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Josefina Ayerza with Slavoj Žižek: Hidden Prohibitions and the Pleasure Principle

The following interview was first published in Flash Art March/April 1992 - a publication by the Lacanian Ink.

Josefina Ayerza: Twenty million Eastern Europeans are going to arrive in Western Europe and the USA in no time. What do you think may happen to local regional cultures?

Slavoj Žižek: I don't believe in local regional cultures.

JA: Will immigration's effect on language and its structural behavior confirm Lacan's emphasis of Kant over Spinoza? In reducing the field of God to the universality of the signifier, Spinozism produces detachment from human desire. Kant's practical reason, sustained by moral law, brings out desire at its utmost: we know nevertheless how pure desire culminates in the sacrifice of the object of love.

SZ: Lacan says that Kant was right historically about the Spinozian universality of the signifier. It was a kind of false leap, but if your question implies that today's world is paradoxically closer to the neo-Spinozist universality of the signifier, I agree. The ultimate Spinozist idea is that you have a field of knowledge in the Lacanian sense, as the binary signifier without the Master signifier — in speech-act theory we would call it the "order of the performative." I think this was the ultimate Spinozist dream, what he called "love of God'' or "perfect rational knowledge," which is a kind of knowledge that is not obliged to have recourse to a Master signifier, to a point of order, which is performative.(1)

JA: So this knowledge would involve only the field of the signifier; in Lacan's terms the S2?

SZ: Only the field without the S1 functions precisely as an element of order. It is very interesting to read from this perspective how Spinoza reinterpreted the Bible, you know, God's command, "Thou shalt not eat from the tree of knowledge," and so forth. Spinoza said that because the Jews were primitive at that time it was necessary for God to formulate his will as a command, as a performative command, "Thou shalt not..." For a reasonable person, the way to grasp this is not through the performative, but through the constructive.

The constructive is simply like a kind of scientific, objective statement, "Because that tree's fruits of knowledge are dangerous, you should not eat them," etc. Then it is not a command but a simple scientific statement about a certain causality, "If you eat that, you will be in danger because..." This was Spinoza's idea. My point is that today, not only computers but social order, publicity, and the so-called universal, late capitalist consumer are among the fundamental results.

We don't get orders any more, orders are now hidden in this universal form. For example, nobody tells us directly, "You must eat this, you must not eat this." It is like with tobacco, the Spinozist doesn't say, "Don't smoke," he/she says "Smoke, but... ." You have this warning, "Nicotine can be dangerous to your health"; "Eat whatever you want, but beware of cholesterol," etc. You don't have direct prohibitions, you have just a kind of...

....nobody tells us directly, "You must eat this, you must not eat this." It is like with tobacco, the Spinozist doesn't say, "Don't smoke," he/she says "Smoke, but... ." You have this warning, "Nicotine can be dangerous to your health"; "Eat whatever you want, but beware of cholesterol," etc. You don't have direct prohibitions, you have just a kind of...
JA: Deadly warning?

SZ: Yes, but my point is that prohibition is masked as this kind of universal, objective, knowledge statement. This is for me today's Spinozist world, especially in the United States. For example, every can, every package, is full of information. Of course this information is about what it contains and what it does not contain: no cholesterol, no fat. This for me is the practical side of Spinoza today. The inherent dimension is that there are hidden prohibitions. Low fat or low cholesterol means you can easily enjoy it, but the form of a command is absent. You can do whatever you want, but...

JA: So the word "but" comes instead of "thou shalt not," implying we are not primitive anymore?

SZ: Yes, but what you get after "but" is not the Master signifier, it's not an order. It's a kind of masked, objective, scientific knowledge, just information. I think this is perhaps one of the things that fundamentally characterizes late capitalist, consumer society. As we all know, psychoanalysis enables us to discern that behind this explicit commandment lies a hidden, superego commandment to enjoy, to enjoy properly, to succeed. Lacan says the same thing.

JA: So it's actually "Don't smoke because you won't achieve what you want."

SZ: Yes, although the paradox I like here is that this kind of consumer society ideology illustrates nicely what Freud already knew were the paradoxes of the pleasure principle. You have a society which is ostensibly oriented toward pure pleasure, but you pay for it through a whole series of "you can't." The hidden prohibitions: eat whatever you want, but beware of fat and cholesterol; smoke, but beware of nicotine; sex, but safe sex. Yet the ultimate consequence of this pleasure principle is that everything is prohibited in a way; you can't smoke: there's nicotine; you can't eat: there's fat; you can't have sex: you'll get sick. So this is a kind of everyday confirmation of the Lacanian paradox.
We all know how Lacan reversed Dostoyevsky by saying "If God does not exist, everything is prohibited," not ''everything is permitted." I think this is perfectly epitomized by today's society of consumption. If God in the traditional sense as a universal model does not exist, then everything is allowed. You can get whatever you want but with the substance removed: coffee without caffeine, cigarettes without nicotine.

We all know how Lacan reversed Dostoyevsky by saying "If God does not exist, everything is prohibited," not ''everything is permitted." I think this is perfectly epitomized by today's society of consumption. If God in the traditional sense as a universal model does not exist, then everything is allowed. You can get whatever you want but with the substance removed: coffee without caffeine, cigarettes without nicotine.

I like the dirty story that was in all the magazines about Richard Gere. This widely known scandal, for me, is the ultimate example of all this. This is the story: Gere was hospitalized because he realized — with one of the latest practices in Hollywood, the latest in sexual perversion — the fantasy of Freud's Rat Man. You take a gerbil — not a rat but a gerbil — and a vet cuts off its teeth and nails. You put it in a bag, you attach a piece of string to its tail, and you put it in your anus. The animal suffocates of course and this is "it": the pleasure. Finally it is up to you to pull the dead animal out. The problem with Richard Gere, allegedly, was that he pulled it out too quickly and was left only with the tail; the dead animal remained inside.

It's the same paradox: the Rat Man fantasy, you get it, but without claws, without teeth, it is all cut off by a veterinarian. For me this is the ultimate of this same logic. Nothing is prohibited you can even realize the Rat Man fantasy but in a reduced version: the vet takes care of it, cuts off the claws, etc.
Again what is crucial here is the contemporary computer with its universal dimension — a kind of a Spinozist machine. We all know Lacan defines the lady in courtly love as a non-human partner. This is computers today.

JA: Is the computer a lady?

SZ: Yes, it takes the place of the lady. Thinking the innermost of your being is in a way externalized. The machine thinks for you: just by observing it you can enjoy how the other does it for you — again this is the ultimate Spinozist vision, passive immersion. Lacan falsely attributes this experience to Hegel, to Hegelian absolute knowledge, but I think it is far more Spinozist: the reduction to a pure bare observer. This kind of universal symbolic machine functioning by itself totally relieves you of your responsibility.

JA: The pure passivity of an observer or of a voyeur?

SZ: An amusing tendency of late capitalism is that the observer is gradually reduced to a purely passive role. We have nowadays home delivery of food, TV channels where you can shop, sex you can buy, and you can be connected to your work place through a modem.

There is a nice capitalist logic behind it. We return literally to Spinoza, why? Because capitalism in Spinoza's time — before factories — was such that workers worked at home. Spinoza was well before Adam Smith and the division of labor and so forth came a little bit later, in the late 18th century. In Spinoza's time, the typical form of capitalism was that workers worked at home in small villages. The capitalists came once a week, provided you with materials, took what you did and paid you. This functioned very well, why? Firstly, because you were pressured to work all the time, you didn't have any difference between your life and your work. Secondly, it prevented what we would call in Marxist terms class consciousness. It was perfect, you never confronted the capitalist, the owner, because you only encountered him or her individually — he or his representative came to your home. In a factory, workers are all there, physically together, thus they can organize strikes, etc. Nowadays they are totally dispersed, each of them staying at home; the paradox is with computerization.

JA: So there is no chance for a conspiracy?

SZ: Yes, and even at the level of the organization of production we are returning to this Spinozist form of capitalism. Now let's take the ultimate point: sexuality. There again we return to Spinoza, the same paradox of how we can survive alone. In France they have what is called "minitel." You have a choice when you get a phone: either a phone book or minitel, a small computer with a screen, and everybody takes the minitel. You can do all kinds of business through it, read the news, order things, make reservations, but the crucial point is sex. Now it is already a bit "out," but a couple of years ago, when it was fashionable, everybody in France was having sex on the minitel. It is not the same as what you call adult phone sex, this is simply a refined form of semi-prostitution. No, the idea of minitel is "sex is an Other." You type in your password but you do not communicate with a paid prostitute, you communicate with hundreds of people doing the same thing you are doing. So you pick up one of the messages and you do it: you send in your own message to him or to her — you don't know to whom, that is the charm. You only have the family name: it may be a man or a woman. You send your message to someone you don't know, you exchange dirty messages: "I will do this to you, you will do that to me." The point is that people became obsessed by this. Lacan says — he even uses vulgar terms — that if I'm speaking now about fucking it's the same as if I'm fucking. This is literally realized now in France; sex can be purely the matter of a signifier of exchanging dirt.





JA: So the signifier seems to be more than enough to provide jouissance?

SZ: Yes. I think the crucial point in this sense is the substitution of actual contact with an imagined community. This experience of exchanging dirty messages does not function as foreplay. The idea is not that in the end it will work out with the dirty messages, that you will exchange addresses and meet, no. The entire satisfaction, the jouissance is that you do not know and will never know who the other is. The point isn't even to masturbate, the entire satisfaction is in this purely symbolic exchange and this is an interesting late capitalist tendency.

JA: Would this involve Lacan's Theory of drive?

SZ: From this we can learn a lot about the Lacanian notion of drive and satisfaction. In quantum physics for example you have the idea of possibility. If you take all the possible movements of an electron, for example, that already describes a certain actuality. To deduce what the actual movement will be, you must consider all possibilities. Possibility is not just a mere possibility but already functions as actuality in itself. Dreaming about possible satisfaction is already a satisfaction in itself. You don't need to experience a lot, you don't really need to do it, this is already "it.'' I was always fascinated with game shows with the kind of imagined community constituted around them. When you watch people there, it is obvious that the point is not even to win money, it's the basic identification: to be one of them, to be one of the community, one of those who might win. Again, possibility in itself.

JA: Let's say that all this possibility is related to the field. Does the impossible stay with the S1?

SZ: Yes, and this is again the late capitalist dream. But what interests me is where we have Kant's revenge, where we have this late capitalist fantasy, strange and disturbing. When you read today's media, how is the enemy depicted? Fundamentalist, irrationalist, and so on. Let's return to Kant. I think that Kant was revolutionary because he was anti-universalist. Usually Immanuel Kant is identified as a universalist, his criteria for an ethical act is universality, that is to say to follow the maxim, for the good of the collectivity, etc. But I think this is already a secondary movement, and the real Kantian revolution is precisely the idea that there is already a crack in universality.

JA: Because there is some morality emerging here?

SZ: Yes. Precisely apropos of morality, Kantian ethics, universality of your maxim, this is the whole point of Lacan in Kant avec Sade. According to Kant the sadist is evil, but evil is intended as an ethical attitude. You are evil out of principle, not for pathological reasons or for profit, but because there is an ethics of evil. This is the most uncanny, in the Freudian sense, the most unheimlich moment in Kantian ethics. I think that in his last major writings, religion was within the limits of reason alone. In this last writing he formulated the possibility of what he calls "original radical evil," which is precisely evil as an ethical attitude. What was so horrible for Kant in this discovery? You can no longer discern it from good you can universalize it. It's the same.

This idea that there are uncontaminated central European cultures fighting against this Americanized, Japanized, universal horror is false on many levels. Furthermore I have a deep mistrust of this kind of "original ", "ethical" culture. We must recall that from the very beginning these cultures are usually false. In the case of my own country, Slovenia, our national costumes were copied from Austrian costumes, they were invented towards the end of the last century. 

JA: Will massive immigration affect Western points of view, or will they be incorporated?

SZ: People ask me what will happen now in this new universal field with new authentic Central European cultures, but I am very skeptical about it. This idea that there are uncontaminated central European cultures fighting against this Americanized, Japanized, universal horror is false on many levels. Furthermore I have a deep mistrust of this kind of "original ", "ethical" culture. We must recall that from the very beginning these cultures are usually false. In the case of my own country, Slovenia, our national costumes were copied from Austrian costumes, they were invented towards the end of the last century. The ultimate example is the Soviet Union. You may think that these nationalist revivals emerged in resistance to communism, but I think it was literally through antagonism toward communist rule itself that these national entities were created.

Let's take the extreme case, India, which is very instructive. People often forget that in India the anticommunist Congress party was not only founded by Indians educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Oxford, but it was even instigated by some progressive liberal Englishmen. So this is a nice paradox how the very idea of "let's get rid of English colonialism, let's return to our autonomous India" was strictly a product of English colonialism.

I'm radically Eurocentric. It is fashionable today to be anti-Eurocentric to stress African, Asian, all other cultures, but what people usually do not grasp is that every idea of anti-Eurocentricism is only possible against an Eurocentric, Cartesian background. That is against the idea that the tradition into which we were born, Protestant, Catholic, Indian, whatever is something ultimately contingent. Basically we are this kind of abstract anti-subject, not pinned down to the particular tradition into which we were born. It is only against this background that you consider it as something not really binding you, that you can reason against Eurocentricism. One can say "We must be open to different cultures," but this kind of pluralism is only possible against the notion that tradition is ultimately something contingent, against the background of an abstract empty Cartesian subject. My ultimate theoretical point is that Lacan is absolutely 100 per cent Cartesian, absolutely, he says it, people don't listen. Lacan says the subject of psychoanalysis is the Cartesian subject.

JA: Well, the subject relating to the signifier and metaphor is Cartesian...

SZ: Yes, and the subject of science. The whole point of Lacan is that the subject of psychoanalysis is a hysterical subject, a hysterical subject in reaction to the scientific discourse which was founded through Cartesian Science. I put it this way: here we have the difference between the Jungian and the Freudian attitude. If there is something absolutely foreign to Lacan it is this idea, very fashionable today, against this alienated, Western, Protestant model we must return to more original ethnic wisdoms of old and so forth. This is not psychoanalysis, this is Jung. Psychoanalysis is strictly on the side of this abstract Cartesian alienated subject. This is why I'm very distrustful of this myth of Central Europe, which has strictly been made by the Other and staged for the Other as a nostalgic object for the observer. For Western Europe Central Europe means this lost paradise of small countries this kind of lost paradise of the Austrian empire. I am not nostalgic about it. The ultimate kitsch movie of all times, The Sound of Music, is part of this myth of Central Europe. It existed from the very beginning as a lost object to be seen by foreigners. Central Europe actually, was precisely where anti-Semitism was born. I mean fascism is a Central European invention.

JA: Are they after the sublime object, or are they simply going for money?

SZ: People in Eastern Europe are after something more than money. This more is what I'm afraid of because more is the idea of not just this kind of alienated capitalist society, organic unity, and so on, it's more.

JA: Is this the mode of jouissance?

SZ: Yes, this is the answer to the elementary question, what is the sublime object of ideology? The idea behind it is simply "it is the mode of jouissance, the way ideology functions." The idea is to go against the so-called discourse, the analysis of ideology. You must deconstruct it, reduce it to certain discourse practices and symbolizations. My idea is that this is not enough. Let's take for example the image of the Jew. Of course it is easy to show how the Jew is a product of a certain discourse, but there is something more to it which is again a question of jouissance. And my point is that without this core of jouissance, ideology does not function. So now we are again at the problem of the death of jouissance. In today's so-called cynical society nobody believes in ideology anymore. Lacan says somewhere that the cynic believes in jouissance, and this is precisely what complicates things.

(1) S1=Master S2=slave, in the sense of Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit. Lacan applies it to the signifier, the acoustic language of the word (S1 representing law, what intervenes, the master signifier; S2 representing knowledge, the chain, the field of the Other).