On Zizek’s supposed conservatism

It seems that every time a new Zizek article comes out, everyone starts wringing their hands about what a conservative Zizek is. In response to this piece on Greece, for example, we supposedly find that he’s sympathetic with right-wing anti-immigration policies and generally dreams of a day when Europe will be the center of all the world.

This is partly Zizek’s fault, insofar as he has chosen an indirect method of making his points in the political arena. Yet it frustrates me when academics make this critique, because he’s given us the key! It’s basically the “Laibach strategy” — mime the dominant ideology to such an extreme that you reach its internal contradictions and it begins to break down. For instance, his supposed endorsement of right-wing anti-immigrant sentiment: already in Tarrying With the Negative (widely regarded as his “best” book!), he had said that ethnic conflicts covered over the contradictions of capital, and liberals opportunistically indulge them as a kind of “release valve” for those economic pressures. So yes, the anti-immigrant people “have a point,” but it’s not the “point” they think they have — the “real problem” that immigration points toward is the artificial scarcity generated by global capital!

It’s similar when he quotes cultural conservatives like Chesterton and Eliot. While everyone apparently thinks that he quotes Chesterton out of a deep love and approval of his work, he’s pushing Chesterton to a point he wouldn’t want to embrace — namely, to claim that the real “Christian legacy” (note again that this is a key way of legitimating anti-Muslim racism in the context of the EU project) is… radical atheism! Similar, notice how when he talks about the need to preserve the “European legacy,” it’s always about egalitarianism, democracy, atheism, etc. — none of which is central to the current EU project or to conservative evocations of the precious European heritage.

People get all up in arms about these types of statements, as though what’s really important to him is that Christian Europe is the only possible source of good things — but the point is precisely to undermine the ruling right-wing ideology from within. He’s saying, “Oh, so you want to be Christian, huh? Well, turns out the true meaning of Christianity is that God is dead. And you want to be European? Well, the only values worth saving from the European heritage are the ones that totally contradict everything you’re doing.”

I would add that the same reading works great for his supposed “Stalinism” — he’s taking the ruling ideology that claims any left-wing project leads directly to the Gulag at its word, then exploding the claim that right-wing and left-wing “totalitarianism” are equivalent.

This is not a counter-intuitive or forced reading. This is not an arbitrary “picking and choosing” of what to regard as mere “provocation” and what to take seriously. He has literally told us the political strategy he embraces, and he’s carrying it out in a completely consistent way.

89 thoughts on “On Zizek’s supposed conservatism

  1. “In order to function properly, power disocurse must be inherently split, it must ‘cheat’ performatively, to disavow its own underlying performative gesture. Sometimes, therefore, the only truly subversive thing to do when confronted with a power discourse is simply to take it at its word” (Tarrying with the Negative, 237).

    “…in contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, that cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not meant to be taken seriously or literally. Perhaps the greatest danger for totalitarianism is people who take its ideology literally…” (Sublime Object of Ideology, 28).

    A lot of his stuff about the Lacanian “feminine” also fits this — for instance, Indivisible Remainder 157-166 (especially the bit about how the guy from Shawshank Redemption was only able to get out when he stopped distancing himself from the prison situation through fantasy, etc.).

    But the basic strategy comes from the metal band Laibach, which he’s always viewed as a model. This video is probably as clear as one could get.

  2. I’m not very convinced by this. Well, it may be that I’m not very convinced this is a particularly useful strategy in so far as the indirect communication, as you point out, isn’t very clear! And the move of “at least Europe is willing to destroy itself for the truth” is pretty much the same strategy as “Christianity isn’t a religion because it’s the only one willing to destroy itself”.

  3. I just want to be clear that I wasn’t haranguing you for proof. I’m just legitimately curious. I have read a fair amount of Zizek, but it is “latter-day” Zizek. He takes it for granted that I already know the things you are citing, I guess. Thanks for the citations.

  4. Those were just from my reading notes and a Google search on “zizek laibach” — not exhaustive.

    Anthony, Whether it’s a useful strategy or not is of course questionable — but it’s another question. I don’t see where he’s explicitly limiting any of this good stuff to the European tradition.

  5. No, I think it’s more akin to liberation theology’s approach to the Christian tradition — read it hard, take it as authoritative, and wind up with something totally contradictory to the actual existing practice. The liberal Christian or polemical atheist is taking cynical distance.

  6. “This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history—it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. … We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.”

    “Two years ago, Europeans were debating whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity as a key component of the European legacy. As usual, a compromise was worked out, a reference in general terms to the ‘religious inheritance’ of Europe. But where was modern Europe’s most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post. Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers. … What… about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.”

    “Secularism is Orientalism. And Orientalism is Christianity. It is Christian Imperialism”

  7. Let’s read the whole NYT piece. I believe it fits in my frame: “If you’re so concerned to be European, keep in mind that the only thing worth taking from Europe is something that you seem content to sweep under the rug.”

  8. Adam, i grant that you have a case in terms of rightly interpreting what Zizek is doing, I’m just pointing out that what he’s doing is of a piece with a long Christian (and eventually colonial) legacy in which one secures one’s uniqueness precisely by condemning oneself. In this sense I agree that Zizek is quite “Pauline,” it’s just that i think this move is at best a dead end, and at worst a means of continuing Christian colonialism.

  9. Not to start a fight here, but the very notion that Muslims need to be treated as “serious adults” (!!), or that Europe should be said (positively) in the same sentence as “first and only civilization,” is just atrocious.

    Maybe if he said, “What makes Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization to have travelled throughout the whole globe in order to impose its way of life on everyone, to have developed theoretical apparatuses to explain why it needed to do that, and to have repeatedly confessed its guilt about doing all this…”

    But instead he continues a really old practice in which the West claims to have secured the essential neutral or peaceful space in which everyone else can do their thing. So, do what you want, but you need to first bow down to the atheist space that Europe has set up

  10. Perhaps a small point, but there’s a difference between secularism as a religiously-neutral space and the public legitimacy of atheism. I don’t think he’s celebrating the “secular state” as such. He’s saying that recognizing atheism as a fully legitimate option in public debate is what truly guarantees religious freedom, not insofar as every religion is “equally respected,” but insofar as every religion is equally open to question (as opposed to the situation in most formally secular states where one religion is always “more equal than the others”).

    In short, he’s highlighting — in bombastic and exaggerated language — an aspect of the European heritage that most “respectable” people view as tacky and disreputable.

    I just don’t see how this fits into the pattern of “superiority through self-denigration.” It’s not like he’s saying, “Everyone hates atheists, but at least we admit it.” (This is a serious question, not a dismissal.)

  11. “This video is probably as clear as one could get.”

    What is it clear about? That white supremacist lynchings in the U.S. South were transgressions of the rule of law, and that this demonstrates that transgression in general (for example, direct critique) is ineffective as contestation?

    Or that it is the wrong question to ask whether Laibach are serious in their adoption of fascist motifs? That it is wrong to ask whether or not they are fascist? (Why would this be the wrong question to ask? Why would the strategy of bringing to light the system’s constitutive transgressions preclude asking the question of whether or not one endorses those transgressions?)

    Does the video’s clarity reside in its suggestion that apparent performative endorsement of purported constitutive transgressions (lynchings; fascism) is an effective form of contestation? Is this clarity enhanced by the fact that the purported constitutive transgression under discussion w/r/t Laibach (fascism) was in fact the overt and explicit ideology of a number of states? Including, briefly, Slovenia? Does fascism’s historical status as an overt and explicit ideology undermine in any respect Zizek’s suggestion that making this ideology explicit is a subversive and critical act?

    What would the consequences of the strategy that the video proposes be, if it had been implemented in the historical example Zizek suggests as a useful illustrative parallel (racist violence in the US South)? Would the strategy of (purportedly?) taking seriously the (purported) constitutive transgression of lynchings and beatings, and enacting endorsement of these ‘transgressions’ (ironically? unseriously? but this is not a question that we should ask, for some reason…), be an effective strategy for contesting this violence? Or would other strategies be more effective?

    If other strategies would be more effective, why does Zizek propose this one?

  12. I remember reading (or possibility it was one of his movies) when he recalls writing for a subversive magazine back in the Cold War days where he and the other writers played idiots and took the ideology too seriously i.e. treating fixed elections as free and fair i.e. I wonder who will win… it is all to play for etc… When the subtext is that everyone knows that they are indeed fixed. By taking the ideology seriously it underlines its fictitious status… but what if you have overestimated one’s audience etc…

    This charge of conservatism I find batshit crazy, being a good liberal I fear the opposite is the case i.e. that he bears violence too lightly.

  13. Even granting this difference, in my mind a big commonality remains, namely that “public legitimacy of atheism” functions as condition of possibility for religious freedom. So even if it’s not about secular state, atheism, like the secular state, serves as that which gives freedom to the religious others. The rhetoric seems to imply that affirmation of religion requires Europe’s atheism, such that the good being sought has to be routed through Europe.

    True this is not self-denigration of atheism, but it is an attempt to say that even as X (in this case Europe) fails, there is a core to it that must be maintained to solve the problem that X created. That is, even as Eurocentrism is what creates Orientalism, Colonialism, racism w/r/t Muslims (and Jews and many others), Eurocentrism (via atheism) must be maintained in order to solve it.

    Again, maybe i’m misreading this, but i don’t think Zizek would say that the public legitimacy of Islam is the key to solving this problem — so this is not really an egalitarianism of traditions, rather it’s saying that only the European tradition (of atheism) can create the conditions for such egalitarianism. This is exactly the logic of the secular state, and it is exactly the logic of Christianity. (Or still today, with Radical Orthodoxy, which makes the X = Christianity and the core = analogy of being.)

    Furthermore, I think discourse that imagines Muslims as needing to come to adulthood — again i may be misreading, but it seems the implication is not only that Europe doesn’t treat Muslims like adults, but also that Muslims will only be adults when Europe starts treating them as adults — is already disqualified. (To risk a loose analogy, Zizek addressing the problem of religion / race via atheism is like libertarians treating the problem of race, and inequality in general, via the market.)

  14. I don’t think the childishness of Muslims is implied at all. They are adults — so let’s stop patronizing them and treating them with kid gloves in order to show our awesome liberal tolerance, etc.

    What makes me think you’re on the wrong track here is that he’s talking about a purely local European matter: the EU constitution. This is very often the case when he addresses the question of “Europe,” for the simple reason that he’s a European. (Derrida engaged in the exact same kind of discourse, as a European with a stake in the project of constructing a new “European identity” that had emerged with the EU and the end of the Cold War, and I don’t recall a lot of people getting all up in arms about it.)

    To affirm Christianity as somehow privileged within a secular space is precisely the kind of “actual existing secularism” that underlies Western imperialism. It “quilts” the field of “religions” by making Christianity the “master signifier” that serves as the unattainable model for all other religions (as you have diagnosed). But the inclusion of atheism into that series renders it “non-all” or “non-whole,” hence undercutting the traditional Western model of an inequality founded on formal equality. He’s finding something in the European (note: not “Western”) tradition that’s been there the whole time without anyone really thematizing it — and he’s offering it as a model precisely for Europe as a local political community.

  15. I honestly think that by privileging the role of atheism rather than going straight to “secularism” as such, he’s getting a lot closer to what you and Anthony would call the “generic secular.”

  16. So you’re saying that none of the stuff i mentioned in my comment is going on?

    I’ll just reiterate my skepticism that being a European atheist is somehow a break from European universalism.

  17. I don’t think what you’re finding there is actually there, though I understand why you’re finding it there. I think the key point supporting your reading is the “first and only” language. In my reading, it would be a hyperbolic parody of European pride, which ironically centers on something that reputable liberals (who of course respect all religions!) and conservatives alike find to be disreputable and embarrassing: atheism.

    And for me, the key is that it’s a local European matter. Again, note that he’s not talking about how “we in the West” should deal with Muslims. He’s saying that rather than treat Muslim immigrants as some kind of special group to be handled with care, other Europeans should treat them as their fellow citizens, whom they can argue with just like they argue with each other. (It’s probably relevant that one of his greatest interlocutors is Alain Badiou, whose political activism has centered precisely on the principle “everyone here is from here.”)

  18. To draw out just one thread (there are others) – here’s one aspect of the argument of the Laibach video. Quotes with my comments.

    1) “The big question that everybody is asking herself or himself apropos of Laibach of course is are they taking themselves serious or is it meant in an ironic way. Well I think of course that this is the wrong alternative”

    Zizek thinks we shouldn’t ask whether or not Laibach are taking the fascist imagery they deploy seriously. Why does he think that this question is an ill-posed one? Because…

    2) “I think the whole point, the basic underlying premise of Laibach’s strategy is that… In this whole, not only for Slovenia but let’s say generally, for so-called late capitalism in general even, that system itself has as its inherent condition of functioning that its own ideology must not be taken seriously”

    A feature of so-called late capitalism is that we must not take its ideology seriously. The ideology is itself sustained (in part) by not taking the ideology seriously. This has a corollary:

    3) ”the only way, I would even say, to be really subversive is not to develop critical potentials, ironic distance, but precisely to take the system more seriously than it takes itself.”

    OK. This is Zizek’s thesis. Because late capitalist ideology sustains itself in part by not being taken seriously, to critique the ideology directly is not effective as a means of being “really subversive” – doing so participates in the ‘not taking seriously’. Instead, “the only way” to be really subversive is to in some sense embrace the ideology and the system, taking it “more seriously than it takes itself”.

    Zizek does not elaborate here on how this logic applies to the example he is principally discussing – Laibach. Instead, we shift to the US South in the 20s. Zizek sets up an opposition between A) overt ideology (rule of law) and B) constitutive transgression (Klan lynchings). He says:

    4) “identifying with this transgression, which must remain unspoken and concealed, is the real form of conformism, and this transgression must remain hidden unspoken.”

    So – there is an overt ideology (rule of law) and a constitutive transgression (lynchings). Zizek does not explain how this is an example of or provides evidence for a general rule, in which transgression in general is constitutive of the reproduction of the system – he does not do so, because of course it is/does no such thing. But (moving back a little) he also states:

    5) “if you don’t solidarise with beatings of Ku Klux Klan, you are excluded. So in other words not only does every system include its own inherent transgression, but identifying with this transgression, which must remain unspoken and concealed, is the real form of conformism, and this transgression must remain hidden unspoken.”

    I don’t know much about the history of lynching in the US, I am ashamed to say, but I am profoundly doubtful about the extent to which lynchings can be characterized as unspoken transgressions opposed to the rule of law. I learn from Wikipedia that an anti-lynching bill was three times defeated in the Senate in the 1920s, and that no such bill was passed in the 1920s. I do not believe that the opposition between rule of law and transgression is an appropriate one in characterizing this historical time and place, w/r/t this example. Regardless, Zizek now, in conclusion, moves back to Laibach:

    6) “and my point is that what Laibach is doing is precisely bringing to the light of the day this inherent transgression, which precisely in order for the system to reproduce itself must remain hidden.”

    (What transgression? Fascist imagery. )

    A shift has taken place across this passage. Zizek starts by talking about overt ideology – let’s call this ideology A. He says that critique of ideology A plays into the reproduction of ideology A, because ideology A is reproduced by not taking it seriously. (He then implies that to take ideology A seriously is the true subversion, though this will shift in a moment.)

    Zizek then starts talking (using the example of the Klan) about ideology B – the covert ideology that must remain hidden, and that is really endorsed seriously, in contradistinction to ideology A. For ideology A to be reproduced, Zizek claims, it cannot be seriously endorsed, but only performatively ‘endorsed’. Ideology B, by contrast, must be seriously endorsed, but only covertly.

    Zizek then states that by bringing ideology B into the light, Laibach (and other subversive critics engaged in similar practice) are causing problems for the reproduction of ideology A.

    Now the question (my question, but also the question with which Zizek starts, and which all this is supposed to respond to) is: is Laibach [or whoever] serious in endorsing this ideology? Note that the ideology Laibach are (apparently) endorsing is ideology B, not ideology A. Yet Zizek’s argument about why this is an ill-posed question applies to the endorsement of ideology A, not ideology B.

    The entire argument therefore makes no sense, as a response to the initial question. It only seems to because Zizek has shifted his terms around, and shifted examples in a way that obscures the shift.

    Is the purpose of the subversive Laibachian critic to:

    – *really* endorse, *overtly*, what can only be endorsed covertly if the currently system is to be reproduced? This possibility is not closed down by Zizek’s explanation. On the contrary, it is compatible with it. By overtly endorsing what can only be covertly endorsed, the system is undermined – by being overt rather than covert fascists or lynch mobs, we are being truly subversive.

    On the other hand, maybe the purpose of the subversive Laibachian critic is simply to:

    – Draw attention to that which is covertly but not overtly endorsed. This makes sense, but leaves entirely unexplained why we cannot state whether or not Laibach endorse their performances, and why a performance (rather than a simple statement) is required at all – it leaves the entire argument unmotivated, in other words (while providing an innocent explanation for the critical deployment of reactionary imagery.)

    I don’t think the argument in this video is clear at all.

  19. Remember how I talked about feeling exhausted in response to your comment, Duncan? That continues.

    A point of clarification — lynching was always extra-legal. The problem was that local authorities would turn a blind eye to it (or even participate in it). Obviously murder was always illegal, but the lynchings of blacks were never prosecuted. The reason you need an anti-lynching law is to create a new class of officially recognized crime (lynching, as opposed to simple murder) that can then permit the federal government to step in where local officials do not (or are directly involved/complicit).

    For the most part, Zizek seems to take the strategy of taking the officially-stated ideology at its word, as I say above. What Laibach does is take things to a much further extreme by directly presenting what must remain unspoken. It’s as though one were to have a “white culture pride” parade where people are commemorating the Bill of Rights and the Bible and apple pie — and then someone sneaks in a float where they play-act a lynching as an expression of “white culture.” (Maybe the equivalent today would be for an Occupy set-up to include a waterboarding booth.)

  20. I may be called out as a historical & cultural philistine on this, but isn’t it kind of true (or at least a reasonable thing to hand-wavingly say) that Europe is unique in at least being first modern “civilization” to legitimize atheism? Granted, the use of “only” has to be qualified, given the developments of history, and thus too the measure of European uniqueness in this regard that is to be defended. But, relative historical priority is a kind of uniqueness, and I’m not so sure it is wholly unreasonable (effective, again, is another question — as is whether it is necessarily ethical, for that matter) to deem it something to be defended as such.

  21. One primary group of counter-examples to the “only” are socialist regimes, which he had previously claimed to be analogous to religious fundamentalism and which certainly did not provide any kind of “safe space” for believers.

    As for other formally secular regimes, I believe we all know how little chance an open atheist would have getting elected president in the US. I’d imagine similar things could be said about Latin America, though I’m open to correction.

  22. “For the most part, Zizek seems to take the strategy of taking the officially-stated ideology at its word, as I say above. What Laibach does is take things to a much further extreme by directly presenting what must remain unspoken.”

    It seems quite a different strategy from Laibach’s.

  23. “[Laibach’s] public (especially intellectuals) is obsessed with the “desire of the Other” -what is Laibach’s actual position, are they truly totalitarians or not?- i.e., they address Laibach with a question and expect from them an answer, failing to notice that Laibach itself does not function as an answer, but as a question. By means of the elusive character of their desire, of the undecidability as to ‘where they actually stand’, Laibach compels us to take up our position and decide upon our desire.”

    Of course Laibach and Zizek don’t come out and say, “this is what I am doing here, I am making a critique that exposes the obscene underside of the ruling ideology, and here is how I do it.” – even though this is clear enough already – because this would neutralize the very practice. The obsessive need for a wholly comprehensible theoretical explanation is the same drive to neutralize all subversive practice into ‘comfortable’ subversion the doesn’t make anyone think. Laibach has basically been in character for thirty years, and their practice, “functioning as a question”, is evidently still quite effective.

  24. It’s ridiculous to act like I was trying to make a general rule for decoding every single instance when Zizek refers to something like “immigration.” So no, you’ve scored your petty point — this story doesn’t seem to me to fit under the rubric you’re quoting.

    That passage is often trotted out as the final proof that Zizek’s a racist. Explain to me why that is.

  25. That is to say, the responses to that passage always seem to presume that it’s simply impossible that the Roma camp in question could have had those problems associated with it. If there’s evidence that the villagers were delusional, I’m all ears.

  26. Zizek often says things that seem on their face to be reactionary – and your post is making a general point about why in your judgement Zizek’s overall strategy for articulating non-reactionary points, can lead his non-reactionary intent to be interpreted as reactionary (or conservative).

    The passage I quoted is an example of a passage where Zizek seems to be saying something reactionary, and it doesn’t seem to me to be interpretable in the way you advocate. (I didn’t mean that it had to be interpreted in terms of that specific line about immigration, on your read – rather than it didn’t seem to fit under the general approach you advocate.) Obviously it’s just one passage. But it seems a really heinous passage – at least as I understand it. It seems heinous because Zizek is talking about racist violence here, and is putting “racist” in scare quotes, and is participating in a racist discourse to do with racist violence being provoked by harassment from the victims of the violence.

    I’m not totally sure what you mean when you say “explain to me why that is”. If you mean “explain to me why it’s racist”, I guess for the reasons just mentioned. (If you mean “explain why this particular passage is often wielded in this way, rather than some other” I guess because it seems quite clear as an example of those things I mentioned, and perhaps also because it concerns a recent concrete and very unpleasant event, and is a specific intervention (i.e. it’s not talking about large historical events or abstractions, so it ‘strikes home’.))

  27. I see what you’re saying in terms of this being a “local European matter”, but I’m still led to read that NYTimes piece (along with the others collected into _Violence_, etc) along the lines Daniel Barber noted – in part because I don’t know that reputable liberals _would_ find privileging atheism (as the key to securing secular public space in which all religions can be equally respected, etc) all that disreputable and embarrassing. Maybe i’m thinking of different liberals or a different liberalism, or ignoring the difference between a Christian atheism and a Christian secularism. Largely, though, I’m having trouble seeing the significance of that difference because of the way Zizek talks about religious violence being somehow the “main source of murderous violence around the world” today (_Violence_, p. 133 – slightly revised from the NYTimes piece, where it is its “wellspring”), while “pacifism is predominantly atheist” (p. 135). He does a good job as always of pointing to the hypocrisy of liberal multiculturalist tolerance, and of the hypocrisy of “fundamentalists”, but I just don’t see how those kinds of exceptionalisms are significantly different from when he says “Of course there are cases of pathological atheists who are able to commit mass murder just for pleasure, just for the sake of it, but they are rare exceptions” (p. 136). Both disavowals operate by a logic of allegoresis, do they not? Does privileging European atheism really provide the key to securing a public space where everyone is treated as an adult (and yields the exceptional case of the rare pathological atheist)? Is there a difference there that I’m missing? Coming at this a bit differently, if there is a difference between Christian secularism (whose imperial structure etc. isn’t here under discussion) and atheism as the Christian legacy (which, if I’m following, Zizek would argue names a Europe of less religious violence), is there a significant difference between the ultimately colonial power of secular critique and the redemptive power of what Zizek calls “ruthless, critical analysis”?

    Finally, minor quibble – in both the NYTimes essay and in the redaction published in _Violence_, he celebrates that story about the old woman with bowls of fire and water, writing all that’s left to do is to erase God from the equation altogether and you end up with the properly Christian ethical stance today surviving mostly in atheism (p. 137). It’s also, of course, a Muslim story from Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, three centuries earlier. That yields a slightly different perspective on the “raging Muslim crowd” (p. 129) that is often his foil. Perhaps the properly Christian ethical stance today surviving mostly in atheism is also a properly Muslim ethical stance today surviving in a number of different places including (but not limited to and certainly not predominantly) atheism.

  28. Well I’m of course open to correction, but I can’t find any independent reference to anyone being killed in the camp, as Zizek claims in that piece. I’d expect that to have been reported, if true.

    Zizek also writes:

    nobody clearly answered the local “racists” what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them.

    But the New York Times has it that:

    Slovenia’s interior minister, Dragutin Mate, arrived to mediate. Mate said he proposed that the family members leave their homes and that the government find them new houses elsewhere within three weeks. “I gave them the proposal,” he said in an interview. “Both sides agreed with it.”

    That’s a very concrete proposal to satisfy the demands of the local “”racists””.

    So Zizek’s piece seems unreliable in its reporting of the facts of the situation. And it is also an intervention in a febrile situation characterised by widespread racism. It’s not a helpful intervention, at all. It participates in a lot of the tropes that characterise anti-Roma racism – that would be the case even if Zizek’s claims are all true. (Doesn’t Zizek say something to that effect in Sublime Object, w/r/t anti-semitism I think?)

  29. Come on now.
    The real point the racists have (even though they still are real and despicable racists) is that there is a group of people who are in *literally* not a part of society, a real problem having real, material effects, and which obviously will not be solved by tolerance alone. By insisting that tolerance and cosmopolitanism is a solution, you exclude maybe the most important aspect of the issue: that Roma are (like millions of people in Europe btw) structurally excluded from the modern economy.
    How is this not clear to you?

  30. Individual cases aside, seems to me clear that both Laibach and Žižek regularly engage in a dialectical performativity inspired by both Hegel and Kierkegaard (or the Hegelian Kierkegaard), but sensible already in Plato’s Socrates. That does not, however, erase Dan’s point about Slavoj’s universalism through atheism. Like his Stoic antecedents, it is difficult for Žižek (or anyone else) to project universal equality except through an ethnocentric lens. So Cleanthes had his Zeus as his divine logos and Žižek has his nondeity (or postulate thereof) as immanent reason or criterion. Anidjar’s critique is therefore apt, not only because he historicizes secularism as an Orientalist form of imperialist Christian legacy, but because Žižek’s own claims for the European primacy on atheism lacks credibility. One could easily point to the rich Nastika tradition of India (including Buddhist, Jain and Carvaka) as well as major Chinese philosophies (early Confucian and Daoist, for example) as substantially atheist in thrust. (In that sense, you can even say that the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BCE instituted a sort of practical atheism in Confucian teaching as a qualification for public office.) If one wants to throw the early Greek philosophers into the debate on the origins of atheism, that’s fine too, but that certainly does not vindicate Žižek’s ethnocentric view. Rather it just takes us back to talk of the Axenperiode, which hardly escapes the taint of colonialism. The lesson I take away here, then, is not that Žižek is a bad (or bad-faith) universalist, but simply that universalism is inherently fraught.

  31. But the critique of the liberal critique of nationalist anti-immigrant ideology in Tarrying With the Negative doesn’t primarily rest on Marx, it’s from Lacan (all he says in that section about Marx and the contradictions of capital basically boils down to “more money more problems”). For Z in that book the grievances of racists are understandable because of human nature: the universal structure of fantasy as discovered by Lacan. PC liberalism (self-castigating moralism for the self, condescension to the other) tries to escape this truth but only verifies it. thus since racism can’t be ‘explained away’ as false consciousness (aka understood in materialist or discursive terms), and since liberal multiculturalism automatically produces fundamentalism, the only thing to do is “take power at its word.” which for him seems to mean repeating racist and eurocentric cliches as often as possible, though i’m not sure why we shouldn’t read zizek’s op-eds themselves as a power discourse, and take his ideological claims literally.

    “And you want to be European? Well, the only values worth saving from the European heritage are the ones that totally contradict everything you’re doing.””

    i’m with dbarber in thinking that you’re leaving off the final movement of this dialectic – “and that’s why we should remain (heretically, post-ironically, etc.) loyal to the European/Xian/capitalist/universalist legacy.” europe has a chance to be right where the others (“Asian” capitalism and “American” liberal multicultural globalization) are wrong, only by returning to its myth-historical legacy. europe gets to celebrate its identity because its identity ‘just happens’ to be the most authentically universalist, just like zizek ‘just happens’ to be european.

  32. duncun & traxus4420,

    A bit ass backwards, racism is understandable through fantasy not because of ‘human nature’. Zizek argues that racism can be understood as neurotic subject coping with his or hers problematic relationship to enjoyment and sets up the other as an impediment to one’s enjoyment and/or posits the other as having a direct relationship to enjoyment a la pervert as the neurotics fantasy. This misses how for the neurotic subject enjoyment wasn’t there in the first place to be available to be enjoyed by the other. Zizek point is that the Real of jouisance which puts off enjoyment is the surplus of the symbolic which may or may not be co-opted in an official ideology. If it is not co-opted it does not necessarily ‘excuse’ the official ideology as the Symbolic and Real is conceived immanently by Zizek, and forms part of the obscene underside of official fuzzy warm embracing ideology. The transgressive value of putting this obsceneness on display – at least in my understanding – is dependent upon the official ideology continuing to disown it. That is why Zizek should not be taken ‘literally’.

    Now that economic times are tough, in the UK at least, racist related discource has began to be co-opted in mainstrain discourse. For me this mean’s that Zizek’s intervention risks being co-opted for other ends and loses some of its trangressive function.

  33. I’m not sure I follow how Žižek’s position on the “European legacy” works as overidentification; he doesn’t seem to be identifying with the idea of a European legacy in order to performatively demonstrate the contradictions in that idea, but rather to propose a true European legacy (egalitarianism, universalism, etc) which European leaders are not living up to. This would seem to maintain the idea of a European legacy in a way which would indeed be Eurocentric.

    I also think Will has a point that Žižek’s arguments against liberal multiculturalism may have lost their critical force, as governments seem increasingly uninterested in disavowing racism. This is the problem with the anecdote about Roma; the idea that liberal multicultural tolerance is the hegemonic response to Roma people in Europe is wrong, indeed a bit ridiculous.

  34. I spoke in ignorance about the Roma incident. I was inclined to give Zizek the benefit of the doubt because people are so quick to jump on him for spurious reasons, but this case looks pretty bad to me based on the additional information provided.

  35. But surely nobody really believes that Zizek is simply advocating a totally naive anti-roma, reactionary position. It could easily be something a reactionary would say, but nobody is seriously suggesting Zizek is one, right? And wasn’t that your original point, that his critics ignore his, let’s say, position of enunciation?

  36. A potential American parallel that came to my mind would be if there were people demonstrating against gang violence and someone said, “Well, you need to realize that those young men are really disenfranchised and don’t have many other options…” And sure, that would seem like kind of a patronizing response? Except no one would or does say that when people complain of gang violence in terms of their own personal safety, AND apparently the violence complained of wasn’t really happening.

  37. voyou,

    “but rather to propose a true European legacy (egalitarianism, universalism, etc) which European leaders are not living up to. This would seem to maintain the idea of a European legacy in a way which would indeed be Eurocentric.”

    I understand Z to mean that these ideals of egalitarianism, universalism etc… cannot be fully assumed de jure, as Z situates them as a kind of ‘incorporeal Real’ which by definition is excessive. This also I think stops the ‘Eurocentricism’ in the sense I think you intend it because the European institutions themselves do not embody the ideals completely, as the European ideal’s do not actually bear a special relationship with Europe – bizarrely – except for being their fortuitous place of birth(?).

  38. But surely nobody really believes that Zizek is simply advocating a totally naive anti-roma, reactionary position. It could easily be something a reactionary would say, but nobody is seriously suggesting Zizek is one, right? And wasn’t that your original point, that his critics ignore his, let’s say, position of enunciation?

    What, in this case, does “position of enunciation” mean? I am worried that it means something frighteningly close to “But… he’s stocked in the Left Wingers section of my local independent bookstore!”

  39. The problem with trying to defend Zizek from charges of conservatism by saying he’s following the Laibach strategy is not that this is wrong. It isn’t. He clearly is following the Laibach strategy (although it isn’t exactly a clear strategy, so that can get muddy.) The problem is that this doesn’t distinguish him from conservatism. Modern conservatism is, in a lot of ways, a politics of rhetorical overidentification. (Indeed, conservatism has always been: see Corey Robins’ book.) It sees itself as opposed to a monolithic mainstream and responds by oscillating between performative rightward feints, to shift the Overton window, and a kind of buffo inhabitation of leftward (liberal) positions, by way of (allegedly) showing that liberals are the real fascists and racists. Ha-ha!

    Jonah Goldberg leans heavy on the Laibach strategy. So does Rush Limbaugh. So does Karl Rove. So did G. K. Chesterton a century ago. So did de Maistre, in a different sort of way. (Even Burke did, to some extent. He’s an incredibly manic writer, denouncing manias.) So does Steven Colbert. I’m not saying there’s no sense or good fun to the overidentification strategy.

    So when Zizek overidentifies with Chesterton, this is, in part, as you say, a mischievious feint. But there’s also more plain truth to it than Zizek himself may admit, because Chesterton, too, was only feinting to stand where Zizek feints standing with him. So he might turn out to be standing exactly with Chesterton, precisely because he is pretending to stand where Chesterton pretends to stand. Get it? (Also, Laibach, the band, might do what they do in part because they are unhealthily a bit too attracted by this stuff. A lot of hipster irony works like that, after all. You pretend to be listening to an old Boston album all monsters of rock ironically but the truth is you just plain think it kinda rocks. Nietzsche on ‘see that you don’t become a monster yourself’ and all that. )

    Anyway, the point isn’t that Zizek is like Jonah Goldberg because they both like tormenting liberals by practicing Laibach-style overidentification. The point is that you can’t prove Zizek is NOT like Jonah Goldberg by pointing out one characteristic that, as far as just that goes, he shares with Jonah Goldberg.

    I think this post goes well with your post about liberals tormented by Rush Limbaugh. But not quite for the reasons you think.

  40. The point is that you can’t prove Zizek is NOT like Jonah Goldberg by pointing out one characteristic that, as far as just that goes, he shares with Jonah Goldberg.

    Yeah, it is a good thing that no one is doing that. Like for example, the original post, which talks about the content with which Zizek has used this tactic. It is indeed fortunate that we have the actual writings of both Zizek and Goldberg available to see the particular ways/directions in which they each use this.

  41. “to see the particular ways/directions in which they each use this.”

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear. The idea is that they are doing so in the same direction(s). Let’s leave Goldberg out because he’s just a hack who’s in it for the money and – whatever else I might accuse Zizek of – he’s not that. But Chesterton seems like an excellent figure to compare Zizek to. And I don’t consider that inherently insulting. Nor, I think, would Zizek. Chesterton is constantly rather violently overidentitying to the right. See “Orthodoxy” or, even more so, his fiction. Especially “The Napoleon of Notting Hill”. Also, “Manalive”. Others. He is also, to add variety, overidentitying to the left from time to time. Anyway, I think Zizek’s feints to the right are a lot like Chesterton’s feints to the right. So, in response to Adam’s point that Zizek isn’t like conservatives because he’s just feinting, I would reply: oddly, that makes him like these conservatives. At least like the likes of Chesterton.

    Feel free not to take my word about it, of course.

  42. You also overidentify by taking Megan McArdle’s musings as serious arguments to be rigorously analyzed! You must be like Jonah Goldberg, too! See how fucking useful this is?!?!?!

  43. No. How do I overidentify by taking Megan McArdle’s musings as serious arguments?

    If you find the whole topic of overidentification uninteresting, then why did you write the post?

    If you find the topic of overidentification interesting, then why do your find it so incredible that someone else might as well?

  44. Is there any possible way I could have made it more clear that I don’t want to have this conversation with you? We have used up our Zizek discussion points for this lifetime.

  45. Well, ok, but if you really do have an argument that some post of mine about Megan McArdle is like a Laibach album, my hat is off to you, man.

  46. Boston is reasonably awesome, I agree. I was speaking in the proper person of a hipster who is still on the fence. Irony is a strategy of cultural gentrification, if you like. First a bunch of young folks move in and like the stuff ironically …

  47. I loved “Paradise Theater” in my youth. I got it as a cassette in a ‘get a bunch of free ones if you sign up’ Columbia record club deal. Must have been 1981. I haven’t listened to it in a while.

  48. Styx (like Boston, REO Speedwagon, Journey, Triumph and so many others) has held up very well over time. (Styx was the Nickelback of their day! Think of how far we’ve fallen in just thirty years!) The same can’t be said for your Zizek schtick–and I have no investment in Zizek one way or another. I recommend you find yourself a copy of Allied Forces, stop reading Zizek, and chill out. (Although I’m relieved to confirm that you aren’t all bad: adolescent you seems to have been marginally cool enough to have a Styx tape. That’s pretty rad.)

  49. “The same can’t be said for your Zizek schtick”

    But you’ve only seen the cover. How could you know? (I admit it. The cover is lurid.)

    Also, I really don’t thinking belonging to the Columbia record club for a time proves that I am not all bad.

  50. A belated response to emily, who wrote:

    But surely nobody really believes that Zizek is simply advocating a totally naive anti-roma, reactionary position. It could easily be something a reactionary would say, but nobody is seriously suggesting Zizek is one, right?

    Yes, that is what I and others were and are suggesting. Thinking about it in the following schematic way may help clarify:

    All parties are agreed that Zizek a) presents himself as on the left; b) says many things that seem to be reactionary.

    Adam’s post, above, suggests an interpretive approach that reconciles these two aspects of Zizek’s work: Zizek is ‘performing’ and ‘taking seriously’ the dominant ideology, in order to expose its flaws, and thereby support the left positions he really holds. That is: Zizek is really a leftist, and is only pretending to be a reactionary. The interpretive approach I’d advocate is the opposite of that: Zizek is a reactionary who is trying to promote and disseminate reactionary talking points within a milieu that regards itself as ‘left’. He systematically presents reactionary ideas, while also systematically cultivating unclarity around his voicing, so that the reactionary ideas he puts forward can be endorsed at times and condemned at other times, as required by context. That is: Zizek is a reactionary pretending to be a leftist.

    Either of these interpretive approaches is compatible with the great majority of Zizek’s output. But some of Zizek’s statements cannot be made sense of from within Adam’s preferred interpretive framework, yet can be made sense of from within the interpretive framework I’d advocate. Zizek’s remarks on the Ambrus pogrom fall into this category: Zizek’s repeated false statements around the Strojans don’t make any sense from within Adam’s interpretive approach. It is, I think, very very difficult to understand how a committed anti-racist could fuck up by repeatedly intervening in this way in a major prominent debate around one of the most widely-known and unambiguous cases of racist mobilisation in Zizek’s own country. It is profoundly unlikely that Zizek is unaware of the facts of the situation; but his misrepresentation of the facts of the situation is recurrent. As Adam says to his credit above, this can’t be ‘redeemed’ by presenting Zizek as satirically inhabiting (or taking seriously) a reactionary position the better to critique it, because the critique never comes: Zizek never corrects his false statements, or presents them as anything other than fact. (One consequence of this is that readers who have attentively read a very large amount of Zizek’s output, and whose sympathetic inclination is to give Zizek the benefit of the doubt, are therefore likely to falsely assume that Zizek’s presentation of the facts of the Ambrus case is accurate or plausible.)

    Sections of Zizek’s work like this one cause problems for interpretive approaches like the one articulated in the post above. They are, however, strongly compatible with the alternative interpretive approach I’d advocate. If Zizek is a reactionary who is pretending to be a leftist, you’d expect him to sometimes just plainly state his own views, and also to articulate reactionary talking points in ways that are not compatible with the ‘Laibach’ interpretation. So statements like Zizek’s comments on the Ambrus pogrom are both explicable and predictable from this interpretive approach.

    I realise that if you’re committed to seeing Zizek as a leftist, this ‘change of interpretive aspect’ isn’t going to be appealing. But I would urge readers to look at Zizek’s work from this interpretive perspective. (Note that this perspective doesn’t require Zizek to be doing any more ‘performance’ than does Adam’s; it just reallocate’s Zizek’s ‘voicing’, and attributes to him a different ‘performative’ (and political) strategy.) I think that if you look at Zizek’s work from this point of view, a lot that otherwise seems puzzling or sloppy (like the Ambrus ‘fuck up’, but a great deal else as well) makes a lot more sense.

  51. Sorry, “basically” should be “effectively.” My method accounts for essentially every statement except a handful that includes the Roman incident. It also has the benefit of corresponding to his own explicit statements about what makes for good political critique. Yours accounts for the kind of shit that gets cherry-picked in liberal critiques and then dismisses everything else as some kind of bluff, doubtless based on your own visions you had while huffing paint or something.

  52. Huffing paint? My interpretation accounts for the work overall, not just for isolated statements. At least, nothing I’ve read by Zizek doesn’t work with this interpretation; it’s not like I have to dismiss swathes of text to get it to work. It’s difficult to respond to the ‘cherry picking’ point, though, because other examples I might pick would presumably also be ‘cherry’ picked…

    Also, Zizek’s statement about the Ambrus pogrom may be obscure for those of us whose primary focus is his theoretical work; but Zizek is a political figure also in his own country: a public intellectual with a career of popular journalistic interventions. I don’t think it’s safe to assume that interventions of these kinds, while they aren’t of much interest to his international Theory readership, are not central to his own political concerns, and a central part of his influence.

  53. “nothing I’ve read by Zizek doesn’t work with this interpretation”

    Well of course not, because there’s nothing that could count against your interpretation: the idea that anything non-reactionary that Žižek says is a mere cover for his reactionaryness is already built into the interpretation. But I don’t think you’re taking your interpretation far enough – if Žižek were really a reactionary pretending to be a leftist, why would he make such obviously reactionary remarks like the ones about the Roma? If you take your position to its logical conclusion, you’ll see that the fact that Žižek makes reactionary comments is the best evidence that he is not a reactionary.

  54. Right, my theory that Moses was actually a Martian also accounts for much of the Hebrew Bible.

    This is basically the “birtherism” of philosophy. Seriously, for over twenty years Zizek’s been building a reputation as a leftist, only to corrupt young leftist minds with right-wing ideas?

  55. (Of course, the reason that I’m reacting so negatively is that you’ve really touched a nerve — for well over ten years now, I’ve been building a reputation as a radical theologian, etc., all in the service of Opus Dei-style Roman Catholicism!!!!!!!!!! If you start looking for it, it’s a pretty robust theory!)

  56. Well of course not, because there’s nothing that could count against your interpretation: the idea that anything non-reactionary that Žižek says is a mere cover for his reactionaryness is already built into the interpretation.

    But this objection objects to too much; if applied consistently it would prevent anyone from attributing deception to anyone, ever. (“Well of course deception is part of your analysis, because they’re just deceiving us about everything that isn’t.”) This is what I mean when I say that the ‘paranoiac’ objection is not a good one – it’s like a universal anti-sceptical argument in response to a universal sceptical argument. Neither is of any use in practice.

    So yes, in some formal sense any statement anyone could ever make is compatible with them being a secret reactionary; this of course goes for Zizek too. That is why you evaluate a text on the balance of probabilities, trying out different interpretations to see which makes most interpretive sense. That’s the basis for my calling Zizek a reactionary. We all know that he is critical of multiculturalism, of liberal tolerance, of purportedly hegemonic political correctness, etc. We can then ask: from what stance does Zizek articulate these critiques? Is his own stance (as he claims) a Left emancipatory one, where liberal multicultural tolerance is not emancipatory enough? Or is (as I am suggesting) Zizek’s actual stance based in more garden-variety intolerance, including racial intolerance, presented (though not always consistently) in a more palatable form for an audience that identifies as Left?

    Again, I don’t have time to even begin to talk about this in any detail here. But when a person defends a pogrom this is in fact evidence against their anti-racism. It is evidence in favour of their racism. This should be weighed in the balance, when we consider how to evaluate Zizek’s many other statements of the “we must move beyond hegemonic multicultural liberal tolerance!” variety.

  57. I mean this is supposed to be Zizek’s area of expertise: nationalism, racism, multiculturalism, etc. This is where he’s supposed to have his insights (in ‘applied’ areas I mean; besides interpretations of Hegel, Lacan, etc.). It’s not even like Heidegger where one can semi-plausibly make the case that “Oh, he’s interested in Being, he’s not interested in politics, his judgement is bad in that area, it doesn’t diminish the rest of the work.” The politics of racism, nationalism, etc. is Zizek’s primary ‘applied’ research-area. If he can “fuck up” on the Ambrus pogrom, what is the basis for giving his views on any related social question any weight at all? The New York Times was able to identify this as racism; it’s not as if this was an obscure and difficult call to make, because of the hegemonic veil of contemporary liberal capitalist ideology. Almost everyone with any even nominal commitment to the left or human rights discourse was appalled. But Zizek defended it, and repeated his defence when criticised. I don’t see why this doesn’t ring more warning bells.

  58. What I don’t see in your position, duncan, is any theory as to why Žižek says left-sounding things in one context, and right-sounding things in others. I don’t see any explanation as to how these left-wing sounding positions are supposed to function as part of Žižek’s supposed overall right-wing position; instead, you just dismiss the left-sounding positions as deception. Not every attribution of deception is paranoic, but some are, and one way to try and distinguish the two is to ask whether the theory explains why this particular deception supports the real position that is being attributed to the deceiver, and that’s what seems to be missing from your account.

  59. I’d also note that the Roma incident is becoming more and more the interpretive key that you’re spontaneously bringing forward, even though you objected to that idea. This is what tipped him off! Yet as Voyou suggest, why in the world would someone try to “infiltrate” such a powerless and disorganized group as the global left? If he’s right-wing, why not simply be right-wing and enjoy all the many benefits that would surely accrue to him if he embraced a “former Communist dissident now sold on the free market” persona?

    Also, is there anyone else attempting a similar deception?

    I’m going to repeat it yet again: your position is stupid. Everything you say just makes it even stupider. I recommend that you stop commenting here.

  60. OK, I’ll stop. I’ll respond to Dominic, and to some of the points made in this thread also, at greater length when I have time – presumably on my own site rather than here.

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