How to Read Žižek on the Refugee Crisis

Žižek’s recent remarks on the refugee crisis have provoked considerable ire in online leftist circles. For some, this article is the final proof that Žižek is a racist and quasi- (or not so quasi-) fascist. Though many people I respect share this view, I believe that it is a terrible misreading.

Ultimately, I would argue that even this article can be read through the lens of my piece How to Read Žižek. In that article, I argue that Žižek’s political interventions always try to highlight a fundamental conflict or deadlock. He does so not by laying out a step by step argument with a clear thesis statement, but by overidentifying with the (inadequate) terms of public debate in order to press beyond them.

That same basic strategy is at work in the refugee article, though he is uncharacteristically direct in antagonizing left-wing and liberal readers. I believe his goal in doing so is to provoke those readers into showing that they refuse to ask concrete questions about how to exercise power, preferring instead to demonstrate their purity through denunciation of others.

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A strange moment in Hegel

In the middle section of the Phenomenology of Spirit‘s chapter on “Reason,” entitled “The Actualization of Rational Self-Consciousness Through Its Own Actuality,” Hegel makes a strange methodological choice. On our journey toward Spirit, Hegel claims, we can take one of two approaches — either study individual reasoning subjects who exist before Spirit emerges and therefore must found it, or else study individuals who have become alienated from some particular form of Spirit. Both, he claims, will amount to the same thing, and “since in our times that form of these moments is more familiar in which they appear after consciousness has lost its ethical life and, in the search for it, repeats those forms [i.e., the forms that precede Spirit], they may be represented more in terms of that sort” (par. 357). What follows is a study of three characters — Faust, Schiller’s Karl Moor, and Don Quixote — whom Hegel believes to embody this modern trend.

There is much that is questionable here. First, we get no demonstration that the pre-Spirit and post-Spirit individualities are the same — he just kind of asserts it. Second, this approach seems to contradict his phenomenological method, because suddenly we’ve skipped to a point where Spirit already exists. Hyppolite suggests that Hegel is aiming for more topical relevance, as in his discussion of physiognomy and phrenology, but it’s not like someone flipping through the Phenomenology in the bookstore would be able to identify the discussion of Don Quixote as such.

The best reason I’ve been able to come up with for Hegel’s approach here is that working through the pre-Spirit forms would inevitably become a boring re-hash of social contract theory. And though I haven’t fully fleshed this out by any means, it occurs to me that if this is what the pre-Spirit treatment would have looked like, then perhaps we can do some of the work ourselves to figure out why Hegel’s post-Spirit sequence would be broadly similar to the pre-Spirit — perhaps we’d go through a sequence of Hobbes (self-interest submits to necessity), Rousseau (spontaneous goodness succumbs to corrupt power structures), and Adam Smith (moral sentiment gives way to rational self-interest, which turns out not to be as selfish as it thought).

Racism and the refugee problem

In a less racist country, the reasoning would go like this: the people fleeing ISIS from Syria hate ISIS more than we possibly could, more even than the French could. Attacks on the scale of the tragedy in Paris are routine in ISIS-controlled areas, resulting in entire cities being levelled. If we let them in and generously provide for them, we would be building up a community of grateful, patriotic Americans whose presence and loyalty would undercut the message on which ISIS thrives.

Note that I didn’t say a more “rational” country or use any other vague and formalistic word. Yes, people lack logical reasoning and long-term thinking on this issue, but it’s not like they had a spontaneous brain-fart — it’s racism that’s deluding them. Only extreme racism could make you think that people’s shared ethnic background would create a bond of loyalty that transcends murder, rape, destruction of homes and livelihoods, etc.

Note also that I didn’t say a “kinder” or “nicer” country. Yes, people are being exceptionally heartless, but again, it’s not some random moral failing on the part of individuals. Racism is what makes people see refugees as less worthy of concern, just as it’s what makes people inclined to explain away the murder of unarmed blacks by police. Only racist logic could make the extremely remote possibility of an ISIS “sleeper” sneaking in among the refugees into an excuse to deny thousands of people the chance to rebuild a livable life.

The Republican governors who are refusing admission to refugees aren’t simply idiots, or crazy ideologues, or heartless bastards — though they are undoubtedly all those things. The root cause of all of that is that they’re racists.

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The Hypocrisy of Christianity: Or, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven”

Christianity promotes an extremely demanding ethic in principle. The problem is that it also provides unlimited, unconditional forgiveness for failing to live up to that ethic.

The history of mainstream Christianity is the story of embracing the latter principle until the former is a vestigial organ. The end result is a situation like today, where conservative Christians never see a “necessary evil” they don’t love.

It’s more complicated than pointing out Bible verses. Conservative Christians are not being “hypocritical” by failing to live up to the challenging ethical teachings — hypocrisy *is* the ethic of mainstream Christianity.

Hence the scorn that conservative Christians reserve for those naive fools who think we’re supposed to live according to Jesus’ teachings. If you quote a liberal-sounding Bible verse at them, that just shows you’re not in on the joke.

Announcement: The Prince of This World to be Published by Stanford University Press

My long-promised book on the devil will be published by Stanford University Press, under the title The Prince of This World: The Life and Legacy of the Devil. Details of the publication date, etc., have not been decided, but I do know that I’ll be spending my winter break making final revisions. I’d like to thank my editor, Emily-Jane Cohen, as well as two conscientious and perceptive peer reviewers, for their work on behalf of this project. A description of the project follows beneath the fold.

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Further thoughts on accessibility in humanities scholarship

The issue of the relative accessibility of humanities scholarship, the role of “theory” and its terminology, and the need to reach a broader audience have all been major areas of conversation within the humanities themselves. The heyday of “theory,” for instance, is widely acknowledged to be over. Meanwhile, there has been an explosion of more accessible publications (n+1, LA Review of Books, The New Inquiry, etc.) and book series (Zero Books, Repeater Books, etc.) that apply the modes of critical analysis inculcated in humanities graduate programs in a way intended for a broader educated audience — and they have had some real successes, both in reaching that audience and in being accepted into the existing mainstream (as for instance when n+1 alumni pepper the pages of The New Yorker). And meanwhile, to pick just one major example, Judith Butler — the very embodiment of “bad academic prose” in most discussions — has quite literally transformed her prose style from the bottom up in the last decade and engaged quite intentionally with a broader public. We could also think of the phenomenon of Zizek’s broad popularity.

The journalistic discussion of “bad academic writing” never, ever mentions any of this. It judges from the outside, based on stale cliches of 80s- and 90s-vintage academic trends. It never asks the “bad academic writers” whether they have a reason for writing the way they do or whether they share concerns about accessibility. That’s why I regard the discourse as beneath contempt — not because of some misguided loyalty that rejects any critique of any humanities academic, but because the whole discourse is a transparent ongoing political hit-job.

On the “bad academic writing” trope

Yet another article on the scourge of opaque academic writing is making the rounds, and someone on Facebook got mad at me for being so dismissive of it. After all, surely I must admit that sometimes academic writing is needlessly complex and jargony? Right? Right?! But I don’t have to admit anything.

What I wonder is not whether the generalization is justified, but why it is an issue suitable for discussion in the mainstream press. Further, though the critique is aimed at “academic writing” in general, the proverbial “howlers” are almost always in the humanities.

Why are the humanities singled out? The reason is twofold. First, it reflects a belief that specialized knowledge in the humanities simply does not exist. Any humanities research that is not immediately accessible to an undergraduate is therefore an elitist imposture. Second, there is little doubt that there is a political agenda at work, given the ire directed at the influence of “Theory” in humanities writing — which is almost always a left-wing enterprise.

So no, I won’t “admit” that sometimes “academic writing” is bad, because in the public sphere, such rhetoric functions to delegitimate the humanities. There is a serious discussion to be had about the accessibility of our work, etc., but that is a discussion for us to have, on our own terms — not the terms set by a tediously cliched article in the Atlantic Monthly.


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