Zizek and shame

This article by Zizek on the Panama Papers seems to be free of the kind of offensive comments that have characterized his commentary on the refugee crisis. There are many things one could say about it, but what stands out to me are the opening remarks about the efficacy of public shaming — a sentiment that reminds me of another recent article on Trump where he worries about the breakdown of the implicit prohibitions in the public sphere. In these pieces, as in his mid-2000s writings about torture, he is not an advocate of the “at least they’re honest” defense. Even if the public prohibition of certain classes of statements is hypocritical, something is lost once you shift from publicly denying your torture program to openly admitting it — torture is somehow legitimized simply by being allowed into the sphere of public debate.

What are we to make of this sentiment — which I agree with — when we return to his writings on the refugee crisis? There he poses as a champion of honesty against the evasions of “the politically correct left,” and though it is possible, albeit decreasingly so, to construe his South Park-style “provocations” in a less offensive light, his own rhetorical practice seems difficult to square with his stated position on preserving some semblance of restraint and taboo enforceable by the big Other. Why does he seem so determined to court public shaming for racist and otherwise vulgar remarks?

Zizek seems to be sincerely concerned about a victory of the radical right in Europe. However we might judge their efficacy and cogency, his comments on the refugee crisis are intended as a way toward a leftist answer to the problem that will be somehow more convincing or viable than what he views as “politically correct” evasions. What comes through much more than this concern, though, is his desire to position himself as the tough-minded realist, the bold truth-teller waking the dogmatic “P.C. left” from its slumber and complacency. Yet when we look at the actual recommendations, they are anything but bold — we should admit that the racist reactionaries “have a point,” for instance, which is exactly the kind of centrist gesture that he critiqued in early works like Tarrying With the Negative. (For related examples, see Marika’s post.)

It’s as though he has staked out a position as an inverse Beautiful Soul. We still have the arbitrary self-assertion of his own correctness, but instead of judging everyone for dirtying their purity with the stuff of reality, he denounces everyone who doesn’t treat the current constellation as a brute fact. If he could complete his inversion of Hegel’s dialectic of the moral consciousness and forgive the “P. C. left” for having aspirations and questioning the legitimacy of the current balance of power, maybe we could finally get somewhere — or at least he could find another way to spend his time other than destroying his reputation and legacy.

8 Responses to “Zizek and shame”

  1. Liam Griffin Says:

    The title of Zizek’s article “..why does a dog lick himself” is typically offensive, no?

  2. Mike Gavin Says:

    You ask, “Why does he seem so determined to court public shaming for racist and otherwise vulgar remarks?”

    With Trump t’s not transgression qua transgression that bothers Zizek, it is that the right appropriates transgression as an revolutionary act proper to the left. As Zizek says, right-wing transgressive acts, are never revolutionary but always “counter-revolutionary”: “one should also not allow our opponents to determine the field and topic of the struggle” S(lavoj Zizek. “Robespierre or the ‘Divine Violence’ of Terror.”)

    And so on. And so n I would write this up properly but it is 4:30 am and I have just finished another paper on an unrelated topic. So instead, please see these quotes to further elucidate my point:

    “Fascism is itself less ‘ideological’, in so far as it openly proclaims the principle of domination that is elsewhere concealed.”- Adorno. 71. Minimia Moralia

    The fascist leader types are frequently called hysterical. No matter how their attitude is arrived at, their hysterical behavior fulfills a certain function. Though they actually resemble their listeners in most respects, they differ from them in an important one: they know no inhibitions in expressing themselves. They function vicariously for their inarticulate listeners by doing and saying what the latter would like to, but either cannot or dare not. They violate the taboos which middle-class society has put upon any expressive behavior on the part of the normal, matter-of-fact citizen. One may say that some of the effect of fascist propaganda is achieved by this break-through. The fascist agitators are taken seriously because they risk making fools of themselves.
    – Theodor W. Adorno, “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda”

    “Educated people in general found it hard to understand the effect of Hitler’s speeches because they sounded so insincere, ungenuine, or, as the German word goes, verlogen. But it is a deceptive idea, that the so-called common people have all unfailing flair for the genuine and sincere, and disparage the fake. Hitler was liked, not in spite of his cheap antics, but just because of them, because of his false tones and his clowning. They are observed as such, and appreciated. Real folk artists, such as Girardi with his Fiakerlied, were truly in touch with their audiences and they always employed what strikes us as ‘false tones.’ We find similar manifestations regularly in drunkards who have lost their inhibitions. The sentimentality of the common people is by no means primitive, unreflecting emotion. On the contrary, it is pretense, a fictitious, shabby imitation of real feeling, often self-conscious and slightly contemptuous of itself. This fictitiousness is the life element of the fascist propagandist performances . . .” (Theodor W. Adorno “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda”).

    “What one most fears for no real reason, apparently obsessed by a fixed idea, has the unnerving habit of occurring. The question which one would at no price like to hear, is asked by an assistant in a perfidiously friendly manner; the person, who one most wishes to keep distant from one’s beloved, will end inviting the latter, even if the former is three thousand miles away, thanks to a well-meaning recommendation, leading to precisely the circle of acquaintances, from which the danger threatens. It is an open question as to what extent one invites such terrors oneself; if one perhaps elicits that question from the malicious one by an all too eager silence; if one provokes the fatal contact, by requesting the mediator, out of a foolishly destructive trust, not to mediate. Psychology knows, that whoever envisions the calamity, also somehow wishes for it. But why does the latter seem to eager to meet them? Something appeals, in the reality, to the paranoid fantasy which distorts such. The latent sadism of all unerringly guesses the latent weakness of all. And the persecution fantasy is infectious: whoever encounters it as a spectator is irresistibly driven to imitate it. This succeeds most easily, when one gives it justifiable grounds, by doing what the other fears. “One fool makes many” – the abyssal loneliness of delusion has a tendency towards collectivization, which cites the picture of delusion into life. This pathic mechanism harmonizes with the socially determining one of today, wherein those who are socialized into desperate isolation hunger for togetherness and band together in cold clumps. Thus folly becomes epidemic: vagrant sects grow with the same rhythm as large organizations. It is that of total destruction. The fulfillment of persecution manias stems from its affinity to bloody being [Wesen: nature, essence, character]. Violence, on which civilization is based, means the persecution of all by all, and those with persecution manias miss the boat solely, by displacing what is wrought by the whole onto their neighbors, in the helpless attempt to make incommensurability commensurable. They burn, because they wish to immediately grasp, with their bare hands, as it were, the objective illusion which they resemble, while the absurdity consists precisely of the perfected mediacy [Mittelbarkeit]. They fall as victims to the perpetuation of the context of delusion. Even the worst and most senseless conception of events, the wildest projections, contain the unconscious effort of consciousness, to recognize the fatal law, by virtue of which society perpetuates its life. The aberration is actually only the short-circuit of adaptation: the open foolishness of the one mistakenly calls, in others, the foolishness of the whole by its correct name, and the paranoid are the mocking image of the right life, by choosing on their own initiative to make it similar to the wrong one. Just as sparks fly in a short-circuit, so too does delusion communicate with delusion truly like lightning. Points of communication are the overpowering confirmations of persecution manias, which mock the one who is ill for being right, and thereby only push them in deeper. The surface of existence immediately closes up again and proves to them, that things are not that bad and that they must be mad. They anticipate subjectively the condition, in which objective madness and the powerlessness of the individual pass, unmediated, into each other, as in Fascism, where the dictatorship of those who are persecution maniacs realizes the fears of persecution of its victims. The question of whether an exaggerated suspicion is paranoid or realistic, the faint private echo of the tumult of history, can thus be solely determined retrospectively. Psychology does not reach into horror.”–Adorno. 103. Minimia Moralia

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s vulgar, but not offensive in the relevant way.

  4. Michael Meisel Says:

    With this comment “vulgar, but not offensive in the relevant way” Adam turned out to be offensive in an unrelevant way. This way of critic is abstract, missing at least the “imminent procedure”, that Adam has proven so many times to be able to… Maybe it appeares in connection with the fact that Zizek does not like Adorno very much. Even though I found many times Zizek paraphrasing Adorno’s ideas without citing him…

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No one is offended by a dog licking himself in the same way that they’re offended by racist stereotypes. That’s what I meant by “the relevant way” — and I suspect that anyone with common sense would be able to make that distinction.

  6. Žižek and the Subtlety of Dialectics or Reading the Panama Papers in the Philippines – The Post-Secular Blog Says:

    […] resistance and refusal of taking alternatives. Hence, I see Adam Kotsko’s remarks on this matter as an expression of difficulty, asking why Žižek would engage further in the […]

  7. Bill Nadir Says:

    Zizek’s grounding premises over the last twenty years have been remarkably consistent, some of the conclusions are now different. Instead of merely comparing a log of his previous conclusions with his current ones, it might be helpful to trace the changes in the intermediate premises which affect the conclusions.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This is a salutary reminder, but the main thrust of this argument involves synchronous opinions, or roughly so.


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