How Do Panic and ‘Carpe Diem’ Coexist?
Slavoj Žižek Talks to Paul Holdengräber on The Quarantine Tapes
Hosted by Paul Holdengräber, The Quarantine Tapes chronicles shifting paradigms in the age of social distancing. Each day, Paul calls a guest for a brief discussion about how they are experiencing the global pandemic.
On Episode 124 of The Quarantine Tapes, Paul Holdengräber is joined by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, author of Pandemic!. Slavoj is in Slovenia, and they discuss his experience of the pandemic there before diving into Slavoj’s analysis of this political and social moment. Slavoj and Paul talk about the response to the pandemic and what it will take to get out of it, and Slavoj offers his thoughts on technology and language and what this crisis is revealing about long-standing restrictions to our privacy and freedom. He ends the episode with a story of his visit to Julian Assange prior to the pandemic and a reminder of what is at stake in that ongoing trial.
From the episode:
Paul Holdengräber: How can you be in a panic and not worried? I know that your most recent book, which came out maybe two months ago, Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World—how can you explain being in a panic and not taking that seriously?
Slavoj Žižek: It’s easy. I will repeat an old joke of mine that I often use, but it fits here perfectly. It’s an old European joke from World War I. In 1917, when things began to get worse for the Central Axis, they sent from Berlin, German headquarters, to Vienna, Austrian headquarters, a telegram: “With us, the situation on the battlefield is serious, but not catastrophic.” The answer from Vienna was “With us, the situation is catastrophic, but not serious.”
This is the everyday attitude. Literally, I mean it. They rationally accept that there is a catastrophe, but somehow they don’t take it seriously. Because, first, you don’t see anything. This virus is invisible. So you go out, you see people, you see the sun, everything is green, and you ask yourself, what if all of this is just a bluff?
The second thing, this taking it easy has another dimension. When you speak with people a little bit longer, I noticed this, the true message you get is, “We all know that it will be a catastrophe later in the winter, so let’s enjoy it as long as we can.” It’s a little bit of this carpe diem, enjoy the day, but as long as you can.
On the other hand, we still get it. It’s not just the United States. Also in Europe, in my own country, in Slovenia, many COVID deniers, they simply think—if they are leftist, or even some kind of liberal right-wingers—that this is a big plot of the state to establish full control over us, or that it’s a plot of big pharmaceutical companies, or whatever you want, and so on and so on. You are not the only ones—by you, I mean United States—with your QAnon. We have our own QAnon, or similar things.
Paul Holdengräber: And yet we will talk about the ways in which maybe the pandemic has brought into focus ways in which we are controlled. But before I get to that, you’ve written that to make it out of this pandemic, we would have to experience a true philosophical revolution. What does that really mean?
Slavoj Žižek: I will try to be as precise as possible. When somebody tells you, my philosophy is to take things like this, or my basic view of life is this, and so on and so on—this is everyday self-understanding. I claim that the only way to properly understand the impact of the pandemic is that it affects us also at this level of our basic self-understanding.
So, I don’t just laugh at the people who are against, for example, wearing masks. They claim it’s simply against my understanding of what does it mean to be a free human being. As already Heidegger—not everybody’s favorite guy today, but nonetheless a great philosopher—said that the origin of philosophy is the hermeneutics, the understanding, of our daily lives. When you talk with other people, when you say, but you are not free, what do you mean by freedom? Is this freedom of choice? When you say, but this is real, what do you mean by reality?
I think that’s why the pandemic also has a tremendous psychic impact. People don’t talk enough about that one. They talk about ecology, economic crisis, the anti-racism protests. But I think maybe even the greatest danger is that of our basic self-understanding. In some sense, we will have to renounce some of the basic components, features, of what, for us, it means to be a free, dignified human being.
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Slavoj Žižek, born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1949, studied philosophy in Ljubljana and psychoanalysis in Paris. He is now Senior Researcher at the Department of Philosophy, University of Ljubljana, and international director at the School of Law, Birkbeck College, University of London. He held courses at many US universities (Princeton, Columbia, NYU). His main fields of work are the legacy of German Idealism, philosophical reading of psychoanalysis, critique of ideology. The central axis of his work is the attempt to read Hegel through the conceptual apparatus developed by Jacques Lacan. His latest publications: Pandemic! (O/R Books 2020), Hegel in As Wired Brain (Bloomsbury 2020), A Left That Dares to Speak Its Name (Polity Press 2020).