Žižek Trouble

Further to Adam’s post, I want to briefly sketch why I think it is that Žižek so commonly and consistently fails to think well or carefully about the issues he dismisses as ‘identity politics’ – questions of racism, sexism, transphobia and so on and so on. I don’t think these failings can be lightly dismissed as incidental to his work; actually I think they’re deeply revealing of some major problems with his intellectual project as a whole.

Following what Adam refers to as Žižek’s ‘middle period’ (around 1993-1996), his work is consistently characterised by a trinitarian ontology in which three levels – the material, the individual, and the social – are each constituted around a central antagonism. For the material world, this central antagonism is that of quantum uncertainty; for the individual this central antagonism is sexuality and gender; and for society this antagonism is that of class. Žižek claims that at the heart of this materialism is the assertion that what emerges later retroactively changes that which precedes it – so that consciousness emerges, for example, from the material processes of the brain and yet come also to form those processes; and ideas emerge from the material practices of the community and yet subsequently reshape them. And yet, for all that, Žižek is consistently unable to articulate or engage with the possibility of intersections between these three fundamental levels of reality. I think this inability is at the core of his failures to think well about issues of gender and race, which emerge in the kinds of grim racism, sexism and transphobia which seem to have been increasingly on display in his public statements.

It’s not that Žižek doesn’t talk about gender – questions of gender and sexuality are persistently present throughout his work. For Žižek, gender and sexuality are the ways in which ontological inconsistency manifests itself at the level of the individual. The individual comes into being around a sense of incompleteness which is also the condition of their existence as such, and the desire for a return to completeness manifests in fantasy as the longing for the lost union with the mother figure or the belief that completeness may be attained by union with the beloved other who has the objet petit a, the missing piece which will make the individual complete. Human gender and sexuality play out, for Žižek, around this sexualised quest for completeness. And yet nowhere in Žižek’s work does he engage with, for example, the idea that social distinctions between men and women function not only to sustain or create sexualised fantasies of completion but also class distinctions and the distribution of wealth.

Likewise, I want to suggest that the lack of any significant engagement with questions of of racism, whiteness or colonialism in Žižek’s work is the result of the fact that, for him, race is a fundamental category neither of material being, individual subjectivity nor the social order. There simply is no place for thinking racialisation within Žižek’s dialectical materialist framework. The closest he gets to making space in his work for a discussion of issues of race is as an ideological displacement of class struggle. This is what happens, for example, in his discussion of European anti-Semitism: within the fantasy of Europe it is not the inherent antagonism of class struggle which holds back the dream of a properly harmonious society but the figure of the Jew which functions as a scapegoat.

These absences in Žižek’s work aren’t simply because he doesn’t care about racism, or about the work of Marxist feminists or black communists, though I don’t think I want to suggest that that isn’t the case. They arise from the basic structure of his thought which, divides the world into three fundamental levels – material, individual and social – and which understand each level as more or less discrete, constituted in part by their interactions with each other – though this affirmation of their mutual interdependence tends not to show itself in Žižek’s actual analysis of each – but much more fundamentally by their own internal antagonisms, their dialectical structure. For change to occur, on this account of things, it must arise from the materialist dialectics occurring within each level. Žižek constantly draws parallels between these three levels of reality, yet what he insists on is likeness, analogy, resemblance, rather than interaction, intersection or interdependence. All of which is to say that Žižek’s failures to think well or carefully about racism and sexism aren’t just incidental features of his work: they reflect some of the fundamental, ontological inadequacies of his project as a whole.

7 thoughts on “Žižek Trouble

  1. Hasn’t Zizek recently been trying to draw attention to the rise in violence against women as a hugely important global phenomenon? Why is it that because he doesn’t take race to be a fundamental category that he is therefore unable to think about race? He talks about it not only as displacing class antagonism but at the level of the individual and juissance and stuff.

  2. Emily, I think part of the problem is exactly that he talks about it as displacing class antagonism when in fact racism is class antagonism. He also talks about racism mainly as something located in the heads of individuals, and his tendency to treat various social phenomena as psychological ones obscures their social dimension. And Zizek constantly talks about racist attitudes like they’re the authentic attitudes of down-home volk, who just don’t know better and can’t help themselves, god love ’em, etc, which treats racism as a kind of natural social phenomenon that springs up spontaneously.

    This is better: “Racism: A Passion from Above” http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/ranciere230910.html

  3. Emily, could you point me to some examples of the kind of thing you’re talking about? I haven’t seen Žižek’s engagement with those issues and would be interested to see what he says.

  4. I’m not sure how repeating racist stereotypes about Muslims represents a serious attempt to engage with violence against women! And I think part of the problem here is precisely Žižek’s inability to think about the role of racism, colonialism and class in forming patriarchal abuse of women, not to mention his failure to recognise the growing role of homonationalism and white feminist discourses about women’s liberation in Western imperialism, or his inability to critically examine the oft-repeated lie that nobody talks about sexual abuse in racialised communities out of fear of ‘political correctness’ (Sara Ahmed is good on this: http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2008/02/19/‘liberal-multiculturalism-is-the-hegemony-–-its-an-empirical-fact’-a-response-to-slavoj-zizek/). As to the other embodying our jouissance, as Ashton says I think that’s part of his tendency to see racism as displacing class antagonism rather than being part of the way that class is constituted.

  5. Personally I buy into the critique of phallocentricism inherent in Lacan as repeated by Zizek. Zizek’s argument goes something like this… man is master, women is save , but women can also be master. In the words of the philosopher Jay-Z “lady is pimps too”, cf Dirt off your shoulder. By extension, this is problematical given the subject position of women in this schema is filled by other others that you mention above.

    Sexual difference and the confrontation with its inherent antagonism is a product of late capitalism. Women as one of the names-of-the-father, is the neoliberal inclusion of previously excluded subjects in Fordism, cf. Peggy from Mad Men.

    Where I think you touch a raw nerve is with regards to what you stated as “what emerges later retroactively changes that which precedes it”, which is nothing other than the becoming son of the father. Where is women? This outlines the stakes of the question in what way the various antagonisms identified by Zizek – actually link up.

    I feel as if your critique of Zizek could go further if it payed more attention to who fills the position of audience to whom Zizek is addressing when dealing with topics of colonialism. That often is the guilty-white-male-liberal, and Zizek political interventions of late is an extension of this. He explores how the guilty-white-male-liberal smuggles in racism through denying subjectivity of subjects via victimhood. In short, and as per Adam’s recent posts, how effective is this as a political intervention? More in terms of strategy then theoretical commitments, and then only secondarily consider the question of the efficacy of his political interventions from the perspective of his theoretical commitments.

    Anyway, great post.

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