Slavoj Zizek spoke on Tragedy and Farce in Delhi on January 5, 2010. He spoke for about an hour and a half, then I responded for about 18 minutes, then he came back spiritedly for about forty-five minutes. This post is in two parts. The first part is the brief intervention I made at Stein Auditorium. In the second part of this post, I expand on my critique in the light of his response. I could not of course, speak after he had spoken the second time, so I’m doing it here.
A jinn appeared to a man and granted him three wishes. First, said the man excitedly, I want to be Slavoj Zizek. You idiot, said the jinn. You are Slavoj Zizek.
This is one of the many stories that the internet throws up on the eminent Slovenian Lacanian whom it has been our pleasure to listen to today. His own jokes and anecdotes are of course legendary, the medium through which he makes complex theoretical points. It thus becomes the burden of every unfortunate person writing about him or commenting on his work, to tell a few jokes themselves. Often Profesor Zizek’s own.
So. It struck me that the truth of the joke with which I began is that Slavoj Zizek longs to be Slavoj Zizek. He never quite makes it, though, because Zizek keeps escaping himself. In an interview to The Guardian a couple of years ago, he was asked – What do you most dislike about your appearance? And he replied – That it makes me appear the way I really am.
Having followed Professor Zizek’s work for a while now in growing bewilderment, I understand his predicament There are at least two Zizeks in there, and whichever one manifests himself, Slavoj is taken aback and rather dissatisfied. This is me? He seems to ask.
This evening in my brief intervention I will focus on First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, which Navayana has published. In the first part, there’s the Zizek whose analysis and critique of capitalism, free market logic, capitalist media, and American imperialism, are dazzling and exhilarating. Breathlessly you bowl along, encountering such insightful gems as: “It is indeed true that we live in a society of risky choices, but it is one in which only some do the choosing, while others do the risking.”
For his relentless exposure of capitalism’s exploitativeness and hypocrisies, his robust espousal of communism, for his sharp critique of America and his explicitly anti-Zionist critique of Israeli policy towards Palestine, conservative opinion has dubbed Zizek “the most dangerous philosopher in the West.” In October this year, when he spoke on this book in New York, there was a bomb threat, despite which, the hall remained packed until he concluded a characteristic bravura performance, only after which was it rather hurriedly evacuated. (The only way he showed he was rattled was in completing his talk in a record 60 minutes!)
But let’s say you’re not pro-capitalist, anti-communist, Zionist or an admirer of America’s war on terror. You’re in fact enthralled by Zizek’s analysis, by his promise that communism is to be reinvented in each era, his recognition that truth is partial, accessible only when one takes sides.
Through the idea of the “commons”, he reaches communism – “it enables us to see the progressive ‘enclosure’ of the commons as a process of proletarianization of those who are thereby excluded from their own substance.” However, he says, this idea of the proletariat is to be radicalized to a level beyond Marx’s imagination. The emancipatory subject is no longer “a particular social agent”, but “an explosive combination of different agents. What unites us is that, in contrast to the classic image of proletariat who have ‘nothing to lose but their chains’, we are in danger of losing everything… we are all potentially a homo sacer, and the ethico-political challenge is to recognize ourselves in this figure.”
The proper political act today would be to interrupt the present predominant movement, in short, “to pull the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress.” The task is to castrate those in power (and thereby hangs a joke involving a raped woman and some testicles, which I will omit due to lack of time, you can find it on P 7), but the castration is not to be conducted in a direct climactic confrontation. Rather, the task is to “undermine those in power with patient ideologico-critical work, so that although they are still in power, one all of a sudden notices that the powers-that-be are afflicted with unnaturally high-pitched voices.”
So there you are, you know, willingly seduced by this Zizek, with his promises of a new, reinvented communism, a non-masculinist communism for the 21st century, democratic, fluid; a heterogeneous communism located in and arising from the experiences of different kinds of communities all over the world. Beguiled by this dazzling, androgynous figure, you don’t notice that you’re being led deeper and deeper into a dark alley, till you realize with a sudden shock, that waiting with a smug smile at the end of it, twirling his mustachios, casually tapping his bludgeon against a beefy palm, is that tough guy – 20th century Marxism.
This Other Zizek (not the Big Other, which he agrees does not exist, but the Big Self, as it turns out), proceeds to spell out a radical Left politics constituted explicitly by Eurocentrism (extolled as a virtue); Christianity (not merely religion in general); and a Universalism that necessarily then, is surreptitiously coded as European and Christian. The Other Zizek asserts the very specific European experience of modernity as the norm to be emulated; colonialism as the cleansing force that brought this modernity to benighted and backward societies, and Revolutionary Terror as sacred and unavoidable.
This communism holds in contempt all the lively, subversive political currents of today – queer politics, race politics and feminism – dismissed as political correctness and mere identity politics. So I don’t think Zizek’s reading of Ambedkar takes into account the fact that the architect of the Constitution and passionate advocate of modern citizenship, entered the space of citizenship not as someone who merely left Hinduism behind but as one who had entered Buddhism. He entered citizenship with an identity.
Ecological movements are rejected too – either because capitalism is seen to have appropriated the ecological vocabulary (Starbucks is the exemplar here); while political movements that invoke Mother Earth, such as that led by Morales, are reactionary because they reiterate the “sexualised cosmology of a ‘maternal’ order of nature”. Professor Zizek himself of course, uses sexualized imagery freely, but it seems his problem is with a sexualized imagery that runs counter to dominant stereotypes (the raped woman, the emasculated man etc) and rather, extols the feminine as nurturing. “If there is one good thing about capitalism”, he says, it is precisely that “mother earth no longer exists.”
(Just as an aside – I don’t claim this is relevant, but once, when asked “What is your earliest memory?” he replied, “My mother naked. Disgusting.”)
He characterizes capitalism approvingly as the process that gave rise to a modern subjectivity in such societies, making it the historically progressive force. This marks as historically regressive, a world-view that does not see human and non-human nature in a dichotomous Self/Other relationship.
So much for pulling the chain on the train of Historical Progress.
In Zizek’s “we” who must be “resolutely modern” then, where is the room for the militant land struggles all over India, whether against land acquisition for capitalist industry as in Nandigram, or by landless Adivasis and Dalits squatting on a corporation’s land in Chengara?
This Other Zizek is suspicious of new family arrangements. Along with the shift from Fordism to flexible accumulation, he cites the fact of “multiple forms of variegated sexual arrangements replacing the traditional family” as typifying the defeat of the Left, both being forms of “even more direct capitalist domination.” Why does he think that traditional families are less susceptible to capitalist domination? He doesn’t explain, and frankly, I’m afraid to ask. Again, as an example of what he calls the “growing privatization of the social”, he says, “children are increasingly cared for not by parents but by paid nurseries or child-minders”. So child-care was a social responsibility and carried out by the people called “parents” till the late 20th C? That’s a nice little puzzle for women who have not found much sociality in the lonely grueling business of child-care which has been their singular responsibility, not of “parents”. If “society” and the “state” and “fathers” do not consider child-care to be their business, and the market does because it is business, then that’s how the patriarchal sexual division of labour will be by-passed, and a Left politics that is still insensitive to this is – as they quaintly say in the USA – toast.
In short, Professor Zizek is contemptuous of any political movement that is not a formal political party seeking to take state power. This is the one point on which he disagrees even with his friend Alain Badiou, who advocates “subtraction”, that is, politics at a distance from state power. Zizek holds that the state is to be taken over and made to act in a “non-statal” way. Surely this is an impossibility? Just as much as a capitalism that acts in a non-capitalist way? Such a project assumes the separation of the state from its social environment, the critique of which assumption surely, is the starting point of revolutionary politics. The state is fully integrated into the network of capitalist social relations, which is why every Marxist revolutionary take-over of the state in the 20th century eventually ended up building capitalism. I don’t mean capitalism is inevitable or omnipotent (although sometimes I think that is Zizek’s own view), but that the state’s raison d’etre is to maintain that economic mode.
I think Zizek attributes omnipotence to capitalism because he sees every single political development as capitalism’s triumph – queer politics arose out of capitalism’s needs, ecological movements are co-opted by Starbucks, and helps it make more big bucks, and so on and on. There is no outside to capitalism. Foucault of course, has been accused of this kind of wall-to-wall view of power, but even he acknowledged that at the heart of the power relationship and constantly provoking it, are “recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom.” Foucault reads phenomena like Starbucks environmentalism like this in one of his interviews, “for each move by one adversary, there is an answering one by another…One has to recognize the indefiniteness of the struggle…”
For Zizek, on the other hand, as he wrote elsewhere, Resistance is Surrender.
The other piece of news is that God is back, and not just god in some general sense, but the Christian God reconciled with Judaism via St Paul and the Holy Ghost. Now this is a perfectly legitimate project, to bring religion back into an emancipatory politics of the Left, but this project has to be placed in the context of Professor Zizek’s insistence that “communism refers to singular universality” by-passing particular determinations. Add to this, his dismissal of Buddhism (just a fetish for corporate CEOs); of Islam (fatally limited internally by its resistance to “the universalist emancipatory project”); and – apart from something breezy about Kali “the famous bloodthirsty goddess”, as he put it in an interview last week to Time Out Delhi – his evident lack of knowledge of any other religion, it would seem that the singular universality of communism is necessarily Christian.
The Eurocentrism is quite explicit, including a resurrection of an earlier, Eurocentric Marx’s “British Rule in India” and “Future results of British Rule in India”. The recognition of colonialism’s positive effects, that it was the vehicle that transported these societies out of their age-old sleep and their repressive traditions, this recognition is the sign, says Zizek, of mature independence – it is in fact, the Left proudly claiming its emancipatory heritage.
Colonialism, the European Left’s proud emancipatory heritage? Professor Zizek. Really?
The modernity that colonialism brought was in any case, by no means a clearing away of the old bad ways. As a large body of careful scholarship in Africa and South Asia has documented, it merely reconstituted something called tradition in new and equally, often more, oppressive ways. It seems to me that the only consistent way of claiming colonialism as emancipatory is that of some Dalit intellectuals who then see capitalism itself as emancipatory. Again, a political project one may not agree with, but at least one can understand.
Earlier, referring to the incident of the Haitian revolutionaries singing the Marseillaise, Zizek says the message of it was this: “we are more French than you, the Frenchmen. We stand for the innermost consequences of your revolutionary ideology.” He adds, first, that this would not be the message of those who today, might sing the Stars and Stripes when confronting the US Army, but then, within parentheses immediately afterwards – “Although as a thought experiment, if we imagine a situation in which this could be the message, there would be nothing a priori problematic in doing so.”
Do my eyes fail me, or are the up-turned moustachios of that tough guy lounging at the end of the alley transmogrifying into the suave moustache of Thomas Friedman?
Of course, the problem precisely is that those confronting the US Army today “refuse the universal emancipatory project”, refuse to claim ownership of the Stars and Stripes. The Haitian claim to the emancipatory French heritage was certainly a deeply unsettling message to send the colonizers. But historically, another response to colonialism has been the repudiation of the Western heritage as flawed; not just contingently flawed, but constitutively flawed. But Zizek’s Kant is forever the pure philosopher of universality, even as he draws Kant’s legacy directly from Christianity and St. Paul, while Kant the anthropologist, with his pseudo-scientific theory of hierarchically ordered racial difference, we will inevitably and always have to discover through African and Caribbean scholarship.
Of course, the elites of the global South are fully complicit today in corporate capitalist exploitation of their societies, and colonialism is not the reason for all the ills of the Third World. But there are solid Marxist traditions from the global South that offer a simultaneous critique of both. But then, the plain fact is that Professor Zizek relies almost entirely on European and American scholarship to make his arguments. Of course, that I would make this point is already suspect, because it’s identity politics to refer to this factor at all. While a Eurocentric, Christian perspective is by definition universalist.
Zizek rejects what he calls the politics of identity by inviting them – us – instead, into the universal. Refuse the pact with power, he says, refuse to be who power says you must be – woman, African-American, peasant. Yesterday he talked about Bertolucci’s film 1900 in which, in a gesture of defiance, a peasant cuts off one of his own ears and hands it over to the tyrannical plantation manager. Zizek said that this is the proper gesture of refusal to power, you refuse to be who it wants you to be.
The problem is that in his understanding, you have to refuse who it wants you to be by singing the Marseillaise, as it were. The banquet hall of the universal – elegant, spacious – awaits us. It’s filled with charming Europeans, there’s fine wine, the best cheese, they are smiling welcomingly, do come in they say. Just leave your ears outside.
As for revolutionary terror, Professor Zizek justifies it in the name of the deep-rooted structural violence that it must counter, but surely in this 21st century, we have enough reason to be suspicious of the vacuity of this understanding that defined 20th century Marxism? In any case, I get nervous about Zizek making a considered argument for revolutionary terror, when his response to a question, “What makes you depressed?” was this: “Seeing stupid people happy.”
Okay look, if there are no stupid people in the revolution, I want no part of it. That train of stupids speeding to Gulag, I might be on it.
Professor Zizek, if Stalinism was communism as farce in the 20th century, Stalinism’s return in a new guise in the 21st century can only be a tragedy. You frequently and vehemently deny that you are a Stalinist, but there you are in the film about yourself, with a poster of a resplendent Stalin on the wall of your home. You say, “This is just for people who come to be shocked, and hopefully, they get out.”
But don’t you always insist, good Lacanian that you are, that the idea of the “richness of inner life” is fundamentally fake? You say (P 40) – “…the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie – the truth lies rather outside, in what we do.”
Professor Zizek, I’m worried. Stalin is your poster boy. That’s what we see you do.
In his response, Zizek came back on my five main points of criticism:
Zizek is an atheist of course, and his argument about the Christian roots of Marxism is not that of a believer. I’m aware of that, and I understand that when he refers to the Holy Ghost he refers to “an emancipatory collective, like the Communist Party”; that he is in short, drawing out the emancipatory potential in the “Christian roots of Marxism” even as he is devastatingly critical of Christianity itself (actually existing Christianity?).
That’s not the issue. Then what is? For one, that he does not concede that this project is legitimate for any other religions, especially Islam. He denies the possibility of ” ‘progressive’ anti-imperialist potential in fundamentalist Islamist movements”. Using Hezbollah as an example, he says, “The ideological universe of organizations like Hezbollah is based on the blurring of distinctions between capitalist neo-imperialism and secular progressive emancipation: within the ideological space of the Hezbollah, women’s emancipation, gay rights and so on, are nothing but ‘decadent’ moral aspects of Western imperialism…” That this critique is of Islam as such, and not of a particular organization is clear when he says, ” [T]he problem here is not religion as such, but its particularity – but is not this particularity right now a fatal limitation of these movements, whose ideology is directly anti-Enlightenment?”
Zizek himself believes that gay rights and women’s emancipation are functional for capitalism, as we saw earlier. So such an analysis is legitimate when you relate it to “capitalism” but not when you relate it to “the West”? I’m sorry, I need an argument here. It is not self-evident to me either that all non-class oriented political movements are an outcome of capitalism’s need, nor that an argument that holds this to be so is necessarily more emancipatory than one that sees these as the outcome of decadent Western values. In both cases, basically, any autonomy is being denied to these movements.
But whether Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism, my real question is – what helps Christianity escape its particularity? Or is it by definition universal?
The fact that Zizek is critical of Christianity himself is all very well, but as Walter Mignolo points out, “the criticism of Christianity advanced by Nietzsche (a Christian) cannot satisfy the criticism of Christianity and colonialism advanced by Khatibi (a Muslim and Maghrebian)” (in his essay in Coloniality at Large).
However self-critical a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, to Zizek these religions are internally flawed and particularistic to the extent that they do not share the legacy of the (European) Enlightenment. That adjective in parentheses before “Enlightenment” is invisible to Zizek’s eyes – that is true Eurocentrism. That’s why he can say that “the Paulinian collective of believers is a proto-model of the Kantian world-civil society” and yet insist that this Kantian Enlightenment project is universal, free of the cultural markers that fatally afflict all other religions.
There was a lovely little caricature of my position when he said that far from being racist to make everyone sing the Marseillaise, the real racism is to say “Oh, you people should sing your little local songs and stay in your little local cultures.”
The point of course is that both are equally racist – to insist that you cannot enter my drawing room at all and to insist that you are welcome to enter if you are civilized, wear a suit, know how to use a knife and fork.
Colonialism has functioned variously – while British colonial policy was based on maintaining differences, as was apartheid, which he cited triumphantly, French colonialism was assimilationist. There have been complex studies of colonialism in Asia and Africa by a host of scholars, which Zizek might benefit from reading.
[Later addition: The different forms that colonial modernity took in different societies also accounts for the different constellations of modernity – to use Sudipta Kaviraj’s phrase – that emerged in different parts of the globe. It was never just plain unvarnished “modernity” anywhere, including in Europe.]
Eurocentrism is not my term of abuse for Zizek’s thought. He defends Eurocentrism explicitly as the value to be emulated. There is no mutuality in the exchange of values. For instance, while trashing my argument which he named “multiculturalism” (and immediately subsumed under American cultural studies) in which I supposedly want people to stay in their little local cultures singing their local songs, he gave as an example, a cultural experiment in Israel-Palestine, in which a friend of his took a group of lesbians (“really, you know…” he gestured to his upper lip, marking out a moustache, “tough…sorry for the stereotype”) to meet women in hijab, and lo and behold, the women in hijab could see that the tough lesbians were not so scary and so on, and could respond to them.
Where to start…
Maybe some of the women in hijab were lesbians? In other words, the two groups were not necessarily mutually exclusive to start with. Is the reverse possibility accounted for that “the lesbians” saw that the women in hijab were not just passive cows, why is it okay to caricature “lesbians” as “manly” and still claim to be the exemplar that we should all aspire to be, and why is that caricature more emancipatory than Islamist movements that see lesbians as agents of Western imperialism?
The point is, as Partha Chatterjee has said many a time and oft, mapping the various formations of modernity in the world enables us to see both Europe and “us” as particular cases of a general history. Zizek has a critique of a particular kind of American multi-culturalism. That’s his burden to bear, not mine.
And I do want to record here that referring to Dipesh Chakrabarty, he said – “One of yours has made this argument, one of yours.” (Understandably, I have forgotten the point, because a little electric shock was going through me.)
Dipesh C is one of ours whatever he does and wherever he lives. Zizek is of the world. That is Eurocentrism.
How can I say he is anti-feminist, he has had well-known debates with Judith Butler etc. Then he proceeded to clarify – but it is certainly the case with American feminism that it is elitist, white, does not take class into account etc etc. So is that the only American feminism he knows? That particular white upper class feminism has come under severe attack from other feminisms that are equally American – from women of colour, from Left feminists etc. There are feminisms of different tendencies everywhere in the world, and the internal debates are more sharp than Zizek can even imagine. When it comes to feminism, even its Eurocentrism can’t save it, it seems!
Anyway, he can be pleased. When he said this about American feminism there was a smattering of applause from our very own lefty anti-feminists in the audience with whom he wouldn’t (or at least, the First Zizek wouldn’t) like to be caught dead with.
(Aside: In an email to me after the event, a friend Geetika Bapna said,”What struck me in Zizek’s mode and method of using sexual jokes compulsively was in fact a parallel discovery that feminists have often employed sarcasm as an equally veritable and playful method that is integrated in the language of political thought itself”. I thought that was quite insightful)
Zizek: “It has been progressive, I don’t say this, Ambedkar has said it.”
Now, regardless of S Anand of Navayana’s repeated assertions at both lectures in Delhi during his introduction, that nobody in India has read Ambedkar, in fact, wherever Indian thinking is taken seriously, Ambedkar is considered to be central. Many have read Ambedkar, and he is taught as part of university courses. Zizek was quite taken with this narrative though, and before he came to India he was sent Annihilation of Caste by Anand, so now he was in a position to tell us gently that perhaps we should read Ambedkar too, and that perhaps he, as a foreigner, could play a small role in making us see our own society better. (He has also promised that he is writing a piece on Manu, Ambedkar and Buddhism. Can’t wait.)
Zizek may need to know that the other eminent Indian who said that colonialism is progressive when he went to Cambridge or Oxford was Manmohan Singh, the neo-liberal. Does this belief in colonialism’s positive qualities make him an Ambedkarite?
There has been an intense, complex debate in India on colonialism, with many voices, and even those pointing to its emancipatory character have done so from different kinds of positions. It has never been “emancipatory” in any simple sense, or Ambedkar would not also have been a nationalist. But for Zizek it is emancipatory, period.
e) The state
“It is dishonest not to take on the state, to stay away from power etc.”
Here at least there is a genuine disagreement, and I will not reiterate my anti-state power position. I will only say that this faith in the state, that it can be used as you want to use it, is precisely a feature of 20th century Marxist ideology, and the whole experience of 20th C Marxism, at the very least, puts a big question mark over such a project.
Anyway, it was fun, Zizek was vigorous and sporting in his response, and ended by saying, “maybe that other Zizek can be your friend.”
Maybe. We’ll see.
Other posts on Zizek on Kafila