Earlier today someone commented on an old post I wrote after a bit of sleuthing, which determined that the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek did not attribute a quote by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Lately Žižek has been the subject of some controversy, voicing bizarre and often offensive opinions on the plight of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. This is worth taking more seriously than the wild accusations of deranged tankie Twitteristas like Molly Klein.
Over the last fifteen years, Žižek has been a towering figure on the Left. He has played more the role of celebrity intellectual than low-profile scholar, loudmouthed and provocative rather than quiet and reserved. No one can deny the commercial success Žižek has achieved. Recycling the same jokes and stitching together bits of old text into new Frankensteins, the sales of his books have doubtless made up for dozens of lackluster releases by lesser authors on the Verso roster (likely written off as a loss). For this reason alone Žižek will not be rebuked too harshly by his peers and publishers, bristle though they may at his contrarianism of late.
Žižek should not be written off simply on account of these recent indiscretions. Mostly because his polemics against Derridean poststructuralism in the 1990s, particularly For They Know Not What They Do, are worth salvaging. His critique of facile multiculturalism, his defense of Marxist negativity and universality against the affirmative and particularistic claims of postcolonial professors, came at an important juncture following the end of the Cold War. They remain valuable today. I even find him to be an insightful reader of Hegel at times, though I disagree with the structuralism he inherits from Althusser and Lacan.
Also because this is part of a larger pattern of outrageous remarks on Žižek’s part, calculated to elicit a specific response or just generally get under people’s skin. In his 2008 book In Defense of Lost Causes, building on a shorter treatise on Violence earlier that same year, Žižek glorified violence as inherently emancipatory (almost as an end-in-itself). Heidegger’s decision to join the Nazi party in 1933 was thus “the right step, albeit in the wrong direction” according to Žižek. Similarly, Foucault’s cheerleading for Khomeini in 1979 was the best thing he ever did. By no means are these statements less wrongheaded than what he’s said in the last year.
Maybe such claims are less contentious because they have to do with phenomena further removed in time and space. The refugee situation in Europe has a deadly immediacy to it, so the uproar is only to be expected. Esben Bøgh Sørensen wrote an excellent piece several months ago, however, rebutting Žižek’s disgraceful remarks about the flow of populations displaced by political and economic strife. It is reproduced with slight grammatical and stylistic edits below. Republishing this article made is all the more timely given that Žižek has since had occasion to reiterate these sentiments, and is reportedly compiling them into a book.
A couple quick comments, though, before proceeding. Sørensen’s article is far better than, for example, this tedious diatribe featured on the World Socialist Website. Peter Schwarz faults Žižek for making what should be an uncontroversial observation: “The fact that someone is at the bottom, does not make them automatically a voice of morality and justice.” I am not sure how anyone could believe that Marxism is simply about rooting for the underdog, or that it is the secular successor to the Christian doctrine that “the meek shall inherit the earth.”
Žižek’s call for the Left to “embrace its radical Western roots” has at least two possible meanings. On the one hand, it could be read as saying that the Left should embrace only those roots which are radical in the Western tradition. On the other hand, it could be read as saying that Western roots are radical by virtue of being Western. Sørensen gets to the heart of the matter when he points out the ambivalence of the European legacy. Capitalism and anticapitalism were both born in Europe — anti-imperialism no less than imperialism — and so on down the line.
Those roots which are truly radical have already ceased to be peculiarly Western as soon as they prove themselves such in practice. Even if they originated in the West, they assume a global significance. Regardless of their origin, these roots are thus the common lot and rightful inheritance of all humanity. Better yet, they provide the blueprint of some future humanity.
In a recent article Žižek replied to the critique of a previous text he wrote on the so-called “refugee crisis.” The exchange between Žižek and his critics essentially revolved around whether the left should support the refugees and migrants’ demands for open borders and the right to live where they choose, or not.
Žižek claimed that the refugees’ dream, represented by “Norway,” doesn’t exist, whereas one critic contended it is our duty to create it. Particularly problematic is his use of phrases like “our way of life,” “Western values,” and figures like “the typical left-liberal.” The most important thing that is missing in Žižek’s text is an analysis of the potential of refugee and migrant struggles.
In his response to the criticism, Žižek begins by complaining about the shift from what he calls “radical emancipatory movements” like Syriza and Podemos to “the ‘humanitarian’ topic of the refugees.” This, we are informed, is not a good thing because the refugee and migrant struggles are actually nothing but “the liberal-cultural topic of tolerance” replacing the more genuine “class struggle.”
Why this is the case remains unclear. Rather, we are told that
[t]he more Western Europe will be open to [immigrants], the more it will be made to feel guilty that it did not accept even more of them. There will never be enough of them. And with those who are here, the more tolerance one displays towards their way of life, the more one will be made guilty for not practicing enough tolerance.
There are several problems in this statement, especially the idea of a “we” of “Western Europe” contrasted against an image of a “way of life” somehow shared by all refugees and migrants. Before turning to that problem, however, it is useful to examine one of Žižek’s favorite tropes: the “typical left-liberal,” which sits at the heart of his critique. Continue reading