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.

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 »

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