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.

What exactly is wrong with Zizek’s political commentary lately?

I find it interesting that the dominant mode of critiquing Zizek’s recent political writings from the left is simply to post quotations from him, with dismissive comments. It’s taken to be self-evident what’s wrong with his statements — and presumably also what should be done instead of what he recommends. What’s interesting is that the explicit critique and alternative never seem to appear in this context. Is it just not worth it, because it’s *so* completely obvious? Is it tacky of me to even ask?

I mean, I should already know. And I do, of course, no question — but just to make sure we’re on the same page…

(I also quietly note that this has been the dominant mode of critique by liberal commentators: pull out a quote about Stalin, then rely on everyone to draw the obvious conclusion that he’s dangerous. Or he says something about anti-Semitism, so he must be an anti-Semite, etc.)

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 »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Plagiarism and self-plagiarism: A defense of Zizek

Detractors of Zizek have lately attempted to discredit his work on procedural grounds. The more serious accusations are related to plagiarism — including the famous case of the paraphrased white supremacist book review and now a more recent incident involving quotes in his book Violence. When the story broke, I offered a weak defense of the first incident, which seems to have been genuinely inadvertant. On further reflection, though, it seems to me that Zizek was using his friend’s material in the same way academics use material from their research assistants — and I doubt anyone checks over every detail of a research assistant’s work, because that would miss the point of having a research assistant. The second incident was literally just a copy-editing error, which could happen to anyone.

At this point, I anticipate some readers would say that, even granting these incidents were unfortunate accidents, Zizek’s frenetic over-production makes them more likely. And this brings us to another set of trumped-up complaints about his supposed “self-plagiarism.” Apparently he needs to write things fresh every single time he publishes, or else he’s doing something akin to the most serious ethical violation in academia. As I once ranted on Twitter, the concept of “self-plagiarism” is incoherent, given that he’s passing off his own ideas as, you know, his own ideas. There are reasons to object to the repetition, of course, but virtually every author who has written a large amount has “self-plagiarized” at some point — I will certainly confess to this horrible sin.

And now, the goal posts move yet again: the fact that Zizek repeats himself shows that he has nothing new to say. To that I’d say: okay, why don’t you try synthesizing Lacan and Hegel in pursuit of a unified theory of ideology, subjectivity, and ontology! Such a mammoth intellectual project will necessarily require intensive labor, working and reworking concepts and arguments. Sometimes similar examples are bound to come to mind in various contexts. Sometimes it will seem that a previously written passage can’t be significantly improved upon and can simply be reintegrated into a new whole. Everyone who’s met or talked to Zizek knows that he works obsessively, often skipping out of social engagements to get back to his room and write. His intellectual project is what is most important to him, and the amount that he is producing is realistic given his lack of teaching commitments and administrative work.

In essence, Zizek’s procedure here is no different in principle from that of Husserl, who wrote and rewrote voluminous drafts and was continually “introducing” the project of transcendental phenomenology. The one thing that has changed is that Zizek is publishing his drafts as he goes. Perhaps it would be better in some way if he would wait longer between publications, but you can’t blame a non-traditional academic for sticking with the method that gained him enough notoreity to elbow his way into the philosophical conversation despite his lack of a traditional position. You can’t blame him if publishers are willing to print the latest incremental updates to his project as he produces them, nor can you blame him if enough people are willing to buy the things to make it economically viable.

Nor, indeed, is it the case that he is simply repeating himself over and over. There is development and change over time, for those with the patience and investment to watch for it. If you don’t have the requisite patience or investment, you are under no obligation to keep reading his stuff, just as you’re under no obligation to paw through all of the Husserliana, or all of Lacan’s seminars, or all the iterations of Hegel’s lectures on philosophy of religion, or…. The fact that you’re tired of Zizek and don’t want to bother anymore isn’t proof of his intellectual bankruptcy — indeed, if you use your own understandable fatigue and wandering attention as grounds to discredit a major thinker and dissuade people from taking him seriously, then maybe someone is intellectually bankrupt, and it’s not Zizek.

On belief

The standard liberal objection to religious motivations for political action is that they are unquestionable and not susceptible of disproof, so that they cannot form a part of the ongoing rational dialogue that should ideally characterize the political process. Indeed, the “special relationship” that secular liberalism posits between religion and violence is based precisely on the fact that religiously-motivated actions are not motivated by reason and hence are arbitrary and unpredictable — i.e., violent.

In one of Zizek’s weakest books, On Belief, he claims that liberals are actually the “believers” in this sense. He doesn’t back up this claim very effectively, choosing instead to indulge in misleading, “provocative” violations of liberal pieties, yet I think we can see that the core insight is there when we notice that the signature gesture of our ruling classes is to present themselves as the mere vessel of impersonal, ineluctable forces. Powerful, impossibly wealthy businessmen have no freedom of choice, as the market determines everything they do. Politicians are similarly guided by what is “politically possible,” irrespective of the range of options their office should theoretically give them.

Obviously it is human to try to beg off responsibility by pointing to forces beyond one’s control — but surely never before in history has a ruling class so thoroughly legitimated itself as constrained by forces beyond its control. It’s as though the one qualification for political or economic power is the ability to divine the messages coming from these powerful occult forces that guide our lives. Any actual deliberation about what should happen is radically foreclosed by this stance: indeed, proposing to debate openly about the shape of our shared life is painted with the same brush of fanaticism as in the liberal critique of religion, except this time the label is “populism” (a catch-all term that completely ignores the unmistakable differences between right- and left-wing principles and priorities).

I would venture to say that back when societies were structured according to religious principles and everyone basically believed in God, a political or business leader who claimed to be a direct channel for God’s will would’ve been regarded as either insane or dangerously disingenuous. Re-label “God’s will” as “the market” or “the politically feasible,” however, and no one bats an eye.

I’d further claim that in settings where religious authority factored significantly in the political process, debate was actually much more vigorous — just compare the Talmud to the editorial pages in a mainstream newspaper, for example. That’s because everyone recognized that the sources of religious authority, as was fitting for something from a divine source, were difficult for us mere humans to understand, so that our conclusions about God’s intent were almost always subject to error and reinterpretation.

Not so with the contemporary impersonal deity who inspires our ruling elites! It’s always right there in the numbers, in black and white. There’s no room for interpretation or debate, unless that means using more sophisticated (and hence reliable!) mathematical tools — at the end of the day, all you need is a literal interpretation and you’re good to go. No religious fundamentalist can possibly be as closed off to alternatives as the secular liberal fundamentalist armed with absolute mathematical necessity.

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