Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek. Photo Credit: Wikimedia/This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The following interview between Slavoj Žižek and Leonardo Caffo was recently published in the Italian magazine Sette—the weekly supplement of the daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera. It has been translated for Public Seminar by Thomas Winn.

Slavoj Žižek is one of a few living philosophers whose ideas have been translated into more than sixty languages. His thought remains decisively important for contemporary philosophy, bringing with it implications which stretch far and wide across art, literature, science, and politics. His worldwide fame is backed up by the longevity of decades of research.

In his rereading of Marx, Freud, Hegel, and Lacan, Žižek has built up a monumental collection of work. Films, musical works, and documentaries have been published, that, together with his thought, attempt to delineate and sketch out what it means to be human today, the greatest challenges appearing in the not so distant future, how to question capital without destroying capitalism, or, as with his latest book Hegel in a Wired Brain [Italian version: Hegel e il cervello postumano (Ponte alle Grazie)], the question of what happens in the event of human Singularity, the moment when (potentially) our brains become digitally interconnected.

Leonardo Caffo [LC]: In your opinion, how healthy is contemporary philosophy, and what state is it in?

Slavoj ŽižeK [SZ]: Let us say that philosophy is contested between two very classic versions of “the end of philosophy.” One, being the most obvious, is that which tends to resolve its greatest questions of meaning with a kind of extreme scientism: the cognitive sciences, neuro-philosophies, and a quantum mechanics which is not even fully understood but is used to solve every dilemma of the spirit. And then, on the other side, we find a historicism which tends to secularize all conceptual questions. In part, philosophy’s unhealthiness is also connected to silly infighting in academia, the false and nonsensical division between continental philosophy and analytical philosophy (when in fact there is only good or bad philosophy), and a broader difficulty to make people see how philosophy’s greatest questions of meaning, questions of sense, are crucial if we are to understand the gigantic epochal transformations which are well underway—epidemics, climate change, and political and economic earthquakes. It is a paradoxically interesting moment for philosophy. “The end of philosophy” has always been given lip service, and yet it is precisely today that we ought to be that much more capable of pointing out the philosophical knots that crucially intertwine with what is going on today.

LC: This is also what you do with your latest book on Hegel, where you tell us something about the future of human subjectivity after the supposed interconnection of our brains with increasingly pervasive technological implants.

SZ: Yes, but the point is that it does not even matter if all these great prophesies concerning our interconnected brains actually take place. What interests me is what would happen if it does. How would our conception of the unconscious change, if, for example, we really could communicate with others directly through our mind? Or, what would remain of sex as we know it if we could directly interconnect our enjoyment without physical effort? These are indeed posthuman scenarios, but they do not concern the technical features of what being posthuman will look like, well not as such. I am simply asking myself: what will remain of humanity if, through technology, everything that constitutes a human is lost? This is an intrinsically philosophical question which is irresolvable by science or history. It is a question which demonstrates the value of our work today to the degree that we manage to avoid entrenching ourselves into obscure philosophical systematizations—like what we are seeing with those great returns to realism and abstract metaphysics, and not to mention, what we are also seeing with the exclusionary aseptic questions of those analytical philosophies that do not dare to immerse themselves into what is actually going on out there.

LC: Are you referring to philosophers such as Graham Harman or Markus Gabriel (with whom I have also spoken to in this newspaper)?

SZ: Yes, of course. Both Harman and Gabriel do a great job with those general questions that concern philosophy. Yet if these questions—of what reality means, what freedom means, what objectivity means—are not immersed into the urgency of a world bent backwards by a virus and digitalization, then there is a real risk of leaving the philosophical terrain open to various forms of skepticism. I think that would be a pretty serious error which can easily be avoided. In Italy, you have great philosophers who are celebrated all over the world; think of Giorgio Agamben, with whom however, I have not shared his approach to Covid, as it lays too close to those easy reactionary conspiracy theories (like: “the green pass limits our freedom. . .” as if dying from Covid has not limited it that much more), or Gianni Vattimo, who is a great friend and with whom in Turin I have often spoken about our differences from the present formation of Marxist thought.

LC: But has Agamben not also immersed his philosophy into our current situation, using it to resolve such matters in the same way as you have just suggested before?

SZ: Of course, but seeking to use those theoretical tools that he is fond of (in his case, using Michel Foucault’s biopolitics) is a clumsy way to thrust philosophy into the present, as these specific tools do not resolve newer and more complex questions. It is obviously clear that when abstracted, limiting the freedom of a population through prohibitive health regulations is a serious thing to contend with, but, in practice, given that the world which has produced this virus has in the first place been formed from far more serious atrocities, what are we meant to do? Agamben has only reasoned with the consequences of Covid. I think that philosophy should primarily be concerned with its roots.

LC: What then is to be said about anthropocentrism, even if it is, perhaps, a reductive term?

SZ: I do not share in the kind of extreme victim mentality played out by some ecological philosophies: “We are all equal to every other living thing, we must all stop operating in an anthropocentric way.” What is required from us in this moment is, paradoxically, a kind of super-anthropocentrism: we should control nature, control our environment; we should allow for a reciprocal relationship to exist between the countryside and cities; we should use technology to stop desertification or the polluting of the seas. We are, once again, responsible for what is happening, and so we are also the solution. The theme underlying my book on Hegel is that contemporary philosophy should have a proper Hegelian attitude when faced with issues such as working with dialectics. We are being called to not propose simple solutions, to not play the victim, to not be foolishly accusatory (i.e., “the evil West”), and to not take on those almost well-rounded conspiracy theories.

LC: You also take this complex position towards issues such as racism, sexism, political correctness. . .

SZ: Obviously. Thinking that things can be resolved with “everyone is the same, everyone is a friend, a brother, a sister; let us use a nice neutral language” is nonsensical. In the end, it causes more harm than good. The issue of gender cannot only be a matter of ethics, so also the issue of racism. The point is not the banal task of respecting each other in an abstract way. Instead, it is a question of how we ought to bring together differing moralities and cultures and those unsettling monstrosities that we find in ourselves in the encounter with a stranger, and it is also the question of why it is that we can criticize Europe as much as we want with the flag of anticolonialism, as Europe is the only philosophical construction in which there are possibilities for an advanced ethics or a critical thought, which were given life a millennia ago with Thales. Political correctness which reacts to things by canceling them will impoverish a kind of thinking which necessarily passes through contradictions and leaps to ideas which are often rotten and politically incorrect themselves. What would happen to my politically incorrect anecdotes from European or American cinema (and to those readers who are used to them)?

LC: Do universities and academia in general help towards perceiving philosophy as that which can immerse itself in the pressing issues of today, and perhaps resolve them?

SZ: No. Above all in the south of Europe, of which I think you know all too well, universities are prepossessed on defending a kind of partition of positions, in keeping power, on giving positions to their often shoddy students, and, in the end, being unwilling to generate a type of philosophy which is able to be perceived as both deep and interventionalist. There is no difference between philosophical research and philosophical intervention, except for those who do the first without knowing how to do the second—who then provide silly, unfounded academic excuses.

LC: The risk, then, that a scientific vision could replace our conceptual ability is a concrete one, as you claim in your book.

SZ: The risk is concrete, actual, but ready to be circumvented by trying to explain why, for example, in view of our potentially interconnected brains (the topic that I confront in this most recent work of mine) the question of its probable technological potentiality is overshadowed by the question of how our species will change. Therefore, in some way, it is also a question involving potential tragedy (again, in respect to you and your work on the posthuman, I am a lot more critical of what this will mean for human subjectivity). We need to restore robust hermeneutical horizons, to demonstrate how most things in the future will not depend purely on an acceptance of data and scientific discoveries, but on our own capability to know how to interpret and manage their effects, looking to understand what is really at stake. We are free to make all of the proclamations that we want about the return to what is real in philosophy, but if then we do not confront actual ongoing conditions then we are condemning philosophy to its own disappearance, which will not be pleasant for anyone. There is a strictly concrete need for a type of thinking which can think both transcendentally and be translated quickly in to actual political, artistic, and technical visions.

LC: Is there space for a philosophy like this?

SZ: There is plenty of space. But we must defend—and in repeating this, I am probably disappointing many of my follows who side with the radical left—those bastions of critical thought such as Europe, deeply reform the universities, and hermeneutically oversee many of contemporary science’s unquestioned conquests. Doing such requires that we do not reignite the fire of conspiracy theories, hiding their power alongside old philosophical concepts. The task of philosophy then, is to focus on the “how” of things. Having such an approach is complex. It is one which does not want to propose solutions quickly, where “white” can be easily distinguished from “black.” Is the future digital? Not quite—not if digitalization is not compatible with ecology. Is feminism necessary? Of course, but if it builds itself up by being politically correct then it will implode. Are we truly antiracist? In theory yes, but when we find ourselves passing under houses in a neighborhood where there are different cultures and differing moral compasses, we risk the possibility of every certainty collapsing. Is anthropocentrism wrong? Not entirely, given that, as I said before, we are now required to adhere to a super-anthropocentrism if we want to save humanity’s existence on planet Earth. Obviously, I am simplifying things, but it helps in letting you understand what I mean when I speak about the task of contemporary philosophy.

Leonardo Caffo is a philosopher, writer, and curator. He is currently the Philosopher in Residency at the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art and Professor of Art, Media and Fashion at NABA Milan.

Translator Thomas Winn is a PhD candidate at the University of Dundee.

Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher and cultural critic. He is a professor at the European Graduate School, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London, and a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. His books include First as Tragedy, Then as Farce; Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle; In Defense of Lost Causes; Living in the End Times; and more.