Love your neighbour: As long as he is far away

The Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slovoj Zizek on the war in the Balkans, NATO and neighbourly love

Every night, bombers from Aviano fly over Ljubliana. For a few minutes, one hears the thundering of the engines. Nobody worries about it. Then it is calm again. "That is far away, in the Balkans", people say.

The Balkans is good. For us. It permits a "displaced racism". The people are white, one ranks the areas as part of Europe. Thus, says Slavoj Zizek, philosopher and psychoanalyst from Ljubliana, "racist clichés, which one would no longer dare to apply to African or Asiatic countries, can be transferred to the Balkans without any problem" - one remains politically correct. In Slovenia, for Zizek, "the concept 'Balkans' is used with the same weight as in Sweden or Germany." The arrogance in relation to the Kosovo war is in fact even larger. "We are in Central Europe", one says. The bombers in the night", says Zizek, "play our kleine Nachtmusik."

Zizek, who was born in 1949 in Ljubliana, studied philosophy there (especially Hegel, Kant) and embarked on a study of psychoanalysis in Paris at the beginning of the eighties. He is considered an intellectual provocateur. Nevertheless, he does not see himself as modish, considering himself a "fool" rather than a "knave". The categories, which come from Jacques Lacan, sound rather strange, but are nevertheless practical. The "fool" is a nincompoop, who over the years has become the left-wing intellectual. The "fool" believes in the Good; he believes that through analysis, clarification, criticism, subversion, things can be changed in at least a limited way. Through lumbering general insults of the "existing order" he damages himself greatly. The "knave", however, is the right-intellectual, smart; a conformist, who accepts the existence of the existing order as sufficient argument for its existence. He is no better than the fool. Like that of the unimaginative left-wing intellectual, his existence is completely ineffective.

As almost a "fool" Zizek looks for a way out. In the eighties he was part of the alternative political movement of Slovenia, and in 1990 a candidate for presidency. "Together with my friends I support the 'Liberal Democratic Party', which is more conservative than I am myself. But it is the only center strength, and we want to prevent that here, as in the other countries of ex-Yugoslavia, there is only the one dangerous choice: old-style communism or nationalism."

Zizek holds in particularly low esteem two types of participants in conflict: "those who do nothing, if something occurs, and afterwards explain everything. Here we have a beautiful tradition of people, those in Slovenia who re-explain the Balkans to the West after each war." More dangerous, however, are those who play with nationalist clichés, without analyzing them. "Emir Kusturica," says Zizek, to name an example, "is a good film producer, but Underground offered a post-modern ironic support to nationalism." Also Milosevic, according to Zizek, is no savage. "His nationalism is reserved, an instrument of power."

Although Zizek, like the present Slovenian government, is in favour of the country joining NATO ("because we also want to bind ourselves to Europe, and, we hope, want to be protected against aggression"), he criticizes the war against Serbia: "I see still no strategy. One began, and because Milosevic did not stop, one must continue. This is how the concept still appears."

Even worse, however, the consequence of the war is "totally the same," no matter what the outcome: "the dream of a conviction-strong, liberal, democratic world order", says Zizek, "seems to me finally destroyed by this NATO deployment. Although NATO naturally claims to defend exactly this dream. But their violence created so much new hate in the region that I do not see any hope for a peaceful future."

Zizek's newest book, which appeared this spring (Love your neighbour? No, thanks!: Volk & Welt), has proved to be up-to-date. It concerns itself also with the question to what extent "human rights" become prominent and subjugate the meaning of other rules, like the Ten Commandments. "Human rights," Zizek writes provocatively, "means in the long run the right to disobey the Commandments." The requirement "thou shalt not kill", for example. This is NATO's interpretation today.

It is crucial that international law does not condone, naturally, the violation of the Commandments "explicitly"; but "human rights" opened, claims Zizek, an unpleasantly speculative "grey area". Nato's sudden high estimation of human rights might become even more problematic if, for instance, minorities were to be defended not only on the Balkans, but everywhere in the world.

Loves your neighbour? "The neighbour", says Zizek, "is of interest today if he is a far-away victim. If the neighbour comes into one's own country, one avoids contact as much as possible. One seems incapable of bearing 'the Other'. I believe that at the present time so much is donated in order to ensure that the people remain as far away as possible."

All Zizek's texts contain contradictions, since Zizek considers harmony unproductive. Everyday life observations, films, the media play a large role, "definitiveness" a rather small one. If the function of philosophers is to provoke thought, Zizek does not perform his function badly.