cover

Demanding the Impossible

Demanding the
Impossible

Slavoj Žižek

Edited by Yong-june Park

Copyright © Indigo Book company 2013
First published in 2013 by Polity Press
Polity Press
65 Bridge Street
Cambridge CB2 1UR, UK
Polity Press
350 Main Street
Malden, MA 02148, USA
All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
ISBN: 978-0-7456-7985-3
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.
Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.
For further information on Polity, visit our website: www.politybooks.com

Contents

Acknowledgments
1  Politics and Responsibility
2  Obsession for Harmony / Compulsion to Identify
3  Politicization of Ethics
4  Means Without End: Political Phronesis
5  “May You Live In Interesting Times”
6  Communism: The Ethico-Political Fiasco
7  Who Is Afraid of a Failed Revolution?
8  Another World Is Possible
9  For They Know Not What They Do
10  Parallax View on Postmodern Globalization
11  The Public Use of Scandal
12  The Screen of Politeness / Empty Gestures and Performatives
13  Deadlock of Totalitarian Communism
14  The Subversive Use of Theory
15  Embodying a Proletarian Position
16  New Forms of Apartheid
17  Intrusion of the Excluded into the Socio-Political Space
18  Rage Capital and Risk-Taking Revolutionary Changes
19  Café Revolution
20  To Begin From the Beginning
21  The Fear of Real Love
22  Dialectic of Liberal Superiority
23  The Day After
24  The Universality of Political Miracles
25  Messianism, Multitude, and Wishful Thinking
26  Politicization of Favelas
27  Bolivarianism, the Populist Temptation
28  Violent Civil Disobedience
29  Legitimacy of Symbolic Violence
30  Gandhi, Aristide, and Divine Violence
31  No Moralization But Egotism
32  Possibility of Concrete Universality
33  Common Struggle for Freedom
34  The Impossible Happens

Acknowledgments

This book began as a part of the Global Humanities Project of Indigo Sowon, an educational center in Busan, South Korea. Founded in 2004, Indigo is a combination of book publisher, magazine, and bookstore, and also hosts international conferences. It seeks to provide a progressive, humanistic counterweight to the educational establishment, and to be an oasis of idealism and engagement (indigoground.net).

My first thanks are to the team of colleagues whose vision and hard work have made this project happen: Aram Hur, Youn-yeong Lee, Han-kyeol Yoon, Jin-jae You, and Dae-hyun Park, as well as Brian Palmer of Uppsala University (brianpalmer.org). I am immensely grateful to Slavoj Žižek, who invited our large team into his home over the course of two days. He is a person of astonishing energy and warmth, and we were left feeling that whatever his mind touches is electrified and made luminous.

My colleagues and I hope that the conversations in this book will prove enjoyable to the reader, and will spark lively discussions.

Yong-june Park

1

Politics and Responsibility

What is to be done for politics today? In the midst of radical changes – ecological catastrophes, fateful biogenetic mutations, nuclear or similar military-social conflicts, financial fiasco, etc. – where our commons are at stake, is there such a thing as the common good? To what extent is it useful to speak of the common good?

SŽ: For me, what is problematic is not the word “common” but the word “good.” Because the way I see it, from my European perspective, traditional aesthetics was directed toward some supreme Good. It could be God, humanity, the universe, etc.: we see this common good as a supreme substantial value that we should all have to work for. But for me, modernity begins with Descartes, and then with Kant – to be precise, with an ethics that is no longer an ethics of the common good. For example, in Kant, you find it is purely formal ethics: ethics of the moral law and so on. Here, ethics cannot be, in any way, politicized: politicized in the sense that you cannot simply presuppose some common good. Rather, it is a matter of decision. This is what I find problematic about the notion of the common good.

What is a common good today? OK, let’s say ecology. Probably most people would agree, even though we are politically different, that we all care about the earth. But if you look closely, you will see that there are so many ecologies on which you have to make so many decisions. Having said that, my position here is very crazy. For me, politics has priority over ethics. Not in the vulgar sense that we can do whatever we want – even kill people and then subordinate ethics to politics – but in a much more radical sense that what we define as our good is not something we just discover; rather, it is that we have to take responsibility for defining what is our good.

And, as many radical ecologists have pointed out, how much of ecology, which pretends to work for the good of nature, involves hidden political choices? When you say, for example, that the common good should be our Mother Earth, and that our planet should thrive – why should our planet thrive? Because we humans want it to, so that we can survive. Ecology, from my point of view, is the most egotistic, human-centered machine there is. Nature is crazy. Nature is chaotic and prone to wild, unpredictable and meaningless disasters, and we are exposed to its merciless whims – there is no such thing as Mother Earth. In nature, always, there are catastrophes, things go wrong, and sometimes a planet explodes.

What I want to show you is the fact that, if you look at this closely, when we refer to some higher common good, it is always, at least the way I see it, defined by our secret priorities. For example, people may say “Oh! We are constructing another big city and it will destroy nature. It is horrible!” And the usual response to this, even of many ecologists, is that “we should live in a more natural way, closer to the forest, and so on.” No! One ecologist, a friend of mine from Germany, whom I appreciate very much, told me that this kind of response is, ecologically, totally catastrophic. From an ecological standpoint, the best thing is this: there is a lot of pollution everywhere, so you pack as many people as you can into a big city; it is then very concentrated and there is much less pollution per capita so you can keep the large domains relatively clean. I don’t know if you are doing this in Korea, but somebody told me they are doing it in Japan. I think that large dirty cities where people live packed together are ecologically the best thing for nature. Again, there is another ecological idea, as we call it, which is that we should live in small self-sufficient houses with solar energy – people believe this is one way of living ecologically. But can you imagine how it would end up if the majority of people wanted to live like that? Everyone would be very spread out, and the forests would disappear. Ironically, this is related to the question of how much we can “safely” pollute our environment. So I am very distrustful of this view. Whenever something is proposed as being for the higher good, and we say we should transcend our egotism and work for it, we will always discover that we are already secretly doing just this.

What I like to suggest, based on my basic position, is not politics in the sense of what people usually associate with politics – such as cheap manipulation, corruption, power struggles, etc. – but politics in the sense of fundamental decisions about our life on earth, and collective decisions for which you have to take full responsibility.

2

Obsession for Harmony/ Compulsion to Identify

What do you mean by “full responsibility”? If the common good is a matter of decisions we have to make, precisely in the field of political struggle and ecological crisis, is this a term that embraces responsibility even for social reform or revolution?

SŽ: Well, what I think problematic from a European perspective is this oriental wisdom that says there is some kind of natural balance or harmony of the elements. I don’t see any harmony in this world. On the contrary, I see that all harmony is only partial harmony. What do I mean by this? Some people, for example, would say: “Communism was bad because it was too socializing. Everything was social, and no individuality was allowed. On the other hand, liberal capitalism is too individualistic and everybody is for himself, and so on. So they say they are both disharmonious, and we need a kind of middle road: a society that has a certain social sense of community but allows, nonetheless, some individual freedom.” No! I think that what we should think about is this very contrast. How do we imagine individual freedom? And how do we imagine the common good? These questions already belong to a certain field. These are the extremes within that certain field.

The first thing I would like to do is show how absurd it is to urge that we have two extremes and need to find the balance. These two extremes already flow into each other. This is why “synthesis” does not affirm the identity of the extremes, but, on the contrary, affirms their difference as such. So the synthesis delivers difference from the “compulsion to identify.” In other words, the immediate passage of an extreme into its opposite is precisely an index of our submission to the compulsion to identify.

I can think of an example from North Korea. I read a book about North Korea, written by a Western author who was trying to describe the everyday life of the terrible hunger experienced there in the last 15 years – you know, when, 15 years ago, the North Korean state government simply more or less stopped functioning. That is to say, the state controlled pretty much every social infrastructure, so people didn’t get enough food to survive and couldn’t get a job, and so on. And what did emerge there? A kind of very rudimentary brutal form of capitalism: people went to the forest and gathered fruits for their own use and to sell at the market. Isn’t it interesting how you find a terrible Darwinian survivalist individualism beneath everything – lavish spectacle, the Mass Games with their doll-like robotic dancers – that they show to the world? Basically, life for everyone is just for the individual. It was the same in Stalinism. Even in China, I claim that the real result of the Cultural Revolution is the capitalism that they now have.

On the other hand, look what we have in capitalism. People talk about individualism, but what kind of individualism is this? No wonder large corporations are delighted to accept such evangelical attacks on the state, when the state tries to regulate media mergers, put strictures on energy companies, strengthen air pollution regulations, protect wildlife, and limit logging in the national parks, etc. It is the ultimate irony of history that radical individualism serves as the ideological justification of the unconstrained power of what the large majority of individuals experience as a vast anonymous power, which, without any democratic public control, regulates their lives.

Let’s see what is now happening on the internet. We get, more and more, to serialize our lives: we go to see the same movies and we watch the same news. People describe it as movement toward the clouds: cloud computing. We no longer need a big computer to play video games, like the one I have in my room to have fun with my son. A decade ago, a computer was a big box on one’s table, and downloading was done with floppy disks and USB sticks; today, we no longer need strong individual computers, since cloud computing is internet-based – i.e., software and information are provided to computers or smartphones on demand, in the guise of web-based tools or applications that users can access and use through a browser as if it were a program installed on their own computer. In this way, we can access information from wherever we are in the world, on any computer, with smartphones putting this access literally into our pocket.

Everything happens out there. Are people aware of how this will standardize everything? We will only be connected to one single provider, like Google or iTunes, but we are limited to their choices. Our struggle should thus focus on those aspects that pose a threat to the transnational public sphere. Part of this global push toward the privatization of the “general intellect” is the recent trend in the organization of cyberspace toward so-called “cloud computing.”

So back to the point: I don’t like this approach which says that we have two extremes and we have to find a balance, because this principle, for me, is too abstract. For example, we may say that some countries have no democracy and, on the other hand, some have too much democracy. You can always say that we need balance. But the real revolution, for me, is when you change the balance itself: the measure of balance.

When I was very young, before the sexual revolution, it was considered that there were two different views: conservatives, who thought sex should be allowed only in marriage and, on the other hand, those who urged liberating sexuality. But what then happened? The balance totally changed. You cannot simply say that the old balance was lost and that we now have too much sexual freedom, but rather you should say that the very measure of what is extreme has changed. So for me this is the true revolution. It is that totality changed; the very measure of the extremes changed.

This is also related to your other question about social reform. The point is not that I think we need violence for social revolution. Of course I don’t like violence. But for me reform means changes within the existing order: you can say that we now have too much individualism, so we need more social responsibility. But this stays within the field. On the contrary, revolution is where the basic rule of society changes. This is why capitalism was a radical revolution. Because the whole notion of stability has changed with capitalism or even with capitalistic democracy: only with capitalism does a certain dynamics became a part of stability. If things don’t change, they fall apart. Capitalism changed the whole logic of social space. When you talk about stability today, it means the stability of dynamic development. It is a totally different logic of stability from that of pre-modern times.

3

Politicization of Ethics

How should we comprehend our responsibilities when faced with this new logic of modern capitalism?

SŽ: Well, I am suspicious about the notion of a common good. I think there is no common good, which is prescribed, a priori, in advance, by nature. Even with regard to nature, what would be the common good? We might say nature needs to be balanced so that humanity can survive on earth. But we will have to define the balance. I mean, as we all know, nature is crazy. Nature has catastrophes all the time. Can we even imagine what happened when dinosaurs died out or when oil was created? We know now that the Sahara Desert was once a large ocean.

So nature is not balanced. Here I am very modern. Before modernity, people believed, to put it very simply, in a predestined order: that is, a kind of global harmony which we humans have ruined, so now we have to return to it. I don’t believe in this solution, especially with regard to ecology today. I don’t think there is any natural order. Natural orders are catastrophic.

To return to your questions, I am, in this sense, in favor of the politicization of ethics in the sense that we are not only responsible for doing our duty or for working for the good, we are also responsible for deciding what this good is. Well, even when some people urge that there is a sort of natural balance, isn’t this also a totally coherent politico-ecological decision? For example, some may say that the global population has grown too large – that there are too many people and we have developed too many productive forces, and so on. The point they make is that we should instead encourage infectious diseases so that at least two-thirds of humanity will die, while those who don’t should learn to live more modestly. This will be best for the earth and even for humanity. I, of course, totally disagree with this vision, but what can you say a priori against it? You cannot argue from an ecological standpoint. What will you say? Is it bad for the earth? No! It’s probably better for the earth than to say there should be food for all the people now living. Wouldn’t the best thing for the earth be to organize slowly so that two-thirds of the people will die? For the earth, this is probably the best thing that could happen.

Here is my point. We already made some ethico-political decisions. This is what I would like to emphasize: we are much more free and responsible than we think. Usually it is fashionable to say – old Marxists used to say things like this – that “we just appear to be free. You go to the store and buy whatever you want, but in reality you are manipulated.” It’s true, but we are also way more free than we think we are. If you believe in some kind of a destiny, it makes life easier. The difficult thing is to break destiny. We all assume that this explosion of development and industry is our destiny. Even the majority of ecologists argue about how to make industry ecological. They accept the primacy of industry. But I find all this problematic.

I think the first step is to accept the consequence of modernity, which is radical freedom not only in the good sense, but also in the terrifying sense that we have to decide. It’s totally up to us. This is what Jacques Lacan means when he says: “There is no big Other – il n’y a pas de grand Autre.” There is no agency on which we can rely. Whenever there is a crisis, people spontaneously look for some kind of a lost balance. All this started with Confucius, whom I think of as the original form of idiot. Confucius was not so much a philosopher as a proto-ideologist: what interested him was not metaphysical truths but, rather, a harmonious social order within which individuals could lead happy and ethical lives.

No wonder that Confucius’ description of the disorder he sees in society around him ironically provides a good description of a really democratic society. Confucius proposes here a kind of proto-Althusserian theory of ideological interpellation: the ideological “big Other” (tradition), embodied in its apparatuses (rituals), interpellates individuals, and it is up to the individual to live and act in accordance with the title that makes him what he is. Confucius’ idea was that crisis happens when the original harmony is lost and then the idea is to restore harmony. I think that we should drop this. There is no harmony to which we should or can return. For harmony, we have to decide what we want and we have to struggle and fight for it.

4

Means Without End: Political Phronesis

What kind of values should we foster to help guide our ethico-political decisions?

SŽ: What fascinates me are the events going on in Egypt. The West has been saying for years that “we want Arabs to become democratic.” This is all hypocrisy. Now we have had a democratic explosion, which involved, at the same time – at least till now – absolutely no Muslim fundamentalism. Nonetheless everybody is afraid. This is what always fascinates me. Here, theoretical analysis begins and this is often true in politics: you bridge something from very different sides.