"Pornography no longer has any charm" — Part II
Slavoj Žižek on 'great thinkers', the future of psychoanalysis and on his favourite porn
Interview: Armen Aramyan, Nastya Podorozhnya, Vladimir Mikheev, Gleb Golubkov
Photos: Aglae Gerasimova
Editing: Anastasia McAuliffe
Published: 19.01.2018
Vladimir: So could you name a person or a movement that changed philosophy for the last time?
Žižek: Maybe I’m too optimistic, this is my view, but there is a whole movement that is still creating a big revolution — the movement usually called "French structuralism". And I distinguish it from so-called deconstructionism, I think that figures like Althusser, not so much Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, I think that they’re more important than Derrida and so on. The true genius of pure philosophy is Gilles Deleuze for me, but all that field — Levi-Strauss, Deleuze, Lacan, Althusser — it’s still maybe the last big revolution. I don’t think we’re over it, but there are already some interesting new trends. I don’t know if they’re popular here. Graham Harman, Meillassoux, this new so-called object-oriented ontology. They are interesting for me, I have contact with them. I know Meillassoux, he’s a wonderful guy, and what I admire in Meillassoux is his asceticism. He wrote one short book, after finitude, but do you know that this book is a part of his thesis, which is two thousand pages? And he doesn’t want to publish them! [Laughs]
Vladimir: He’s right.
Žižek: He’s right, yeah, okay, then unfortunately he was side-tracked, and now it’s people like Graham Harman. Although I debated with him, I think he and guys like him detect the right failure of this deconstructionist philosophy: you avoid big ontological questions, you just do the critical thinking. If you ask a deconstructionist philosopher or somebody like Michel Foucault, does man have a soul, his answer would be: "In which discursive field episteme can you even talk about this?" Like, they basically prohibit direct naive questions. For them, the last reality is episteme, a field of understanding and so on, and I think we should risk to return to big philosophical questions of what reality is, what the world is and so on.
The problem here, though, is how to do it without falling back into pre-Kantian realism when you simply talk about the outside world. This is why, with all my sympathy for Lenin, I think his work on materialism and empirio-criticism is the worst book even written. Even in Lenin’s philosophical notebooks, that fragment on Hegel, you can clearly see his limit, which is Hegel’s logics of essence. Lenin didn’t know what is a concept in the Hegelian sense.

We also have the "brain" sciences today. They are not philosophy, but I’m not simply opposed to them. Forget about big popularizers who are idiots, like Steven Pinker. He hates me personally. He is a simplifier, you should distinguish popularizers and guys who do science. But you know what’s so fascinating about all this interest in evolutionism, Richard Dawkins and so on? Because philosophy neglected the big metaphysical questions, these sciences started rising them. Isn’t this ironic? All these questions — does the world have a beginning, or a limit, are we humans really free and so on — 100 and 50 years ago they were philosophical questions, now they’re almost scientific questions. Neurology’s struggling to determine is there a place for freedom, and quantum cosmologists are researching whether the world has a beginning.
Armen: Speaking of contemporary leftist theory, what do you think about this movement of accelerationism?
Žižek: They think that precisely capitalism at its most crazy, as this future speculation, is where we come closest to communism. They even published it, I’m afraid to publish for Russia Today because I’m afraid that I will be manipulated in some sense, nonetheless… this idea of "left behind", you know, it’s a popular theological idea. I always love them because they’re crazy, these American fundamentalist Christian writers, who deal with the topic of "left behind", like God took all those who really believed in him for himself because it will be Armageddon, and we are all "left behind", we are not loved enough by God to be taken.

But I think that this is happening with capitalism mostly today, that more and more you have the ultra-developed countries and more and more there are those people who are "left behind", but I think those "left behind" should not be simply "left behind", at some point I still believe in this — I’m sorry to use this old Marxist term — in a dialectical reversal the most progressive development can be combined with those "left behind". And I’ve recently read a wonderful book on it. You know who Tuaregs are, those crazy [people] in the middle of Africa? They are absolutely "left behind", but as such, they all now have mobile phones, computers, they live in the same state. And this is my idea, that maybe this ultimate post-modern way of living — "we are nomads" and so on — will find an echo in them. I’m always fascinated by this idea that true progress is not just that the winning side wins more and more, but true progress is the reversal of the very standard of progress, where what was perceived as "left behind", "nothing", all of a sudden becomes one side where you can move even beyond modernity.
So this is my point against accelerationism. That no, it will have to come to this detour — I was shocked by this. I know one interview by Negri, where he says he walks by a company — a fabric factory in Venezia, the industrial part of Venice — where they’re closing down the store and he says: "Look, they’re dead, but they don’t know that they’re dead, all those oppressed workers". No, I think that it’s not as simple as that. I think that if anything, this pseudo-Deleuzian Negri-Hardt model of revolution, multitude, dynamics and so on, its pace, I think that their mode of revolution is past, and they’re aware of it. You know, half a year ago Negri gave an interview where he says that we should stop with this multitudes, with no-power, we have to rehabilitate two things: the idea of taking political power and the idea of not just — Deleuzians like this horizontal connection, no hierarchy, just multitudes connecting — no, Negri now discovered leadership, hierarchical organization — I’m all for that. And so, now people will tell me: "Then are you for Putin?" No, I think that the problem with this anarchic left is that it isn’t that simple: to solve the problems of ecology and so on we need very strong large organizations, the problem is precisely how to do it not in the old totalitarian way.

We have to reinvent power structures. If not, for me the model of "What went wrong?" is Venezuela. Chávez tried to do local democracy, it all worked because there was Chávez, one strong leader. So my irony’s over always those who want more decentralized democracy end up focusing on ultra-strong leader who guarantees this.
Gleb: Since we’re talking about contemporary philosophy, could you name three living philosophers… who are alive, whom we should follow or read?
Žižek: Ah, you know, I would prefer to name three living philosophers who are dead. [Laughs] You know, I don’t think there are any big names at this moment. The last big name was maybe Alain Badiou, but I’m highly critical of him. Although we’re good friends, I simply don’t follow his model. And even in analytic philosophy in United States, even in this more leftist social-democratic tradition — look, Habermas’s outside, he’s the living dead. And that’s why he’s personally very traumatised, he’s simply an old eurocentric Enlightenment guy. It’s not just Habermas, but the whole Frankfurt school, did you notice how they totally avoid the problem of Stalinism? They’re obsessed with fascism. Okay, Herbert Marcuse wrote a book called Soviet Marxism, but it still doesn’t provide an answer.

There is another fashion I’m totally opposed to — the so-called analytic Hegelianism. The big star there is Robert Brendon, the big book is Making It Explicit — basically they read Hegel not as a big metaphysician, but as a theorist who systematized all the rules of our discourse: the rules on how to argue, how to think — they epistemologized Hegel. The other thinker close to this movement is Robert Pippin: I have contacts with him, I like him, but he’s way too liberal for me, and he secretly reduces Hegel to Kant.
These guys aren't real big names though. Now comes my feminist side: I love the fact that in the last decades there were four really good books on Hegel, and all written by women. The first one is already forty years old, Hegel and the Critique of Metaphysics by Beatrice Longness, then you have L'avenir de Hegel by Catherine Malabou. The third one is Rebecca Comay with an excellent book Mourning Sickness about Hegel and the French revolution. And finally, my good colleague, Alenka Zupančič, Slovene, the author of the book on Hegel and comedy [The Odd One In — Ed.]. Maybe there's a wonderboy somewhere — in Russia or China, I don't know, — but among the people I know, there's no thinker I would call "big".

If you move it back like twenty-thirty-forty years, okay, the obvious candidates are Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze and so on. Even in analytic philosophy, you know, the sad thing is that there were a couple of potential geniuses. For example, thirty-forty years ago Saul Kripke published a book on naming and necessity, and then he did another book on Wittgenstein, but after that he disappeared, he went crazy, he got involved in sexual scandals with students and so on and he was totally ruined. And, unfortunately, you can see potential for a true genius — and then they go down. So, unfortunately, I will still tell you: to read a genius, read Alain Badiou. But he's also approaching a limit. I mean, years ago he was criticising me for publishing many books — now he's writing more than me. Three-four books a year — you can see how he's getting old.
Armen: Psychoanalysis is now in this ambiguous situation, on the one side it's, like, dead--
Žižek: You know, the first proclamation of psychoanalysis being dead was in 1910… But I think now its time is coming. Psychoanalysis is not this simplistic theory that we have inner sexual drives that's being oppressed because of the civilization. Freud's problem is exactly the opposite one, how sexuality's antagonist failed in itself. For example, Freud would be delighted to see the nowadays situation, where with all the permissivity — you can do whatever you want in sex and so on — we have never had more impotence and frigidity. That's what bothered Freud.
The problem for Freud is not the father who prohibits you — "Don't do it with boys or girls!" - because in this situation you will rebel, it all will be okay. The problem is a father — and I've had such a father, it was a nightmare — who was asking me: "Were you already with some girls? How did you do it? Do you want me to explain it to you?" I was ashamed, this was a horror. Freud was very attentive to these paradoxes of self-sabotaging, he called it "the death drive". You're not a right-winger when you say this: it's impossible to reduce this sabotaging to just an effect of social oppression. This left Freudian myth of how we will really start enjoying life if we just get rid of social oppressions — it's totally wrong, it's totally wrong.

Jacques Lacan said something wonderful about atheism. I quote it often. He says that Dostoevsky was wrong when he said: "If there is no God, everything's permitted''. Lacan said the opposite, which is true: "If there's no God, then everything's prohibited". The aphorism "if there is God, then everything's permitted" is the definition of religious fundamentalism: you can kill, rape, do anything if you can claim that the God is on your side.
Vladimir: There is an opinion of Karl Popper that psychoanalysis is impossible to falsify, thus it's not a scientific field.
Žižek: Psychoanalysis is clearly not a science. I think it even has an authentic philosophical dimension. It has radical ontological dimension. My good friend, a member of my Sloven-Lacanian gang, Alenka Zupančič, has recently published a book What Is Sex? It's not a sex manual, the title confuses people. She explores wonderfully in this short book why psychoanalysis matters for philosophy, why psychoanalysis is not simply a science about a certain domain, but it's a basic ontological thinking about how we relate to reality. So I don't see a problem here with psychoanalysis, we should just use this reproach to clarify what it really is. Okay, give me the last one now.
Armen: Firstly, before the last question, I wanted to ask you: what do you think of Bruno Latour and his actor-network theory?
Žižek: More interesting than Graham Harman, his idea of this relation theory and so on. But still, I remain attached to the notion of subjectivity. Not in this transcendental sense, but I think that subjectivity is an irreducible dimension — not in the sense of "inner life", self-experience… You know, what is subject. And that's my problem with him. Although he is interesting and so on. Okay, fuck you, go to the last one.
Vladimir: Maybe last two…
Armen: Okay, the last question is about pornography…
Žižek: Yeah, but this is so boring. Don’t you think that today pornography is irrelevant? It no longer has any charm. You know what I mean? Subversive charm… You get it. What interests me much more is this real-life pornography. For example, yesterday I read — on the flight here in Times magazine — about the exploding popularity of silicone, plastic bodies of women. And they’re quite exquisite, you know. It’s not just something that you blow up as a big balloon. The silicone’s soft, it’s warm and so on. I think that it’s not even virtual sex because you have some kind of a robot partner. It will become more and more important until we don’t even need a real partner. It’s already happening!

Here’s an anecdote, maybe I mentioned it somewhere: my son, who is 18, is in high school. Last year I had to meet the head of the class. And you know what she told me? She found out that in the last 10−15 years boys and girls are discovering sex later, later and later. Like, 15 years ago they started sexual life when they were 16 or even 15. Now it has moved to 17−18. They’re so obsessed with virtual sex and playing at all — not even sex, the games and so on! I think that it’s a paradox, a tragedy, that precisely now, when sex is permissive and so on, it’s disappearing.
Armen: Yeah, but actually my question would be… Even you said that actually pornography is a very massive system, porn industry and--
Žižek: Absolutely! But nonetheless…
Armen: [Giggles] And the question is: there’s no theory of pornography, there’s no theorised system…
Žižek: That too, although in France they did some stuff… But it’s not only pornography, there is another domain like that which is extremely important, I mentioned it in my talk today: video games. Did you know that 3−4 years ago they already earned more money than movies and TV altogether? They’re absolutely by far the most important, amusing field and there are only a couple of books, not really good…
Armen: Actually, there is a game studies movement in Russia.
Žižek: Ah, that’s nice, then maybe you are really more progressive. Because I know a couple of books, but they are simply not interesting. So I think… Now it’s fashionable to say that TV series are more important than films, that the spirit has moved from Hollywood to TV series. But you know how complex some of these new video games are? They’re no longer just like "press your finger fast" or whatever, no. We’re just not ready to take some phenomenons seriously.
Armen: But if there would be some kind of a discipline [studying pornography], a movement, from what do you think would they begin?
Žižek: What I fear is that it would be dominated by politically correct pseudo-leftist idiots. And they will just try to show how we’re all exploited, manipulated there and so on and so on — it’s much more ambiguous. You cannot just reduce it to this absolute manipulation: women are objectified, and so on, whatever, whatever, sex is totally alienated… I think that sex is always alienated. I don’t believe in this. Okay, I’m a great believer in romantic love, passion…
Vladimir: What kind of problems and questions can we raise in this status of porn?
Žižek: I cannot answer this question because I’m not a specialist, but I always try to challenge the dogma and first ask with what type of subjectivity, how are we constructed as viewers? The usual vulgar theory is just to get excited, to masturbate and so on. I don’t think you identify with a guy — if you’re a standard heterosexual, I think you identify with a pure gaze. You want to witness a woman enjoying, not a man.
Nastya: And what about women? What are women gazing at?
Žižek: Uh… I hope that the same. I think it’s asymmetrical.
Nastya: You mean a man enjoying?
Žižek: No no, they don’t care and they are right. [Laughs] A woman enjoying, yeah. That’s my spontaneous idea. Although I will show you radical asymmetry. It’s a part of the standard heterosexual porn movie — mostly for men — that there is a lesbian scene, but never a male homosexual scene. It’s totally prohibited. Now, the conclusion I draw from this is not who is better, who is worse, it’s just that… I never believed in this symmetry. I claim that lesbianism is something fundamentally different from male homosexuality in its psychic economy.
Nastya: And you don’t think that society might have impacted that vision of male homosexuality?
Žižek: Yeah, but now comes my point! Not in the simple sense that because gay porn is not masculine enough, it’s much more ambiguous. I’m not a theorist here, but I’ll share a personal experience which affected me deeply when I was serving in the army. First, it was absolutely homophobic. You know, if it was discovered that a soldier is gay, he was thrown out of the army, and for those couple of days before he was thrown out he had to suffer these ritualistic beatings. For example, when he was sleeping, somebody would put a pillow on his head, and then people would pull out their belts and beat him.

But at the same time, everyday life was so deeply penetrated by homosexual male innuendos. Like, in my unit, when I met a friend after awakening, we never said "good morning" or whatever. The standard phrase was "I smoke yours." "How are you? I will smoke yours." "Yes, thanks, I will also smoke yours," and so on. All those dirty games like when you are waiting in line, we were playing these disgusting games all the time. Some of them stick a finger up your ass from behind, then pull it out quickly, then you look around, "Ha ha! It wasn’t me!", they all laugh, it was so primitive! So this is what fascinated me so much. This was absolute homophobia, but at the same time the whole space was being oversaturated with those innuendos.
Nastya: So that might mean that they are interested in male homosexuality.
Žižek: Absolutely.
Nastya: Then why doesn’t that exist in porn? Why is it not in mainstream porn?
Žižek: What’s interesting is another thing. You have a special subgenre — I’ve seen some of them — of gay pornography. You have it. But I don’t think that you have it as expanded as lesbian pornography.
Armen: Because lesbian porn is considered mainstream.
Žižek: It’s considered more mainstream.
Nastya: So why is that?
Žižek: I don’t have a good answer. These are my limits, you know. All I can say is that it has to do with women being constructed in a different way. It’s not just male chauvinism. I don’t think this means lesbianism is less subversive. All this bullshit about how subversive homosexuality is, I don’t think it’s as simple as that — it’s prohibited, but at the same time, in every military elite and so on, homosexuality plays a role. I read a biography of Tchaikovsky, your great one. You know, he was gay, but he had friends in some military circles — high-rank officers and so on. So I think that this prohibition of male homosexuality is not because male homosexuality is more oppressed, but it’s basically the power structure defending itself more. It’s closer to the center of power or however. You know, every power has its secret. Homosexuality is not simply a transgression of power, it’s the secret aspect of power itself. And that’s mostly why it’s prohibited.

I think it’s more radical, that there’s something in the way power structures function in our society which has a certain homosexual logic. It’s there, but it has to be kept out of sight. You know, because the paradox of power is always that its basic mechanism should be invisible. I don’t believe in transparent power. I believe in power which, for example, the big models of power like Sparta show, their homosexuality was almost open. They had their soldiers forming a couple, because they discovered that if your partner and you are fighting together, you will be more ashamed to appear a coward in front of him or you will help him more. And I like this idea that when something is prohibited, it doesn’t mean it’s external, we fear it.

Maybe we prohibit it because it’s too close to us. Sorry, I have to finish it, I’m close to collapsing.
Gleb: And just to end on a positive note, what kind of porn do you like?
Žižek: I’m not kidding when I say this: very rarely you find pornography when you can feel that they’re not just playing, that they got caught in the game, and you know where you can find this? When something fails. I believe that sexuality is the great practice of failure.

Have you heard the statement by Samuel Beckett? "Try again, fail again, fail better". I have a suspicion that this was basically sexual advice at first. Because I learned that when Beckett was young, he effectively helped some psychiatrist in helping young people with their sexual problems and so on. It’s not a joke. The great eroticism is when you declare love. Do you know what’s a charming love message? If I fail the right way, it can be much more erotic than if I just do it right. Sexuality is confusing.

On the other hand, a psychiatrist told me that when somebody — usually a man — has impotence problems, the worst thing is to do some Buddhist meditation: "Don't think about it, just act, just do it…" He says that what works — and I love it — is the opposite, a bureaucratic procedure. He says: "Sit down with your partner and try to write a detailed plan in a Stalinist way. Like, 'First, for two minutes we kiss. Then, you will put my finger here, there, and over there.'" And then you get engaged in a debate like: no, one minute of kissing and two minutes of that other thing. And then it gets so ridiculous that finally one of you say: fuck it, let’s just fuck — and you do it. [Giggles] I absolutely believe in this, uh, bureaucratic approach. The worst thing to say is "Don't think, just do it". That’s the most terrifying pressure that you can imagine.
Well, this interview was not exactly 20 minutes…