The New Idealist talks with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek about love, life and his new book ‘Event’, the second of The Penguin ‘Philosophy in Transit’ series of four books…
The book looks at some really fundamental questions such as the role that fate plays in shaping people’s lives. Continuing the transport theme (of the book); do you think that people’s lives are structured like the London Underground Tube map, with each destination defined by pre-determined steps along the way?
That’s a nice question that I would like to pursue…namely, to try to distinguish and to reach some cultural meaning into it between different tube networks. New York is totally different to London. The one big difference, obviously, is that in London probably they were already counting on war.
Probably this is the main reason that the underground tunnels should also surface; potential places to hide in the case of bombing or war. This is why London’s tube is so deep. New York is just immediately beneath the ground, you can hear it and so on and so on.
But what interests me most, another line I wanted to pursue but it was getting too much – the book had a certain limit in how long it was allowed to be – would have been (how) everyone who loves the tube, the underground, knows that the greatest mystery is to know about abandoned stations.
“There are all these myths that maybe some people live there in tunnels who never come up.”
I read somewhere, do you know that they think in New York in the sub-underground of Manhattan it’s possible that in abandoned tube lines… about 3,000 people live and they have their own entire alternate community there?
They just come up from time to time, some of them, to steal some food, water, whatever. But basically it’s a crazy idea, you get the idea of an alternate community down there with their own rules and so on..
This was one line I wanted to pursue but, again, it would have been too much…because you know the problem was that the book had to be written in a relatively popular way,
Well, it is a very concise book. For a philosophy book it is quite slender.
It was for my standards a very short book, yes…on the other hand, it’s interesting. This is what fascinated me, what I discovered through writing this book, (was) how, whatever way we follow, whether in philosophy or simply pursuing fundamental questions, we sooner or later stumble upon some notion of ‘event’. Like, in continental philosophy Heidegger… in quantum physics, it’s (the) Big Bang as an event, black hole as an event. In Christianity, Christianity is a religion of event because it all hinges on the event of incarnation and so on.
So, this is what fascinated me – all these different forms in which… all letters philosophy, cinema even and so on, you stumble upon the notion of event. It’s absolutely crucial.
What do you think about all the extreme weather events that are happening at the moment? That’s a good example of a ‘big event’.
Not yet, it would have been an event if it were really to change the attitude of how we relate nature and so on. But I think it’s not yet (an) event. It’s bad weather, we are shaking, it’s horrible but I don’t think we already accept it that something weird is happening in nature itself.
The idea is a very simple one here. Traditional nature, in medieval times and later, was considered a kind of a regular repetitive system. Our idea of nature is in nature things repeat themselves. You have seasons, day/night and so on. Nature is a kind of a circular order.
Now, it’s clear that at all levels, in theory but also through experience, we can less and less rely on such a stable notion of nature. Nature is more and more in this sense denaturalised. But I don’t think we already are at the extreme level. I think there are still worse surprises.
“I am generally a pessimist but, you know why, because I want to be happy.”
Not in the sadist way …If you are a pessimist then usually, hopefully, things do not turn out as bad as you expect so you always get small, nice surprises. ‘Oh my God, everything is not a catastrophe you know.’
You talk about love as a key event in a person’s life and discuss the difference between the appearance and actuality of a person as seen through the eyes of both a cynic and a romantic. Are you saying that a romantic idealist will project the same qualities onto others and therefore see positive qualities whenever they appear – however briefly – in a person?
On the other hand, I think, that it is too simple to just approach what I project onto a person what this person really is. Isn’t it usually that the relationship is a more complex and mysterious one. Let’s say somebody really loves me and obviously projects something, expects some goodness, some great act from me.
But isn’t it often that, to become (the person) the other person projected this into me, I myself change; I try to live up to the level of these expectations and so on. So it’s a much more mysterious vicious cycle I think – vicious cycle but in a good sense.
“You know where somebody projects something into me maybe I really become this.”
In this sense… it’s very mysterious. OK, it’s not my reality but, in some sense, it may true. Becoming aware of what others project onto me, I realise that there were in me some potentials, some possibilities, that I wasn’t aware of.
It’s more complex, but especially what makes love so mysterious to me is how, when you are in love you see exactly the same person as before but not in the same way. You cannot pinpoint it. You cannot say ‘this or that is the reason why I love that person’ because to see that you already have to be in love.
You also contrast that, where a cynic would see only negative traits because that is what they are looking for.
Yes, I think that cynicism is today more and more the real predominant ideology. The common thing is to say is nobody believes in any kind of ideas and so on and so on. But I think… cynics are basically very naïve people. They underestimate the power of what for them are weird illusions.
I think that illusions can be extremely strong. For example Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State for Richard Nixon, who was probably the ultimate cynicist, but precisely because of this he was so often wrong. For example he thought the Soviet Union was here to stay, cynically, ‘let’s make a deal with them’ and so on and so on.
This is what surprises me, how often cynics, people who say ‘there are no higher values it’s just…usually there are three things: ‘power, sex, money’, it is really about how often these people are wrong. Because they underestimate the power of illusions. Illusions are for me an extremely powerful thing.
In the book you reference the ‘Spell of Illusions’ when discussing the concept of truth. What do you mean by that?
What I mean there is simply how, and here of course by truth I mean a very specific ‘truth’ – truth in social space, always what surprises me is how, yes, you can distinguish between truth and illusion but in order to arrive at truth you have to go through illusion. There is no shortcut. And this I think is what basically Hegel’s Dialectic speech is about, which… I develop in the book. For me, Hegel is the ultimate philosopher of the event.
You cannot directly go at truth. In order to arrive at truth, you have to go to the end through the illusion. I think I do repeat my old joke in the book… it’s a wonderful joke from my youth, when I (did) military service, about a military conscript.
A guy who (wanted) to get rid of serving or doing military service, which was compulsory at that point in ex-Yugoslavia, faked a strange symptom (to seem) crazy, a certain compulsive custom, whenever he entered a room with some papers on the table, documents, he looked at all of them and just repeated ‘this is not that, this is not that, this is not that’… then of course when he found himself on front of a medical committee he did the same. He looked at all of the papers and repeated ‘this is not that, this is not that, this is not that’. Then doctors said ‘this guy’s obviously crazy’ and gave him the document stating that he is delivered from military service. He looks at that and he says ‘this is that’. But this obviously is that.
Event by Slavoj Žižek, the second in Penguin’s Philosophy in Transit series by leading philosophers, is out now in paperback.
This article was originally published on The New Idealist original site in February 2014.