Fantasies of Europe: Žižek against Žižek

I’ve been thinking recently about the links between Žižek’s Eurocentrism and the role that Christianity plays in his work, and in doing so I’ve been returning to some of his earlier work, in which he’s less interested, as of late, in the notion of a Europe under threat from the fantasies of its external others and more interested in the ways in which his native Balkans get caught up in the fantasies of Western Europe. I was struck, repeatedly, by the contrast between Žižek’s analysis of the Balkans’ relationship to Europe and his recent discussions of European attitudes to immigration. I wish that Žižek would read Arun Kundnani’s account of the West’s role in creating “Islamist terror”; I wish he would read Christine Delphy’s discussion of the role that feminism has long played in French racism. But mostly I wish he would recognise in his own discussions of the Muslim world the complex and destructive fantasies he is able to see in Western Europe’s attitude to the Balkans. Žižek has a tendency to lazily repeat more or less racist stereotypes about Muslims, migrants and non-Europeans. What his own work suggests is that actually this makes a lot of sense, because his discussion of these issues is precisely an Orientalist fantasy of a world in which what everybody else most strongly desires is to become European. It’s frustrating that he cannot recognise this hypocrisy. Without further comment, then, here are some selections from Žižek’s discussions of Europe and the Balkans, alongside his recent discussions of Europe and migration from the Muslim-majority world:

Whose fantasy? #1

Recall the fascination exerted on Western democrats by the disintegration of Socialism in the late 1980s: the key dimension of what fascinated the West was not, as may have appeared, the scene of Eastern Europeans rediscovering the values of democracy with an enthusiasm that was conspicuously absent in the West, but, rather, the fact that the Eastern Europeans protesting against the rule of the Communist nomenklatura were them­selves fascinated by the West, looking towards it – the true fantasmatic object of the West was this Eastern gaze itself, able to see in the West what people there no longer saw: a land of freedom and democracy….
For They Know Not What They Do, c.

In escaping their war-torn homelands, the refugees are possessed by a dream. Refugees arriving in southern Italy do not want to stay there: many of them are trying to get to Scandinavia. The thousands of migrants in Calais are not satisfied with France: they are ready to risk their lives to enter the UK. Tens of thousands of refugees in Balkan countries are desperate to get to Germany. They assert their dreams as their unconditional right, and demand from the European authorities not only proper food and medical care but also transportation to the destination of their choice. There is something enigmatically utopian in this demand: as if it were the duty of Europe to realise their dreams – dreams which, incidentally, are out of reach of most Europeans (surely a good number of Southern and Eastern Europeans would prefer to live in Norway too?).
The Non-Existence of Norway

The clearest expression of the “desire for the west” are immigrant refugees: their desire is not a revolutionary one, it is the desire to leave behind their devastated habitat and rejoin the promised land of the developed west. (Those who remain behind try to create there miserable copies of western prosperity, like the “modernised” parts in every third world metropolis, in Luanda, in Lagos, etc, with cafeterias selling cappuccinos, shopping malls, and so on).
The Cologne attacks were an obscene version of carnival. Read the rest of this entry »

Deflating the Magical President Myth: Take 2 on Sanders vs. Clinton

You all have convinced me that my thought experiment yesterday was excessively pessimistic. It’s unlikely that Sanders could both win the nomination and enter office with the Democratic establishment seething with resentment against him (the role of the superdelegates alone ensures such an outcome is extremely improbable). Hence let’s say that the worst-case scenario of a Sanders presidency that turns into an utter fiasco is off the table.

Everyone seems to concede, however, that barring a massive change in the dynamics of Congressional races — a massive change that I actually think is more likely than conventional wisdom would grant — Sanders’ room for maneuver would be limited. His control of a crucial veto point would at least ensure that activists wouldn’t have to waste time rallying against obviously stupid stuff, and his ability to staff the executive branch could make a big difference (credit to Stephen Keating for both links). Nonetheless, the widely shared view even among Sanders supporters is that he cannot possibly fulfill his supporters’ most optimistic expectations.

And that may be a very good thing. What has made me hesitant on Sanders is my memory of Obama’s supposedly transformational mass-movement and its consequences. Yes, yes, this time we have a real progressive instead of a centrist with great rhetorical skills. And if we can finally, against all odds, get the Right Person into the most powerful office in the land, then that will definitively prove that the presidency is not enough. It will break the myth, which everyone on the left who has any investment in electoral politics keeps falling for again and again, of the Magical President.

I said in my last post that it would perhaps be better to concentrate on consolidating power at lower levels so that a progressive president could be most effective — an aspect of my argument that virtually everyone ignored, by the way — but not only is that not an either/or, it may be only a both/and. Only the disappointments and failures of the Right Person can open up the possibility that the movement will actually focus on building a broader power base instead of focusing exclusively on the presidential moon shot. By contrast, a Sanders loss leaves open the space of fantasy that electing the Right Person as president would have fixed everything….

Among all Democratic politicians, Sanders stands the best chance of creating this kind of mobilization as well. He’s not afraid to say that politics is about conflict and that there are real enemies who need to be defeated — hence he is more likely to blame Republicans rather than “Congress” and to forcefully make use of his guaranteed media access to help promote that end. By contrast, a defeated candidate would struggle to maintain anything like the national platform Sanders now has.

The presidency isn’t omnipotent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful, and as the commenter protoplasm elegantly argued, you learn to exercise power by actually exercising it. Sanders has proven effective in exercising power in the unfavorable circumstances of the Senate, so why not be optimistic that he would do his level best as president?

So there you have it: an opinion ventured, then changed through constructive dialogue. Remember this day, because it is the first and last time it will ever happen in our lifetimes.

Radical Interpretations of the Bible

There’s a new issue of the journal Postscripts out: a special issue on radical interpretations of the Bible, edited by Michael J Sandford. It’s got a piece by Sandford on whether we can understand Jesus as a Luxury Communist, one by Robert J Myles on the Jesus of John’s Gospel as a reactionary aristocrat, one by Wei Hsien-Wan on 1 Peter and imperial models of time, and response articles by me and Caroline Blyth. You can access the issue here.

Vincent Lloyd on Martin Luther King

Amaryah alerts us that Vincent Lloyd has a great piece up for Martin Luther King Day. An excerpt:

Where are those powerful resources found? I do not think that we should turn to King’s late work to find a more “radical” leader. While such a turn has become fashionable of late, I believe it is actually the early King to whom social justice advocates ought to turn. In King’s early sermons and speeches, he spoke in a decidedly theological idiom, and he spoke from and to the black community. As his career progressed, his public voice became more secular and his audience became whiter — a trend that accelerated after his assassination, culminating in the secularized, post-racial King memorialized in Washington.

White guilt? No thanks! But please pass the white shame.

I appreciated the way George Yancy talked about guilt in his recent New York Times piece. I have been trying to think through what it means to attempt an ethics in a world where ideal ethical living is basically impossible. Without going all the way with someone like Dworkin, I know that the relationship those of us with partners have as a couple or even those in polyamorous relationships, however loving and supportive and equal we all try to make it, is still structured by patriarchal norms, capitalism, and heteronormativity. I use that example because it is something most of us live everyday and can reflect on easily. In our homes all the problems of nature and culture meet, all the problems of politics and ethics coalesce, and we navigate them the best we can, but we are bound to failure. The failure of our society and our culture. This is true of myself too but I don’t feel guilt about that. Feeling guilt would imply I was doing some individual action that sullied something that was working before. But I do feel uneasy, I do feel a certain sense of shame because of the subject position as male I am recognized as and inhabit in the social world. 

This is often how I talk to my students about issues of race as well. I tend to work with this distinction between guilt and shame as derived first from the anthropologist Victor Turner and then reworked by the environmental scientist and theorist William Jordan III (though I suspect there are others more attuned to race that I simply have not yet encountered, this being part of the shame of finitude). Read the rest of this entry »

“That was a nice touch”: The Hateful Eight and the Inescapable Violence of Being American

Back in 2009 I wrote a post after watching Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. In that post I reveled in the joy of that film. After all, we get to be party to the killing of Hitler, to the refusal of forgiveness. At the same time, at the end of the film, Tarantino does something that he often does in his consistent refusal to allow some viewers-arguably the majority of them-any comfort. For, though we get to enjoy the fact that, this time, the angel of history wasn’t so powerless, we find out at the end of the film that we are in fact the Nazi. For the film ends from the perspective of Hans Landa after he’s had a swastika carved into his forehead. From the perspective of the camera it is in fact we, the consumers of this violence, who are now marked with the shame of our own enjoyment. (This is, I am sure, not my original idea, but I cannot remember for the life of me who wrote something along these lines. If you do let me know in the comments.) Something similar happens in The Hateful Eight, except without really any of the enjoyment of a clear moral division as there was between the Jewish guerillas and the Nazis.

It should be assumed that from this point forward there are spoilersRead the rest of this entry »

Crisis: Knowledge, History, Law | Workshop University of Kent 29 January 2015

Workshop Details and Registration

29 January 2016 from 9am, Darwin Conference Suite 3, University of Kent

Free, Registration requested via the following link:


Organizer: Thanos Zartaloudis (Kent Law School & AA School of Architecture)

Assistants: Michalis Zivanaris (PhD Candidate, Kent Law School) & Gian Giacomo Fusco (PhD Candidate, Kent Law School)

Funded by: Social Critiques of Law Research Group (Directors: Emilie Cloatre & Donatella Alessandrini) & Kent Law School, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK

Confirmed Speakers:

  • Janet Roitman (The New School for Social Research, New York)
  • Emanuele Coccia (Centre d’Histoire et Théorie des Arts (CEHTA — EHESS), Paris, and The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Columbia University)
  • Marika Rose (University of Durham, Department of Theology and Religion)
  • Anton Schütz (Birkbeck College, School of Law)
  • Esther Leslie (Birkbeck College, Department of English and Humanities)
  • Stathis Gourgouris (Columbia University, Classics, English; Institute for Comparative Literature and Society)
  • Ilias Papagianopoulos (University of Piraeus, International and European Studies)
  • Marina Lathouri (Architectural Association, London, School of Architecture & University of Cambridge, School of Architecture)
  • Bo Isenberg (Lund University, Faculty of Sociology)

We are told that we are “immersed” in crisis: European sovereign debt crisis, the subprime crisis in the United States, the crisis in Afghanistan, the crisis in Darfur, the crisis in the Congo, in Syria, in Cairo, in the Middle East, ecologic crisis and so forth (cf. Roitman), the modern city is crisis, nihilism is crisis and so forth. A bad infinity of crises amounting, in one view, to a ‘global crisis’ that forms a ‘surface effect’ in the reversal of the relation between humans and the world (Serres). To not just enter a moment of crisis, but to be in crisis raises then at first significant entry-level questions (i.e. Who decides whether there is ‘a crisis’? What are the outcomes of being in a permanent state of ‘crisis’? etc.)

Yet at the same time it questions the peculiar nature of crisis as such: its paradoxical elevated status through conditioning normalcy while suspending it; and at the same time its endless encroachment over social processes and beings which, as time goes by, become tomorrow’s normalcy.

This workshop has invited papers by participants on a variety of approaches to the notion and experience of crisis. The aim of the workshop is to interrogate the notion of crisis across and against disciplinary approaches, with one eye set, inevitably, on the ‘contemporary’ situation, but with ever more attention to the intersections between crisis, knowledge, history and law in a wider sense.

Posted in blog posts. Comments Off on Crisis: Knowledge, History, Law | Workshop University of Kent 29 January 2015

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