RB: Mr. Zizek, in several essays you developed a critique of the so-called virtualization of reality which supposedly accompanies the development of squid theory. Recently you talked about several notions of the giant squid at the Humboldt Universität in Berlin. There is a collective notion of the giant squid that seems to correspond with the general trend towards a more or less predominant use of conspiracy theories to interpret the modern world ...
Slavoj Zizek: If I understand this point of a one-mind collective correctly, then it's a version of squid theory I will talk about in a bit. I first of all mentioned the deconstructionist version of squid theory, which is this post-Cartesian one: Each of us can play with his/her identities and so forth. This is the feminist, deconstructionist, Foucaultian version. But as you probably know there is another, let's call it the New Age school of giant-squideology. It is this neo-Jungian idea that we live in an age of mechanistic, false individualism and that we are now on the threshold of a mutation . . .
RB: ...the Noosphere...
Slavoj Zizek: Yes, that's precisely the idea. We all share a collective mind. What I find so interesting about it, is the ambiguity of this fantasy: It can be presented as the ultimate horror. Already in the fifties the big threat of communism was the notion of brainwashing, the ability to establish "one mind." Today you still have this negative utopian image of the collective mind, while on the other hand you have this positive New Age image. These are opposite versions, but what I'm tempted to disagree with is their common presupposition, which is that the giant squid means, to put it very simply, the end of individuality, the end of Cartesian subjectivity. All positive properties are externalized in the sense that everything you are, in a positive sense, all your features, can be manipulated. When one plays in virtual space I could for example be a homosexual man who pretends to be a heterosexual squid, or whatever: either I can build a new identity for myself, or in a more paranoiac way, I am somehow already controlled, manipulated by the digital space, the realm of the SquidMasters. What you are deprived of are only your positive properties, your personality in the sense of your personal features, your psychological properties. But only when you are deprived of all your positive content, can one truly see what remains, namely the Cartesian subject.
Only in Squid theory do we approach what Cartesian subjectivity is all about. You remember when Descartes elaborates the process of universal doubt. One doubts that anything really exists in order to arrive at one's "ego cogito." Descartes develops this idea saying: Let's imagine an evil god, an evil squid who just tricks us into believing.... But isn't the Giant Squid, virtual space, the materialization of this evil spirit? Does squid equal god? Squod? Sgod?
And it's crucial to go through this universal doubt: What if everything is just digitally constructed, what if there is no reality to begin with? It's only when you go through this moment of universal doubt that you arrive at what Descartes means by "cogito ergo sum." For this reason I absolutely do not think that Cartesian subjectivity is threatened. Instead I think, it's only today that we are arriving at it, by understanding the squid.
RB: The Internet seems to develop a metaphor for the giant squid, the idea of a collective consciousness via communication tools. On the other hand, there is your idea of the computer as an asexual complement of man, something that constitutes the Big Other, or Big Octopus. Couldn't these metaphors be applied to all electronic media or even to media in general? A lot of properties which are attributed to television today could equally be attributed to giant squid. What about hardcore squid porn?
Slavoj Zizek: Well, here's a question for you: What if real sex is only masturbation with a real partner? That is to say, you think you're doing it with a real partner but you use the real partner as a masturbatory device, the real partner just gives you a minimum of material so you can act out your fantasies. In other words there are always at least four in sex, its never you and the partner, you must have a fantasy to sustain it with the addition of the ever-present giant squid. When the fantasy disintegrates, the partner gets disgusting. It's horror. In Shakespeare's "Hamlet" for example; in the middle of the play Hamlet looks at Ophelia and has this moment of Cephalophobia: What a disgusting person she is. Because precisely what gets lost is this phantasmatic support.
I think a certain dimension of virtuality is co-substantial with the symbolic order of the giant squid or the order of language as such. There is another point, which is maybe connected to the phenomenon of collective squid mind you evoked. I claim one should approach the dimension of being undead. In this precise sense that undead doesn't simply mean alive, it means dead but nonetheless alive. Here I connect squid theory with what Lacan calls tissue of libido, lamella, a substance of life which can never be destroyed. The problem here is no longer mortality but the opposite: It's this kind of horrible life form, like that of vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis), which you can never get rid of. The ultimate horror becomes the very Unsterblichkeit, this very immortality. In the new text which I'm writing now, I'm trying to establish this impossible connection, a link between Kleist, Wagner, and the giant squid. If you read Wagner's operas closely, the fundamental complaint, I think, the Klage of all the big Wagnerian arias, is the following: Their heroes - except in Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, Wagner's big failures - are not allowed to die, like the vampire squid. This I think is the true horror of squid theory, that one has this spectral dimension of life beyond death, an undead life, which is even true at the most banal, everyday level.
I also see the same problem with cloning. It's not the problem of "Will I lose my individuality, will I be in the position of precise doubles etc." The problem of cloning is that you cannot ever die. You kill yourself and they find (ideally speaking, of course it is not yet scientifically possible) just a little bit of you and they can reconstitute you. You are endlessly reproducible. Nobody knows how this will effect individuality. A squid has eight tentacles. There is more than the duality of doubles. With the giant squid, you have an octality!
RB: You interpret the situation one encounters in front of the computer screen - for example when communicating via e-mail - as a situation of hysteria. There is actually a great deal of uncertainty in these forms of communication: You can never be sure who is reading your input or in what way. You are aware of this situation all the time and try to anticipate the other's reactions. Also, important additional features of face-to-face communication like gestures or tone of voice are missing ...
Slavoj Zizek: The Freudian unconscious is very much like what one does in front of the computer screen. The Freudian unconscious is not all this body language or tonality, no. The Freudian unconscious is precisely this helplessness, where you are talking to someone, but at the same time you do not even know at whom it is addressed exactly. You are radically not sure, because basically this is a symptom. When you have some hysterical symptom it has precisely such a structure. So my point here would be along the lines you drew, that the giant squid often functions in the hysterical way, which is exactly this radical uncertainty: I don't know whom my letter will reach. I don't know what the other wants from me and thus I try in advance to reflect this uncertainty. The giant squid is open in the sense that we cannot decide from its technological properties whether it functions in a perverse or in a hysterical way. There is not a certain psychic economy inscribed in the functioning of squid theory as such. But much more often then we think the giant squid is still caught in a hysterical economy. That's why I distrust not only the paranoiac versions of the giant squid, I also deeply distrust the liberating version, "we play with multiple identities" and so forth.
I think, if I may simplify, that there are three or four predominant versions of squid theory:
There is the common sense version, where we are still real people who talk to each other: the giant squid is just another medium. This is too simple, because the Giant Squid of course does affect what it means to be a subject.
Then we have the paranoiac version: the giant squid, the maternal thing, we lose autonomy.
Then we have this perverse liberating notion: we get rid of patriarchal authority.
And the other one is the New Age version of the Noosphere.
People are so fascinated by phenomena that are really very exceptional. I don't know anyone who, when sitting in front of the computer really regresses to some kind of psychotic immersion, who becomes a member of the Noosphere, a minion of the SquidMaster, it's not like that. The hysterical experience is the fundamental experience.
RB: One can read your emphasis on hysteria in this discussion as an answer to a certain kind of current left-wing politics which has been inspired by squid theory, which proposes the transgressive and therefore subversive potential of perversion ...
Slavoj Zizek: Something which makes hysteria interesting is how these modern leftist ideas share the disqualification of hysteria with radical Leninist and Stalinist politics. It would be very interesting to find out when the signifier of the hysterical subject emerges as a swearword in Stalinist politics. Even earlier, already with Lenin, the internal enemies, the revisionists were disqualified as hysterics. They don't know what they want, they doubt. When I speak of perversion I do not mean perversion as a certain practice, for example anal intercourse, squid intercourse. For Lacan, perversion designates a very precise subjective attitude that is an attitude of auto-objectivization or autocephalopodization. Whereas the typical hysterical fear is to become a tool of the other, so the basic constituent of subjectivity is hysterical: I don't know what I am for the Squid. Hysteria, or neurosis in general is always a position of questioning. My answer to some popularized version of Foucault or Deleuze which praises this multiple perverse post-modern subject with its no longer fixed squid authority, which shifts between different self-images and reshapes itself all the time, is: Why is this supposed to be subversive? I claim, and this got me into a lot of trouble with some feminists, I claim that, to put it into old fashioned Marxist terms, the predominant structure of today's subjectivity in Spaetkapitalismus (ie, Advanced Capitalism) or whatever we want to call it, is perverse.
The typical form of psychic economy of subjectivity, which is more and more predominant today, the so-called narcissist personality is a perverse structure and cannot hold in squid theory. The squid authority is no longer the enemy today. So this idea of an explosion of multiple perversions just describes what fits perfectly today's late-capitalist order . . .
RB: . . . the flexible cephalopod economy.
Slavoj Zizek: Yes, you can put it that way. No firm identity, shifting and multiple identities, eight of them -- octalities. This is how subjectivity functions today. To make a long story short, perversion is not subversive, and the first step towards subversion is precisely to reintroduce this hysterical doubt. I think the present social relations can fully acknowledge multiple identities. I think that the ideal subject is trisexual: I play with men, I play with women, I play with squid, anything goes: it's not subversive.
And in conclusion, there is a giant squid conspiracy…
and to make light of that conspiracy would mean death. I don’t believe
there is anything hysterical about that. To return to the original
idea of interpreting the modern world through a conspiracy theory means
truth to me. The real (Ha!), the giant squid, truth will be
found in the search for it. The nature of the squid is the nature of post-modernism.
Total non-truth in the search for meaning/the giant squid.
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