Indivisible Reminders

Slavoj Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder (London: Verso, 1996).
Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute (London: Verso, 2000).

Slavoj Žižek’s book The Indivisible Remainder opens with a statement of national belonging: “As a Slovene”. This embrace of Slovene national identity seems to be at odds with the writings of the philosopher with the reputation of being one of the “hottest” post-structuralist thinkers in the West. It is especially unsettling to read this simple declaration of self-possession and “presencing” of what is, without a doubt, a form of separatist “postmodern nationalism” from a philosopher whose work had until recently been part of a broader political space, that of former Yugoslavia.

According to the Croatian weekly Start, Žižek’s Slovenism was first articulated when the Yugoslav People’s Army tried to stop the secession of its northwestern republic and he responded with the following exclamation: “Today I have become a Slovene.” Žižek constructs this embrace of his particular brand of ethnic belonging as the direct result of a half-hearted attempt of socialist Yugoslavia to keep Slovenia part of the imploding state. Slovenism is offered here as an escape from the Balkans, towards the promise of Mitteleuropa and perhaps, in the distant and ever-elusive future, of Western Europe or Europe proper. In his latest book The Fragile Absolute, which invites us to fight for Žižek’s version of the “Christian legacy”, this proud son of Slovenia continues his Alpine tune while offering the nodding Western audiences his own version of “Being Samuel Huntington”. Žižek’s imaginary geography of Europe begins with Kosovo and Bosnia, where the vampiric specter of „the serbs” is imbued by the same desire as the author himself posed to save the “Christian civilization against the Europe’s Other” (Fragile Absolute, 3) (Following in the footsteps of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s book Heideger and ‘the jews’ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), I am using the common noun and quotation marks to qualify the collective identity of the largest Balkan nation in order to point to the fact that the nation in this particular case is no longer an essential, monumental and historically stable category. The implosion of Yugoslavia has deprived the Serbs of the common state and caused their division into a series of subcategories associated with the new Balkan states they were forced to live in, i.e. Croatian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. Since the effort of the Serbian leaders to create a nation-state has degenerated into the “ethnic cleansing” of other ethnic groups, “the serbs” have been treated by the American-led West as a nation of outlaws. The ethnic cleansing of “the serbs” themselves from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in Operation Storm was largely ignored by the international community. Both the self-glorification of the nation by some of the Serbian intellectuals and politicians and the “orientalization” of the entire Serbian population by the West have created this phantasmatic collective construct which I call “the serbs”. Since all the other nations of the former Yugoslavia (Croats, Slovenes, Bosniaks, Macedonians) have been recognized as such by the international community, I will use their proper name in the rest of this article, except when referring to a comparable phantasmatic collectivity used to manipulate the identity of those ethnic groups. “The serbs” therefore emerge as a figure and a reflection of a new form of racism which demands distance and separation between the protagonists of different civilizations within the same symbolic territory of Europe.). This paradoxical identification is supplemented by the “we” that this hyperproductive crusader of global theory uses to characterize Slovenes: “We are the last bulwark of the peaceful Mitteleuropa “.

Žižek’s preservation of the Christian legacy seems to reanimate “the Balkan ghosts” of past centuries which he promises to give up in his subtitle: “Giving up the Balkan Ghosts.” While accusing the ex-Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica of “reflective racism” for calling the Slovenes a nation of “Viennese stable boys”, Žižek assumes the defensive position typical of a classical nationalist: “Slovenia is most exposed to this displaced racism [supposedly of the West] since it is closest to Western Europe”. Apart from the absurdity of this statement after Western misreadings of the Balkans and the horrors of NATO’s intervention and non-interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia, Žižek’s slight mistranslation of Kusturica’s words is also symptomatic of the cultural rigidity and incompetence which characterizes Žižek’s latest books. “Viennnese stable boys” is a much more playful characterization of the Slovene desire to find their proper place within the symbolic realm of the West than “Austrian grooms,” which actually activates a certain post-colonial layer within the Slovene identity and provides for a possibility of resistance to the uncritical glorification of Europe and its Christian legacy.

In the late nineteen eighties, the Slovene hunger for Europe was expressed by the slogan “Europa zdaj!” (Europe now!), as if Yugoslavia were not already a geographical part of Europe. However, a special brand of symbolic geography was at work in this strategy of separating the Slovenes and later the Croats as members of a different civilizational tradition, from the “east” and the “south”, which were associated with yet another label in the emergent racist discourse of the former Yugoslavia, the Balkans. The Slovene escape from Yugoslavia was indeed a response to the rise of “the serbs” under the guidance of Slobodan Milosevic, who were marked as belonging to an inferior culture. Due to their double orientalization, the serbs were viewed both as post-colonial subjects of the Ottoman Empire and as bearers of the Orthodox Christian cultural heritage with its ties to Byzantium.

“The serbs” were a threat to the Slovene “European identity” because they had the power of numbers and weapons, which could coerce the Slovenes to remain part of the abject cultural space of “the Balkans.” The concrete political response to this threat was the Slovene adoption of a national flag which was identical to the flag of the European Union. Belonging to Europe and the West was defined by a Roman Catholic cultural heritage, a separate Slovene language, and nationalism based on civil society.

The racism of the Slovene position was not immediately perceivable to the proverbial “Western observer”, since whiteness, technological superiority, and universal humanism have all been incorporated into the specter of Europe itself, as the symbolic foundation of the West. The German push for the political recognition of Slovenia and Croatia by the European Union was a symptom of this civilizational recognition of the northwestern Yugoslav republics as belonging to Europe, while the rest was forced back south and east into the realm of political immaturity, cultural inferiority and social abjection.

One of the most interesting cultural manifestations of Slovene racism was the rise of the rock group Laibach in the early part of the nineteen eighties through the performance of a totalitarian imagery within the context of the emergent punk and new wave scene of former Yugoslavia. Performing in dark Nazi-like uniforms, with stern expressions on their faces and mechanical bodily movements, the members of the group evoked an uneasy and nervous laughter from their audiences. Since Laibach is the German name for the capital of Slovenia, the first reactions of the official communist establishment were usually couched in terms of denunciation of the use of German instead of its Slovene name, Ljubljana. The rock group was part of a hierarchically organized artistic movement that called itself Neue Slowenische Kunst and included theatrical, dance and visual art components. The names of the individual artists were very intentionally suppressed, so that the collective could be placed in the absolute foreground of this New Slovene Art movement.

Although most of their performances were received by contemporary culture critics as a parody of the totalitarian legacy of both the left and the right, Laibach embodied the desire for order, cleanliness, health and beauty inherent in the tacit racism of the newly emergent Euro-American culture which regarded the “West” as the ultimate achievement of world civilization. Laibach’s parody of the socialist state through a post-punk performance of over-identification with its inherent totalitarian logic was an early manifestation of the Slovene desire to distance themselves from the object of their parody, to flee the union with those other peoples that did not belong to the same civilizational tradition. The formation of the artistic collective around Laibach, which significantly bears a German and not a Slovene name, Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), was one of the first symptoms of the Yugoslav cultural dissolution that began in the nineteen eighties. Here is how the program of this group was formulated to the Japanese magazine “Takarajima”:

“NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) is an organized cultural and political movement and school established in 1984, […] as an organization active in the zone between ideology and art. NSK unites the total experience of Slovene art and politics. Our cultural and political groundwork is the Slovene nation and its history […].” (New Collectivism, ed., Neue Slowenische Kunst, tr. Mario Golobi (Los Angeles: AMOK Books, 1991), 53.)

The cynical blending of politics and art in the Yugoslav context, which had overcome its own version of socialist realism by the early nineteen fifties, achieves a double-edged effect. On the one hand, it exposes the trappings of Tito’s soft totalitarianism and its effect on art and culture, not through critical distancing, but by parodic identification with its theoretical assumptions. On the other hand, Slovene allegiance to, and endorsement of, Germanic Mitteleuropa are present as tacit acknowledgments of the white European supremacist discourse.

Žižek’s placement of Laibach’s cultural mission is quite different. Coming from the same Slovene culture, he presents his compatriots as psychoanalysts who manipulate transference by performing the underside of the obscene superego of the socialist state: “By means of the elusive character of their desire, of the undecidability as to ‘where they actually stand’, Laibach compels us to take up our position and decide upon our desire” (Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality (London: Verso, 1994), 72.). On the contrary, Laibach’s performances of totalitarian imagery were far from undecidable and elusive for those who stood on the Eastern side of the symbolic boundary that began to divide Yugoslavia after Tito’s death in 1980. Their parodic performance clearly articulated the Slovene supremacy within the disintegrating socialist state, provoking both laughter and pity. The confusion arose in the field of reception, since many of the intellectuals could not directly confront their performance, exactly because it was so blatantly racist. And if they had a hard time deciding upon their desire, it was not so hard for the political elites in the eastern part of Yugoslavia to decide upon their own version of ethnic suprematism, cultural superiority, and the military means for its achievement.

Although the Laibach phenomenon played a tiny role in the context of the former Yugoslavia at that moment, it became one of the symptoms of the emergent ethnicity-based culture that was to dominate that country in the eighties and lead to the civil war in the early nineties. Since the very name of Slovenes proclaims their Slavic origin, the new nationalist leadership chose a new strategy which replaces the “genetic” identity with “culture,” the latter assuming the central place in this new form of racism. Laibach’s intentional or unintentional participation in this project was manifested in their choice of German language and names in order to claim allegiance with Mitteleuropa, thus playing into the Germanic dream of a geopolitical domination of the ‘Other’ Europe. According to this reading of the Balkans, Slovenes and Croats belong to the West because of a culture rooted in Roman Catholicism and their post-colonial status as a former Habsburg territory, while the rest of the Yugoslavs are culturally inferior due to their domination by the Ottoman Empire and a culture rooted in either Christian Orthodoxy or Islam. Southern Slavic identity is consequently subdivided according to these new criteria of civilizational belonging.

This is how Petar Tancig, the Slovene Minister of Science and Technology at the time of the outbreak of the Yugoslav war in 1991, expressed this new form of racism based on cultural differences:

“The basic reason for all the past/present mess is the incompatibility of two main frames of reference/civilization, unnaturally and forcibly joined in Yugoslavia. On one side you have a typically violent and crooked oriental-byzantine [sic!] heritage, best exemplified by Serbia and Montenegro. . . On the other side (Slovenia, Croatia) there is a more humble and diligent western- catholic tradition . . . Trying to keep Yugoslavia afloat . . . is also very bad geostrategic thinking, as independent (and westernized) Slovenia (and Croatia) could and would act as a “cordon sanitaire” against the eastern tide of chaos.” (Robert Hayden and Milica Baki-Hayden, “Orientalist Variations on ‘The Balkans'”, Slavic Review 13.1 (1992), 12.)

Is it surprising, then, that Slavoj Žižek begins The Indivisible Remainder with a statement of national belonging? Especially since that belonging is later accompanied by the vision of Freud’s discovery of his most vivid and influential metaphor for the unconscious after wandering through the Ikocjan caves in Slovenia. For if the father of psychoanalysis saw in the Slovene landscape the concealed foundation of the entire Western European civilization, is it then so strange that one of Slovenia’s proudest sons has taken it upon himself to continue the “return to Freud”, initiated by Jacques Lacan? Žižek’s vision of Freud in the native landscape serves to authenticate and essentialize the position of the Slovene philosopher in psychoanalytic theory by playing the double role of a tourist guide for proper Europeans and of a civilized, “westernized” Slav.

Žižek, as a figure and symptom of the Yugoslav implosion, is certainly less apparent to the “Western observer” than the Bosnian bloodshed and the role of “the serbs” as designated aggressors. The look at Žižek’s “narcissism of minor differences” is unheimlich (uncanny) exactly because it brings to the fore questions that the West is not willing to confront in regards to the destruction of Yugoslavia (The father of psychoanalysis used his famous formulation of nationalism as a collective expression of narcissism in Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, tr. James Strachey, (New York: Norton, 1962), 61.). It is especially in regard to “the serbs” that the Euro-American West has refused to see its own enlarged and distorted image in the atrocities committed in the name of a territorialized collective identity which calls itself “the nation.” If aggression by “the serbs” was the cause of Žižek’s transformation into a Slovene, isn’t that process of becoming part of a larger entity revealing of all identifications, individual or collective? And inversely, aren’t “the serbs,” then, especially in the incarnation constructed and disseminated by the Western media, manifesting the behavior that forms the very core of Western identity, but which Europe no longer wants to consider its own?

Toma Longinovich teaches at the University of Wisconsin and has recently joined the ARTMargins, editorial board. In the following essay he focuses on the construction and destruction of Yugoslav national identity, Slovenian nationalism, the foundations of psychoanalysis, and Western transference.

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