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.

13 thoughts on “A frank assessment of Žižek’s work as a political commentator

  1. I’m not so convinced by this form/content division…

    Feel weird commenting now since Sam Kriss, who I usually find interesting and funny, did the whole fist fight thing. I am nothing if not an overly loyal friend and so, Sam Kriss, if you’re reading, to abuse the idiotic Friends of Voltaire quotation, I agree with what you’re saying, but I’ll try to kick the shit out of you (next time I’m in London) while you’re saying it. So, obviously I think the fist fight thing was stupid (though I am not as a rule anti-challenging people to fist fights). But I still think the positive reading of Zizek is wrong. It seems predicated on the fact that he’s not a “personal racist” (your term). When the problem is that he’s thinking still in the frame of racism and covering that over with a ridiculous fantasy of “political realism” (which you defend). “What would *you* do if you had to deal with such a wave of refugees!” Plus the way you are asking the reader to accept the racism of Europeans is very unsettling. Why would that be the more “realist” thing to do? Sure, intolerance and xenophobia isn’t going anywhere, but neither is rape culture and you would never ask women to figure out how to accept that men are going to rape them so they should probably “not dress like sluts” (in the words of the police officer whose comments caused women to organize slut walks in protest of just this logic). Why do we have to wait for the end of capitalism to make these demands? Obviously there are safety concerns, but those safety concerns are trivial compared to the war they are fleeing, the hunger they are experiencing in camps, and the wasted lives they being forced to live without being provided shelter. And why focus on social media for the object of your attack? Social media is far from the primary place that left wing people *act out their principles* and more a place they blow off steam. Many of the actually existing leftists who are actively involved in refugee organizing are making demands far more radical than Zizek did in his piece and with far more knowledge. That’s perhaps the worst part of his Euro-centrism, the total lack of understanding of the “non-European”. I mean, he falls into incredibly stupid tropes that contradict his “class first” stance when it comes to identity.

    I get the desire for people to engage with the actual arguments. When it comes to John Holbo on Leninism, I think ZIzek is right and Holbo can’t get why. In the case of this article, I think Zizek is wrong and Zizek can’t get why. Not every misreading is the same. Furthermore, ZIzek is playing this incredibly stupid game, one you see in Inventing the Future as well, where his “brave criticisms of the left” are all about policing criticisms of leftist coalition politics that include race, gender, and even class (you think poor people aren’t told to shut the fuck up in the name of some left-wing assholes gaining power before they can help them?). This notion that people enjoy expressing condemnation because it makes them feel pure… Jesus Christ. People enjoy it because they’re so often told they’re the impurity, they are the ones who are “ruining our chances of taking power”.

    My issue with the notion of “Western legacy” is probably more controversial, but I would venture to claim there is no Western legacy that is “retrievable” without taking it all back. All the good things are not produced “from Western culture”, because that’s a very strange way to understand the production of an idea. The unjust conditions that allow for their production do not retroactively justify the existence of those unjust conditions.

  2. There’s a lot to think about here, and I am not a class-reductionist Marxist by any means. The one thing I don’t get is that you say that I’m asking people to “accept” European racism, and yet you go on to literally say it’s not going anywhere. Pointing out that something is a durable fact is not endorsing it! Capitalism isn’t going anywhere in the near future, either — oops, just endorsed it! It’s absolutely infuriating.

  3. Because you can accept that something is going to remain a condition one has to live with and still refuse to accept it as the primary condition that organizes your response to a situation. In this example, yes European racism exists, but the demand is still that resources be used to shelter Syrian refugees and others. I don’t think prisons are going anywhere, but I still support prison abolition as well as other more “realistic” forms of intervention in the interim.

  4. Everything in Zizek’s column presupposes “the demand… that resources be used to shelter Syrian refugees and others”! That’s the baseline assumption. If European racism was the primary condition to organize the response, then you wouldn’t be letting in anyone.

  5. I’m sure that’s one way to read it, but by my reading the baseline assumption is that European culture is one with an “emancipatory legacy” and that the culture of the refugees is incompatible with that legacy. The reality is that those refugees are coming and so “how do we deal with it” within the condition of European supremacy and its racism (Zizek has his own vision of the magical Mexican immigrant there). The whole scope of the article is not actually focused very much on how to respond to the actual reality of the refugees.

  6. When I feel compassion for and empathize with the refugees, I really feel superior to them. I don’t realize that we in the West collectively are in a comparable situation. The Western legacy we rely on as the background of our compassionate activity is itself under threat from within. We ourselves, our cultural universe, everything we believe in, is probably going to be destroyed soon. The only way to really help solve social problems like the refugee crisis is to connect them to the fight for our own survival. We need to break out of self-hatred and develop a healthy self-esteem that is not blind to its own limitations and takes responsibility for its actions. Instead, we hate ourselves. That hatred implicitly extends to the others and heightens our compassion for them.

  7. I don’t think that Ž is being racist, when he is saying that racism, sexism and homophobia will have to be fought also in the midst of refugees. And that is has to be assured that the same laws apply to everyone. What his strategy is doing is effectively giving hints on *how* to steal the right-wing populist vote, which is precicely what needs to be done right now and which is also possible to do, (a lot of Le Pen’s voters used to be Communist Party voters 20 years ago, after all.) He is operating in todays racist consensus in a non-racist way. The Left is not strong enough to change this consensus. The basic argument of the right-wing populist is “why are we helping “them”, if we are not helping “us”, which is pretty much readable as disappointment with the lack of security provided to them by the neoliberal state. The other thing they’re afraid of is some sort of pro-immigrant apartheid. Those may be immoral and arbitrary fears, but one can see them in an emancipatory frame, and nothing is to be gained by ridiculing and vilifying them. When the Left is in power, it will have power enough to come down hard on right-wing ideologies, structures and organizations. I think he advocates a state of emergency also because it would give greater powers to the government to reverse neoliberalism, nationalize stuff and so on. (is capitalism as it exists now not itself warranting of a state of emergency?) You basically need the support of the (currently predominantly racist) society to do non-racist things. Highly undemocratic, of course, but Žižek never had much respect for democracy. In short, he is proposing a human rights dictatorship instead of a neoliberal one. On a premise that even if the refugees were objectively the worst kinds of people imaginable, we should still let them in.

  8. What if constantly engaging in dialectical reversals is (at least for Zizek as a theorist) the mode in which it’s possible to live your life responsibly, i.e. owning the enjoyment you derive from things, instead of clinging to a position of authority? I thought this is where Emily is spot on in her comment: first in recognising the fact that we leftists derive a sense of superiority from trying to “save” (help change) the world, and then in pointing to the need for genuine egotism (Rousseau’s amour-de-soi, again owning the stake we have in everything we do). Also what Emily says comes close to Zizek’s critique of the paradigm of imperialism (the West is becoming a brutally exploited colony of the capital too, the destruction is coming home to roost). But I’m just enjoying myself here, I guess.

    This is the first trace I am leaving on your blog, so as a way of saying “hello” I loved your preceding piece on how to read Zizek on the refugee crisis – no less than I enjoyed and benefited from reading your book on Zizek and Theology last year (it helped me a great deal in engaging with Zizek’s output). Thanks!

  9. Ž. takes into account the worst possible future. It is an Europe of far-right governments. Maybe even a far-right EU. Maybe a dissolved EU, maybe war in Europe. I’d say it looks rather possible. As things currently stand, we are far from winning and close to losing even more. This might well call for a change in strategy. I am also not dismissing that there is a chance for a government that appears more racist in its rhetoric than it does in practice — why should it not be possible if the contrary has shown it very much so? The true fight against racism has never been the fight against the N-word. It is the fight against inequality, dysproportional prison populations et cetera.

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