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"Against Happiness"
Q&A with Slavoj Zizek,
August 2002

[following Zizek’s reading of "Happiness After September Eleventh", from Welcome to the Desert of the Real ]∗


∗From Welcome to the Desert of the Real, p.59: "In a strict Lacanian sense of the term, we should thus posit that "happiness" relies on the subject’s inability or unreadiness fully to confront the consequences of its desire: the price of happiness is that the subject remains stuck in the inconsistency of its desire. In our daily lives, we (pretend to) desire things which we do not really desire, so that ultimately, the worst thing that can happen is for us to get what we "officially" desire. Happiness is thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we do not really want."

Zizek: ….After September eleventh, there was among critical academia a kind of a silent prohibition, a kind of resistance to simply identifying with patriotism. The result after September eleventh was a kind of innocentization of American patriotism. Now that we’ve suffered this we can be innocently, fully, American patriots again. That’s the path to happiness.

Schirmacher: But you have said yourself, you should kill people who try to kill you, it’s very simple.

Audience: Well, you know, "The Sound of Music"; was on the Vatican top fifty list of films, which says something about what it means for Catholicism…

Zizek: I was rather nicely surprised by that list. It wasn’t as bad as one expected. For example, among the Christian films, Pasolini’s "Matthew" was in, and the most disgusting one, Satorelli’s "Jesus of Nazareth"; was not, so Satorelli wrote an open letter claiming the Vatican was already occupied by communist agents and so on. "The Sound of Music" is a much trickier film than one might expect. If you look at it closely, ok, it’s officially Austrian resistance to Hitler and the Nazis, but if you look really closely, it really that the Nazis are presented as an abstract cosmopolitan occupying power, and the Austrians are the good small fascists, so the implicit message is almost the opposite of the explicit message. It’s much more reactionary film than it might first appear. There’s an element of justice in a small mistake in the film, it’s supposed to take place in 1938, when they go into Salzburg, they buy some oranges, and if you put the image on freeze the oranges say "made in Israel". So that’s a nice kind of truth of the film.

Audience: I was hired to work on a play that was about two parents raising a child with cystic fibrosis, it was a play designed to be presented people in hospitals, parents to learn how to deal with these things… the crux of the play, repeated over and over again was "How we are ever going to deal with this day to day, how is our child ever going to be happy?" It was shocking to me, certainly happiness is the issue, but there is so much more at stake than just happiness. About a month afterwards I was really noticing and shocked by the constant drive to find happiness as an end all to satisfy everything. Happiness is a fullness, but it’s also an emptiness, to a certain degree.

Zizek: But don’t you think that especially in these cases of terminal illness that the only consequent answer is ignorance, which is why I’m against happiness. Another story that I like, you know Huntington’s disease, cases where you really have radical genetic determinism. There it’s clear…not to be sadistic, but you can analyze my blood, and afterwards you can tell me "you will be healthy for three years, after that you will develop the first symptoms, half a year later you will be dead." You can even determine in advance not only that I will die but when. The catch is that the doctor who invented this test is afraid to apply it to himself. It’s interesting that the only people who have Huntington’s disease and accept the test are those who have children and want to know if they can provide financially for them. Then I ask myself a simple question: From the opportunistic standpoint of happiness, what would I have done? And I found only one solution. Suppose you are a doctor and a very good friend of mine. Analyze me, but don’t tell me anything, if you learn that three months from now the illness will start, a month before, kill me in my sleep, without me knowing. That would be the closest you can come to happiness, but it doesn’t work, because every time I saw you I would know, so let’s go to the end, an anonymous state agency doing this to all of us without us even knowing it, this is the solution of happiness.

Audience: I wonder if you could provide another nation that had as one of its premises the pursuit of happiness, and what has become of that nation.

Zizek: But isn’t it that in modernity it is silently admitted that the state’s duty, even more than to guarantee freedom, is to provide happiness? It started even with Charles the First, who issued the famous statement, "My God, I will make the English people happy, even if I have to force them to with the army, and so on." It began there, in a way. One doesn’t have to look for it. Yes, in the U.S., it’s more specific, but that’s why you can find all the paradoxes of happiness in an even more direct way. For example, what happens to subjectivity? I read an excellent book, and I love it, it’s "How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found." It’s quite a serious book. The idea is, let’s say you are tired of your life and you want to disappear and create a new identity. It gives you very precise instructions how you do it. This guy discovered that where the birth registers are kept is not the same place as where the death registers are. You notice a person approximately of your age has died. Then you write and you ask for a new birth certificate, you send some money and without documents you get a social security number, you can get a credit card, and so on.

Schirmacher: This information is out of date, it was true for many years, but now you have to provide identity beforehand…

Zizek: Oh really? Well then that’s American terrorism. My point is that this book series is wonderful, it was published by a publishing house which specializes in books which are kind of the obscene truth of these books like "How to make your life happy", etc. The other titles are "How to take revenge on your enemies", "How to beat someone with bad rumors" and so on. I love those books precisely because again they deal with real-life situations, the only problem is that you never encounter them. In bestseller advice books it’s things like "What you do when an alligator bites your leg" the idea is that you tap him on the nose because it automatically…"or what to do when a hungry lion attacks you" it’s simply, unfortunately, you must have a jacket, you open it, lions don’t think in depth terms, so they think you are much bigger and turn around. What I mean is that it’s very mysterious, the success of these books, I think there’s a deep, almost progressive agenda in it, namely, let me ask you a question: which was the only American movie to have a spectacle of working-class solidarity? It was that otherwise very boring movie "The Perfect Storm". It tells us a lot about today’s situation that we need an extreme catastrophe in order to be able to imagine at all a kind of elementary working-class solidarity.

Schirmacher: But I happen to know that no other constitution in the world has such an explicit message about happiness…

Audience: The nation of Bhutan has for the past five years been researching something they’re going to call "gross national happiness."

Zizek: To be cynical, Bhutan is the country where they’re selling thousands of five year-old girls to prostitution houses in Bangladesh, yes, no wonder.

Audience: The very question of happiness makes everybody unhappy. When you see someone, stop and ask "Are you happy?" I conducted that experiment for about a year. It was amazing the different kind of answers I got, the first time I thought I hit the jackpot. The first one was a woman I know, a colleague of mine, she just fell against the wall, she was horrified, her face just crumbled.

Zizek: That’s interesting, because that’s not my experience. I made a similar experiments, but I think it’s a question of cultural contexts, because I noticed, I’m idiot at some level, by idiot I mean psychotic, I take things literally. The first I visited the United States, I was shocked, it’s not done in Europe, you know this pseudo-familiarity of waiters especially in lower Manhattan, you enter and they say "Hello my name is John, how are you today" I didn’t know what was going on so I said "Oh not too good, I had a bad night" and so on. It’s a purely rhetorical question so the guy looked at me like an idiot. My point is it all depends how this question functions. In my country you can ask "Are things ok? Is it good?" and you are supposed to say "yes" even if you were castrated yesterday. It appears to be hypocritical but it’s not. For example if you ask me "How are you doing?" Isn’t it that since we don’t yet know each other really personally, if you were to suspect that I meant it seriously you would have full right to say "It’s none of your concern" it’s even an insult to take it seriously.

Audience: But even if you use the word happy it seems to really pierce people.

Zizek: I know what you’re aiming at but I have slight doubts if I’m totally ready to follow you. You know what I like, in Japan, when somebody disagrees with another guy, they don’t say, "It’s shit, I don’t agree", they say "I totally agree with you, I would just put a slightly different accent." So I would just like to put a slightly different accent, which is that if you are aiming at the point that you can only be happy in a spontaneous way without knowing that you are happy and so on, I don’t buy this, I think you can do it. It’s the same as in sexuality. To be vulgar, let’s say I’m impotent, the worst thing you can get is this pseudo- New Age advice, "Just don’t think about it, let yourself go" what works is the totally opposite strategy - treat it as an instrumental problem. Sit down with your partner and make a detailed list: "First I will kiss you in this way, blah blah"…then you do it, and precisely because everything is planned in advance, you somehow forget about your duty to be spontaneous and it works. I think it’s the same for happiness. I can imagine someone wanting to be happy consciously, and nonetheless being happy, but just not on the same level. I’m a little bit skeptical, maybe you didn’t have this in mind, about the idea that you can only be happy if you don’t think about it, it’s lost innocence, the moment you reflect about it you are no longer happy…The ultimate proof that things are not as simple as that is that it’s like in Charles Dickens novels. I love Dickens, but it’s this hypocrisy, this love for the small, poor people who are happy, I think that the fact you can be happy without knowing it is mostly the dream of the people who feel very well not being happy and if you ask them "Ok, would you exchange places with that guy who is supposed to be happy", they never would accept it….

Schirmacher: You’re a little bit old-fashioned, nowadays we believe in lifestyle drugs, like Viagra, you don’t have to talk to anyone about your problems…

Zizek: Is this a personal confession or what?

Schirmacher:Ok…No more questions? So we are happy.