Slavoj Žižek: "Most of the idiots I know are academics"

Luke Massey talks to the cultural theorist and ideas machine about Obama, stupidity and his favourite quasi-fascist industrial metal outfit - Rammstein.

Slavoj Žižek is brimming with thought. Each idea sprays out of the controversial Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist in a jet of words. He is like a water balloon, perforated in so many areas that its content gushes out in all directions.

The result is that, as an interviewer, trying to give direction to the tide is a joyfully hopeless enterprise. Perhaps more significantly, the same seems to be true for Žižek himself.

We meet in a room with one glass wall - an apt setting for a discussion of freedom, ideology, surveillance and ‘80s dystopias on film. Picturehouse HQ is playing host to our discussion, on the launch of Žižek’s new film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.

Before I even ask my first question, Slavoj is off: he tells me that I’m better than some interviewers he’s met. The fact that I’ve barely spoken yet doesn’t seem a barrier to that.

"You know, I hate it so much, when I was in Korea, I gave a couple of interviews, and they ask me 'What do you think we should do in Korea? What’s our situation here?' F*ck you! What do I know?! You know? This crazy idea…"

Žižek’s demeanor is rabidly energetic. He delivers his responses with an acerbic wit and a gloriously foul mouth, which has earned him the moniker "the Elvis of cultural theory", though something like "the Richard Pryor of radical philosophy" strikes me as more appropriate.

I haven’t seen the film yet, I tell him, though I’m going to the premiere at The Ritzy in Brixton, where he’ll be doing a Q&A. Then he drops a bomb: he hasn’t seen it either. It dawns on me: what are we both doing here? Two guys in a room discussing a film neither of us has seen.

"I’m serious," he says. "People think that this is my extravagant postmodern joke. No, I just, with all my nervous ticks and so on I hate seeing myself on screen: I cannot."

In an effort to get us back on track, I joke "well, hopefully you know what you said in it!" Another brick wall:

"No I don’t, because many things were not used, I was just improvising. I don’t in all honesty." I start thinking that this could be a long half hour.

"I mean I was just blah blah improvising there. And then, Sophie [Director - Sophie Fiennes], I mock her - she was like Leni Riefenstahl - you know after she shot Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl had some 200 hours of stuff and she spent one year just going through all of it and selecting. So, Sophie was our leftist Leni Riefenstahl."

Thankfully I know that Slavoj covers Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, and happily it’s one of my favourite films, so I push us onto that. It’s a bonding point:

Oh my god that’s the best British movie of all time. It really shows in advance how the new authoritarianism will be full of these jokes, self-irony: it will no longer be this dignified fascism, or whatever, you know? So many detailed tricks, like - I quoted it at least some ten times - it’s wonderful, you remember when they go to a restaurant and you get the photo of the meal and then some sh*tty stuff [is put out] and you look at it.

Žižek pulls a face I never thought I’d see a philosopher pull. Somewhere between throwing up and the dull-eyed facial sag of someone suffering a stroke. "This is worth a Nobel prize", he says. Another moment in this scene, where a terrorist bomb goes off in the restaurant - following which a screen is drawn up to preserve the dining experience of those unharmed is "really the work of a genius."

As an unashamed proponent of the importance of theory, Žižek has previously said that while the concept of "humanity" is fine by him, that "99 per cent of people are idiots". I ask him if The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is in some way an attempt to communicate theory to "idiots".

"Yeah, but who are the idiots? I didn’t mean so-called poor, uneducated, ordinary people. If anything, most of the idiots that I know are academics. That’s why I don’t have any interest in communicating too much with academics."

I suggest that 99 per cent of people would probably include both. Žižek seems unfazed and moves on: "I do feel some kind of stupid responsibility, as a public intellectual, and then I ask myself, sincerely, what can I do? It would be bluffing to claim that I can give answers. As I always repeat, what we philosophers can do is just correct the questions."

So what are the questions that Žižek is trying to correct? Well the first is the way in which we conceive of ideology. It’s not some "big social, political, project" which "died in 1990" with the fall of the USSR: ideology, he says, "still well and alive - not as a big system - but precisely in [a] most self-evident, normal everyday form."

"The way we, everyday people are addressed by social authority, whatever we call it - it’s no longer telling us 'sacrifice your life' for British empire, for socialism, whatever. It’s not. It’s some kind of permissive bullsh*t basically. Society is telling us, like, be true to yourself, authentic, develop your potential, be kind to others. It’s kind of what I ironically call a slightly enlightened Buddhist hedonism."

Žižek sees the controversy over Obama-aid in the US - and the Republican-forced government shutdown - as emblematic of Obama touching "the nerve of what is false in American everyday ideology of freedom."

"What Americans don’t want to admit… is that not only is there not a contradiction between state regulation and freedom, but in order for us to actually be free in our social interactions, there must be an extremely elaborated network of health, law, institutions, moral rules and so on."

"Ideology today", says Žižek, is "unfreedom which you sincerely personally experience as freedom."

That’s why, he claims, many Americans see universal healthcare as a restriction on their freedom to choose a doctor: "well f*ck it, I feel much more free if I simply don’t have to think about that. Like with electricity. I’m very glad to renounce the freedom to choose my water or electricity suppliers: because can you imagine having to make all these choices?"

I decide to force some choices out of Žižek.

Foucalt or Chomsky? "Er, you know this classical answer 'Coffee or Tea? Yes please.'" Foucault or Chomsky? "No thanks," he says with a cackle.

Joseph Stalin or Joe Strummer? "Is there even a choice here?!" laughs Žižek. As a self-proclaimed Stalinist I say that’s really for him to tell me.

"No nono - I would put it in this way. I would love to say Stalin, because that would be expected from me, you know … he was a nightmare."

On The Clash: "I like their activity … they were engaged [politically]. So I like everything about them … except their music."

"Basically, unfortunately I must tell you, I’m a ‘68 generation conservative. I secretly think that everything really interesting in pop music, rock, happened between ‘65 and ‘75. I’m sorry!" One contemporary band he does have time for, perhaps surprisingly, is German industrial metal outfit Rammstein.

"They’re very hard - I think they’re extremely progressive. It’s totally wrong to read them as almost a proto-fascist band. My god, they explicitly supported Die Linke, the leftists there, and so on. I like their extremely subversive from within, undermining of all this - you know? Like, it gives me pleasure. Psychologically I’m a fascist - everyone knows it, no? Who published this - Daily Telegraph? That jerk who pronounced me a leftist fascist, you know? Alan Johnson or who? So - I mean - I think we should take over these - all of these - authoritarian gestures, unity, leader, sacrifice, f*ck it! Why not? No? So, Rammstein are my guys."

I never imagined these would be the closing words of our discussion.

"Rammstein are my guys" - Žižek’s top tip. Image: BFI.
Luke Massey is a freelance journalist and Deputy Editor at Brixton Blog (and its sister print-paper Brixton Bugle).
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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood