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Die Hard and the comfort of crisis: an interview with Slavoj Zizek

February 18, 2013

[The interviewer sits, playing with his tape recorder. Zizek enters. They shake hands, and Zizek sits. He drinks from the glass of water already prepared for him.]

Mr. Zizek, I’d like to jump straight in, if you don’t mind.
Certainly. I actually have a plane to catch later, and I always like to be there at least four hours ahead of the flight. An irritating habit of mine, I’m afraid.
Not that strange though. I can’t fly at all.
[The interviewer laughs. Zizek doesn’t.]
An extreme…interesting.
The flying?
Yes, your fear of it. Not that you’re alone, but there is, I believe, a construction of weakness within the anxiety of an extreme, or someone who has withdrawn into such an anxiety.
[The interviewer puts his right leg on his left knee. Zizek takes a sip of his water.]
Well, like you said, it’s not an unusual state…
Yes, I agree. But there is still a position of weakness involved, an almost pathetic self-abuse or unravelling.
I think…I’d say pathetic might be a little strong…
Not in the philosophical sense.
Still, I’m not sure about the terminology of ‘self-abuse’…Jung, I think, said that it wasn’t so much the conscious self that was responsible, but more like a trigger that…
Oh yes, the mind is a terrible master, that old debate. I believe I stand with Popper on that one, I’m afraid. There is control, or can be control.
Yes, Karl Popper. A remarkable thinker, wouldn’t you say?
[The interviewer smiles and switches his left leg onto his right knee. Zizek stares at him.]
Ok, if we can leave Popper for another time and move onto the film. I’ve been told you watched it for the first time last night?
Yes, on cable.
First impressions?
You mean did I like it?
[The interviewer laughs, awkwardly?]
Not exactly, but that probably should’ve been the question.
Debate often gets in the way of the fundamentals.
Yes, agreed.
So…yes, I did like it. On an emotional level, very much so. On a technical level, it was very well composed by the director, McTiernan, I believe…a lot of the angles were well constructed, the low shots, the Homeric delineation of McClane as he first enters the building. It was very accomplished.
Yes, it was. Did you also notice the portrayal of the terrorists, the size of Hans Gruber positioned against his men as they walk up to the party?
Hans Gruber?
The main villain. The antagonist.
Yes, I noticed it. The thinker and the brutes. I actually recognised it a little earlier than you, perhaps…when the terrorists arrive outside the building, and the two vehicles come together in what you might call antagonistic unity…and they drive parallel to each other before separation…the larger, more sinister looking van goes down out of shot, and the smaller, more acceptable public face of the threat, the car, stays on ground level.
Interesting. A representation of duality perhaps?
Well, yes, that’s quite obvious. The van is the true nature of the threat, and the car is merely the facilitator, a thing to be discarded once parked. And furthermore, there is the schematic of the environment itself, which is of course never an accident in film, where the road leads directly to the building, the castle of the city, we can presume, as the structure is shown in long shot throughout the film, dominating the landscape, which implies that the corporation, the entity boasting its success, is also inviting its doom. This, of course, applies to any object with an entrance, but is especially pronounced when the subject matter is capitalism, and as a consequence the endgame it begs for, which is destruction.
Well, you might have to consider the security guard and CCTV cameras in the building. There is always a defence somewhere in the invitation…
Yes and no. In this film, the security guard is the first to die. He doesn’t even move, or doesn’t have time to move. Therefore the defence is not sufficient, it is reactive, a shop dummy.
But it is inherent in its nature to be reactive, is it not?
Yes, and that is its failing.
But defence as a warning can be very effective…
Until the one time the warning is not heeded and, in this film, is the destruction of the building, or potentially so. And this is the interesting aspect, the placement of defence, any defence against potential intrusion of destruction of the concept…and the building in this film is very much an embodiment of concept, of ideal, an abstract wearing glass and concrete and wondrous fountains…and it is doomed from inception. As soon as you create an ideal it becomes finite and the inevitable outcome is destruction, not necessarily the end, but an end. To quote Spinoza, ‘belief and comprehension of an idea occur at the same moment,’ so once the ideal is comprehended it can only be negated, and the final negation is destruction.
I see. So you would argue defence is ultimately superficial?
Actually, it’s not an argument, it’s theoretical fact.
Really? But aren’t we debating it now?
Not at all. You merely do not understand the full complexity of it. I do.
I’m not sure I’d agree with that…
I’m sure you wouldn’t. In the same way, a 12th Century scholar wouldn’t agree the earth was round. Never mind.
[The interviewer takes a sip of his water and spills a little.]
Ok, so how about the defence that works, John McClane? How do you place him in your dialectic?
McClane is particularly interesting as a protagonist as, naturally, he shares a lot of characteristics with the antagonists, with Gruber especially.
Is each a mirror to the other?
Not exactly, but they are similar. They are both willing to kill to achieve their endgames, and neither of them are what you would call socially adept. Gruber seems to play that part, but it is an illusion. The best illustration of the point is his similarity in appearance to the man he shoots…I forget his name…
Perhaps. The second man he shoots, holding the cola…
Yes, Ellis.
Ok, so Gruber is costumed in a similar way to Ellis, the beard, the grin, the suits…both men represent the face of a concept. Ellis, the smooth face of capitalism, even drinking capitalism when he is shot, and Gruber, the face of politicized violence. The difference between them is the truth underneath, the inner stream of self. Ellis’ face is genuine as it is a construction of what he believes, what he loves, which is capitalism, the system which allows him to drink, have sex, take drugs. The procedure of the act is false, of course, but the act is easy enough to unravel. Gruber, in contradiction, is the many layered fraud, the Babushka doll of true intention. He acts out the political terrorist role yet it is later revealed he is a thief. He practises violence yet seems to have no real love for it. To him, it is simply a means to an end.
So what is the truth of Gruber? Is it revealed?
I would say, yes. If you look closely enough you can see what he is.
Which is?
Simply, he’s the Edmond of capitalism. Its worst face if you will. A man who is cold, detached, who can act out the face of political reason and empathy, but has no real attachment to it. And as the film’s antagonist it is implied that he is intent on destroying the capitalist ideal, the balance to the excesses of the ideal, yet as the film turns, ultimately he reveals himself to be the concept itself.
The concept stealing from the concept?
Not precisely, more like the concept eating itself. The idea eats me or I eat the idea, that kind of problematic. In this case, it’s probably the case that the idea has eaten Gruber, possibly without his cognition, as he reveals his classical education and his knowledge of industrialisation and fine suits. This is a man who knows and lives the concept and ultimately is so informed by it that he can only be its destroyer. The concept invites participation and is constructed in such a way as to prevent any kind of final victory, as it is a concept designed for the individual and one victory for one individual makes no difference to the system, a system which has, in fact, been manufactured by its first successes, and forced into compatibility with a very selfish, individualistic ideal.
Yes, one success, I suppose, means many losses for others…
Well, yes, obviously. So the stakes get higher and higher until you have a Gruber type, the macro-sized snake’s tail trying to eat the rest of the body.
Ok, so, following this logic, McClane would play the role of…?
A flake of the snake’s skin, I believe. The small man, the flea taking little chunks out of the antagonists.
Little chunks? He does kill them all…
Yes, clearly, but look at the technique, the choreography of the violence. The first man he kills proves the point. McClane is dwarfed physically, and the only way for him to succeed is to jump on the man’s back like a child. Then a later kill, he hides under a table and shoots from behind his shield. And this is very recognisable, in fact, as an extension of guerrilla warfare. Hit the enemy and run, hit and run, constant mobility and devious, sudden violence, this is the strategy of McClane.
Does that mean he is anti-capitalist?
Not at all. Anti-system perhaps, as all guerrilla warriors are, but if you consider what he is defending then it would be difficult to promote him as anti-capitalist. He’s the defender of the castle, the quick thinker, the barbarian, the survivalist who does whatever it takes to succeed, which is inherently capitalist. And, tellingly, all actions from both characters occur inside the building, the physical actualisation of the ideal, and not from external threat…the police and FBI are shown to be impotent throughout the film…which suggests, of course, an inevitability of implosion, of the ideal eating itself.
In that case, both Gruber and McClane are pro-capitalist?
Yes, and not just the theory of it, the good and the bad, they are the totality of it. They are the practising nature of its ideal, one must win, the other must lose, but they’re both fighting under the guidelines of the system. Gruber wants his wealth, McClane, ironically, wants the preservation of the building, the hostages, the cogs or hardware of capitalism, and the continuation of the system itself which will inevitably lead to the creation and introduction of another Gruber, many more Grubers in fact.
McClane is the reason for Gruber…
Almost. A constituent part, at least. He kills him, but wants no change to the system, so more will come. Like cutting down a tree and planting another, if you can stomach such a simplified metaphor.
[The interviewer takes some more water. Zizek watches him.]
Moving on to another part of the film, what did you make of the representation of McClane’s marriage?
Ha, moving on, you say, but this could be argued as an extension of the capitalist theme.
In what way?
[Zizek pauses. He stares at the interviewer, no smile then takes some water.]
In the way that the wife is an important part in the company, in the ideal, and it is her watch that Gruber hangs onto at the end, just before he falls to his death. A Rolex, I believe, which is interesting in itself not only as a symbol of McClane’s, the hero’s,  recapture of her from the corporate…a slightly misogynistic problematic, if I may say…but also as a superficial act. The fact that the watch is gone is essentially meaningless as they walk outside at the climax still very much entrenched in the system, the ideal. One might suggest…hope even, for her sake…that there will be another Rolex in the future, under different conditions, of course, but still constituent of the system.
So their marriage is a representation of the system?
In a sense it is, yes, but in another sense it isn’t. The capitalism aspect is just one of many readings we could attribute to that marriage, or at least what we know of the marriage.
You mean, as it’s a film we can only know so much?
Clearly. It is well established that the principle of modern film is to show, not tell, and, certainly, film cannot express any part of the interior condition, not successfully at least. I suppose they could do voiceover, but it is still limited as those thoughts have to be linear and servile.
Yes, servile to the plot.
The character has to think about the plot, I see…
Perhaps you do. It’s really not that complex in itself. The character is not interior in the sense that he has control of his conscious self. No, the control is applied from the form of the medium, the limitations of plot and film character. In this film, to elucidate the point, McClane is sometimes shown talking to himself, supposedly an elaboration of self that tells us a little more about how he acts when in isolation, yet adds nothing to what we already know. In that sense, it is not an elaboration, but a stretching of, or a further repetition of, previously established attitude.
I don’t know, I always find it interesting when characters talk to themselves…
No, it’s not interesting at all. It’s a fraud, a false projection of the inner condition. How do we know this? Simply, because it is impossible to show on film the interior mind in isolation. The actor is not alone, he is surrounded by cameras. If it is improvisation then it is specious, as no actor would reveal anything of his own interior state, not the truth of it at least. What he would show would be a false cognitive state, a repetition most probably of something he has read or seen elsewhere. There would be no truth to the presentation. However, if you argue that it is the writer’s expression, which I sense you were about to do…
[The interviewer switches position again. Zizek smirks.]
Ha, when you’ve been interviewed as many times as I have you learn to read the other quite accurately…
[The interviewer looks at his tape recorder, flushed?]
…helped by the conditions of the environmental construct we are in, of course…by that I mean, the interviewer and the interviewee, and there are only so many scenes which can be constructed from that…but, back to the text, where were we?
The writer’s expression…
Oh yes, the writer…if we reject improvisation on the actor’s part then what remains is the writer’s expression. Now, we’ll forget for the moment that film is often written by committee, and, for our own theoretical agenda, follow the line of a sole authorial voice in the script…well, in this case, it is also impossible for the writer to express any internal truth of McClane, simply because McClane and the writer are undermined by the form. The form demands story, and character that is chained to such a story. This is why the internal thoughts that are expressed en audio are still censored, and we know this because all the thoughts are related to the plot.
I’m not sure I’d agree with that theory…
Please, it’s not theory, young man. It’s theoretical fact.
Ok, well…I’m not sure if it’s true either way.
It seems to me that McClane, when he speaks out his thoughts, is revealing himself. When he’s about to jump off the roof he tells himself, ‘I’ll never go inside a tall building again,’ which I think is a legitimate thought, and it shows his anxiety…
Yes, yes, I’m aware of what it does, but it is not truth, it is not the internal revealing itself in the external. It is plot, nothing more.
[The interviewer puts his hand under his thigh and pinches himself hard.]
Ok. If it is plot, nothing more, then what would true internal thought be if you were standing on top of a…a forty storey building?
No, that’s not it. You’re moving sideways, not forwards.
McClane should move sideways?
[Zizek pauses, puts his head in his hands]
Dear Lord…
It was a joke, Mr. Zizek.
[Zizek comes out of his hands and says ‘dear Lord’ once more.]
Well, joke or not, the point is still invalid. McClane cannot reveal internal thought at this point because he is a character within his setting. He is unaware he is being watched or listened to, of course, but the actor and the writer are not. And you could argue that the configuration of a setting, a false world environment, allows the writer to transplant the internal, the truth, onto this environment…after all, they might say, it’s McClane who said it, not a real person…but such an argument is unsustainable if you run it to its end, as, simply, this false world environment has been established to entertain an audience, and not just an audience, but a mass audience, which by its nature invites a limited amount of truth, if any…and ultimately, the false world environment of the Nakatomi Plaza must be governed and accepted by the rules of the real world environment, and therefore real truth, the real internal condition cannot be revealed as the real internal truth is absurd…or as Sartrellian theory would have it, the real world environment is absurd and real internal thought is normal. And all of this is separated, of course, from the Deleuzean reading of the film, which would argue that any externalisation or performance of the internal condition automatically renders it false. Therefore in film, and perhaps in fiction too, the internal is an impossibility.
Really? Even in novels?
Yes. And you don’t need to ask your next question, I already know it. Yes, there are internal narratives, novels done entirely in “voice”, and you would argue that it is the extension of the writer and by relation the extension of their internal condition, yet there is a fallacy involved in that assumption which leads to a cul-de-sac…how could any writer continue to exist in the real world environment if he revealed the internal truth? If the truth was written then the only realistic option for the writer would be suicide.
But…I disagree…truth has been revealed in novels, surely. What about Camus’ ‘L’etranger’?
That wasn’t truth, it was theory.
But he killed someone, and couldn’t connect with the world. Doesn’t that jar with the real world environment?
No, no…the character was disconnected, yes, but he could only go so far. As Camus himself said, ‘There is a limit to thought, and a point at which you cannot relate to yourself or the others around you as an object.’ You can show character deeds, and define him on a basic level, you can show feelings and thoughts, and define him further, but such thoughts must be censored to prevent complete alienation of the audience…what you cannot do is show everything, the absolute truth of the mind. Therefore, Camus’ character represents a state, but not an absolute truth, as it is impossible for the writer to do so. Or perhaps I should say, almost impossible. Like I said earlier, if a writer did manage to write the truth then he would have to kill himself because life would be impossible.
I’m sorry, I’m not really sure I understand why that would be so…
It is unimportant whether or not you understand it.
Perhaps you could explain further…
[Zizek looks at his watch.]
I think that would be unnecessary. We’ve talked about this more than enough.
If you think so…though I believe the point is still inconclusive…
[Zizek takes a sip of water. The interviewer looks at the clock.]
Ok, final question. Is there anything else you noticed about the film? The hero complex perhaps?
No. I’m not really interested in heroes.
Fine. No heroes then.
[The interviewer picks up his tape recorder. Zizek coughs.]
There was another aspect of the marriage that was interesting…
[The interviewer pauses then puts the tape recorder back down.]
From a gender-sociological viewpoint, I think it was very important how McClane functioned with his wife before the crisis of the plot was introduced.
Really. And how did they function?
It was very discreet, you may not have noticed it, but there was a brief argument between the two of them in the office, when McClane was cleaning his face.
I noticed it…
Well, the actions perhaps, but did you understand it?
[The interviewer looks at his hands, reading the answer? Zizek waits, arms folded.]
It showed, I believe, the troubles in their marriage up to that point.
And…I don’t know…I don’t think there was any more to it, really. They were fighting, he didn’t respect her as a successful woman…this is what they would deal with in the film.
Interesting. That’s probably ten per cent of it, maybe a little more.
Ten per cent? Really…
Yes, from the actions, that was the detail we were obviously intended to pick up as the audience. However, as is common with film, it is what is implied by its absence that provides more of the detail. The state of their marriage before, for example…we know they were fighting, or a little distanced from each other, but we can suspect no more from the action as presented. However, if you take McClane’s actions as a starting point, and the socio-psychological viewpoint implied by his resistance to his wife’s career then it becomes clear that this is a man who can only function in a crisis. When the antagonistic force asserts itself on the plot, McClane becomes heroic through the same qualities that make him misogynistic in the stasis period between crises. His endgame, as we see through his actions over the course of the film, is not simply to oppose the antagonists, but to oppose his wife…to get her back in the kitchen, if you will. And it is successful…he wins her trust by killing the threat to her life, the heroic impulse other writers love to intellectualize over, despite such an impulse indulging violent and pathological fantasies, which will clearly erupt again when threatened by other external agency, most probably his wife, I believe, and her desire to prove the ‘I’ in ‘wife’…a desire which acutely conflicts with McClane’s view of the world.
So their marriage is doomed?
Yes. Destroyed by two incompatible world-views.
Well, I like to be a little more positive about things…I believe their marriage will be fine…this was their crisis, they overcame it.
You would be wrong.
Or maybe not…remember, McClane is aware of his own failings…at one point, after the argument in fact, he bangs his head against the door, calling himself ‘an idiot.’
It is unimportant. An awareness of one’s failings is not a cure.
Yeah, but people do change. That’s undeniable…
A narrow change, if any, but mostly not.
Nah, they do change…
No, they don’t.
They do.
They do not.
[The interviewer looks at the clock. He puts his hand on his thigh and pinches again.]
Ok, it’s running late, and you have a flight to catch…
Yes, I do.
So, thanks for your time, Mr. Zizek.
[They shake hands. No smile from either man.]
Yes, thank you.
[Zizek gets up and walks to the hotel room door.]
Have a good flight.
Yes, thank you.
[Zizek pauses, his hand on the door.]
I do enjoy flying.
[The interviewer smiles, turns, grips a cushion in his hand.]
[The Interviewer mutters ‘enjoy your four hour wait, motherfucker.’]
[Zizek exits. He stops by a water fountain in the corridor, takes a breath, and drinks. He puts his hand on his shirt, where his heart is, and puts his other hand over his eyes. A few moments later he stops, breathes out an

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