrated their organic unity. They experienced communism as a strange cancerous entity that disrupted, disunited, degenerated their original family ties, community ties, etc. Therefore, what they expect now from post-communist society is capitalist individualism, consumer society, and so on, and at the same time-and this is crucial-a new kind of community and solidarity.
JA: A postmodern kind of capitalism ?
SZ: This is strictly contradictory because capitalism is not this, it is emphatically not this. And this is what I find most dangerous, this contradictory desire. Do we have a name for the system, for a social system that tries to accomplish precisely this? Capitalism and organic unity at the same time: this is the most elementary definition of fascism. Fascism means precisely this. For examples in Argentina, what was Peron's promise? That you would have capitalism, but at the same time solidarity I think this contradictory desire was a protofascist desire. It may sound very harsh, but what most people spontaneously craved in Eastern Europe was not socialism with a human face, but rather fascism with a human face. This is very dangerous. Anti-Semitism arises at such moments. Now they are extremely disappointed. Why didn't we get what we wanted, capitalism and organic unity at the same time?
JA: Fascism generally has a human face.
SZ: Yes, in a way. To arrive at this, you need an enemy, you need a figure of an enemy.
JA: The Jews or....
SZ: It doesn't have to be a Jew. It can be somebody who is constructed according to the same logic that is at work in anti-Semitism. It is very interesting to see how, even when the enemy is not the Jew, it is still constructed in the same way, as some kind of foreigner.
JA: In this society, the enemy doesn't really have a face. Crime is nowadays quite anonymous: someone goes with a gun to McDonald's and kills seventeen people. Who was the enemy? In earlier times, one would see the face of the enemy.
SZ: Yes, and precisely, the attraction of anti-Semitism is that it gives a face to the enemy-at least the modern form of anti-Semitism.
JA: So the Russians want a figure of the enemy, and they may not find the actual one clear enough?
SZ: Yes, this is what I'm afraid of. But it does not matter if you find it or not, you construct it, you invent it. They are already doing it.
JA: Who is the enemy then ?
SZ: Usually it is the national enemy, it is another nation.
JA: Any other nation ?
SZ: Any other, but usually connected to Jews. In Yugoslavia it's usually a combination of enemies. The standard idea is that when two big nations confront each
other-this is the typical formula of Eastern European conflict-you simply do not put the blame directly on the other nation. You say instead that the other nation is so bad and attacking us because behind it there is the Jew pulling the strings. You always split the enemy. For example in Yugoslavia it works with Serbians, with Croations, etc. You say they" were corrupted, spoiled by the Jews, who really pulled the strings from behind. This is a nice paradox. Even in the Soviet Union now, the hard-level Russian-nationalist anticommunists try to explain communism itself in terms of anti-Semitism, communism as a Jewish invention. For example, the modern Russian anti-Semites will quickly tell you how almost all members of Lenin's Politburo were Jews. In other words, there is a stage of spontaneous ideology in the East: putting the blame for everything on communism is no longer the national sport. Now it is to put the blame on the Jew, or on another nation behind communism itself. I don't like this revival of small ethnic nations in Eastern Europe. I see a dangerous proto-fascist potential here, a very serious possibility; I don't think it is an illusory abstract possibility. This first democratic enthusiasm is now over, and people are radically disappointed and returning to private life. It is the Spinozist machine at work. In spontaneous American ideology, the Japanese are constructed as an enemy that functions in an almost anti-Semitic way, because in anti-Semitism, the Jew is everywhere and nowhere; you can never localize him. They can be hidden everywhere. They are perceived as being all around, the ones who penetrated everything.
JA: This kind of enemy is nevertheless identified.
SZ: But not clearly identified. This is a crucial point of anti-Semitism in Nazi propaganda. It is more complicated than it may appear, because in anti-Semitism fantasy space, the Jew is not simply somebody with such-and-such a corrupted or whatever nature. In anti-Semitism, the Jew represents a nation that has no proper nature, has no proper character, which can mix. There is nothing horrible about having Chinese neighborhoods, Little Italy, etc. As long as you have these distinct entities, it's all right. The problem is that surplus element that is everywhere and nowhere. The standard role attributed to the Jew in Europe is here, up to a point, taken by Japanese. The second point is about the obsession even in American media, that Japanese don't know how to enjoy properly, that they work too much, the idea that the Japanese relationship to enjoyment is somehow strange other than
ours, not normal, disturbed. I am always struck how in the American media they report this with regularity. Even the Japanese government tries to teach the Japanese how to enjoy more. For example, they are now ordered to take regular holidays.
JA: The problem is that they enjoy their work?
SZ: This is the idea, this is the ultimate racist fantasy. And here Lacanian psychoanalysis can teach us a lot, because the basic Lacanian idea is that the ultimate point of racism is not this kind of (as it is usually explained) clash of symbolic identification, cultural values, or whatever. As it was developed by Jacques-Alain Miller in Extimite, racism ultimately concerns the Other's relationship to enjoyment. Ultimately what bothers you in the Other is the way he or she enjoys. And not only the obvious ways-like, for example, the primitive, white sexual fantasies of black sexuality.
JA: What would be the threat in the Japanese working too much?
SZ: The idea is that they work too much because they don't know how to separate properly work and enjoyment, they perversely enjoy working too much, they have this deprivation that is threatening to us. In Europe, this is usually attributed to Jews. I remember once even talking to my mother. Officially she is not anti-Semitic, but once we had some financial dealings with a neighbor of ours who is a Jew, an older woman, and when she returned some money to us, my mother said, "She is a very nice old lady, but did you notice the strange way she counted the money?" I mean this, a strange idea, some kind of special relationship to jouissance, precisely as a lack of pleasure, a kind of deprivation, the different jouissance in what is displeasurable, in what for us is not pleasure.
JA: The problem seems to entail on the one hand investigation-how is the Other enjoying?-and on the other, control over the ways of enjoyment of the Other.
SZ: Yes, because these are two basic fantasies, which are of course the reverse of each other. The one we all know, Jacques Lacan talked about in the late 1960s, when he predicted racism. For Lacan, racism is a kind of revenge of the particularity in the universal field of the signifier. Lacan's idea is that racism is a kind of reaction to this universal field of the signifier, the only way to not be dissolved and lost in this universality. The only way to stick out, the only support you can find, is to stick to your particular way of enjoyment, which then involves you in this racial paranoia, of course.
You formulate your identity on the fantasy that the Other is the one who automatically wants to steal from you. These are the two basic fantasies: one is that the Other wants to steal from us our precious enjoyment, usually the fantasy behind the racist idea of David Duke-blacks, others, they want to ruin the American way of life. The other idea, like with the Jew, is that the Other possesses some kind of excessive and strange enjoyment, which is in itself a threat to us. By the way, another amusing point that I developed is this idea of how enjoyment can be stolen. In the United States, I was struck by the series of films like Rambo, Missing in Action, etc., which are based on the American obsession that there are still some prisoners, some Americans alive down there in Vietnam. The hero, Rambo, saves them, brings them back. I think the fantasy behind it is that the most precious part of America was stolen and the hero brings it back to where it belongs. Because this "treasure" was missing under Jimmy Carter, America was weak. If the hero brings it back, America will be strong again.
Even in America, the most developed country in the world, you can see how this logic of enjoyment, the fantasy that the precious part of our enjoyment may be stolen by the Other, is at work. Because again, it is only against this fantasy background that you can explain the real obsession of the media, which is by the way, totally irrational. The idea that there are some young honest Americans, still prisoners of war, still alive down there in Vietnam, this is obviously a totally marginal problem-even if there really are some. You cannot explain such an obsession without this kind of fantasy scenario.
And this is again where Lacan was in a way, to put it naively, ahead of his time, because he did already predict this new upsurge of racism in the middle-to-late 1960s, in Television. Lacan predicted precisely in 1968, that when the student enthusiasm ended, there would be a new age of racism. This again indicates that the Spinozist universal field cannot be our ultimate answer. The usual illusion is that racism is a kind of fundamentalist remainder of the past. No it is not a remainder from the past; it is not some remainder of old traditions to be dissolved by progress toward an even more computerized Spinozist universe. Instead, it is produced by modernity. What we call fundamentalisms are precisely desperate attempts to cling to some forms of jouissance.
This article was published in Lusitania in the Fall of 1994.