Response to Duncan Law on Zizek’s supposed conservatism

(a reply to this comment on this post)

I wrote a bit about Zizek’s treatment of the Strojans a while back; my conclusion wasn’t that Zizek is “a reactionary posing as a leftist” (a hypothesis which can feed into a basically paranoid reading: by nefarious subterfuge Zizek introduces crypto-reactionary impurities into pure marxism; these must be identified and exposed; once they are exposed, everyone will reject Zizek, apart from the deluded fanboys who will cling on to their denial to the bitter end – which is convenient, because it means we get to keep them as whipping boys basically forever), but rather that he fairly openly pursues a rhetorical strategy of impurification which is sometimes indistinguishable from trolling, and on occasion rather unsavoury trolling.

Here’s what everyone knows: white people without any deeply-considered commitment to racist notions are nevertheless frequently racist; sometimes in more or less conscious defence of social advantage, sometimes because of unexamined racist attitudes and anxieties, and sometimes because they enjoy it – because cruelty has a pay-off, and moral recklessness has a pay-off, and upsetting your peers whilst flaunting your own impunity has a pay-off, and not factoring the consequences of racism into your reckoning of whether that pay-off is “worth it” is easy to do if the consequences of racism aren’t generally speaking consequences for you or people you care about.

Now, it’s conceivable that, as my reading suggests, Zizek indifferently milked the pogrom story for the pay-off he wanted from it, because for him it was only really a story, as malleable as the inferred subtext of a Hitchcock movie. For his supposed audience it was also only really a story, an exemplum to be bandied this way or that. The failure of ethical imagination, of political responsibility, involved here would then be of a commonplace variety. We do not need to suppose that Zizek is “a reactionary posing as a leftist” for this explanation to hold; he need only be guilty of the same complacency of which he accuses the targets of his polemic.

I will try to anticipate the next turn in this argument. The racism of people who aren’t actually Nazis is almost never about deeply-considered commitments, but it is also not dissolvable into individual lapses of ethical imagination; in particular, Zizek and his supposed public behave in the way described not only because they are morally fallible, but also because they are constituted, as media performer and spectating audience, within material circuits one of the functions of which is to produce racism. The discourse into which Zizek is inserted is already racist, and the fantasy that his “interventions” within that discourse are somehow beamed in from an ideologically pure, impeccably non-racist “outside” is untenable. For the same reason, however, it is hardly necessary to posit a covert racist identity for Zizek in order to explain his racist utterances within the context of that discourse. This is not to say either that such utterances are inevitable and excusable, or that the only way to avoid making such lapses is to abstain altogether from participation in mainstream public media. (Honourable counterexamples could, I’m sure, quickly be found). But it is to say that Zizek is not as good a leftist as he should be, rather than a better reactionary than he is usually suspected of being.

46 thoughts on “Response to Duncan Law on Zizek’s supposed conservatism

  1. Your wider points about whiteness and its relation to racism are excellent, and I do not see them articulated in public often enough.

  2. Frustratingly, I don’t have enough time to respond to this properly, and I won’t for quite a while. One quick point, though, before I present an IOU: there are, in the world, people who conceal their real intentions, present themselves dishonestly, and attempt to manipulate others through their words, to achieve goals they do not always fully and openly acknowledge as their own. Whether or not Zizek is one of these people is an empirical and interpretive question. However, the possibility should not be disdained by virtue of its purported association with ‘paranoiac’ interpretative approaches. We’re all familiar with politicians who dogwhistle around race, pursuing a political agenda that they do not fully acknowledge in their formal public statements of intent; there’s no reason at all to think that a theorist can’t do the same.

    I say this because it is easy for a ‘Goldilocks’ rhetorical framing to present the positing of a ‘covert racist identify’ as somehow intrinsically implausible. In fact, covert racist identities are a dime a dozen. Though – like Zizek’s – they rarely remain consistently covert, and this is one (though only one) of the reasons we can identify them.

    I will say more – but, regrettably, not for quite some time; apologies for that.

  3. To follow up a bit on Duncan’s comment, it seems to me that — given the “Western” inheritance of colonialism / racism / Christian religion / Eurocentric secularism — we should treat statements that indicate racism as, well, racist statements. And, specifically, that we ought to see them as ciphers for what might be imagined as unconscious material. Rather, in other words, than seeing them as accidental aberrations from a fundamentally not-racist position. After Freud, we see certain sexualized statements, or statements with sexual connotations, as indicative of structures that are otherwise concealed from visibility; we ought to do the same with race. (Of course, we resist this, as doing so would require us to see a lot of categories in which we are invested as being inflected by racism — all excellent things are as difficult as…)

  4. (Let’s just take it for granted that I’ve responded abusively to Duncan’s most recent stupid repetition of his stupid theory.)

    Dan, Isn’t that exactly what Dominic is saying?

  5. So then, DB, an important distinction is whether someone intentions such statements as such or not, and another is whether a person admits responsibility when called out on them. The important distinction is not whether someone is or is not racist within this context.

    Have fun with the empirical claims about Zizek.

  6. Adam, I think Dominic is saying some of those things, but not with the concluding claim that “Z is not as good a leftist as he should be” — that seems to be securing Z’s identity as leftist and then looking at the racism as an aberration (as if he were justified but just needed more “sanctification”).

    Jason, i have no idea what you’re talking about.

  7. I don’t understand what you’re saying, Dan. Or I guess I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be thinking or doing in response, since it seems that everyone in the Western tradition is bound to be racist in some important way — or is that not what you’re saying?

  8. Adam, I know. But it would be really weird to read you – or Dominic – slip up and write a “commonplace” post even mildly advocating pogrom type activities. I’ve talked publically lots, as I’m a teacher. And I’m sure I’ve slipped up some times in a human way. But not quite like that.

    I recently contemplated renting a flat from someone that is next to a park currently occupied by gypsies. If I had, and then wrote a post expressing understand for some guy at the bar who was speculating about torching them in the camper vans, you’d have reason to question my sanity / ethical status.

    Further (and really – I’ve so not tried to wade in here, as it seems like one of those classically nasty comment threads) there are those of us who doubt Zizek’s line from the outset, wonder why he worries more about liberalism than anything else, find him incompatible with any actually possible promise of left change, and yes… actually at times wonder how the fuck he actually happened as a Big Thing. (If you’re a student of the material conditions of left publication / employment in the West during the twentieth-century, nothing would really be a huge surprise in this line, and Yugoslavia was a seriously complicated place when he was starting his career. Notice the bedfellows he was keeping as the curtain fell?) And if you’re wondering about all this, the casual advocacy of violence and sometimes totalitiarianism, then the Roma stuff just, you know, confirms what you’ve already been thinking.

    You tell me, seriously, am I totally out of line here? Not a paranoid person at all by nature, but sometimes he does set a buzzer off.

    OK one more thing. It’s also worth always having a little bit of doubt about inheritors of the Big Continentalish Philosopher mantle. It’s not, you know, had a great track record, that.

  9. Actually, forget the “advocating pogrom” stuff. That was too much. But it’d be weird to read either of you writing even a post that sort of casually understood your neighbors’ gripes about minority group X, Y, or Z. It would make me wonder about you guys, which I have never done in that way.

  10. Absolutely last thing:

    “Now, it’s conceivable that, as my reading suggests, Zizek indifferently milked the pogrom story for the pay-off he wanted from it, because for him it was only really a story, as malleable as the inferred subtext of a Hitchcock movie.”

    It bears mentioning that this is exactly what bothers or even terrifies me about Zizek and those who take him as an example. It may well be a failing of a “commonplace variety” in certain circles of the philosophical left to suffer from category confusion between actually-existing ethnic violence and shit that happens in movies, but if so, not a club I’m up for being a part of.

  11. It seems fine to me to claim that Zizek is effectively reactionary in a lot of ways, or also to claim that Zizek’s rhetorical strategy is misguided and more likely to give comfort to reactionaries than to really challenge the thinking of his intended targets. I also think that Dominic’s assessment of the negative fall-out of Zizek’s “drive” toward mischeviousness is pretty accurate — we’re talking about a pretty horrific fuck-up currently, and one might also think of his off-handed reference to child pornography in The Parallax View (which he presumably wanted many people to read, given his declaration that it was his “magnum opus”).

    What bothers me about this thread, though, is that an utterly ridiculous conspiracy theory is getting undue attention and discussion. We already talked about the incident that Zizek so vastly misconstrued in the original post and came to just about the same point that we have now — but in between, a completely stupid idea has been taken much too seriously.

  12. From the same essay under discussion:

    “the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology IS today’s hegemonic ideology – its function is to enable us to evade the deadlock of the hedonist permissiveness which is effectively hegemonic.”

    This is, in fact, a reactionary claim. If you believe this claim, you are, in this respect, a reactionary. This is not a poorly-chosen, ‘trolling’ illustration of a more valuable point; it is Zizek’s point, in the essay under discussion as elsewhere – with all the partial and fragile victories of decades of left politics substitutable for the critique of patriarchy.

  13. This is a claim one can actually argue with! Now I should say that patriarchal ideology is still very powerful and destructive. Yet the thing about hegemony is that it means something is taken for granted. On that level, isn’t the imperative to enjoy (read: consume) more fundamental? Patriarchal ideology has major inertial effects, even after the fragile successes you’ve mentioned — and of course actual reactionaries are constantly fighting to reassert patriarchy. The thing is, though: you don’t need to fight to reassert hegemonic ideas. Hegemonic ideas don’t seem like the “agenda” of a narrow group that’s in a losing battle with history. Indeed, hegemonic ideas generally don’t come across as out-dated and cruel to most mainstream audiences. By contrast, even the reactionaries who are fighting in favor of the lost group of patriarchy are effectively defining their identities through their consumption choices! (And the most effective tactics in the anti-abortion struggle focus on hegemonic ideas about the avoidance of suffering, etc., by focusing on the fetus’s rights instead of the desire to control female sexuality.)

    Again, again, again: patriarchal ideology is real and powerful and destructive. It can be all those things without being hegemonic. To take a clearer example: anti-Semitic violence is a real phenomenon that’s horrible, and yet I think it’s safe to say that virtually no one would claim that anti-Semitism is currently a mainstream, hegemonic view in the U.S. Should anti-Semitism be opposed? Absolutely, no question. Would it be a mistake to say that anti-Semitism is the biggest problem in the U.S.? I think it would be, and I don’t think that statement makes me an anti-Semite.

  14. Indeed, one could argue that the obsession with finding the “biggest problem” that we must all focus on is pathological — but it’s absolutely pervasive on the left.

  15. Adam, you’re right. But on the other hand you don’t spend a large amount of your public writing wordcount on ensuring that we don’t overly focus on anti-semitism, patriarchy, race, etc. Do you see the difference? I.e. if many of your writings were devoted to arguing the claim that “Would it be a mistake to say that anti-Semitism is the biggest problem in the U.S.? I think it would be…” rather than just getting on to the other big problems you’re interested in, I think it would start to seem like you’re driven by questionable motives.

  16. I can’t emphasise enough that I don’t have time to pursue this conversation adequately now, again with apologies for that. That said: note that Zizek’s claim is not just that patriarchy is not hegemonic, as your comment seems to suggest. Zizek is not saying, for example: “feminists overstate the hegemonic status of patriarchy”. Zizek is quite directly saying that the critique of patriarchy as hegemonic is itself hegemonic. This is false; indeed it’s a bizarre claim to make seriously. But it is not an unusual view; it is a widely held view on the right, where people see themselves as threatened and beleaguered by extremely powerful and dominant cultural forces of feminism, multiculturalism, political correctness, etc. (All of which Zizek will at times write about in place of ‘patriarchy’ in passages similar to the one I quoted.) The view Zizek expresses in this passage, as in many others, places him squarely in the ‘mainstream’ of this reactionary viewpoint and narrative.

  17. I do see the difference. Yet I’m not sure that the materials you’re pointing out here actually take up that big a portion of Zizek’s published wordcount — for instance, I don’t recall any anti-P.C. swipes in Living in the End Times at all. Obviously, though, Zizek’s ridiculous production levels cause special problems here, as he could spend 1% of his oeuvre complaining about these damn politically correct liberals and it would be equivalent to 90% of another public figure’s output.

  18. Somebody asked above (or on the other thread) if there are other writers with the same problem. I nominate Badiou, especially given what I’ve just said. At the many points in his writing when he turns to the explicitly political, lots of energy is devoted to castigating democracy, multiculturalism, socialism, etc in working towards the (spurious, metaphysical) notion of evental politics that is ostensibly what he is ultimately after.

  19. Sorry Adam, double and thus cross posted. I agree. But on the other hand, with matters like these, even a little bit is a lot. At least that’s how I feel. I’d think very hard before I wandered into the realms of anything that could even be misconstrued as anti-feminist or anti-anti-Semitic critique.

    Forget the conspiracy theories. Forget even the closet reactionary stuff for a second. It’s Zizek’s irresponsibility that drives me nuts. I don’t think these “mistakes” are funny, or excusable. Which brings me back to what I said above about the film / ethnic cleansing category slippage. I’m just not interested in someone – especially someone who has easy access to an audience – who chronically makes these “fuck ups.” And yes, it does make me wonder in turn what side they are actually on.

  20. I shudder to think how long your comments would be if you did have adequate time.

    There’s a difference between the claim that mainstream liberals like to shadow-box against the kind of forthright bigots and sexists who are actually a fringe element in American society and directly identifying with those bigots and sexists as the real victims! I don’t think Zizek is doing the latter, at all.

    It seems to me that the hardcore Fox News Republicans are a small but vocal subculture that succeeds precisely because of the phenomenon Zizek pinpoints — the tendency for liberals to be satisfied with themselves as long as they’ve established that they’re not like those crazy conservatives.

    (In this particular case, it’s obvious that Zizek took that critique disastrously too far. I’ve tried to reconstruct a line of reasoning that would make his argument make sense, and the nearest equivalent I could figure out was responding to someone who’d been a victim of gang violence by saying, “Now you need to understand that these are disadvantaged populations without a lot of other options aside from crime….” — which of course no one on earth would ever say in that situation.)

  21. ““Now you need to understand that these are disadvantaged populations without a lot of other options aside from crime….”

    We – most of us – do this sort of thing all the time. A friend wrote me this morning that he had to call the police because he caught someone hiding in a bush outside of his girlfriend’s bedroom at night. It turned out that the guy was homeless, he’d built a little cardboard bed behind a bush. My response was “Yuck, that’s awful. But also pretty fucking sad, no?” I’m sure my friend and his girlfriend agree.

    I’m just not all that sure that reflexive liberal / left instincts, even if they generally come to nil (obvs friend and his GF didn’t head down to the local homeless shelter to make a donation after the dude was taken away) are what need to be critiqued. I think they need to be intensified, augmented, shifted, etc.

    Again, I think there’s a big difference there. And it’s an important one when dealing with Zizek and his bros.

  22. Zizek’s piece in the LRB on the London riots is another case and point that problematizes your gang-violence issue. Almost uncannily.

  23. (And further – not to open a huge can of worms here – I think that Zizek’s had a bad influence in this regard on what we might call “our generation” of left thinkers. Feminist critiques that devote most of their word counts to attacking women, Anti-capitalist critiques that spend most of their energies fantasising the acceleration of capitalism, etc. It’s a really bad, erm, meme to have if not introduced at least done the marketing campaign for….)

  24. Here’s the LRB article referred to above.

    You’re right that Zizek’s been a bad influence in a lot of ways. A lot of shitty white dudes have taken his work as a free pass not to have to worry about all the feminist, P.C. stuff anymore. But that kind of thing has been pervasive for a long time — in a way, couldn’t one even say that’s just what Marxism has almost always effectively been? We need dictatorship to get to radical democracy, we need to impose even harsher worker discipline than the capitalists themselves in order to create the material conditions for full communism, etc., etc. And obviously “particularist” causes always need to wait until the full revolution has been achieved, because their demands will only hold us back in the meantime, etc., etc., etc.

  25. that’s just what Marxism has almost always effectively been?

    I know! But here you’re falling back into the “to err is human” excuse. But if this is the case, if I’m somewhat rightly taking Zizek as an emblem of what is (has always been) wrong with left theory, then shouldn’t we tear it up and start again? It doesn’t seem to me that it’s structurally inevitable that we make these mistakes.

  26. The whole discussion changes radically once that question is opened up, though. It’s no longer a question of Zizek failing to be a good enough leftist if virtually every leftist has failed in similar ways — much less a question of Zizek as some kind of sleeper agent trying to corrupt an otherwise robust and healthy leftist movement.

    And it’s hard to take that next step, because it means we are well and truly fucked — especially if you believe, as I do, that the success of social democracy owed a great deal to the specter of “actual existing socialism,” such that their successes may be astronomically more difficult to replicate under current conditions. That is to say, we may have no realistically workable models at all.

  27. couldn’t one even say that’s just what Marxism has almost always effectively been?

    No: elements of Marxism have been these things; many elements have not. The Marxist tradition also contains fully democratic and anti-authoritarian politics; opposition to work (politics oriented to the minimisation & abolition of labour); anti-sexism; anti-racism; etc. etc. If you think that the Marxist tradition could do with still more of this latter set of things (which yes), and wish to minimize the influence of the set of things you mentioned (which also yes), mischaracterising the tradition in this quite serious and influential way is not a helpful starting point at all.

    It’s just not true that virtually every leftist has failed in ways similar to Zizek. I think it’s evidence of Zizek’s unfortunate ‘success’ that this seems at all plausible.

  28. Right, so what we’re going to do is to define Marxism so that the explicitly Marxist movements that for much of the 20th Century held sway over close to half of the earth’s landmass don’t really “count”? Just so I’m clear! Because it seems to me that the Marxist tendencies you name have been pretty marginal, all things considered.

  29. An analogy: there’s been a lot of cool, liberatory stuff in the Christian tradition! No queston. Yet shouldn’t it give one pause to recognize that, for example, Roman Catholicism happened?

  30. Come on: that’s a softball. Does that mean, if we’re “good Christians,” that we’d forgive a bit of homophobia, casualness or complicity with child rape, and misogyny from our Foremost Christian Theorist, just because, you know, that’s sort of part of the deal in getting involved?

  31. See, this is the kind of conversation I usually have with anti-Marxists; not with people defending one of the world’s most prominent self-identified Marxist intellectuals.

    I also find it curious that despite Zizek’s recurrently professed admiration for Stalin, his frequently expressed contempt for liberal democracy, etc., and despite my criticism of him for his authoritarianism, somehow I’m the one who is getting tarred here by the legacy of oppressive Marxist regimes.

    Also, and very clearly, I am not “defining” Marxism so that those explicitly Marxist movements “don’t count”; I am (again, very clearly) drawing attention to the diversity of the tradition, and contesting your claim (again, stated very clearly just up thread) that Marxism has “almost always” been these things. Many Social Democrats were Marxists too, you know. Many still are. Why are you “defining Marxism” so that these political actors, agents of so many successes that Zizek is so ready to pour his contempt upon, “don’t count”?

    Time for me to take a break from this, I think. I’ll respond to other points eventually.

    [Ach. On refreshing:

    I don’t really see the relevance of your Christianity analogy to this discussion, nor does it seem like a particularly well chosen analogy to me. But let me try to work with it. Let’s say that you are an admirer of a specific Christian intellectual, regarding them as doing valuable left wing work. I say that actually I think this figure is more closely aligned with reactionary elements within Christianity, despite their overt claims to be a socialist. Let’s say, for example, that the Christian figure writes something like “I stand… in a long tradition of Anglican and Catholic Christian socialism”, maybe in a piece about ‘The Politics of Paradox’ (because figures of the kind we’re imagining – like Zizek – often make references to political paradoxes). And let’s say I dispute this, seeing the figure as on the right really, despite this self-identification. Let’s say I prefer liberation theology, maybe. Let’s say that when I make this case you defend the figure by pointing out how reactionary the tradition they have emerged from is, such that almost everyone within the tradition is as bad as the figure. And let’s say you express scorn about my reference to liberation theology, because (in your eyes) it is such a marginal element of Christianity that it is not even worth mentioning in this context.

    Why would this be a good argument?

    (Note that I am not saying this extension of the analogy works all that well; analogies often aren’t too helpful in discussions like this, I think; I would much rather discuss the issues around Zizek directly. For now, though, I really am taking a break.)]

  32. See, here I thought that the conversation had necessarily broadened to the point where Zizek personally isn’t “the issue!” I thought we had transitioned, pretty explicitly. The fact that everything I’m saying now is being construed as Zizek apologetics is disappointing.

  33. The vibe I got was that Adam wanted to transition to a general statement using Zizek as a particular example for a more general claim, while Duncan was more concerned with the particular example than making the general claim. The closest to transition came in the discussion of who is and is not a Marxist. This conversation might be more fascinating as an example of dialectic. Ads, thanks for the excellent interjections.

  34. Given that we’re in the comment thread of a post explicitly and exclusively responding my critique of Zizek, I don’t think my focus on Zizek here is particularly out of line.

  35. Duncan, I have a compulsion to play mediator at times, and was just pointing this out. It’s not a criticism, but an invitation for when you come back. There seemed to be more than tug-o-war going on between two positions.

  36. JUST TO BE CLEAR: Zizek obviously is either ignorant of the context of the incident he describes or else completely misconstruing it — in either case, he is being hugely irresponsible. Yet even if the situation were such as he describes, his response still wouldn’t make sense, and that was the point of my analogy to gang violence.

    Once I learned of the full context of the situation Zizek describes, I have consistently said that he was horribly wrong in what he said in the article under discussion.

  37. Your analogy suggests that Zizek is defending victims of gang violence from liberal lectures on tolerance and excuses for the gang based in their suffering. But this is backwards. Zizek is making the excuses for the violent gang and rejecting the Strojans complaint of having been victims of racist persecution. Of course Zizek was familiar with the case he editorialized about – as you must also have been as a Zizek scholar familiar with his work and 20 year career as Liberal Democrat ideologist which you judge to be evidence of his radical left, communist activities – as he was with all the claims against his party for racist persecution and expropriations whose demands for reparations he has consistently opposed with ridicule and similar charges of group criminality. Liberals purvey visions of decaffeinated Gypsies and Kosovars, he claims, hiding their criminal way of life, trying to force virtuous true ethnic Slovenes to accept the toxic intruders by denouncing them as ‘racists’ if they attempt to expell them and expropriate their property in self defence.

  38. RE: Patriarchy

    I think attention should be drawn to the difference between phantasy and ideology, the former subjective position the latter objective.

    duncan wrote: “Zizek is quite directly saying that the critique of patriarchy as hegemonic is itself hegemonic. This is false; indeed it’s a bizarre claim to make seriously. But it is not an unusual view; it is a widely held view on the right, where people see themselves as threatened and beleaguered by extremely powerful and dominant cultural forces of feminism, multiculturalism, political correctness, etc. (All of which Zizek will at times write about in place of ‘patriarchy’ in passages similar to the one I quoted.)”

    It seems here you confuse the two, interpreting Z’s claims on ideology as Z’s personal phantasy – and conforming to correlationalist two-step of i)self/other ii) other=self. This is indeed a kind of Deus ex machina in the face of ambiguity that Z actively cultivates. I think AK’s points regarding hegemony are important to underline, and I would like to draw attention to the way in which Z’s claim regarding patriarchal ideological lure could serve not as evidence of Z being a reactionary, but as a positive statement regarding ideology in it’s role of keeping capitalism as the great unmoved mover.

    This is not to say that feminism and other issues are not important or worthy of pursuit in their own right, but precisely in so far as these issues are pursued in their own right they are nevertheless overdetermined by factors emanating from elsewhere. This leaves one with the choice to pursue issues in their own right and viewing this over determination as either compromising or as an ally.

  39. In my analogy, I was trying to put the most positive possible interpretation on Zizek’s intervention in the article (including assuming he was ignorant of some details), and I concluded that even in that case, his article makes no sense. I am not “defending” him by means of the analogy! I am not making any effort to defend his claims in this case, at all, and I am fucking sick and tired of people responding to me as though I am.

    Duncan, It’s fine for you to remain focused on Zizek, but it’s not fine for you to respond to my comments as though they were.

  40. “Fucking sick and tired” is the desired result, I believe. The object is to get you into the position of whipping boy, and keep you there. Interpretative charity is not a part of this routine.

  41. I trashed it because I’m sick to death of this conversation and you just seemed to be repeating your same old point with more detail. Now I’m going to formally close comments.

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