Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst and cultural theorist. He is author of more than fifty books, including the forthcoming In Defense of Lost Causes.
Part two of our wide-ranging discussion with Slavoj Zizek, the philosopher, psychoanalyst and cultural theorist. He has been called the "Elvis of cultural theory" and is widely considered to be one of Europe’s leading intellectuals. He has written more than fifty books and speaks to sold-out audiences around the world. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we spend a half of the broadcast with renowned philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek. He has been called “the Elvis of cultural theory,” widely considered one of Europe’s leading intellectuals. Born in Slovenia, he has written more than fifty books, is well known for building on the work of the influential French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. He speaks to sold-out audiences around the world and is the subject of an art installation called "Slavoj Zizek Does Not Exist." He’s the star of two films. He was also politically active in Slovenia, campaigned for president in 1990, when it became the first Yugoslav republic to hold a free election. His latest book came out earlier this year. It’s called In Defense of Lost Causes.
I recently interviewed Slavoj Zizek here in the firehouse studio, just before he spoke at the Left Forum in New York. I began by asking Slavoj Zizek to talk about how he saw the dynamic between President Bush and Osama bin Laden.
SLAVOJ ZIZEK: I think that this is a deeper problem, in the sense that, of course, it would be easy to say they need each other, and I agree, at some level of ideological functioning. If you were to ask me to do a simple caricature for a journal, I would do it — you know that famous Escher paradoxical drawing of one hand drawing — two hands drawing each other? Know? One hand is drawing another person whose hand is again drawing — I think there definitely is, in this sense of a relationship between the two of them, in a way structurally they, the two, need each other.
So — but there is a different problem here, which is I think this deadlock of American politics, foreign politics. Again, I’m now not talking about anti-American — quite on the contrary, you know? I think I mentioned it in my yesterday’s talk, namely the problem is, what is it in the United States politics that they achieve exactly the opposite of what they want? As they put it — as we sometimes put it, they win the war — they win the battle, but lose the war.
For example, let’s take, again, Iraq. This is my supreme example. They went there to do what? (a) To defundamentalize the country, to introduce their — some kind of a secular democracy, which would then serve as a model for the others; (b) to contain Iran. Now, three, four years later, what’s the result? (a) Almost two million, all the educated, secular, middle classes, majority of them left the country. The country is more religiously fundamentalist than ever. (b) We know that among the Shia political elite, the orientation is fundamentally pro-Iranian. So isn’t this a nice paradox that the ultimate result in Iraq of the US intervention is the exact opposite? It’s really a little bit like Oedipus’s story, you know? The parents were told, your son will kill you, blah, blah. They acted to prevent it, and in this very way they realized it. So something is obviously wrong here.
And although I don’t have too many big hopes about — because I’m naturally a pessimist — about Barack, I think that here he has, if he will be elected, some space to do — to do things, you know, small symbolic gestures, but which are not only small symbolic gestures, like — I don’t know — a [inaudible] tribunal to clarify all this Guantanamo waterboarding stuff, repair relations with Latin America, open relations with Cuba, and so on. I think that in this tense situation, he has some —
AMY GOODMAN: Why he? Why do you not see that for Hillary Clinton?
SLAVOJ ZIZEK: Well, from what I know — maybe I’m too primitively old-line leftist here, maybe I’m wrong, OK, but from what I know, didn’t Hillary make a little bit too many compromises with the establishment? I don’t think she has the guts, or rather that this is her type of acting. I don’t see her as doing this. I think she’s too much into politics.
But because — you know what you should — you know what’s the mystery of true politics? We have something which appears possible, and then a truly great politician does something which appears crazy impossible, like in this case: simply against all the majority, maybe, of the public opinion, you totally open relations with Cuba. And then, all of a sudden, people notice that what they perceived as impossible is possible itself. You may — politics, it’s not the art of the possible. True politics is the art of the impossible.
And I don’t mean here only some crazy leftist moves. Let’s take, my god, Nixon. I remember. I was there. I’m old enough. Nixon in China. Everybody thought, OK, we talk with Soviets; Chinese are crazy, Mao. He did it. It worked. A simple gesture. You have to risk. To put it in more theoretical terms, if I may indulge for ten seconds in my philosophical jargon, it’s that a true act creates the conditions of its own possibility. That is to say, it appears impossible, you do it, and the whole field changes: it’s possible.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the lead-up to the war, 2003, something that wasn’t just on a theoretical realm, to say the least? Where were you? And what did you see the mechanism — what was happening all over the world?
SLAVOJ ZIZEK: You mean the Iraq war, you mean.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
SLAVOJ ZIZEK: What it means about this war is not simply that it’s a wrong war. Of course, I condemned it. But it’s a wrong war in a much more fundamental way. It’s a [inaudible] conflict, it’s a wrong conflict. This is also my basic view about the entire Middle East Arab-Israeli conflict, that it’s a wrong conflict. There shouldn’t have been that kind of a conflict. Now, of course, we have to deal with it. But this, I think, is the true triumph of the enemy, not that the bad guys win, but that the very conflict you are dealing with is a wrong conflict. If I’m told, “You have to choose Jews or Arabs,” sorry, no, I refuse to choose. I only — the only thing I can do is honestly to criticize both sides.
And I succeeded. If there is a thing I am proud of, it’s that my book about September 11th and its aftermath, Welcome to the Desert of the Real
, I can proudly tell you that in Israeli media — friends send me clips — it was accused of supporting terror, Arab terror. In Al-Ahram, it was accused to be a Zionist book. So maybe this is a good sign, that I’m moving in the right direction. First, of course, I have all my sympathies for Palestinians and so on, and maybe what the American public — because I visited Ramallah and all those places — doesn’t know enough is, you know, you only get news here of terror and so on.
You know what was for me the most devastating, frustrating thing? Not the big terror. There, one has to admit it. OK, they have their dirty side, but I mean, let’s face it: Israelis, they are not Nazis. It’s ridiculous. I mean, no, it’s — all this idea, a new holocaust, it’s ridiculous. Israelis are nonetheless relatively civilized and so on. These comparisons are tasteless. But what is really breathtaking — again, if you really visit ordinary Arab villages on the West Bank — it’s these — how should I call it? — micro-political everyday, legal and other annoyances to make life difficult.
Just to give you an example, do you know that if you are a farmer, Jewish or Palestinian, on the West Bank, as a Palestinian farmer, you are allowed to dig a hole for water only three inches deep — if you are Jewish, you can do whatever you want — claiming the — I don’t know what’s even the idea, that you will dig some tunnels for terrorists or whatever? Or you know that on the West Bank the big problem is water. As a Jewish farmer, you get seven times more water per capita, because this has to be distributed to [inaudible]. So this is so frustrating about Palestinians. They admit it, my god. This is not Nazism. They are not just picking us up on the street and shooting, but they’re trying on this micro level to make things so frustrating, impossible to live.
On the other hand, I think that the problem I have, not so much with Palestinians — they are much better — is with Arabs who support them. It’s — I always find it suspicious when you focus on one problem, Israel, and made it the big cause, which of course, everybody knows this, then allows other Arab states to obfuscate their own problems, like I would much prefer Arabs to say, “OK, Israel, fine, we’ll deal with it later. What about corruption in Saudi Arabia? What about” — and so on and so on, you know?
So that’s — here is what I see, if I may add, Amy, my duty, even as an intellectual. That’s crucial, because people today, I don’t know what they expect of intellectuals. If I’m honest, at least as a philosopher, I don’t have answers. We intellectuals do not have answers. If you ask me what to do about ecology, bah, what do I know? What we can do is change the very questions. We can show to what extent the very way we approach a problem, which is a very real problem, is part of that problem.
We can show where the problem — for example, maybe you know it. I’ll briefly repeat it, my ultimate example: Racism. Racism, and so on, sexism, this is a problem. But are we aware that it’s not self-evident? The way we approach today this problem, we automatically read it, interpret it as a problem of tolerance. Wait a minute. Racism is not in itself a problem of tolerance. I [inaudible] — look at Martin Luther King’s speeches, you know? He almost doesn’t use the term "tolerance." For him, racism is a problem of legislation, laws, economic exploitation, and so on and so on. I mean, it would be ridiculous for his dignity of Martin Luther King to say “We blacks want more tolerance from the whites,” in the same way as — you know this as a woman — it would be a ridiculous [inaudible] thing to say “We women want more tolerance from men,” or whatever. It’s not that.
So where we can enter, philosophers, is to say, “Wait a minute. Racism is a real problem, or sexism or whatever. Why? Why do we treat it as a problem of tolerance?” And here, I have an answer, old-fashioned Marxist one. It has to do with this breakdown of this great leftist politics, social welfare, and so on. We live in, what I’m tempted to claim, post-political universe, where politics is more and more a matter of expert administration and so on. So all conflicts which remain are then translated into cultural problems, problems of lifestyle, and so on, but then all that remains is to play the problem of tolerance and so on.
The same as with, for example, ecology. What to do? Is global warming clearly a threat? I don’t know. What I know is that while ecology is definitely a serious problem, maybe even the problem which threatens us, the way it is formulated, it’s a big field for ideological investment, you know, all that stuff of Gaia, Mother Earth, like our spontaneous confrontation of ecology is that there was a kind of a natural balance, homeostasis, we evil humans disrupted it, now we have to repair it. An entire mythology is there. And I think that — so, my paradoxical solution is that we need ecology without nature, that without nature, if we understand, is nature, a kind of a primordial, innocent, balanced mechanism. Nature is crazy. Nature is one big catastrophe. Oil, our main source of energy — can you even imagine what kind of ultra-unthinkable ecological catastrophe must have happened on earth in order that we have these reserves of oil? So let’s first clarify things with nature. Nature is not Mother Earth, a big balanced universe where we humans raped her, and so on and so on. Nature is imbalanced, crazy mechanism, which for — it’s much more complex. So, you see, here, I’m, in a way, much more modest. No, we intellectuals, we are really like Socratic intellectual, who — we don’t have answers, we can just clarify the questions.
AMY GOODMAN: Back to that question about before the invasion —-
SLAVOJ ZIZEK: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- you look at the protest, you look at the invasion, you look at the occupation, you look at war, and you say it’s all of a piece, one reinforces the other. Can you talk about that?
SLAVOJ ZIZEK: No, it’s not so much that I was against the protests. I myself participated in protests. I just do not share the enthusiasm of some of even big European intellectuals, like Jacques Derrida, Jurgen Habermas, who saw in that widespread movement of protest almost a birth of the new civil society movement in Europe. What bothered me is the way the protest was in a way parasitic upon — upon — OK, the other guys, those in power who wanted the war, how they legitimized each other.
For me, that protest was part of what I see as the main failure. But it’s not a subjective failure. It’s in the situation of modern left, which all too often for me adopts this rather comfortable moralizing position of we condemn, we criticize, but like we can’t do anything more, so this safe moralizing position, which is why, as I like to emphasize, I was in Great Britain, in United Kingdom in that point. And what did strike me is how, after the big protests, both sides appeared satisfied in a strange way. The organizers of demonstrators made their point: you see the majority is behind us, people oppose war, we made our point. But silently, they knew they didn’t stop the war, nothing. Blair government, the other side, was also satisfied. You see what an open society is: even when a country goes to war, we can — and again, the best answer, I think, was provided unintentionally by George Bush when he visited at that time UK. I remember, when asked by journalists, “How do you comment on big protests against you?” he said, “I totally support them, because, you see, that’s why we are going to Iraq, so that things like this, massive protest against the government, so that things like this could happen only — will happen also in Iraq.” So, of course, this was either a bad joke or hypocrisy or whatever you want. But there is a truth in it. Everyone, in a way, all the sides, felt satisfied. And this is what often worries me, this — how should I put it? — secret, symbiotic relationship. Those in power like a certain type of moralistic protest, which does nothing.
And again, I think that even — of course, everybody likes them Zapatistas in Mexico — that even Zapatistas fell a little bit into that trap. At the beginning, they were a little bit of a serious threat. Then when their — this famous anonymous leader, Subcomandante Marcos, then he made the choice of playing this, how should I call it, moral authority, you know, and at that point making comments on what is wrong in Mexican society. From that point on, everybody loves him now, you know? Everybody — oh, yes, he’s our moral consciousness, and so on and so on.
But again, I’m not simply reproaching the left for it, because, how to put it, of course now then there is the cruel question: but what can the left do? What can you effectively do? So I’m not saying we shouldn’t be doing this. I’m just saying — what I’m saying is basically one simple thing. I repeat it in all my talks, and so on. It’s fashionable to make fun of Fukuyama, End of History, but even the majority of today’s left is effectively, if I may make an adverb, Fukuyamaists. Basically, isn’t it that most of us leftists silently believe capitalism is here to stay, parliamentary democracy is what we [inaudible], so the problem is simply how to make it work better? Our ultimate horizon is, again, in the same way as we were talking about socialism with a human face, global capitalist democracy with a human face. And for me, the key question is, is this enough?
AMY GOODMAN: Slavoj Zizek is the author of many books. His, latest, just out now, is called In Defense of Lost Causes. We’ll be back to continue our conversation in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Slavoj Zizek. In Defense of Lost Causes is his latest book.
If you read Marx, no, he says, late capitalism is already the age of decay of capitalism. Then Lenin said imperialism, last stage. Then Mao said in the ’40s that after World War II, American imperialism is the absolutely rotting lower stage, but the more it is rotting, the more it’s disintegrating, the better it functions, no? That’s is the miracle of capitalism. It’s really something unique. It’s really a unique world historical event. Capitalism is the first social formation which thrives on its instability — how shall I put it, no?
And I have here no illusions. I don’t believe that simply some external, external to capitalist, mechanisms, economic — sorry, ecological or whatever crisis will ruin it. Imagine now a mega-catastrophe: I don’t know, even the ice melting, New York is submerged, we have to move to Antarctica. I think this would be immediately incorporated as a — you know, can you even only imagine real estate having their multiple orgasms, the biggest real estate deals in the history and so on? Don’t underestimate this level capitalism, of how it achieves incorporating what appears an obstacle. And so only in this sense, it’s indestructible.
But what I nonetheless think is that — for a whole series of reasons — that the limit is becoming clear. I see it in ecology, not that it will directly ruin capitalism, but I don’t think it can deal it with. Why not? Because I’m not an idealist here. I’m well aware that, if anything, state socialism was even worse for ecology. Those countries are countries with the worst ecological record. But nonetheless, there is something interesting. It’s that, of course, at a certain level, the capitalists market ways to deal with ecological problems, no? You include, if you can assess, the ecological damage into the price of the product and all that stuff. It works. But I think it doesn’t work with the threat of really large catastrophes, all this pushing towards Kyoto deal or whatever.
Are we aware what is happening here? It is that in the last twenty years, the idea of a large collective act was kind of a phobic object. Everyone was afraid of it, like isn’t it the lesson of the catastrophe of real socialism that we don’t need large concentrated power decisions but this — and you can use all the poetic expressions — this organic interaction, all the poetic interaction, not command claim and so on. So the idea is that we should have a more dispersed, open capitalism, antiauthoritarian and so on. If there is anything becoming clear today for me, it’s that we need to rehabilitate the notion of big, large, collective acts.
Here then, even — for example, intellectual property — I mean, I even spoke with some conservative economists, who considered the point that intellectual property is — if I may put it in slightly ironic terms — is inherently communist, in the sense that it resents — it rebels against being treated as private property, which is why with some new software products, you know, that companies spend more money on how to prevent its free circulation of a product than on the product itself. I mean, I have nothing personally against Bill Gates, but as a nice [inaudible] conservative economist — sorry, I forgot his name — at some debate put it, that the fact that a guy who was thirty years ago nothing can be now — OK, he’s no longer — now he’s third, but he was the richest man in the world, this shows that intellectual property is a topic which cannot be properly value represented of the market. You get two crazy vibrations. Like he put it, with a normal commodity, material, of course, prices go up and down. It’s like a normal EKG when you fear you have an attack, no? But with intellectual property, it’s like a heart attack, you know? It oscillates too wildly, like, you — there is a problem. I think that the dynamic — social economic dynamic itself will force us to socialize it more and more, that it doesn’t work, intellectual property. Then, of course, the entire problem of not only ecology, then there is the — all this biogenetic debate and so on.
It’s very interesting how Fukuyama himself — and I appreciate him — OK, he’s a little bit simplistic as a philosopher, but where I appreciate him is that he’s an intelligent, skeptical conservative. I, as a Marxist, I much prefer skeptical conservatives to naïve progressive liberals. Why? Because skeptical conservatives are ready to admit a deadlock. And he did this in his–not End of History thesis, but in his later book on biogenetics, Our Posthuman Future, or whatever. He had to admit that his model of The End of History liberal society is not able to cope with this, that we need stronger state control, collective decisions and so on and so on.
So, you see, that’s how I approach it. I’m not a naïve Marxist: oh, we need a new revolution. I see problems. That’s my duty today, to show to the people that we are approaching antagonisms, which not only capitalism will not be able to confront, but which will lead to a much more radical choice. I’m not fighting today’s capitalism — how I should I put it — I’m fighting what this capitalism is slowly leading to if we don’t counteract it.
I think capitalism will — the way we know it — will destroy itself, in a way. And it’s already doing it. For example, all the human rights and so on, now we are talking about torture. Wait what we will be talking in ten years, and so on and so on. I think we are already going into another direction. Or we speak about global world? Yes, commodities can circulate, but more and more we are moving towards gated communities and so on, and we should be very clear here. Here, I will even propose a conservative topic, which is that if you don’t have a basic patriotic identification — not nationalism, but in the sense of “we are all members of the same nation and so on” — then democracy doesn’t function. You cannot have a living democracy in this pure multiculturalist liberal dream: we have just different lifestyle and a totally neutral legal framework, which allows them to interact. No, you need more. That more is threatened, not by leftist multiculturalists, but by capitalist development itself. I think we are more and more approaching new forms of gated communities.
For example, one of the books that I like as a description is Mike Davis talking about slums, his book about slums, because he shows, my god, are we aware what’s going on here? Over one billion people already live in slums. That is to say, new and new territories are emerging from which, although they are part of a state, states are withdrawing from it. And this is a crucial moment, which is why incidentally I, in spite of all my problems with him, I admire Chavez nonetheless. I don’t know of any other politician, with the exception maybe of Morales — he’s trying to do it — who effectively tried to incorporate into sociopolitical life those excluded in favelas, in slums.
If we don’t do it, we will be approaching–and this is a serious perspective, some French sociologist warn — a kind of a subdued, not all the times active, but nonetheless, always in the background, civil war in all developed countries, like what’s happening now in Paris, you know. Everybody knows, again and again, car burnings, all this permanent civil unrest. And they are a wonderful phenomenon to analyze, these car burnings. You know why? Here, you have the limit of standard leftist analogies. When those in the suburbs start to burn cars, the soldiers came looking for explanations, but they were not, as people feared, some Muslim fundamentalists. No, the fist thing they were burning were their own mosques and so on. It was a kind of a — how shall I call it — pure protest signaling presence. It’s a political equivalent of what in linguistics we call fatic communication, “Hi, I’m here, yes,” you know, this — when you give a message which doesn’t deliver a certain content, but just signals that you are here. It was like a big fatic “Hey, here we are. Note us.” That was the message, no?
So, again, all these problems, we — here, we should act again, not — I’m not this kind of fanatical anti-capitalist who worries, “My god, capitalism is thriving. How will we arouse the people?” What worries me is not that capitalism will go on forever. No, I’m here as a Marxist. Quite honest.
Listen, let’s be frank. I don’t know what to say about the United States. But if we take Western Europe in the last fifty years, let’s be frank. One should give to the devil what belongs to the devil. OK, we can say this was because of economic exploitation of third world, but nonetheless, I don’t think there was, in the entire history of humanity, an era where so many people lived comparatively, in comparative way, such — in such relative welfare and freedom that’s there. One should admit this, honestly, not to engage into the Stalinist statistics proving that they are not doing so well. The problem is, I think, it cannot last. The new divisions are getting visible on and on. And so, again, the problem is not — my fear is not that capitalism will not last forever. The struggle is beginning today for what will replace it. There, we will have to make tough decisions.
If we don’t act, I can see quite well the possibility — some Western version of the Chinese option, what they poetically call Asian values capitalism, which is really capitalism with authoritarian structure. Here, I see a world historical meaning of what goes on in China. Until now, liberals were saying, OK, maybe in the beginning you need a little bit of authoritarian push to create conditions for capitalism, like Pinochet, Chile, South Korea. But they claim, sooner or later, capitalism always brings then democracy. I doubt if this holds. I think — my hopes are — our hopes are vain if we expect the same in China. I think they are a model where capitalism and democracy are dissociated, and capitalism, if anything, works even better. This is the sign of the future.
I’ve spoken too long, sorry. But now you know at least why friends call me Fidel. You know, like —
Slavoj, your new book is called In Defense of Lost Causes.
First, of course, I like to provoke and so on. No, these lost causes are of course communism, terror and so on, no? But what I really try to do — it’s a very critical book, especially critical towards the left — it’s to analyze brutally the failures of the left and hint at least how to totally reinvent these old lost causes, because, as we all know, the left, around thirty years ago, simply stopped to ask certain questions. I remember when I was young, we were still debating: will capitalism last? Will the state go on? Now, we accept all this. Maybe it is — the time is coming to start asking these fundamental, tough questions again, but, of course, fully learning the lesson of the past.
Since I often like to use Stalinist metaphors and so on, for example, people almost suspect me of being some kind of a closet Stalinist. No, OK, my first reaction is to provoke even more and to say, “Why closet Stalinist?” But what I really think is that I think that Stalinism was — that’s why I am obsessed with it — was such a tragedy, much more difficult to explain than fascism. It’s for me the singular greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century, precisely because it wasn’t simply communist totalitarianism. What’s difficult to think is the authentic emancipatory explosion of October Revolution and then how this turned into Stalinism. So, it’s not that we should —- we, the left, should behave with bad conscience, like, you know, “Oh, but you also had your problems, Nazism.” We should do the job of analyzing Stalinism better than the anti-communist right is doing it.
That’s what I see as one of my tasks. I’m returning -—
so I’m going through all of this, Stalinism, structure of fascism, today’s ideology, different modalities of the left. I mean, I almost give at a certain point a simple catalog of what the left is doing today: either the third way left — that is to say, we accept the capitalist game; we will just try to make capitalism better, more human and so on — then this, the one I was attacking yesterday, the resisting left — you can do, you just resist, criticize from outside — then this utopian Toni Negri left, that like revolution is around the corner but a totally different one for this new multitude stuff and so on. I simply try to ask the hard questions. And I don’t give great answers; my answers are very modest.
But I think it’s really a matter of survival of the left to break out this deadlock. It’s always a fatal deadlock of either pragmatism or abstract moralism. They are like, you know, like horrible. Again, you see, I succumb to my Stalinist adaptation. Like Stalin said, social democracy and fascism are the left and the right hand of capitalism, stupidity, but I think that this conformist third way, pragmatic social democracy — basically, Clinton here, Blair in the UK and so on — and this moralistic radical left, politically correct all the time, are like twin phenomena, the one is parasitic — how to break out of this deadlock? I mean, I don’t — I’m not saying I have a clear answer, but the problem is to be confronted.
Last words to leave our audience with here in the United States and, well, all over in Latin America, in Europe, Africa, Eastern Europe?
It will be simply — OK, maybe, the point that I always like to repeat: don’t beat — don’t get caught into a fake discourse of humanitarian emergency. Remember that when somebody is telling you, “You’re doing your theory. You are dreaming. But people are starving out there and so on. Let’s do something,” this is the threat. This is the threat.
Today’s hegemonic ideology is this kind of state of emergency ideology. What we need is to withdraw — don’t be afraid to withdraw and think. You know, Marx thesis eleven: philosophers have only interpreted the world; the time is, we have now to change it. Maybe, as good Marxists, we should turn it around. Maybe we are trying to change it too much. It’s time to redraw and to interpret it again, because do we really know what is going on today?
What is going on today? There are old fashion theories, either Marxist or liberals who claim the same capitalism is going on. Then there is a whole set of fashionable terms like post-industrial society, post-whatever, information society, which I think don’t do the job. We even don’t have what my friend Fred Jameson likes to call “cognitive mapping,” you know, that you get an idea what’s going on. We need theory more than ever. Don’t be — don’t feel guilty for withdrawing from immediate engagement and for trying to understand what’s going on.
Slavoj Zizek it the author of In Defense of Lost Causes.
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