Berlin/Ljubljana - Slavoj Žižek (*1949) is one of the world's most famous and influential philosophers. The Slovene became known through his writings on Jacques Lacan and psychoanalysis and his critical work on society and capitalism, which he likes to process through the lens of pop culture, often referring to Hegel, Marx and Lacan. Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and the director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. We spoke to the philosopher over Skype about his book Pandemic !: Covid-19 shakes the world - which came out in Germany in November.

Mr. Zizek, where are you right now?

I am at home in my apartment in Ljubljana. We currently have up to 50 Covid-19 deaths per day in Slovenia. If you relate that to the size of my country, we have one of the worst death rates in the world.

How are you personally?

I am in a depressed state. This whole isolation will continue until spring. In addition, the irrational resistance of many people leaves me speechless. Weren't there protests in Germany too? Half of the population in Croatia said they did not want to be vaccinated. How is it in Germany?

The majority want to be vaccinated. I think around 40 per cent are skeptical.

Well, the vaccinated will be protected from the non-vaccinated.

Are you going to get vaccinated as soon as you can? 

Immediately, yes. Why not? I'll get the vaccination quickly. I am 71 years old, have diabetes and relatively high blood pressure. I fulfill all the points on the list that make you vulnerable.

How have the last six months been for you? Do you spend all the time in Ljubljana, in Slovenia?

Yes. The country is in a lockdown. In August it was a little more relaxed when I went to the Slovenian coast for a few days. But I wasn't even close to the sea. I stayed in the apartment. Still: I thought it would get worse in isolation, but actually it's okay.

Photo: Screenshot Skype/Tomasz Kurianowicz
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek during the interview with Berliner Zeitung

Why?

It is easy for me to work. I can do everything on the laptop. I don't believe these people who now say that social isolation is so terrible. One of my American friends wrote: "There's only physical isolation right now. The price is that we are totally overrought socially." That's right! We are more socially connected than we have been for a long time. We are controlled by the state. The authorities examine where we are going, what we are doing. The state asks how we are, whether we have a cold. And think of all the digital changes! I have never used the phone or the computer as much as I do today. I keep checking my e-mail. I really hate that. I actually like to be alone. But we are much easier to reach through the home office, even in private. I've never felt this connected before. What I really miss is authentic isolation, real loneliness.

Image: Polity Books
Slavoj Zizek: Pandemic! Covid-19 shakes the world, May 2020, €13.60, Polity Books.

Do you think there are cultural differences in how the virus spreads? It is said that the French greet one another with kisses and therefore transmit the virus faster. What's it like in the Slavic countries? Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia are currently the worst in the world.

It's all paradoxical. In the beginning, the Czechs and the Poles were the world champions in fighting the virus. I don't know what happened in the summer so that all of that changed. At first France was also very efficient. Then the numbers exploded. Now Germany has problems. I am very careful to cite cultural characteristics as reasons for the growth of infections. At the beginning my leftwing friends told me that post-socialist states were fighting the virus better and were showing more solidarity with one another than Western, classic neoliberal countries. However, this is no longer the case today. In all honesty: I can't really explain the infection process.

At the moment you could say that China is doing a really good job. There are hardly any infections. After all, it's a socialist country with strong control mechanisms.

Yes, the Chinese are really good. But that doesn't have to mean anything either! There is also a Western-oriented country that is doing almost as well as China. I'm talking about Taiwan. Australia and New Zealand are also doing very well. What I want to say: cultural clichés don't help with the analysis. In Germany the situation is worsening day by day. There are many more deaths, although Germany is a disciplined society. And what do the leaders do? Instead of admitting the complexity of the situation, guilty parties are constantly being named. First, it was the young partiers. Then it was the restaurant owners. Now it's the offices and workplaces. What is frustrating is how little we still know about the virus.

What do you think: how will things go in the next few months? In your book Pandemic! You paint a gloomy picture.

I spoke to my Latin American friends who were attempting to do a psychological reading of the pandemic. You rightly pointed out that the first lockdown was still pleasant. Many saw it as a kind of vacation. They wanted to spend time with the kids, relax a bit, shut down their minds. Even the US expert Dr. Fauci assumed that the virus might be defeated in the summer. The first lockdown was a pleasant trauma.

Lockdown light is an illusion!

Slavoj Žižek

And now?

Most economists I trust tell me that economic conditions will be dire in the spring of 2021. People suspect that. Many advocate a lockdown light. But didn't summer 2020 show that it didn't work? Lockdown light is an illusion! We should get rid of the idea that this middle ground works. The only thing that works is a hard lockdown - and only if the number of infected people is still manageable. Australia shows how it is done. I admire that country. There were very small outbreaks in Melbourne. The city was then put into tough lockdown for a month. The economy is now working as well as it was before. Vietnam is doing it right as well. Another success story. The early, hard lockdown not only works, it is also the best solution economically.

The summer of 2020 was also the summer of the protests. How did you experience it?

The Black Lives Matter protests mainly took place in the USA. I was afraid that the protesters wanted to get rid of Kant and Hegel. Kant made a few statements that one would describe as racist today. An American friend who participated in the demonstrations told me that the left are happy to finally be able to participate in an old-school struggle again, in which it is clear who the enemy is - the police, racism and so on. For a moment you could forget about Covid-19 and pretend normality was working again. There was a perverse lust involved.

Photo: imago images
Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek in 2017.

Did you wonder why the leftwing protesters didn't take the virus seriously?

It's the same today! It's strange that the numbers are much worse than in spring and that people still don't take the situation seriously. They go shopping. The streets are full. It's kind of a strategy of denial. I miss a healthy panic. I think people are desperate. They register that an epoch is coming to an end. The third wave will be a wave of mental illness. That will increase dramatically. This can already be observed in the psychological state of children and adolescents. They are socially isolated and depressed. Nobody gives them a clear outlook. Sure, the vaccine is coming. But as the sociologist Bruno Latour said: This pandemic is only a small sample of the real crisis that will come later: other viruses, global catastrophes and, above all, global warming.

Can one still hope?

One can hope, but in a paradoxical way! I advocate a courage of hopelessness. If we want to hope, then we should accept that our old life is over. We should invent a new normal. Our basic relationship with reality has changed - how we see the world, how we interact with it. Our relationship with reality has fallen apart radically. The sooner we admit that, the better.

Everyday life is currently making us philosophers, albeit stupid philosophers.

Slavoj Žižek

What do you think of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben? You write about him in your book. Agamben thinks we should not be intimidated by the virus.

That's right. He is against the safeguards. Agamben recently wrote a text entitled "When The House is on Fire". He admits that the house is on fire, but at the same time he says: "We can only observe the catastrophe. If we try to change it, we will only make it worse." He says that we should live like the people in the Middle Ages - continue to live as if there were no danger. That means meeting friends, having coffee in the afternoon, pretending everything is okay. Even when we know it's over. Agamben says: "This is the only dignified way to die." 

What do you think?

I don't think so. If you think like that, as a leftist, you quickly get close to Trump. The rightwingers go out into the street and say that wearing a mask is like wearing a muzzle. I find that interesting. That's why I say that a crack has gone through our consciousness. Agamben wants us to ignore the crack and live as before. That would mean that the pandemic would spread and make even more people sick. I don't think it would be like Agamben says - that people would die, but society as a whole would preserve its social dignity. It would rather be that society would fall into a despicable barbarity. You only have to look at the USA: how many people there are currently buying firearms? 20 million or so. There would be more brutality and unrest. We would fall into a kind of barbaric, medieval state if we followed Agamben and ignored the virus. You know who argues like Agamben?

Who?

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Trump. You know what he said? It was beautiful, in a cynical sense. He said: Trump got Covid from the doctors and gave it back to the people.

Agamben also criticises the wearing of masks. He says, "The tyrant is faceless."

He refers to the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who recognises the infinity of the self in the face. By obscuring the face, this would now be impossible. Because one does not see the abyss opposite, the absolute. I think that is untrue. I speak now as a Freudian. In psychoanalysis, the face is completely irrelevant. The face-to-face conversation is always only the preliminary stage in analysis. In psychoanalysis, there must be no eye contact. Freud made it clear that this is the only way to illuminate the real abyss of the "I". I would say: okay, there are masks. But the ultimate mask is the face itself. Our face lies. The eyes may tell the truth. But not the face. You can still see the eyes, despite the mask.

Are you not at all afraid of state control?

The state controls one way or another. China openly controls. The USA controls in the same way, only differently. The Americans live only in the illusion of being free. And what happens now? People are so afraid of the corona app. They say, "The state controls me." I always say: Are you kidding me? All the big states have been doing it for 10 or 20 years. China does it, Israel too, of course. An Israeli secret service agent told me that all conversations in Israel are recorded and evaluated. Julian Assange confirmed it: Facebook, Google, all these companies have worked with the American security forces. In view of this surveillance apparatus, it is absurd that people are now protesting against a comparatively harmless corona app.

You can't understand the opponents of the measures at all?

There is one good thing: everyday life is currently making us philosophers, albeit stupid philosophers. I think it's great that there are people, perfectly normal average people, who now protest against wearing masks and compare masks with muzzles and themselves with dogs. After all, they are thinking - perhaps for the first time in their lives - about dignity and humanity. One can only think that is great. The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in us. Many doctors and nurses risk their lives saving the lives of others. I think these are examples of pure beauty. Doctors risk their lives without asking for applause. To quote Kant, "You can, for you shall." They just do it. That is why I say that our dignity is not threatened by the protective measures and masks. On the contrary: these measures are proof of our humanity.

Are you optimistic?

About the future?

Yes, in your book you hope for a "disaster communism" which would be the antidote to disaster capitalism. You write: the state should not only take a much more active role and organise the production of essential items such as masks, test kits and respirators, confiscate hotels and other resorts, ensure the living conditions of those who have recently become unemployed, and so on. It should do all this by abandoning the mechanisms of the market.

It will either get much worse or much better. That is entirely up to us. Covid-19 is not going to just disappear. We will have to act in a new way, despite vaccinations. But my biggest concern is something else. Have you noticed the temperature in Siberia? In July, temperatures of over 35 degrees were measured there. We should really be afraid of that.

The interview was conducted by Tomasz Kurianowicz.