Move the Underground!

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Articles by Slavoj Žižek

What's Wrong with Fundamentalism? - Part II

Humoresque, arguably Robert Schumann's piano masterpiece, is to he read against the background of the gradual loss of the voice in his songs: it is not a simple piano piece, but a song without the vocal line, with the vocal line reduced to silence, so that all we effectively hear is the piano accompaniment. This is how one should read the famous "inner voice linnere Stimmel" added by Schumann (in the written score) as a third line between the two piano lines, higher and lower: as the vocal melodic line which remains a non-vocalized "inner voice," a series of variations without the theme, accompaniment without the main melodic line (which exists only as Augenmusik, music for the eyes only, in the guise of written notes). (No wonder that Schumann composed a "concert without orchestra," a kind of counterpoint to Bartok's "concert for orchestra.") This absent melody is to be reconstructed on the basis of the fact that the first and third levels (the right and the left hand piano lines) do not relate to each other directly, i.e. their relationship is not that of an immediate mirroring: in order to account for their interconnection, one is thus compelled to (re)construct a third, "virtual" intermediate level (melodic line) which, for structural reasons, cannot be played. Its status is that of an impossible-real which can exist only in the guise of a writing, i.e. physical presence would annihilate the two melodic lines we effectively hear in reality (as in Freud's "A child is being beaten," in which the middle fantasy scene was never conscious and has to be reconstructed as the missing link between the first and the last scene). Schumann brings this procedure of absent melody to an apparently absurd self-reference when, later in the same fragment of Humoresque, he repeats the same two effectively played melodic lines, yet this time the score contains no third absent melodic line, no inner voice - what is absent here is the absent melody, i.e. absence itself. How are we to play these notes when, at the level of what is effectively to be played, they exactly repeat the previous notes? The effectively played notes are deprived only of what is not there, of their constitutive lack, or, to refer to the Bible, they lose even that what they never had. The true pianist should thus have the savoir-faire to play the existing, positive, notes in such a way that one would be able to discern the echo of the accompanying non-played "silent" virtual notes or their absence.

And is this not how ideology works? The explicit ideological text (or practice) is sustained by the "unplayed" series of obscene superego supplement. In "Really Existing Socialism," the explicit ideology of socialist democracy was sustained by a set of implicit (unspoken) obscene injunctions and prohibitions, teaching the subject how not to take some explicit norms seriously and how to implement a set of publicly unacknowledged prohibitions. One of the strategies of dissidence in the last years of Socialism was therefore precisely to take the ruling ideology more seriously/literally than it took itself by way of ignoring its virtual unwritten shadow: "You want us to practice socialist democracy? OK, here you have it!" And when one got back from the Party apparatchiks desperate hints of how this is not the way things function, one simply had to ignore these hints... This is what happens with the proclamation of the Decalogue: its revolutionary novelty resides not in its content, but in the absence of the accompanying virtual texture of the Law's obscene supplement. This is what acheronta movebo ("moving the underground") as a practice of the critique of ideology means: not directly changing the explicit text of the Law, but, rather, intervening into its obscene virtual supplement. Recall the relationsnip towards homosexuality in a soldiers' community, which operates at two clearly distinct levels: the explicit homosexuality is brutally attacked, those identified as gays are ostracized, beaten up every night, etc.; however, this explicit homophobia is accompanied by an excessive set of implicit web of homosexual innuendos, inner jokes, obscene practices, etc. The truly radical intervention in to military homophobia should therefore not focus primarily on the explicit repression of homosexuality; it should rather "move the underground," disturb the implicit homosexual practices which SUSTAIN the explicit homophobia.

It is in this obscene underground which enables us to approach in a new way the Abu Ghraib phenomenon. Does anyone still remember the unfortunate Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, Saddam's information minister who, in his daily press conferences, heroically denied even the most evident facts and stuck to the Iraqi line - when the US tanks were only hundreds of yards from his office, he continued to claim that the US TV shots of the tanks on the Baghdad streets are just Hollywood special effects? Once, however, he did struck a strange truth - when, confronted with the claims that the US army is already in control of parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: "They are not in control of anything - they don't even control themselves!" When the scandalous news broke out about the weird things going on in the Abu Ghraib Prison in Baqhdad, we got a glimpse of this very dimension that Americans do not control in themselves.

In his reaction to the photos showing Iraqi prisoners tortured and humiliated by the US soldiers, rendered public at the end of April 2004, George Bush, as expected, emphasized how the deeds of the soldiers were isolated crimes which do not reflect what America stands and fights for, the values of democracy, freedom and personal dignity. And, effectively, the very fact that the case turned into a public scandal which put the US administration in defensive position was in itself a positive sign - in a really "totalitarian" regime, the case would simply be hushed up. (In the same way, let us not forget that the very fact that the US forces did not find weapons of mass destruction is a positive sign: a truly "totalitarian" power would have done what cops usually do plant drugs and then "discover" the evidence of crime...)

However, a number of disturbing features complicate the simple picture. In the last months, the International Red Cross was regularly bombarding the US Army authorities in Iraq with reports about the abuses in military prisons there, and the reports were systematically ignored; so it was not that the US authorities were getting no signals about what was going on - they simply admitted the crime only when (and because) they were faced with its disclosure in the media. No wonder one of the preventive measures was the prohibition for the US military guards to have digital cameras and cellular phones with video display - to prevent not the acts, but their public circulation... Second, the immediate reaction of the US Army command was surprising, to say the least: the explanation was that the soldiers were not properly taught the Geneva convention rules about how to treat war prisoners - as if one has to be taught not to humiliate and torture prisoners!

But the main feature is the contrast between the "standard" way prisoners were tortured in the previous Saddam's regime and the US Army tortures: in the previous regime, the accent was on direct brutal infliction of pain, while the US soldiers focused on psychological humiliation. Furthermore, recording the humiliation with a camera, with the perpetrators included into the picture, their faces stupidly smiling side by side with the twisted naked bodies of the prisoners, is an integral part of the proccss, in stark contrast with the secrecy of the Saddam tortures. When I saw the well-known photo of a naked prisoner with a black hood covering his head, electric cables attached to his limbs, standing on a chair in a ridiculous theatrical pose, my first reaction was that this was a shot of some latest performance art show in Lower Manhattan. The very positions and costumes of the prisoners suggest a theatrical staging, a kind of tableau vivant, which cannot but bring to our mind the whole scope of American performance art and "theatre of cruelty," the photos of Mapplethorpe, the weird scenes in David Lynch's films...

And it is this feature that brings us to the crux of the matter: to anyone acquainted with the reality of the US way of life, the photos immediately brought to mind the obscene underside of the US popular culture - say, the initiatic rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo in order to be accepted into a closed community. Do we not see similar photos in regular intervals in the US press, when some scandal explodes in an army unit or in a high school campus, where the initiatic ritual went overboard and soldiers or students got hurt beyond a level considered tolerable, forced to assume a humiliating pose, to perform debasing gestures (like penetrating their anal opening with a beer bottle in front of their peers), to suffer being pierced by needles, etc. (And, incidentally, since Bush himself is a member of "Skull and Bones," the most exclusive secret societv of the Yale campus, it would be interesting to learn which rituals he had to undergo to be accepted...

Of course, the obvious difference is that, in the case of such initiatic rituals - as their very name bears witness to - one undergoes them out of a free choice, fully knowing what one has to expect, and with the clear aim of the reward that awaits me (being accepted into the inner circle, and - last but not least - allowed to perform the same rituals or, new members... ), while in Abu Ghraib, the rituals were not the price to be paid by the prisoners in order to be accepted as "one of us," but, on the contrary, the very mark of their exclusion. However, is not the "free choice" of those undergoing the humiliating rituals of initiation an exemplary case of a false free choice, along the lines of the worker's freedom to sell his working force? Even worse, one should recall here one of the most discusting rituals of the anti-black violence in the Old US south: a black guy is cornered by white thugs and then compelled to perform an aggressive gesture ("Spit into my face, boy!"; "Say I am a shit!"...), which is supposed to justify the ensuing beating or lynching. Furthermore, there is the ultimate cynical message in applying to the Arab prisoners the properly American initiatic ritual: you want to be one of us? OK, here you have the taste of the very core of our way of life...

Other institutions have other obscene undersides, of course. The true dark enigma of the behavior of Vatican towards the Nazis was not the one which draws most of the attention of the media, the silence of the Pope with regard to the Holocaust - this lack of activity could be understood, if not condoned, by the special circumstances. What was much darker is, in the years after WWII, the full engagement of the Catholic Church in co-organizing the escape of the Nazi criminals to South America: the standard escape route led to Northern Italy, where they were hidden for some time in some remote monasteries (or, in some cases, even in the City of Vatican itself); from there, they were smuggled to Spain or to a ship (usually in Genoa) which took them to Argentina.[1] Why this urge to save - not ex-functionaries of the "soft" Fascist regimes like the one of Italy itself, but - Nazis themselves whose ideology was explicitly anti-Christian, "pagan"? What deeper solidarity motivated Vatican to engage in such a vast and well-organized effort? If, in the late 1940s, the Catholic Church was able to build such an impressive underground network to save the Nazis, why did it not build in the early 1940s a similar network to save Jews - say, in Rome, at least? And the same ambiguity persists today: true, the pope John Paul II apologized for all the injustice the Church committed against the Jews in its long history - but the same pope canonized the founder of Opus Dei, well-known for his anti-Semitic statements and his pro-Fascist sympathies... Does this not hint towards the obscene underside of the Catholic Church itself? As to another aspect of this underside, recall the recent cases of paedophilia in the Catholic Church is instructive here. What makes these cases so disturbing is that they did riot just happen in religious surroundings - these surroundings were part of them, directly mobilized as the instrument of seduction:

/ ... / the seduction technique employs religion. Almost always some sort of prayer has been used as foreplay. The very places where the molestation occurs are redolent of religion - the sacristy, the confessional, the rectory, Catholic schools and clubs with sacred pictures on the walls. / ... / A conjunction of the overstrict sexual instruction of the Church (e.g., on the mortal sinfulness of masturbation, one occurrence of which can, if not confessed, send one to hell) and a guide who can free one of inexplicably dark teaching by inexplicably sacred exceptions. /The predator/ uses religion to sanction what he is up to, ven calling sex Part of his priestly ministry.[2]

So religion is not just invoked in order to provide a frisson of the forbidden, i.e. to heighten the pleasure by making sex an act of transgression; on the contrary, sex itself is presented in reliqious terms, as the religious cure of the sin (of masturbation). The paedophilic priests were not liberals who seduced boys by claiming that gay sexuality is healthy and permitted - in a masterful use of the reversal called by Lacan point-de-capiton, they first insisted that the confessed sin of a boy (masturbation) really is mortal, and then they offered gay acts (say, mutual masturbation) - i.e., what cannot but appear an even STRONGER sin - as a "healingq procedure". The key resides in this mysterious "transubstantiation", by means of which the prohibiting Law which makes us feel guitly apropos an ordinary sin is is enacted in the guise of a much stronger sin - as it, in a kind ot Hegelian coincidence of the opposites, the Law coincides with the strongest transgression. G.K. Chesterton asserted the truly subversive revolutionary even, character of orthodoxy in his famous "Defense of Detective Story," he remarked how the detective story "keeps in some sense before the mind the fact that civilization - itseif is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions. / ... / /The police romance/ is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies."[3] And does the same not hold for the paedophilic priest? Does his figure not confirm that "morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies"? And is the present US politics, in its inherent structure, not a kind of political equivalent to the Catholic paedophilia? The problem of its new moral vigor is not just that morality is manipulatively exploited, but that it is directly mobilized; the problem with its appeal to democracy is that it is not simply hypocrisy and external manipulation, but that it directly mobilizes and relies on "sincere" democratic strivings.

Recall Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men, a court-martial drama about two US marines accused of murderinq one of their fellow-soldiers; the military prosecutor claims that the act was a deliberate murder, whereas the defense (composed of Tom Cruise and Demi Moore - how could they fail?) succeeds in proving that the defendants followed the so-called "Code Red," the unwritten rule of a military community which authorizes 'the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soidier who has broken the ethical standards of the Marines. Such a code condones an act of transgression, it is "illegal," yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group. It has to remain under cover of the night, unacknowledged, unutterable - in public, everyone pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence (and the climax of the film is, predictably, the outburst of rage of Jack Nicholson, the officer who ordered the night-time beating: his public explosion is, of course, the moment of his fall). While violating the explicit rules of community, such a code represents the "Spirit of community" at its purest, exerting the strongest pressure on individuals to enact group identification. In Derridean terms, in contrast to the written explicit Law, such a superego obscene code is essentially spoken. While the explicit Law is sustained by the dead father qua symbolic authority (the "Name of the Father"), the unwritten code is sustained by the spectral supplement of the Name of the Father, the obscene specter of the Freudian "primordial father.[4] Therein resides the lesson of Coppola's Apocalypse Now: in the figure of Kurtz, the Freudian "primordial father" - the obscene father-enjoyment subordinated to no symbolic Law, the total Master who dares to confront face to face the Real of terrifying jouissance - is presented not as a remainder of some barbaric past, but as the necessary outcome of the modern Western power Itself. Kurtz was a perfect soldier - as such, through his over -identification with the military power system, he turned into the excess which the system has to eliminate. The ultimate horizon of Apocalypse Now is this insight into how Power generates its own excess which it has to annihilate in an operation which has to imitate what it fights (Willard's mission to kill Kurtz is non-existent for the official record, "it never happened," as the general who briefs Willard points out). We thereby enter the domain of secret operations, of what the Power does without ever admitting it. This is where Christopher Hitchens missed the point when he wrote:

One of two things must necessarily be true. Either these goons were acting on someone's authority, in which case there is a layer of mid- to high-level people who think that they are not bound by the laws and codes and standing orders. Or they were acting on their own authority, in which case they are the equivalent of mutineers, deserters, or traitors in the field. This is why one asks wistfully if there is no provision in the procedures of military Justice for them to be taken out and shot.[5]

The problem is that the Abu Ghraib tortures were NEITHER of those two options: while they cannot be reduced to simplc evil acts of individual soldiers, they were of course also not directly ordered - they were legitimized by a specific version of the obscene "Code Red" rules. To claim that they were the acts of "mutineers, deserters, or traitors in the field" is the same nonsense like the claim that the Ku Klux Klan lynchings were the acts of the traitors of Western Christian civilization and not the outburst of its own obscene underside, or that the child abuses of children by Catholic priests are acts of "traitors" to Catholicism... Abu Ghrailb was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people: in being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture, they got the taste of its obscene underside which forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy, and freedom. No wonder, then, that it is gradually becoming clear how the ritualistic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was not a limited case, but part of a widespread practice: on May 6, Donald Rumsfeld had to admit that the photos rendered public are just the "tip of the iceberg," and that there are much stronger things to come, including videos of rape and murder. As to the institutional background of the Abu Ghraib "excess," already in early 2003, the US government, in a secret memo, approved a set of procedures to put the prisoners in the "war of terror" under physical and psychological pressure and thus to assure their "cooperation" (the memo uses wonderful Orwelese: long exposure to strong light is called "visual stimulation"...). This is the reality of Rumsfeld's dismissive statement, a couple of months ago, that the Geneva convention rules are "out of date" with regard to today's warfare.

In a recent debate about the fate of Guantanamo prisoners on NBC, one of the arguments for the ethico-legal acceptability of their status was that "they are those who were missed by the bombs": since they were the target of the US bombing and accidentally survived it, and since this bombing was part of a legitimate military operation, one cannot condemn their fate when they were taken prisoners after the combat - whatever their situation, it is better, less severe, than being dead... This reasoning tells more than it intends to say: it puts the prisoner almost literally into the position of living dead, those who are in a way already dead (their right to live forfeited by being legitimate targets of murderous bombings), so that they are now cases of what Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, the one who can be killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, his life no longer counts. (There is a vague similarity between their situation and the legally problematic premise of the movie Double Jeopardy: if you were condemned for killing A and you later, after serving your term and being released, discover that A is still alive, you can now kill him with impunity since you cannot be condemned two times for the same act. In psychoanalytic term, this killng would clearly display the temporal structure of masochist perversion: the succession is inverted, you are first punished and thus gain the right to commit the crime.) If the Guantanamo prisoners are located in the space "between the two deaths," occupying the position of homo sacer, legally dead (deprived of a determinate legal status) while biologically still alive, the US authorities which treat them in this way are also in a kind of in-between legal status which forms the counterpart to homo sacer: acting as a legal power, their acts are no longer covered and constrained by the law - they operate in an empty space that is still within the domain of the law. And the recent disclosures about Abu Ghraib only display the full consequences of locating prisoners into this place "between the two deaths."

The exemplary economic strategy of today's capitalism is outsourcing - giving over the "dirty" process of material production (but also publicity, design, accountancy... ) to another company via A sub-contract. In this way, one can easily avoid ecological and health rules: the production is done in, say, Indonesia where the ecological and health regulations are much lower than in the West, and the Western global company which owns the logo can claim that it is not responsible for the violations of another company. Are we not getting something homologous with regard to torture? Is torture also not being "outsourced," left to the Third World allies of the US which can do it without worrying about legal probiems or public protest? Was such outsourcing not explicitly advocated by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek immediately after 9/11? After stating that "we can't legalize torture; it's contrary to American values," he nonetheless concludes that "we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, ever. If that's hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty." This is how, today, the First World democracy more and more functions: by way of "outsourcing" its dirty underside to other countries... We can see how this debate about the need to apply torture was by no means academic: today, Americans even do not trust their allies to do the job properly; the "less squeamish" partner is the disavowed part of the US government itself - a quite logical result, once we recall how the CIA taught the Latino American and Third World American military allies the practice of -torture for decades. And, insofar as the predominant skeptical liberal attitude can also be characterized as the one of "outsourced beliefs" (we let the primitive others, "fundamentalists," do their believing for us), does the rise of new religious fundamentalisms in our own societies not signal how the same distrust towards the Third World countries: not only are they not able to do our torturing for us, they even can no longer do our believing for us.

In March 2003, none other than Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term, the "unknown knowns," things we don't know that we know - which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the "knowledge which doesn't know itself," as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the "unknown unknowns," the threats from Saddam about which we do not even suspect what they may be, the Abu Ghralh scandal shows where the main dangers are: in the "unknown knowns," the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values. Which is why the assurance of the US Army command that no "direct orders" were issued to humiliate and torture the prisoners is ridiculous: of course they were not, since, as everyone who knows army life is aware of, this is not how such things are done. There are no formal orders, nothing is written, just unofficial pressure, hints and directives delivered in private, the way one shares a dirty secret...

Bush was thus wrong: what we are getting when we see the photos of the humiliated Iraqi prisoners or, our screens and front pages, is precisely a direct insight into the "American values," into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the US way of life. These photos therefore put into an adequate perspective Samuel Huntington's well-known thesis on the ongoing "clash of civilizations": the clash between the Arab and the American civilization is not a clash between barbarism and respect for human dignity, but a clash between anonymous brutal torture and torture as a mediatic spectacle in which the victims' bodies serve as the anonymous background for the stupidly smiling "innocent American" faces of the torturers themselves. At the Same time, one has here a proof of how, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, every clash of civilizations is the clash of the underlying barbarisms.

This obscene virtual dimension is inscribed into an ideological text in the guise of the fantasmatic background that sustains the emptiness of what Jacques Lacan called the Master-Signifier. The master-Signifier is tha signifier of potentiality, of potential threat, ot a threat which, in order to function as such, has to remain potential (in the same way as it is also the signifier of potential meaning whose actuality is the void of meaning: say, "our Nation" is the thing itself, 'the supreme Cause worth dying for, the highest density of meaning - and, as such, it means nothing in particular, it has no determinate meaning, it can be articulated only in the guise a tautology - "Nation is the Thing itself"). This emptiness of the threat is clearly discernible in everyday phrases like "Just wait! You will see what will happen to you!" - the very lack of the specification of WHAT exactly will befall you makes the threat so threatening, since it solicits the power of my fantasy to fill it in with imagined horrors. As such, the Master-Signifier is the privileged site at which fantasy intervenes, since the function of fantasy is precisely to fill in the void of the signifier-without-signified, i.e., fantasy is ultimately, at its most elementarv, the stuff which fills in the void of the Master-Signifier: again, in the case of a Nation, all the mythic obscure narratives which tell us what the nation is... This gap between the Law and its superego supplement concerns the ambiguous status of political representation, the constitutive excess of representation over the represented. At the level of the Law, the state Power only represents the interests of its subjects; it is serving them, responsible to them and itself subjected to their control; however, at the level of the superego underside, the public message of responsibility, etc., is supplemented by the obscene message of unconditional exercise of Power: laws do not really bind me, I can do to you WHATEVER I WANT, I can treat you as guilty if I decide so, I can destroy you if I say so... This obscene excess is a necessary constituent of the notion of sovereignty (whose signifier is the Master-Signifier) - the asymmetry is here structural, i.e. the law can only sustain its authority if subjects hear in it the echo of the obscene unconditional self-assertion.

It is similar with anti-Semitism: Jew is the Master-Signifier, the ultimate empty point of reference which accounts for the (inconsistent) series of phenomena that bother people (corruption, moral and cultural decadence, sexual depravity, commercialization, class struggle and other social antagonisms ... ); as such, the figure of the Jew has to be sustained/encircled by the swarm of fantasies about their mysterious rituals and properties.[6] However, in the XXth century, this link between power and invisible threat gets in a way redoubled or reflected-into itself: it is no longer merely the existing power structure which, in order to sustain its efficiency, its hold over its subjects, has to rely on the fantasmatic dimension of the potential/invisible threat; the place of the threat is, rather, externalized, displaced into the Outside, the Enemy of the power - it is the invisible (and for that very reason all-powerful and omnipresent) threat of the Enemy that legitimizes the permanent state of emergency of the existing Power (Fascists invoked the threat of the Jewish conspiracy, Stalinists the threat of the class enemy up to today's "war on terror," of course). This invisible threat of the Enemy legitimizes the logic of the preemptive strike: precisely because the threat is virtual, it is too late to wait for its actualization, one has to strike in advance, before it will be too late... In other words, the omnipresent invisible threat of Terror legitimizes the all too visible protective measures of defense (which pose the only TRUE threat to democracy and human rights, of course)if the classic power functioned as the threat which was operative precisely by way of never actualizing itself, by way of remaining a threatening GESTURE (and this functioning reached its climax in the Cold War, with the the threat of the mutual nuclear destruction which HAD to remain a threat), with the war on terror, the invisible threat causes the incessant actualization - not of itself, but - of the measures against itself. The nuclear strike had to remain the threat of a strike, while the threat of the terrorist strike triggers the endless series of strikes against potential terrorists... The power which presents itself as being all the time under threat, living in mortal danger, and thus merely defending itself, is the most dangerous kind of power.


  1. See the ample documentation in Uki Goñi, La autentica Odessa. La fuga nazi a la Argentina de Peron, Buenos Aires, Paidos 2004.
  2. Gary Willis, "Scandal", The New York Review of Books, May 23 2002, p. 6.
  3. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, "A Defense of Detectives Stories," in H. Haycraft, ed., The Art of the Mystery History, New York: The Universal Library, 1946, p. 6.
  4. For a more detailed elaboration of this topic, see Chapter 3 of Slavoj Zizek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, London: Verso Books 1995.
  5. Christopher Hitchens, "Prison Mutiny," available online (posted on May 4 2004).
  6. I rely here on Mladen Dolar, "Moc nevidnega /The Power of the Invisible/," Problema 1-2, Ljubljana 2004.