Coming from Slovenia, a part of ex-Yugoslavia, I seem type-cast to speak about nationalism: is Balkan not the very epitome of national identity going awry, of the vortex of dark and self-destructive ethnic passions that form the very contrast, almost a kind of photographic negative, of the tolerant co-existence of different ethnic communities? Here, the usual alibi of a Slovene would be: no, Slovenia is not part of Balkan, we are Mitteleuropa, Balkan is down there, it starts with Croatia or Bosnia. We Slovenes, on the contrary, are the last threshold and barrier of the truly west-European civilization against the Balkan madness.

    This very alibi confronts us with the first of many paradoxes concerning Balkan: its geographic delimitation was never precise. It is as if one can never receive a definitive answer to the question, "Where does it begin?" For Serbs, it begins down there in Kosovo or Bosnia, and they defend the Christian civilization against this Europe's Other. For Croats, it begins with the Orthodox, despotic, Byzantine Serbia, against which Croatia defends the values of democratic Western civilization. For Slovenes, it begins with Croatia, and we Slovenes are the last outpost of the peaceful Mitteleuropa. For Italians and Austrians, it begins with Slovenia, where the reign of the Slavic hordes starts. For Germans, Austria itself, on account of its historic connections, is already tainted by the Balkanic corruption and inefficiency. For some arrogant Frenchmen, Germany is associated with the Balkanian Eastern savagery — up to the extreme case of some conservative anti-European-Union Englishmen for whom, in an implicit way, it is ultimately the whole of continental Europe itself that functions as a kind of Balkan Turkish global empire with Brussels as the new Constantinople, the capricious despotic center threatening English freedom and sovereignty. So Balkan is always the Other: it lies somewhere else, always a little bit more to the southeast, with the paradox that, when we reach the very bottom of the Balkan peninsula, we again magically escape Balkan. Greece is no longer Balkan proper, but the cradle of our Western civilization.

    This enigmatic constant shifting of the frontier demonstrates that, in the case of Balkan, we are not dealing simply with real geography, but with an imaginary mapping which projects onto real landscapes shadowy, often unacknowledged ideological antagonisms. In this same way Freud claims that a hysterical subject, in the localization of his conversion symptoms, projects onto his real bodily configuration the map of an imaginary, fantasized anatomy which can only be accounted for if we analyze the subject's repressed traumas and desires. In the last hundred years, Balkan regularly has served as a kind of blank screen on which Western Europe projected its own repressed ideological antagonisms, generating a series of fantasmatic images of Balkan. These antagonisms display a material efficiency of their own and in turn help determine military, economic and political activity of real historical agents. Suffice it to recall mythical Kingdom (or Dukedom) of Ruritania, situated in an imaginary Eastern European space which combined the German Catholic feudal conservative tradition with the backward Slavic or Romanian peasantry - the "primitive" wilderness of Montenegro with the "civilized" Czech space[1]. Other examples abound, from the notorious Prisoner of Zenda onwards.

    Even today, this fantasmatic tradition is alive: Balkan continues to serve as the topos that resuscitates a whole spleen of different forms of racism. First, there is the standard, old-fashioned outright rejection of the (despotic, barbaric, Orthodox, Muslim, corrupted, orientalist...) Balkan Otherness in the name of properly Christian, democratic, civilized Western values. Then there is the perception of Balkan as the terrain of ethnic savagery and intolerance, of the primitive irrational warrior passions, which stand opposed to the post-nation state liberal-democratic procedure of resolving conflicts through rational compromise, negotiation and mutual respect. Racism is here raised to the second power: it resides in the very way one attributes it to the Other, reserving for oneself the position of the neutral benevolent observer sincerely shocked at the horrors of what goes on down there. Finally, we have the inverted racism that celebrates the exotic authenticity of the Balkan Other, like the perception that Serbs display an exuberant vitality in contrast to an ossified Western Europe. This third form of racism is a crucial component in the success of Emir Kusturica's films in the West.

    The example of Kusturica also allows us to identify a further peculiarity of the perception of Balkan in the West: the logic of displaced racism. Because Balkan remains a part of Europe and is inhabited by white people, racist clichés that one wouldn't dare use in reference to some African or Asian nation can be freely applied to Balkan. So Balkan political struggles are compared to operetta plots, Ceaucescu was the contemporary reincarnation of Dracula, etc. Furthermore, it seems that within Balkan itself, Slovenia is the most exposed to this displaced racism since it is closest to Western Europe. When, in an interview regarding his "Underground," Kusturica dismissed Slovenes as a nation of servants, as "the grooms of the Austrians," no one was bothered by the outright racism of this statement. It was acceptable because an authentic exotic artist from the less developed part of ex-Yugoslavia was attacking the most developed nation of the ex-Yugoslavia. In short, Balkan is the exceptional place through which tolerant multiculturalism is allowed to slip into racism.

    The notion of hysteria provides here a further clue. Jenny Holzer's famous truism, "Protect me from what I want," renders in a very precise way the fundamental ambiguity of the hysterical position. It can be read first as an ironic reference to the standard male chauvinist wisdom that a woman, when left to herself, gets caught in self-destructive fury, so that she must be protected from herself by benevolent male domination. Or it can be read in a more radical way, as pointing towards the fact that in today's patriarchal society, woman's desire is so radically alienated that she desires what men expect her to desire, that she desires to be desired by men. In this case, "Protect me from what I want," means, "What I want, precisely when I seem to formulate my authentic innermost longing, is already imposed on me by the patriarchal order that tells me what to desire, so the first condition of my liberation is that I break up the vicious cycle of my alienated desire and learn to formulate my desire in an autonomous way."

    And is not this same ambiguity clearly discernible in the way the Western liberal gaze relates to Balkan? The point is not that the Western gaze itself is hysterical, but that this gaze transposes onto the Balkanian Other the ambiguity that characterizes the hysterical position. In the first approach, the Western intervention may seem to answer the implicit call of the Balkan nations, "Protect us from what we want," from our self-destructive passions that led to ethnic cleansing and genocidal rape. What, however, if we read the imagined Balkan call in the opposed, second way? What if the very notion of Balkan as the mixture of nations caught in the whirlpool of self-destructive violence, far from being a reprehensible residue of a bygone era, was engendered by its interaction with the West, by the process of modernization? "Totalitarianism" in all its different aspects, from Fascism to today's racist and sexist violence, is generated by the inherent dynamics of late capitalism. How?

    DU DARFST! "YOU MAY!" reads the trademark logo on the fat-free diet salami products in Germany. The logo provides the most succinct formula of how the "totalitarian" Master operates. One should reject the standard explanation that today's new fundamentalisms are reactions to the anxiety growing out of the excessive freedom in our late-capitalist "permissive" liberal society. This cliché about individuals "escaping from freedom" into the totalitarian haven of closed order is profoundly misleading. One should also reject the standard Freudo-Marxist thesis according to which the libidinal foundation of the totalitarian (Fascist) subject is the so-called "authoritarian personality" structure: the individual who finds satisfaction in compulsively obeying authority, repressing spontaneous sexual urges, fearing insecurity and responsibility, etc. While on the surface the totalitarian Master imposes severe orders, compelling us to renounce pleasures and to sacrifice ourselves for some higher Duty, his effective injunction, discernible between the lines of his explicit words, is exactly the opposite one: the call to unrestrained TRANSGRESSION.

    Far from imposing on us a firm set of standards to be obeyed unconditionally, the totalitarian Master is the agency that suspends (moral) punishment. His secret injunction is: "YOU MAY." The prohibitions that seem to regulate social life and guarantee a minimum of decency are ultimately worthless, just devices to keep at bay the common people, while you are allowed to kill, rape, plunder the Enemy, let yourself go and excessively enjoy, violate ordinary moral prohibitions... INSOFAR AS you follow me. Obedience to the Master thus allows you to reject or transgress everyday moral rules. You may now indulge in all the obscene things you were dreaming of, all that you had to renounce when you subordinated yourself to the traditional patriarchal symbolic Law. The German fat-free salami can be eaten without any risk to your health...

    And the same goes for today's "postmodern" nationalism. Here again the cliché needs to be turned around: passionate ethnic identification does not serve to restore a firm set of values and beliefs amid the confusing insecurity of a modern secular global society, but to enforce a secret, barely concealed, "DU DARFST!" In today's apparently hedonistic and permissive postmodern society (which is paradoxically more and more saturated by rules and regulations that allegedly promote our well-being), the reference to some passionate ethnic identification, far from further restraining us, functions rather as a liberating call: "You may!" You may violate (not the Decalogue, but) the stiff regulations of peaceful co-existence in a liberal tolerant society: you may drink and eat whatever you want, even hate, fight, kill and rape. By not recognizing fully the perverse, pseudo-liberating effect of today's nationalism, we condemn ourselves to failing to grasp its true dynamics.

    So, to conclude, let me recall the notion of inherent transgression, of the temporary carnavalesque suspension of social rules which, far from being subversive, effectively sustains the existing social order. My basic thesis is that today's post-modern ethnic fundamentalism is an inherent transgression of the global capitalist liberal permissive order. It is a supplement in the Derridean sense, a violent return of the repressed that must take place if the order is to reproduce itself. And insofar as the name "Balkan" figures in the Western political fantasy space as the main embodiment of this inherent transgression, I am tempted to rephrase Lacan's well-known dictum that the Unconscious is structured like a language. In our century, at least, the European political Unconscious is definitely structured like Balkan.

    Slavoj Zizek is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Social Studies, Ljubljana, Slovenia and is currently visiting professor at the University of Michigan. His publications include The Plague of Fantasies (1997), The Indivisible Remainder: Essays on Schelling and Related Matters (1996), The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality (1994), For They Know Not What They Do (1991), and The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989). The following text is an abridged version of a paper he delivered November 19, 1998 at the symposium, "Violence and Ethics," sponsored by the Advanced Studies Center.

      1. See Vesna Goldsworthy, The Invention of Ruritani (Yale UP: New Haven and London 1998). return to text