Žižek and ‘the Left’

I’ve just finished reading Žižek’s book on the refugee crisis,  Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours. Don’t read it: it’s terrible. It’s all of the worst bits of Žižek with none of the best bits, except for a bunch of the same tired old arguments he repeats in twenty of his earlier, better books. I wish that he would stop, and I wish that people would stop enabling him.

The biggest problem with the book is its sheer laziness. Žižek can’t even be bothered to connect up the bits of his own argument, let alone spend any meaningful time paying attention to what’s going on in the world. He argues that the good thing about religious fundamentalisms is that at least religious fundamentalists won’t ever form political alliances with each other across religious lines – right after a discussion of the role of religious fundamentalism in contemporary Israeli politics. He argues that it’s all very well to argue that we should abolish borders but we can’t do that unless we’re also willing to abolish capitalism, as though the people arguing for the abolition of borders aren’t mostly anarcho-communists. He argues that (unlike in other parts of the world) in the West acts of terrorism are shocking because violence isn’t woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and then goes on to talk about Ferguson and violence against indigenous women. He argues that Ferguson was just a spontaneous outburst of aimless frustration that achieved nothing, as though it wasn’t a catalyst for political organising around the world.

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On doing your homework

What bothers me most about the Zizek trans article is the sheer laziness. I do think there’s a point buried in there that’s worth considering (the gender binary doesn’t “work” for anyone — though that’s a point that’s not unique to Zizek). But if you want to join a debate, especially on a topic where people are inclined to distrust you, you need to earn your place, you need to prove to people that you have something worthwhile to add. And part of that would consist in, for example, citing literally ONE actual trans theorist instead of vaguely gesturing toward "the kind of thing" you've picked up through osmosis. Then you might actually not make dumb mistakes like treating "cross-dressing" as the most relevant form of trans experience, etc. (Yes, he cites Butler — but she is hardly the cutting edge of trans theory at this point, and it's yet another example of him trying to ride on work that he did decades ago.)

As always with Zizek's political columns, they've "got people talking" — but only about Zizek himself, not about the ostensible issue at hand. With this article, he has ensured that no actual trans person or trans ally will listen to what he's saying, and so the only material effect of his argument would be to reassure people who are dismissive of trans issues.

Zizek is of course responsible for the way he has chosen to write, but publication requires the go-ahead of an editor. Why was Zizek comissioned to write on trans issues, an area where he has no expertise? Why wasn't this article edited for clarity and focus? Do the clicks that result from Zizek's notoreity outweigh any concerns for the editor's responsibility, not just to the readers, but to help authors present themselves in the best possible way? Given how routinely these kinds of sloppily written columns, filled with "anti-PC" digs that undermine their own point, appear in left-wing publications, I am tempted to ask the editors that immortal question: "What is it that you'd say you do here?”

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Radical Theologies: Why Philosophers Can’t Leave Christianity Alone

I recently edited a special edition of Modern Believing looking at the relationship between philosophy and Christianity; it’s out now and you can read it here (hit me up if you want to read anything in there but don’t have institutional access). Alongside my editorial, the special edition includes the following articles:

Beverley Clack: ‘On Returning to the Church: Practicing Religion in a Neoliberal Age’
In 1999 I wrote an article ‘on leaving the church’ (Craske and Marsh 1999). In this article I revisit this theme having recently returned to church. I explore the themes that led to me leaving (the Christian contribution to the history of misogyny and the desire for liberation, coupled with the desire to have the freedom to think); themes which, paradoxically, are not dissimilar to the reasons behind my return. The paper engages with the reductionist functionalism of the dominant social and political paradigm of neoliberal consumerism, and engages with Michèle Le Doeuff’s claim that the framework provided by religion for life is attractive, precisely because it allows for uncertainty and a deep engagement with the realities of being human.

Vincent Lloyd: ‘Achille Mbembe as Black Theologian’
The Cameroon-born, South Africa-based Achille Mbembe is one of the preeminent theorists of race writing today. Leading the current wave of critical race scholarship that views anti-Blackness as a metaphysical rather than merely social problem, Mbembe’s work brings together the tools of psychoanalysis, critical theory, and postcolonial studies. In De la postcolonie: essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemparaine(2000),1 Mbembe focuses his critical lens on Africa as object of fantasy and resistance to fantasy; in his most recent work, Critique de la raison nègre (2013),2 Mbembe turns to the figure of the Black. While Mbembe himself offers provocative suggestions about the implications of his work for religious thought, his account of anti-Blackness as a metaphysical problem opens constructive avenues for re-thinking Black theology. When Blackness is defined by death, the critical practice Mbembe describes and commends may be understood as a form of resurrection, restoring death-bound-being to life. I argue that reading Mbembe as part of a conversation in Black theology can expand the Black theological imagination.

Katharine Sarah Moody: ‘The Death and Decay of God: Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity’
Radical theology has an intellectual heritage that can be traced to the idea of the death of God in western philosophy, and Christian theologemes remain of conceptual interest to a number of continental philosophers and philosophers of religion because this religion is, to quote Slavoj Žižek, ‘the religion of a God who dies’. I introduce readers to re-conceptions of the theologeme ‘God’ by John D. Caputo and Slavoj Žižek and illustrate how philosophical interest in Christianity is inspiring religious discourse and communal practices that aim performatively to enact the death and decay of God

Marika Rose: ‘The Christian Legacy is Incomplete: For and Against Žižek’
Slavoj Žižek’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Christian legacy as the only hope for the future of radical politics has, unsurprisingly, made him popular amongst many Christians and theologians in recent years. This article explores the underlying logic of Žižek’s celebration of the Christian legacy, arguing that his dual celebration of the Christian and European legacies not only reveals the entanglement of his argument with the white supremacist logic of Christian superiority but begins to expose the ways in which Žižek’s focus on Christian Europe is inconsistent with his own fundamental ontological claims.

Bruce Rosenstock’s Response to Zizek’s “Am I a Philosopher?”

[Note: Bruce Rosenstock posted these responses as comments on my link to a a recent lecture by Zizek; with his permission, I am collecting them here for your enjoyment.]

Commenting as I read the lecture: Zizek complains about having his tics analyzed by Bosteels and then goes on to analyze Cantor’s psychic anxieties as due to Cantor’s materialism of the infinite. This is not only inconsistent, it’s just wrong about Cantor. Cantor himself believed, without any anxiety, that he had proved the existence of God, and he was, indeed, a realist about his infitities, but he spoke of Leibnizian “aether point multitudes” that are psychic in nature. Cantor saw himself as providing a secure basis for the great project of Leibniz and Spinoza, to account for the transition from infinity to finitude. This, indeed, becomes today’s mathematics of non-totalizable multitudes with a foundation only in the null set. What’s at stake in this? The difference between a Leibnizian-vitalist metaphysics and an Epicurean-reductionist metaphysics. In other words, the concept of life as really more than the Real, or life as a sort of abreaction within the Real. The irony: Plato, who calls philosophy the “practice of death,” is aligned with a concept of life as “more life” (to use a phrase from the great vitalist Georg Simmel), whereas Epicurus, whose whole philosophy is in the service of freeing us from the fear of death, is aligned with a concept of life as “less than life.”

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Žižek Trouble

Further to Adam’s post, I want to briefly sketch why I think it is that Žižek so commonly and consistently fails to think well or carefully about the issues he dismisses as ‘identity politics’ – questions of racism, sexism, transphobia and so on and so on. I don’t think these failings can be lightly dismissed as incidental to his work; actually I think they’re deeply revealing of some major problems with his intellectual project as a whole.

Following what Adam refers to as Žižek’s ‘middle period’ (around 1993-1996), his work is consistently characterised by a trinitarian ontology in which three levels – the material, the individual, and the social – are each constituted around a central antagonism. For the material world, this central antagonism is that of quantum uncertainty; for the individual this central antagonism is sexuality and gender; and for society this antagonism is that of class. Žižek claims that at the heart of this materialism is the assertion that what emerges later retroactively changes that which precedes it – so that consciousness emerges, for example, from the material processes of the brain and yet come also to form those processes; and ideas emerge from the material practices of the community and yet subsequently reshape them. And yet, for all that, Žižek is consistently unable to articulate or engage with the possibility of intersections between these three fundamental levels of reality. I think this inability is at the core of his failures to think well about issues of gender and race, which emerge in the kinds of grim racism, sexism and transphobia which seem to have been increasingly on display in his public statements.

It’s not that Žižek doesn’t talk about gender – questions of gender and sexuality are persistently present throughout his work. For Žižek, gender and sexuality are the ways in which ontological inconsistency manifests itself at the level of the individual. The individual comes into being around a sense of incompleteness which is also the condition of their existence as such, and the desire for a return to completeness manifests in fantasy as the longing for the lost union with the mother figure or the belief that completeness may be attained by union with the beloved other who has the objet petit a, the missing piece which will make the individual complete. Human gender and sexuality play out, for Žižek, around this sexualised quest for completeness. And yet nowhere in Žižek’s work does he engage with, for example, the idea that social distinctions between men and women function not only to sustain or create sexualised fantasies of completion but also class distinctions and the distribution of wealth.

Likewise, I want to suggest that the lack of any significant engagement with questions of of racism, whiteness or colonialism in Žižek’s work is the result of the fact that, for him, race is a fundamental category neither of material being, individual subjectivity nor the social order. There simply is no place for thinking racialisation within Žižek’s dialectical materialist framework. The closest he gets to making space in his work for a discussion of issues of race is as an ideological displacement of class struggle. This is what happens, for example, in his discussion of European anti-Semitism: within the fantasy of Europe it is not the inherent antagonism of class struggle which holds back the dream of a properly harmonious society but the figure of the Jew which functions as a scapegoat.

These absences in Žižek’s work aren’t simply because he doesn’t care about racism, or about the work of Marxist feminists or black communists, though I don’t think I want to suggest that that isn’t the case. They arise from the basic structure of his thought which, divides the world into three fundamental levels – material, individual and social – and which understand each level as more or less discrete, constituted in part by their interactions with each other – though this affirmation of their mutual interdependence tends not to show itself in Žižek’s actual analysis of each – but much more fundamentally by their own internal antagonisms, their dialectical structure. For change to occur, on this account of things, it must arise from the materialist dialectics occurring within each level. Žižek constantly draws parallels between these three levels of reality, yet what he insists on is likeness, analogy, resemblance, rather than interaction, intersection or interdependence. All of which is to say that Žižek’s failures to think well or carefully about racism and sexism aren’t just incidental features of his work: they reflect some of the fundamental, ontological inadequacies of his project as a whole.

Would not the most radical political intervention for Zizek be precisely to STOP?!

Slavoj Zizek needs to stop writing political columns. He is not good at it. Some readers are still making heroic efforts to construe his political columns positively, but if you need a supporter to write a 2000+ word defense of your pithy political intervention — indeed, if most readers construe it as meaning the opposite of what is intended — then you are doing it wrong.

Those heroic defenses — a genre to which I have contributed in the recent past — generally ask that the reader situate Zizek’s political column or interview or whatever within his vast theoretical apparatus, which has been growing at a rate of at least 500 pages per year for the last couple decades. Demanding hundreds of hours of labor from your reader before you can extract a worthwhile point out of an opinion column is not how political interventions are supposed to work. If your point requires a certain theoretical context in order to make sense, then you should not publish your point without that context.

Leaving aside the question of whether Zizek’s opinions about the refugee crisis or whatever else are “correct,” we must also pay attention to the form of his interventions. How do they function politically, concretely speaking? Let’s look at their real-world effect rather than fantasizing about what it would be like if the powers that be somehow implemented his program or he were dictator. I don’t know how we can conclude that they are anything but an utter failure. They do not prompt discussion of the actual issues at hand, but instead turn all attention to how we are to assess Slavoj Zizek the individual — is he a Eurocentric Islamophobic racist? And even if we grant that he’s not, the very fact that the question is coming up constantly indicates that there is a failure of presentation.

Yet it appears that he takes every such accusation as an occasion to dig in his heels further on his stupid South Park-style contrarian “provocations.” So we’re dealing with political interventions that utterly fail to get their point across and instead prompt an increasingly negative referendum on Zizek — apparently causing a feedback loop where he insists all the more on his ineffective presentation (again, construing his intentions as charitably as possible).

The only way to stop this vicious cycle is to stop. He needs to stop writing these opinion columns, and his friends need to stop writing apologetics and start writing him e-mails begging him to just stop, before he completely destroys his reputation and legacy.

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.