Fantasies of Europe: Žižek against Žižek

I’ve been thinking recently about the links between Žižek’s Eurocentrism and the role that Christianity plays in his work, and in doing so I’ve been returning to some of his earlier work, in which he’s less interested, as of late, in the notion of a Europe under threat from the fantasies of its external others and more interested in the ways in which his native Balkans get caught up in the fantasies of Western Europe. I was struck, repeatedly, by the contrast between Žižek’s analysis of the Balkans’ relationship to Europe and his recent discussions of European attitudes to immigration. I wish that Žižek would read Arun Kundnani’s account of the West’s role in creating “Islamist terror”; I wish he would read Christine Delphy’s discussion of the role that feminism has long played in French racism. But mostly I wish he would recognise in his own discussions of the Muslim world the complex and destructive fantasies he is able to see in Western Europe’s attitude to the Balkans. Žižek has a tendency to lazily repeat more or less racist stereotypes about Muslims, migrants and non-Europeans. What his own work suggests is that actually this makes a lot of sense, because his discussion of these issues is precisely an Orientalist fantasy of a world in which what everybody else most strongly desires is to become European. It’s frustrating that he cannot recognise this hypocrisy. Without further comment, then, here are some selections from Žižek’s discussions of Europe and the Balkans, alongside his recent discussions of Europe and migration from the Muslim-majority world:

Whose fantasy? #1

Recall the fascination exerted on Western democrats by the disintegration of Socialism in the late 1980s: the key dimension of what fascinated the West was not, as may have appeared, the scene of Eastern Europeans rediscovering the values of democracy with an enthusiasm that was conspicuously absent in the West, but, rather, the fact that the Eastern Europeans protesting against the rule of the Communist nomenklatura were them­selves fascinated by the West, looking towards it – the true fantasmatic object of the West was this Eastern gaze itself, able to see in the West what people there no longer saw: a land of freedom and democracy….
For They Know Not What They Do, c.

In escaping their war-torn homelands, the refugees are possessed by a dream. Refugees arriving in southern Italy do not want to stay there: many of them are trying to get to Scandinavia. The thousands of migrants in Calais are not satisfied with France: they are ready to risk their lives to enter the UK. Tens of thousands of refugees in Balkan countries are desperate to get to Germany. They assert their dreams as their unconditional right, and demand from the European authorities not only proper food and medical care but also transportation to the destination of their choice. There is something enigmatically utopian in this demand: as if it were the duty of Europe to realise their dreams – dreams which, incidentally, are out of reach of most Europeans (surely a good number of Southern and Eastern Europeans would prefer to live in Norway too?).
The Non-Existence of Norway

The clearest expression of the “desire for the west” are immigrant refugees: their desire is not a revolutionary one, it is the desire to leave behind their devastated habitat and rejoin the promised land of the developed west. (Those who remain behind try to create there miserable copies of western prosperity, like the “modernised” parts in every third world metropolis, in Luanda, in Lagos, etc, with cafeterias selling cappuccinos, shopping malls, and so on).
The Cologne attacks were an obscene version of carnival.

On Difference

The unbearable is not the difference. The unbearable is the fact that in a sense there is no difference: there are no exotic bloodthirsty ‘Balkanians’ in Sarajevo, just normal citizens like us. The moment we take full note of this fact, the frontier that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’ is exposed in all its arbitrariness, and we are forced to renounce the safe distance of external observers: as in a Moebius band, the part and the whole coincide, so that it is no longer possible to draw a clear and unambiguous line of separation between us who live in a ‘true’ peace and the residents of Sarajevo who pretend as far as possible that they are living in peace – we are forced to admit that in a sense we also imitate peace, live in the fiction of peace. Sarajevo is not an island, an exception within the sea of normality.
The Metastases of Enjoyment, 6.

It is a fact that most of the refugees come from a culture that is incompatible with Western European notions of human rights. Tolerance as a solution (mutual respect of each other’s sensitivities) obviously doesn’t work: fundamentalist Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humor, which we consider a part of our freedoms. Western liberals, likewise, find it impossible to bear many practices of Muslim culture. In short, things explode when members of a religious community consider the very way of life of another community as blasphemous or injurious, whether or not it constitutes a direct attack on their religion. This is the case when Muslim extremists attack gays and lesbians in the Netherlands and Germany, and it is the case when traditional French citizens view a woman covered by a burka as an attack on their French identity, which is exactly why they find it impossible to remain silent when they encounter a covered woman in their midst.
In the Wake of Paris Attacks the Left Must Embrace Its Radical Western Roots

Whose Fantasy? #2

In ex-Yugoslavia, we are lost not because of our primitive dreams and myths preventing us from speaking the enlightened language of Europe, but because we pay in flesh the price of being the stuff of others’ dreams. The fantasy which organized the perception of ex-Yugoslavia is that of ‘Balkan’ as the Other of the West: the place of savage ethnic conflicts long since overcome by civilized Europe; a place where nothing is forgotten and nothing learned, where old traumas are replayed again and again; where the symbolic link is simultaneously devalued (dozens of ceasefires are broken) and overvalued (primitive warrior notions of honour and pride).

The principal obstacle to peace in ex-Yugoslavia is not ‘archaic ethnic passions’ but the very innocent gaze of Europe fascinated by the spectacle of these passions. Against today’s journalistic commonplace about the Balkans as the madhouse of thriving nationalisms, where rational rules of behaviour are suspended, one must point out again and again that the moves of every political agent in ex-Yugoslavia, reprehen­sible as they may be, are totally rational within the goals they want to attain – the only exception, the only truly irrational factor in it, is the gaze of the West babbling about archaic ethnic passions.
The Metastases of Enjoyment, 212-213.

But since, for the large majority of pretenders, this desire [for Europe] cannot be satisfied, one of the remaining options is the nihilist reversal: frustration and envy get radicalised into a murderous and self-destructive hatred of the west, and people get engaged in violent revenge. Badiou proclaims this violence a pure expression of death drive, a violence that can only culminate in acts of orgiastic (self)destruction, without any serious vision of an alternate society.
The Cologne attacks were an obscene version of carnival.

While Europe is now fighting for full gay and woman’s rights (the right to abortion, the rights of same-sex married couples, etc.), should these rights also be extended to gays and women among the refugees even if they are in conflicts with “the customs they bring with them” (as they often obviously are)? And this aspect should in no way be dismissed as marginal: from Boko Haram to Robert Mugabe to Vladimir Putin, the anti-colonialist critique of the West more and more appears as the rejection of the Western “sexual” confusion, and as the demand for returning to the traditional sexual hierarchy.
The Non-Existence of Norway

Politically Correct Racism

Then there is ‘reflexive’ Politically Correct racism: the multiculturalist perception of the Balkans as the terrain of ethnic horrors and intolerance, of primitive irrational warring passions, to be opposed to the post-nation-state liberal-democratic process of solving conflicts through rational negotiation, compromise and mutual respect.Here racism is, as it were, elevated to the second power: it is attributed to the Other, while we occupy the con­venient position of a neutral benevolent observer, righteously dismayed at the horrors going on ‘down there’.
The Fragile Absolute, 5.

“Should we tolerate migrants who prevent their children going to state schools; who force their women to dress and behave in a certain way; who arrange their children’s marriages; who discriminate against homosexuals? … Refugees should be assured of their safety, but it should also be made clear to them that they must accept the destination allocated to them by European authorities, and that they will have to respect the laws and social norms of European states: no tolerance of religious, sexist or ethnic violence; no right to impose on others one’s own religion or way of life; respect for every individual’s freedom to abandon his or her communal customs, etc.”
The Non-Existence of Norway

It is part of a naive humanist metaphysics to presuppose that beneath this vicious cycle of desire, envy and hatred, there is some “deeper” human core of global solidarity … Our media usually draw a distinction between “civilised” middle-class refugees and “barbarian” lower class refugees who steal, harass our citizens, behave violently towards women, defecate in public… Instead of dismissing all this as racist propaganda, one should gather the courage to discern a moment of truth in it: brutality, up to outright cruelty towards the weak, animals, women, etc, is a traditional feature of the “lower classes”; one of their strategies of resisting those in power always was a terrifying display of brutality aimed at disturbing the middle-class sense of decency. This is why the naive attempts to enlighten immigrants (explaining to them that our sexual mores are different, that a woman who walks in public in a mini skirt and smiles does not thereby signal sexual invitation, etc.) are examples of breath-taking stupidity – they know this and that’s why they are doing it. They are well aware that what they are doing is foreign to our predominant culture, but they are doing it precisely to wound our sensitivities.
The Cologne attacks were an obscene version of carnival.

15 thoughts on “Fantasies of Europe: Žižek against Žižek

  1. Pessimistic take: it’s not hypocritical because the former Soviet bloc “really is” European. Think of how much work he does to demonstrate that even Stalin is part of the Enlightenment heritage, etc.

    Less pessimistic take: the situations are different because the former Soviet bloc does not have the same history of colonization by the West, etc. — Communism was avowedly a path toward “modernization” in a way that would be better than, but still recognizable to, the West, and it was (at least in the USSR and Zizek’s Yugoslavia) “voluntarily” undertaken with a measure of popular legitimacy. For the postcolonial world, the libidinal investments are not going to be the same.

  2. What are your alternatives being more or less pessimistic about? And what’s the difference between ‘modernisation’ under communism in Eastern Europe (which the West did everything it could to undermine) and ‘modernisation’ under communism in, say Afghanistan (which the West did everything it could to undermine)?

    I do think you’re right that Žižek sees Eastern Europe as in a different relation to Europe than Europe’s former colonies around the world: for example he thinks that we use Eastern Europe as a target for all the explicit racism we apparently can no longer voice concerning former colonial subject because of this politically correct age we live in (!). But it seems to me like the dynamics of Europe’s fantasised relations to them are strikingly similar with the exception that when it comes to Eastern Europe, Žižek is on the outside of Europe wanting to be let in and when it comes to, say, Syria, he’s on the inside wanting to keep them out.

  3. A more pessimistic view would be one in which Zizek turned out to be more racist. And in Afghanistan, it seems that communism never really got underway — the Soviets just supported the self-proclaimed local communist party on principle, and things got too bogged down in the Vietnam-like quagmire for much in the way of modernization to result.

  4. I’m not sure that’s an accurate view of what happened in Afghanistan. The notion of “modernization” is a bit fuzzy, but it is my understanding that there were some pretty established institutions that were destroyed in part due to the Soviet invasion and subsequent proxy war.

  5. But more than that I don’t really understand what you’re saying. I am sure that Zizek thinks there is a difference between Eastern European countries and non-European ones (one finds this attitude often in Eastern Europe and the xenophobia on display throughout Eastern Europe testifies to that). And perhaps there would be a difference of “libidinal investments”. But his arguments for that don’t appear to exist and structurally his remarks appear as quite similar to the position of Western Europe he had been critical of in the 90s. So are you saying that this difference is real and as substantial? Especially now that it has turned out the Cologne attacks did not involve recent refugees?

  6. All I’m saying about Afghanistan, at the end of the day, is that it’s not representative of Soviet-bloc communism. I also think that it’s fair to say that the historical experience of the Soviet-bloc nations has been different in important ways, including in their relationship to the West, than in the Middle Eastern nations.

    I’m just throwing out hypothetical readings that would account for this difference. Exegetical, not hermeneutical.

  7. Alright, I don’t want to cause a thing. I just don’t get how these hypothetical readings respond to the similarities between the two discourses (one he critiques and one he supports) unless you want to argue that his strange “this is Europe [i.e. good and true and universal], this is not” essentialism is accurate.

  8. Could you flesh out a bit why you think the different experiences of Eastern Europe and former colonies would result in different relationships to Europe? It strikes me that if anything it seems like it’s Eastern Europe that’s more hung up on a desire for Europe, whereas the people currently trying to migrate to Europe from other parts of the world don’t so much want to join Europe as for us to leave them alone/to escape from the mess we’ve made of their countries.

  9. That’s a shame! fwiw I’m not especially invested in using those recent articles to write off everything Žižek’s ever said (that seems to be what’s going on with at least some of the reactions I’ve seen); but his recent discussions of Europe do seem to me to be both troubling in themselves and inconsistent with other elements of his work that I find helpful.

  10. I think he is articulating a leftist agenda which could be appealing to the racist populace. As things stand now, I think my own country is about 60% racist, or more, so well, one can see the point of that. The endgame is acheiving a Left government, which *is more racist in its rhetoric as it is in its practice* as opposed to governments that we have presently. It is about the need to appeal to non-leftists. Basically, the man is operating within a racist reality and racist fantasies, instead of trying to debunk them, trying to make the best of it. His message for the imaginary electorate is thus: “You will be secure. We will not be easier on the Other than we are on ourselves.”

    Seems like an OK strategy IMO. I have no idea how to make large masses of people less racist without economic incentives. It is also quite forseeable that the refugees will constitute some sort of an underclass, what with the German law about it being legal to pay them less than minimum wage.

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