A frank assessment of Žižek’s work as a political commentator

I am a veteran of online discussions about Žižek. My constant refrain, for over a decade now, has been that Žižek’s critics have not actually understood what he is saying. And until that can be clarified, I refuse to enter into a discussion of whether I agree with Žižek — because without a shared understanding of what he’s saying, I would be walking into a rhetorical trap. The net result of this is that virtually no discussion ever got to a point where I felt comfortable “weighing in” on the merits of Žižek’s argument. (In biblical studies terms, I’ve been stuck at exegesis and never made it to hermeneutics.)

At this point, however, I believe that I have sufficiently laid out my understanding of Žižek’s rhetorical strategy in his political commentaries. I arrived at my interpretation not simply because I wanted to put a “good” spin on his arguments, but because I literally could not make sense of them in any other way. In my view, no other interpretive framework stands a chance of producing anything approaching a coherent reading of Žižek’s interventions in the public sphere.

And that’s a pretty serious problem. It defeats much of the point of writing for the general public if the only person who can construe your writings in a coherent and non-inflammatory way is a scholar of your previous work.

Further, once we’ve arrived at the proper reading, is it really worth the effort? I joked in yesterday’s post about how the ultimate critique of Žižek is that he turns out to be a boring liberal in practical terms, and I clarified in comments that I find that critique much more plausible than the inflammatory racist-fascist stuff. Do we really gain much by going through a series of dialectical reversals if we are going to wind up in the ballpark of a Paul Krugman column? Sometimes his rhetorical strategy seems exceptionally high-risk, low-reward.

Finally, at its worst the rhetorical strategy I extract from Žižek’s political commentaries can devolve into cheap contrarianism — especially since Žižek harbors an exaggerated allergy for anything that smacks of “political correctness.” It does give me pause that the overwhelming majority of praise and thanks I received for my post yesterday came from white men (though by the same token, the vast majority of idiotic abuse I received also came from white men). I hope he doesn’t wind up in a Christopher Hitchens-esque reversal of being “so left-wing he’s right-wing,” but I do view that as a real danger. Though I disagree with them, I understand why people think he has already crossed that line. And the more he insists on over-production, the more likely it is that his complex dialectical strategy will in fact devolve into the cheapened contrarian shadow of itself.

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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Paul Ryan’s family time

There is a meme going around to the effect that Paul Ryan, the candidate for Speaker of the House, is demanding family time as a condition of taking the job, while meanwhile he opposes mandatory paid family leave for other workers. This is precisely the kind of “hypocrisy attack” that I hate, and I think it is a particularly vivid illustration of the weakness of the genre.

First off, it is not actually hypocritical for Paul Ryan to individually attempt to negotiate family time into his contract while opposing a universal requirement for employers to offer family leave. Presumably he would encourage everyone to negotiate such concessions — individually.

Even worse than the misdiagnosis of hypocrisy is the missed opportunity to highlight the real problem with Paul Ryan’s position. He is, for better or worse, viewed as being uniquely qualified for an important job, which gives him considerable negotiating leverage. The problem isn’t that he’s using that leverage — the problem is that his worldview assumes that his situation is the norm for all workers. In reality, the vast majority of jobs are offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and most don’t even include an explicit contract. Workers have no leverage in such situations, and hence the state needs to step in to make sure that they have protections and benefits that they could never negotiate individually. This could also serve as a teachable moment for the necessity of unions.

Or, you know, we could mock Paul Ryan for asking for something everyone wants and should have.

The root causes of mass shootings

After each of our increasingly routine mass shootings, there is a predictable exchange: liberals advocate gun control laws, while conservatives say we shouldn’t do that. I have to say that at a practical level, I’m with the liberals on this one. No matter what some dangling participle in the Constitution seems to imply, one of the primary goals of forming any human society is increased safety from unpredictable interpersonal violence. No law can stop people from getting angry and lashing out, but those people will do a lot less damage if they don’t have access to military-grade weaponry, for instance.

That being said, it cannot be the case that access to firearms is the root cause of nihilistic violence in American society. It is a symptom — an incredibly urgent one that must be treated immediately, but still a symptom. The deeper problem is the profound alienation and callousness that American social formation produces. That is to say, even if all our guns were raptured today, leaving us behind to fend for ourselves, American society would still be producing the kind of person who wants to randomly murder as many strangers as practically possible. More than that, it is not just producing the kind of person who fleetingly thinks that — presumably the thought has crossed the mind of many people who have been on a crowded subway car or in a long line — but someone who stays with that bitterness and rage in a way that allows them to carry out practical plans for making it happen. If that person didn’t have guns, he [sic] would be less dangerous, but on another level he would still be deeply frightening.

And I would even suggest that it’s the very same alienation and callousness that makes gun control — literally the most commonsensical measure possible — into such a hopeless cause. In other words, our empty, futile ritual of mourning follows so reliably after mass shootings because both stem from the same deep pathologies in American society.

Kim Davis has defeated us all

Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis is clearly a terrible person who should not be occupying so much of our collective attention. In an ideal world, she would have resigned in protest. And there’s little doubt that this whole controversy has been drummed up by movement conservatives who are eager to fund a media spectacle. It’s all made-up bullshit.

The thing is, that spectacle has been amazingly effective in showing liberals in the worst possible light. There may literally be no stereotype of liberals that is not confirmed in the response to Kim Davis.

Do you think liberals are often hypocritical? It turns out that all that rhetoric of sexual freedom doesn’t apply to the unconventional sex life of a Kentucky county clerk — and the knee-jerk critiques of conservative sexism ring hollow once you recognize the not-so-subtle undertone of shock and disgust that a woman who is not conventionally attractive can achieve such feats of promiscuity.

Do you think that liberals are authoritarian? Well, it turns out that — at least now that the powers that be have taken their side — liberals think you should obey the law and your employer unconditionally or else you can just go fuck yourself. Screw your conscience! Obedience is what made America great.

Do you think that liberals are smug assholes who think they’re smarter than everyone? Then you’ll be really pleased at all the superficial analogies and “gotcha” logic contradictions that they deploy against people’s religious convictions. The Jewish check-out clerk still lets people buy pork! Ha ha! Never mind the fact that the job requirement that Davis objects to was only added after she took the job. Would you tell the Jewish deli owner to go fuck himself and follow the law if the city passed an ordinance requiring all delis to sell ham? Again and again, these dumb talking points show an absolute lack of any thought or even the most minimal empathy — it’s all about feeling smart and building solidarity by pointing and laughing at the dumb Republicans.

Do you think liberals are intolerant? It’d be hard to shake that view as you watch liberals gloating over an ideological opponent literally being sent to jail.

I don’t know if there’s some Karl Rove-style master conspirator behind this, but if there is, I’m sure he feels pretty good about himself. This whole thing was a trap, and we fell for it — totally and enthusiastically.

The dead-end politics of ridicule

It’s fitting that Jon Stewart’s loving tribute came on the same night as the Republican debate, because the politics of hate-watching the Republican clown-car are the politics he gave us. For most educated, white liberals, being a Democrat now has no other content than feeling superior to Republicans. We spend our time mocking their obviously wrong statements and policies to cover up the fact that we have no real idea of what the right thing to say or do would be. Our politics are reduced to asking “where’s the outrage?” — and our disappointment about the lack of sufficient anger covers over the fact that we have no idea how we would harness that anger to produce meaningful change.

It’s absolutely pathological. Politics is completely captured by the GOP media’s “politics as entertainment” model — it’s just that liberals have a supplemental layer of commentary on the politico-tainment, to go with all the other TV write-ups. Does any of this make anyone more likely to participate in meaningful political action? Does it help clarify what policies we should advocate for? Does it do anything but confirm the stereotype that liberals are elitists who think everyone else is stupid?

Know thine enemy, you might say. Well, we already know our enemy. They’ve been saying the same damn thing for 35 years. They say it over and over, every single day, in every available forum. And if they cared about things like coherence or avoiding hypocrisy (the liberal commentator’s favorite form of critique, our weird post-Christian hangover), they would have noticed the problem by now. We are frittering away our time analyzing emotional appeals as though they’re philosophical propositions, because we don’t have a single damn thing to say for ourselves. The “stupid” conservative strategy has dominated our politics for decades, and it even let them regain a stranglehold on government two years after a transformative election in which they were utterly discredited. But we’re the smart ones, right? Because we notice that they claim to be in favor of life when really it’s okay with them if some people die. Wow, zing. Nailed it. Retweeted, favorited, tattooed across my forehead!

The political theater of cruelty

The Donald Trump phenomenon is the logical end point of the “politics as entertainment” model championed by the right-wing media.

And from that perspective, the embrace of a similar model among liberals is alarming — the hegemony of the Daily Show, the endless clickbait about how some right-wing politician said a right-wing thing, etc., etc. Like the right-wing variant, liberal “politics as entertainment” is mostly a theater of cruelty, where we derive joy from mocking those stupid people and feeling superior to them….

It’s not that they’re not worthy of mockery or that people don’t have a right to let off steam. It’s the dominance of this mode of political “commentary” that seems troublesome. Will we get our Trump? Have we already?


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