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Archive for January, 2011

Slavoj Zizek: Just an entertaining 'shock jock', or a sophisticated and engaged philosopher?

Slavoj Žižek has always been a controversial figure, attracting devotion and revile in equal measure. But it is only recently that I have noticed something of a popular front forming against him—with a combination of far left bloggers and everyday cynics rejecting him in synch. Of the former category, Louis Proyect, for one, accuses Žižek of being a ‘shock jock’ and has taken issue with his misrepresentation of Lenin merely to outrage liberals. Richard Seymour portrays him as a racist, cheering on pogroms against the Roma—a charge converging with those of rightwing critics such as Adam Kirsch writing in the New Republic regarding Žižek’s alleged anti-semitism. Why do I feel both these characterisations are unfair? And what do I feel is motivating this anti-Žižek front? This blog post attempts to answer both these questions by rebutting both Proyect and Seymour’s charges.

Proyect’s ‘Lone wolf’ Žižek

In his post Proyect makes a good point about the fact that Marxist theory needs to be a collective discussion rather than just pursued by a ‘lone wolf’ like Žižek theorising for maximum impact to secure their academic niche. Or, it would be a good argument if I believed that was all Žižek was up to; because whilst he does have the tendency to drift off into mere provocation at times, I would say that for those who follow his work he has a clear political project in confronting the tepid sentiment of our time and the numerous discourses of liberal anxiety. So insofar as Proyect’s charge is correct it is valid, but also insofar as one can intuit a necessity to Žižek’s provocations then the ‘lone wolf’ charge does not stick. After all, given the shrunken and introverted nature of the Marxist left, if to be a ‘lone wolf’ means to pursue your debates beyond its confines and not necessarily just in discussion with other Marxists in pursuit of doctrinal purity, then I don’t see that as such a bad thing. I came to Marx and Lenin very much mediated though Žižek’s work, and I imagine he has pulled many others in too to what would otherwise look like a fairly stale field of regurgitated orthodoxy. Similarly, for all our gripes about how he deploys and conceives ‘the idea of communism’ (included his flat out claim regarding the absolute, unmitigated disaster that were all communist regimes in the 20th century) he has nonetheless been instrumental in putting the word back on the semantic horizon of the left, creating the attenuated possibilities for an articulation of a more radical politics.

These good points to Žižek’s political project have to be balanced against the less appetising tendency of his critics to seize upon almost anything (from either a left or rightwing perspective) in order to hammer home their crusade against him. In the process it is little recognized how the motivations of these criticisms point to entirely opposite commitments. On the one hand, there are those critcisms of Žižek from a liberal-lefty, postmodernist academic perspective, which see him a regressive turn to an outdated politics of universalism, Marxism and revolution. For these critics it is Žižek’s unwillingness to concede to the new politics of difference that riles them. Into the mix is thrown a certain amount of jealousy regarding his academic stardom and ressentiment about his marriage to an Argentinian model. Needless to say, inasmuch as we conceive the left’s project as related to class struggle and the overthrowing of capitalism, few of these critics would be said to have anything but the vaguest sympathies to the cause of the left. On the other hand, for critics like Proyect and others I have run across online, it is precisely the lack of purity for which Zizek must be held accountable. Every reading of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin he provides is pored across for inconsistencies, to draw up the charge sheet for the prosecution. The problem is that by not recognising Žižek as at least on the same side of the emancipatory, Marxist cause, critics like Proyect loose sight of the fact that at least they can have a debate with someone like Žižek. Given that most of Žižek’s critics come from a political and philosophical perspective that would consider the likes of Proyect as retrograde to the point of complete irrelevance, one should probably recognize the theoretical ally in Žižek rather than expending copious energies to slaughter his deviations from within the Marxist debating chamber. That is not to say don’t criticize: just to say, have some perspective on things.

Seymour’s racist Žižek

Richard Seymour of the blog Lenin’s Tomb (also author of The Liberal Defence of Murder & The Meaning of David Cameron, and all round rising theoretical star of the British Socialist Workers Party) has also been grinding an axe against Žižek for some time. Initially Seymour was enamoured by Žižek — despite outrage at some of his opinions — but around 2006 that started to change. Seymour confessed:

Perhaps it’s transference, but I used to think that Zizek had all the answers. Even when he was wrong, I assumed he knew it and was being contrarian, using the cunning of reason to provoke thought and all that rubbish. Even now when he’s writing absolute pig shit like this, (apparently a re-mix of this and this), I feel the urge to say “well, he didn’t meanthat“. But he did, and does. To clarify, practically everything in Zizek’s latest is a regurgitation of increasingly common Eurocentric – well, actually, Christian supremacist – platitudes about Islam and secularism.

From this post Seymour’s gripes becomes apparent: his charge is that scrape beneath the seductive theoretical exterior and you will simply find a warmed up liberal with Eurocentric and racist tendencies. “The seductive Lacanian packaging positions the “ire” at the Muhammad cartoons (which Žižek still doesn’t acknowledge as racist, only blasphemous, only disrespectful within the confines of religion) as a reaction to the West as perceived through a distorting phantasmatic screen, “a complex cobweb of symbols, images and attitudes”: this would be more impressive if Žižek did not reveal his own “complex cobweb” in the process.” From here on Seymour’s criticisms of Žižek have effectively operated via a single strategy: take Žižek’s reflections on a subject, from whatever angle they might be, and simply shout them down with charges of racism: a kind of rhetorical ‘nuclear option’. No one likes racism — a single Cartesian point across the political spectrum, aside from the far right — so repeatedly charging your opponent with it operates as vicious tool of deligitimation, and allows one to not even enter debate. In fact, to even debate the alleged racist’s position would be to enter into the same racist discourse. The example above acts as a case in point. Here, Seymour simply asserts that cartoons lampooning Muhammed are racist, ergo any attempt to think the reaction to them as anything more than justified rage against an obviously evil act of injustice is also racist.

This type of tautological rhetoric is repeated in his most recent post regarding Žižek’s commentary on an attack on a Roma community. For balance I will reproduce the quote isolated by Seymour and what I think is Seymour’s most substantial commentary on it.

Žižek wrote:

There was, in Slovenia, around a year ago, a big problem with a Roma (Gipsy) family which camped close to a small town. When a man was killed in the camp, the people in the town started to protest against the Roma, demanding that they be moved from the camp (which they occupied illegally) to another location, organizing vigilante groups, etc. As expected, all liberals condemned them as racists, locating racism into this isolated small village, while none of the liberals, living comfortably in the big cities, had any everyday contact with the Roma (except for meeting their representatives in front of the TV cameras when they supported them). When the TV interviewed the “racists” from the town, they were clearly seen to be a group of people frightened by the constant fighting and shooting in the Roma camp, by the constant theft of animals from their farms, and by other forms of small harassments from the Roma. It is all too easy to say (as the liberals did) that the Roma way of life is (also) a consequence of the centuries of their exclusion and mistreatment, that the people in the nearby town should also open themselves more to the Roma, etc. – nobody clearly answered the local “racists” what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them.

Seymour commented:

This was actually a response to a pogrom which observers compared to Kristallnacht. If the police hadn’t driven the gypsies out, the racist mob would have done so with fire and blades. But Zizek has no hesitation about regurgitating the classic anti-gypsy propaganda (they’re anti-social, they cause trouble, they basically bring it on themselves), championing of the racist mob and its ‘legitimate concerns’, counterposing the decent locals to snooty metropolitan elites, channelling the resentment of the ‘little man’ while slandering the little man’s victims. Richard Littlejohn wishes he could get away with this level of barbarism.

Seymour refuses to countenance the idea that there are any legitimate antagonisms, even only in addition to the pure racist frenzy driving the mob. Žižek’s stab at metropolitan, liberal condescension is taken simply as a ruse to allow his own racist instincts some veneer of criticality. But really, is it so incredulous that there were genuine frictions over safety and property in this instance? And does to even consider that possibility make one a racist? It seems to me that there is a hysterical, liberal view of racism — in a purely voluntaristic, moralistic register — at work in Seymour’s denunciations of Žižek. Rather than thinking through structurally how racism is intertwined with class, economics, culture and mechanisms that perpetuate real racial divides and concrete problems with race vectors (those structurally constructed and emergent upon racism), Seymour’s absolute scepticism tends towards the liberal position Žižek is criticising, so it is no wonder that he is so upset by Žižek’s repeated criticisms of liberal anti-racists.

What is the deeper explanation for all this? We enter the realm of conjecture now, but I don’t think Seymour’s running battle with Žižek can be disassociated from the politics of the Socialist Workers Party. For a great deal of investment has been made by the party in the last ten years in defending the victimised Muslim, combating Islamophobia, anti-fascist campaigns and anti-racism music festivals, and so on. Indeed, the stock and trade of the SWP has increasingly come to be a variant of liberal anti-racism, with the establishment of permanent united fronts with Tories, rightwing Muslim groups, and so on.  So there is a lot at stake for the party in whether or not liberal anti-racism is the correct paradigm. Žižek has thus become a target for party-political reasons.

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