The broad spectrum of Žižek’s theorizing, his provocative attitudes, and his tendency to imbue his writings with sardonic humor, have made him a popular figure in the western intellectual left since the early 1990s. He achieved international recognition as a social theorist with the publication, in 1989, of his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, and he has become one of the most prominent public intellectuals of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Documentaries such as The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema have further contributed to his popular appeal. Hermann Vaske spoke to the maverick thinker in Žižek’s home town of Ljubljana.
You once said, “The Balkans are Europe’s myth, they have been the screen onto which the Europeans projected their dreams, and that has been their doom.” Could you elaborate on the myth of the Balkans?
The idea came to me when my friends and I here – we all have a psychoanalytic orientation – were reading Freud and we noticed how, whenever there is an obscene, dirty, corrupted, morbid dimension to be indicated, he regularly uses examples from the Balkan region. In his most famous example, “Fehlleistung” (a memory lapse or failure, generally translated as a “Freudian slip”), the forgetting of the painter Signorelli’s name at the beginning of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the key is that old Bosnian guy who brings together death and sex. The guy who says, “After you are no longer able to have sex, the only thing remaining is death.” And, then again, there are some other dreams, so the Balkans is always this area, this space of morbidity for Europe. And what is important for me, an elementary thing, is to claim that, parallel to what in cultural theory is called “Orientalism,” there is also a “Balkanism.”
What’s the difference between perception and reality?
It’s not the real Balkans but it’s a constructed Balkans, projected as a fantasy image. That we all know. The problem is when you try to distinguish them and ask the question, “Okay, is there a true, authentic Balkans if you take away these western fantasies?” Of course there is, but it’s already mediated through these fantasies. What do I mean by this? You know, when you are someone or something in the public, racist perceptions, some fantasies are projected onto you, this also affects your reality. And what you really are, is that already a reaction to this myth? In Europe, for example, I don’t know if it still applies, but when I was young the myth was that Scots are the ultra-misers. Don’t want to spend money, and so on.
I noticed – I was a couple of times in Scotland – how they tried to be de facto especially generous, inviting you out – but why? Because they are fighting this prejudice, whatever. And I submit that it is the same with the Balkans. It’s what the most interesting part for me now is: how often Balkan nations, although they are not of course what the west projects onto them, nonetheless incorporate this image sometimes in a wonderfully ironic way, and reject it or play on it, or whatever. You know, this is the problem with racism: you cannot, when you are the victim of a racist cliché or ethnic cliché, simply say, “Oh, it doesn’t concern me!” Unfortunately, it does concern you. Because racist clichés determine how you are treated by others, and you have to react to them.
What’s the mystery of the Balkans? Where is it?
Yes … where is the Balkans? This was a standard joke. Let me do the entire theory. First, let’s go down. (Žižek shows the location of individual Balkan countries on a big map of Tito’s time.) For us up there in Slovenia, if you were to ask a person in Slovenia, every Slovene will answer, “We are Mittel-europa, Croatia is already the Balkans.” This is where Balkan confusion be-gins. We are civilized. And they will even give you an explanation: they will say when the Austrian Empire was divided up, we were under Austrian rule … Croatians were in the Hungarian part, which made them part of this Balkan, eastern European confusion. Okay, then let’s go on: if you ask a Croatian, he will tell you, “It is clear. Croatia is Mitteleuropa, Catholic; Belgrade Serbia, Orthodox religion: they are the Balkans.” Then you ask a Serb, he will tell you, “We are the last bastion of Christian civilization.” Down here, in either Sarajevo or Kosovo, they will tell you, “This is the true Balkans.” Now the irony is, if you go too much down on the map, all of a sudden the Balkans are up there. In Greece, they will tell you, “We are the origin of Europe, up there are the dark Balkan Mountains.” So practically, well, it’s nowhere – it’s always a little bit to the southeast or a little bit to the northwest. If you ask an Austrian, he will tell you, “In Slovenia, the Balkans begin.” Slavic, primitives, and so on. And you can go on. If you ask a German, he will tell you, “Austria, when they had an empire, it was a little too much mixed with all these, it’s already balkanized; pure Germany is okay.” French people will tell you, “Germany, dark, fascist, kind of a Balkan, we are civilization.” And, finally, the British will tell you, “All of Europe today is a big Balkans, with Brussels and its bureaucracy as a new Istanbul. We British are the only ones.”
Of course the point of this is that what matters is the limit. I mean, you have to set a limit and on the other side, the abyss, primitivity, wild fashions begin, and every one of these nations likes to portray itself as the last bastion of, the last fortress against, barbarism across there. And it’s incredible how even leftists fall into this trap, and all of a sudden become racists. I have a theory why, because you know, in this political correctness you cannot directly beat a racist. You cannot attack them now: all of the left, for example, are warning against Islamophobia, which means you cannot do that.
They warn against attacking the Orientals or Africans, or whatever. But here in the Balkans, we are still white, white Europeans, which means paradoxically you can attack each other much more directly without being accused of racism, because you can say, they’re racially the same and so on. Precisely because the difference is smaller, you can be more directly a racist. For example, I was quite shocked by what John Pilger (Australian journalist and documentary filmmaker based in the UK, Ed.), the British-Australian leftist, wrote about Kosovo. He said, “This is not even a nation, these are rapists and smugglers controlled by gangs,” and so on.
My God, even a Serbian nationalist wouldn’t describe it in such a general way. You see, you can say it, say it’s the Balkans, you can do that. So, again, this is why I like to say that the Balkans in this sense are the Unconscious of the West. All the things that you are not allowed, all the things during the imperialist era – the classical one, one hundred years ago and more – you were allowed to say generally about the others, the blacks, the true other, blacks, Arabs, are now off-limits. We live in politically correct times and so on. But, here, you can say it. And then there are all these other myths. You know, Freud says that there is no time in the unconscious. And it’s true. One of the pseudo-wisdoms of the Balkans is that, here, people are caught up in thousand-year-old myths. They forget nothing, they learn nothing new, they forget nothing old.
Which I think is a total myth. Here I agree with the murdered Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic – I didn’t agree with him politically, but here I agree with him – when he said, “It’s exactly the opposite that is true. Here in the Balkans,” he said, “maybe we learn nothing, but at the same time we are ready to forget things extremely fast like, you know, today you are my enemy, tomorrow you can be my friend, and so on.” And I can confirm this with regard to Slovenia, where I remember, when I was very young, Albanians were the closest you could get to the enemy. I would say they were the most hated among the majority of the population. Albanians used to own many small ice-cream parlors. And there were all these rumors that they were putting drugs, poison in there, and so on. Albanians are dangerous. Then, Miloševi? came to power and, all of a sudden, Serbs were the bad guys and Albanians our greatest allies. There were, in the late eighties, public meetings supporting Kosovo, and so on and so forth. Then, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, there was some time of confusion: we didn’t even know who the enemy is and, at some point, Croats were a good candidate – I think because we have, for a few square kilometers, border conflicts with Croatia. So there was this tendency, you know, following the logic that states, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Well, here it was: “Maybe Serbs are good and Croats are bad.” Which only confirms, I would claim, the old wisdom of the definition of a nation. What is a nation? The best definition was provided by the French positivist and proto-racist Ernest Renan. Here he was right when he said: “A nation is a large group of people united by, held together by, three things: lies about the past, common enemies in the present, and illusions about their future.” In that sense, we are all nations here. We Slovenes, we have secret dreams that are not generally accepted, For example, one of the popular crazy theories is that many Slovenes will tell you this secretly, like that’s what really happens, that we are not Slavs at all. Slavs are primitive. We are the descendants of Etruscans, you know? To cut a long story short, we are the true cradle of European civilization.
So, to come back to the trickiest part of racism, what I think is called inverted racism, is where this Balkan otherness is not simply the negative, primitive domain of ethnic slaughter, wild sex, whatever, but this reversal where you can turn this around into a positive feature. I was, for instance, shocked when I was at a roundtable in France – and, listen, this was in the early nineties, when there was civil war going on – and someone told me it’s horrible what’s happening in Bosnia, but nonetheless, this is still, you know, this is true passion. You live life to the full there, with us it is just Viagra, virtual sex, while real life is going on here, and this is the origin of my great misunderstanding with Emir Kusturica, the very popular movie director. I claim that the key to his success is that he fully adopted this western fantasy of the Balkans and he is playing the role of a true Balkanian for the west. For example, if you look at his film Underground, what kind of image of Serb people do you get there? Basically, they are all the time eating and drinking, having sex, and killing. He himself says it’s a permanently deadly orgy. This is what the west wants to see in us. So, I would claim, not only is he not what he tries to present himself to be, some kind of original authentic Balkanian resisting western Europe – no, he is simply playing a role for people in western Europe.
How important is sex in the Balkans?
Not so important, because I never trust people who boast a lot. I would say that there is always a negative correlation between your boasting about it and you really doing it. So no wonder that, for example, I remember when I was young, really young and, you know, hardcore pornography was just getting legalized, that the country of pornography was Sweden and then Denmark. Yeah, because the rumor is that they are the worst lovers. No wonder they have pornography and want to talk about it. So, no, I don’t think people are really anything special here. Especially from what I learned when I mixed with older people in the army: here, maybe the clichés about Balkan are true. The idea is to do it unwashed, brutally, quickly … for example, and here comes one of my worst experiences: once, in the military barracks, we were debating about what men talk about there – about sex, of course, all the time, about what you can do with a woman, and a woman to you, and once the subject was cunnilingus and a soldier asked me: “Have you ever done that?” And I said, “Yes, what’s the problem, if it’s all washed nicely, why not?” And all people from the lower Balkans they were, “Really? How can you?” They were totally disgusted, and then the rumor spread. I don’t know how it happened but while we were talking about this, an officer came and ordered me to carry something to the other part of the barracks. With no phone connection. I went there and when I delivered the package to the other officer, he looked at me and said: “Are you the guy who licks cunts?” How did he even learn this? I had walked fast to the other side of the barracks, to a small house with no phone connection. But, of course, for them this is perhaps the limit of this Balkan attitude. For them, doing more gentle things like fellatio or cunnilingus means “ersatz,” means you cannot do it the proper hard ways, so you do this. No, I told them, the dialectical thesis of the opposite applies: If you are good, you can do both.
Do you agree with Hegel, who said that never in the history of mankind was anything ever accomplished without passion?
And Hegel meant precisely the evil, egotistic passions! It would be obvious to apply Hegel here, I would say that he was much more right for the western developed nations. Like, from Napoleon to Hitler, these are models of the Hegelian passion. In the 90s, people were telling me, “My God, it’s crazy what is happening in Bosnia, you need psychoanalysis to explain this.” No, I told them, you don’t need that. It is very clear what is happening: ethnic conflict, the only point where you need psychoanalysis is to understand the totally confused western reaction. You need psychoanalysis to understand this ultimate stupidity, blindness of how the west reacted to the crisis. Even the leftists, who should have known better, totally missed the political dimension of the early 90s military conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. Of course there were ethnic passions, of course there were, they are always here, but why do they explode at a certain point? And I have an extremely primitive theory which I claim is basically true: the only way to understand the madness of the 1990s is to precisely forget about the past.
You know, the usual dogma from the point of view of western journalism was that, in order to understand what is happening here now, you need to know the history of the last one thousand years. No, you forget all that and just look at the present situation and the political tensions. Which tensions? I claim it’s something very non-poetic: From the late 70s, Yugoslavia was economically in a much deeper crisis than other late-communist societies. I mean, remember that in the early 80s, to give you an idea of what was a crisis, because now we are talking of a crisis, living standards fell by three to four percent. According to official statistics in the mid- 1980s, in a couple of years, the standard, real purchasing power of salaries fell by a little bit over 40 percent. This is what I call crisis. And I claim something that is very primitive but is basically true: the ruling communist nomenklatura in each republic had a problem. How to legitimize themselves, the old glory of Yugoslavia, relatively prosperous, open borders, now that the glory of the Tito movement had vanished.
The economic situation was much worse. The only chance for them to survive, to provide some kind of legitimization, was to play the ethnic card: “We are protecting this land.” So I would suggest that’s the key to nationalism. Of course it was authentic in the sense that people were nationalistic, but the reason that it exploded was, I submit, that this was the only way for the ruling communist nomenklatura in different republics to acquire some kind of legitimacy. In Serbia, for example, Miloševi? was the first, and almost a genius here. He made the pact with nationalist writers, claiming Serbia was threatened in Yugoslavia, and that we needed a stronger Serbia. That was the legitimization of his rule.
He was also dealing with Kusturica …
Absolutely. This is what people in the west would think. When Underground was shot also with Serb money. Kusturica was all the time travelling with a Serbian – or, at that point, on a Yugoslav diplomatic – passport and so on. But this is why ex-communists survived as a political force. They played the opposite role: we will guarantee you peaceful steps to democracy, we will protect you from the Balkan pressure. The term they liked to use is … what do you call it, cauldron, “Balkan-Kessel” in German. We will allow you, we will lead you out of the “Balkan-Kessel,” out of this madness. To give you some hint of how strong this was, in 1988, when everyone knew this communist system had come to an end, communists started that weekly journal, the still-in-power communists, and the title was Europe Now. Like that was the message to the people: We stand here for bringing you safely to Europe. A role that they played relatively successfully, which is why they survived politically.
Is Europe still the future?
That is what again gets me into trouble with many leftists, because in some circles of the left today it’s fashionable to say, “The European Union, the Brussel democracy is just an instrument of the IMF. Let’s return to nation states.” I don’t agree with this. First, you will find yourself with strange bedfellows because those who really advocate this are nationalist right-wingers in all countries – from Scandinavia to Poland, and also in others. They all see the European Union as an instrument of gay rights, abortion, multiculturalism, and as a threat to their national identity. And I think it’s very dangerous to play these cards. So I don’t like this idea, which is popular here, in post-Yugoslavia, which is popular even with leftists: “Ah, Europe is bad. Europe, Europe is an instrument of international capital, the only prospect for the left is to disconnect themselves from the European project and build again some kind of Balkan community.” No! Balkan unity, if this ever happens, will be a place where you wouldn’t be able to have a gay parade, and so on and so forth. When I was young, the big anti-communist slogan was “Better dead than red.” Now, I learn that there is a new slogan: “Better red than eating hamburgers.”
What about a Balkan Occupy movement – would that make sense?
Who will occupy it? Who?
That’s the question.
First, I must say I liked this about that anti-Wall Street Occupy movement: that it was not in that stupid abstract sense pacifist. I know some people were bothered by the fact that they chose as their slogan a very aggressive word, “occupy.” Not resist or bring peace, no, occupy! I like this very much! What would it have meant today, Occupy Balkan? It would probably have meant to re-occupy the ideology of the Balkans, would have meant to destroy it, i.e. Vernichtungs-Zerstörungskrieg (war of destruction and annihilation). I think that the people of Balkans should become aware of how dangerous it is to identify – as Kusturica is doing – with what you are in the ideology of others. I like to quote that wonderful phrase by Gilles Deleuze, “Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutu.” (If you are trapped in the dream of the other, you are fucked.) I think this is the problem of the Balkans. The dream is not our own. We are not caught in our old myth. Others are dreaming about us. We are caught in other people’s dreams. Which is why this is what has to be destroyed. We have to get rid of this.
You are wearing an Istanbul T-shirt and I believe you often you talk about the positive effects of the Ottoman influence in the region?
I don’t idealize them. All these things happened six, seven, eight centuries ago. These were horrible times, okay, but basically all times are horrible if you look at them closely … But all I am saying is how, in its late, relatively decadent stage from the 18th century onwards, the Turkish Ottoman Empire was a relatively very tolerant one, much more tolerant than typical western European nation states, and that maybe the time has come, under the new conditions of global capitalism, for the left to rehabilitate only this part of the legacy of two empires.
Because the Balkans were precisely the line of division of the encounter of two empires. (Žižek explains once again using Tito’s map.) At the top, we are just south of Vienna, the Austrian Empire, and here the Turkish Empire. And, literally, the line went here, like in the 16th century, 17th century. The Turks came up to here and, as we know, they even laid siege to Vienna at some point, and you know when they left, they abandoned many sacks of coffee, and this is how central Europe discovered coffee.
So, okay, they moved back and then in the late 19th century they held Bosnia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, this part, and then through the Balkan Wars, they were slowly pushed back – before WWI, I think – and they just got pushed into that small part of European soil around Istanbul. But what I am saying is that there are some wonderful stories. For example, there was a Christian sect, a monastery in France, where they were first thrown out by Napoleon I. They moved to Bavaria, they were thrown out there. Just a Christian sect. And they were then desperate in the 1860s, they were desperately looking, right across Europe, just for a piece of land for them to buy and to build a monastery to continue to live there. Not one Christian leader in the entire continent of Europe was prepared to give this to them. You know who did it? The Turkish sultan: close to Banja Luca, they were allowed, in a Turkish part of Europe, to build a monastery, which, ironically, survived until the early 90s. And I have some other historical sources that report on westerners visiting Istanbul, for example, in the late 18th, early 19th century. And what struck the European visitors was this tolerance. They said that this is the general passivity of the Ottomans you see on the streets of Istanbul. You see a Jewish rabbi debating with a Muslim priest, a Catholic monk comes by, and the western visitor is shocked: “Don’t they have a sense of unity? This is the unnatural, oriental passivity!” – and so on.
What about Greece?
Greece is a wonderful example of cultural imperialism. Why? Because of Athens, Greece. We know this story, that Byron, the poet, organized a resistance movement, for the liberation of Greece from the then Turkish rule. And, incidentally, I liked this example because it shows another Byron. He may have been a stupid Romantic poet, but he was very good as a negotiator, building a coalition. He was an incredibly good “realpolitiker.” So, okay, do you know when, after his death, when his revolt co-organized by him succeeded, and Greece proclaimed independence, and the Turks had to acknowledge it ... do you know that the capital was not Athens? I do not know where it was, but it was not Athens at first. For the first ten, for twenty years, it was not Athens simply because the Greek people, the way they were in the early 19th century, they didn’t consider themselves as part of the tradition of Aristotle, Plato, as the “founders of Europe.” No, they were just a small, Orthodox nation. Then the western powers, especially the British and Germans, came there and told them, “Don’t you know, who you are? You are the descendants, you are the founders of Europe.” And then, mostly with British but even more German money, I think, Athens was rebuilt in this pseudo-classic style and so on, and so forth. So, I like this idea that Greece had to be reminded, and, once again, in this you see this logic of “if you are caught in another’s dream.” Greece again became the founding nation of Europe in exactly the way that the western dream was imposed on them.
So you see, once again, a nice example of how you take from a nation what appears to be the most intimate part, you know, like the very core of their identity. And you can see how it was imposed onto them by others. And I think this holds practically for all nations. Like when I was in Argentina … you know, we have this mythical image of Argentina: gauchos, pampas, and so on. But do you know what they really admit to you? There were some British visitors in the early 19th century, wandering around and fabricating this myth about what Argentina is: gauchos, pampas, and so on. And then, when they broke with Spain in 1812, they established their identity by adopting this foreign look foisted upon them.
It’s the western image of Argentina that is the foundation of their identity. The idea I’d like to play with is: What if the same goes for Germany? Like, you know, all those Roman descriptions when they lost, you were good Germans, against Romans, when you defeated them, What was the famous battle?
Varus against Arminius.
In the Teutoburg Forest.
Yeah, yeah, when you defeated them, you remember how hypocritical they were after the Romans lost, claiming, “We just discovered it’s not even worth colonizing” – the usual. But there you have some descriptions like this mythical image of Germany. Dark forests, wild but courageous people who suffered no authority … like, what if you also adopted the mythical Roman view of yourself to become what you are? I love this idea.
What about the eastern part of the Austrian Empire? We haven’t talked about Romania and Bulgaria.
I must say Romania is another example … here we should say two things. Uh (Žižek continues to fiddle around with Tito’s map), this is Romania, Bucharest, and Bulgaria. I learned a wonderful thing: what Romania is known for. Romania has one identity and that is Dracula! They cannot help it. This is why almost everyone knows about them. Even Ceausescu is remembered, and was often portrayed as a modern-day Dracula.
But there were some Germans there too, no?
Yeah, some German of course, yeah. Which Ceausescu was earning a lot of money from by selling them back to Germany. He was the greatest slave trader. But what I want to say is that with regard to Bulgaria, I spoke with an American journalist who told me she did an inquiry in New York, which is the more enlightened part of the United States, and she said in other parts of the United States they don’t know what Bulgaria is. In New York and in Western Europe, there are two features that Bulgaria as a nation is recognized for. And it’s wonderful. One is yoghurts, that they have these nitrate yoghurts: you eat them and you can live up to a hundred years, you can make love up to the age of 100. It’s where you can have sex with 100-year-old men. And the second one, it’s wonderful! You remember when the Bulgarian secret police forty, fifty years ago, organized the killing of a dissident in London using an umbrella with a poisoned tip? And this, you see, is still the mythical feature that everyone remembers. So I proposed to my Bulgarian friends, why don’t they start to produce special Bulgarian umbrellas? You know, I am mentioning this because this is maybe one way to liberate the Balkans. I am not saying, forget about myth, but to start playing ironically on these kinds of myths. You know, Romania should gladly accept,” Yes, we are vampires,” and the Bulgarians should say, “Yes, we are the best umbrella makers,” and so on. You know, I have an old theory about ex-Yugoslavia, that this is what worked in ex-Yugoslavia: racism was the most beautiful thing there which kept us together. So what to do about this? Not this aggressive racism but, as you probably know, in ex-Yugoslavia each nation was identified by a certain racist cliché: Montenegrins are lazy, Slovenes are misers, we don’t want to spend money, and so on and so forth, Bosnians are obsessed with sex, and the Macedonians, they are thieves, don’t trust them. But, anyway, in the 70s, when I met my Serbian, Montenegrin and Croat friends, we accepted racist clichés and made fun of ourselves, with pleasure. And it was the kind of authentic contact because if you visit a country, if you talk this official bullshit, “Oh, how interesting your folk dances are,” etc. – that’s nothing. You really become friends through some small exchange of obscenities as this breaks the ice. And this … I will give you proof that it really works in this positive way. I am old enough to remember that, in the early 80s and later, when real ethnic tensions started to explode, the jokes pretty much disappeared. Only now are they slowly, slowly returning. Like in Bosnia, there is this famous Bosnian duo, Hasso and Mujo, and there are some absolutely legendary jokes gently making fun of themselves, and I would claim that this tradition is great. The best weapon against racism is to get nations to make fun of themselves and to organize a market of obscenities in this way.
There are two great humor traditions, I would say, in post-communist countries. One is this more mid-European, in the Czech Republic, Poland and East Germany, and this is maybe the best. If there is one great cultural loss because of the fall of communism, it’s the loss of these sublime political jokes, because some of them were simply ingenious. Very intellectually refined and so on. But, on the other hand, these kinds of jokes are a little bit more vulgar, but they still have a certain, wonderful sarcastic value. There’s a whole metaphysics in them, a whole way of life, and it’s not just vulgarity. I will tell you one which I like, and it’s not a great joke, not even a political one. Usually, jokes begin innocently and then you have a vulgar ending. Here it’s the opposite, it ends up innocently. Okay, two men in a compartment on a long ride in a train. They look at each other, nobody wants to start the conversation, then one man finally addresses the other, asking him: ”Have you ever fucked a dog?” The other guy says, “No, of course not, have you?” The first says: “How disgusting, of course I’ve never done such a thing!” Then the second one asks him: “So why did you ask me then?” The first one says, “Oh I just wanted a good start-up line for a conversation.” So, you know, it’s a stupid joke, but again, what I like about it is that you expect something dirty, dirty and outrageous, but you get nothing. Much more subversive than the other way around. Where you begin in an innocent way, and so on. This is what is missing, this would be my ideal of the Balkans, this sarcastic, aggressive but at the same time melancholic sense of humor.
I think, for example, this is the true miracle of Sarajevo. You know during the worst days of the siege of Sarajevo, there was a rock group there, I think Top Lista Nadrenalista, Toplist of Surrealists, that in the harshest times, when bombs were falling, staged their concerts in closed building, wherever they could, and they all the time made fun of the war, of themselves, and so on. This was the great reaction. They didn’t want to play the role of the victims. Because they got it immediately, that to play the role of the victim is the dirtiest, most refined form of racism. You know what racism is? I will tell you! In the early 90s, when the war was still going on here, I was invited to a colloquium on Alfred Hitchcock in San Francisco. That was 1992, 1993. And, okay, I started to give my talk and then an idiot there interrupted me: “Your country is in flames, how can you talk about such a trivial thing as Alfred Hitchcock?” And I exploded. I told him: “Aha, so you can talk about Hitchcock but me, coming from Yugoslavia, I am only allowed to present the victim and the horror in my country?”
How do you see the future of Europe?
I think my dream is a very totalitarian one. Why not all Europe, one Brussels? You know, the problem is as follows: since the Wall Street protests, we haven’t yet had a serious political project. We have, on the one hand, this purely technocratic Europe, a Europe of bank managers and so on. Now my problem with them is not that it’s just a technocracy, but that we can see that it’s a bad technocracy. They cannot do their job. And then we have this right-wing, anti-immigrant populist wave which I think is the true threat to Europe. They are the real threat for Europe, not for poor Muslims there, who can be easily isolated, whatever. The threat is a Europe with someone like Haider in Austria, Le Pen in France, and Geert Wilders in Holland in power. This would no longer be the Europe that we know. It may be old hat, but I agree here with people like Joschka Fischer and so on that a new leftist vision is the only thing that can save Europe.
So what I am saying is that, now, I will provoke: instead of being ashamed of this Turkish legacy: what if Europe should take the Ottoman empire as a model for a renewed Europe? This Turkish old-Ottoman, not Turkish as a Turkish nation state, but the one before Ataturk.
Let’s have a Turkish empire with this multicultural tolerance and so on – you obey just a few rules – as a model for all Europe. Although, you know, my friends told me: “Oh, are you crazy now, by saying this, giving arguments for the most reactionary Turkish forces.” I told them, “No, no, if the Turks really mean this return to Ottoman values, okay, let them start with the Armenians and Kurds. If they do that, then the Ottoman spirit would simply provide precisely the opposite of what they are doing right now.”
How important is provocation in the Balkans?
It is, and this is one of the good things that we have: we know how to do provocation and nonetheless play it safe. The logic of modern nation states is, as with Hitler and so on, that you start with a provocation but then, as it were, you get caught in your own trap. Many wars, no doubt, functioned in this way. Let’s say you have a country and I have a country. Nobody wants war, but just to win the next election I say you are stealing part of our land. And we are just playing a game during the elections. But then, all of a sudden, you find yourself in a position where you go so far in these provocations that you are in danger of losing face and then, you know, people are ready to do anything not to lose face. And then we have real war, I mean it’s quite incredible, you know the last example of this was in the Balkans, in the post-Yugoslav conflict.
I remember – I am old enough – how in the late 80s, we saw it coming. I have spoken with people from Sarajevo, where nobody really thought this could be a true war. I remember my friends from Sarajevo, when the shooting started, they just tried to send their children – because it was summer, I think – to the Croatian coast. They said, oh it’s just one, two weeks, then this tension will be over, you know, they can come back. Nobody could even have imagined what it would develop into. We should maybe learn again the art of true provocation. Provocation not only does not lead to war, but if a provocation is handled in an intelligent way, it can even prevent war. It functions like humor, as an acting-out, you know, like these rituals you have in some tribes. There is a tension between the two of us. And we make a deal: why don’t we make some kind of a crazy, crazy shouting competition where we shout insults at each other – and then we go for a drink or whatever after we finish. It can be done. Civilizations do function like this.
You also need creativity for provocation …
Yes, yes! But I must say that is not something we lack in the Balkans. We have enough creativity. It’s there nonetheless. Just look, Serbs have some good writers, they have that great scientist Nikola Tesla, who was played in one film by David Bowie.
I would like to give you a quotation made famous by Marcel Duchamp. He said that a work of art which does not shock isn’t worth anything. Does that apply to the Balkans?
It’s easy to say you shock. What interests me, and this is my typical logic: Okay, what happens the day after? This shock thing is precisely
Duchamp, this was early modernism. But doesn’t society today not only tolerate shock but actually ask for it? What is the greatest shock? Because, you know, when you need a shock, you must be in a pretty bad state. If only a shock can awaken you, it means that you are in a kind of semi-comatose state. My problem is this semi-comatose state. If anything was wrong with the Balkans, if you try to imagine what goes on when there isn’t any shock going on, then you will probably discover an extremely boring, miserable life.
The best report I saw on the Bosnian War, and that was when the war was still going on, in 93/94, was done by a foreign TV station, Greek or whatever, friendly to Serbs, and they went to the Serb region of Banja Luka, not to film the fighting, but to show everyday life. And you see people getting drunk and in total despair, nothing is happening, and so on and so forth, you know. I don’t like shocks which are needed to awaken you from a semi-comatose life. It’s a little bit like in David Lynch’s films, like for example Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, who, is brutally mistreated by Dennis Hopper, you know, Daddy wants to fuck or whatever, that scene. But you know, what is less noticeable is that she almost needs that to awaken, she is semi-comatose. David Lynch has a great tradition of these semi-comatose women who have to be brutally awakened. And again, for me I would like to change that, so that you don’t need shocks. I like ordinary life, which is interesting enough. I was never able to understand people who find ordinary life boring. I don’t need spectacle and shocks. I like to read, I like to watch good films, I don’t like shocks.
Why are you creative?
Nothing deeper there, it’s because I’ve been happy and grateful. My greatest gratitude – ironically speaking, of course – goes to the ex-communists. You know why? Because in 1973, after I finished my postgraduate studies, it was the last Indian summer of hardline communism. I wasn’t allowed to teach. For four, five years I was unemployed. And then they put me into a research institute. I am still there. And then I pushed myself, I decided to start to get contacts abroad, and so on and so forth. So if you were to ask me – and this is literally true, not some kind of metaphorical provocation and exaggeration – where would I have been without communist operations today, I would have been a stupid unknown professor here in Ljubljana. The irony of history. This is what Hegel called List der Vernunft, probably. (Hegel uses this term to describe a process by which a certain purpose is realized in the history of mankind that the actors themselves are unaware of. Ed.)
Does your creativity thrive more on chaos or on discipline?
No, no, order! Total order, I am a control freak. I like discipline. Even in matters of love. It is my motto. Jacques Lacan used this nice joke: “My fiancée is never late for an appointment because the moment she is late she is no longer my fiancée.” You know what my idea of a love letter is? I found it in New York. It’s like a bureaucratic form and you just fill in: My dearest, then honey, moonshine, star, I love you, like, wildly, madly. You just fill in crosses, date and sign it, and then you have a love letter. That’s my idea of love.
Do you think creativity can help solve the problems in the world?
Of course! But what do you mean by creativity? You know, my notion of creativity is not that Balkan cliché, some crazy artists who provoke. Creativity is for me something deeply connected with boring administrative work. Like did you notice how many great, great people – and by “great” I mean great, great, great, poets or writers – were bank clerks? Recently I bought the English edition of Kafka’s The Office Writings. You have that in German, his reports to that insurance, workers insurance company, that he worked for. My God, it’s formidable, all of Kafka is there. My idea is that, 100 years from now, Kafka’s reception will be redefined. You’ll be reading Kafka’s great legal theories. In his free time, he also wrote some not so important books or whatever, literature. T.S. Eliot also worked in a bank. It’s precisely because … you know, we are all creative. Maybe even too creative, in the sense of exploding with crazy ideas. The problem is to put these ideas into form. True creativity is order. Every idiot can have explosions of genuine madness, I don’t care for that. The problem is order … afterwards! I always notice how Antonio Gramsci, in the early 1920s, was publishing his texts in a communist journal called “Il nuovo ordine,” new order. Ten years afterwards, this phrase, “Neue Ordnung”, was totally coopted by fascist right-wingers. Even today, when you say “New Order,” you don’t have to add a lot. People will know where you are coming from. But maybe we should recapture that term. The problem is “New Order.” That’s why I am tired of all these demonstrations, protests, and so on. They are nice, but if they are now experienced tragically, as in Egypt, no! It’s easy to have one million people there, all in solidarity. The problem is how to translate this energy into a “New Order.” What makes true revolution interesting for me is not to have a million people there in the streets – that’s cheap. True revolution is when things return to normal. Have there been any changes? That is true creativity!